Abarenbou Tengu – 2013 Developer Interview
This Abarenbou Tengu (Zombie Nation in the US) interview with director / composer Takane Ohkubo was originally featured in the liner notes of Clarice Disc’s “Rom Cassette Disc” series. For a semi-obscure cult classic, Abarenbou Tengu has a surprisingly interesting development history that sheds a (not entirely flattering) light on the struggles of third-party Famicom development.
Takane Ohkubo – Designer/Planner
—To begin, please tell us how you got started in the game industry.
Ohkubo: I’d always loved music and was playing in a band, but I also loved art, so I enrolled in a technical art school. A frend I met there had a part-time job at Namco, and he told me they were still hiring. I jumped at the suggestion, and I began working there part-time too. I was assigned to Norio Nakagata’s Genpei Production department. They had finished Genpei Toumaden and were about to start making their next game, Bravoman—which is actually why they were hiring people. So I began working as a graphic designer on Bravoman, and doing pixel art there was my start in the game industry.
—What kind of music did you like?
Ohkubo: Back then I was all about Heavy Metal, of course! My band played other music too, but heavy metal was all I listened to. I dreamed in those days of being a studio musician, by the way, despite being total crap.
—On Bravoman you worked on graphics, though, not music.
Ohkubo: Yeah. The first game I did the music for was Baraduke 2 (Bakatotsu Kijuutei). I asked them directly to let me do the music, and they did. Nakagata was there, of course, so he guided me as I went. I also worked on a game called Steranian1 while I was at Namco, which we were developing at the same time as Bravoman, but it ended up not getting released.
—Later, you would quit Namco.
Ohkubo: The Genpei Pro group was dissolved after Bravoman, and I left Namco. I went to work at a company called Big Club, where I worked on Jinmu Denshou, Rock-On, and Bouken Danshaku Don for the PC Engine. During this time I was involved in more aspects of the developments, from the initial planning stage onwards.
—So you went to Big Club on your own, then? You weren’t joined by other Namco employees?
Ohkubo: Yeah. They had too much other work on their hands. I think it was around this time that Nakagata first met Junichiro Kawazoe of KAZe Net. Later Nakagata invited me to come work with him, and I joined Live Planning (currently known as KAZe Net).
—At last we reach Abarenbou Tengu! Who were the Live Planning development members when the project began?
Ohkubo: Kawazoe was the President/Producer, and Nakagata was director. There was also graphic designer Takao Yoshiba, who had done the modeling and sculpture work for the Genpei Toumaden commercial, Shinichi Ogawa (who had worked as an animator), the programmer Kunihito Hiramatsu, and myself. In the first half-year of Live Planning’s existence, we spent that time bouncing various ideas off each other for games, and Abarenbou Tengu was one among those.
—Do you remember the early planning stages?
Ohkubo: It was a chaotic time for the company, and I was feeling frustrated that the work wasn’t moving forward. I felt very emotionally pent-up. During that period, most of my ideas came from casual conversations with Yoshiba. Also, I was still young then, so I had this desire in me to break and smash things. (laughs) One time I was talking with Nakagata and he said “There’s something about smashing a building that feels so refreshing, you know?” and chats like that gradually took shape into our game ideas.
—By the way, I heard the Tengu character was originally a severed head. (laughs)
Ohkubo: Abarenbou Tengu’s original title was “Jitsuroku Munen no Namakubi” (laughs) (lit. “The True Story of the Grudge-Bearing Severed Head”) It was supposed to read like some sensational news headline. And you know, we only changed the title at the very, very last moment, after Nintendo told us that using a severed head was not allowed. As for why it became a Tengu head, I only heard the reason for that awhile later, from Kawazoe himself. He said the hanafuda tengu was a symbol for Nintendo, who themselves had their origins making hanafuda decks. Nintendo wouldn’t give us permission for the severed head, and they were in a position where no one could question their authority. So apparently we made the character a Tengu as a very sarcastic gesture towards Nintendo’s tyranny. In other words, the rampaging Tengu2 really means rampaging Nintendo. (laughs)
—So Abarenbou Tengu was your grudge towards Nintendo. (laughs)
Ohkubo: I still remember the day the title was decided. Nakagata came back from a meeting and announced to everyone, “We’ve got a title. It’s Tengu… Tengu!” (laughs) We were all like, “What?! Tengu? Are you serious?” The thing is, the severed head Yoshiba had drawn was really awesome. So we were pretty distraught and saying “what are we supposed to do now?” but well, there was a lot going on. Thankfully in the end we were able to use that severed head in the American version.
—Abarenbou Tengu is known as Zombie Nation overseas.
Ohkubo: Our overseas staff wrote a list with several candidate titles from which we selected “Zombie Nation”. That allowed us to switch the main character back to a severed head. But so you know, I never gave up on the original title “Jitsuroku Munen no Namakubi” for the Japanese version… I really wanted that.
—Why a severed head in the first place, by the way?
Ohkubo: Partly, it was a carry-over from Genpei Toumaden. Also, although I’m credited as the planner and director, in truth I think Abarenbou Tengu largely came together from the input of the entire staff. My job was more to consolidate and organize their ideas. When we were trying to decide on who our main character should be, at the time I had this conviction which I couldn’t really explain, that “if it’s taking on the world it’s got to be something purely Japanese!” Now, as to why I thought severed head == Japanese… well, I have absolutely no idea about that either.
—It does feel like you’re challenging America somewhat, the way you destroy buildings in America, and the Statue of Liberty boss…
Ohkubo: Like a lot of people, when I thought of America back then, it was this “cool” image, like English is cool, the music is cool. And so I felt this desire to want to destroy it all. It was just the edginess of youth. Teenage angst, or something…
—For a video game there’s a lot of unusual things about Abarenbou Tengu, in terms of both the gameplay and the visuals.
Ohkubo: I love video games as much as the next person, but I hadn’t really grown up playing tons of games. That means I had very little sense for what the genre “rules” were, ie that this-kind-of-game has to be like this. So I could say ridiculous things like “A severed head? Sure, why not. Let’s see, the only thing a flying head would be able to shoot at you would be its eyes… or we could make it vomit out blood.” (laughs) The blood changed to phlegm when we switched to a Tengu.
—By the way, what made you choose the Famicom platform?
Ohkubo: It was mostly a business decision. We talked about developing it for the PC Engine too, but the only system we had the skills to develop a game for right away was the Famicom. We had some extremely talented people on our team. Our programmer Hiramatsu was a real wizard: he had once created a ROM Emulator from spare parts he bought at Akihabara.
—Abarenbou Tengu’s music is highly regarded, and was jointly created by you and Norio Nakagata.
Ohkubo: We each did equal halves, basically. Nakagata’s songs have those signature “Nakagawa phrases” though, so I think you can recognize them right away. He’s 100% prog rock so I’m always super impressed by his finished songs. I learned a lot from him back then.
—Slightly off-topic, but speaking of soundtracks… if you play Heiankyo Alien head-to-head with the link cable, the second player hears a different song. That was totally novel for the time.
Ohkubo: Ah, you’re making me nostalgic. (laughs) That song was made by me and Nakagata together. The interlude section has dueling solos from us.
—The ending theme for Abarenbou Tengu has an arranged version of the American national anthem.
Ohkubo: Back then we didn’t care about copyrights or any “adult stuff” like that when we wrote music. “Who gives a shit about that!” was the feeling. (laughs)
—We actually looked into that for the CD release, and we learned the anthem is public domain. Were there any other failed ideas or things you had to drop for Abarenbou Tengu?
Ohkubo: There were some ideas we had that didn’t really come off right. Nakagata was really insistent about the lasers in the background of the city stage. He wanted it to look like they were shooting at the player with this kind of 3D effect. “It looks fine! See, they’re firing at you from the buildings!” (laughs)
—To the player, those lasers just look like they’re shooting at the sky. They don’t look like something that would hit you either.
Ohkubo: Yeah, exactly. Well, the intention, at least, was that they would be firing at the player. Also, the number one thing we argued about as a team was the inertia of the player. It’s owed in large part to the expertise of the programmer, Kunihiro Hiramatsu, but he really lobbied for it, so it remained to the end.
—It gives a floating, ethereal feeling to the Tengu head that I think is unique.
Ohkubo: Perhaps now I could see some positives of the inertia. But at the time, I argued back-and-forth about it with Nakagata. “Do we really need this inertia…? Come on, we don’t need this, right?”
I also remember how much effort Yoshiba put into the background graphics. I had a huge respect for his work.
—The bosses have so much personality too.
Ohkubo: The first stage boss was a shoe-in: I mean, it’s America, so it’s gotta be the Statue of Liberty, right?! Most of the other bosses were created in the same spirit, just from conversations we had. “Hey, that’d be a cool idea for a boss!” As for their technical impressiveness, that again is owed to Hiramatsu’s skills.
—The Statue of Liberty was changed to a Medusa for the overseas version.
Ohkubo: They had told us from the outset that it was a no-go. Personally I was more annoyed about them rejecting the Statue of Liberty than I was about the severed head. We were forced to make a ton of changes to the game. The Statue of Liberty, which was a symbol for America, couldn’t be shown as defeated, even in a fictional game… there were taboo depictions of indians that we were forced to revise… so for the Statue of Liberty, I remember someone said, hey, if we just quickly change the head, we can make it a medusa! So that’s what we did.
—What was the public response like when it was released?
Ohkubo: Well, today it’s known as a cult game, but the first time I recognized it as such, was when Toshiaki Sugiura, one of the artists from Genpei Pro at Namco, first saw the game and in that moment exclaimed “You’ve created a real cult classic!”
—Wow, so it was recognized as a cult game from its release! By the way, who came up with that catchphrase, “EXCITENGU”?
Ohkubo: That was Nakagata again. (laughs) He also named all the songs, which reflect his sense of humor. He loves puns. He’s made them in many other games too.
—If you had to name something, what about Abarenbou Tengu are you most proud of?
Ohkubo: Looking back now, I think it’s the fact that Abarenbou Tengu served as vessel for all that blind strength and pent-up emotion of youth that I had, and it allowed me to transform that into something I could share with the world. I don’t know if “pride” is the right word, so much as gratefulness. Abarenbou Tengu was the only game I made that I was involved in every aspect of, from start to finish. Afterwards I decided to focus my efforts on music alone, to the exclusion of other work. But I didn’t expect to see a soundtrack for Abarenbou Tengu released in 2013. I admit, when I first heard about it, I was embarrassed, and I thought, “please, don’t!” (laughs)
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Abarenbou can be translated in a number of ways (rampaging, hooligan, thug) but the common point is someone who acts violently and without restraint. The “bou” part, which means little boy, lends it the nuance of a child’s tantrum.↩