Interview: Akihiro Takanami/Hiroaki Fujimoto of h.a.n.d. and System Vision

I don’t know why, but I’ve always been strangely fascinated by Ragnagard. It feels like such an anomaly in the Neo Geo’s massive library of fighting games on numerous levels: the CG visuals, the slow-feeling gameplay, the focus on aerial combos. It’s the sort of game that I’ve felt a compulsion to research, to figure out just how it came into being.

I’m the sort of person who will delve into weird internet rabbit holes over the course of researching stuff and pursuing information, and sometimes that yields incredibly interesting results. One day, when I was out looking for things related to Ragnagard on Japanese sites, I came across a page that had a gorgeous illustration of the game’s main female lead, Benten. But that’s not all that was there: alongside it were numerous anecdotes written by someone who was clearly heavily involved in the game’s development. It turned out this site was run by one Powerudon, an accomplished artist in the game industry who had been one of the driving forces behind Ragnagard’s development.

Looking around his site yielded more interesting tidbits of info, particularly related to a Super Famicom fighting game called The Battle Master. It hadn’t hit me that this and Ragnagard were done by the same developer, as they have a dramatically different feel, but Powerudon had laid out a lot of details about the mechanics and development of these titles on their site — alongside some incredible artwork

I knew I had to talk with Powerudon. One of the reasons I created gaming.moe is to preserve elements of gaming history that might otherwise be lost to time, particularly the words and memories of the people behind games both well-known and obscure. I reached out to Powerudon for an interview, and he agreed, so I emailed him a batch of questions.

A while later, he sent me a massive text file containing replies to all of the questions I had sent. I had asked him to go into as much detail as possible, and he did just that — for which I’m extremely grateful, because he has some really interesting anecdotes and thoughts on game development. So sit back, grab a drink, and enjoy a lengthy interview about System Vision, Battle Master, Ragnagard, and the tumultuous environment of game development in the early/mid-90s.

Special thanks to Tom James and Jason Moses for translation assistance!

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Masaya Nakamura Tribute: Namco arcade classics (that are just as important as Pac-Man)

With the passing of Masaya Nakamura, founder of Nakamura Amusement Machine Manufacturing Company — better known to everyone as Namco — we’ve lost a man who was a pioneer of the game industry in many ways. When Nakamura bought out Atari Japan’s flagging division back in the 70s (offering far more money than rival Sega), he was spurred to add video game development to the company’s core business of kiddie rides, prize games, and other electromechanical amusements. From there, Namco went on to become one of the Japanese game industry’s arcade powerhouses during the game center boom of the 80s. Their competition with the other heavyweights in the arcade arena at the time — Sega, Taito, and Konami — spurred an incredible era of arcade innovation that helped advance game hardware and game genres to amazing new heights.

But here’s the problem: A lot of people don’t know much about that beyond Pac-Man.

While Namco had a US branch during the 80s, it was mostly a licensing arm until quite late in the decade.1. Games that looked like they’d have strong global appeal were quickly snatched up by the likes of Bally/Midway and Atari, while many others languished as Japanese exclusives, never to be seen outside of the country until MAME and the Namco Museums came about.

As a result, we have plenty of memorials dedicated to Nakamura speaking of him as “The Father of Pac-Man” (a title that really should go to creator Toru Iwatani), treating his legacy as if Pac-Man was the only thing that really mattered. Even without taking into account more modern Namco hits like Tekken, Ridge Racer, and the Tales series, this reductive titling ignores numerous games he helped spearhead into existence that had a tremendous impact on the industry. Sadly, because these games didn’t see much attention in the West, many players don’t know how important they really are. I’ve decided to highlight three very important Namco arcade games here to show just how important Nakamura’s legacy is — there are plenty more examples, but these three titles embody what Namco meant to a generation of Japanese arcadegoers and game creators alike.

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  1. One of my biggest frustrations in studying arcade history is how poorly-documented a lot of dealing between US and Japanese companies during the 80s and early 90s are. Details like when Namco US started to sell their own cabinets are scarce. And furthermore, how did companies like Taito USA decide which games to sell themselves and which to sell out to Romstar?! ARGH

Review/Build: Sega Astro City 1/12 cabinet model by WAVE

“Candy cabinets.” It’s a catch-all English term to refer to Japanese-style sit-down arcade cabinets where you can fairly easily switch the games contained within. There seems to be a bit of speculation as to where the term came from… though I’d wager the most obvious source is the Neo Candy cabinets, which commonly housed Neo-Geo MVS units.

There are a lot of different models of “candy cabs” out there, but to many, the de facto candy cabinet is the Sega Astro City, a model you’ll still see around many a Japanese arcade in this day and age. Countless matches of Virtua Fighter 2 were played on these machines back in the day, and their versatility and adaptability have made them a popular choice for retrogaming setups to this day.

Yes, the Astro City is practically synonymous with arcade games to many Japanese arcade fans. Which is why we all exploded with glee when we found out that model maker Wave, who had previously made replicas of modern Vewlix cabinets and the riding Hang-On cabinet, was going to make an Astro City model.  This was gonna be great!

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And yes, it is a pretty spectacular kit! It’s not too tough to build for the beginner, but offers a lot of potential for customization if you really, really want to create the miniature arcade machine of your dreams. In my case, I wanted to put a very particular game inside one of these cabinets. But I wanted to build it together with you, my dear readers – and that’s exactly what we’re going to do today!

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Gamest’s Favorite Character Rankings from 1987 to 1991

Hey guys, it’s almost election day!

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Yeah, that’s more or less my reaction to the shitshow of US politics, too. But instead of depressing ourselves, let’s look at the polls of yesteryear that truly mattered. I am, of course, talking about the favorite character polls published in seminal Japanese arcade gaming journal Gamest from 1987 through 1991.

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Gamest, for those unfamiliar, was an early Japanese game magazine whose focus was almost entirely on the culture of arcade gaming. The magazine was founded in 1986 and enjoyed plenty of success, going from bimonthly to monthly issues fairly quickly thanks to strong fan response. When Street Fighter II rolled around and became a phenomenon, however, the magazine became even bigger, eventually going biweekly at the height of the fighting game boom. Bolstered by the strength of arcades in the mid-90s, the publisher, Shinseisha, expanded briefly into spinoffs like Gamest EX (console games) and Comic Gamest, and even had a store focused on selling arcade game-related merchandise called Marugeya. But everything ended rather abruptly in 1999 with Shinseisha’s bankruptcy, killing off the magazine and other business operations tied to it. (Several former Gamest staff migrated to publisher Enterbrain to create Arcadia magazine as a successor, which would encounter its own abrupt death many years later.)

The magazine had a ton of passionate, talented writers throughout the years: as the Japanese Wikipedia article on the magazine notes, many of Gamest’s early writers came from VG2 and VG3, early arcade gaming doujinshi publications that were the contemporaries of Satoshi Tajiri and his Game Freak doujinshi. Graphic artist Han, who’s best known for his work at Treasure, was part of their writing staff at one point, and artist Mine Yoshizaki cut his teeth doing various art pieces for the magazine.

Amongst all of the strategy guides, interviews, reports, high score tables, and special features, however, every Gamest issue would contain a section called “Gamest Island,” which was dedicated to reader submissions. In early 1992, Gamest collected all of its Island sections up to that point into one giant book, called Gamest Island Mokushiroku.

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One of my current fixations is trying to snag cheap Gamest issues when they pop up for media preservation purposes, as the Japanese arcade scene of the 80s and 90s is a fascinating subculture that the West knows next to nothing about. When I saw this book for a good price, I jumped on it — and when I got it, I wasn’t disappointed in the content. This tome has 500-some pages of reader submissions that give a candid look into the Japanese arcade culture of the late 80s and early 90s from the very people who were the most passionate about it. There’s tons of art, plenty of letters, lots of terrible jokes, a bunch of reader-made “How much of a gamer are you” polls, parody game ideas, and even odd bits like someone’s Night Striker fanfiction. There are early memes and trends that show up, heated opinions (you start seeing some anti-Street Fighter II art and sentiment after the game blows up in popularity), and even in-column conversations between readers: one issue features a woman writing in to complain about men treating her badly at the arcade, the next issue has a guy sending in a drawing he did to support her, and the issue after that has her replying with more art as a thank-you. (It really seems charming and quaint compared to internet interactions today, especially since nobody got called a beta cuck.)

Every year Gamest would also hold reader polls on various subjects — and among them were various “favorite character” polls. From 1987 onwards, Gamest would have a reader-voted “favorite character” poll, along with rotating sub-polls in various other character categories. The results of each of these are also published in this book, and how the votes played out is pretty amusing: there are clear winners, some head-scratchers, and some utterly bizarre picks that appear to be ancient memes and jokes from a bygone era in Japanese gaming. Let’s take a look at how the polls went!

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Raimais (Taito, 1988)

(Updated 8-29-17)

Raimais is a special game to me.

A constant throughout my life is loving the hell out of games that few other folks seem to. No, I’m not talking about kusoge, here – I’m talking about games that are actually good, but which are unknown and unpopular. Case in point: my enduring love affair with Fighting Vipers 2.

That’s far from the only obscurity that really stokes the flames of burning game love within me, however. Over the years, I’ve come to have a deep appreciation for Taito’s late-80s and early-90s catalog, with a few titles in particular standing out as treasures that have gone most unrecognized by even devoted retro fans. But while one of my favorite lesser-known games, Night Striker, has seen a recent resurgence in popularity — well, in Japan, anyway — there’s another Taito title that wormed its way into my heart that remains mostly buried in their sprawling back catalog: a little game called Raimais.

Raimais, at first glance, doesn’t seem like the sort of game somebody would develop a deep affection for. It looks like a fairly standard-issue dot collection maze game  — a genre that had mostly fallen out of favor when the game hit in 1988 and seems even more dated now. But there’s a lot about this game that’s interesting, from how it aims to modernize one of the earliest gaming formulas to its rather unusual-for-the-time cutscenes and surprise ending… along with how its tendrils crept into another Taito title we’ve covered on this site. Not to mention its strange console offshoot…

Yeah, there’s a lot to cover here. So much, in fact, that I’ve actually had to separate this into several smaller pages. (Yes, the biggest article on gaming.moe so far is for a Taito obscurity that even Japanese players don’t discuss much. Is that really a surprise?) So, without further ado, let’s brave the labyrinth!


Rika and Organizer by Ashley Riot

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Mspaint Rika and Organizer by Ant.

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Art by Nina Matsumoto

Art by Hayame

Art by Keeterz

Send me more Rika fanart! I’ll post it here!

Special Thanks to: Zekuu, Ant, Tom James, mauve, Suddendesu, mountainmanjed, and Mark J

Disturbing Game Overs, part I: A Quarter Can Save a Life

It’s been argued that one of the most interesting things about games is that they allow the person engaging them to feel guilt and responsibility for their actions, something that can’t be done in more passive forms of media. Designers have actually been utilizing this since the early days of the medium as a way to belittle players’ lack of skill (and, hopefully, inspire them to invest more time/money to get better): think of how Missile Command used “THE END” when you lost all cities instead of “GAME OVER.” Guess what, jerk, your failure with the trackball just doomed humanity! Even a small change like that left a big impact on player psyches, and the medium has since evolved, finding plenty of new and exciting ways to make you feel really bad about what you do in games.

But for whatever reason, I’ve always been fascinated by the game over guilt trip. While most games just come to a screeching halt once the lives and health have run dry, others really go the extra mile to make you feel awful about your failure. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years looking into these , and over the course of my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of disturbing game overs:

A. Things are exceptionally grim, and only the power of a continue can stave off this impending doom! You will continue, right? You don’t want this horrible thing to happen, right?

B. YOU DONE FUCKED UP BUDDY, NOW DEAL WITH IT

Both of these are fascinating in their own way, but as a fan of old arcade games, A is particularly interesting. Arcade games are about spending money for play time, and the end goal for the operator is to maximize profits, so keeping play time down (so other folks can spend money for a turn on the machine) is an ideal. Continues might seem opposed to this concept, but they actually play right into it: You’d get more time-for-money-spent value if you started the game over than you would if you credit-fed, as difficulty tends to scale higher the further you get and credits usually last for shorter and shorter stretches of time. It’s why the one-credit clear is such a mark of pride among the biggest arcade: you’ve basically given “the man” trying to squeeze you for money the middle finger with your mad arcade game skillz.

So, in the interests of getting players to continue more, the devs began to put in continue screens that insinuate that a terrible fate awaits if you don’t put that next quarter/yencoin in. Some, like Blue’s Journey/Raguy by ADK, make a heartfelt emotional plea (and then call you names).

Others, meanwhile, place your character – or their loved ones – in more immediate danger. Won’t you spare a quarter to save our heroes from their doom?

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Interview: Hisayoshi Ogura of Ogura Hisayoshi Ongaseisakushow and Taito/ZUNTATA

(日本語版はここです。) La traduction française est ici.

One of the biggest names in classic game music – and one that persists to this day – is Taito’s house band/music production arm, Zuntata. Among the many storied composers who have worked for Zuntata over the decades is Hisayoshi Ogura, known to fans of the group as OGR. Ogura and his avant-garde game music was crucial in establishing Zuntata as one of the pioneers of arcade sound design with soundtracks like the Darius series, Ninja Warriors, The Legend of Kage, and Galactic Storm.

I’ve been a huge fan of Ogura’s work for a very long time, and I’m elated to finally have the opportunity to talk with him about his amazing body of work and present it to readers. Ogura’s compositions don’t get quite as much admiration in North America as they do in Japan and Europe, and I hope by bringing awareness to his work through this interview that more people will listen to his amazing classic game music. (To that end, I’ve included links to iTunes and Amazon music stores in places to help facilitate the acquisition of soundtracks he’s worked on!)

Very special thanks to Zekuu for helping to arrange this interview, along with Jason Moses and Feelwright and Co. for helping with translation/editing.

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