Hudson was, during the '80s and early '90s, one of the most stalwart and popular game publishers. As the first third party to work on Nintendo's Famicom (NES) system in Japan, the company quickly established itself as a purveyor of popular games, and developed the persona -- seen here in ridiculously over-the-top '80s video form -- of one of its marketing staff, Toshiyuki Takahashi, to help promote them.
He was known as Takahashi-Meijin -- or Game Master Takahashi -- to his young fans, and became famous for being able to hit the NES' controller button 16 times a second (aka 16-Shot), an important tactic for succeeding at shooters -- a genre Hudson was, incidentally, pushing hard. In 1986, Takahashi himself starred in his own game: Takahashi-Meijin no Boukenjima, or Hudson's Adventure Island in the west.
The company eventually developed its own video game hardware, the PC Engine (aka TurboGrafx-16) and partnered with NEC Home Electronics to release it. Hudson became the system's de facto first party, and moved heavily into development for the system and continued releasing action games -- but came up short in the next generation, when Sony's PlayStation completely changed the gaming landscape.
Here, Takahashi discusses his background, the rise and fall of the PC Engine, and how the company's background in accessible action games without flashy CG graphics has enabled it to rise once again on the Wii -- and bring Takahashi renewed fame. His official job title is now "Game Master" for the company's publicity department.
Can you talk about your background and what you did before you actually joined Hudson? What are the highlights of your life? How did you join Hudson in the first place?
Takahashi Meijin: First, I entered college, but I got so bored. I dropped out after three months. I got a part-time job at a local supermarket, then I became full-time. I worked for about three years. The personal computer back then... we're talking back in 1981. Just about a year back before I quit my job, I bought myself a computer and started teaching myself BASIC programming.
Was this PC-88, or before that?
TM: Sharp MZ-80B. My interest in computer programming was only growing, and one day, I was flipping through a computer magazine in Japan, and I saw a Hudson ad. I checked the address, and it was close to me, so one day I knocked on the door and got in.
Was that all in Sapporo?
TM: Yes. I thought I was going to work in Sapporo, but I only lasted four days. On the fourth or fifth day, they told me, "Okay. You're going to Tokyo." Twenty-seven years later, I'm still in Tokyo. (laughter) I thought I was going to be able to work close to home, but it ended up being very far.
So you weren't actually in the main office in Sapporo, then?
TM: Yeah, just four days.
I figured. When you started with Hudson, were you doing programming, or did you go straight into marketing or publishing stuff?
TM: The first year, I joined Hudson as a sales person, so I did that for about a year. But I was doing the sales job between 9 AM and 6 PM, and from about 6 PM to 10 PM, I was also involved in the advertisement area, which leads up to now. After 10 o'clock, from 2 or 3 AM, I would do some programming.
Back then, depending on the type of computer, you have a whole different type of commands, so you had to convert everything manually. So I was doing that kind of thing. After a year, I got transferred more toward a marketing type of department, and in that department, my first thing was to put together a guide book for [Nintendo's] Family BASIC.
Do you think that the BASIC stuff took off with people at the time? I know that there were a number of different computers that allowed you to program things for it, like the NEC PCs. Was that actually popular at the time for amateur coders?
TM: I think that back then, there weren't actually many people doing it hands-on. However, there was a lot of demand, obviously, because when we first started selling those programs on cassette tapes, they really sold a lot of them. So there were many users, but not many hands-on programmers, I think.
When did Hudson start getting hooked up with NEC? Was it in the PC days, or was it only once the PC Engine started?
TM: In about 1982. Hudson had business relationships with NEC, Sharp, Fujitsu, and Toshiba during the early PC era.
When did the focus start to drive much more toward NEC for Hudson?
TM: Some Nintendo Famicom [NES] components were Sharp products, so they had a pretty close relationship. In about '86 or late '85, we brought the idea for PC Engine/TurboGrafx to Fujitsu and NEC, and NEC was the first company that agreed to do it. That was back in '86 or so.
On the hardware side, Hudson continued to work with NEC, but software-wise branched out a little more, but still wound up working mostly for their own chipset, of course. If you remember this time, why did Hudson become the first third-party for the Famicom? What did you see there that seemed like it was worth making that plunge?
TM: Actually, Nintendo wanted to work with Sharp, once again, on a BASIC system that even children could use to develop games. However, for whatever reason, Sharp didn't want to do it or couldn't do it back then because they were too busy, so Sharp referred Hudson to Nintendo, and they asked Hudson if we wanted to take over that project in around 1983.
Back then, those PC BASIC games -- even good ones -- were probably only selling 10,000 copies, but the Family Computer [NES] had the potential to sell 200,000 or 300,000 copies of a game of that quality. Hudson's founder Hiroshi Kudo saw the opportunity there, and we became the first third party to develop games for them.
With Adventure Island, was that devised as a marketing tie-in? It was really putting your name out there and putting you in the game. Or was that designed as a game first, and then your name was assigned to it? How did that work?
TM: Back in about '85, there was an arcade game called Wonder Boy. So there was an arcade game, Wonder Boy, that was already out. Back then, PC games like Lode Runner and those games were transferring to console games, and this was one of the games that we wanted to do, alongside arcade ports like [Tecmo's] Star Force.
Back then, our vice president Mr. Kudo said, "The main character is not looking very strong, and you're very popular right now. Why don't we just put you in there?" That's how it started.
So you being put forth as a publicist guy, that was before all the Adventure Island stuff?
TM: I debuted as Meijin in 1985 in [manga anthology magazine] CoroCoro Comic. The TV show was in 1986. Yeah, my fame was kind of about the same time. I was getting recognition around that time, as Wonder Boy was coming out.
Did you develop the 16Shot technique before or after joining Hudson? Was that part of the marketing thing, or was that something you already happened to be able to do?
TM: It was late '85.
The Caravan tournament stuff that was done... can you give me some insight into how it was developed and who would be making the specific games for the Caravan? How did you hook up with Naxat for a lot of those, and that kind of thing?
TM: Here's the beginning of the Hudson Caravan: back in '85, February-ish, it wasn't called the Caravan, but it was pretty much the first event. It was the first Famicom event in Japan, and the game was Championship Lode Runner.
Unexpectedly, about a thousand kids showed up, so afterwards, when we were having a little party, we were all like, "Hey, this would be fun if we do it all over the country!" That's how it started, as a tournament that would travel all around the country. That year, our shooting game Star Force was going to be released in May or June, so we decided to use that as a Caravan title.
You have talked about the specifics of the Caravan shooting titles. Can you get into how it was decided what the specifics should be, like the two minute trial and that sort of thing?
TM: The people who made those rules in the game... there were two parties. One is Hudson, obviously -- myself and my boss, back then. There's another party -- a kid's magazine called CoroCoro Comic. Are you familiar with that It's still around. It's a kid's comic. There were a couple of editors from there. They joined, and together we put on the show.
So then continuing on with how you decided what games would be featured... How was it decided that you hooked up with Naxat, for developing the other Caravan games? It wasn't always Hudson.
TM: Naxat? Star Force, Star Soldier, Hector... Final Soldier... Oh, yes, yes, yes. In the year before, as the Caravan ended, we began to think about what the next Caravan game would be. In '92, the reality was that the CD-ROM game Tengai Makyou II was going to be developed. We didn't have enough programmer manpower within Hudson. That's why we had to ask somebody else to do the project.
That makes sense. With the HD Bomberman [Hi-Ten Bomberman] that was playable in one of these Caravan events, it was really kind of groundbreaking, because there wasn't any real HD technology at that time, and also it was 10-player. Can you go a little bit into the origin of that?
TM: Back then in Japan, there was a national TV company called NHK. They were trying to push HDTV, so with that overall flow, Hudson was thinking, "Okay, if TV gets that good, the program itself needs to be that good as well."
Also, the screen ratio was going to be 16:9, so that's why 10-player was possible, because you have more characters lined up versus 4:3. They didn't have the graphic board to support that back then, so they had to manually put one together one.
And that became the Iron Man board, correct?
TM: Tetsujin, yeah. It was only used internally. How could you know all this? (laughter)
Just to clarify because some people have been confused, even though Hi-Ten Bomberman was created on the Tetsujin board, it was never intended for PC-FX, correct? Even though the PC-FX was based on the Tetsujin board.
TM: The PC-FX was based on the Tetsujin board but it wasn't quite the same. The graphics weren't in HD because we didn't use the HD graphics board. The FX was not in our vision when we first developed that game. We developed it simply for use in HD.
What was the aim of the PC-FX console? It seems to me that NEC had very specific ideas about what kind of games could be on it, because there were only gal-get (visual novel/dating sim) titles and other similar games on it for quite some time. Can you talk some about the genesis of the project between NEC and Hudson?
TM: Their goal was to create a game with everything on the screen moving, rather than playing a basically still action game with just the characters moving around. The CPU ability back then was not that good. We did research into how to make graphics that were more motion-oriented, so FX was the answer.
Did NEC have specific types of genres that it wanted on there? It seemed like it was very much going in the full-motion video direction, rather than proper games like the PC Engine had, and it was a lot of dating sims and things like that. Was that done purposefully, or was that just who ended up developing for it?
TM: NEC didn't do anything to set the genre direction that the software was made in. Their concern was purely technical. Software-wise, Hudson was the one thinking about that and setting the direction. When you're talking about "NEC", there's a distinction. NEC Home Electronics itself just worked on the hardware. The software division that worked on games was known as NEC Avenue. When you're talking about NEC, the hardware and software divisions have to be understood.
So why did Hudson decide to go for FMV-type stuff in that era, after other consoles had already failed at doing that?
TM: I really think it's because we wanted to see how far we could go to challenge that.
There weren't very many titles released throughout the system's lifetime, and only toward the end did actual action games start to come to the console. What was the thinking within Hudson at the time this transition was happening?
We're talking between '95 and '96. Hudson was already doing stuff on the Saturn and PlayStation, but it still had its own system, which was very much not succeeding -- I'm talking about the PC-FX. The PC Engine was still doing okay.
TM: The PC Engine was 16-bit. At the time the PlayStation came out, suddenly CG and 3D polygon graphics could be used. Sega and Sony had come out with products at around the same level, and NEC wasn't doing very well, and was ready to withdraw, because the console wasn't strong enough, so that was their turning point as well. Because that was the era of console change.
Yeah. I was just wondering about the targeting of that console. It seemed to not be focusing on actual action games anymore, which the PC Engine was, but the FX was not. Specifically, I'm wondering why they chose this different direction.
TM: At the beginning of the PC Engine era, we wanted to show what the PC Engine could do, like large characters in China Warrior, rather than a little Mario jumping around. That was very surprising at the start. During the FX era, we wanted to show even smoother and more beautiful characters, which could move better, which could not be done in the PC Engine era.
Overall, action games were losing popularity and the shooting games had really fallen down. RPGs, with a lot of story content, were on the rise. That's why Hudson, as a software development house, just followed the trend.
It's pretty much all about business. At the time when PlayStation came out with Final Fantasy, it became that some genres just didn't sell. There was nothing to be done about that. For people who grew up in the shooting and action game era, when they saw Final Fantasy and its excellent graphics, they said "Role playing games are amazing!"
The popularity started to take off from there. As they get older, they couldn't move as fast as before, but an RPG, no matter how old you are, you still can finish the game. The whole thing was shifting that way. People were concentrating on those games. That's why the direction was changing.
Think of it like a pyramid. The top of the pyramid is the core gamers, and the rest is the casual gamers. Look at the shooting game era. The core gamers want better graphics, better performance, and better everything, so those developers are looking at these people and ignoring the larger, casual gamers. I think that's probably why we then realized that those things were not really getting more popular anymore, because it's just a small group of people, so they had to make a shift.
Just one more quick question about the FX. Do you remember, or can you say what all the expansion ports were supposed to be used for? They were never used. The one on the bottom, and the one in the back.
TM: Those were expansion interface ports. The ports all over it -- they didn't end up having any function. The FX hardware just didn't sell well, and we had to give up on producing it. I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think they may have been planning to add some peripherals later on, so they kept the ports, but the console ended up not selling very well, so nothing was really developed.
I think it's safe to say that it was probably an early version of USB or a FireWire type of thing. They could have been used for a recorder, remote control, keyboard, or music hardware.
It had to be more than that, because these ports took up a lot of space in the console.
TM: I don't know! (laughs)
That's too bad. I should get to some slightly more modern questions. Was it Hudson that decided to bring you back to the front lines of Hudson marketing again? You were a little bit under the radar for a while, and now you're much more in the forefront in Japan.
TM: They weren't intentionally going to hide me. When Sony and Sega were coming out [with the PlayStation and Saturn], the executives at Hudson made a judgment about which one we would aim for. Hudson executives thought that Sega would probably do well, which turned out to be the opposite.
Our games were more toward the fun type of games, rather than to show off the graphics and eye-catching things. The era was more toward that high-powered CG style back then. That's why Hudson wasn't really quite going with the mainstream at that time.
But now, with Nintendo's new consoles and all that, the fun gameplay is brought up again, with playing with other people -- like in Bomberman, for example. That's why our strength is going to be recognized once again right now.
Just as an aside, I've talked to friends in Japan who said that if you ran for prime minister, every male in Japan who is my age would vote for you.
TM: I get that all the time. I'm not into politics. (laughter)
How did you get hooked up with YMCK?
TM: The band? Originally, YMCK was invited for my birthday party as a live band, because they had that Famicom sound. I thought it was interesting. We then hooked up and decided to record a song together.
That's quite simple. What else should I ask you? Is Hudson still doing any kind of chip development right now?
Do you think Hudson would ever get back into the chip-making market for arcade or console or anything else?
TM: Actually, two or three years ago, we made the chip for a Konami TV game product known as the Poem -- you could use it to do things like play baseball on the TV.
So has R&D stopped on chips, or are they still doing things like that?
TM: No, nothing right now.
That's too bad, because it dashes my hopes of another handheld PC Engine or something.
TM: There may be a possibility, because there are still two main programmers with the company.
That would be great. A little PC Engine, like GBA Micro style, might be a good idea? I would like that.
TM: Yeah, maybe it would. [In English:] Me too! (laughter)
What are your favorite PC Engine games, personally?
TM: Super Star Soldier.
I actually like Soldier Blade better, myself.
TM: Oh, is that so? Gunhed [known in the U.S. as Blazing Lazers] is my second favorite. Final Soldier is also fun.
If you ever want to do another interview again, think about the old days very hard, because I have a lot of ridiculous questions about specific companies and specific titles and all sorts of weird crap that only I care about.
TM: I'll study hard. (laughter)