What the Titles on the Astro City Mini Taught Me About Game Design – Part 1
Written by Roppyaku Tsurumi
When I look at the titles on the Astro City Mini, memories from 30 years ago come back to me so clearly. Memories of being the new planner at Sega AM1, and what a difficult struggle it was.
This isn’t talked about that much these days, but at this time you ran into a lot of people who called Sega “The Ootori Game Technical School”. They were words that represented the many Sega alumnus that were active on the front lines of the game industry. I also graduated in 1989 and joined Sega, an alumni of the Ootori Game Technical School. I was only at Sega for a mere six and a half years, but I believe I’ve been able to make a living in the gaming industry for over 30 years now because of my time spent there. And close to half of the games on the Astro City Mini were created by AM1, which was the department I was assigned to in learning how to design games. Because I saw how they were made out of the corner of my eye, I was able to learn about game design methodology, technology, spiritualism and belief (?). In other words, they were my teachers.
So this time around I’d like to pick a few titles from the lineup and write about the important things that they (along with the environment at that time and the senior employees on the dev teams) taught me about game design. I’ll be telling a lot of old stories, so my memory may have slipped a bit or I may have overwritten some of them with the experience I’ve gained since. So please forgive me for any inaccuracies, and read on.
My First Encounter With Golden Axe in a Company Arcade
It was spring, 1989. The first thing that surprised me after joining Sega, was that there was an arcade on the first floor of the main building that was open every single night. But of course it didn’t operate as just a regular arcade: It was setup as a kind of showroom for the latest games in the lobby of the first floor, and everything was set on free-play….so naturally after business hours, we turned on the power and everyone just played games! (I don’t remember anyone complaining about it, so no one cared)
I’d just started at Sega, so I didn’t have much money but had a lot of free time. So the minute training was done for the day, I’d put in some “overtime” in the lobby every night by playing games like crazy for 1-2 hours before going home. People from all sorts of departments, not just newbies like me, would come in and out of the lobby each night to play. Sometimes everyone would be playing Tetris, and people would be lined up waiting for their turn, just like in a real arcade.
My favorite game there was one that came out at the same time that I joined the company: Golden Axe. I never got tired of playing it! Even if you memorized enemy patterns, no game would ever be quite the same. So some setback would happen just when things were looking good. But if you kept playing it over and over, you’d improve and advance in the game. And most important of all, defeating enemies just felt so good! The regular attacks were slow and had a heavy response time to them, but in comparison the dash attacks and attacking while riding on beasts were quite light. Magic attacks were exhilarating, and in general the variety of attacks you could perform was very refreshing.
Now wait, I know what you’re thinking! I fully admit that I was big into Namco games when I was a student. Namco games had a distinctive use of pop art colors and had alluring characters. And besides, surely it wasn’t just me who who preferred the “new game feel” that they had? So then why did Golden Axe, a regular old side scrolling action game with very sullen use of color and three pretty normal looking characters, capture my heart so much!?
Uchida Dekachou and Factorization of Play
The answer to that question is easy to find. My training period ended, and I was assigned to the very department that created Golden Axe: AM1. Makoto Uchida was in charge of the game design for Golden Axe (later he’d be called “Uchida Dekachou”, after the game Dynamite Deka). When I’d ask him something about it, he’d just get this huge grin on his face and…give me a fragment of an answer. It was meant to stir me up by saying something like “You should be able to understand what I mean as a designer yourself, right?”.
According to Mr. Uchida, Golden Axe had simple game mechanics, and it was a game of managing the other enemies trying to attack you from behind as you attacked other enemies. And so…
The Risk-Return of Player Attacks
-> Attacking an enemy is actually a risk to the player. The longer amount of time you spend attacking, the higher the risk of an attack from behind becomes.
-> Continuous attacking is a fundamental strategy. Totaling up the amount of time involved in the different attack patterns, there are ones that do big damage but are very risky, ones that prioritize advancing in the level by throwing enemies far back from you, etc. There are all sorts of risk-return variations.
-> You can get different attack patterns depending on your distance from the enemy, with just a single button. Even if you’re not particularly good at the game, you can have fun using different types of attacks by taking advantage of this. And if you are good, you can control the flow of things much better this way.
Enemy Position in Relation to the Player
-> Enemies will attempt to pincer the player to create a 2-on-1 situation. If they achieve this, they’ll both attack.
-> The faster the enemy moves or the more enemies there are, the faster they’ll be able to pincer you, upping the difficulty.
-> There are systems to perform crowd control on enemies, to prevent them from grouping up.
You can make this game very interesting by keeping these points in mind along with other factors, and you’ll be sure to have fun! Right!
They may be classic game mechanics when you look at them from a modern perspective, but it was my first encounter with this so-called “factorization of play” as a newbie to the game industry, and it really felt as though my eyes had been opened for the first time.
According to Mr. Uchida, they had begun the R&D phase of Golden Axe before Double Dragon came out. Compared to Double Dragon, punches and kicks are combined into one button, there are no weapons such as bats and whips, and it seems to be lacking in many ways. But it adds variation with elements like dash attacks, riding on beasts, and magic attacks. And of course there’s the foundational gameplay mechanics of attack risk-return and enemy placement. It’s just a guess, but as a work that began before Double Dragon this probably first utilized factorization and enemy grouping as it’s foundational elements.
Before I joined Sega, I had a vague idea of game development as invention. Coming up with novel ideas of play that hadn’t been done in the past was the guts of what game development was to me. But looking back on how charmed I was by Golden Axe, I was more taken it by the calculated ways in which it used play and how good it felt, as opposed to a sense of invention. It vaguely began occurring to me that THIS is what development was…and when I turned over what Mr. Uchida had said in my mind, I felt that step-by-step I was getting closer to being a game developer myself.
My First Project, Planning Duties, and ESWAT
In the meantime, I was assigned my first project as a designer: A System 18 board game called Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. The original project team was two programmers, three artists, and me as the game planner/designer.
There was talk of making a Michael Jackson game since before I even joined Sega, and several one page design documents had already been passed around AM1. So when I was told I’d be doing the planning and design for Moonwalker from assistant director Yoji Ishii, I was handed one of those documents and told to base it on that draft. The proponent of that draft was the designer of the original Shinobi, Yutaka Sugano. But he’d basically relocated to Sega of America, and left it behind.
I was at my wits’ end.
Nowadays it’s common sense to have a dedicated planner/designer and an experienced director on projects, but back then there wasn’t any separation between those two roles. So it was very common for the planner/design to just be a jack of all trades. Planning was thinking up game ideas, preparing resources, handling negotiation with outside parties, breaking down the project…all of those things. Even if you were new and inexperienced.
Giving me the duties of a director when I didn’t know my right hand from my left yet may seem so reckless as to be unbelievable, with today’s sensibilities. However it wasn’t such a rare thing back then. Sega had just gone public on the stock market, and they were in top form in the arcades and home consoles alike (If I remember correctly, their yearly sales benchmark was 500,000,000,000 yen). Game production costs were far lower, so trusting things to a young director to train them up was probably a much more viable path.
Actually, Hisaki Nimya (The owner of the low and sexy voice that you hear on the title screen of Moonwalker, who is also very good at English) had joined the company one year earlier, and sat in the same room as me. He actually drafted the original plan for ESWAT: City Under Siege. It’s pretty clear when you look at the game, but it was based off of Shinobi. Nimya was a military, manga, and science fiction nerd. So ESWAT is what you get when you mash his interests and mine together, in a way that your average person can understand. In terms of gameplay, it’s got some good feeling shooting as heavily armored police officers blow their way through the game with gatling guns. Basically it’s based on Shinobi’s game mechanics, but adds in catchy imagery and new ideas that change the way it feels. As I wrote earlier, the theory here is factorization as a core mechanic of play, and then ideas are added on top of that. It proves that you can fuse new ideas and intentions that only a newbie would have, together with the game know-how that a department like AM1 already had.
But this is only due to the fact that it was based on a game in which that know-how was already present.
The reason I was at my wits’ end was that the design draft that Mr. Sugano left behind was kind of…a three-quarters view dance-action game. A far cry from Shinobi, it was a lofty plan that didn’t seem like it could be based on anything that AM1 had done so far. At the very least, it wasn’t something that a newbie like me could handle. What was I supposed to do with this?