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Tekken's Harada Reveals The Roots Of This Seminal Series' Systems

Tekken director Katsuhiro Harada explains the origins of the series' limb-based combat system, its plan to visually one-up Virtua Fighter, and its iconic floaty physics.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

October 26, 2011

7 Min Read

Tekken is a seminal entry in the pantheon of early 3D fighting games, and one of the only series still running, alongside Virtua Fighter and the somewhat newer Soul Calibur. While other fighters opted for a six-button setup using light, medium, and fierce punches and kicks respectively (like Street Fighter), or a four button strength-based system (like The King of Fighters), Tekken used a limb-based system, where buttons corresponded to left punch, right punch, left kick, right kick. The early days of 3D in games are intriguing, to say the least, as companies scrimped and saved every bit and byte, while trying to deliver the maximum visual bang for their buck. As Capcom and Namco prepare to release separate Street Fighter/Tekken mashups, we spoke with Tekken director Katsuhiro Harada, who has been there since the series' inception, about the origins of Tekken's systems, its unique aesthetic, and its nearly nonsensical story. In the original Tekken, what was the thinking behind a "four limb"-based button system as opposed to a strength and intensity-based one? Well, before Tekken, at the time Namco had been conducting a lot of R&D into polygon-based graphics, and the consensus we had was that true-to-life animation was going to become a huge aspect of game graphics going into the future. That turned out to be very true, of course. The limb-based control scheme sort of grew from that, but the scheme also felt really good for a fighter -- you could execute these one-two punch combos really quickly and intuitively. Right, the R&D was a big deal - when I talked with Yu Suzuki a few months ago, he talked about how in those early days everyone was in this race to create the most realistic 3D graphics possible. Was the extra complexity a part of the decision, too -- having four buttons instead of the three that Virtua Fighter had? [Virtua Fighter was a year old in 1994 when Tekken was released, and only had punch, kick, and block.] Certainly we were constantly aiming to improve ourselves, trying to avoid doing things that were already done before. One thing with VF was that the action your character took depended on which side he was facing -- his moves were flipped depending on whether he was facing left or right. Including all the animation data to make that function is a ton of work, and required what, at the time, was a lot of data. The control system for the first Tekken was an attempt to avoid that requirement and just execute the same moves no matter which side the fighter's facing -- that, in turn, freed up more storage space for things like extra characters and moves. Most previous fighters were working along the lines of light/medium/fierce -- both in movement and in thought process. What was the thinking behind moving away from that? I think the light/medium/fierce system is a pretty good way to represent fighting in a video game, but it's hard to define which moves go into which "level" of force. It gets even harder with certain fighting styles, because how can you define what a "weak" sumo or capoeira move is? That's why we concluded that the light/medium/fierce system wasn't really appropriate for a game trying to encompass a really large variety of martial arts like what we were aiming for. Where do you draw the line between fantasy and reality? To some degree you're going for realism, but flash is important too. Capoeira, for example, would not really be a powerful style to use in fights like this, but it looks super cool. We certainly realize that "realism," as defined within the bounds of this game, can be a very different thing from what would happen in real life. Rocky, for example, is a film that a lot of people liked -- but that was a work of fiction, and real-life boxers would never use really flashy moves like that in an actual match. It's not "real" realism so much as "wouldn't it be nice if things were like this" realism. That's what we aim for here, this manga or movie-like atmosphere that has impact upon the observer. We try to portray what people expect of the reality they see within games. You have to build in those kind of dramatic moments -- having the final hit replayed at the end of the match, and so on. Right. I feel Tekken has its own universe of physics, definitely different from reality, and from other games, as well. You punch someone and they're immediately off their feet and horizontal, or flip around in the air and so on. How did you come up with this type of physicality? That flipping around in the air thing is actually something that I devote a lot of close attention to. We want that manga-like atmosphere, to recreate the wide range of expression possible in manga. There's an older manga called Ashita no Joe, and that's one I draw a lot from. Was it part of the plan to make getting hit as dramatic as hitting, so to speak? Definitely. You want it to feel as dramatic and exciting as possible for the person attacking, to make him feel like "Yes!" when he lands something. Going back to animation, I talked with Yoshinori Ono from Capcom about this -- in a fighting game, speed is one of the most important things. When a player hits a button, they need that impact immediately. Disney animation emphasizes the setup over the impact, but fighting games have to take the opposite approach. There's this delicate balance between finishing animations and making sure moves come out on time. Tekken seems to animate a bit more and for longer than other series, so I wanted your take on the button-to-move gap. The Tekken series treats both the feeling of speed and the feeling of exhilaration seriously, which is part of why you can throw people into the air so easily -- it feels lighter than it should, and it's fun. Another thing we treat importantly, though, is the feeling of weight which the attacks give off. That goes back to what I said about taking damage -- the animation's done up to make that feel powerful, and emphasizing a certain fluidity to the animation contributes to that feeling of weight or power, like you're really winding up your kicks and other techniques. Tekken doesn't have much of a frame buffer between button presses and onscreen attacks, but we try to use what we have to create that feeling as much as possible. It's a balance, like you say. As a fighting series progresses, additional complexity kind of gets layered in. New players coming to Tekken might be intimidated. How do you address this? Street Fighter IV did a good job with trials and bringing people back, and the Arcade Edition has a little achievement-style crawl like King of Fighters 13. Even with that, though, it's very hard if you don't know the basic inputs. That's an important topic for any fighting game. You can have a practice mode that really goes in depth and strives to help players improve, but what we've found is that a lot of players never even touch practice modes. It's worth noting that when the fighter genre first hit arcades, there weren't any real tutorials. Instead, the designers tweaked the difficulty level such that after a couple of credits, you had already gone from beginner to intermediate player -- something you could then improve upon by learning more moves and practicing. That's the ideal that any fighter should go for, and funnily enough, although a lot of people complain that Tekken is too hard to pick up, a lot of other people say that it's too easy for beginners to enter the game and beat people by mashing buttons! Personally, I don't see that as such a bad thing if it gets more people into the series, gets them curious about it. Another idea is to have an online mode where players can just beat on each other without any life gauges, chatting each other while learning the moves. There are lots of things like that we'd like to try. Here's a tough one. Tekken has a very complicated story. Can you summarize it within 30 seconds or less? Ooh, that's hard! (laughs) Basically, there're these three generations of father and son that don't get along, and two of them have this Devil Gene, so their dad wants to know what the Devil Gene is, and so they argue with each other about it for a bunch of years. All the other characters just sort of get caught up in it.

About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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