Astro City Mini and Game Design (Part 2)

Magazine/Site: IGCC
Date: 02/12/2021

What the Titles on the Astro City Mini Taught Me About Game Design – Part 2

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 to have my first project be Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.

Close to half of the games on the Astro City Mini were created by senior employees at AM1, the very department I was assigned to. I was learning how to make games without realizing it from seeing others make them out of the corner of my eye, but here I was a newbie that was given the challenge of a three-quarter view dance-action game…

Crack Down Was Actually Shinobi

A hint about what to do with Moonwalker came from an unexpected place.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I asked Yutaka Sugano (the original designer of Shinobi) directly why he left Team Shinobi. From Altered Beast onward it was not Sugano but Makoto Uchida that did the planning and design for their projects.

Mr. Sugano’s answer was that he left to work on a “different Shinobi game” for the System 24 board (These weren’t his exact words, but this was the general idea). So he left Team Shinobi in order to team up with the System 24 lead programmer Shuichi Katagi, to create a stand-out action game as a part of the line-up of games using the board, which had just debuted.

So then what exactly was this “different Shinobi game”? It was Crack Down. According to Mr. Sugano, the two games look very different, but they were made based on the same core mechanics. Basically…

Stealth Action as the Core

-> Head to the end of the level as you “hide” to keep out of enemy attack ranges
-> Each level is made up of obstacles and a route that allow you to progress while staying in enemy blind spots. They’re arranged in such a way to allow you to defeat regular enemies only at close range.
-> The corresponding action to Shinobi’s crouch is the wall cling

Basic Attacks + Exhilarating Bombs

-> The main attacks are close range attacks and shooting (things would be too stoic if attacking was limited only to close range)
-> Bomb attacks are the limited full-screen attacks that correspond to Shinobi’s ninja magic.

Crack Down inherited these elements from Shinobi and expanded upon them further using the capabilities of the System 24 board.

But Shinobi is side-view, whereas Crack Down is overhead-view, so this may seem hard to believe at first. But I was surprised that upon closer analysis, it was just as Mr. Sugano said.

Incidentally, I felt the feeling of stealth action in Crack Down, but I never really did with Shinobi. But when I saw that there was a bonus for killing all of the enemies with close range attacks, I realized that Mr. Sugano had intended for it to be a stealth action game all along (That’s probably why he made it about a “Shinobi”).

And the theme of Crack Down is even infiltration. This is just my own guess, but Mr. Sugano probably wanted to delve down into the theme of stealth more deeply in Crack Down, since he wasn’t able to express it as clearly in Shinobi (This was an arcade game after all, so it’s not like he could do it as well as in something like Metal Gear). The design of a game comes from company direction, so realizing your own feelings and interests within it is the job of a designer.

So the company direction for Crack Down of “make it take advantage of the capabilities of the System 24” were very much fulfilled. The System 24 ran at a much higher resolution than the System 16, and was very good at moving around a large amount of small objects on screen. And so it had a high enough resolution to make Crack Down’s split top view look good, and the enemies pouring onto the screen were the many small objects.

And the core game play was that found in Shinobi. Okay, so this is how AM1 does design!

Now I’d like to turn things back to Moonwalker. I was at a loss as to what to do with this unbelievable three-quarter view dance action game at first, but this conversation about Crack Down proved to be a very important hint for me. That was “deciding on the core game play”. Because the side-view Shinobi could be transformed into the top-view Crack Down, a three-quarter view game was nothing to be afraid of. If I was concerned about it, I could always ask the senior designers in AM1. They’d definitely help me think of a solution!

Alright, let’s do this!

Staff Test Plays of Shadow Dancer and Bonanza Bros.

Yes, this was the period in my life where I actually thought “Alright, let’s do this!”.

As I mentioned in the previous article, the duty of a game planner/designer is a jack of all trades that consists of thinking up game ideas, preparing resources, moving the creative process forward, handling negotiation with outside parties, and breaking down the project. Be that as it may, my skill level as a new employee was far too low to be a jack of all trades. I was inexperienced when it came to moving the creative process forward, as well as speed and quality of standards. Not to mention that the “negotiation with outside parties” part of Moonwalker was huge (Is there anyone else in the world but me that was a new game designer working on a game while scanning over contracts sent over from Michael Jackson’s agent that were written in English?). Unexpectedly swamped with work, I wasn’t able to fully realize this into a game idea despite the ample hints I’d gotten from Mr. Uchida and Mr. Sugano.

By all rights there should have been someone around to guide me through my job related concerns and inadequacies. However Motoshige Hokoyama, who was assigned to just that role, was tied up with his own project: Shadow Dancer. So it wasn’t a great time for him to provide much support to a new employee like me.

I’d like to touch on Shadow Dancer here. Of course it was of the Shinobi lineage, being a sequel. Mr. Sugano, the original designer/planner, had relocated to Sega of America though. So Team Shinobi had undertaken this new project with Mr. Uchida as the designer/planner. I don’t know all the details, but I guess they decided it might be a good idea for this to be re-created from the ground up despite it being a sequel (I see, that’s why Mr. Hokoyama had his hands so full).

Maybe due to Mr. Sugano’s lack of involvement, there wasn’t one bit of stealth flavor to Shadow Dancer at all. The player controls a white clad ninja (who’s not sneaking around in any way), accompanied by a white attack dog named Hayate. But the way the main character is drawn on the screen really looked very cool. Particularly during the cut-scene ninja magic sequences.

At AM1 it was a custom to let the department members play in-development games after a certain point, in what we called “staff test plays”. So we played Shadow Dancer everyday for awhile during these test plays, and after awhile it was replaced by a different game. One with the working title “Saboten (Cactus) Brothers”.

Saboten Brothers was very memorable. I never realized at the time that it was of the Shinobi lineage as well. But thinking about it now, it absolutely is. It’s a game that only AM1 could have made. At any rate, here the main characters are thieves, and there’s not much more to it. It’s a very simple stealth game. The core game play is avoiding the security guards at all costs, controlling the CG-esque main characters. The feeling and mechanics of the game came together perfectly, and I think it holds up extraordinarily well, even today.

But there was one other way in which Saboten Brothers was particularly memorable: It’s working title was pulled from a popular movie at the time (Saboten Brothers was the Japanese title for the 1986 movie Three Amigos). Needing to decide on an official name by the time of released, we put out the call to all of AM1…but somehow they decided to use my idea of “Bonanza Bros”!

The original idea came from the hugely popular American TV show “Bonanza”. It’s a word that brings to mind the gold rush, the western film genre, treasure, ore, striking it rich…that kind of thing. I really loved old black and white American TV shows, so I pulled from those. I realize I’m saying this about my own idea, but it seemed an appropriate name for a couple of thieves.

Compared to my own troubled project, I only have good memories of this one. The memories of my own project are just fragments, maybe as a defense mechanism that my brain produced from it being too stressful. So…just when and how did I decide on the core game play for Moonwalker?

Alien Storm and Uchida Dekachou’s Data Collection

One day Mr. Uchieda setup Team Shinobi’s latest game for staff test play, and called everyone over. The game he’d setup was Alien Storm. After Golden Axe, this was the long awaited sequel in terms of games that would capture my heart. I became a total fan! Even though I was so busy working on my project that I’d stayed overnight at the office for several days, I woke up early just so I could play Alien Storm.

Honestly, this game was so polished that it was blinding. It dramatically eliminated what I secretly thought was Golden Axe’s one distinct weakness: Not you in with its imagery. Alien Storm pulled me in right from the stylish, gag-filled opening. Of course they took the scrolling stages so well established by Golden Axe and added shooting stages to them as well, making it a game that’s piled high with content.

What the hell…we were expected to make games to compete in the same ring as this one!? I don’t remember all the details of why (again it’s probably my brain’s defense mechanism), but I recall feeling very shocked at how different this was from my own project.

The other thing that shocked me was how Mr. Uchida went about data collection: He had all sorts of different people play the game, noted where they all died on the map, and tallied it all up. According to his explanation, difficulty balancing was done based on this data so the difficulty curve was made into an actual curve. And apparently they did the same thing with Golden Axe too.

I see! That’s why Golden Axe was so much fun! Mr. Uchida, why didn’t you tell me this earlier!?

And just as he explained, every version of Alien Storm after this one was tuned, smoothing out the difficulty level. Though things don’t feel ridiculously difficult at first, somehow I always end up dying in some regrettable way. And as I got closer to the ending of the second half, the difficulty level shot up as though seeing through to my intentions of wanting to see the ending of the game. With that finely crafted of a difficulty curve, it was like I was playing right into Mr. Uchida’s hands.

And that’s why I was so happy when I finally overcame the difficulty and saw the ending. The ending to Alien Storm is in my top three video game endings of all time. I’m sure you can probably see it on YouTube…but if you can play through the game to see it for yourself, I think it will be much more impactful. Anyone with an Astro City Mini should definitely try doing this.

This is another digression, but seven years later when I was working on Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, I used the same data collection method to tune the difficulty. While watching video of several dozens of elementary and middle school students playing the game, I checked off the places where each of them died on a blank map of the game. The places that had the most deaths had the highest possibilities of having issues. So I’d examine the video again, and figure out whether it had to do with the terrain or with the enemies. I knew that going through that video 40-50 times would be a rough job, but I think that it’s a method worth using even now.

Because I realized just how useful it was from watching Mr. Uchida.

Epilogue – Shinobi’s Lineage

And with this, I’ve talked about all of the games (and designers) on the Astro City Mini that I was influenced by during my time at Sega.

Just in case you’re thinking that the only games I take influence from are those in Shinobi’s lineage, there are actually plenty of others as well. Hisao Oguchi’s magical Rad Mobile, Yu Suzuki’s Virtua Fighter (which I continually participated in location tests for in the lobby), and Tamichi Otsu’s Dark Edge (which he used an Amiga to make) are some of the best examples.

But of course there’s no mistaking that Shinobi style games have indeed been the ones that I’ve learned the most from. Alongside the full-body experience games, they are one of Sega’s great lineages.

Nearly all of them are collected on the Astro City Mini (Making for a truly amazing lineup!). So if what you’ve read about here has captured your interest at all, by all means give them a try for yourself.

Now that I think about it, I forgot to write more about the details of Moonwalker…

Occupying probably one of the lower seats in the Shinobi lineage, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker was completed after a long and hard battle. Even though it’s not on the Astro City Mini lineup! (Laughs)

And that’s too bad!

(Original Article here)