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History of Japanese computer games

History of Olion and the AX computer game series in Japan, which eventually led to the forming of Game Arts. Plus lots of other interesting facts about Japanese computer history.

John Szczepaniak, Blogger

March 4, 2014

26 Min Read

In the process of researching my book, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, I read as much material as I could. As part of my research I had Japanese interviews translated into English. This interview won't be going in the book, but I have permission from all those involved that I can post it online. It's a rather fascinating snapshot of the early Japanese computer scene.

This interview was conducted by Masamoto Morita, formerly of Sega and lead designer on Dororo for PS2. The interviewee is Akira Takiguchi, writer of various programming books and developer of Japanese computer games from the 1980s - notably Olion - as part of the AX and AY series.

Most readers outside of Japan probably won't be aware of the AX series, but it was an early attempt to create a recognisable brand associated with quality. Of particular interest is that several members who created AX branded games went on to form Game Arts. The consensus was that Game Arts was born from the passion and camaraderie of the AX series. During my trip to Japan I interviewed AX developers Akira Takiguchi (see below), Masakuni Mitsuhashi (Silpheed), and Kohei Ikeda (Thexder) - in addition to Masamoto Morita, who also researches game history, and Hiroshi Suzuki, who is unconnected to the AX series but was involved in an earlier Taito deal.

Fun trivia: a gentleman named Naoto Ohshima is mentioned in the interview, though he is unrelated to the Naoto Ohshima who created Sonic the Hedgehog, and the kanji of their names is slightly different. There is also a third Naoto Ohshima who works (or worked) for Konami, but he is unrelated to the Sega gentleman - I'm fairly confident he's also unrelated to the first Mr Ohshima, who went on to work for ASCII.

Further context: Theseus was inspired by arcade title Major Havoc and went on to inspire Thexder, which was a groundbreaking release in Japan at the time. Sadly both Mitsuhiro MATSUDA and Takeshi MIYAJI, key figures in the AX series and Game Arts, have since passed away.

My thanks to all the gentlemen who made the translation and posting of this interview possible. My apologies about the lack of images - the original Japanese interview has several which supplement the text.

Mr Masamoto MORITA

Originally conducted March 2004

Taken from his OlionUltimania website.

Translated by: Matthew Fitsko

All subsequent (translated) text was originally written by Mr Morita. Photos and captions written by myself.

I conducted an email interview with Akira Takeuchi (real name: Akira Takiguchi), the creator of Olion. The result was a fascinating discussion ranging from the state of game development at the time to Mr. Takiguchi's current activities. The AX series was a remarkably high-quality game package, not only among PC-6001 software, but also among all personal computer software of the early 1980s. Hopefully this interview will provide a glimpse into the secrets of that quality. The interview is published in two parts.



Q: First, I'd like to ask about the situation back then. Olion's credits mention the UTMC (University of Tokyo Microcomputer Club). It's as though a university club was developing products for ASCII Publishing, which seems odd nowadays. Hiromi Ohba, who worked on the AX series demonstration programs and Quest, was also a member of UTMC, and apparently Black Hole was also a creation of UTMC. What was the relationship between ASCII Publishing and UTMC at that time? Did UTMC also have a part in deciding on the lineup for the AX series?

A: Up through AX-6, the majority of games were created by people affiliated with UTMC.

Just about the only creators not in UTMC were Asano-kun (his name has changed, and he is now a mathematician known as Prof. Kawahigashi) [*1], who created Micro Othello, and Sakurada-kun (I think he worked part-time in the publishing department) [*2], who created Shut the Box.

UTMC signed a certain contract with Taito, who were sweeping the world with Space Invaders. The person who signed the contract was Suzuki-san, our club president and one year above me. He is the person who created Manbiki Shounen/Shoujo, which was even featured in the magazine Shukan Asahi Weekly as well as The Cockpit, a flight simulator published by Kogakusha (I/O) [*3]. Suzuki-san joined The Asahi Shimbun Company together with me, and several years later we started up ASAHI Net together, where we still work. I bought an Apple II (360,000 yen) immediately after entering university and was struggling to pay it off in installments from my meager pocket money. With the money from Taito, I was able to pay it off completely.

Taito's terms weren't all that bad, but it was work that didn't lead directly to a retail product, which is a bit weak in terms of motivating game development. That's when talk of ASCII came up. Yasuda-kun [*4], who was a member of UTMC and who later created almost all of AX-1, worked part-time at ASCII. He was the one who proposed participating in a project for a series of PC-6001 software, which was conceived by Mitsuhiro Matsuda, the head of the 2nd Publishing Division.

Matsuda-san felt indignant about the huge difference between games for the Apple II and Japanese-developed games. He believed there was no way that something possible on an Apple II wouldn't also be possible on a Japanese computer, and had a strong desire to provide quality games in a book-like packaging at a low cost. We ourselves were getting fed up with games consisting of a cassette tape and some photocopied instructions, so I think most members agreed without hesitation. From UTMC, people like Mitsuhashi-kun [*5], Hirose-kun [*6], Fujisawa-kun [*7], and Akutsu-kun [*8] signed up (they were all just starting their second year of university). But the contract was not between the club and ASCII, so we were only participating as individuals.

I think that for each title in the AX games, a member said "I'd like to do this," and that was accepted without any changes. Among them were also arrangements of programs that the club had been working on. For example, Nostromo was the first game I wrote after joining the club (developed for the PET-2001). Mitsuhashi-kun took it and improved on it for the AX series.

This is unrelated to Olion, but Quest was based on a 3D realtime maze published in ASCII Monthly by someone named Sugiyama-san.

[*1] Yasuyuki Kawahigashi (formerly Asano). Did not belong to UTMC, but was a graduate of Tokyo University. Creator of all titles included in AX-3 (Micro Othello, Inter-Fight, Cosmic Revo, and Slot Poker), as well as Flight Simulator from AZ-1. According to Mr. Kawahigashi's profile page, he joined UTMC but quit soon after.

[*2] Koshi Sakurada. Creator of Shut the Box (AX-4).

[*3] Hiroshi Suzuki. Manbiki Shounen is game about shoplifting from a store while avoiding being spotted by the shopkeeper. A PC-6001 port was featured in Mycom BASIC magazine, July 1982. However, Mr. Suzuki was not involved with this port.

[*4] Goro Yasuda. Creator of Arabian Rhapsody, Block Kuzushi (Break Out), and High-speed Barricade (AX-1), as well as Mastermind (AX-6).

[*5] Masakuni Mitsuhashi. "Hiromi Ohba" is Mr. Mitsuhashi's pen name. Representative works include the demonstration programs in AX-1 to AX-4 and AX-6, Nostromo (AX-2), and Quest (AX-5).

[*6] Pen name is Junpei Ryotsu. Creator of Steal Alien (AX-2), Car Race (AX-4), and Powered Knight (AX-6).

[*7] Ken Fujisawa. Creator of Simon (AX-1), In the Woods (AX-2), and Head-On (AX-6).

[*8] Pen name is Kaoru Sugimoto. Creator of Dual Alien (AX-2) and Black Hole (AX-4).

Photo taken from a computer magazine from that time. Mr Mitsuhashi (left), and Mr Takiguchi

Q: How did you come to produce Olion? Did ASCII give you a theme, such as "Make a 3D game"? The credits say "Based upon the idea by Larry Miller." Was Olion made with the consent of Mr. Miller, who created Epoch for the Apple II?

A: I don't remember Matsuda-san clearly giving me a theme. Of course, when he showed me Epoch [*9], he may have been trying to get me to make something like it.

I loved Star Wars, and around my last year of high school I was obsessed with playing Star Fire [*10] every day at an arcade in Takadanobaba, enough to show up in the High Score list more often than not. So when I saw Epoch, I immediately thought "This is doable (it's just made up of boxes). I want to do this." Because there was no reason that something done on the Apple II couldn't also be done on the 6001.

To me, the big problem with Epoch (and also with Hadron [*11]) was that the enemies disappeared when they went off-screen. I was leaning more towards a simulation, so it was important to make it so that even if an enemy goes off-screen, you'd see them again by bringing the joystick back.

Meanwhile, Star Fire had this really satisfying technique of destroying an enemy by firing before you had a lock, and then locking on just before the laser reached the middle of the screen. Olion doesn't have lock-on, but I think I was able to achieve the same sort of feel.

Mr. Miller was not involved in the development, and as far as I know Mr. Miller (or Sirius Software) never granted us a license. In those days the market was small, and so long as everything wasn't exactly the same, nobody really thought about obtaining a license for an "imitation". I'm sure ASCII's legal department checked it out, but I wasn't reverse engineering the software or anything, so it wasn't a problem.

But personally I thought I needed to acknowledge the inspiration, and so I added that line to the credits. Thinking about it now, there was a risk to putting it out there, but I remember Matsuda-san also telling me "It'll be fine."

[*9] 3D space combat game for the Apple II, released in 1981 by Sirius. Created by Larry Miller. See History for details.

[*10] Arcade game released in 1978 by Exidy. Inspired by Star Wars.

[*11] Sequel to Epoch. Also created by Larry Miller.


Q: Please tell us about your development environment and schedule back in those days, and any struggles during the development. I'm interested in hearing about how long Olion took to develop, including the technical testing and debugging. Also, what where the specifics of your contract with ASCII Publishing? Wasn't it challenging to balance your university studies and game development?

A: I did development on the PC-8001 and PC-8801, and the assembler development environment was DUAD-PC, released by ASCII (ACP?) back then. DUAD-PC's screen editor was great, making the development go very smoothly. Unfortunately there was no in-circuit emulator (ICE), so at first I had to load and test completed code via cassette tape.

Later, it became possible to connect the PC-8001's 5-inch intelligent floppy disk PC-80S31 to the PC-6001, and thanks to the compact and extremely powerful DOS written by my junior [kohai] Shimizu-kun (S-DOS. Completely different from Kogakusha's product of the same name), development for the PC-6001, PC-8001, and MSX became much easier. Fujisawa-kun also wrote a powerful machine code monitor for me. Someone burned it to ROM, and used it in the ROM/RAM cartridge (PC-6006).

Development took place in a two-story house tucked away in Aoyama (nicknamed "Part 2"). I had full air conditioning, all kinds of takeout (Daijin Bento, the preeminent catering service, and also Wendy's, which had just opened in Aoyama). I had my machines and my bed roll laid out side-by-side, and worked day and night [*12]. I went back and forth between school and Part 2, and didn't go home as much. To be honest, my studies were put on hold a little. It actually took me 5 years to graduate.

I remember Olion taking about 3 months to make. I had been writing games for the 6502 before that, but it was my first time to write for the Z80. I don't remember the machine code being that difficult, though.

Instead, the inability to use black on the screen was a problem. At first I was using Mode 3 [*13], and so I thought I might have to change the outer space setting. However, when Sakurada-kun brought a test version of Shut the Box [*14] and showed me a demo, I became aware of the color smearing. Since I was also an Apple user, I knew a lot about how to produce color on an Apple II. So I did a Mode 4 test right away, and I got color! I think that moment was the highest point during the development.

I had been doing the 3D transform by dividing integers and truncating the remainder, but the motion just didn't look right. Then I calculated to one extra bit and rounded off, and the motion was much better. That's another thing I was happy about.

The royalty was 8% per copy, which was quite a difference from the 10+ percent at other companies. On top of that, each package was written by several people, so the payout seemed surprisingly low given the game's popularity. But I can't complain.

[*12] According to MSX Magazine Eikyuu Hozonban, Theseus for the MSX apparently was also developed at Part 2.

[*13] The PC-6001 has four graphic modes. Mode 1 is text only. Mode 2 is 64x48 dots with two patterns of 8 colors. Mode 3, which is ordinarily used for games, is 128x192 dots with two patterns of 4 colors ([red, green, blue, yellow] or [magenta, amber, cyan, white]), but no black. Mode 4 is 256x192 dots in either black and white or black and green.

[*14] Shut the Box was the first game in the AX series to use Mode 4. Even though Mode 4 is supposed to be just black and white, red and blue are also output because of color smearing (see photo). Olion utilizes this color smearing to display four colors (white, black, red, blue) in Mode 4. However, in some cases color smearing may not be produced, depending on the precision of the computer or monitor.
For this reason, the retail package also includes a Mode 3 version of Olion, with the following note in the manual: "Since physically accurate colors don't appear in Mode 3, you may not get that sense of outer space in Olion in particular. To experience the feeling of being in outer space in black and white, use the Mode 4 versions of Olion and Quest."


Q: What was the scale of the computer game industry at that time? Or more specifically, about how many copes of each title in the AX series were shipped/sold? Please tell us if you know.

A: In terms of market share, the PC-6001 fell far short of the PC-8001. Even the best-selling title in the AX series only sold about 40,000 to 50,000 copies. This was because NEC committed to that many copies from ASCII. I think the actual sales were more like 10,000 to 20,000. I don't know specifically, but the "naked cassette" games in those days only ranged from several hundred to several thousand copies, so compared to that, you could say we were a big hit.

Q: I've heard that the "L" in Olion comes from a nickname. Could you explain?

A: When I was in middle school, at some point my friends saw me sleeping in an "L" position on a school trip, and so they gave me that nickname. I went to a combined middle school/high school program, so I was called "L-kun" for a long time. And thanks to a classmate of mine who briefly joined the UTMC (his nickname was "S-kun"), my friends in the UTMC all knew about "L".

Honestly though, the "L" in Olion was just spelling mistake I made. I noticed it just before freezing the code, and even corrected it by changing to a lowercase "orion" design, but ultimately Matsuda-san decided to keep it as-is. That's why we put in an "excuse" in the manual [*15].

[*15] From the manual: "Some people might look at the title OLION and think that something is odd. It should be ORION, right? But OLION is a word I made up by merging ORION and L. Why, do you ask? It's just my nickname, and doesn't have any deep meaning."


Q: Please tell us about anything you were careful about or very particular about when making games in general, and not just Olion. I sense that you were very particular about the fonts you used in your games.

A: Beyond just games, a fundamental principle of the man-machine interface is speed. I thought that not being fast was itself a bad thing, and could ruin a game even if the other aspects of the design were good (I still feel this way).

With Olion and Olion 80, I think I was just barely able to achieve a speed that I myself was satisfied with. The speed difference between a box drawn with the LINE command on the PC-8001 versus Olion 80's box drawing routine was two orders of magnitude.

I noticed that with many 3D programs at that time, the FOV was too large, leading to a reduced sense of realism. So I decreased the FOV to a level at which the rotation feels natural.

As you pointed out, I was quite particular about fonts [*16]. And also the English text in-game. In those days, the spelling of English words used in games was just awful. I had liked design since high school, and often went to the Ito-ya in Shibuya to get a Letraset catalog or buy some dry transfer lettering sheets. For Olion, I made a digital version of a font called "DATA70" [*17]. I also used a font I found in a catalog for Olion 80, but I've forgotten the name of the font. If someone out there knows, please tell me [*18].

[*16] Mr. Takeuchi also acted as a font adviser for the AX-7 demonstration program.

[*17] The DATA70 font

[*18] After the interview, Mr. Takeuchi looked into this and determined the font to be "Motter Tektura". Coincidentally (?), this font was also formerly used in Apple's logo.



Q: Let's talk about Olion 80. When Olion 80 was released, the PC-8001 was past its prime, and people had moved on to the PC-8001mkII and the PC-8801. What was the reason for developing for the PC-8001, with its inferior resolution and sound capabilities? Also, in making Olion 80 after Olion, what did you try to improve?

A: We can't talk about Olion 80 without also talking about the problems of the AY series. The AX series, despite its actual retail sales, was recognized as a successful project. As a result, it was natural to want to create an AY series for the PC-8001. A certain department was put in charge, but unfortunately, AY-1 [*19] was a huge failure. The games were on the level of the monthly type-in programs listed in ASCII Monthly, and completely betrayed the expectations of customers expecting something on the level of the AX series.

This was also a big problem for us, because it eroded the trust in the brand, and we were being published in the same packaging format. So we decided to make a PC-8001 version of Olion, and the 2nd Publishing Division decided to take back AY (the managing editor was Mita-san. I wonder what he's up to...). The reason I didn't do a PC-8801 version was because "if it doesn't have speed, it's not a game". It was clear that getting the same speed in the same format on a 640x200 screen wouldn't be possible.

In terms of technology, I also wanted to show how you could actually move colored objects around, since the PC-8001 had a reputation for difficult color attribute control.

The game was fast enough, so I added an auto-control mode for novices. With Olion, there were quite a few people who couldn't pilot the ship. If you can't approach the enemy ships, it's just a boring program where the stars just fly by for no reason. A little earlier, Bill Budge had released the Pinball Construction Set [*20]. In Olion 80, I greatly increased the number of ship types, and since I had to create a design program anyway, I thought it would be good to also release it to the players. This was how the Starship Designer [*21] was born.

Ohshima-san, a designer in the 2nd Publishing Division, immediately used the Starship Designer to make Onion [*22].

[*19] AY-1: Fortress Solomon. Like the AX series, the AY series was a series of game compilations for the PC-8001. The first volume, AY-1: Fortress Solomon, included seven titles. Screenshots available here.

[*20] Apple II software enabling you to build and play your own pinball table. The interface was Mac-like, which is unsurprising since its creator Bill Budge also contributed to the development of the Lisa at Apple.

[*21] Olion 80 came with a Starship Designer enabling you to freely create enemy ships. But to start it up, you had to input a password displayed after clearing all stages of the game. [trans. note: password is UNLOCK, by the way]

[*22] Naoto Ohshima. According to the Olion 80 manual, his pen name is "eccentrics".

Q: Let's talk about games other than Olion and Olion 80. First: Battlefield. I think the inspiration was Atari's Battlezone. I think it was around the same time as the AX series, but I don't know how it was released. Was it sold as a set bundled with a joystick? Also, in your collaborations with Hiromi Ohba (Iligks/Theseus/Battlefield), how did you divide the workload?

A: The 2nd Publishing Division came to me with a request for a "bonus" game in order to sell a flight stick-style joystick (set of two) that ASCII (ACP) brought over from a Hong Kong company (Spectra-something or other) [*23].

At first glance the verdict was that "it's just Battlezone". But I put a lot of work into it. Mitsuhashi-kun was in charge of development, but the deadline was extremely tight, and because of certain circumstances Mitsuhashi-kun was unable to continue, leaving the game in a partially-completed state. I took over and completed it in three days, working all night long.

The game's meager features, such as the enemies which were only missiles, may have been due to memory capacity problems, but I remember the lack of time being the bigger problem.

(The collaborative development work) was split cleanly. We did the planning together, but the programming work split nicely between our respective strengths. Mitsuhashi-kun did all the music, we did the graphics together, and I handled the fonts and text.

[*23] I found an ad for this joystick (the Quick Shot) in LOGiN magazine's April 1984 edition. The ad says "game included", so apparently the game was Battlefield.


Q: The inertia of the scrolling in Theseus was surprising. The controls in Olion also had inertia. Were games with "inertial" controls a favorite of yours personally? It also seems as though Theseus was influenced by the Apple II game Minotaur. [*24]

A: Theseus was the result of taking just the maze portion of the Atari arcade game Major Havoc [*25]. I was hooked on that game. When I played it for the first time in 20 years with MAME, I was extremely thrilled.

Certainly, I may have enjoyed the pleasure of seeing physical laws (well, not exactly) operate inside a game. I like games that give you feedback with respect to the controls, games where you can feel weight and friction. I loved the feedback of the steering wheel in Hard Drivin', Atari's first full-polygon driving game [*26].

People who liked Apple and knew the relationship between Olion and Epoch asked me, "Aren't you going to make Minotaur next?" But to me the only interesting thing about Minotaur was the floating mechanic (although that was pretty amazing!), so I didn't think of making something like that exactly. On the other hand, when thinking about how to cook up Havoc, coming up with Theseus was certainly the result of Minotaur's influence.

[*24] A 2D maze game for the Apple II, released in 1981 by Sirius. Created by Larry Miller. For details, see here.

[*25] A vector-based arcade game released by Atari in 1983. The game is divided into two parts. The first part consists of 3D shooting, in which you pilot a spaceship and clear out enemies near a base. After taking out the enemies, you control a character in a spacesuit and infiltrate the base while replenishing your oxygen. You clear the game by setting a bomb and escaping back to the spaceship.
                Like Theseus, Thexder and The Quest of Ki were influenced by the latter part of Major Havoc. In addition, the 3D shooting part in the first half was apparently the inspiration for Silpheed.

[*26] A car racing game rendered using polygons, released by Atari in 1989. Also included a built-in replay function. Photos of the cabinet available here.


Q: Please give us a profile of yourself up to the present day. In LOGiN magazine's April 1984 edition, you commented on wanting to make an RPG, but did you make any games after Theseus? Also, [proceeds to ask question about non-gaming related writing career].

A: I was born in 1961, graduated from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tokyo in March 1985, joined the Asahi Shimbun Company, and was placed in their computer room. In 1988 I worked on the Asahi Pasokon Net project, which was spun off in 1990 as ATSON, Inc., and I was transferred there. After that I left the Asahi Shimbun Company, and became a member of the board of ATSON, Inc. The board members, including myself, bought all shares of the company with a management buyout (MBO), and now we are an independent company known as ASAHI Net.


In addition to PC games, I wrote several books.  The better ones in my mind are: "Applied Graphics" [*27] and "Official MSX Handbook"[*28].  The latter helped me to build connection to ASAHI Shimbun.  One day, my high school friend called me, requesting an interview about my games for a special issue of Shukan ASAHI Weekly.  He was working part-time for the magazine.  After the interview, I gave him a fresh book, hoping that the magazine will publish a review.  On the next day, the editor called me and said: "why not write for us?"  Next year I decided to work full time for the company, but I chose to work in the computer division instead of becoming a journalist.  It was because I would have more free time to spend for interesting side work.  Well, it's a classic secret.

I have been intrigued by WWII stuff since junior high school days.  Now I collect original photos and documents from the period ( see http://www.history.jp/wehrmacht/ ).

I am an avid reader of Kurt Vonnegut, which I first read in my high school time.  I bought three copies of “Slaughterhouse-Five” (because the pages fell apart from heavy reading).  Jaroslav Hašek's "The good soldier Švejk" were totally worn out, as well as books of John Toland and Paul Carell.


Q. Do you have interest in computer games now?  Do you have a Playstation, or any other consoles? Tell me about games (new or old, any console) you have liked, or you got addicted. 

A. I have a Playstation 2.  But mainly "Panzer front" only, little other games.  Actually I seldom play games lately.

Old games...  As I have written earlier (*1), I was so much into "Star fire", "Battle Zone", and "Major Havoc.".  Not really addicted but I enjoyed playing 3D PC games like Quake, Quake II and Freespace to completed all of them.

During the early stage of ASAHI Net, I completed Nethack (version 3 if I remember correctly) several times.

Usually I lost interest in a game after my first completion...  Maybe I don't really love games, so I could not place my bid on "Game Arts" upon its launch (*2).


(*1) this interview was done through email.

(*2) Game Arts was established by Matsuda-san, Miyaji brothers and other programmers who had worked for ASCII AX series.  I could have joined them, but I chose to work for ASAHI Shimbun, partly because I had a plan to get married thus I needed some "stability".


Q. You must be a Star Wars buff, what do you think of new trilogy (EP1-EP2)?

A. Well, sure they're nothing but Star Wars, but...  My love for Star Wars had climaxed already with EP4...  I have the entire series of DVDs though. And I love EP2 a bit more than EP1.  Maybe I'll love EP3, as it's a story of Darth Vader.

[note: of course I have bought six plastic discs for each episode - two laser discs, three DVDs, one Blu-ray, like others do... ]


Q. What is most intriguing to you regarding computer-related technology?  How do you think they evolve?

A. Definitely all about Internet, which happens to be my business.  New technologies, new services...  So many things you just had to dream have come true.  Once upon a time when the Perl version 1 was released on Usenet, I loved it and sent a bug report to Larry through my university friend (back then companies did not have connectivity).  Larry kindly sent a reply to my friend, which ended like this:  "Thank you for being his friend."  This is a phrase that I will never forget.  Such a great service is to connect people.  I would be more than happy if we see, or better if I create, a service that creates similar impact on people.

The old gang back together again. From left: Mr Masakuni Mitsuhashi, myself, Mr Hiroshi Suzuki, Mr Akira Takiguchi. Taken 26 October 2013.

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