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  • The loons who developed arcade electromechanical games

    Posted on April 7th, 2011 keving 7 comments

    Hisashi Suzuki was the director of Sega-AM2 (Yu Suzuki was the head of development; Hisashi was the business dude) for much of its existence before retiring in 2004. Before that, though, he spent a couple decades making arcade electromechanical games for Sega through the 1960s and 70s — in fact, he was one of Sega’s first employees, as he explained in an interview published in Famitsu magazine’s Sega Arcade History (2001):

    It was a long time ago; it was 1962. That was before Akira Nagai [managing director of Sega in 2001] joined the company, even. Sega wasn’t Sega at that time; Nagai was the accounting department for Nihon Goraku Bussan, while I had joined Nihon Kikai Seizou, the company that eventually became Sega.

    Why did Suzuki join Sega?

    Really, it was just because they gave me a lot of off days. At the time we were looking for work, pretty much the only companies that had a five-day workweek as a rule were those funded by foreign outfits. Sega had that, and the third Friday of every month was an off day, too; it was just an unthinkable amount of holidays. The company’s work schedule had just changed when I joined in, so everybody left work at 6 pm, and people would get angry at you if you stuck around after that. There was a strict boundary between work and non-work, playaround time and so forth. On the other hand they were extremely serious about being at work on time, even if the trains were all shut down for a strike or whatever. Our salary was cut for whatever amount of time we were late. Since it was a foreign-owned firm, all of the top positions were held by foreigners and all of the internal documents and so forth were written in English. Everything was signed off with signatures instead of hanko, and that didn’t change until Sega joined the CSK family in 1984.

    When I joined Nihon Kikai Seizou, I was working on slot machines and jukeboxes. I designed a lot of slot machines. Japan was not exporting a lot of things at that time yet, so we built a name for ourselves as an exporter back then. After that, we went into the amusement market — starting out, we just purchased used machines from the US and either repaired them or took them apart so we could make copies. Eventually the internals went from relays to transistors and ICs, which then led to Pong, but before then it was all electromechanical machines. It was really fun, that era. There were racing games back then as well, but this was back before there were monitors or anything, so you took a model of a car and projected its shadow on a screen. There were no sound chips, either, so we loaded in an amp, stretched out a spring, and hit with a coil, which would create an explosion sound effect. Every machine we manufactured would sound slightly different.

    How were these things developed, anyway?

    There were development rooms for electromechanical games as well, but the hard part about these games were taking an idea and actually implementing it. With video games, very generally speaking, you can do anything as long as you have the program for it. With electromechanical games, you have to come up with the entire structure. There were lots of things to think about, from efficiency and cost and function to ease of repair. Design and development were two different jobs back then. Development would come up with a concept; they’d just present an idea for the entire function of a machine, and then design would implement it.

    Generally, a software developer becomes a seasoned employee in about three years’ time. Experience is a lot more important with hardware, so that takes five or six years. For electromechanical, that was more like 10 years. Younger people would come up with these bold concepts that would wind up becoming unreliable, breakdown-prone machines. How many millimeters thick should the cabinet’s outer layer be? You’ll never know unless you get experience. If you decide to just make it thick, then the entire machine will weigh far too much. Too thin, and it won’t be durable enough. Even with tabletop machines, you need to know how wide the doors are in an average arcade or else you won’t know how large the machine should be.

    It was a lot of fun, making these machines, but implementing ideas was extremely difficult, and you couldn’t afford to make anything that broke down too easily. With arcade games today, the only things that break are monitors or motherboards, and that’s really not all that often, but Sega needed an army of servicemen to take care of the electromechanical machines. We had to make sure to place all the intricate and delicate parts right nearby the small service door so they wouldn’t have so much work to get the thing apart.

  • Hacker International’s head speaks

    Posted on June 29th, 2010 keving 8 comments

    As promised yesterday, more about Hacker International, the Japanese bad boy of 8-bit consoledom.

    I (like a lot of NES fans, I suppose) first heard about Hacker from David Sheff’s book Game Over, where he mentions that the company attempted to defy Nintendo’s third-party licensee system for the Famicom, was sued, and went out of business shortly thereafter. The only factual part of that synopsis is that Nintendo sued Hacker, but it wasn’t for anything related to publishing unlicensed FC porn games and it was settled out of court before a verdict was reached. What’s more, Hacker had a very long history — long enough to result in 16 Famicom games, 22 Famicom Disk System titles (more than most legitimate FDS licensees), 13 PC Engine games (seven on CD-ROM), 15 licensed PlayStation releases under the name Map Japan, and even a handful of Windows titles. That’s not bad for a company so associated with 8-bit pornography, as laid out in this screenshot gallery of their FDS stuff (link very not safe for work).

    Hacker was founded and led by Satoru Hagiwara, an entrepreneur and former music producer who thought he’d cash in on the personal-computer boom when it hit Japan in the mid-1980s. Their first product was a monthly PC magazine titled Hacker (above), as he explained in a 2005 issue of Game Labo:

    “PCs were hitting it big at the time and tons of PC magazines were getting launched all over the place, so I asked a friend of mine who ran a publishing business if he was interested in putting one out. I figured that once we started releasing a magazine, the writers and know-how would come naturally. That’s how ‘Hacker’ got started — it’s a bit of an embarrassing name, but since we were launching after the pack, I went with something that had impact.”

    So Hacker International wasn’t meant to be an “underground” outfit in the beginning?

    “Not at all. But people who were into that sort of thing were attracted to the name, and they came to us. A lot of our writers were into games, and they came up with a lot of ideas for offbeat and fun products. I created Hacker International to help put those ideas out on sale. At around that time, I had a lot of negative emotions toward the collusion and under-the-table agreements [console game] publishers had with each other. Even so, none of the products we made broke any laws. The music industry ran under a set of well-defined laws, so perhaps that experience affected me a little too, but either way, I didn’t think to myself that we wanted to break the law with our products.”

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  • This is what really good Puyo Puyo looks like

    Posted on June 23rd, 2010 keving No comments

    I wrote a couple articles today for 1UP about famous gamers in Japan, from Daigo Umehara (who needs no introduction if you’ve seen that SFIII 3rd Strike video — you know, that one) to Tomoki Maeda, a guy who’s won tournaments for both FIFA and Pro Evo Soccer. I didn’t get around to another interview printed in last week’s issue of Famitsu where they talked with Takashi Hattori, a guy who’s really, really, really good at competitive Puyo Puyo.

    You can see lots of Puyo tournament footage on Nicovideo; the above video’s an example from 2007. The preferred knockout format is for two competitors to play each other repeatedly until one side reaches 100 victories, which (even if you play as fast as these guys) is at least two hours of nonstop blob toppling. Hattori is the player on the right in this video, and I’ll let it speak for itself. Good Puyo is fun to watch because it’s a constant game of back-and-forth, with one player setting off a massive chain and the other setting off his own chain, the one he’s been preparing for just that moment, offsetting the attack and putting the first player on the defensive. Even if I can’t possibly fathom the strategy involved, it’s great entertainment.

    Hattori kicked off his Famitsu interview by revealing how he got into this odd Compile game:

    “The first Puyo I played was the PC-9801 version, when I was in fifth grade or so. For a while 2- or 3-chains were about the best I could do, but thanks to the fact I had friends to play against every day, I wound up becoming the best player in my neighborhood. Puyo Puyo 2 came out when I was in middle school, and I learned that they were holding events like the Sega AM Cup [Sega’s Puyo championship] and the Puyo Masters Tournament [Compile’s Puyo championship]. I signed up because I thought I could meet people better than me and get some hints on how to improve my game. This was before the Internet was popular, so it was a great opportunity to gather information. I performed pretty well at all the competitions, which gave me confidence, and that was about the point when I hooked up with the real national-class players. We’d all go to an arcade and I’d improve my skills by basically letting them pummel me in the game.”

    What’s his Power Player Advice for would-be Puyokings?

    “If you want to win consistently in Puyo, it’s better to think about beating your opponent wtih small chains in rapid succession instead of aiming for one large chain. Memorizing the possible structures of all the small chains, then applying them as needed in the game, helps refine your strategy and makes it easier to win. Also, you can’t just learn the winning patterns — you need to learn the losing patterns, too, and how to deal with them. That way, if you mess up a pattern during a competition, you won’t panic. Based on my experience, even if you don’t have that much technical skill, you can hold your own in competitive matches if you have a sound mental capacity. Everyone makes errors of judgment or joystick input, but it’s when you let the mistakes get to you that you lose. A really fearsome opponent is the guy who can come back from a bad situation.”

  • “Want to Let Your Happy Times Begin?”

    Posted on April 28th, 2010 keving 1 comment

    A help-wanted flyer from I’d guess the late 1970s. Those wages don’t seem terribly low even by modern standards, but keep in mind that the dollar exchange rate was always over 200 yen around this time and sometimes much more than that. (The average minimum wage across Japan in 2009 was 713 yen an hour.)

    “McDonald’s is creating a hamburger sensation across Japan under its motto of Quality (Q) / Service (S) / Cleanliness (C). It’s an easy place to work, filled with a bright and fun atmosphere.

    Crew (male/female)
    – Everyone pitches in to run the restaurant. Men mostly handle kitchen work, while women take care of guest relations.
    – From students to housewives, everyone is welcome. No experience required.
    – You are free to pick your own work period, days, and hours. You can also choose your workplace from any of the McDonald’s in Japan.

    Salary: 530 yen/hour plus

    Maintenance Men (male)
    – Handle store custodial duty from 11pm to 7am.

    Salary: 710 yen/hour plus

    Variety of Unique Benefits
    – Worker’s compensation
    – Lockers on site
    – Uniforms provided on loan
    – Discount movie tickets
    – Seaside and other recreational facilities”

    The first McDonald’s in Japan opened up July 20, 1971 in the first floor of the Mitsukoshi department store in Ginza, Tokyo. That location closed in 2007 when Mitsukoshi remodeled the building space, but the next one that opened, McDonald’s #13002 in Yoyogi, has stayed in regular business since July 24, 1971. Stop by and see if you can find any gum under the tables dating from before you were born.

  • Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love

    Posted on December 16th, 2009 keving 5 comments


    Completely out of the blue, I received a preview build of Sakura Wars in the mail the other day. I say “completely out of the blue” because this is the first time I’ve received a preview build of anything since I got laid off from ADV in June of 2008. I honestly didn’t realize that the PR department of NIS America knew my home address. Are they spying on me??!! Wait. Maybe not. If so, they woulda known that my modded PS2 is somewhere in the closet, buried under a bunch of winter clothing, and I have too much work today to dig it out! (I have a vague memory of telling my old PR contacts to send their email blasts to an address I created for that purpose, but man, I haven’t checked it in about a year. Sorry, video-game industry.)

    All I can say today about this game is that it has Gemini Sunrise in it. That’s all that needs to be said, right? Hiroi-ohji made an offhand comment half a decade ago about how this character will serve to introduce the series to overseas audiences — apparently he was looking even further ahead than I ever imagined!

    The ferret gives the bubble wrap 8.2/10.

  • “The Phantom of Akihabara,” Chapter 7: “A Well-Adjusted World”

    Posted on September 15th, 2009 keving 3 comments


    “You were never part of it in the first place. Besides, could you really say the game industry had it right, ever? Every hardware maker having their own network? No synchronization between development and sales? Huge gluts of titles; top-brand games all coming out at the same time and eating into each other’s profits? There’s a lot to gain from stabilizing distribution, even if means a little more regulation than what they had before. The industry’s never enjoyed anything like it. A lot of them are looking forward to it.”

    Here is chapter seven (“A Well-Adjusted World”) of The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER, a serial novel written by Yoshitaka Ohsawa between 2002 and 2004. You’ll want to start at chapter one if you’re new to the tale.

    The move to regulate and control games and otaku culture, a mission led by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, is rapidly approaching its final stages. Secretly, behind the spotlights, the government has acted to take over game distribution, the central core that makes entertainment an economically viable industry. Ryohei Takamizawa, the hero, has made contact with Saeko Kanoura, an informant (?) within the ministry, to get to the bottom of this operation.

    Happy readin’.

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  • “The Phantom of Akihabara,” Chapter 6: “Endless Game”

    Posted on August 7th, 2009 keving No comments


    “So you’re cosplaying and everything whenever you go undercover like that?”
    “Yes, sir. I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off past thirty, but it keeps people’s eyes off me all the same. In fact, it’s gotten me a lot of side benefits. People brag to me; they reveal details; they give me their life stories.”
    “What were you dressed as?”
    “I’m sorry, sir; that’s kind of a personal question.”

    Here is chapter six (“Endless Game”) of The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER, a serial novel written by Yoshitaka Ohsawa between 2002 and 2004. You’ll want to start at chapter one if you’re new to the tale.

    On a visit to the twice-yearly underground Comic Market, illicit used-game broker Ryohei Takamizawa runs into the shadowy owner of Sofmap #666, a “game buyer” he’s known for his entire career. The man is neck-deep in the underground game business, and he has bad news: the Japanese government is set to clamp down on every aspect of otaku culture, from what it can depict to how it’s distributed. If they succeed, then otaku-dom has no future, and Ryohei is sent by the man to meet up with a certain someone and figure out a way to stop them.

    Happy readin’.

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  • Yuji Naka discusses SMS programming

    Posted on July 31st, 2009 keving 1 comment

    Following up my post about the PCE version of Space Harrier, here is a bit from an interview with Yuji Naka printed in Sega Consumer History, a book published by Enterbrain in 2002:

    I did a lot of testing to figure out how best to port Space Harrier to the Mark III, but the hardware had very strict sprite limits and I really couldn’t show much more than the player and his bullets. If I was going to port this game, I naturally wanted to retain all of the impact of the original at all costs, but if I had rely on sprites for that, the results would’ve been pretty depressing.

    That’s when I began coding a system that drew [enemies] directly onto background tiles instead. That let me retain at least a bit of the original’s high speed, and it was ultimately what made Space Harrier possible on the Mark III. But I still kick myself over the square tiles that overlap all over the bosses! I tried really hard to come up with a software solution to this issue, but I just hit a wall when it came to CPU power.

    OutRun started out the same way, in that I knew I wanted to recreate the up-and-down motion of the original no matter what. I coded it so that it pretty much redrew the entire screen to create the effect, but it wasn’t everything it should’ve been. It was close, but not close enough. I don’t know if it was my fault or the Mark III’s, but it was probably somewhere between the two of us.

    Really, figuring out what game to port to which hardware at which time was a very important thing back then. You had to consider the development skills you had at hand very carefully, especially because the really flashy full-cabinet games like Space Harrier, OutRun and After Burner were coming out one after another that whole time. I pushed myself really hard from a technical standpoint during that era, so the time still conjures up a lot of memories for me.

  • “The Phantom of Akihabara,” Chapter 5: “Like the River Flow”

    Posted on July 16th, 2009 keving 4 comments


    “You know how I’m helping out with the Comiket down below, right?”
    “Uh-huh. That, and how you worked with the closet otaku in Urban Planning to keep it from attracting any attention.”
    “Yeah, well, the honeymoon’s just about over with that. I think they’re gonna do away with Comiket, and they’re gonna take down every damn store in this building along with it.”

    Here is chapter five (“Like the River Flow”) of The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER, a serial novel written by Yoshitaka Ohsawa between 2002 and 2004. You’ll want to start at chapter one if you’re new to the tale.

    With an economy in shambles and a nation in chaos, the Japanese government has forced peace and goodwill upon its people — a movement that dovetailed all too well with media’s tendency to censor itself, starting in the 1990s. With all the “poison” sucked out of their popular entertainment, how can Japan’s game nerds continue to exist…if they can at all?

    Happy readin’.

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  • An exciting preview

    Posted on July 8th, 2009 keving 7 comments

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    Coming soon: A video game so tough that VideoGames & Computer Entertainment couldn’t even figure out a strategy for defeating the next-to-last boss.