Before They Were Famous
Early Games: Girl’s Garden
Claim to fame: Sonic The Hedgehog
Yuji Naka learned programming by typing up magazine listings for games. Upon finding errors, he would try to correct them himself and soon began studying Assembler in his free time. “A lot of people draw cartoons in their notebooks during classes, but I was writing code.” Later, joining Sega, his very first game was a rather odd title called Girl’s Garden for the precursor to the Master System. “One of my colleagues and I made it as part of our so-called rookie training. We were trying to find out the limits of expression on the SG-1000. However, all of a sudden, our boss decided to put it on the market so we had to finish it. The game was kind of cute, in which a girl named Papuri had to pick flowers and bring them to this boy named Mint. I wanted girls to play this game.”
On how he sees it now, Naka spoke fondly of his first creation. “I feel that a lot of things were considered thoroughly, and the concept in itself is pretty organised for my first game. Though I say it myself, I think it was a pretty good game. We were also fortunate that they turned our ideas into a product.” Actually playing it, Girl’s Garden comes across almost as a bizarre and jerky Pac-Man clone, with flowers replacing the pellets, two bears replacing the ghosts, and blue pots of honey as pseudo power pills.
Claim to Fame
Although he worked on other titles, it was the ball-of-blue-spikes that propelled him to international fame. Evaluating it now, Naka admits to being a little biased: “It’s a game that has a special place in my heart, so I can’t really find any flaws in it. I filled the game with the last drop of my idea, so I was pretty confident about it. I mean, I had this confidence that it would sell well both in the US and in Europe. In fact, it was just as I had imagined.”
Early Games: Penguin Adventure (MSX)
Claim to fame: Metal Gear series
Kojima dreamed of making films, but got into games because he thought they could better satisfy him. He wasn’t happy in the early days: “It was really disappointing because they assigned me to the MSX division. I had joined a company in the game industry, wanting to make Famicom or arcade games, and then I was assigned to MSX. Back then MSX had only 16 colours, and on top of that, if you excluded all the colours that were hard to use, such as pink or purple, you were left with only eight colours. I was desperate, wondering how on earth I could make games with that.” Regardless, his first game, Penguin Adventure, is still hailed as one of the best action titles on the system. It’s vastly superior to the prequel: some holes in the floor contain secret shops, there’s a tremendous amount of variety between levels, and there are even bosses. It is a truly excellent title that few seem to discuss.
Despite the praise of his early games, Kojima isn’t fond of his older work or the zealous passion of retro fans. He says: “What I like about making games is that they don’t survive. You can’t play old games as game machines are constantly changing. The Japanese proverb that says ‘you discard your shame when you travel’ is what games are to me. Games should remain in people’s minds and in history. That means that people forget about the games we make, which is good.”
Claim to Fame
“The company asked me to create a combat game. Actually, a senior associate had been in charge of it but he was stuck and I was asked to do it. You could not have more than four bullets with MSX, and that meant you could only have two to three enemies. You cannot make a combat game with that. So I came up with a game like The Great Escape where the prisoner had to escape. It was an idea born from adverse situations.”
Early Games: Game Freak (self-published fanzine), Quinty (aka: Mendel Palace)
Claim to fame: Pocket Monsters
Tajiri wrote for fanzine Game Freak before turning to home-brew development. “It became possible to see what was going on inside the Famicom when software for beginners called Family BASIC was released. When I understood its mechanism, I went to Akihabara to buy a multi-use circuit board, added the terminals from my Famicom, and ran my programs over it. That was our first step.” Quinty was published three years later.
Now he says: “It was punk. At that time Famicom games had restrictions based on hardware. I just wanted to go against the flow of time, and it was also a very stoic manner of trying to show them the kind of games we thought were fun.” He says most games only had two frames of animation: “I couldn’t forgive this type of animation that looked like a cheap picture-story.” His focus was on quality movements rather than flashy colours. “There weren’t games with such a concept. That is why I say it was punk.” The game is hugely fun even when emulated today, and Tajiri was right, the animation is painstakingly fluid.
Claim to Fame
Pokémon. He wanted to release Quinty in America but it was rejected for being too cute (despite later being published by Namco as Mendel Palace). “I started to ask myself what I really wanted to make. That became the roots of Pokémon. Thinking about ‘who I was’ brought me back [to my youth]. I wanted to create a game with all my memories, and that was the birth of Pokémon.”
Early Games: Detana!! Twinbee, Tokimeki Memorial
Claim to fame: Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night
Igarashi, or IGA, plays by his own rules. He told Gamasutra, “I joined Konami right after I graduated from college. I was going to enter a different company, but at the last minute I had a quarrel with the human resources department, and was fired before I even began. But I had a mentor at Konami, who really thought I should work there. I passed their application exam but I didn’t have enough university credits to work there full-time so I had to stay on for another year of school, working at Konami in a part-time capacity. After that, I became a full-time Konami employee. This was in the year Heisei 2, or 1990.”
His first project was never completed, “I entered Konami as a programmer, and worked on a simulation game under the education software department, that was never released. My first real product that came to market was Detana!! Twinbee for the PC Engine.” He later also worked on the successful Tokimeki Memorial. There’s no direct correlation between these and his famous works, but everyone starts somewhere (did you know, Jackie Chan starred in a softcore porno film?). IGA speaks nostalgically of these early days, saying to Next-Gen.biz: “Back in the good old days, we had smaller teams making games, so it was far less complex.”
Claim to Fame
Symphony Of The Night is arguably IGA’s greatest achievement. “Castlevania was a series I enjoyed before I started at Konami, so I’m really gratified that this series has been entrusted to me. As for how I took over the project: I was working on Tokimeki Memorial, and told my boss that I wouldn’t work on a sequel. Because the game was selling well at the time, my boss accepted my request for transfer. I asked to move to the Castlevania team.”
Early Games: Bomb Buenos Aires, Rox, Headbanger’s Heaven, Andes Attack
Claim to fame: Attack Of The Mutant Camels
Even before he was famous, the Yak courted controversy. His account, on Llamasoft.com, is very revealing. “If we were to call ourselves Llamasoft, we actually needed some software to sell, and so during the summer of 1982 I busied myself with the creation of what were to be the first Llamasoft games for the Vic-20. One of them was a simple 3D maze game, with redefined characters that put bricks on the maze walls along with occasional Pink Floyd hammers and the Llamasoft logo. Another was probably the most shameful thing in Llamasoft history, a joke that got out of hand.”
This was a clone of City Bomber, though as the Yak reveals, it was no ordinary clone. “At the time, there was conflict between Argentina and Britain over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands and… just for a joke, you see… I created a little graphic of a waving Argentinean flag and stuck that on top of the buildings in my city. And made the Vic play Rule Britannia when the plane landed successfully. And called the game Bomb Buenos Aires. It was all done in what was intended as a tongue-in-cheek manner. I thought that it might get us noticed – in a tasteless kind of a way – and indeed it did.”
The Daily Telegraph asked who wanted to release “thousands of tons of bombs on Buenos Aires.” The Press Complaints Commission stepped in, and Llamasoft issued an apology and changed the title.
Claim to Fame
Some may have expected to see Tempest 2000 here, but the Yakmeister achieved fame early in his career. Attack Of The Mutant Camels was an interesting shmup in which you had to obliterate endless waves of giant, attacking mutant camels. For our American readers, it’s worth noting that the Gridrunner sequel, called Matrix, was for some reason renamed Attack Of The Mutant Camels in the US.
Address Book, Star Trek hack, fortune-telling program, Tennis Game, Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken
Claim to fame: Dragon Quest series
Asking about Horii’s first proper game reveals he created Japan’s earliest adventure/RPG-style title. “I read an article in a PC magazine about a US genre called ‘adventure games’, which allowed players to read stories on their PCs. We still didn’t have them in Japan, and I took it upon myself to make one. That was how Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken came about. It was a program in which the story would develop through entering a command and by receiving an answer to it. It was exciting for me to imagine the reactions of the players playing with it.” It’s been described by the Japanese press as “a game without game over”, since there was technically no way to lose.
Starting on the PC-88 it was ported to multiple systems, including MSX and Famicom, but never made it out of Japan. Thanks to ROM-hacking group DvD Translations, the Famicom version can now be patched and enjoyed in English. Although simple, it shows its skill in the pacing, general flow of the investigation, and the writing (based on the fan translation, which is reportedly accurate).
Claim to Fame
Portopia’s console success led Horii to create Dragon Quest, which influenced Square and thereby the entire industry. So, having been involved with all the Dragon Quest games, which is his favourite? “It’s a tough question; I have a special feeling for each of them. You had to shift between reality and dreams in VI – although some thought that the story was confusing, this is actually my personal favourite.”
Super Billiards, Roller Ball, Hole In One Professional, Space Defence Force, Arcana
Claim to fame: Nintendo presidency, Wii launch
Satoru Iwata, the current president of Nintendo, started off as a game programmer – even doing it freelance during university for HAL Laboratories. After graduating, he was hired full-time by HAL. A quick check shows that he’s credited in several games as co-creator or programmer, like Super Billiards and Hole In One Professional, while for others like Roller Ball, Space Defence Force (NES), and Arcana (SNES) he’s listed only as a technical advisor. Regardless, his direct contribution is without question. It’s interesting to note that despite his senior managerial position, he’s actually a skilled and competent coder – it’s in stark contrast to other companies where senior people were trained in business practices while having no understanding of the game creation process. He became president of HAL Laboratories in 1993, after which he was obviously credited in every title the company made. He continued to directly work on several games – notably the Kirby series which he helped envision. Even today Iwata is said to aid in the creation of new Kirby titles
Claim to Fame
It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what Iwata’s claim to fame should be since he’s always had a presence. However, there’s no denying the gravitas of his appointment as president of Nintendo in 2002 – the first to take up the role without being related to a Yamauchi through blood or marriage. And of course he then ushered in the Wii console. From humble origins, Satoru Iwata gradually rose to great power.
Early Games: Co-founded Square, 3D WorldRunner, Rad Racer, JJ
Claim to fame:
Final Fantasy series
The original Square was co-founded by Sakaguchi in September 1983, along with Masafumi Miyamoto, though it wouldn’t become independent of parent company Denyuusha until 1986. In its early days, Square developed a lot of garbage such as Genesis: Beyond The Revelation and Cruise Chaser Blassty on NEC PC-88. The company even developed hentai. Googling for Square’s PC-88 title Alpha during office hours is not recommended.
Sakaguchi was responsible for some of the firm’s better titles. Three of his earliest games include 3D WorldRunner, Rad Racer and JJ – all for NES. Although not noticeable from these screenshots, WorldRunner and JJ are highly impressive 3D NES titles that mimic Space Harrier. They were also compatible with the system’s 3D goggles. Rad Racer was developed between these two, and for the time was a good racer again compatible with the goggles. Rad Racer was also made famous by the Nintendo World Championship, and the Fred Savage film The Wizard, where it was controlled by The Power Glove. Who knew at the time that the man behind these would take over the RPG world?
Claim to Fame
Regarding Japanese RPGs, Sakaguchi is second only to Yuji Horii. Although the creator of Final Fantasy was less involved after VI, there’s no denying that the series exists because of Sakaguchi. He told Famitsu: “In the beginning, I was the main planner, but when the production team increased, a director was needed so I took that role as well. Basically, I was responsible for the story and events, in other words the tale up to FFVI.”
Early Games: Capcom Quiz Hatena’s Adventure, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Goof Troop, Aladdin
Claim to fame: Resi Evil, DMC, Phoenix Wright
The history of Shinji Mikami is best accounted by the man himself in the book Another Side Of Biohazard. Roughly translated, he said on his days before RE: “After I started work in Capcom, I made a game for the Game Boy, a quiz-adventure. My boss told me to ‘Make it in one month’ but it took about three months to finish.
My second game, Roger Rabbit, only sold overseas so I didn’t get much respect within Capcom because the game didn’t sell in Japan. I had to create everything by myself. It took five months.
Next was a Formula One game. I really love racing so I was excited to make it, but it got cancelled about eight months later. That was my mistake: I wanted quality. I put a lot of pressure on the staff, who said ‘We can’t do it any more.’ I said ‘If you can’t do this I’ll cancel the whole project’, and it really got cancelled. I paid for that mistake; my next job was a port from an arcade game and I had only three months to do it because I had to finish quickly in order for the company to get its money back.
Afterwards it was Disney again, with Goof Troop. After Goofy was Aladdin, another Disney game. I made three Disney games and then finally Resident Evil. I think I appreciate Disney because my frustration gathered to create Resident Evil.”
Claim to Fame
“Mr Fujiwara called me one day and told me to make a horror game. And he wanted to use the system from the game Sweet Home. He told me to create ‘something worth seeing.’ When he said that, I thought ‘finally, my moment has come.’ In RE, even though the game system is the same as Sweet Home, there are few similarities, but I got a lot of ideas from it. Sweet Home didn’t sell well, but I still think that game was the masterpiece.
Early Games: Automaton puppets (not a game), Mario Open Golf, Marvelous: Mouhitotsu no Takarajima
Claim to fame: Zelda series from Ocarina Of Time
Aonuma on his early years: “I had a chance interview with Nintendo. I’d played arcade games on occasion so knew what videogames were. I went to the interview where I met with Shigeru Miyamoto. I showed him the automatons I’d created for my graduate work and got the job. Long after I joined Nintendo, I found out Miyamoto is a huge fan of puppetry.”
“In the beginning, I did graphic design, drawing dot-pictures for sprite-based games. I discovered that all the art I created over my first year – I drew the characters for Mario Open Golf on Famicom – finally went into a small stone-like thing: a cartridge ROM. I’ve always been very sensitive to the tactile sense in my creative world, so that was a culture shock for me. But I continued at Nintendo, deciding to give myself time to experience game development. Luckily, I was put in charge of directing the development of Marvelous, a SNES game released in Japan, which turned out to be a great experience.” He believes it was Marvelous that led to his move to the Zelda team. “Perhaps Mr Miyamoto thought that my vision – creating a multiplicity of small things to create an enormous thing, which I’d done during Marvelous – would be a perfect fit for Zelda.”
Claim to Fame
He started with Ocarina Of Time which is still his favourite. “I think that Ocarina Of Time was the most impressive title for me. My favourite bit was probably the Water Shrine. I love diving in the sea, and I thought I put plenty of diving puzzles in it. This made it a bit more difficult than most of the game, but it’s the bit that remains strongly in my mind.” And Aonuma’s views on his cel-shaded version of Link? “I like Link in that shape and I have no desire to stop producing games with cel-shaded Link.”
Early Games: Spitfire Ace, Solo Flight, Silent Service, Crusade In Europe,
Claim to fame: Sid Meier’s Pirates!
Meier began his career around 1982, and started off mainly creating flight-sims like Spitfire Ace and F15 Strike Eagle, before moving onto strategic military war games. He’s spoken openly in past interviews regarding these early days, “It was still a time when a couple of guys in a basement could duplicate their own disks, put them in plastic baggies with a four-page photocopied manual, and actually sell a product like that. It was a great learning experience. I think a lot of what makes me kind of able to keep doing games is the fact that I was there at the beginning and that I don’t have to play catch-up all the time. It’s kind of like I’ve been there since the start, so I’ve seen the evolution and have a bit of a sense of history and perspective.”
He also spoke about MicroPose, the company he co-founded with Bill Stealy: “We started off with, basically, me writing the games, and I had a couple of my friends doing conversions – we all had day jobs; this was kind of our hobby.” While he was undeniably successful during his early years, building a strong reputation within the industry with several games being highly acclaimed, it can be argued that he only truly became famous once his name started appearing in titles.
Claim to Fame
Meier explains Pirates!: “It was basically my reaction to the adventure/RPG games that I’d played. […] I thought ‘this is the way I’d like to see an adventure game done.’ Forget the points, the mathematics – just have an adventure. Go do things and wander around this world.” Pirates! was ported and updated for multiple computers and consoles, later being redone for PC, Xbox and PSP. We used an image from the update, but it’s our mag so deal with it.