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Bonus Feature: Time For Taito: From Space Invaders To Cooking Mama

A 20 year veteran and designer of Space Invaders Extreme 2 analyzes the past, present, and future of the venerable arcade and console developer, which survives as Square Enix's arcade arm.

Taito is one of the most venerable and respected names in the console and arcade business. Its late '70s hit, Space Invaders, remains one of the most iconic video games ever to be released. And the company has had major success in the new market with its Cooking Mama series, released by Majesco in the west (except, of course, on the iPhone and other mobile platforms, where Taito handles the business itself.)

The company's strategy is heavily factored around revisiting its classic series like Bust-a-Move and, more recently, its Darius series of 2D scrolling shooters -- with new Japanese PSP release Darius Burst.

Here, Gamasutra talks to Hiroshi Aoki, a 20-year veteran of the company who joined to create arcade shooters like the Darius series and has stuck with it since that time, working on everything from its '90s fighting game series Psychic Force to its odd attempt to enter the Devil May Cry-alike genre, Bujingai, starring Japanese rocker Gackt. His most recent work was as producer and lead planner of Space Invaders Extreme 2. 

He has also lived through the 2005 Square Enix acquisition and has perspective on what Taito brings to the RPG house's business.

Can you give some of your personal game development background first?

Hiroshi Aoki: My background? Well, I joined Taito in 1989, and I worked on a series of arcade games over there. I didn't move to the consumer game market until after 2000 or so.

Can you name some of the titles that you've worked on?

HA: In the arcade business, the one that probably got the most support from gamers was Psychic Force, a fighting game. That turned into a series of sorts, and I both directed that game and did the programming for it. In the console market, there was an action game called Bujingai, the one that [popular musician] Gackt played the hero role in.

After that, there was Exit, the PSP puzzle game, and after that is the Space Invaders Extreme series. My current project, meanwhile, is Darius Burst.

Did you get to meet Gackt?

HA: What? (laughs) Just once.

I'm a big fan of his.

HA: (laughs) Oh, really?

I actually finished Bujingai.

HA: Really? Well, thank you very much!

For Darius Burst, are you involving any of the original team?

HA: Not with this game, no. There actually hasn't been much of any carry-over between development teams ever in the Darius series.

Of the previous Darius games, from which did you draw the inspiration?

HA: Well, there's Darius Gaiden in the arcade, as well as G-Darius. I think those two are the most popular titles in the series, and I think Burst contains a lot of elements from those two games.

Those are the best ones, so...

HA: (laughs)


Darius Burst

How heavily will you be pushing the nautical theme of Darius?

HA: Certainly, having boss battles against machines themed after aquatic creatures is one of the really recognizable aspects of any Darius title. We're definitely continuing that tradition.

What are your expectations for shooting games? Generally, the shooting genre appeals to a niche group -- do they make their money back? You worked on several shooters, and Taito's also got RayStorm HD, so, how well do you expect shooter games to sell?

HA: That's kind of a tough question. When people think about Taito, even today, one of the first images that come to their minds is the shooters we released in arcades. It was what we were good at, and since shooters were the most popular genre in arcades for a while, it's always been a major support for Taito.

More recently, though, Taito's kind of gone away from that, hasn't it? I joined this company because I was inspired Taito's shooters -- not just the gameplay, but also the back story and worlds built behind them -- so I've always had a desire to bring that sort of feeling, or texture, back into our games. That's what led to this sort of series of consecutive shooter releases we're seeing right now.


Space Invaders was one of the games that started the "vertical shooting" genre. For a while, both vertical and horizontal shooters were popular, but these days, in arcades, it's nearly all vertical shooters, like from Cave and so on. Darius is a horizontal-scroll series. How can you sort of modernize Darius for modern shooting audience that appreciates the bullet-hell of modern games?

HA: Hmm, that's another tough one! It's certainly the case that the vertical configuration is sort of the "default" platform for shooters these days; I can't deny that. But I do think that there are some aspects of horizontal shooters that you really can't express in vertical form.

For example, in a vertical shooter all you can see in the background is the flat ground, but in a horizontal game you have the ground, the sky, and everything in between -- it feels more like a complete world when you look at it.

Another merit is that it offers you more ability to really detail the characters, how they move, and so forth. That's what I think, anyway. I'm not saying that one type is better than the other, but I think choosing the right method of expression for each game world is important.

My personal feeling is that the horizontal genre was more popular in home consoles because you couldn't have the tate (or vertical) screen of the arcade at home. However, shooting games have drifted away from consoles for a long time, so perhaps that's why vertical took over.

HA: That's another factor of it, too, I think.

As you said, the backgrounds for vertical shooters are the same. In combination with that, you have these curtain-fire bullet patterns, which is more popular now. Do you feel like you can lure fans of that experience to this, or will shooting fans go for it either way?

HA: In that aspect, yeah, it's really not an issue of vertical versus horizontal right now. The in thing these days, no doubt, is the bullet-hell approach to shooters, like what you see from Cave and a lot of very popular doujin [indie] developers. That's the sort of fashion you see in the genre these days; it's a trend that goes beyond the question of whether that's the most fun type of shooter or not.


Raystorm HD

It's difficult for a human being to discern between "left" and "right" in minuscule intervals of time. As a result, it's surprisingly a lot more difficult for humans to perceive something moving right-to-left than if it were moving top-to-bottom. Vertical shooters don't fire shots at you top-to-bottom all the time, of course, but when it comes to visually scanning your surroundings, it's a lot easier to do that in a vertical shooter. The fact that you don't see bullet-hell as much in horizontal shooters is all the fault of us humans. (laughs)

And certainly, there are gamers out there who see bullet-hell as a lot of fun, but there's an even larger audience who looks at that and says "There's no way I can play this; it's too much." I think there's an audience -- and not a small one, either -- who would like to get into shooters but are scared off by how they are today.

Shooters are a niche now, like you said, but they weren't for most of their history. I think one reason it became a niche is they became too difficult for most people. Darius, though, is a series with some history to it, and I think it can attract people who have drifted away from the genre for a while.

And if we want people like that to enjoy this new Darius, we can't have hundreds of bullets onscreen -- we need something they can look at and say "I think I can do this"; we need something that looks interesting to the eye. That's what we're aiming for, and I think that's really the mission we're tasked with for this project.


How do you go about reinventing a classic to make it interesting for new audiences? Taito has been making new versions of Space Invaders for many years, but they haven't been very successful or interesting until Extreme and Infinity Gene, which both do a great job of taking what's good about Space Invaders and making it new. How do you start that process?

HA: Well, the thing about all the Space Invaders remakes we've released is that all of them have been made by different people. I think part of the reason Extreme worked was because it was the first time I ever really examined Space Invaders at all -- it wasn't my second or third go-around with the concept, in other words.

If you ask me why Extreme is the way it is, about two years ago -- was it two? It was the 25th-anniversary year for Space Invaders -- I went to London on a business trip and we had sort of an industry cocktail party there with the media.

I realized there that people in London saw Space Invaders a lot differently than hardcore gamers in Japan did. It was sort of a fashionable thing.

It was at that point where I figured that if I ever got to make Space Invaders, I really wanted to make the game itself cool and fashionable, something where the sound and visuals really keep you excited. I also realized that the pixelly invaders you fight are one reason why it seemed so cool to these people.

That was the seed for the idea. Also, I like pinball a lot, and another idea I had was to create a shooter that replicated the things that made pinball exciting. That was the process behind the start of Extreme.

Which areas would you say are influenced by pinball?

HA: Well, for example, the way you get bonuses for shooting sets of themed invaders. Space Invaders is a simple shooting gallery at its core, but if you shoot down similar types of invaders together, you start different bonus things. I was inspired by the rules of pinball in that way while developing the gameplay process.


Space Invaders Extreme

When you're doing a remake, how do you decide what you should keep and what you should get rid of? What needs to be changed to make it more modern?

HA: I never really actively consider that question, but it really depends on the game itself. I start by thinking about what I like about Space Invaders, or what I like about Darius with this project, and I make my decisions about gameplay based off of that.

It depends on who's doing the deciding. I feel like there's that process with everyone who does a remake; it's just that some are successful and some aren't. I guess I'm trying to find the hidden reason why at least Space Invaders -- and I guess Exit, which is sort of a reinvention of Elevator Action -- why yours have been somewhat successful. Maybe it's just design sense.

HA: Part of it might be that, like I said earlier, I got my start making arcade games. That's sort of my base, what I built upon in my career. In my games, if I press the Start button, I want to be in the game immediately; I don't want any useless cutscenes. I worry about things like response times to button presses, things that were treated a lot more seriously back during my arcade projects.

That sort of know-how is hard to acquire unless you raised it by developing arcade games; I think that may be one of the hidden factors behind any success these games have had.


Taito made a few more fighting games after Psychic Force, and I feel like they use the same engine as Psychic Force. Is that true?

HA: No; actually, each title was built off its own engine.

For a while, Taito was trying to make third-person action games like Bujingai and Tsukiyo ni Saraba and that sort of thing. Why did you stop? I thought Bujingai was quite good in terms of its exaggerated Hong Kong action style. It was an interesting prospect; why didn't that keep forward?

HA: (laughs) I wonder why. Well, the company wanted to go in certain directions... (laughs) I did want to make more, but anyway, it didn't really happen.

That's too bad. Do you happen to know if Gackt was pleased with the final product? I watched some of the interviews on the disc, but I wonder if you actually got some response from him in terms of how much he actually liked the game. Silly question, but...

HA: I never got to ask him directly, but we held a launch event when Bujingai came out, and Gackt demonstrated some of the game to the audience during it. I was surprised to see that he was really good at it -- deliberately playing to look flashy and showing off the cool parts and everything. So I definitely think he understood what we were aiming for, at least. Seeing that really made our efforts feel worthwhile.

He seems to be a game fan. I think he's in like five different games now.

HA: He's definitely a big gamer, yeah.

You still work in the arcade section of Taito. How important is the arcade business for Taito going forward? This may be more of a business question...

HA: Oh, it's definitely one of the most important focuses the company has. Arcade operation is one of our core businesses, and in order to keep things fresh for visitors, we're constantly trying to develop new stuff for the arcade market.

I've heard that game centers like Taito's Hey, and so on, have been slowing down in terms of number of users. Is that a concern, and are there things you can do to try to get people back into arcades?

HA: I think the only real solution is to keep releasing new and innovative things. Arcades in Japan have had these cycles of peaks and troughs -- when they're in the midst of a recession, some hit title comes out and their popularity shoots right back up.

I think we're definitely in a valley right now, and that means not just Taito, but everyone in the industry needs to work on creating the next big thing. People's tastes in entertainment change over time, and it's important that all of us change along with those trends.

A few years ago, Taito created the Type X and Type X2 arcade boards. They seem to have gained really wide acceptance among other developers -- SNK, for example. What is your impression of the arcade board selling business? Is that going well for Taito?

HA: Well, I think the fact that it's a Windows-based environment makes it among the easiest boards in the market to develop for these days. The fact we were first with a board like that was really key to our success.

Was Taito first? Didn't Namco have one as well? Maybe I'm wrong.

HA: Around that same time, but Taito's boards have actually been running under a Windows-based architecture since [1998's] Psychic Force 2012. It wasn't part of the system board, though. That didn't become a concrete strategy until Type X, and I think that's when it hit big.


Cooking Mama

This one's definitely a business question. What is the importance of Office Create [Now Cooking Mama, Ltd.] for Taito?

HA: It's a very important partner for us, definitely. Office Create became well known only after Cooking Mama became a surprise hit, but we've actually had a relationship with them for a really long time. They've actually programmed some of the games I've worked on, too. They've been with us for at least a decade or so, well before Cooking Mama. So even if that game never came along, they've always been and would've continued to be an important partner for us.

I always suspected that Taito would purchase Office Create, but it hasn't happened yet.

HA: (laughs) Mmm, I don't know how to respond to that! (laughs)

With titles like Darius Burst and these kind of reinventions, it seems like Taito is trying to find its own identity within Square Enix. What do you see as the future of Taito as a company?

HA: Well, Square Enix is a company built upon a base that's completely different from ours. We both have different strengths and weaknesses. Square Enix is known for RPGs and really big, sensational games, but Taito is better known for casual pick-up-and-play titles, taking its experience in the arcade field and exercising it in the home market.

This combination of knowledge is hard for one company to pick up, I think, and I'd like to see both sides take advantage of each other's strengths as we go into the future.

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