Interview – Darius: Until We Make A Giant Battleship
Seiji Kato – A Taito employee in the hardware section of the Technological Development department, he’s involved in arcade cabinet design. He’s worked on a lot of big games released from Taito and Square Enix in recent years.
Yukiharu Sanbe – Joined Taito in 1979, and was involved in a lot of their 80s games, starting with Darius. After that he went on to help establish their karaoke and mobile games division, and currently serves as a technology adviser for Taito.
Zenji Ishii (Guest) – Former Editor-In-Chief of Gamest magazine. He’s the guest interviewer.
The Hardware Development Past and Present of the Darius Series
In this interview we’ll be talking with Mr. Sanbe, who worked on Darius, and Mr. Kato, who worked on the cabinet design for Dariusburst: Another Chronicle, about various things related to arcade boards and cabinets. We hope to hear stories from each of their times at Taito, and about changes in hardware design. First of all, I’d like to ask you both about your career histories.
(Sanbe) I joined Taito in 1979. Space Invaders had been released the year prior, and I thought “This sounds like a fun business to be a part of” (Laughs). When I joined Taito, my direct supervisor was Tomohiro Nishikado, who created Space Invaders. I worked on both hardware and software during the 80s. We made everything ourselves back then, including the development tools, and there were 7 or 8 engineers that worked under Mr. Nishikado. Video games were getting popular all over the world during the 80s, and I worked on about 20% of Taito’s games during that time. Not just Darius, but Arkanoid, Bubble Bobble, Rastan Saga, Scramble Formation, and more. My position was something along the lines of a development sub-leader, so I was always pretty busy. (Looking at a schematic of Darius) This really brings back memories, I think I remember most of it.
So you worked under Mr. Nishikado?
(Sanbe) I did at first, but he was transferred to a different department not long after, so someone else was my boss after that. But I remember being in charge of most of the things I worked on. As a result I was involved in most projects as a sub-director, but the managing that had to be done for development was pretty tough. Like when I was in charge of Arkanoid, I was told by someone on the hardware side that “I joined Taito to design high-end hardware, but this is extremely simple so I don’t particularly want to do it” (Laughs) Someone from the software side similarly said “I don’t want to work on games that are the same as they were years ago”. The planning, hardware, software…everyone told me things like that, and I remember having to pacify them for about two weeks. It was a big hit after it released, and I remember the company president coming in and giving them a bonus as a result (which was a rare thing to happen). And I said “See, aren’t you glad you worked on that game?”. The directors were treated differently though, so I didn’t get a bonus (Laughs) But because of that we were able to make many other very successful titles. The market was very good at that time, and I think the 80s were a happy time for engineers and software developers alike.
It was an era where everything was on the rise (Laughs)
(Sanbe) It was. In the 90s I had the good fortune to work on the the design of the world’s first network karaoke system, and help put it out into the world. Next was network karaoke for the home, and after that was being able to use the songs from network karaoke as cellphone ring tones. I did that sort of work from that point on.
(Kato) I joined Taito in 1992. I’m working on design for arcade cabinets now, but when I joined the company I was working in the Industrial Technology department. In order to mass produce the cabinets that were designed, I’d perform checks on the diagrams and components and lead the setup for mass production, which I did for about 10 years. After that I transferred over to development, at which point I worked on mechanical designs and engineering. In terms of cabinet designs that I’ve been a part of in recent years, there’s been Half-Life 2: Survivor, D1GP Arcade, and a gun game called Haunted Museum. And finally after that came Dariusburst: Another Chronicle and Cyber Diver. I also work on numerous titles for Square Enix, and I’m currently smack in the middle of production for “Hoshi to Tsubasa no Paradox” (Laughs)
Mr. Sanbe, have you seen the cabinet that Mr. Kato designed for Dariusburst: Another Chronicle?
(Sanbe) Yeah. There was one at the Ebina office that I secretly played (Laughs) And while I was doing that I was thinking “Wow, this has really evolved since the original that I was involved with”.
Are there any particular differences that you were surprised by?
(Sanbe) At a glance I really thought it was beautiful. The original Darius used three monitors laid out horizontally, but Dariusburst: Another Chronicle uses two monitors, right? TVs used to have a 4:3 aspect ratio, so the resolution across a single display was 320 pixels. On a modern display it’s maybe somewhere around 1000 I’d think?
(Kato) In full HD it would be 1920. The displays in that cabinet aren’t full HD, so it’s 1360 x 2.
(Sanbe) The original game was 320 x 3, for a total of 1000. But nowadays you can get over 2000 pixels across two displays. The amount of sprites that the original Darius could have on-screen at once was pretty limited. But since new hardware uses a GPU for display, its capabilities are completely different. It’s been about 27 years since then, but the capabilities of CPUs have increased by about 10,000 times from what they were. The cost of memory is also now 1/10,000,000th of what it was then, so display capabilities and development techniques are completely different now. And because of that, I was thinking about how many difficulties the developers must have had as I was watching the game.
What do you think about the width of the seats?
(Sanbe) Oh, that? (Laughs) I remember thinking that the original Darius had wide seats at the time, but I could be mistaken. The screens felt so long lined up next to each other, and I wondered if the proportions on the new game were a bit different, since the display was easier to see.
(Kato) There are two displays at 32 inches each, and that makes up most of the width of the cabinet. I remember making it just barely wide enough so that four players could be in there at the same time.
It would be pretty tight with four adults in there though, right?
(Kato) It would have really needed to be big to accommodate four people sitting in it without it being that tight though. But back when we were making the mock-up out of cardboard boxes, we tested that four larger people (myself included) could just barely manage to get in there at once.
(Sanbe) The cabinet for the original Darius was pretty large for back then, and the company president said “Hey, this is too big! How many normal game cabinets do you think could fit into the space this thing takes up?”. There were also people that said “Hey, this is dangerous!” since they apparently hit their heads on the part that sticks out on the side of the cabinet, so I remember hearing nothing but complaints about it. But at that point I’d already started working on a different model cabinet, so I remember just always replying with “Sure, sure” (Laughs)
(Kato) Even now people say all kinds of things about the size of the cabinet.
(Sanbe) They do, right? About its space efficiency and such.
(Kato) And about how it lines up with other machines. It has a different depth and dimensions from other maker’s cabinets, so it doesn’t line up very neatly. That kind of thing.
(Sanbe) And whether they’ll be able to get it into the elevator or not.
(Kato) When Dariusburst: Another Chronicle shipped, it was broken down into the seats, top, and video cabinet. The video cabinet part was designed to be separated into upper and lower parts. So normally you wouldn’t need to put it in an elevator, but it was made so that if push comes to shove and the two parts of the video cabinet were not assembled, you could get it into an elevator.
(Sanbe) Are they about 2 meters?
(Kato) I’d say so. To fit it onto an elevator it would need to be under 800 millimeters wide and 2 meters tall. When we did a location test for it in the basement of Taito Station Shinjuku South Exit Game World, the stairs there weren’t so wide so we had to take it all apart. We separated the upper and lower parts, took out the one-way-mirror, and put it in the elevator like that. At that point I was very glad we’d planned for it to be separable (Laughs) The development staff themselves did the installation for the location test, so it would have been rough if we hadn’t been able to use the elevator.
(Sanbe) You actually drove all the parts over and brought them in yourselves, right? These days I feel like that would be deemed too dangerous, you wouldn’t be the ones doing it.
(Kato) Nowadays we use delivery services with large trucks to transport it, but we still do the setup on location ourselves. That’s why we make it all able to be broken down from the start, otherwise it’ll just make things harder for us later (Laughs)
Experiments With a Water-Like One-Way-Mirror
I’d like to ask you to talk a bit about the birth of the original Darius cabinet.
(Sanbe) At first the engineers said they wanted to try creating something that really stood out, so they made all sorts of different things. It turned into a conversation about how to go about trying to connect three displays together, so we placed a mirror and put the displays at the bottom of the cabinet. When we finished working on Scramble Formation, there was a real charm with what we got working there, so thinking that it was great, we used that as our starting point. If we’d used Kiki Kaikai as our experiment back then instead of Scramble Formation, there’s a good chance it would have ended up as something else (Laughs)
Did you have the idea for the one-way mirror from the start?
(Sanbe) Yes. Mr. Nishikado had quite a bit of experience with using one-way mirrors, since there had been a lot of them used in mechanical games.
There had been games like Sky Fighter prior to this.
(Sanbe) That’s right. The left and right-most monitors in Darius display normally, only the one in the middle makes use of the highly reflective mirror. When I first saw the experiments done with the three displays, I felt like I was losing my own sense of balance: Like when you’re seeing waves break at your feet on the shore of a sandy beach. I did wonder if it was okay that you were actually looking down at the game, but after thinking about it for awhile I felt it wasn’t impossible, even though it ended up being horizontal (Laughs) I think that the engineers really had trouble with the initial setup. One of them that was a senior employee told me “The links between these displays aren’t going to work the way you planned them to”. And I remember saying “This is how the theory of mirror reflection works, so it definitely will” as I drew it all out on a blackboard. He probably was pretty annoyed with me! (Laughs)
So there was some arguing back and forth.
(Sanbe) Development was basically the mechanical and electric engineers fighting with each other, since they sat so close to each other.
How did things work when designing a game with such a specialized cabinet?
(Sanbe) When someone wanted to make something like this in the 80s, the mechanical engineer, electric engineer, and programmer were all able to come together and just start the planning. The actual game planner came into Darius partway through. And in order to make the plans a reality, there’s the electric engineer taking care of the circuitry, the artist taking care of the graphics, a programmer, and sound designer. So about 5 people working on an average project. The sound designer is usually brought in later on, so the initial planning stages include the programmer, electric engineer, planner, and the mechanical engineer. Darius had a particularly large cabinet, so we developed specialized circuitry for it from scratch. The schematics were created by about three veteran designers.
There are just a ton of schematics here.
(Sanbe) Actually when we decided to start making the game, we didn’t have the circuit boards that we needed. So we took three already completed boards that we rewired and reconfigured jumpers by hand on, and said “Alright, at least the programmers can start developing the game with these” (Laughs) But the development room was in a bit of a dark situation. When I’d walk by they’d be taking out jumpers and saying things like “Don’t walk too fast!” (Laughs) That’s how the development went, and when the boards were completed they burned the software onto them in order to do modifications. But the programmers complained that they were still debugging themselves as we were doing that. I think that most companies were this same way at that time though.
Three people worked on the circuitry alone?
(Sanbe) I don’t think there was any precedent for three people just doing the circuity at that point. Typically just one person would design it. There were a bunch of different people involved in the manufacturing stage later on as well though.
During the development of the actual cabinet, how many people worked on the sides of it?
(Sanbe) If I recall correctly, just one person. The overall design was done by someone else, but the mechanical development was mainly done by one person. Though many different people worked on the actual assembly.
(Kato) For Dariusburst: Another Chronicle, I worked on the mechanical stuff by myself. For the electronics, work on the devices (monitors and such) and the board were handled by two others. Electronics work was divided up between harnesses/devices and boards. The boards were standardized, but were according to the requirements for graphics board, CPU, and memory. Lately the standardization of I/O boards has advanced as well, enough to cause firmware to be updated. With LEDs being required, they were a combination of custom made ones and some standard tape LEDs. Then the cabinet’s industrial design was done by someone else, and the exterior stickers and logos were handled by yet someone else. So at the start of the project there were five people involved, as well as the planner.
Are a lot of other games done with that number of people as well?
(Kato) That’s not nearly enough people for a medal game, there are usually three or four people involved in the mechanical design. With a short development schedule, it’s impossible to do that much work alone, so the duties are divided up. The number of people involved changes depending on the scale of the cabinet and schedule.
The Inescapable Battle Of Schedule And Cost For A Large Cabinet
What were the schedules like for both Darius and Dariusburst: Another Chronicle?
(Kato) The software was developed ahead of time. When I started on the project for the cabinet creation, the software was already using a Type X2 board.
(Sanbe) Was the planning completed by then?
(Kato) I think it was probably an early version, but it was up and running on a PC. The development schedule for the cabinet was six months, which I think was way too short.
That sounds very much like Taito.
(Sanbe) I think Darius took two and a half years? But we had to completely start over once as well. We made the circuitry the first time, and it just wasn’t cutting it. So I remember it taking another six months to complete start over remaking it. From beginning to end, it took about two and a half years, I believe. That situation I mentioned before of having to not walk too fast when you’re going by the board went on for about six months, and I think the rest took between one and a half and two years.
Why did you need to start over when making it?
(Sanbe) The hardware at that time just couldn’t handle what was conceived of for the game. The formula for displaying sprites is one in which a single scan-line is drawn in memory. But since it’s being output to three monitors, a single CPU couldn’t process this quickly enough. Even with high speed memory. And so we ended up using two 68000 32-bit CPUs, along with high speed dual-port memory. It was a rather drastic modification to make up for the previous performance deficiency. I remember the guy being in charge of that telling me he was going to kill me (Laughs)
That sounds like the cost management was pretty difficult?
(Sanbe) To be honest, the first priority was on making a good product at that point. Cost was the third or fourth priority.
I picked up on a feeling of envy coming from Mr. Kato just now (Laughs)
(Sanbe) Mr. Nishikado told me that the emphasis was on quality over cost for Space Invaders as well. It was a time where the philosophy of not being able to make something great if R&D costs were a factor was still prevalent.
Figuring that it all counted as research?
(Sanbe) That outlook continued all throughout the 80s.
It did continue on for awhile, didn’t it.
(Sanbe) The flight simulator Top Landing was our first piece of hardware to use polygons, but it really ended up costing a lot of money. And if we were thinking about cost, it never would have been made (Laughs) In that way, it was a very good time. It was also a time where players would try just about anything that was new on the market.
Top Landing was very popular back then too.
(Sanbe) I worked on the circuitry for its sprite-based predecessor, Midnight Landing. It’s basically just a runway with big lights though (Laughs) But Top Landing was in the day time, so it had to be done with polygons. The first game to use polygons was a western game by Atari called “I, Robot”, but it flopped. Top Landing, however, was well received. From then on, I became involved on the hardware side of things.
(Kato) Nowadays the only thing anyone ever talks about is cost…(Laughs)
(Kato) You have to come up with costs estimates as soon as planning starts…
(Sanbe) I think that making something truly great is really tough.
(Kato) Managing costs is a responsibility that falls on mechanical and electric engineers, but it can be very difficult. Of course you have to be aware of costs, and you can’t make great things when you’re completely bound by them, but we’re in an era where costs are very harsh right now. Speaking of which, there’s kind of an amusing story about the cabinet for Dariusburst: Another Chronicle. There’s a red LED in the middle of the cabinet that flashes along with the “WARNING!” text when a boss appears. The mechanical engineering side thought “It just lights up right? Do we really need this?”. However the planning side pushed back and insisted that it was absolutely necessary. And when we talked to customers that played it during the location test, many of them said that they loved that it lit up. That’s when I fully realized what a big gap there was between the average player and the staff creating the cabinet.
(Sanbe) Doing things like that outside of the screen really have an impact, don’t they?
(Kato) Using LEDs, gold plating as a cover, acrylics…all of that stuff costs money. But after seeing the market reaction to it, I think the planning department’s decision was the correct one.
I remember the cost of Dariusburst: Another Chronicle being rather cheap though.
(Kato) When we unveiled the cabinet during a broadcast of “Taito Live!”, there were a lot of comments that said “This is probably going to be really expensive” because of how big it was. But I had a good handle on the material costs at that point, so I just thought to myself “No, it’s not going to be that expensive!” (Laughs)
You talked about the cardboard box mock-up earlier, but was there also a similar prototype developed for the original Darius?
(Sanbe) I definitely didn’t see one in the area I worked in. The mechanical engineers may have created a small one, but I’ve never seen it.
Has it not been a custom at Taito to create actual full-size mock-ups for some time, then?
(Kato) We made them a long time ago in order for the mechanical engineers to inspect the layout, but nowadays we make something more like an “image” of the cabinet ahead of time, during the planning phase. In this case it was necessary to do something like this in order to get a handle on costs and such, so we made a cardboard box mock-up of the entire cabinet for design purposes.
(Sanbe) There were a lot of cardboard boxes at the Ebina office! (Laughs) I saw them having box cutters taken to them pretty frequently.
(Kato) I used it to see if four people would actually be able to fit into it or not, and whether or not we’d be able to fit the monitors in.
I think you’ve probably been involved in the creation of prototypes too, Mr. Sanbe. Do you feel like they should be the last thing that comes out at the very end of the development process?
(Sanbe) From the viewpoint of the person in charge of the software and hardware circuitry, after the first one is finished then you pretty much understand how it was made. But I think the idea of cardboard mock-ups didn’t really start until after 2000, and they weren’t really created too often before then.
(Kato) 3-D CAD is used for the industrial design nowadays, so they use that to create an “image” of what they’re looking to do. But before that we’d slice up cardboard boxes and actually make them. We didn’t necessarily make them in the exact form of a cabinet, we made them so that the positioning of the user interface elements could be verified.
(Sanbe) When making large cabinets back in the 80s, I often saw panicking when the real thing didn’t look like the design (Laughs) Given that I saw people swinging hammers around so much, I wonder if that means they didn’t make very good mock-ups.
(Kato) In addition to the cardboard box mock-up, I wanted to first experiment with the one-way mirror. Though the job of making that was done by someone else before I started working on this part. Setting the displays in an aluminum frame, we brought in the CAD data that was left showing the one-way mirror inserted diagonally. This was an important tool for our early experiments. At that point I was in charge of the process of taking the software that Pyramid was developing and making sure that they could develop it in this same kind of environment. With the one-way mirror placed 90 degrees horizontally and down, I noticed that it was darkening the carpet to look more like a black curtain, and just generally making it hard to see. Monitors in normal arcade cabinets are dropped down a bit diagonally, so that the view point is looking down from above and not straight on. So the result of this experiment was that tilting it 12 degrees in back made it look the way that it ended up looking. I made a model of it out of wood and moved it all over the place for Pyramid (Laughs) And here’s the woofer in the seat. This was a seat I made to use as a tool for experiments with the sound team.
Hardware to Support the Thick Sound of Darius
What changes did you make from here before arriving at the finished product?
(Kato) This is around when I made the duct work. The woofer in the cabinet didn’t quite have enough capacity. This title already had a big cabinet and the seat was acting as a box for the woofer, so I made the duct work thinking that it would make for a great bass sound. It definitely solved the problem, but then someone on the sound team told me that they didn’t need duct work, because it would result in the sound that was meant to shake the cabinet leaking outside of it…(Laughs) So I reluctantly dropped the idea of it.
Mr. Sanbe, what sort of tools did you use back then in relation to sound?
(Sanbe) The sound department had told me that they wanted to use Body Sonic to shake the seat. Back then there were speakers specifically for Body Sonic, but they were incredibly expensive! (Laughs) They were 100,000 or 200,000 yen…but at any rate too expensive to use in a cabinet. The sound department was very artsy so…how to put it…I remember there being a lot of conflicts. We came to an agreement on putting a woofer in the seat. I’d tried out actual Body Sonic at the time, and I remember thinking “This is great, but we’re not going to be able to use it”.
There were a lot of firsts, so fine tuning it all was particularly tough.
(Sanbe) The sound team really gave it their all back then. Not just in composition, but also in sound design. In spite of there being points that they had to compromise on in terms of cost, it felt really good how much they put in.
The project was supported by the efforts of many different people then.
(Sanbe) It definitely was. The sound team really gave it their all, as well as the people who did the art at Tatsunoko Productions. I was a big Gatchaman fan, so working with people from Tatsunoko was like a dream come true for me.
(Kato) When I was put in charge of Dariusburst: Another Chronicle, I actually hadn’t played Darius on an original cabinet.
(Sanbe) That’s pretty understandable, given the time period.
(Kato) When you talked about Darius, you thought of something you could play on a home console, or like G-Darius. Talk of Body Sonic and seat vibrations came up during development. This made me think “I’d better try this game on an original cabinet!”, so I went to Hey in Akihabara. And after that I thought “Oh alright, THIS is the vibration they’re talking about!”. We took great care to not only uphold the Darius name, but to also make the people playing say that this was really something different.
Is the volume different from that of other cabinets?
(Kato) The board has a 6 channel amp. We could have increased the number of woofers, but there was talk about whether or not the board could support it. The output was too high, and there were heat problems with the IC. I was asked to adjust things to account for the heat issues, so I added a heat sink on the board and wrapped it in a thermal sheeting.
(Sanbe) There were heat issues with the original Darius when we cranked the sound up as well, a power transistor went flying right off the board. Thinking that meant we just wouldn’t be able to turn the sound up that much, arcades started doing just that! (Laughs) I recall needing to fix the issue with heat sinks too.
There were some arcades were the Body Sonic ended up breaking, right?
(Sanbe) You could just turn the amp up as much as you wanted, so of course there were some that broke! (Laughs) Power transistors can withstand internal temperatures up to around 150 degrees, but they break when it gets higher than that. Darius was the first project where we had that experience.
It’s an interesting problem to talk about in today’s modern era.
(Sanbe) We have digital amps today, so I think this kind of problem could be easily fixed with a small transistor.
(Kato) The sound can still have issues even today if the output is too high, so we try to build limitations into the software as much as we can. But development progresses, and sound effects and such are added in just before going into production. This sometimes puts the output over the threshold. And in this case it’s not the music, but rather sound generated by the game itself…
(Sanbe) And that’s not something you can control.
(Kato) That’s right. Even now we still have cases involving power difficulties due to timing of the sound.
(Sanbe) The voltage drops when you just output everything at once! (Laughs)
Relating to sound, there’s an anecdote I heard about the development of Dariusburst: Another Chronicle: The volume was up too loud during testing, so it got pushed away into a corner of the Ebina office…
(Kato) I forget whether that was when we were still testing it or when the cabinet itself had just been completed…but the vibrations were crazy. Increasing the output would actually shake the window glass in the office. The Ebina building was pretty big so I took it to a place that I thought wouldn’t annoy anyone, but I guess even at a low volume you could still hear it in distant offices. And the development area in Ebina was on the third floor, so we made problems for the other departments on the second and fourth floors.
(Sanbe) One of those departments may have been mine, since I was working on mobile games at the time! (Laughs)
(Kato) There was a TaitoTech techonlogy services office also on the third floor, and we got a complaint from them asking us to stop whatever we were doing during the hours they had to take phone calls. There was a sound department not just in the Ebina building, but also in the main office as well. So when I went there to work on it, but then started worrying about how loud I should turn it up in the main office (Laughs) I’d heard it would be fine since there was sound proofing there, but you could hear the sound through the walls even at low volume despite that. I didn’t bother asking how it would be if I really turned it up.
(Sanbe) The main office was in Nagatacho then and not Shinjuku, right? Turning the sound way up there might have been pretty bad! (Laughs)
(Kato) Even I was surprised when the sound started rattling things a bit. But I thought maybe I wouldn’t get so many complaints for making it that way (Laughs)
It meant you made something really great, after all! (Laughs)
(Kato) It’s just that it would drown out the cabinets around it in an arcade, so I had to put some restraints on it after all. So I put an individual volume control on for the woofer.
It had a headphone jack installed on the cabinet, just like the original Darius, didn’t it? That was so particularly obsessive people could plug in their own headphones and enjoy it to the fullest, right?
(Sanbe) I think Darius may have been the first cabinet with a headphone jack installed.
(Kato) I made it clear I wanted them in the Dariusburst: Another Chronicle cabinet. We could only get two in and not four, basically just due to space issues. After this, it became pretty standard to put headphone jacks in cabinets.
(Sanbe) We argued over whether or not to put a headphone jack in the original Darius cabinet. The intent behind the sound people wanting it in was so that people playing could hear the sound properly and not mix in with the sound of the surrounding cabinets. But when we went to the arcade to see what people were doing, they weren’t plugging in headphones but rather recorders so they could record the sound as they were playing! (Laughs) That was back before game music had really been established as a genre, but that brought up the idea internally that maybe we could sell game music.
(Kato) Since the topic of headphones came up…this is something I put together for internal project documentation, but you can see here that the speakers are wider horizontally so there isn’t a great position to hear them well when all four people are playing. In the first prototype, “P1”, the speakers were facing straight ahead, but when all four players were there one side would be difficult to hear. We adjusted the angle and position for “P2”, which made them a bit easier to hear. There was still a limit to what we could do about it though, so we included some headphone jacks. We tested all sorts of scenarios with all four players. That’s right, at first both ends of the control panel were slightly tilted in. We thought that made it easier to play, but when we tested it out it ended up being just the opposite. So we took it back to the way it was.
Did you get feedback from other members of the development staff during that testing?
(Kato) The sound team came in for sound balance adjustments and amp settings, and they tuned it as the cabinet was actually outputting sound. That’s where the request to angle the speakers so they could be heard better came from.
I’m pretty sure I heard that same story from Shouhei Tsuchiya (composer). Gathering up everyone’s feedback must have been difficult.
(Kato) It was! (Laughs) But if we didn’t perform those tests we’d have no way of knowing what was good and what was bad. We’d make fixes and perform further tests as people gave us their feedback and evaluations.
The Epitome of Cabinet Development is the Moment When Ideas Take Shape
(Sanbe) I have a bit of a question: What was the most fun moment in the process for you as an engineer?
(Kato) The moment when I started setting things up from nothing, and the “P1” prototype took shape just as I had envisioned it. Engineering is completely different depending on the type of equipment you’re working with. When forms are different, so are spaces. Then it just becomes a matter of how you can satisfy the requirements in the limited amount of space that you have. You’re not building things up, like in a normal job. It’s a type of job where things just don’t move forward if those brilliant ideas don’t come to you. You’re balancing cost, maintenance and construction all in parallel, and things come together once you get that brilliant idea. I’d say that’s the epitome of the job.
(Sanbe) Isn’t it just the peak of excitement when the first prototype is done?
(Kato) It is. But it’s all anxiety once it enters mass production…(Laughs) There’s always some problem or another once it goes to market.
(Sanbe) I also got really anxiety-ridden when a game I was working on was released back in the 80s. Even though I didn’t cut any corners there was still that part of me that was worried, and it would still be in the back of my mind long after.
(Kato) Setting things up and creating tools are a lot of fun, aren’t they? The feeling really was incredible seeing the one-way mirror actually setup and working. It’s just so much fun seeing something that you setup finally take shape.
Development isn’t the End: Production Brings About Many More Problems
Speaking of which, is cabinet production done domestically or overseas?
(Kato) It’s done in China. Everything but the mirror anyway: The carpentry, arrangement of the sheet metal, and the basic assembly. After that they’re sent back to Japan half-assembled, then we put in the monitors and one-way mirrors, and apply the stickers and such.
Do other games nowadays have similar manufacturing processes?
(Kato) We used to do this somewhat in the past, but nowadays Taito doesn’t really outsource this overseas at all. The suppliers that Taito orders parts from sometimes source them from overseas, but all of the assembly is done domestically.
How about during the original Darius?
(Sanbe) I wasn’t directly involved in the manufacturing process, but I don’t seem to recall it being done overseas at all back then. I believe we did do some outsourcing to some specific domestic companies.
(Kato) As far as the machines that I’ve been in charge of, it was all domestic up through Half-Life 2: Survivor. D1GP Arcade through Dariusburst: Another Chronicle were all done overseas.
(Sanbe) By “overseas” you mean Guangzhou in China, right?
(Kato) That’s right, from the sheet metal work to the assembly. Materials that couldn’t be obtained in China were sent over from Japan, then they’d assemble them and send everything back in crates. They’d come back half assembled, so we’d do the final assembly and inspections in Japan, then ship them out.
(Sanbe) Didn’t that make for a lot of trouble?
(Kato) It did! (Laughs)
(Sanbe) I figured! (Laughs) I only worked with companies in China on software development projects, but there were a lot of issues.
(Kato) There weren’t so many problems with the sheet metal itself, but the accuracy on the cutting of anything printed or metal was not particularly good. The printed materials wouldn’t be in the designated colors, and I guess they ended up being done in Taiwan and brought back into China.
What a global manufacturing process it was.
You’ve worked on a lot of different cabinets Mr. Kato, but is there anything that your previous experience came in particularly handy for here?
(Kato) I’d done the carpentry work for cabinets before, but Taito switched over to using sheet metal fairly early compared to other companies in the industry. So there weren’t many people around who knew how to do that kind of carpentry. But the plan from the beginning for Dariusburst: Another Chronicle was to have a wooden cabinet that invoked feelings of nostalgia. We had planned to use a one-way mirror and glass, as well as using the seat as a box for the woofer, so the development began from the carpentry. But everyone was asking “Why wood?!” (Laughs) I’d known about some of the older wooden cabinets from my time in the Industrial Technology department, and actually this was the first time we we’d had a wooden cabinet manufactured in China. I think it was possible because of knowledge of Taito’s older wooden cabinets.
About how long is the service life on those cabinets?
(Kato) From an engineering standpoint we can still manufacture a new cabinet and exchange it if one breaks down. But the hard part would the Type X2 board that’s in it. Everything is PC-based now, and model changes happen quickly which makes it so that you can’t get certain parts anymore. The graphics board that we chose during development changed models somewhere close to production, for example…
I see…So then everyone should play this game in arcades as much as they can, while they still can!
(Kato) Shooting games aren’t as popular in arcades as they used to be these days. In fact when we released Dariusburst: Another Chronicle, I was told we were very brave for releasing a shooting game in such a specialized cabinet. One of the points of it was to have something you could only experience by going to the arcade, so please play it while you still can.
Well lastly, please give us a message for the players who have purchased the Darius Cozmic Collection.
(Sanbe) I’m very happy to have been involved with Darius, and it’s a great honor for me that people still play it now and books like these are being made. I’m very grateful to have been involved in such a flag-ship series for Taito.
(Kato) I think I can probably also brag about having been involved in a piece of the history of this important series! (Laughs) I actually begged to be put in charge of the project before anyone had been chosen to head up engineering for it. When I was a kid and engrossed in playing Darius games on home consoles, I never would have dreamed that one day I’d be involved in the development of one. I don’t have a ton of wisdom to pass along from the experience, but I sincerely hope everyone enjoys playing a Darius game that was made from a slightly different point of view.
I’m glad that so many unexpected stories came up, thank you both for your time.