Important Things Learned From Irem and R-Type: Metal Slug Programmer Shinichi Hamada Talks About His Time at Irem and Nazca [Game Memories Lounge – Night 3]
Written by Tomomi Yamamura
A gathering place for all who want to talk about the memories of the games they love, it’s called the Game Memories Lounge “Hello my friend”.
Those who come in and out of this lounge are only prominent figures who have worked in the games industry. We ask these personalities and figures what kind of games they like, and what kind of memories they have of them. What kind of influence did these games have on thhis person’s current reality? This is a game love lounge where we simply talk to our heart’s content about profoundly memorable games.
On this third night, we’ll be discussing Irem’s R-Type and SNK Playmore’s Metal Slug, and how the Irem spirit flows through both of them. R-Type was an arcade shooting game, released by Irem in 1988. Metal Slug was also an arcade shooting/run & gun game, released by Nazca (later SNK) in 1996.
Tonight’s Topics: R-Type, Metal Slug
R-Type was a horizontal scrolling arcade shooting game, released by Irem in July 1997. The graphics were unique and had a very solid feel to them. And just when you think that the stages are all going to take place in a mechanical space colony, the next thing you know there are disgusting creatures and a very memorable boss. Then the next stage gives you a huge battleship. This game is truly showing the player a world full of varied mechanical and creature designs.
The player controls a ship known as the R-9, for which the most prominent characteristic is the Force pod that it’s equipped with. The Force not only acts as a barrier against enemy bullets, but also as an attack method in of itself: You can attack with it if you launch it off of your ship, or move it behind your ship to protect against bullets from that direction. This makes for an abundance of possible strategies on any given stage.
Current Capcom president Kenzo Tsujimoto founded IPM, which became Irem in 1979.
Metal Slug is an action game released by SNK in 1996. You control Peregrine Falcons Special Forces Squad member Marco, on a mission to take down General Morden and retrieve the stolen Metal Slug weapons. You make use of various weapons, and advance through battles much easier by riding in the tank known as “Metal Slug”.
Metal Slug was developed by Nazca, a company that was established in 1994. After developing Neo Geo titles such as this one and Neo Turf Masters/Big Tournament Golf, they were acquired by and merged into SNK in 1996.
Joining Irem For Love of R-Type and the Era of Upheaval That Was Moving to Nazca
(Hamada) Good evening, I’m Hamada. I have a reservation.
We’ve been waiting for you, please take a seat. Mr. Hamada, what game will you be discussing with us today?
(Hamada) That would be R-Type. R-Type is…a game that changed my life and taught me some very important lessons.
(Regular Customer) Well, well! This is great, we’re talking about R-Type! It’s a 1987 Irem game, and a really famous one that shot the side-scrolling shooting genre up to the next level! Wow, I see…R-Type changed your life!? Please include me in this conversation too! (Quickly shuffling around in their seat, with a drink in one hand)
Ahh, excuse me! You’re being a bit too pushy again…I’m sorry Mr. Hamada, our regular here really loves game music. If it’s alright with you, could they be involved in this conversation as well?
(Hamada) Please, join us.
He joined Irem as a game programmer in 1991. He left Irem in 1994 for Nazca, another game development company. Nazca was acquired by SNK, so he then worked on games for them. He was also at Sammy, then went freelance in 2015 to develop VR content. His most famous games are Metal Slug, Ninja Baseball Bat Man, etc.
A Regular Customer Who Likes Game Music
Someone who’s been active in the game industry for around 30 years. Possessing both a burning passion and deep knowledge of it, this regular customer of the lounge has a drink in their hand, and can’t stop once they’ve started talking about their passion. Due to loving game music so much that they have an uncountable number of CDs and sound sources, they are so into it that you could almost feel sorry for them. It’s all for love of game music though, and game music comes from love. And their identity…is a secret.
Well then, let’s talk about R-Type. You say that it changed your life…?
(Hamada) To be honest, I liked R-Type so much that I joined Irem in 1991! (Laughs)
(Regular Customer) How wonderful!!
So then were you still a student when you got so into R-Type?
(Hamada) That’s right. At the time my parents had just just moved us from Hiroshima to the Kansai region for job reasons, and I was in cram school to study for entrance exams. I went on to enroll in a computer trade school after that, but you couldn’t specialize in game development like you can now. I had to struggle with learning assembly at an industrial school instead. Of course I loved games and went to arcades, and I even worked part time at Sega Hi-Tech Land! (Laughs)
The perfect pattern of loving games and working at an arcade! (Laughs) But you were going to a trade school for computers, so you were already hooked.
(Hamada) I was persistent during my career consultation session that I wanted to join a game company, which made my teacher very worried! (Laughs) It was the Kansai area, so there was Capcom and plenty of other game companies around to choose from. But I wanted to make a shooting game like R-Type, so Irem was the only choice for me.
And then they actually accepted you, that’s amazing.
(Hamada) I was so happy. But as soon as I joined, a higher up said “Irem isn’t making shooting games from this year onward, we’re making action and fighting games instead!”. All I could do was think “I can’t believe this!” (Laughs)
(Regular Customer) What a tragedy! (Laughs) But at the time things were just entering the beat ’em up and fighting game booms, after all.
(Hamada) That’s right. I stayed at Irem for about three years, but in 1994 they dropped out of the games business. And a senior employee got me hired at a development company called Nazca. That’s where I worked as a programmer on probably my most well known game, Metal Slug.
Irem dropped out of the games business, so a lot of Irem’s creators went on to create Nazca, didn’t they?
(Hamada) That’s right.
And then at Nazca you worked on Metal Slug, which is even now beloved by so many gamers…what an upheaval.
(Hamada) The 90s were a big era of upheaval for us.
R-Type’s Charm is all in the Details
Speaking of R-Type, I remember the Hudson developed PC Engine port of it, as well as a stand-up cabinet of it right by the entrance at a local candy store. Even kids could take a shot at it, and at a glance it seemed like a catchy and easy to pick up and play game.
(Regular Customer) It definitely is an easy to pick up and play game. I also love R-Type, and I even bought the board back then!
(Hamada) Oh really?! I guess we’re both R-Type lovers then!
(Regular Customer) R-Type buddies! (The two of them fist bump)
(Hamada) (Laughs) That’s awesome…it was on the Irem M72 System board, right?
(Regular Customer) That’s right. It was the first board that Irem put FM sound on.
(Hamada) Right, right. It was on the Irem M72 System board, but it was rather limited on VRAM. So R-Type would only have backgrounds for part of the stage. For example when the stage 1 boss, Dobkeratops, comes out, the background goes to black. At that point the VRAM is used to display a part of that boss. The stage 3 battleship also removes the starry background, so as not to consume too much RAM.
I see. So then a part of the giant enemy graphics are swapped into VRAM and displayed. I thought the background disappearing was definitely a trick to achieve that.
(Hamada) It’s a very modest trick, isn’t it? (Laughs)
They made a limitation seem so theatrical.
(Hamada) When I joined Irem in 1991, it had been 4 years since the M72 board had released, and the more graphically capable M92 was popular. The M72 was used for games with relatively more reasonable graphics, puzzle games like Gussun Oyoyo and such.
(Regular Customer) Did you have a chance to work on any games that used the M72 board?
(Hamada) Unfortunately I didn’t. Since I joined Irem out of love for R-Type, I would have loved to have worked on at least one game that used it! (Laughs) The M72 didn’t have the ability to display enough sprites for games that had a lot of characters on-screen, so the M92 was used for those games.
R-Type’s graphics were very exciting back when it was released, but In the Hunt’s highly detailed graphics really surprised us in 1993. Who would you say was the core of the Irem graphics team at that time?
(Hamada) There were a lot of amazing people, but the one that sticks out most is naturally the graphic designer, AKIO. This is a conversation I heard from a senior employee while I was there, but apparently AKIO figured out designs and coloring on paper first, and then drew them out as pixel art. And by doing that he was very particular about the intermediate color between the pixels when comparing them to the illustrations he did on paper. I guess he’d use the blur created by the CRT monitor to reproduce the intermediate color accurately, and used the thought process of determining colors a half pixel at a time when drawing them out.
To think that he’d even put effort toward trying to reproduce the illustrations. He’s truly a pixel art craftsman.
(Hamada) AKIO wasn’t in charge of the designs for In the Hunt at first. The player originally controlled a much more futuristic looking submarine. Development ended up being difficult for various reasons, and the programmers weren’t getting any work thrown their way for several months. I also heard this from the same colleague. At that point AKIO was made the main designer, and the design work was finally completed about a year from when the project started. I saw In the Hunt in the programmers room while it was being worked on, and I was really surprised by the quality of graphics during the part in the second level where the buildings are getting blown up. And every other person who saw it there couldn’t stop talking about how amazing it looked. Everyone in the company noticed the quality of AKIO’s pixel art as well, and I think a lot of other people were inspired to do their best because of his work. I also heard that AKIO’s portfolio when he joined the company included Dobkeratops, the stage 1 boss in R-Type. Isn’t that amazing?
That is amazing. At the time I felt that the graphics in R-Type took things up a level from those of other shooting games. They just felt so high quality.
(Hamada) I felt exactly the same way. AKIO’s graphics in R-Type were so exciting: Machines were fused with disgusting aliens, and even the machines themselves felt like they were dirty. His use of color is one of a kind.
And it moved so smoothly too.
(Hamada) For example, the hull on the R-9 tilts smoothly when you’re moving up and down, which heightens the sense of realism even though they’re only 2D graphics. It’s very detailed work. There was a culture at Irem of programmers and people in other positions getting more detailed in response to the highly detailed work that was happening here. ABIKO was the person that did the level design for R-Type, and unfortunately he’d quit by the time I joined Irem. R-Type’s level design and method of play are so brilliant, and it’s so interesting no matter how many times you play it. It’s so deep that you can speed run it with some practice, and that’s the result of such detailed work. I call that kind of craftsmanship “invisible planning”, but Irem’s developers really familiarized themselves with their player base. I saw that invisible planning put into action so many times in order to get people to play their games, with my own eyes. I learned a lot from that, and I’ve continued to keep it in mind for the game development I’ve done afterward. They say that “the devil’s in the details”, and I feel that’s particularly true for R-Type.
I see. So that’s what fascinated you so much about R-Type.
(Hamada) That’s right. Incidentally, what does our regular here like about R-Type?
(Regular Customer) Let’s see…There are a lot of things, but the highly detailed planning that went into it, as Mr. Hamada was just saying, makes it such a unique game. That’s probably the thing that I like the most. For example, the movement of the Bits: They move slightly later than when the ship itself does. It’s like they’re attached to the ship with a rubber band or something. And since there’s inertia to that movement, you can move the R-9 around in such a way that you swing the Bits around, and they get further away from the ship. Using that technique, you can take out the guns underneath the level 3 battleship while you’re at the very bottom of the screen. When I first realized this, it felt like I’d really been deceived! It’s so much fun.
(Hamada) Definitely. If you stay on the very bottom of the screen and move the stick down, you can make the Bit more forward just a little bit. Then you can soak up all of the enemy attacks, together with the Force.
(Regular Customer) The movement of the Bits can keep you from dying on the last stage! (Laughs)
(Hamada) You can take advantage of those fine details, all depending on your movement. Even though it’s full of good game design sense, I like the modesty it has of not putting it front and center, but rather making the player find it.
The more you notice it, the more you grow to like it and get charmed by it. R-Type is full of that kind of appeal.
From Irem to SNK Subsidiary Nazca, and the Development of Metal Slug
You went from Irem to Nazca in 1994, right?
(Hamada) That’s right. Irem left the games business in 1994, so I went to Nazca together with AKIO.
I was surprised at how the graphical style of the Neo Geo games at that time, for example Top Hunter and The King of Fightesr ’94, changed so dramatically from everything before it. Did Nazca have anything to do with that?
(Hamada) No, Nazca was a completely different development company from SNK. They had no direct connection with the titles that SNK developed. Surprisingly though, I heard that the SNK developers did ask AKIO and the Irem graphics team about their development techniques. SNK was acquiring all sorts of development companies back then, so they were evolving their graphics in all sorts of interesting ways through that.
I see. What was Nazca like when it first started?
(Hamada) At first, Nazca was only going to make golf and shooting games. And since shooting games were on the table, I thought about doing something like making a new R-Type. But then I realized I didn’t want to make the same thing again, and so Metal Slug was born through trial and error. As for the golf games, that was Neo Turf Masters/Big Tournament Golf, which came later.
So Metal Slug was originally planned as a shooting game.
(Hamada) Yes. Metal Slug is an action game, but it’s full of all sorts of know-how and techniques from the shooting game world. The design for levels 2, 3 and the final one was done by Miihaa, and 1, 4 and 5 were done by Kujo Kazuma (now with Granzella). Miihaa’s levels were made in such a way to where the scrolling would stop for the event scenes and focus only on them. But Kujo’s levels almost never do that, which felt more like you were just running through and shooting indiscriminately. But if you got too into it, you’d get taken out by some bullet that came on-screen from far away! (Laughs)
A single shot amidst that shower of showy bullets can kill you! (Laughs)
(Hamada) That’s right. Miihaa was in charge of Undercover Cops and GeoStorm at Irem, and Kujo was in charge of In the Hunt. Both of those had the essence of that “It’s free scrolling, but you’ll die if you’re not careful” idea in them.
Kujo’s thinking in particular was very shooting game oriented.
(Hamada) That’s right. I was in charge of the player character programming, and the player character in Metal Slug during development was originally a tank. It felt very dignified, but ultimately it was a tank that could jump and crouch! (Laughs)
The main character was a tank!
(Hamada) A lot of detail was put into the movement when you ride in the tank in Metal Slug, since it was originally created as the main character. We did two location tests with the tank as the main character, and it didn’t go over very well so development on it paused. AKIO and the planner had a meeting about what to do, but I think that everyone in their hearts felt that the main character should be a human instead. So in order to push that idea, I went ahead and used the enemy soldier graphics to create a human main character.
All on your own! (Laughs)
(Hamada) When I showed it to the planner, I was called into a meeting on the third day and they said “We’re going to make the player character human!”. I immediately thought “Alright, it worked!”, but then they said “But we’re still leaving the tank in the game!”. And of course I thought “What do you mean, leaving it in?”, and they said “We’re going to make it so that you can ride in the tank!”. My reaction was “RIDE in it?!” (Laughs)
So your workload increased because of your own enthusiasm!
(Hamada) It ended up being a bigger change than I thought! (Laughs) And Metal Slug turned out the way it did because of all that work.
I see. I guess just doing what you feel like during the creative process works in any era! (Laughs)
(Hamada) And for that reason, I think Metal Slug is a game that the programmers, graphic designers and planners all combined the skills they’d learned at Irem to create.
So you can draw a line right from R-Type to Metal Slug.
Sleeping at the Office and All Nighters, We Were Able to Give it Our All Because it Was All So Much Fun! Days of Sprinting at Full Speed
(Hamada) While working on Metal Slug, I felt like I couldn’t hold the rest of the staff back since I was working with people I’d looked up to and that had worked on my favorite games. We all slept at the office three days a week: We’d work until 5 in the morning, and then just go under our desks and sleep in our futon or sleeping bag! (Laughs)
Ahh, that was something people only really did back then. (Laughs)
(Hamada) It’s an unthinkable thing to do these days, right? (Laughs)
(Regular Customer) That happened no matter where you worked back then! (Laughs)
(Hamada) But our days of doing that were so much fun. And because they were so fun, we put everything we had into creation and dedicated all of our time to figuring things out. It felt like we could make up ground no matter how many mistakes we made, and we were accumulating knowledge from the good and the bad. It really improved us all. And most of all we were all weirdos that loved games, and that made it so much fun. This was from our time at Irem, but we’d punch out and stay until 1 AM just playing games. Someone would say “I wonder what the range on the Nintendo Super Scope is?!”, so we’d keep firing it, backing up 1 meter at a time. And we all just lost it when we found out that the limit on it was 12 meters! (Laughs) Of course we didn’t always do things like that, just some of the time.
(Laughs) The point here being that you did it because it was fun.
(Hamada) Right. Staying overnight at the office for work and messing around made it like we were in a boarding house, like it was the day before a school festival or something. It was all so much fun. For whatever reason, I can concentrate better when it’s 3 AM or so. Companies don’t endorse those sorts of practices these days, but I feel that if you experience even just a night or two of it, it may be useful to your creative process.
(Regular Customer) You can really focus at night when you’re staying over at the office, right? There’s no project plan, so you can just create whatever way you want! (Laughs)
(Hamada) I know what you mean! (Laughs) The next day I’d just say “I made this last night, so let’s put it in!” (Laughs)
(Regular Customer) Since you’re doing what you want and soaking in the feeling that the night brings on, it really gets your engine going.
(Hamada) Yeah, and it made me really happy that the stuff I made during those times got into the games. All nighters and sleeping over at the office were tough, but they were fun.
What a great conversation. The valuable true nature of creation may be found somewhere here.
(Hamada) That’s true. I really am glad that I joined Irem during that time period. I still look up to all of the senior employees there, and I think that I had an amazing chance to learn a lot of important things from being there. AKIO was the person who stood out the most, but there were a ton of other people with very distinct personalities too. They were all full of variety, and were nothing but a bunch of weirdos! (Laughs)
(Hamada) They were a crew of people for which creative high quality games was a given. There were also a lot of people who loved joking around, which may have been their Kansai nature coming out. I think they were a bunch who loved to laugh and fool around.
And you’re carrying all of that forward.
(Hamada) That’s right. I learned a lot of important things.
All of the Tricks Used to Make These Games Fun Still Apply Today
(Regular Customer) …Wow, I got to hear a lot of great conversations today! We didn’t get to talk about sound very much, but of course R-Type has great music too! There are alot of people whose favorite song from it is stage 6’s “Scramble Crossroad”. You know how it goes. But my personal favorite is stage 7’s “Dream Island”. It is has sort of a profoundly sad sound to it. Barkeep, one more!
Sure, here you go.
(Regular Customer) Be that as it may, R-Type was Irem’s first board with FM sound, so I feel like they hadn’t quite mastered it yet. And so that’s why it’s so great that they finally seemed to do so with the FM remixes of music from Moon Patrol and Mr. Heli no Daibouken that were found on the soundtrack called “R-Type Irem Game Music”! Also… (they go on to talk about very intently about the sound of various games)
Ahh…well our regular here has entered endless drunken conversation mode I see…Neverthless, both R-Type and Metal Slug have been ported to all sorts of different platforms at this point, so they’re very accessible. How do you feel about that? Did you have any parting words for us?
(Hamada) As an R-Type fan, I’m really glad that it’s so easily playable these days, and I’m also very glad as someone who worked on Metal Slug too. They’re both very fun games regardless of the era, and I think the tricks used to make them fun still apply today. These days I’m focused on development techniques around VR, but I’ve been thinking about what it would take to apply those to shooting games of old. I’m trying to figure out how to apply new technology to the fun found in those old games, and I hope that one day you can all enjoy my findings.
Old shooting games in VR…! I’m looking forward to that!
(Hamada) I’ll give it my best! And speaking of R-Type, Granzella is working on R-Type Final 2. I’m personally also really looking forward to seeing what kind of an R-Type game can be made on modern hardware!
Thank you very much. We hope you’ll come back soon.