The recipient of Gamest’s first ever award, Darius is a masterpiece that has remained in hearts and minds. And the thorough coverage of strategies found in the pages of Gamest magazine was at least partially responsible for the moment caused by the game. Former Gamest editor Zenji Ishii not only put together all of those articles but was also the game’s top player. Here we’ll be discussing the first Darius game with him, from the perspective of the situation surrounding arcades at the time.
Arcade First Encounters
Do you remember the first time that you saw Darius? At an exhibition or something?
(Ishii) I can’t remember exactly when. What year was Darius first shown at an AM Show?
It was the 1986 AM Show.
(Ishii) Oh, it was 1986…weren’t the same differences in the version that they showed there? I’m pretty sure there were.
I guess development wasn’t fully finished at that point.
(Ishii) I’m not completely sure, but I think the first AM Show I went to had Trojan and Scramble Formation, and those were before Darius. I went to those events regularly afterward, but I don’t really remember seeing Darius there.
Did seeing it running in an arcade leave a strong impression on you?
(Ishii) It really did, but I don’t remember too much from when I actually first saw it.
Did it feel like you were sitting down to play it before you even realized it?
(Ishii) I remember thinking that the screens were huge, the sound was great, and I particularly remember things like the last boss. I remember thinking that it was really cool, but I don’t remember being shocked the moment I saw it during a location test, or anything like that. My memories of first seeing games like Ghosts ‘n Goblins on location test are much clearer.
So then it felt more like just one of several games that you’d regularly go to the arcade and play?
(Ishii) Yes, but it definitely had an impact. I certainly felt that it was a cool game.
Did you play Darius most frequently in your local arcades?
(Ishii) I think it might have been at a Taito-run We’ll Talk arcade in Odawara? That’s where I played it.
What was that arcade like at the time?
(Ishii) Nowadays I’ll sometimes go to an arcade by myself to just play Border Break, but back then I knew everyone else who went. I was in my first or second year of high school, so I had a ton of friends that arcade ranging from people in their first year of high school, to people a bit older than me. Most of us started going to arcades in Odawara when Xevious came out, so we all made friends and had been hanging out since then.
Were there any other games that you played a lot in arcades during that time?
(Ishii) Hmm, can I see the list? What year did Darius come out again?
It was 1987.
(Ishii) Contra was 1987 too, huh? Well, I at least saw Contra in arcades. Salamander was also 1986. And if we go by Gamest issues, we did Fantasy Zone in issue 2. But Namco was still the king at this point. What did they have out in arcades?
Wonder Momo and Yokai Dochuki were both 1987…
(Ishii) Yokai Dochuki came a bit later. Thunder Ceptor and Thunder Ceptor II both came out the previous year. I remember feeling like the amount of games coming out in arcades was amazingly dense.
The rotation of games was very fast. Even those Namco games would have been gone from my local arcades in the early ‘80s.
(Ishii) It felt like it was generally considered okay for a game to stick around in a given arcade for three months. But ones that no one was playing would be gone within one week. In my hometown, games like SDI and Solomon’s Key were removed from arcades very quickly, even though they were popular games. And Ninja Spirit wasn’t pulling in much income, so it was removed early.
Evaluation at Gamest
How was Darius evaluated within Gamest’s editorial department?
(Ishii) I put together all the strategies for those articles, so I think it was probably evaluated pretty highly at the magazine in general.
The complete strategy guide (featured in the June, 1987 issue of Gamest) is still worth reading nowadays.
(Ishii) Looking at it now, strategy guides were very carefully written back then, weren’t they? Even I look at this and can’t recognize that I wrote it myself! (Laughs) It just happened to be the case that there was no one at Gamest who could play Darius perfectly, though there were plenty who could just manage to clear the game. And before I knew it, I was learning the game and writing the strategy guide.
Darius would then go on to become the winner of the first Gamest award, but did it feel like there was player excitement for the game?
(Ishii) Darius was a really fun game, relatively popular, and everyone thought it was great. But we figured there’s no way it would get the Gamest award.
Why was that?
(Ishii) I think maybe we all thought After Burner II would get the award? One of the reasons is that since Darius was ultimately a shooting game, the amount of income it generated wasn’t going to be that high. So arcade operators wouldn’t value it very highly, and After Burner II would end up coming in higher. Plus After Burner II’s cabinet was very popular and was more of an experience. (Looking at the list of games for the first Gamest awards) OutRun was on there too. That was an amazing racing game, so I think we felt there was a really good chance that a Sega game would end up taking it. We didn’t think R-Type or Dragon Spirit had a chance either…it had to be either After Burner II or OutRun. There weren’t a ton of Darius machines out there in terms of numbers, either. To put it bluntly, doesn’t the fact that I was number one in the country sort of prove that? At least that’s what part of me thought.
Just Another Horizontal Shooter
The Darius series continues today and has many fans. But one of the questions about Darius that we wanted to ask you about today was regarding younger fans thinking that the original game wasn’t particularly amazing, and was just another shooting game, with the recent PS4 re-release. As someone who was impressed by it in real time, why do you think that is?
(Ishii) The biggest reason is that they’re not playing it on the original cabinet. Games are subject to the era in which they were created. Things like sound quality may not deteriorate over time, but when it comes to things like graphics, games that were considered amazing at the time can, with the passage of time, lose their appeal and no longer be appreciated on a sensory level. It’s the same with games like Ghosts ‘n Goblins. For example, you can play Street Fighter II on the Switch with the release of Ultra Street Fighter II. But Street Fighter II was so popular at the time because its graphics were amazing. There was just a bunch of great pixel art during that era. And with Darius, you got to feel the impact of these huge bosses appearing on a big cabinet with three screens. I also feel a big draw of it was the Body Sonic feature that was a part of the cabinet, which vibrated the whole thing. What game do you think set the standard for what makes a horizontal shooter?
Ah, let’s see… (they both think for a moment)
(Both, at the same time) Gradius! (Both of them laugh)
Sidebar: What were the Gamest Awards?
These were awards for the year’s best game that were voted on by readers from sending in a special post card, found in the pages of Gamest magazine. These awards were held in the magazine from 1987 through 1998. The title chosen for a given year’s award was recognized as a representative title for that given year. But since this was voted on by magazine readers, it wasn’t necessarily the case that the most popular arcade games would always win, which would briefly result in disputes between hardcore fans. Incidentally, the original Darius won the 1987 Gamest Award, along with the awards for best music and best ending.
Key Person: Akira Fujita
(Ishii) I believe that Mr. Fujita is the main person responsible for creating the structure of Darius. I used to often go to Taito’s central facility and talk to him, and we’d eat at the Fujiya next to the facility. He’s quite an enthusiast, and the titles he’s worked on really show how well he knows games. I think Arkanoid was probably him, as well. He was very good at sort of remaking older popular games in a more modern form, and bringing out what made them fun in a simple way. Darius really has all of the fundamentals of the horizontal shooter accounted for. It has terrain, your ship shoots missiles, and you can fire the missiles just beyond the terrain. That’s the fun of a horizontal shooting game. Is sticking that much to the fundamentals rare for one of those games?
(Ishii) All sorts of different people work as developers, and I used to interact with many of them. But I really think that Mr. Fujita is a truly wonderful developer. I believe he worked on more titles after Darius, but he ended up quitting Taito and exiting the industry. So as a result, he’s not very well known. He’s barely known at all compared to people like Fukio Mitsuji or Kenji Kaido, who made Night Striker. I believe Mr. Fujita was the one who actually served as the main director on Darius, but someone higher up’s name was attached to the project first. And that’s why I think he should be valued highly as a wonderful developer.
Would you consider Scramble to be the origin of the horizontal shooter?
(Ishii) I think it’s Scramble. If you really force it, you can find games from the ‘70s that sort of resembled it. But I suspect that Scramble is probably what Mr. Fujita had in mind when he made Darius. Surprisingly, there aren’t many horizontal shooters like Scramble that stick to the fundamentals.
Those fundamentals are essentially separating out bombs and missiles, having enemies both in air and on land, having terrain, and forced scrolling.
(Ishii) It’s the same with Gradius, but that game is unique in its own way. At first glance, Darius may look like an ordinary shooting game. But there are many parts of that normality that make the game good.
It’s packed full of universal simplicity from the horizontal scrolling shooter genre, and it’s an arranged in a way that suits a game of that time. An important point of video games for me is the use of cutting edge technology, so I think seeing what cutting edge technology was used in games at the time they were point is part of the fun.
(Ishii) I think that’s what games should fundamentally be like.
It can be said that it doesn’t do anything extravagant as a horizontal shooter, but it gained support through its meticulous craftsmanship and large cabinet.
(Ishii) People were used to playing shooting games on a table style cabinet at the time. So being able to play one on a cabinet that big was definitely one of the reasons Darius was popular.
Arcade Games Originally All Had Unique Cabinets
Darius was released in such a big cabinet to stress the importance of experiences you could only get in an arcade, in an era when arcade games were being influenced by the Famicom, and other home consoles. At least that’s my theory…
(Ishii) To put it simply, arcade games all had their own unique cabinets back in the ‘70s. But Breakout and Space Invaders came in table style cabinets, making it so that everyone could just swap out the board inside. And then there was the fact that arcades had an image problem: People called them gathering places for hoodlums who would be stooped over playing Space Invaders in a dark room. So Sega released their own large cabinets to try to do something about that image. And they burst onto the scene and basically said “arcades aren’t like they used to be anymore!” When you think of big arcade cabinets, you think of the ones that Sega released in the ‘80s. But in reality they were very expensive, and couldn’t really fit in the tiny little arcades that were frequently in front of train stations at the time. And shooting games in table cabinets with the standard joystick and buttons that a player could put 50 yen in and play for awhile were quite popular. And I felt Darius was an extension of that idea. Sega really brightened up the image that arcades had, and they became known as places to have fun at that were like nowhere else. And I think maybe that’s why none of Sega’s larger cabinets ended up getting the Gamest award.
So it went over differently with gamers?
(Ishii) Yes, they weirdly sort of clashed with each other. It’s odd, though, because I thought they wanted arcades to be accepted by the rest of society.
The Community at the Time
What were the people who regularly visited arcades back then mostly like?
(Ishii) It’s not so much describing what they were like, but we all had a mysterious bond between us! (Laughs) It’s an odd way to say it, but it was like we’d already formed our own resistance and were going to start a revolution. And there were people from all walks of life, and all that may have been the big allure of going to them, for me. In the ‘80s, we were still in the bubble economy. It would burst in the ‘90s, but everyone thought they should have houses like Masuo did in the Sazae-san anime. That’s another aspect that’s very different from today. It was a time where you’d get out of college and get into a big trading firm or financial institution. Then men would go out into the work force and starting earning money, and women would just stay at home all the time and take care of the house. And people would just have lifetime employment. That sort of thing happened a lot, and that value system was a part of it. But of course there are all sorts of different types of people. For example, nowadays, a lot of people get divorced. One of the parents goes away, and the other does their best to raise the kids on their own. People who drop out of school partway through or aren’t sure where they can get a job at gathering in arcades, and those people have at least parts of them that are different from everyone else around them. And because of that, considering various things environmentally and thinking about society in various ways quickly is challenging, even though they’re not yankees or anything! (Laughs) There are also people who don’t go to arcades and feel that you have to take things seriously, and don’t really think about much of anything because it’s fine as long as they just follow the rules. Even I went to college, and because we were already in the bubble economy and it was a pretty good college, most of the people who went there were this type of person. They were the complete opposite of the type of person who went to arcades. All sorts of different types of people went there, with different situations and worries at home. They probably thought games were so wonderful and used them to get away from those things! (Laughs)
How big was the arcade you went to?
(Ishii) Not that big, it felt fairly normal for the time. This Taito arcade has a second floor too, of roughly the same size. Though there weren’t many of them, there were some large cabinets on the first floor. But it wasn’t very big.
Playing Cards in the Park Late at Night
Did you ever venture out to arcades in other areas?
(Ishii) Yeah, I did. But in my hometown there was also a Namco rooftop arcade, and that and the Taito one I’ve been mentioning where my main ones, I guess. The Namco one closed at 7 PM, so anytime after that we’d go over to the Taito one.
The Taito location would have been open until midnight.
(Ishii) Yes, until midnight. We’d hang out at the arcade until then, and afterward we’d play cards at a bench outside of Odawara Castle park, or whatever.
How many regulars were there at those arcades?
(Ishii) Oh boy, how many were there? I may not have known as many of them as some others did. But I think there were about 10 or 20 of them that I was friends with.
Did you ever take any of them with you when you went out to other arcades?
(Ishii) That did happen sometimes, but most of the times that I went to Tokyo, I went by myself. And when Darius came out, there was already a Namco PlayCity Carrot arcade in Oofuna, so I remember going there. I might have gone there more frequently, come to think of it.
To the PlayCity Carrot arcade in Oofuna?
(Ishii) I think I’d skip college classes sometimes and just hang out there all day, though I don’t think Oofuna had a Darius cabinet. So, when I think about what kind of life I was living back then, I can’t help but laugh. I think I was playing Darius every day, but I was based in Odawara at that time. What kind of life I was leading at that moment, well…
Were there strategies that were passed between skilled players in a given arcade back when they were being discovered?
(Ishii) I was totally into high score chasing back then, so I was using my network and getting information from all sorts of places. I thought of having the best information as being a skill in of itself.
How did you go about getting your information?
(Ishii) Most of the time it happened pretty naturally: I’d be playing in the arcade, and I’d notice that someone was good, and I’d talk to them. I feel like I got most of my information from going to the PlayCity Carrot in Sugamo. But I barely did anything like that for Darius.
So then did you come up with most of the strategies on your own?
(Ishii) For Darius, I’m pretty sure it was just having fun playing it, and ending up with high scores.
First Route Cleared was Strong Shell
What was the first route that you started writing strategies for? Do you remember which boss you beat first?
(Ishii) I think it was probably Strong Shell, since he’s the easiest one to beat. I think it’s probably the route that your average player would follow. I don’t think I’m particularly good at Darius, nor do I think I’m that good at shooting games in general. I really died quite often on the second stage. I remember dying quite a bit in areas with difficult terrain, like the pipes in Zone B. I think I spent 2 or 3 thousand yen just to clear stage 2.
Were your troubles with stage the biggest pain point you remember having in clearing the game?
(Ishii) Maybe. Because everything after that point is fundamentally just a matter of learning patterns. Though it takes a good bit of work to get used to making sure your position is correct relative to that of the enemies. But because you get better and learn naturally just through killing more and more enemies, that may be the reason that it worked out so well for me. So I cleared it normally, then cleared it on the easiest route, then cleared all of the routes. And after I cleared all the routes, I went to the particularly difficult stages that I hadn’t been to before. Then I blew all the legs off of Cuttle Fish and cleared the game that way, and then I went for high score by killing as many enemies as I could. Then after that, I cleared the game with the laser and wave beam, which is a feat since playing with the laser is difficult in the Old Version of the game. And then last was facing off against Great Thing. I stepped things up in a very gradual and manageable way! (Laughs)
Where you the one who came up with the naming for everything? Like calling Green Coronatus “Illegitimate Child” and such?
(Ishii) People really got into the naming! (Laughs) Who came up with all that…I wonder if it was me? I had always thought that I couldn’t compete with pure skill, so I was always thinking about easier or less noticeable ways to aim for a high score from back then. That’s probably how I came up with it. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem so easy. I had to force my way through it quite a bit.
When did you think of taking on the game with the Wave Beam, given that lack of user-friendliness of the Laser in the Old Version?
(Ishii) It was probably after I cleared everything using the missiles. So, because Fatty Glutton’s piranhas explode when you get close to them, I was always thinking about getting closer to them and making the piranha bullets explode, which created a gap when I moved back. That’s the kind of thing I was always thinking about. Doing that would make that boss fight easier. So I used my head in these sorts of ways to make things easier. Because if I didn’t, I figured I wouldn’t really be able to compete on a high score level. It worked out relatively well as a way to figure out strategy for the game.
Was there a boss that you didn’t like fighting?
(Ishii) Not particularly. One thing that really stuck with me was using hyper armor to get into a narrow space and getting sucked in and killed. I really didn’t like that! (Laughs)
I believe at first, the biggest high scoring strategy was to milk during the Cuttle Fish fight. But it was possible to get high scores on routes other than that one. At least that’s what I recall, but is that accurate?
(Ishii) Hmm, I wonder. The Gamest’s score aggregation is divided by course, and I think there’s a feeling of wanting to achieve a balanced score for each course. In Beep! Mega Drive Magazine, it seems like they didn’t compile scores for all the courses. Things were like that back then.
Score Aggregation and Information Gathering
There were also score aggregations in Beep! Mega Drive Magazine and Amusement Life, right?
(Ishii) There were, but Amusement Life’s may not have been a national aggregation, though they published something. My name even appeared in Amusement Life! (Laughs)
Was your local arcade included in the score aggregations?
(Ishii) It was, since it was a We’ll Talk Taito arcade, after all. (Flipping through an issue of Gamest) Ahh, there it is: We’ll Talk. I think we might have done Yokai Dochuki after this, and Bubble Bobble was before this.
Did you clear all the stages in Bubble Bobble?
(Ishii) I think so…I wonder if I cleared the secret ones as well, I can’t really remember. I definitely remember writing articles about Bubble Bobble in Gamest, though. And what I remember about that is even though I tried my hardest to write research and write about what items would appear when based on my own experience, I realized it was all for nothing when Fukio Mitsuji revealed the conditions and patterns for them appearing! (Laughs) When it’s written out so clearly like that, it can spoil a bit of the fun.
It sort of robs you of the fun of hunting around to try to figure it out yourself…
(Ishii) That may be true…those sorts of vague things can be pretty fun. If you just come right out and say how it works…it’s kind of like “Oops, I’m sorry!” (Laughs)
You were into Xevious and you researched all of the solutions to the levels in The Tower of Druaga, but how did you get your information?
(Ishii) I write about this quite a bit, but the first game that I really started going out and gathering information for was Druaga. If you didn’t have that, there was really nothing you could do.
Was it you hearing about a guy who made it to whatever floor, and then you’d go and talk to them?
(Ishii) Actually, I seem to recall hearing that I could find out everything I wanted to know in Tokyo. So I think I went to Namco arcades in Tokyo, and Game Boutique Takadanobaba. And during that time I bumped into some members of a game circle called ACU by pure chance, and we exchanged information. We each had about the same amount of information, but it was different between us, so it worked out pretty well.
So you sorted out all of your information together.
(Ishii) But the people who went to Takadanobaba had already cleared out and knew everything about the game. I think this was around the time that PlayCity Carrot in Sugamo had just opened, so it wasn’t that famous yet.
There weren’t that many people going to Sugamo at that time?
(Ishii) This was in February 1984, relatively soon after it opened. So in terms of that, Sugamo Carrot wasn’t that old. There may have been older places, but it was all pretty new compared to truly older arcades like Game Boutique Takadanobaba and Milaiya. But Sugamo was a pretty good location for an arcade, there were probably a lot of schools there? It was salary men and kids, the ideal customer base. It didn’t feel like the only people who went there were hardcore players. It was in a basement, but it was spacious, so that’s why I felt like it was an ideal arcade.
Game Circle EMC
It seems as though you made a Druaga strategy guide, but did you do it all by yourself?
(Ishii) I think someone from the same game circle, called ECM, that Apapa who wrote the puzzle game articles for Gamest was in, did the art. And Fisher, who contributed to the Gain Ground coverage and such in Gamest, helped me research the treasure chests.
After that you became involved with Gamest for the strategy guide for Ghosts ‘n Goblins, but did you have some connection to another game circle called VG2?
(Ishii) I knew quite a few people in VG2, but I wasn’t too involved in the circle. It’s like, what should I say about that circle? They were just normal gaming buddies, I guess.
There was nothing particularly special about the way circles interact with one another?
(Ishii) Even though ECM was ultimately a game circle, it felt like just a bunch of friends who liked games too. Our relationship was very loose. Nothing was really enforced, and we made the things we did because we liked books about Druaga, and stuff like that. VG2 was much more of a real game circle.
Wasn’t ECM a circle that you setup though?
(Ishii) I’m not sure if I was the one who did it or not.
Did someone in your group of friends suggest that you should all call yourselves that?
(Ishii) Right, and I think that maybe Apapa was maybe kind of the leader of the circle? But again, it was only very loosely a circle to begin with.
Back then, was there a culture where players gathering together would form a circle?
(Ishii) Sure enough, it started to become a trend to attach a circle name to high scores published in Beep! Mega Drive magazine. Since we were all friends, we thought, “Let’s use the same circle name for our high score names,” and we kind of went along with that flow.
I see, so that sort of thing was its own movement.
(Ishii) It was, it absolutely was.
VG2 operated as a pretty large circle back then.
(Ishii) VG2 was very well known as a game circle even before this period, and I heard stories about them doing nationwide events, or what we now call offline meetups. It gave me the impression that there were people out there doing such impressive circle activities.
Meanwhile, you were part of a much more laid-back game circle.
(Ishii) VG2 has an image of being a much older group, doesn’t it? We, like many others across the country, felt that naming circles was becoming a trend, so we jumped on that and formed our circle. And I feel like a lot of groups did that during that time. It was the same with groups like SPREAM, and STAC in Osaka.
At that time, were things often viewed on a player-by-player basis rather than on a circle level?
(Ishii) Hmm, that’s a subtle difference. I think there were aspects of both, right? But having a circle name attached made it look like a significant force because the numbers increased compared to individual players. Places like Odawara and Oofuna had people from ECM, you know? It’s like leaving behind those traces, wanting to show that those forces existed.
There were all sorts of things happening in game circles at that time.
(Ishii) Groups like VG2 had real newsletters and might have even collected membership fees. I think groups such as VG2 were actively engaged in activities, producing regular newsletters and even doujinshi. They had a distinct circle-like vibe. In my case, we initially gathered at the arcade to play together, and it naturally evolved into the idea of giving ourselves a circle name and creating high score names. It was just us going, “Let’s make our own circle name too!”, and that was a pattern seen nationwide. So, creating doujinshi wasn’t necessarily the primary focus.
So it felt more like having experiences together as players and deepening your friendships?
(Ishii) Yeah, like that. And also standing out with our circle name attached to our high scores! (Laughs) It felt kind of like we were claiming our territory.
The Era of Fighting Games
Fighting games took over arcades shortly after this, and my impression is that the number of game circles like the ones we’ve been talking about decreased at that point. Do you feel that’s true?
(Ishii) Nowadays, the idea of getting high scores might seem a bit outdated, but around the year 2000, it was still a niche culture with a relatively small group of skilled players. The high score culture persisted in a similar fashion to before. So, there was still that circle-like atmosphere, and then for a while, there were location competitions featured in Gamest, with ratings and stars. That competition intensified for a period as well. There were various cheap tactics. For example, a technique called “stopping at the last minute”, where you could achieve a higher score but intentionally stop just short of it. By gradually increasing the score each month without completely overwriting it, you could earn stars with each update. This practice was disliked because of that strategy (laughs). People would say, If you can achieve the score, just go all out from the beginning!
I think the dynamics in competitive fighting games have also changed over time, haven’t they?
(Ishii) What changed the most is probably the player mindset, evolving with the times.
There were people who had been playing games for a while and smoothly transitioned to competitive fighting games, but were there also those who couldn’t make the transition?
(Ishii) There definitely were, without a doubt. But fighting game boom was a huge thing that happened worldwide. So it was all kind of like…behind the scenes of all of that.
I was also the type of person who wasn’t quite on board with the fighting game boom.
(Ishii) I think there were a lot of people who weren’t. I probably would have quit playing them if doing so hadn’t been my job.
In my case, what I seek in video games is a dialogue with the developers or wanting to experience the world they create, playing through it until the end…
(Ishii) Yeah, exactly. Also, finding loopholes in the game (laughs). I thought, “Developers must be thinking and creating in this way,” so there should be a gap in their psychology here, and I played with that kind of mindset.
In addition to that, I was fascinated by the latest technology that seemed to be integrated into video games, and I was exploring the enjoyment that came along with that.
(Ishii) It was the same with strategies for Darius and such, but through my own efforts and perseverance, getting better allowed me to see new aspects of the game and enjoy the experience. A sense of achievement can be experienced without having to be an elite in society. The thrill of sense of achievement at an arcade really felt wonderful, didn’t it?
Especially with Darius, I think it was a game where the accumulation of skills and experience really paid off.
(Ishii) Fighting games are more complicated, what with there being conclusive winners and losers. A friend of mine said “One-on-one competitive games like fighting games often lead to one person experiencing frustration, which can result in about half the players eventually quitting.” (Laughs)
That’s an interesting way of thinking about it (Laughs)
(Ishii) Incidentally, Border Break is a 10 vs. 10 game. So if you lose, you can think that it’s the fault of the remaining 5 people who lost this time. So, there are fewer people quitting compared to one-on-one battles. It’s quite a unique theory (laughs).”
Popular but Didn’t Make Much Money
How much money did Darius bring in for arcades at the time?
(Ishii) I think there was a lot said about the income it was bringing in initially, and the reception among arcade operators wasn’t good. There’s a tendency to think that games that don’t bring in much money are automatically bad. So, even with Darius receiving awards like the Gamest Award, there might have been a somewhat indifferent reaction from people. Like “Okay, whatever.” But I definitely think it was profitable just about everywhere. Even if it reached a point where players could clear it every day, as long as it had a reasonable amount of daily play, considering it’s a large arcade cabinet, it would eventually be profitable. And given its decent lifespan, when you think about it, it more than made up for the investment.
I mean you did say that you spend 2 or 3,000 yen just on stage 2 alone.
(Ishii) That was definitely the case at first, because it wasn’t so easy of a game. But once I got used to it, it was pretty easy. Darius is the type of game where you get a barrier around you with the Arm power up, and so dying just once can basically mean that it’s game over. Since that’s basically the same as setting the game to give you only one life, that can be it. Gradius is also very well known for this. Though it might seem like it’s not bringing in any money after multiple loops.
At that time, how was the popularity overall? I have the impression that the machines were consistently in use without much downtime.
(Ishii) There was undoubtedly tremendous popularity in the sense that the machines were always in use. That’s for sure; 100 yen coins piled up like a tower. Reserved 100 yen coins (laughs). But back then, from the perspective of the arcade, even if there were people waiting in line, it might not be considered a popular game because it was the 1980s. The playtime was long. Still, in rural arcades, these aren’t places where people come in endlessly and rotate. So considering that, I think it was a good game.
At first, I would die quickly, but as I got used to it, it became more like playing for about 30 minutes in one go until the end. I would also sit next to friends and watch their play.
(Ishii) That’s what it was like.
And now we’re on to the Extra Version. I believe you contributed to the balance adjustments found in this version, but what memories do you have of this?
(Ishii) I wanted players to take a different route. Usually, the lower route is easier, so everyone naturally wants to go down. Not the route Great Thing.
Are you talking about Strong Shell?
(Ishii) Maybe that was it? I thought that was probably the easiest route, so I tried to make it challenging and encourage players to go upwards. But after I finished the adjustments, Mr. Fujita made some changes again, and when he realized there were no new enemies in the upper route, he added some tough enemies. As a result, with the introduction of these tougher enemies (Setoa) flying in that area, the upper route became difficult. And in the end, players stopped going up. So, it ended up not making much sense. I should have clearly communicated my intentions, but I didn’t go that far in expressing them.
I really hated those enemies, they were so tough.
(Ishii) I didn’t put those in, Mr. Fujita did. Also, I believe the lower Great Thing route was a pretty common one, but there’s zone T where I added some regular enemies. Surprisingly, they weren’t that strong. But in zone P, they seem powerful because of the limited space, and bullets can’t pass through the terrain, making them formidable. However, when they come out on zone T, they turned out to be not strong at all. So in the end, the lower route became easier, after all.
And your adjustments were aimed at encouraging players to take other routes.
(Ishii) That’s what I was trying to do, at least in my case. The first thing I asked was “Can the stages be rearranged?” I suggested rearranging stages, like changing what up until now has been zone P to something else, such K or L. But I was told that it might be a bit challenging in terms of system limitations. In the end, it became more about changing which enemies to include. Also, the Iron Hammer boss was relatively weak, since it only moved up and down. I had originally thought about adjusting the enemy’s bullet speed based on their type, deliberately adding slow bullets. Since all the original bullets had the same speed, adding slower bullets caused the bullets to spread horizontally and vertically. It made it a bit more challenging. Those are the kind of changes that I made. It seems that making Iron Hammer a more challenging boss worked out quite well.
Iron Hammer had a lot of health, but other than that was pretty weak.
(Ishii) It felt like a pretty relaxed fight just moving around, so now players needed to avoid the bullets. With the Extra Version, since they added a bonus for remaining lives, it eventually became a competition for the bonus from the white balls. It felt like the game lost a bit of its charm.
Powering Up the Laser
Was there a conscious effort to power up the laser?
(Ishii) That might have been the initial plan. I also had that intention, and considering the original game system, where you power up in sequence, it would be problematic if the laser remained the same. So, there was a natural inclination for both the development team and myself to think that way. The idea of powering up the laser was there from the beginning to let players experience the fun of the wave beam.
And changes like where damaging the boss’s parts also adds to the damage to the main body.
(Ishii) That was ultimately because Fatty Glutton was too strong. So, we were thinking about how to make the laser stronger, and having it penetrate properly made it easier to defeat bosses. Program-wise, that change was surprisingly smooth. However, completely swapping scenes is something that couldn’t be done. It’s probably due to the way the program is structured. When branching, it branches seamlessly, so that might have been a factor. I thought it could be done, but swapping stages just couldn’t be implemented.
Did you really want to try swapping stages around?
(Ishii) Swapping stages creates that surprise of “Wait..where should I go?” when you play for the first time, right? It’s like playing new stages one after another. So, I wanted to change the terrain for each stage. I was told that enemies could be added to the meteor level, and in the old version, there were no airborne enemies during the meteor section. So, I thought it could have been made more challenging there; it was a bit too easy.
Not Adjustments for Hardcore Players
Was there also consideration given to increasing the difficulty level?
(Ishii) There wasn’t a focus on making it more difficult. Rather, the main premise was to adjust parts that were too easy, like dealing with Iron Hammer and making the wave beam and laser somewhat usable. Also, since the enemy placements could be changed, I tried to make it just a tiny bit more challenging. There wasn’t a specific intention to make it so difficult that it would be more geared toward the hardcore players. Considering that If the laser and wave become more usable, the difficulty level drops overall, there have been some thought that it’s okay to make it just a bit more challenging. In a Darius kind of way. Although I didn’t explicitly mention that it’s better to get the bonus for remaining lives, it just felt right It’s just that, from an income perspective, you don’t want players to earn too many points.
Because in the Old Version, players would just use their extra lives to farm points.
(Ishii) That’s why it turned out that way; it wasn’t something that I explicitly proposed. The basic idea was the longer the player, the more income was coming in. I wasn’t trying to make it more difficult for just the hardcore like in other versions of the game. I didn’t think that was the right approach.
In simple terms, the order was to make it even more fun?
(Ishii) The initial order might have been a request to make the Laser and Wave more usable. So, at that time, it was probably an exception. Back then, adjustments for hardcore players weren’t common. There might have been one person before me doing that behind the scenes somewhere, quietly.
The Value of the Extra Version
What did people think of the Extra Version once it released?
(Ishii) It was well received. A fairly normal reception. But you know, there were people who wanted to rack up points in the Old Version, and they switched over to the Extra Version, reluctantly. From their perspective, The Extra Version ultimately led to a decline in popularity, and there are people who want to say, “I told you so!” So, it was a bit troublesome (Laughs)
What was the feedback from the game maker of things?
(Ishii) Completely normal, they told us we did a great job. There wasn’t anything like a dramatic increase in income! (Laughs) Overall, everyone enjoyed it. I think that’s an accurate portrayal? Some people who had been racking up score consistently in the Old Version might have thought, “I was really getting high scores in that version, and now they’ve changed it!” but I hope they don’t make up stories about the past! (Laughs). People generally enjoyed playing it, especially casual players.
A Nightmare Video Filming
Darius promotional videos were released at that time, and it seems you participated as a player. How was the filming process?
(Ishii) Filming that video was a nightmare, and I want to seal it away as a dark even in history! (Laughs)
(Ishii) Even in the article, there are a lot of excuses written for it.
You were playing with three monitors lined up, right?
(Ishii) Yes. But when there’s a gap between monitors like this, playing becomes difficult. At that time, we were promoting the fact that we recorded the footage from the actual arcade board, so the image quality was good. However, the standards were not unified at all, and there were differences in output depending on the board. There were issues where the synchronization didn’t work at all. In essence, we were trying to record directly from the inside, but the equipment didn’t work well at all. Often, we were left waiting around for a whole day without doing anything and just had to go home. That’s how filming that video for Darius was. There was that kind of pressure. We were working for a certain amount per day, and naturally, labor costs were incurred.
Was it like renting out a studio?
(Ishii) It wasn’t done at a studio, but rather at the manufacturer, Taito, at their central facility using their advanced equipment. The people running it were making adjustments all day long. We were just waiting around the entire time eating cup noodles. It seemed like they needed to get it all wrapped up in a single day. I played on the video for The Ninja Warriors too, and that was all done in one session. In retrospect, expressing your desire for more flexibility to play until you were satisfied might have been a good idea. The one-take approach certainly added a unique aspect to the recordings. Looking back, I should have demonstrated the typical inflexibility of hardcore players and insisted on playing until I was satisfied! (Laughs)
The Genre is Environmental Video
During that era, there were no precedents for video game play videos, right? How did the production side perceive it?
(Ishii) I think even Darius was in the early days of environmental videos.
(Ishii) They were handled the same way those videos of flowing rivers are, you know? There wasn’t anyone who knew exactly what would even be good to film for videos like that about games.
From a creation standpoint?
(Ishii) From anyone outside of the game industry and hardcore players. They should be like compilations of great plays when you’re watching baseball, or something. Jimmy Kobayashi, who directed the video, at least understood that.
It was a transitional period until the more intentional designed super play videos started coming out.
(Ishii) Anyway, it took one or two days to complete something like that, especially in the early days of Darius. For that game, we spent a whole day or two just on setting up. We had a plan in our heads to intentionally tackle difficult stages and try to clear them, but it didn’t go as expected at all. Even though they sent me a copy, it’s still completely unopened.
(Ishii) I couldn’t even look at it.
What was the reaction to that video?
(Ishii) I don’t really remember how it was received. I just remember that the one for R-Type went over really well. That one was filmed properly, exactly how I’d pictured it. Oh, wasn’t Taito’s Kiki Kaikai on there as well? Wasn’t it like Scramble Formation, Kiki Kaikai, and Darius?
There’s one version with those three titles, and another with just Darius.
(Ishii) Anyway, setting up Darius was a real struggle. Compared to that, Scramble Formation and Kiki Kaikai went pretty smoothly. But Scramble Formation wasn’t as popular among the hardcore players, and I didn’t think it would sell so well.
Still, since the plan was proposed and approved, there must have been some potential, right?
(Ishii) That was probably because Taito had put some marketing into it. I remember them releasing soundtrack CDs here and there, at the time. That was the trend, so they asked if there wasn’t anything else to do this with. I suggested Gladiator (Ougon no Shiro, a 1986 Taito game), but they took one look and quickly rejected that idea. Darius was tough in the beginning, and that’s why we started doing this with various other things. The first time we were able to lead and create something we thought would work well as an editorial team was with Gradius II. After that, despite trying various things, the first title we directly aimed to sell through Gamest was Final Fight, which I directed in the studio.
A Game That Can’t Be Properly Expressed
Where does Darius rank for you as a game?
(Ishii) If you’re going for a safe bet, Darius is truly an exciting shooting game, especially the climax at the end. The final boss theme is a masterpiece. Originally, I thought that creating games would be more interesting than playing them, although I didn’t immediately pursue a career in development. However, Darius stands out for me, and I feel that playing it is better. It’s a game where you can really immerse yourself in the world. But you know, surprisingly, even though there are many aspects of Darius that I appreciate, when I’m asked about it or told about it, I find it challenging to articulate my feelings well. Whether in words or writing, expressing how amazing this game is can be difficult for me. I wonder why? It’s one of those games that I can’t express well in that regard.
Treading New Ground in the World of Sound
I was in the second or third year of middle school at that time. A without a doubt, I got really hooked on the amazing atmosphere of it.
(Ishii) Because Hisayoshi Ogura’s sound was so amazing!
It was such avant-garde sound for that era!
(Ishii) Back in those days, many of the people working on game sounds wanted to pursue other types of music but ended up in the game industry. There were quite a few who had a strong desire to create better sounds and often carried a complex about it. However, Mr. Ogura didn’t seem to convey that much, and he had a defiance about him. On the contrary, as a player I felt that game music was sublime. So, someone like Mr. Ogura seemed more normal to me. When I did interviews at the time with a perspective that game music was good because it was game music, I got the impression that a majority of sound developers had a complex and felt that they couldn’t produce the sound they envisioned. In that regard, Darius had a refreshing quality about it. It was all about the unique charm of game music.
I think it’s amazing that it has music that fits the game so well, and yet still has distinct qualities of the composer in it.
(Ishii) Yeah, there’s no awkwardness in it at all. Or rather, you can clearly feel yourself that this is what it’s supposed to be.
Thank you very much for the insightful conversation today. In my hometown, I used to frequent the arcades during that time. Despite it being a small community, we got all our information and strategies through word of mouth. We grew up hearing rumors about an arcade called Sugamo Carrot in Tokyo where top players gathered. And hearing your stories from that era brought back fond memories, so thank you.
(Ishii) Those moments of excitement like, “Something big is happening!” were truly enjoyable, especially back in those days. Nowadays, it’s a different story since we’re all online.
These things were never that clear. There would be this phenomenon happening around video games… or so I heard through word of mouth, and I got excited about it.
(Ishii) Yeah, that really is how it was back then!
(Jinbocho, May 15, 2017)