SNK 40th Anniversary: Talking to the SNK Creators That Made History

SNK 40th Anniversary - Group Shot
Publish Date: 08/09/2018

For the final part of this feature, we’re bringing you an interview with four of the creators that worked on some of the best known Neo Geo titles. It’s loaded with stories of hardships, secrets that can only now be discussed, and plenty of 100 Mega Shock!

Naoto Abe (Designer): Mahjong Kyo Retsuden, Burning Fight, Savage Reign
Kazuhiro Tanaka (Designer): Metal Slug, Metal Slug 2, Metal Slug 3
Nobuyuki Kuroki (Designer): Fatal Fury series, Art of Fighting series
Hideki Asanaka (Sound): Real Bout Fatal Fury, Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers, KOF series

Anything But Metal Slug!

The Neo Geo Mini is finally on sale. So I’d like for all of you to talk about your memories of working on these well known Neo Geo titles as much as you’d like.

(Asanaka) I think you’re the one who started there the earliest, Abe?

(Abe) I guess so. When I look back on it, the development environment there was really bad.

(Kuroki) Everyone “burned”, right?

(Asanaka) I burned.

What does that mean?

Neo Geo 40th Anniversary - Group Shot

(From left to right) Hideki Asanaka, Nobuyuki Kuroki, Kazuhiro Tanaka, Naoto Abe

(Abe) In the development environment we were working in back then, we would make graphics and sound on our own dedicated hardware, and then the programmers would take that data and make the game with it. But we’d actually burn the game to ROMs and then insert them one by one into a board, so we could check our work during development.

(Tanaka) But burning those ROMs takes quite a bit of time.

(Kuroki) The ROMs that everyone burned for their parts would be collected and compressed, and then manufactured. That’s how the MVS worked back then.

(Abe) The smallest ROM that we used back then was 4 Mega, so it had “4M” written on it. The senior people at the company would mess with us and make us think it was really expensive by saying things like “You know what the 4M means? 40,000 yen!”. (The “M” in this case being short for the Japanese word for the number 10,000, or “man”)

That’s a very Osaka-style joke, isn’t it? (Laughs) Was Neo Geo development always done in that kind of an environment?

(Kuroki) Yeah. As long as we were developing on the Neo Geo hardware, it couldn’t change. So it always stayed that way.

(Asanaka) Windows was only introduced into development as of Art of Fighting 3: The Path of the Warrior.

I see. So that’s why Art of Fighting 3 was a little bit different from the games that had come before it.

(Kuroki) It was a proof of concept that you could make games using motion capture. A Windows PC was necessary to do that motion capture.

So those smooth graphics were possible because of the use of motion capture.

(Kuroki) It’s used, but the motion captured data was gradually tweaked and the character animation was brushed up, so you could say that there wasn’t much of the original motion captured data left in the end (Laughs)

(Abe) We didn’t have the setup to do motion capture at the time, so we flew to America and spent 1-2 months recording it.

(Tanaka) To think we worked that hard on it, and there are barely any traces of it left (Laughs)

(Abe) After that the rest of the available staff went to help out other teams on different projects. I remember going over to help out on either KOF or Samurai Showdown. But Metal Slug was too much for me…

(Kuroki) Yeah, that was just insanity.

The graphics were, you mean?

(Kuroki) Yeah. The quality was just too high. Looking at it from the outside, I thought there was no way I could help with something like that.

(Tanaka) (Laughs)

How was it from your perspective Mr. Tanaka, since you were the one who worked on it?

(Tanaka) Well, I put everything I had into it (Laughs) Part of the charm of Metal Slug is how the machines slip-slide around, but they don’t move around brilliantly like if they were polygons. I thought about giving them a feeling of more realistic motion, as though they were alive, and bringing them to life through animation. So that’s what I did with the graphics and animation.

(Kuroki) It really does feel like the machines in Metal Slug are alive.

(Abe) In the early stages of development, it was a game where the vehicles were the main characters, right?

(Tanaka) Yeah. It was originally a vehicle-based shooting game, but partway through it changed into people riding in those vehicles.

(Abe) When the game had been finished up to a certain point, the animation in Metal Slug was shown around the company. Everyone thought it was amazing that the machines were able to convey human emotions.

(Tanaka) I was thinking all sorts of different things while working on it, like should this move this way, or should this transform in this way. But the original art was so precise that changing a single pixel would throw the whole thing off. So I worked on it feeling like I always had to draw with more detail.

(Abe) Wasn’t Metal Slug difficult for you because the size of the human characters was so small?

(Tanaka) Yeah. Moving just one pixel would visibly separate the chin from the rest of the body, so it felt more like I was actually drawing in 0.5 pixels.

What technique did you use to achieve drawing in 0.5 pixels?

(Tanaka) It’s a technique that by subtly changing the colors of the adjoining pixels, it allows the human eye to see 0.5 of a pixel.

I see. So you drew pixel graphics of that density and size just that delicately. You were a composer Mr. Asanaka, but how did you go about developing music?

(Asanaka) At SNK the sound team would start its development work about 4 to 5 months before the mastering process, so you could see what kind of form that the game had taken at that point. So we would start creating the background music based on that, and directions from the planner.

What kind of requests did you receive when composing the music?

(Asanaka) I got quite a few arbitrary ones that were nothing more than “Make it sound like this”. I wonder if the other developers thought “Just what the hell are those guys doing over there?” (Laughs)

(Kuroki) We don’t think that (Laughs)

(Asanaka) There were about 15 people on the sound team, and each of us had a particular genre of music that we specialized in. The reason that the KOF soundtracks are so full of variety, is because of collaboration between that kind of a varied staff.

It would be like being at a music festival, right?

(Asanaka) Everyone there joined the sound staff because they love music, but it was tough not being able to talk about music because our tastes in genres were just so different. They really didn’t match up (Laughs)

Incidentally, did the staff voice some of the characters at that time?

(Asanaka) KOF used voice talent right from the beginning.

(Abe) For Fatal Fury, the staff did voices for the first game. I remember us hiring an Osaka-based theatre troupe to do the voices from part 2 onward.

(Asanaka) Why from part 2 onward?

(Abe) The company president flew into a rage over the fact that the staff voiced the first Fatal Fury.

(Asanaka) Oh, that’s why! (Laughs)

(Abe) He was really angry, shouting “What the hell’s with these voices!?”. And from that point on we looked for actual voice talent to do it.

(Asanaka) Incidentally, at the time the Neo Geo could output on 7 sound channels. But when you factored in the sound effects and voices, you had to compose limiting yourself to only 4 of those sound channels for the music.

4 sound channels for music and 3 for everything else. If that’s the case, it seems like you’d need to use a technique that allowed you to compose the background music without very many different tones.

(Asanaka) That’s right. It’s similar to the 0.5 pixel discussion, but I used little techniques like putting a small sound right after another sound to create an echo-like effect. But it would eat up a lot of space if it was overused, so I had to balance it out with everything else.

Character Personalities Stand Out Because Of Love

I don’t think this was limited to SNK games, but fighting games tend to have a lot of characters have very bland abilities, but in a good way.

(Kuroki) They weren’t intended to be bland, but in Real Bout Fatal Fury for example, the designers had a lot of love for the characters that they made. The lively poses that they were drawn in with the best intentions were tied into their strengths, but in the end they may have turned out bland.

(Abe) The characters that I worked on were the cute ones, so they ended up being the strong characters.

(Kuroki) Poses that I thought looked cool ended up being easy to cross-up (a method of attacking that hits the back of the opponents head, forcing them to block in the other direction), and limbs ended up getting longer than they actually were supposed to be. I even wondered if it was something purposefully done by the planner. But I reflected on my work and realized that I couldn’t keep being so sloppy, and I cleaned it up for Garou: Mark of the Wolves.

(Tanaka) That sure took you awhile (Laughs)

A Time When It Was Easier For Designers To Express Themselves

The previous conversation seems like it was the other side of the designers being able to easily express themselves.

(Kuroki) Yes. It may have been easier for designers to express ourselves through pixel graphics back then. To a certain extent, I think these unique characters that are still beloved over 20 years later came about because we had such an open creative environment.

(Abe) The in-between frames of animation were largely left to the designer’s intuitions, so there may have been some ridiculously over-powered characters as a result.

I see (Laughs)

(Kuroki) When location testing the Fatal Fury series, Terry was typically always the most used character. It was understandable because he was so popular, but the other designers tried to make characters to surpass Terry and consequently put way more love into them. So it may have come down to making character personalities stand out more than actually balancing the game.

(Tanaka) Nowadays you make in-game graphics within a common set of assets right? Back then, SNK did it just the opposite way.

(Kuroki) Yeah. First the game developers would create a set of basic assets, and the artists would make the pixel graphics. Then when the graphics were completed, it would all go over to the designers, and they’d make those beautiful illustrations used for marketing. That’s how the process was.

Even the Fatal Fury Team Was Surprised By the Design of KOF?

What was the reason that SNK created the Neo Geo in the first place?

(Abe) SNK started out making arcade and Famicom games, but when arcade games really started to hit it big, the Neo Geo came from the concept of “What if the same hardware could work both in the arcade and at home?”. Because if you had the same hardware in both arcades and homes, you could release the games you made for arcades for home use without sacrificing any quality.

Games of all sorts of different genres were released on the Neo Geo, but did the focus on fighting games come from the fact that they were very popular around that time?

(Abe) It did. You could load multiple games into an MVS cabinet and switch between them, so you could have games from many different genres all together in one cabinet. Fighting games were just one of those genres, but because they were so popular they gradually became the main attraction in most cabinets.

Characters in SNK games tended to have a thicker image in the early days, was there direction from within the company to do that?

(Kuroki) We didn’t have any particular course or direction, I think it’s just because there were a lot of people who liked that kind of thicker character image (Laughs) But when we first saw the character designs for KOF, we thought they were really amazing.

What do you mean?

(Kuroki) “The main character is wearing a school uniform!?” and “Those arms are so thin!” are both things that we said when we saw them. Everyone on the Fatal Fury team just had the assumption that the fighters had to be macho-looking.

(Asanaka) But Terry has always been stylish, and doesn’t look like your typical fighter.

(Abe) Wearing a leather jacket and jeans may be stylish, but it’s still macho.

(Kuroki) We were researching how to draw muscles in a cool way (Laughs) But we really were surprised when KOF came out.

But Rock and Terry from Garou: Mark of the Wolves were very cool looking, weren’t they?

(Kuroki) The team was always discussing that in the early days of development on that game. I said “Our sense of style is old fashioned!” (Laughs) When I look back at Real Bout: Fatal Fury and such before that, we either had bearded old men or macho-looking characters. That was no good.

(Laughs)

(Kuroki) In Garou: Mark of the Wolves we held back on the thicker design a bit, and decided to incorporate some elements that the market was after.

The number of female SNK fans increased after KOF, right?

(Kuroki) The word “moe” started coming into use right around when Garou: Mark of the Wolves was under development, but we were struggling a bit because we wanted to incorporate “moe” into the game, but we didn’t really understand what it was! Luckily there was someone who worked at the company who was very well informed, and he gave me a lecture on it. That’s how Hotaru came about.

That makes sense, she is a little sister-type character. The ending to Garou: Mark of the Wolves eluded to there being more to come, so were there plans for a part 2?

(Kuroki) I get asked that a lot, but I actually didn’t have anything to do with the story. The planners probably don’t know anything about it either.

(Abe) Huh? I saw the story for part 2 though.

(Everyone) Huh!?

(Abe) There’s a story written for it, right up to the ending I expect.

(Asanaka) Could it be that they weren’t planning to include you in part 2, Kuroki? (Laughs)

(Kuroki) No no. I may not know anything about the story, but I created all the content!

Had development already begun on it then?

(Abe) The characters were definitely completed. Including the new ones.

(Kuroki) I also remember that the new moves for Rock and Jenet were done.

This is the first I’ve heard about all this.

(Kuroki) The old SNK ceased to exist partway through development, so unfortunately it was shelved. Oda (Yasyuki Oda, involved with the development of KOF XIV and SNK Heroines ~Tag Team Frenzy~) says that he’ll never stop wanting to make it until the day he retires. Development could actually happen, if fans are vocal enough about it.

As a fan myself, I’d love to play it. Changing subjects, Burning Fight, King of the Monsters, and Savage Reign are all dense titles as well.

(Abe) Burning Fight and all those other action games have pretty high difficulty levels, don’t they?

They really were ridiculously difficult.

(Abe) Well, I was involved in the development of Burning Fight too…

Again!? (This is actually a spoken line from Burning Fight)

(Abe) But the planner is the one who decided on that difficulty…Though games on the Neo Geo hardware were always ported to the home version as well, a game where you could just play forever on 100 yen wouldn’t be any good for arcades. That’s why you could reasonably clear the first level, and then things got gradually harder from the second level on.

(Tanaka) It was like a commendation if you were physically able to clear the last level (Laughs)

So that was the concept behind it…The design gives me feelings of deja vu in a lot of different parts of it.

(Abe) Well the thought process behind it may have been to just lean into what was popular at the time. For example, it took a lot of influence from the movie Black Rain. I also feel like the setting of the world in Savage Reign took influence from Blade Runner.

Do you think they’re that much alike!?

(Abe) We wanted to give off a vibe of it being a hodgepodge of different things, but it kind of went off in an unexpected direction (Laughs)

Savage Reign had a particularly intense setting, didn’t it?

(Abe) It was a game that was made at the height of the popularity of fighting games, and was worked on by the same team that did other action games like King of the Monsters 2. It was thought of as an attempt to release a game with different characteristics than the hand-to-hand fighting found in Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting, and was a fighting game that featured mixtures of styles like boomerang + karate, and boxing + kendo. It was estimated that it would take 1 year to develop, but it ended up taking 2 years.

What an epic (Laughs) The Neo Geo Mini is releasing, and features many of the games that you’ve all worked on, but what do you think of it?

(Tanaka) It’s great even if you’re just using it for decoration purposes.

(Kuroki) I think it’s very well made. But when I first heard about the concept of the Neo Geo Mini, I thought “But that’s an MVS Mini!” (Laughs)

Definitely (Laughs)

(Kuroki) When I heard “Neo Geo” I thought it was going to be the miniature version of the black Neo Geo home console, but I was surprised to see what it actually was.

(Abe) I think that people who remember it back from back in the day will feel a lot of nostalgia while playing it. But people who don’t will either wonder how games this absurd could ever have existed, or will think of them as fresh new experiences in their own way (Laughs) So I’d like for a lot of people to try it out, either way.

(Tanaka) Has it really been over 20 years since Metal Slug came out? At the time, I really put my heart and soul into making those pixel graphics. I’d like it if even people who aren’t familiar with pixel graphics thought “Oh, THIS is what pixel graphics are!” as they see it and have fun playing it.

(Kuroki) The Fatal Fury series is full of games in which the team responsible for making them forgot all about things like eating and sleeping, so it would make me very happy if others could feel that passion come through in the games. I’m also greatful that new attention is being paid to Garou: Mark of the Wolves (Laughs)

(Asanaka) Fighting games make up most of what’s on the Neo Geo Mini, but there really are a lot of different game genres represented on it, so it would be great if people could try out one that they wouldn’t normally play. I’d love to see more people enjoying the Neo Geo again.