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Michitaka Tsuruta - a history of Tecmo and classic platform-puzzlers

As creator of Bombjack, Solomon's Key, Fire & Ice, plus numerous other games, Michitaka Tsuruta helped define some of Tehkan/Tecmo's best loved classics

John Szczepaniak, Blogger

June 10, 2015

29 Min Read

One of the big interviewees for my trilogy of books, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, is Michitaka Tsuruta - creator of Bombjack, Solomon's Key, Fire & Ice, the Captain Tsubasa series, and many other titles. He was also a long time friend of Ryuichi Nishizawa of Westone, who I also interviewed, and their recollections dovetailed nicely. These interviews are destined for Volume 2, to be published before the end of the year.

As part of the research for my Tsuruta meeting I read two previous interviews he'd participated in. One from 2004 by Andrea Babich, in Italian and Japanese, and one from 2012 by NESblog.com, in French. Andrea translated his interview into English; my brother translated the NESblog interview. Neither has been published in English before and, having acquired permission to repost them here, these will be a world first. To illustrate the two interviews I'm using Tecmo design documents provided by Michitaka Tsuruta. I hired someone to scanlate these from the Japanese, and the English text proves quite amusing in places. There likely won't be space to print all of them in Volume 2, so they are being showcased here.

The author (left) alongside Michitaka Tsuruta, circa September 2013

The two interviews are a nice build up to my own interview, which elaborates on several points made in both, goes in depth regarding unreleased games at Tecmo (there were a few - including a wireframe racer!), and lists precise figures regarding the pricing of Nintendo's cartridges for third-party developers. It comes to 12'700 words - but until it's published, please enjoy these two interviews which helped lay its foundation.

The images don't correspond to the Q&As. I've just slotted them in between each one until they ran out. They start with Solomon's Key design sketches, for the arcade title. After the "potato manga" page, there's a single page with Zako characters on it - these are design sketches for an unreleased Tecmo game which was to be similar to Ghosts 'n Goblins. Subsequent pages are on Fire & Ice, until you get to the sumo wrestlers, which is for Tsuppari Oosumo. At the end is a funny cartoon of Bombjack. For a detailed list of games Tsuruta has worked on, check out his webpage:

Andrea Babich interview

Original found here:

This is the full Interview freshly translated from Italian to English, with an eye to the Japanese original. The interview was never published entirely, not even on Tsuruta's website. July 2004.

1) How did you start your game design career?

MT: I was in the second or third year of university and I found out that Tehkan was looking for part-time designers. I decided to send the CV. Later, the company changed its name to Tecmo. The first job was a game where I worked as a designer with others and it was a good opportunity to think about a game in terms of "project". (a) I continued to work part time; then, just as I was about to graduate, Tehkan hired me. If I think about it now, I cannot believe it started out as like that.

(a) It's Swimmer; Tsuruta is credited as "debug", but he did the graphic design, actually.

2) Guzzler is your first project as a game designer. The game is influenced by the classic Universal game design elements, à la Mr. Do! Was it Tekhan who asked you to design something on that line, or was it your choice?

MT: In those days, Tehkan was a company in which one could come up with an idea for a coin-op and submit it freely. I had the idea of this character who spits water to extinguished flames. I went to my boss, Kazutoshi Ueda, and submitted my concept.

3) The main character of the game must light the letters to spell the word G-U-Z-Z-L-E-R. Unlike many other games of this kind, the letters do not light up on a timed loop, but according to the position of the character on the screen. Did you want to give more control to the player?

MT: Hmm... I completely forgot... If I remember correctly, the letters were lit depending on how the flames  were extinguished ... Or am I wrong? However, my boss Ueda was crazy about pinball and I wanted to put some pinball themed design element!

4) Then came Bomb Jack, which in Italy (and generally in the West) is revered as a true ‘80s masterpiece, on par with Ghosts'n Goblins or Mario Bros. How was the development team structured? Were you aware that you were going to create a classic?

MT: I believe that we were not aware of it. The team consisted of three people: a programmer,(b) a graphic designer and a sound designer. The sphinx in the background was not created by the graphic designer, but by Tsukasa Masuko, the sound designer. However, the success of Bomb Jack was not at all because of my design, but only and exclusively because of Mr. Ueda feeling for video games.

(b) Michishito Ishizuka. Suddenly he co-founded Escape/Westone with ex-colleague Ryuichi Nishizawa

5) Bomb Jack control system is unusual for a “collect'em all” maze game. Jack flies, and you have to glide by franticly tapping the jump button. How did you come up with this idea? Was it like that from the beginning, or Jack was free flying?

MT: At first, we simulated the gravitational fall with a balloon; by pressing the jump button while in the air, it deflated and glided slowly to the ground. But I remember well that using the commands was rather complicated. So, we changed the commands to make the vertical speed temporarily reach 0 each time you press the jump button while in the air. And so it was that Bomb Jack began to fly freely in the sky.

6) Several games, such Super Mario Bros. 3 and Psychic 5, mimicked the same flying technique. Were you proud of that?

MT: It was Ueda who changed the glide technique, and I have no reason to be so proud! However, if I think back to how control systems worked in video games of that time, yes, I think we knew we were creating something never seen before, a fresh, original concept. Sure, those days were very different. To develop an idea, build the graphics and patent it is much more difficult today.

7) Tell us about the concept of collecting the 23 bombs in the correct order to get the 50000 bonus points. Was it difficult to find the optimal placement for bombs in each round?

MT: We have changed many times the location of the bombs and how to obtain them. As developers, we have changed the location of the bombs and adjusted the parameters of the enemies, but also the company's staff which tested the game gave us valuable feedback and helped us to calibrate this aspect of the game.

8) Bomb Jack also started the “sightseeing background” trend, where backdrops are not functional to gameplay - something you can find also in City Connection, Pang and tons of other games. There's Giza, the Parthenon, Neuschwanstein… how did you choose which the locations to depict?

MT: Tehkan bosses asked for some stunning visuals, in order to catch the arcade player's attention at first glance. We simply chose some of the most beautiful places in the world. We only needed to select places different from each other.

9) Who's the character designer for the game?

MT: Rie Ishizuka,(c) who was in charge of all the graphics.

(c) Née Rie Yatomi: yes, she married Michishito Ishizuka and went on to Westone,

10) Bomb Jack soundtrack features Beatles' “Lady Madonna” and “SPOON no Oba-San” by Mari Ijima. This is a surprising choice. Did you have to pay the rights for the songs?

MT: I don't recall why we chose them. Yes, we had to pay the rights but, since the coin-op units produced were few [compared to home cartridges] paying such royalties was affordable.

11) On your web site, you write that if Bomb Jack is popular in the West it's because of Ueda-San. Can you tell us something more about him?

MT: People asked that to me quite often! Kazutoshi Ueda is the one who created Mr. Do! at Universal. Then he went to Tehkan/Tecmo and finally he was among the Atlus founders, where he worked on the Megami Tensei series. Had I to describe my style, I'd say I'm of the Ueda School.

12) Solomon's Key was not common at all In Italian arcades. Still, for those who played it, it's a cult game, something to love deeply. Do you consider it as your best opus?

MT: Indeed, Solomon's Key was not popular as a coin-op. (d) However, I think I've developed something very original, which surpassed the concept of common video games. I remember that someone wrote that it's "the most original Tsuruta game." Maybe because there was an enemy who was a paper crane! (e) Even after Ueda left Tecmo, I continued to work on the project, and was able to carry on the development in my own way.

(d) While it was, of course, much more successful on NES/Famicom.
(e) Wordplay between “Tsuruta” family name and tsuru, which means “crane”.

13) Solomon's Key is your last coin-op, and at the same time your first game for the Famicom. The arcade dimension was beginning to be too narrow to develop new concepts of game design? Which version you like most, the arcade or the home one?

MT: It is a difficult question. The configuration of the controls in the game is a very important element in the experience of the player's game. One of the Solomon's Key achievements is to have created a system of control which feels familiar and challenging at the same time.

14) Dana has great powers within the game context, because he can be build and destroy the blocks of the map. Was it difficult to balance the other elements of the game, with such a powerful main character?

MT: In the beginning, the concept revolved around defeating as many enemies as possible, and it was difficult to find the right balance of power between the powerful protagonist Dana and opponents he would face. Eventually, when the game became a VG puzzle - another Ueda idea - and the goal became to get the key and reach the exit, the enemies have started to be more of an obstacle than an objective, even if originally those mages and warriors had been designed for direct confrontation with Dana. A game born to annihilate hordes of monsters which was then enriched with puzzle game gameplay: this is the secret of that multifaceted game which is Solomon's Key.

15) While Solomon's Key mixes several genres, your following games look more focused on one single gameplay, i.e. the puzzle dynamics of Pitman/Cat Trap or Fire&Ice/Solomon's Key 2.

MT: I was the one to propose the concept of Pitman, a pre-existing PC game, to the publishing company. Working on Pitman, I acquired the taste for this kind of puzzle game, and decided to propose to Tecmo a puzzle game with a character who could extinguish fire with ice. At the beginning, the game was meant to be called Ice Kid but it was finally renamed Solomon's Key 2. That's why it's similar, but also quite different from the first Solomon's Key. The second episode is a true puzzle game, so fans of action games didn't enjoyed it very much. Ironically, despite original poor sales, the game is now quite expensive on the used games market! (f) What a mocking destiny.

(f) Still true – boxed, at least.

16)  Bomb Jack and Solomon's Key also had sequels made without your contribution, such as Mighty Bomb Jack or Solomon for the Game Boy Color. Do you like them? Do you like what developers built upon your game design concepts?

MT: I think that Mighty Bomb Jack is a really interesting game. [Back then] I would have never expected that a cartridge could store all those rich gameplay elements. About the Monster Rancher Explorer/Solomon version for Game Boy Color, I remember that when I visited Tecmo offices some staff member showed me the game, explaining how to play like “oh, this is not an enemy, you have to collect the fairy”. I had that strange feeling you have when you meet some junior high school mate after many years.

17) Let's talk about your latest creations: Puzzle Pom (g) and Car King. Has your vision about game design changed somehow?

(g) Playable here. This is the puzzle game who later evolved in the iOS game Astro Zill.

MT: It was tough trying to find how my vision of video games and game design has changed since the time when the games were played by one player, when today network play is commonplace.

My recent projects have been sketchy attempts that have given life to rather negative products. Still, as for Solomon's Key, the ones who played Car King really loved it. (h)

(h) Car King online service stopped 2005/5/31.

18) Who are the game designers you respect most? Are you still an avid player?

MT: In the Eighties, Douglas E. Smith and Alexey Pajitnov. Now my favourite designer is Shigeru Miyamoto. I do not play often, because when I come home from work I have neither physical nor mental energy to do it. But, on the other hand, my son plays a lot!

19) What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an indie developer in the Japanese game industry?

MT: From my point of view, not being under contract with a single major is a big advantage, because you can live very stimulating work experiences. Being able to deal with several developers means to touch different corporate cultures, and in such contexts I feel free to express myself planning and designing my way. To explain you one of the disadvantages of freelancing, however, let's suppose I see a manga in a magazine and I want to license it in order to develop a game:  obviously I can't. Such an objective would be realistically achievable only if I had some responsibility position in a company.

20) The video game market in Japan has shrunk by 40% since 1997. According to you, is this related to some kind of problem in evolution of the videogame media?

MT: The answer to this question is strictly personal opinion. In Japan, they teach us that cinema is an entertainment genre in decline. The general thesis is that it's all because of the birth of television, but I think that the reason is to be found in the variety of entertainment media who were born more recently: they have created unsustainable competition for the cinema. Moving on to video games, it is to say that they come with a unique feature, one step beyond of all other media: interactivity. The game is a medium that allows the player to perform an action, and to get some feedback for the accomplished action. The advantage that television has on the cinema is the "portability". In my opinion, interactive entertainment, as well as being "portable", has a number of features and possibilities, such as those offered by a personal computer connected to the network.

One of these is the indefinite number of people who use the PC to communicate. Communication, this is what the player needs to play a game. Interactivity is the best way to meet the needs of the player. To play a video game obviously need the money and time; still, the player of today passes time playing on multiple interactive media, and here do not just mean video games, but also surfing the Internet, e-mailing, or chatting on the BBS. (i)

I find that the quality of games is improving. Development costs reach extremely high numbers, and majors tend to play safe. In the old days, video games were developed with a reduced staff: a designer, a producer, and a sound designer. Just because the staff was so small, you could generate a lot of ideas (hopefully interesting ...) and, above all, to combine them into real videogames. Of course, we shouldn't forget that many of them never saw the light! I heard that the game Namco's Mr. Driller was developed more or less like this, but it was an exception, today no game is developed in this way.

In addition, because the production values are high, a rich game system, great playability and outstanding lastability. Rich in ideas or not, if my game software does not have a considerable duration, or a large extension, it will be difficult for it to be successful.

I have the impression that the difficulty lies not so much in the industry's ability in keeping a good quality of the product, but rather in preserving the strategic position of videogames as "new fun". We focus on the size of the game, its duration, but perhaps the problem is elsewhere.

For me, the reason for the [Japanese] video game crisis can be attributed more and more to the lesser role that interactivity plays. It has been quite a long time since when interactivity, which is an added value of VGs compared with other means of entertainment, is not conjugated in new and original ways.

Well, a new trend that has perhaps widened a bit the boundaries of interactivity is online gaming, but it is certainly not a revolution comparable to what happened during the crazy days of the Famicom boom.

(i)  It was 2004, but he can clearly see what it's coming on in terms of social gaming…


NESBlog.com interview

Original version here:

Michitaka Tsuruta – this name may be unfamiliar to you, but if you have ever owned, or still own, a NES, then it is possible you played Solomon's Key. Tsuruta was the principal designer at Tecmo. We will try to, throughout this interview, trace the evolution of his career. A career which is very rich as you can imagine. The time constraints of Tsuruta  means we have reduced the number of questions asked to the bare minimum, and a large body of his work will not be covered, or briefly touched upon only. This interview took place during June/July 2012 via email.

First of all, thank you to Tsuruta for having agreed to take part in this interview.

1) From the information available on the internet, your first work within the video games industry was on the game 'Swimmer' produced/developed by Tehkan. Can you tell us more about what you did in this company? What was your school/university background? Were you already interested in video games prior to choosing it as your career path?

MT: I was a student in the Faculty of Art at the University of Nihon, during which I took courses in animation. In my second year, I worker part-time for Tehkan, and I helped with the development of Swimmer.

During my time they asked me to draw something that would be transported on a river current/ flow of river. Also it must be something painful / cause damage if a collision occurred.

I was first interested in video games and animation at the moment I started applying for these sorts of jobs.

2) In an interview, ISHIZUKA Michishito said "More than half of those employed by Tecmo in the development team originally came from Universal/UPL. This was just under 20 people. <laughs> We even joked 'If you didn't work at Universal you wouldn't have a career here!'"  During this time, what was it like to work at Tehkan? What were salaries like compared to today?

MT: At the time, we proceeded with the sale of PCBs used in terminals that were marketed for arcade operators. The unit price of PCBs ranged from 100'000 to 200'000 yen, with a duration ranging between 3 and development about 6 months. This required a core development team consisting of several people. Profit margins were large, and it was the time when the market arcade was in constant development. So I think that the benefits of the company remained very important.

Even in the case of a project failing, it was possible to save the situation by turning it into a new game. This is potentially why the development of games happened in a free and open way.

As for the salary, I don't think it differed much from other jobs in other sectors/industries. And it was still during a time in which the concept of employment-for-life was very much in the Japanese psyche.

3) You were the graphic designer on Swimmer. How many people developed the game, and where did the idea come from?

MT: One person for hardware, one for programming, one for sound, one for the direction/management, and the graphics people – who included, if I'm not mistake, three part-time people. Given it was my first job, there was so much linked to the development which I didn't understand.

           At the time, for the graphic conception, we coloured in squared paper, we transformed the results into numerical data, and then saved/wrote it as an EPROM, which we subsequently put on a PCB.

We could subsequently observe for the first time the results on a cathode screen. Today, this type of procedure would be totally unthinkable, but it was essential during those years. It wasn't just a case of whether the drawings were well done, however, you must also be aware of how they displayed, and this required many rigorous tests. The first time I saw the main character who I had drawn actually swim, I found it quite funny.

4) Guzzler (Tehkan, 1983) was your first game as a designer, and you developed at the same time as Swimmer. How is it you held both positions and got to grips so quickly? Was it difficult in the design of a game?

MT: When my work on Swimmer was coming to a close, the company was looking at new potential projects, and I proposed few. One became Guzzler. It was these projects and ideas that enabled me to keep working at Tekhan after my work on Swimmer. But now as a designer.

The particularly delicate point was in the conception of arcade games, in the contradictory vision of the game on the side of the player: the player wants to amuse him/herself for as long as possible, arcade owners want to make as much money as possible. So a time limit has to exist.

Hence it must be such that the player conserves their wish to play despite the short time play.

5) It seems that there was at minimum six people working on Bomb Jack (Tehkan, 1984). Who had the idea for this game? Do you have any memories or anecdotes to tell us about its development?

MT: I was at the start of designing Bomb Jack, but it played poorly and it was thanks to Ueda Kazutoshi, at the time head of development, who helped with numerous changes to arrive finally at the game we know today.

He hugely influenced me in my way of conceiving games, and often helped with his phrase: "The game is a question of equilibrium."

6) The next question is on a topic of enormous interest to me. In 1986, Tehkan became Tecmo. Ueda and Ishizuka quit to found, respectively, Atlus and Westone (Escape). For what reasons? How did you feel given your colleagues quit?

MT: If we consider the development of Tehkan, it seems that right at the beginning, we recruited people with vastly different experiences from other companies to build the different divisions.

I think the founders of Tecmo wanted to create a company that was built on university graduates. The first employees at Tekhan felt betrayed in a way, and added to the situation with arcade games, pushed a lot of people to go found their own companies.

The fact that people I'd worked with and created games with were stepping down shocked me. Especially when we faced them afterwards as our competitors. […] But I heard it was an industry wheretalented people came and went very quickly, and as it happened, I became more conscious about it.

7) Talking about Solomon's Key (Tecmo, 1986), it's a popular game in Europe. I personally knew it as its Famicom version, not its arcade version. I think this is true for most French people. What about in Japan?

MT: The development of the game first started with the arcade version, but during this we started the Famicom version, and both went on the market at the same time.

The sales figures for both versions differ hugely, and even in Japan many know the Famicom version but not the arcade version. Nonetheless, Tekhan was a company that focused on arcade games, and so the arcade version was also popular with fans. I even met some of them.

Soon after Solomon's Key went on sale, a primary school teacher came and asked us questions so they could finish the game. He wanted to show the ending of the game to his class for fun on the last day of school. But there was a level that posed them lots of problem, and hence they wanted us to give them the solution. I was happy we could show him.

8) What was the original idea for Solomon's Key? It's a game that combines elements of action and reflection (in puzzle form), but was it originally to be that? Did you conceive it by yourself?

MT: At this time, Lode Runner was a huge success. In this game, the principle action was to make blocks disappear. And I thought to myself that the opposite action could be interesting. This was the original idea for Solomon's Key.

I originally thought about an action game. But as the concept of blocks disappearing and appearing is more like a puzzle, Ueda asked if "one of our common acquaintances" could work on this aspect of the game more, the puzzles. Hence why it was a mix of action and puzzle.

At the start, I worked solely on the game. When development of the arcade version began, Ueda started and hence the puzzle aspect came. Then when Ueda quit Tehkan, the development of the Famicom version began. Then I had a whole team working on the project. It went through various phases.

9) Solomon's Key is your first game on the Famicom. What were the different notions of development between the Famicom and arcade machines? As a novice, I get the impression it is quite easy to develop games on Nintendo consoles. What do you think?

MT: There are multiple points: the functionality of the console wasn't fluid, its technical capacity was inferior to the arcade machine, etc. For example, a 15 colour palette on the arcade machine corresponded to 3 colours on the Famicom, and we worked really hard to negate this inferiority. I think in this respect the development of a Famicom game was more complex than that of an arcade game. Nonetheless, given how constrained the game itself was on the arcade machines, I think the ported version on the NES was pretty much identical to the original.

10) Next you developed games on numerous platforms. After the commercialisation of the PlayStation and Saturn, 3D games took off massively. As a developer, how did you cope with this transition? Was it difficult on the technical side of things?

MT: The conception and technologies etc. for developing 3D games are different to those for 2D games. In the case of 3D, in which I participated, my work was more in the design/graphic part, and it is why I think at the time I didn't really come into contact with this sort of technology. Indeed, since the development of my games on the iPhone, I think the opportunities to use 3D has really increased.

11) When did you start freelancing? And why did you quit Tecmo?

MT: I quit Tecmo in 1988 after the development of the first episode of Captain Tsubasa (Famicom, Tecmo, Apr 1988). I took this decision because I got married to my university sweetheart. Her parents were owners of a photo studio and I became their employee. But I didn't stop developing games, as I continued freelancing.

12) Concretely, what is involved in the work day of a freelance developer? For example, when you worked on Monster Kingdom Jewel Summoner (PSP, Gaia, Feb 2006) for Gaia, I doubt honestly you stayed all day long in your house without moving about, etc., am I correct?

MT: To begin with, a meeting with the team of my client occurred, and during the meetings, checks to monitor the content of the application, the planning, the framework within which the work must be done, and fixing the set of all these points.

Then, at a certain stage - a stage which does allow changes in case of problems - I show the customer the advanced work, and if it suits everyone, we start new agreement for finalization.

In a general way, my work on the intrinsic development starts with me, while the meetings happen principally with the client company. In the case of Monster Kingdom Jewel Summoner, I had to go to the client for the final tweaks on the difficulty of the game.

13) You developed a game named Astro Zill for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Can you tell us about it?

MT: It is a game in which you must match balls of the same colour together to make them disappear. A bit like in Solomon's Key, where you make appear / disappear / move around / order balls of colour. Most games of this nature have no main character, but Astro Zill does, and this was taken directly from Solomon's Key.

In fact, Ueda offered to me a game of reflection named Ten Billion Barrel, and its this game that Astro Zill is mechanically based upon. In Astro Shift, a game for iPhone recently put on the market, I pushed further from the mechanics of the game Ten Billion Barrel.

14) What do you think of the current state of the video game industry?

MT: It seems first off that the market has moved away from arcades toward consoles, and also it has since concentrated on social network games (online games). If we look over the evolution of the entire game industry, I think we have seen a complete revolution. We moved from a couple of minutes to many hours and now back to a few minutes.

15) Is there anyone who influenced you or that you respect?

MT: Of course. Firstly, Ueda Kazutoshi. Secondly, Douglas E. Smith, the creator of Lode Runner.

16) It is a difficult question, but, for you, what is a game?

MT: In a game, there is in one way or another, conditions of success. For the player to obtain them, he must employ all his resources, such as time and his capacity. That's the basics, I think.

Recently I have asked myself whether it isn't really conditions of well-being. I think that we play to obtain pleasure greater than what our everyday lives give us. In this sense, I think that a game is an object laden with good-feeling. The game itself enables you to obtain this good feeling, BUT the player must search for it in the game. And it is through playing he obtains it.

17) To bring this to a close, thank you for your time Tsuruta. Any final words?

MT: I'm very happy to have partaken in the interview, and to talk about what I have worked on during just less than a quarter of a century.

The origin of my games finds itself in the arcade rooms which I played in during secondary school, and then university. And I thought of making original games on the iPhone, starting with that principal.

You could say I tried to style Astro Zill or Astro Shift on the same style of arcade games from this time. And I would be very happy if, after reading this interview, people go on find out about my games and play them.

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