Yukio Takahashi – 2007 Developer Interview

Yukio Takahashi – 2007 Developer Interview

This interview was originally taken from the Game Shokunin book (a collection of developer and industry insider interviews published in 2007) and focuses on planner/designer Yukio Takahashi’s work at Namco. The majority of the conversation centers around the developments of arcade horror-shooter Baraduke and the singular horror-platformer Genpei Toumaden.

Yukio Takahashi – Planner/Graphic Designer

—To start off, please tell us how you first became interested in video games.

Takahashi: I was born in Maebashi, and from the old days Gunma prefecture has had this culture where the women are known for their industriousness and economic power via their dominance in industries like silk production, whereas men, on the other hand, have tended not to work and were more given to dissipation and pursuing their own personal hobbies. Following in that mold, I guess I’ve always loved leisure, and when I was a kid I would often go play at the department store rooftop game areas. Pinball was my specialty, and sometimes I’d rack up over 30 extra balls in a game, basically playing forever. (laughs)

I played a lot of Namco’s electro-mechanical games then too, actually. F1, Shoot Away. I played tons of Xevious when I was a college student, too.

—What motivated you to want to work at Namco?

Takahashi: A former high school classmate of mine got hired by Namco, and he then introduced me. I never asked him to, but one day he told me he had gone ahead and submitted an application on my behalf! Well, ok, I guess I have to go do this interview now, I thought, and I ended up getting hired then and there. (laughs)

I was in the art club in college, so I already liked drawing, but all my studies had been in the humanities so I knew nothing about computers, nor had I ever thought about planning games or game design or anything like that…

—What department were you first assigned to at Namco?

Takahashi: I was assigned to the planning group in Development Department #1. Toru Iwatani was the supervisor. I was told that in my first year, I’d be helping out on a variety of projects in order to learn the ropes, but one day, not long after being hired, I was suddenly told to make a game on my own! And that ended up becoming Baraduke.

Yukio Takahashi (2007)

—For its time, Baraduke featured a stunning level of graphical detail, and the grotesque enemies were also very impressive. Did you use any special technology to achieve all this?

Takahashi: The biggest factor was that, thanks to improvements in the PCB hardware, we could now use more colors for the sprites, and transparencies were possible too. Thanks to the expanded colors we could depict things like skin more realistically.

When we first got access to this new hardware, we spent some time trying to figure out how best to utilize it. The idea we hit upon was to try and create sprites with smooth, glistening skin—and those experiments led us to Baraduke.

—So you also worked on the graphic design for Baraduke, not just the planning.

Takahashi: Yes. Besides the planning, I did the pixel art, the level design… actually most everything besides the programming. For the names of enemies and characters, too, I looked at picture books of marine life and crustaceans and took inspiration from the academic names of various creatures in their larval states.

These days drawing characters and pixel art is normally left in the hands of actual graphics designers, but back then we only had one such specialist at Namco, and he was in such demand that even if you did wait for him there was no guarantee he’d have the time. That being the case, it was very common for the planners to do the art themselves in those days.

When it came to drawing with computers, I had zero experience at first, but once I got into it, it turned out I was pretty decent, at least compared with the other new hires. Because of that I ended up helping out on other games as a pixel artist. It’s unrelated to Baraduke, but you know the enemies in Dragon Buster, like Leapens, Crawlers, Cave Sharks…? Those were actually drawn by me. As I gained more experience, I started to really enjoy drawing monsters on the computer. It was great fun. And now that I think of it, the Crawlers from Dragon Buster also have that glossy sheen to them… they look like they might have come from Baraduke, you know. (laughs)

—The gigantic bosses of Baraduke also made quite on an impression. Was having huge sprites like that another selling point for you?

Takahashi: Yeah. I wanted to create the biggest characters ever seen in a video game. “Something even bigger than Andagenesis from Xevious!” is what I was thinking. We used some special tricks to render them too, using a mixture of normal sprites and background graphics.

—By the way, I’ve heard people say that if you avoid killing enemies, eventually the enemy spawn rate goes up and the difficulty increases… is this true?

Takahashi: Yeah, it’s true. If you don’t kill the Octys, the rank will increase. It’s like the Zolbak radar installations from Xevious, they serve to act as an alarm of sorts for the other enemies.

Leapens, Crawlers, and Cave Sharks–a few of Takahashi’s contributions to Dragon Buster.

—One of the hidden enemies is your own face… where did that come from?!

Takahashi: Back then at Namco, we had our development pcbs set-up in such a way so that anyone could come by and test play them, too. At first, I had no plans to add hidden characters. I did have a hidden scoring feature where if you shot a certain number of paccets you’d get bonus points, but that was it. The paccets are your allies, but I thought it would be funny if you could shoot them too… and when they die they make this sad expression as they disappear, but that just made it all the more funny, and everyone who playtested it just went on what I can only describe as a gleeful paccet shooting spree. (laughs)

At some point, someone realized that if you shoot 10 paccets you get a 10,000 point bonus. Soon everyone knew about it and started trying to do it themselves. The hardware engineer thought it would be funny to see how many paccets everyone had killed, so he went and added a “Paccet Counter” to the game. Eventually everyone got into it, including myself, and as a bit of a joke on my part, I added that face as a hidden character if you defeat 10 or 20 paccets. None of this was published or announced officially, of course, it was super “inside” stuff.

—To destroy the final boss Great Octy, you have to fly inside his mouth. This was a novel idea, where did it come from?

Takahashi: This, too, was not written in our initial planning documents. One day, someone at Namco was playing it, and they remarked about that boss, “hey, doesn’t it look like you could fit inside this guy’s mouth?” Apparently a lot of people who testplayed it tried moving in there, so I went back later and made it so you actually could. Once I added it, I had to admit, it was a really cool idea.

—Speaking of novel ideas, in the ending, the protagonist removes their helmet to reveal she’s actually a woman! I believe Baraduke was the first game to feature such a surprise.

Takahashi: This was influenced by the anime Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Actually, a bunch of things were influenced by Nausicaa: the protagonist you just mentioned, the side-profile perspective of the paccets, and the Blue Worm boss… (laughs) Also, as I mentioned, because people during the development were so enthusiastic about slaughtering all the paccets they could, as a contrast to all that cruelty I wanted at least in the final scene to have something cute and adorable, so I drew those ending images.  

—How long did Baraduke take to develop?

Takahashi: About 1 year. Looking back now, it kind of surprises me that it took that long, but again, I had to do everything but the programming myself, so I guess it couldn’t be helped. It took me five or six months just to draw all the graphics.

Ghibli’s adaptation of Nausicaa came out in 1984, about 1 year before the release of Baraduke (overlapping precisely with the time Takahashi was working on the game, in other words).

—After Baraduke, you worked on Genpei Toumaden.

Takahashi: Yes. Though to be precise, Ryoichi Ookubo and Norio Nakagata had started working on the plans for Genpei Toumaden before Baraduke was finished. Back then at Namco, if you didn’t assertively step up and say “I’m doing this next!” the work could very easily be passed off to, or claimed by someone else. Employees who weren’t very proactive, before long they could find themselves transferred to another department or quitting altogether…

—I’ve been told that you handled the graphic design for Genpei Toumaden, but what were some of your innovations for this game?

Takahashi: For Baraduke’s graphics, one of my themes was that “glossy sheen” I mentioned, but this time I wanted to find a way to express a distinctly Japanese visual aesthetic. Our pcb hardware had been further upgraded, so rendering very detailed Japanese images could now be done, I thought. In the past, it was common to approach arcade game design from a graphics-first perspective, asking “what can we draw?” and working within the limitations of the hardware. So just by having more colors, it felt revolutionary in terms of what was possible now.

—Which sprites and graphics did you design for Genpei Toumaden?

Takahashi: I designed the title logo, the main character Taira no Kigekiyo himself, as well as the graphics for Minamoto no Yoritomo and the old woman Andabaa. I also drew some of the enemies, like Fuujin and Raijin, and the centipede. My favorite of those was the centipede, I drew individual sprites for each of it’s body segments and then put them together, which made it look very realistic—I really nailed the gross-out factor with that one! Other people at Namco even told me “this is the most disgusting sprite I’ve ever seen!” (laughs)

—Wow, so you’re the one who drew Andabaa! This is a slightly off-topic, but is it true that her name came from the computer word “underbar” (a Japanese alternative for ‘underscore’)…?

Takahashi: Yes, it’s true. And actually, there was another inspiration. There was a person at Namco then, who when they were startled, had this verbal tic where they’d shout out “andabaa!”, and that was another reason I named her Andabaa.

—Genpei Toumaden featured some very large sprites, like the player character Taira no Kigekiyo.

Takahashi: Yeah. As in Baraduke, for the final boss Minamoto no Yoritomo, I again wanted to make the biggest boss ever seen in an arcade game. And if the bosses were going to be that big, well, I thought, let’s make the player character huge too! And then I drew the (large sprite) version of Kigekiyo. However, he was so big, that even with the new and improved hardware, it wasn’t quite possible to render him entirely in a single sprite. So I first drew individual sprites for his limbs, and then stitched those all together into a single design.

It wasn’t just the large sprites either—Genpei Toumaden featured a huge number of graphical assets compared with our previous games, and many graphic artists besides me worked on it.

For a 1986 arcade game, the large sprites in Genpei Toumaden were a sight to behold, and the game is fondly remembered by Japanese arcade gamers.

—Yeah, the backgrounds are great too, with their amazing sense of perspective.

Takahashi: I drew the backgrounds for the bamboo stage. The backgrounds were composed of multiple layered images, and the basic method of conveying depth was to make the deeper layers scroll at half speed. The other stages, like the ones with the torii, were drawn by Satoru Anada.

—Another thing everyone remembers from Genpei Toumaden is the famous “dajare no kuni” stage (“The Land of Bad Puns”). What made you want to add something so comical to the otherwise dark and serious world of Genpei Toumaden?

Takahashi: It was at the end of things, when our staff was totally and completely exhausted, that we started talking about adding a bonus stage of some sort. We were all brainstorming what that might be, when someone came up with the idea of adding a bunch of puns like that. We were in a state of delirious fatigue from having pulled so many all-nighters in a row, and in that state, you know, everything seems funny to you, no matter how dumb the joke. Which is why I look back now and can see some of them were total duds, but.

—Did any of your gags make it in?

Takahashi: Yeah, a few of those are mine. Also, the portrait with one hand raised, that’s actually my face. I used to always make that pose back then, like whenever there was a problem, I’d say “Oh, it’ll be ok!” and raise my hand in that gesture. Though I feel like there were many times things *weren’t* actually ok… (laughs)

Around this time, the lifespan for arcade boards—that is, the amount of time a game would stay installed at a game center—was starting to get shorter and shorter, and I remember everyone saying at first, “maybe no one will find it before it gets swapped for something else”. This, however, was a huge miscalculation on our part, as fans found it right away, and we were surprised at how quickly word of mouth spread. To be honest with you, none of the staff at Namco was good enough to consistently make it that far in the game. Our best testplayers played it dozens of times and only made it there a handful of times.

—You used professional voice actors for Genpei Toumaden, which was also very new. Where did that idea come from?

Takahashi: That was Ookubo and Nakagata’s idea. It was a first experiment for Namco. Initially I thought there was no need for it, why not just use our employees here? But when I heard the results I realized what a difference it was between using amateurs and professional voice actors. The actual quality of the professional recording was very good too, with consistent volume and no unwanted background noise—it was quite easy working with the sound files on a computer. All-in-all, the whole experience was a pleasant surprise.

Nowadays it’s par for the course, but maybe Genpei Toumaden could be seen as a forerunner of using pro voice actors in video games.

The ending screen of Genpei Toumaden, with the “dedicated to Shouichi Fukatani” message.

—The moving final message at the end of Genpei Toumaden also left quite an impression on gamers.

Takahashi: Shouichi Fukatani, whom the game is dedicated to in the last line, was a programmer at Namco who passed away during the development. He was Ookubo’s mentor and teacher. He wrote very clean, easy-to-read code and was also an excellent teacher, so he was beloved by everyone and his nickname was kami-sama (“God”).

There was another very talented programmer at Namco,Kazuo Kurosu, and he was known for his incredible programming speed, but he had his own peculiar way of coding which made his code very hard for others to read. As such we sometimes called him akuma (“Devil”). He eventually ended up quitting Namco, which is why the Genpei Toumaden ending concludes with that line “神も悪魔もいない荒野に我々はいる” (“God and the Devil have both departed, leaving us alone in this wasteland”). So the truth about that final message, as you can see, is that it was simply an inside reference among us at Namco.

—Wow, I had no idea there was such a meaning buried in that ending! Honestly I’m not sure whether to laugh or not, it’s kind of complicated…

Takahashi: Also, on the name entry screen at the end, if you don’t enter anything it will automatically write 名無子 (the characters mean “Nameless One”, but they read “Na-mu-ko”, aka Namco), which was also my idea. Pretty clever, huh? (laughs)

—There was a rumor going on back then about the Genpei Toumaden “curse”, that many of the developers who worked on it met an untimely end. If you don’t mind sharing, I’d like to hear what you think about that.

Takahashi: It’s true that many of the development staff at Namco then had some kind of disaster or bad event befall them, but it wasn’t life-threatening stuff. Several people were involved in traffic accidents though. In my case, on one rainy day a bicycle collided with me while I was walking, and it hurt so bad I couldn’t move from that spot for 20 minutes.

But when I think more deeply about it, you know, it wasn’t some “curse” or occult thing that was the cause… it was that we were incredibly busy then and working night after night without stopping. Everyone was exhausted all the time and thus not as attentive as they should have been with their personal safety, so I think accidents were more likely.

—After Genpei Toumaden, what other games did you work on?

Takahashi: I helped out on some of the graphics for Bravoman. After that, I worked with one of our younger programmers on Pistol Daimyou no Bouken and Bakutotsu Kijutei (Baraduke II). In both games, I wanted to use funny characters and fill the game with all sorts of gags, which I thought would make for a great game. Especially Pistol Daimyou, he later got used as a pachinko character, which I was very happy about. I’ve always loved pachinko myself, too, so that was a special treat for me.

Kero Kero Keroppi’s Daibouken and Bravoman, two games Takahashi worked on shortly after leaving Namco. He would later go on to develop some of the budget 1500 series for the Playstation, as well.

—After leaving Namco, what kind of developments were you involved in?

Takahashi: I worked on Famicom puzzle game “kero kero keroppi no daibouken” (Keroppi’s Big Adventure), which was published by Character Soft. I created everything myself in that one, from the planning to the pixel art. After that I did the pixel art for Super Famicom game “Sanrio World Smash Ball!” I believe this was my final game working with 2D pixel art. All those games sold very well, thankfully.

—As someone who has successfully developed so many games over the years, I’d like to get your advice now for young, aspiring game developers. What qualities and qualifications are game companies looking for today?

Takahashi: Well, speaking as someone on the hiring side, if you have some special knowledge, or something you’re the best at, then that always makes it easy for the company to use you.

Aside from that, it’s good if you’re the kind of person who can find anything interesting. In my case, I’ve always loved sketching and reading books, and those activities helped broaden my horizons. If you think you want to work in games in the future, in the meantime I recommend refining the other skills you have, and going to museums and movie theatres, and basically just trying to expand your interests. Because if you aren’t someone who can find a wide range of things fun and interesting, you’ll have a hard time making it very far in this industry.

—Wrapping things up, please tell us what kind of games you’d personally like to make in the future.

Takahashi: Well, lately all I’ve been working on are these detective/mystery games, so it would be nice to write something different. Or change platforms… I’d like to challenge myself with some kind of network game. It would be fun to make a game that really utilizes the capabilities of online networking to their fullest, the kind of game you could only do online.

—And do you have any personal creeds or convictions about game development?

Takahashi: No, I don’t have any “personal policies” or anything like that. It’s actually quite the opposite: I think one of my greatest strengths as a developer is that I’m always willing to compromise. I try to look at things on a case-by-case basis and find what’s interesting to me, which I hope everyone else will find fun too. That’s the stance I take in my developments today, and the one I’ve had throughout my career.

In 2015 DiGRA Japan held a 30th Anniversary Event for Baraduke, featuring Yukio Takahashi, programmer Yoshihiro Kishimoto, and composer Yuriko Keino. It’s all in Japanese, but is chock full of insight into Baraduke’s development (if there’s interest, I may try and subtitle it in the future).

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