2010/12/25 - Interview with a Wonder Boy - Michihito Ishizuka

Merry Christmas from the Layer! The interview I have prepared for your reading pleasure on this day of merrymaking comes from the Vol. 9, December, 2007 issue of Japanese "Ultimate Game Life Magazine" GameSide (which is sadly on a current publishing hiatus). Who's the man of the hour, you ask? Why, Michihito Ishizuka, the programmer of the arcade classic "Wonder Boy" and co-founder of Westone, of course! Here he discusses his humble beginnings at Tehkan (the company currently known as TECMO, for those of you who don't know), the founding of Westone and development of Wonder Boy, and his current job at Matrix software. Notes are in parentheticals when necessary and I've provided a few Wikipedia links to some of the lesser-known games mentioned here. Enjoy, and have a wonderful day whatever you celebrate!

Ask a Game Developer!

Michihito Ishizuka

After handling the development of “Swimmer” and “Tehkan World Cup” at Tehkan Ltd. (currently known as TECMO), he helped found Westone, and there developed several popular series such as “Wonder Boy” and “Wonder Boy in Monster Land”. Currently he works as head of technological development in the consumer operations department at Matrix Software.

Scouted Out of Nowhere While Playing at an Arcade!

GameSide: First, can you tell us about how you got your start as a game developer?

Michihito Ishizuka: When I was seventeen, I was playing "Pleiads" at a location test in an arcade operated directly under Tehkan in Kinshicho (NOTE: a city located in Sumida-ku, Tokyo) when I happened to meet someone who was working for Tehkan directly at the time. Over the course of having several discussions about games, he asked me, “How about dropping by the company sometime?” When I went there, I was shocked when they suddenly started discussing what my salary would be! I’d always thought that I’d like to try working as a game developer for some time before then anyways, so I decided then and there that I’d enter the company.

You mean you entered the company just through meeting someone at an arcade?!

Yeah. Actually, it was the current Chairman of the Board at Atlus, Naoya Harano, that invited me. He was just a section manager at Tehkan in those days, but after that he continued to help me in so many ways. Even now he’s like a father to me.

Where did you learn the necessary skills (like programming and so on) for game development?

I taught myself assembly language when I was in high school. I was in the physics club at school, and I studied while messing around with the computers we had there like the TK-80 and Apple II.

How large was the development staff at Tehkan in those days?

Actually, at the time in which I had just entered the company, we didn’t have anything that could be called a “development staff,” and at first it consisted of just me and then two other people in charge of hardware design (laughs). Later, we thought of designs for games with assistance from design staff in other departments, and the first game we made based on the ideas of those designers was “Swimmer.”

Which aspects of the development of Swimmer were you directly responsible for?

The creation and programming of the sound driver and sound effects.

How long did it take to produce?

I think it took about seven or eight months. In the middle of development, Mr. Ryuichi Nishizawa- the man who would later go on to found Westone with me- joined the development staff and did all the music for Swimmer. Actually, Mr. Nishizawa and I had already known each other previously as we were classmates in junior high school, and in fact I was the one who invited him to join Tehkan.

After getting a “game over”, there’s a roulette game where you can get an extra credit if you win. Could you tell us who came up with the idea?

I think the idea probably came from Mr. Kazutoshi Ueda (NOTE: Developed/designed “Mr. Do!” and later was one of the founding members of Atlus, where he helped program several games in the Megami Tensei series). He transferred from Universal to Tehkan while Swimmer was still in development, and he really helped us out in a lot of ways. He’s a really great guy, and when it comes to writing design mock-ups for games, I’ve yet to meet anyone who could do it as well as him!

The Unlikely Origins of the Timeless Classic, “Tehkan World Cup”

What kind of games did you make after finishing “Swimmer?”

Among other things, "Guzzler" and "Senjyo." In Senjyo I handled the designs pertaining to the moving characters like the cannon towers and enemy units.

Did you have a hand in the development of any other games at that time?

I made the sound driver for "Bomb Jack" as well. I did something a little mischievous with the hardware and made all the sounds in the game really funny-sounding, but this was actually well-received so I continued to use it in our next game, "Gridiron Fight."

The background graphics in Bomb Jack and Gridiron Fight were really nice!

There were a few female staff members that did the graphic design, and in fact one of them was my wife! (laughs) She also did the background graphics for Senjyo and "Tehkan World Cup."

From what you’ve said, it sounds like you did a lot of work on sound drivers…

At the time I had entered the company, having the sound driver created by someone else outside the company was expensive, so the start of this was when the company president told me that we could make it cheaper by doing it ourselves, and so that’s probably why following this I ended up being in charge of [sound-driver development] several more times.

As for me, in order to develop the games I wanted to make, I was doing hardware design by myself as well. I really wanted to make a shooting game, and was actually developing hardware I had thought up to that end, but none of the proposed designs for shooting games ever made it through, and I kept being made to work on other projects (bitter laugh). Specifically, I ended up being in charge of a lot of sports games, and did the programming for Gridiron Fight and Tehkan World Cup by myself. The hardware we used for Gridiron Fight was the one I had originally designed for shooting games, so I was told “You designed the hardware, you make the game!” And thus, I was put in charge of it.

The idea to use a trackball to fight in “Tehkan World Cup” was excellent. I have memories of getting blisters on my fingers and playing with my friends until my hands were messed up!

Yeah, that’s what everyone says when I tell them that I was the programmer (laughs).

The project started because the staff that designed the game love soccer, but actually it was also an idea for making adjustments to the PCBs and cabinets we made for Gridiron Fight. Gridiron Fight was an American football game and so the rules were pretty complicated, so we conceived the game design for our soccer game to be simple and easy to play.

And here again, the groovy music in the game that adds to the excitement was excellent.

The hardware in Tehkan World Cup used a dedicated integrated circuit for the sound, and as in current times part of the sound effects are made using chips for speech synthesis. The music in the game also uses the same integrated circuit for the sound to play the rhythm parts, so I think the percussion sounds pretty realistic and cool. Mr. Masuko (NOTE: Tsukasa Masuko, a game music composer who is best known for his work on the Megami Tensei series and worked for Atlus at the beginning of the company’s inception) did the music if I remember correctly.

The Founding of WESTONE and the Legend of “Wonder Boy”’s Creation

Why did you decide to found Westone after leaving Tehkan?

Because Mr. Nishizawa invited me, saying that he wanted to work independently. Mr. Kakihara (NOTE: Yoshihito Kakihara, founder of Tehkan/Tecmo) thankfully looked favorably upon our decision.

At the time the company was founded, what was the total number of staff?

We started as a three-person group consisting of myself and Mr. Nishizawa, and then additionally we had a female designer. The three of us made Wonder Boy in it’s entirety by ourselves. Incidentally, the company name “Westone” was made by taking the “West” in Mr. Nishizawa’s last name and combining it with the “Stone” in my last name. (NOTE: The “Nishi” in “Nishizawa” means “west” in English, and the “Ishi” in “Ishizuka” means “stone,” hence the name “Westone”.)

When we first founded the company, in order to save money we rented the custodian’s room in the building and not an office. We were told by the owner that we could rent the custodian’s room free of charge, but in return we would be expected to help with maintenance duties. So in addition to our main job at the company, Mr. Nishizawa and I would stay the night at the building and work alternating shifts doing our maintenance duties (laughs). That was how we lived until we completed "Wonder Boy."

Sega served as the publisher for Wonder Boy, but why wasn’t it published by your old company, Tehkan?

It was because I was introduced to Sega through an acquaintance that was handling the business end of things for me. At the beginning of development, our way of doing things was to sell our creations by ourselves instead of farming them out, so as long as we could sell it any company would have been fine.

How long did the project take to complete?

About eight months. Mr. Nishizawa and I made it together by dividing up the responsibility for every other stage, but on the condition that you could start from right where you died if you died in the middle of the stage. The method we used was that one of us would play the other’s stage and if we could clear it with no problems then we knew it was okay.

The game that came afterwards, “Wonder Boy in Monster Land”, was a very innovative title that added in cutscenes like those found in home console RPGs despite being an arcade game. Where did the idea come from?

I this is probably because of parts in the game that were the result of Mr. Nishizawa having been inspired by “Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link”. Even thinking about it now, I feel like I myself was really influenced by games like “Wizardry” and “Dragon Quest”.

Where did the idea for the now-famous gold increasing trick come from? (NOTE: This method involved either moving the joystick left and right or using your sword and magic spells at the instant in which a hidden gold coin is discovered in the game to get a larger than normal sum of gold from collecting it.)

Uh, that’s actually just a bug! (laughs) After the game went on sale I saw some skilled players getting more and more gold and was really surprised. It was a really frustrating and unexpected situation.

In those days I don’t think FM synth was yet used for the music, so how did you get such beautiful sounds out of the hardware?

If you use MML the sound becomes rather inexpressive, so I was able to get that tone out of it by developing a system would automatically convert the tone found in over-the-counter synths and that could play sounds which produced natural sounding reverb. Doing this has become commonplace now, but in those days we didn’t have such a system.

After that game, you still continued to produce many titles in the “Wonder Boy” and “Monster World” series, right?

Yes. As for the third game in the series, “Monster Lair”, I didn’t have much to do with that one but I really enjoyed making all the games in the in the “Monster Land” series, and even now it’s a work that is very dear to me.

I Want to Continue My Job as if it Were My Life’s Work

What kind of work do you do at your current employer, Matrix Software?

Generally I handle the development of titles for the Wii and Nintendo DS, but I also develop content for mobile phones and other such things. I’m able to do all kinds of things at my current company.

If you have any ideas for games or content that you would love to make in the future, please tell us as much as you are allowed to about them!

Whether it’s on the PS3 or Xbox 360, if I ever have the chance to get my hands on it I’m always thinking that I’d like to develop for all kinds of hardware. This will be my 27th year since I first started doing this kind of job, but I’m aiming to make this my life’s work, so I want to continue to take on the challenge of developing games for new consoles. It’s true that I’ve always been the type who likes new things, but I have confidence that I’m (technologically) more well-adapted to working with new hardware than young people. Actually, up until now, whenever new technology or hardware comes out I’ve always risen to the challenge, and even now it isn’t difficult for me to develop 3D CG that uses polygons, or software that makes use of new types of gadgetry such as the Wii.

Now then, if you could please give a message to all our readers out there!

This will be more aimed at people aiming to become developers themselves then to the readers, but if there’s anyone out there who’s thinking they want to try making games or other such things, I hope you’ll aim to work at Matrix someday!

Thank you very much for your time.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Thanks for this piece of information on that wonderful game development era! It may sound crazy, but for me it's important to have official proof that Rie Yatomi (the gfx designer for Bombjack) and Rie Ishizuka are the same person - and from Ishizuka-san's voice! Thank you very much, it's a pity you stopped this wonderful tranlsation work (or maybe you're doing it somewhere else?)