Atomic Robo Kid Special/アトミックロボキッド (PCE) - UPL 1990/1/19
It was Atomic Robo Kid that first brought UPL to my attention. I’d heard of the title either through the MD version (outsourced development and by all accounts, lacklustre) or a review of the PCE version in C&VG and was enthalled by the cute, yet steampunk-esque main character. Needless to say, it went on my wanted list and when I found an importer with stock, I promptly picked it up and enjoyed it thoroughly. YouTube
The game is not without faults: the difficulty can be unforgiving at times, but the variety of enemies, each bursting with as much personality as a robot can have, huge bosses and AI-controlled battles with rival robo-kids kept me coming back until it was finished. The system is easy to pick up, part in thanks to its arcade roots (re-arranged exclusively for the PCE), but also thanks to game design by the gifted Tsutomu Fujisawa.
Before the internet, information on import games was sparse and I relied on magazines (mainly C&VG/Mean Machines) and the various UK-based importers 1, with word of mouth via a few trusted friends. This given, brand was a major decision maker for me, especially as with the PC Engine many games were never reviewed or even mentioned, so track record was often key to my purchase decisions. Having enjoyed Robo Kid so much, it was only logical to buy Gomola Speed when it came out.
Gomola Speed/ゴモラスピード (PCE) - UPL 1990/09/28
UPL didn’t let me down; the first page of the manual suggests foregoing reading it and instead diving straight in [see photo above]. Not blessed with the ability to read this, or indeed anything else Japanese at the time, I leafed through, admiring the Fujisawa character designs and promptly booted the game. It was another UPL hit: simple to grasp gameplay, classic cute bio-mechanical art with Mechano Associates 2 penned tunes to accompany the arcade action. You take control of a mechanical snake head in its quest to rejoin with its bodyparts, scattered through a series of mazes. Various enemies block your path, but can be disposed of by stunning them with a bomb, then encircling them with your body. They weren’t joking when they said it was simple. YouTube
Bioship Paladin/宇宙戦艦ゴモラ (MD) - UPL 1991/9/30
My final sojourn into UPL’s game catalog came on the Megadrive. It was my brother’s console, so I’m not sure how he came to purchase Space Battleship Gomola/Bioship Paladin, but I have a feeling we went halves on it. Or perhaps I just persuaded him, based on the previous two titles. ARK and GS are uniquely personal experiences due to their single player nature, but SBG offered simultaneous 2 player coop play, so my memories center on completing it one Christmas Eve with my brother.
A side scrolling shooter, SBG has the player piloting a bio ship which grows larger with each power up, making dodging enemy fire and ships increasingly difficult. It also sports a cross hair targeted weapon though, which can destroy bullets and target specific enemies and evens the odds. This is where the 2 player comes into its own: aside from the normal 2 ships on screen, a second mode is offered where player 1 controls the ship and 2 handles the crosshair; it’s here that the game came alive as a coop shooting game. Battling against hordes of alien ships and bosses in a single ship is a unique experience and one which I recommend trying. Unfortunately, this was to be UPL’s last foray into the home market. YouTube
UPL 198? ~ March 1992
Which brings us to the crux of this article; UPL the company. Or more importantly their most prolific game designer; Tsutomu Fujisawa. UPL were founded as a subsidiary of Universal Entertainment (currently Aruze), a major Japanese manufacturer of Pachinko and Slot machines. Originally called Universal Play Land; the name was changed to UPL in 1984. They were based in Oyama, Tochigi-ken, but the UPL we are interested was a sales office for that company, located in Tokyo. They apparently handled game development, while their HQ worked on Pachinko and other machines (crane games etc). They went bankrupt in 1992.
They were primarily an arcade game developer, and though many of their titles were ported to the Famicom, this was usually through a third party (NMK, Teichiku, Treco etc). Only Robo Kid and Gomola Speed were created in house. But what many of their games shared was a distinctive character design and pallete which began with Mutant Night and became strikingly apparent with Atomic Robo-Kid. This style was carried over to Gomola Speed and Bioship, and it’s this style that I fell for.
His trademark was like a Geiger and Fukio Mitsuji collaboration with some steam punk thrown in. It features recurring characters too; the most common being Mutron-kun, the star of Mutant Night, but Ninja-kun from Ninja Kid turns up too, as does a Bub/Bob-esque dinosaur. When I got involved in the games industry in Japan, one of the first people I wanted to meet was Fujisawa, so you can imagine the shock I felt when I learnt he had passed away. He had lived just 38 short years.
I’ve been meaning to write something about him since I learnt of his passing nearly 10 years ago, so it’s fitting that now, with a bigger project in mind, it’s with an ode to him that I begin my writing with in earnest. In his 7 years at UPL, he worked on at least 13 titles, the earlier ones he was programmer, designer and artist rolled into one. He even created the sound at times. And yet, in the English speaking world, he is virtually unknown. When mentioned, it is only in brief, and no note is given to his passing away.
The Japanese industry lost some of their most prolific stars in the 90s at very young ages; Mitsuji, Hirasawa, Mori and Fujisawa to name but a few, and it’s only fitting that with an opportunity to bring their work, and hopefully their influence to light I do just that.
To be continued…
Slapstick Challenge Book/スラップスティック公式チャレンジブック Enix 1994/8/8
Takemoto Reiko (T)1
Game design & scenario.
She created the world of Slapstick through her constant selfishness (great ideas?!) which threw the team into constant turmoil!
Kita Shigemi (K)2
A craftsman of a programmer who works in silence and with great speed. Rumoured to be a robot for his ability to work for 20 hours a day.
President of Quintent, Inc.
As supervisor for Slapstick, he kept his eye on the staff, making sure they didn’t go too overboard.
Message from the Developers
The game is finally complete,so let me jump straight in and ask you what you all worked on.
T) I was responsible for game design and scenario.
K) I handled the programming
How long did development take?
T) It’s been 3 years since we came up with the original concept, but actual development time was more like one and a half years.
The core concept of the hero being an inventor is very interesting; where did the inspiration for it come from?
T) The idea was born from the desire to make a game where the player created something and then went on to nurture it. This in turn led to the inventor/robot idea. The original system was actually based on the concept that the hero would invent robots with varied abilities and these robots would then help the townspeople with their daily lives. The player would then gain experience based on how the people rated the help they received. The idea that the town would be saved by an army of bad guys4 from this original concept was expanded upon and eventually became the game you see now.
I see. Where did you struggle the most in development?
T) Not being able to think of any compelling ideas for the scenario and the development dragging on (I think I gained a few grey hairs).
K) This was the first time I developed a game so pretty much everything was tough going. Rethinking the battle system several times meant having to re-code it each time so that was the biggest struggle.
OK, so how about the most enjoyable part?
T) That would be the mini events. I slipped them in while the other members weren’t looking! That was definitely the most fun.
K) For me it would be the coding the command program, which was used to generate events and algorithms, because it was comparatively easy to write.
Despite the hardships, is there anything in particular you want the player to see: a certain message or event?
T) I’m quite fond of the event that takes you to Rococo in the past so I’d like players to look out for the subtle changes that occur when they return to the present after their trip. Also, be on the look out for a certain place that can only be accessed with the Cyberjack5.
K) Please search for Robot K6 (the invisibility isn’t a bug!).
Is there anything you’d like to say to the players in parting?
T) I’m confident that every player will be able to find their own way to enjoy the game; from the setting of special attacks to combining items. I hope you enjoy becoming a resident of Rococo Town and have fun with the various ways the game can be played in.
K) Some of the weapons come with a special effect, so please use them wisely. Also, some of the robots’ battle commands are very effective so please have fun experimenting with combinations of the two.
Translated from pages 110-111.
Middle row, first from left. ↩
Front row, second from left. ↩
Middle row, second from left. ↩
The Hackers are modelled after the Shockers from Kamen Rider/Masked Rider, where they are often referred to as 悪の軍団 / an army of bad guys/evil; it’s possible the original concept had them as the hero’s allies. ↩
In reference to the developer’s room which can be accessed via your father’s computer. ↩
Slapstick/スラップスティック (SFC) - Enix 1994/07/08
Often overshadowed by Quintet’s ‘Soul trilogy’1, Slapstick, or Robotrek as it was know in North America, is a quirky RPG which is not without its flaws. Certainly, when compared to the high standard set by the above mentioned titles, or Actraiser, Slapstick falls short in several areas. The combat tends to be drawn out and for the NA release, the localisation was lacking in quality.
However, for a JRPG with such a small world map, the number of secrets, hidden surprises and attention to detail crammed into this game push it into the upper echelons of SFC gaming and certainly make it worth a look for Quintet fans.
The key staff here are Reiko Takebayashi (scenario & game design) and Shigemi Kita (main programmer). For the latter, this was his first experience at game development, but the former was ex-Falcom, and had worked as a scenario writer on several titles there before joining her colleagues at Quintet. Both would go on to work together on Tenchi Souzou/Terranigma before leaving Quintet, and it is interesting to note the thematic similarities at work here, and indeed in many of Quintet’s SFC titles.
It should also be noted that the anime 発明ボイカニパン/Inventor Boy Kanipan shares many similarities with Slapstick and both the PS1 and Saturn versions share key staff with Slapstick, which may explain the link.
It’s also worth touching on the score by Ayako Yoda, produced, as one would expect, by Ancient’s Yuzo Koshiro. In fitting with the game’s tone and title, the score is suitably comedic and although the track titles were dumbed down for the English release, the music retains its quality. Yoda seems to have only worked on a handful of games, all with Koshiro, before departing Japan to work as a classical musician.
Soulblazer, Legend of Gaia, Terranigma. Linked more in theme than any actual ongoing story elements. ↩
All About Shin Samurai Spirits ALL ABOUT新サムライスピリッツ下巻
Denpa Shinbunsha 1995/2/25
Page 29-30 - Kuroko’s official background story
Two men stand, facing one another.
The first, with dishevelled hair, focusses on his opponent, his sword his sword in the overhead position. The other, dressed like a Zen priest, holding a blade that has drawn the blood of many an adversary.
Between them stands a man garbed in black. Despite the air of menace present, he calmly looks at both their faces before tightly grasping his red and white flags.
"Let the the first bout…"
Crossing his two flags overhead, he takes a small vertical jump and swings them down simultaneously upon landing.
With a shout, the man with the dishevelled hair swings his sword with all his might.
I see his style is unchanged; simple and to the point
Kakiiin! A crisp noise rings out as the attack is repelled.
The setting sun reflects off the blade, giving off a brief flash of light.
The man in Zen priest get up is on the offensive now; his blade slices through the air towards his foe.
The dishevelled man steps aside at the last moment.
Few men could dodge an attack from that stance. I should expect no less of Haohmaru. Which reminds me, I wonder how Nicotine is?
Kakiin! Kan! Zing! Crang!
Again the two blades clash, sparks fill the evening air and are this time accompanied by freshly spilt blood from the two combatants.
The white flag shoots up once, followed by the red, twice.
Even while deep in thought, the black-garbed man’s arms move, almost with a life of their own.
Both men are highly skilled; watching them…
It’s been some time since I’ve felt the urge to fight myself
The dishevelled man strikes, once again putting his full weight behind it. The Zen priest steps aside just in time, almost as if he knew the attack was coming, and swings his own blade down, pommel first, at his foe.
Blood jets from the dishevelled man, as if it were a wild animal trying to escape it’s captivity.
He left his guard open. It appears as if this duel is at an end.
The red flag goes up.
Haohmaru crouches in pain; his hand over the open wound and the man in the Zen priest get up raises his sword and moves in for the kill.
An opening presents itself.
The high pitched scream of blade on blade wails out and is accompanied by a blinding white flash. Hoahmaru seeing the opening, deflects the Zen priest styled man’s death blow.
What on earth?!
Haohmaru’s blade draws a smooth arc and with it unleashes a single, deadly blow. The man in Zen priest garb takes the full brunt and is sent flying backwards to lie limply on the floor.
The white flag shoots up.
Only Haohmaru could take advantage of an opening that fleeting
Bringing both flags down to his waist, the man in black throws a handful of confetti once, then twice and feels his emotions reach boiling point.
The man senses his grip on the flags tightening.
It seems I am not suited to merely judging these duels
A smile crosses the man’s lips.
Now I know what must be done
In one swift and silent move, the man in back darts in front of the parting Haohmaru and, looking gleefully into his confused eyes, says the words he has been unable to utter until now:
"So very talented, I’m impressed. Please, allow me the pleasure of a match with you".
NB: Although the English versions don’t translate it, Kuroko’s pre/post match lines are all references to medicine/operations, and it is hinted at he is a doctor of some form.
All About Shin Samurai Spirits ALL ABOUT新サムライスピリッツ下巻
Denpa Shinbunsha 1995/2/25
The main reason for hunting down this two decade old strategy guide was for research on the book I’m currently writing. Specifically, the interview with the development team and the background information, including rough sketches, of the new characters introduced in this sequel to one of my favourite SNK games; Samurai Spirits.
Shin Samurai Spirits is the follow-up to SNK’s 1993 arcade hit, Samurai Spirits, going into circulation a mere year after the first instalment’s release. In western markets, it is known as Samurai Showdown 2, making the sequel aspect clear, but the Japanese naming Shin, or True, shows the thinking behind the game’s development and what they were hoping to achieve here.
In fact, as mentioned in the guide’s interview, the team’s aim was to include more ‘entertainment’ in an effort to expand the user base past the core fans that had made the first game a minor success.
So what were these entertainment aspects then? Well, there were three main elements; firstly a high profile TV advert with two big-name Japanese stars. Next up were product tie ups such as the inclusion of a super deformation move for every character, turning them into a likeness of the key links offered in SNK’s Neo Carnival machines at the time, and Haohmaru and Nakoruru’s super moves, which were an a tie-up to the TV anime (the instructions for Haohmaru’s being hidden in the anime!). This marketing backup was vital to SSS as the prequel only received a publicity push from SNK post launch, probably as it was not considered likely to take off.
However, it is the third element that holds most interest; that of the theme of parody. This theme was carried over from one of the team’s previous titles: Nam 1975, the Cabal-esque game ripe with Vietnam film references, and SSS is much the same. From Genan’s background to Ukyo’s ending, it is clear the director likes his cinema, but if there is one single focal point for this playful desire to entertain, it is surely Kuroko.
The Kuroko character design itself is a direct reference to the stagehands in Japanese Kabuki theatre who are ‘invisible’ thanks to their all-black garb. Their role in the SS series reflects this; match judges who allow the combatants to take centre stage, silently removing defeated warriors post battle. However one of them hides a past linked to Nicotine and his demon-hunting days.
Appearing as a bonus match, similar to, and likely inspired by the earlier appearance of Gouki/Akuma in SSFII Turbo, and later as a playable character in the Neo Geo CD port, Kuroko is sure to bring a smile to any SNK fan’s face. His base animations are taken from Tung Fu Rue and his AC taunt from Ryo Sakazaki and the BD taunt being Mai Shiranui’s, but the actual move list reads like a who’s who of SNK games; from Junbei Yamada’s Senbei Shuriken to Terry Bogard’s Power Wave, John Crawley’s Mega Smash and Cheng Sinzan’s Bakuretsu Hou, and even Krauser’s Blitz Ball (Garou Densetsu 2) and more. The one move not taken from other characters is the Bean Ball; a homage to the horror film Phantasm. Which leads us back to cinema references and Kuroko’s stage with it’s prominent plaque reading “REDRUM”; directly lifted from The Shining. The director suggests that there are “numerous other references” to be picked up from this stage, but apart from the excerpts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead I have yet to come across any.
When we return to this book, we will have a look at Kuroko’s background story and character.
Being as today marks the 30th anniversary of the NES/Famicom’s Japanese launch, I thought I would provide a little background information courtesy of an interview with Uemura Masayuki, formerly of Nintendo.
Uemura and Takeda Genyo (the father of battery backup saving no less!), were sent to the CES (‘80 or ‘82?) under the auspices of a general technology sight-seeing mission. It was some time later, when Yamauchi ordered him, out of the blue, to begin development of a “machine that would play arcade games on a home TV”, that he realised the CES was actually a research mission.
Nintendo had already made its first foray into the home gaming market with the 1977 released Terebi Game or Color TV Game, as it was known in the West. However, it wasn’t until the 1981 release of Donkey Kong that they would find real success, and this is likely what inspired Yamauchi’s request to Uemura and it was this very game which would be their benchmark in developing the Famicom.
Developing a machine of that calibre for home use would require designing a chip set which was up to the job, and Nintendo being Nintendo, didn’t want to follow the pack so Uemura needed to create a new chip set. His first thought, being a former Sharp employee, was to ask his old company, but Yamauchi forbade him (likely in order to keep Sharp focussed on the then successful Game & Watch line).
Unable to find another firm able to help out, Uemura was at a loss; could this be the end for the Famicom? Of course not! Fate came a knocking in the form of Ricoh, who had developed some “cutting edge tech you may want to see”. Uemura made his way over to there only to be greeted by the team that built the Color TV Game; they had joined Ricoh from Systech or Mitsubishi (likely the former, as it went bankrupt part way through development of the CTV).
A year later and the epoch making creation of the CPU RP2A03 and PPU 2CO2 was realised and Donkey Kong could finally be played at home! The rest, as they say, is history.
As a side note, it seems that NDAs and corporate secrets were not quite the same in the Japan of the 80s and Uemura’s son had told all his friends about what his Dad’s job was (well, you would, wouldn’t you?). This resulted in Uemura being called on to do house-calls to repair Famicoms in his neighbourhood. What a great bloke!
Dual Orb II/デュアルオーブII (SFC) - I’Max 1994/12/29
Dual Orb II is the second, and final, part of duo of RPGs both released on the Super Famicom and neither seeing official English release. Whereas the first was a bog-standard Dragon Quest type with some solid music being among its saving graces, the second is much better at endearing itself to users.
Though not by much.
The music is still good, but very limited in scope; the battle theme is the *only* tune for battles in the game, so get used to it.
As for the game, it has a clichéd, but not unenjoyable plot and a penchant for quarter view battles, a la Breath of Fire. It also shares that title’s excessive encounter rate. What it doesn’t share is its Capcom cousin’s menagerie of foes; the beasts you will encounter are few in number, but they do make up for this by being large and nicely animated.
Away from the main game, the shop features archaic controls, forcing you to buy each item individually, which is painful when stocking up on healing potions for dungeon delving. And then there’s the odd, game-breaking inclusion of a Sokoban-style puzzle mid-way through which blocks progress. It had me perplexed for several years until my dad solved it in a matter of minutes (cue smug grin).
Having said all that, the game holds a special place for me; the music, though limited, is great, and much it should be with an ex-Sunsoft member of Harada Nobuyuki's stature on board. And the graphics, particularly the aforementioned battle scenes, hold a unique charm.
Of course, upon finishing this game (which took around 5 years thanks to that puzzle), my interest switched to who developed it. No pseudonyms, but it took some time to discover that Kitaichi Koizumi, the director, is none other than the founder of Prism Kikaku, who took an all-star dev team (Batman, Blaster Master, Gremlins 2 etc) from Sunsoft when he set up shop. With the staff on hand, it makes one wonder whether Dual Orb II wasn’t underfunded/developed on a tight schedule and thus unable to reach its true potential.
Whatever the reasons, the developer would change their name shortly after the game’s release to Nippon Ichi and given the timing, it is likely this was their final game as Prism.
PS the fact that the assistant director is none other than Kotani Hiroyuki of Patapon fame, is just icing on this little-known cake.
Super Fire Pro/スーパーファイヤープロレスリング (SFC) - 1991/12/20
The Fire Pro Wrestling series, of which Super Fire Pro is the inaugural SFC version, is very close to my heart and also historically significant in many ways.
Firstly, Fire Pro Wrestling - Combination Tag represents the first game published by Human Entertainment, in 1989 on the PC Engine, beginning a legacy which would span 10 years and start the careers of many well known Japanese game industry alumni. But it doesn’t end there; Human, or rather Masuda Masato at TRY Co., Ltd, were the developers behind Nintendo’s Pro Wrestling; the second wrestling game on the NES; one of the most popular games in the series at the time.
The Fire Pro series was also rich on industry first features; introducing a control method centred on timed presses rather than button mashing, bringing skill to the forefront over luck. Another innovative feature for 1989 was that of wrestlers getting cut after being hit with certain moves; something that WWF fans like myself could not get enough of. Then, of course, there was the referees who would get knocked out on occasion, allowing players to cheat however they liked in the interim, the commentators who reacted to the action and a camera man too. Add to this 4 player being a standard thanks to the PCE multitap and you had a sure fire winner.
The series went on to spawn 15 iterations across the PCE, SFC, MD, SS and PS1, with modem play being introduced via X-band on the SFC, and even Dreamcast and PS2 releases via Spike following Human’s bankruptcy in 1999. The series has in fact spanned over 15 years up to Fire Pro Returns on the PS2.
The book in the background of the photo above is written by none other than the creator of this classic series; Masuda Masato, who went on to be a lecturer on game design at Human Creative School and whose current status, post school closure, is unknown.
Momotaro Densetsu Turbo/桃太郎伝説ターボー (PCE) - Hudson 1992/10/1
My first JRPG and the closest I ever came to playing Dragon Quest, which as it turns out, would have been a similar experience considering Sakuma Akira, director of the Momotaro series was shown how to put an RPG together by his friend Horii Yuji, the creator of the DQ franchise. Furthermore, it appears the battle system was lifted from DQ too!
I ended up with this gem having purchased Momotaro Katsugeki (PCE) from the same importer (Console Concepts?) a few months prior. I called them up, as we did in the days before Google reigned supreme, to check the new releases only to learn of a new Peach Boy game in stock. I’d fallen in love with Doi Takayuki’s depiction of Momotaro and his three animal companions in Katsugeki, so this was a done deal.
When it arrived, I recall opening the box to find the manual was a giant fold out affair, packed with Doi’s wonderfully vibrant, colourful illustrations so couldn’t wait to get stuck into the game (I’d already finished Katsugeki at this point). I really enjoyed my first jaunt with a JRPG, despite the language barrier necessitating trial and error for everything from menu usage to combat.
I enjoyed it that is, until I needed to save…
Try that with zero ability in Japanese.
On a 12” PAL television in super low quality.
Without a smartphone/digital camera to help.
Needless to say, I never knew whether I would be able restart my game, making every save point a lesson in fear and anxiety.
Still, that aside, this game was developed by an all star team; Sakuma and Doi for starters, with Masuda Shouji stepping in to manage the project and Sekiguchi Kazuyuki of Southern All Stars handling the music. Furthermore, none of them are originally game creators; it was the Famicom version of MomoDen (of which this PCE ver is an enhanced port), which found them shifting career paths to game development; surely a team worthy of interview.
Ossu! Karatebu/押忍!!空手部 (SFC) - Culture Brain 1994/08/26
I first chanced upon this when the tidal wave of fighting games that began with SF2 was beginning to lose momentum and I had already played everything I thought the Super Famicom had to offer.
The box art, based on a popular manga was appealing, the shots on the back looked great and even the setting (super-powered high school delinquents battling to the death) hit the spot.
The game itself is typical Culture Brain fighting fare: solid pixel art, a good variety of characters with interesting move sets and some innovations on the gameplay front too (in this case, one of the first examples of guard-countering), but as always, the frame rate prevents it from reaching the upper echelons of the genre.
The greatest shame is that I have no idea who developed this due to the use of pseudonyms for the majority of the staff. The music is credited to Miyabi Eiji, who appears in numerous other CB games of the time, and the Producer/Director/Game Designer is Akademiya Yumenosuke (CB’s president). The other key members appear, with the same pseudonyms, in other CB game credits which would explain the common vibe many of their games exude.
Omake: Press L, Left, Down, B, A, R at the title screen to access 2x hidden characters.