Road to the IGF: TPM CO Soft Works' Tarotica Voo Doo

Tarotica Voo Doo, an MSX game in the works since 1993, takes players on a silly, but challenging journey that looks to recapture that sense of playing video games for the very first time.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Tarotica Voo Doo , an MSX game in the works since 1993, takes players on a silly journey that looks to recapture that sense of playing video games for the very first time. Through these unique controls, a story of a plane crash and a family that insists on eating dinner in their haunted house, it aims to provide a challenging adventure that continually surprises, both in its content and the power it pulls from the MSX.

Ikushi Togo of TPM CO Soft Works spoke with Gamasutra (with translation help from Max Preston) to talk about what keeps the developer working with the MSX, how they stayed interested in the game after so many years of development, and the thoughts that went into connecting the various pieces that would become Tarotica Voo Doo.

What's your background in making games?

I started out making games on CASIO’s PB-100. I next moved on to FUJITSU’s FM-7 (8-bit), which became my favorite, and I involved myself in submitting programs to print magazines at the time. I later transitioned to the MSX, and in 1997 I migrated to Windows, but I continued to develop games for the MSX. Also, for work I have been involved in game development for the Playstation, Nintendo 64, NES(6502), ARM architecture, and iOS. One game that I am proud to have worked on is the music game Utauta-Uh (Enix, 2000) for the Playstation.

How did you come up with the concept for Tarotica Voo Doo?

At first, I just had fun drawing pictures with the mouse. I used to enjoy drawing cartoons in the margins of books, so I created animations with this kind of interesting, unrefined style. Hand-drawn animations, such as the famous work by Japan’s Studio Ghibli,have a type of charm that can’t be replicated by CG. Unrestricted by 3D perspective calculations, hand-drawn animations have this greater degree of freedom of expression. I then had the realization that I could do something quite unique by giving the user free control over the animations.

In regards to the game’s control system, the motions of pushing and pulling doors as well as swinging the sword and bringing it back feel to me as kind of up-down motions. So, I felt like the control system of using these two directions would be more intuitive than using buttons to control these motions.

I also have a background in architecture, so one time when I was having fun drawing doodles of floor plans, I started to imagine the things that would be placed in the building. I started drawing animations of these objects and arranging them in different configurations, and this ended up becoming the foundation for this game.

Basically, whenever adding something new, I would imagine a lot of different things and consider how they are all connected while at the same time trying to maintain consistency. My personal style is this kind of organic process, and as a result I was able to construct this strange world.

What development tools were used to build your game? 

The game itself was developed using the MSX 8-bit computer. I created special tools as necessary for tasks such as drawing animations or lines.

A tool is essentially something that has been designed for use in a specific way as intended by the tool's creator. Of course, the MSX itself is such a tool, and although it is extremely limited in its capabilities. This was a time when computers were first being created, and were thus created primarily for purposes such as physics calculations and for producing graphics for science. Although the intended usage may seem limited, the MSX’s resilient design grants it an extremely high level of versatility such that it can even be used to create things like video games.

Sherman’s FilterBank effector is another tool that is useful for adding effects to the sounds of musical instruments. Rather than using it the way described in the manual, I used it as a way of creating music by  manipulating the sounds’ waveforms. The tool, having the resilience to withstand this kind of unintended usage, is a fond “musical instrument” of mine.

I love surprising people by using the MSX in ways that weren’t thought to be possible and creating things that push the boundaries of the system’s capabilities. Because there are so many ways to use the MSX in unintended and interesting ways, it is one of my favorite pieces of hardware.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Initial development took a total of 5 years. In the final year, whether awake or asleep I was just drawing animation nonstop, to a point that I almost got sick of drawing. The game reached a state of “completion” once, but it didn’t receive very much support. Then, in 2014, a couple decades later, I was exhibiting the game at an indie game event, and astonished by the tremendous amount of praise it received, I began to consider a general release of the game.

Back in the day when I was first writing programs for the MSX, people usually had the patience necessary to spend time figuring out how to play a new game, but things are much different today. Now, even tutorials are considered bothersome, and even if the instructions are written in the manual, most people won’t read it. I had to find a way for people to learn how to play the game while in the middle of controlling the game.

It was a difficult challenge. I first thought I would be able to release the game quickly, but it ultimately took me 3 more years. You can read more about this process of trial and error in adjusting the game in the 2nd edition of the technical document included with the game, planned for release later this year.

You worked on Tarotica Voo Doo for a very long time. How has the game changed over the years? How did you keep yourself working on it and not give up?

The game itself has actually changed very little. I strive to create work that has universal appeal, so the concept of “giving up” does not exist for me. My ideal is to create something that can be enjoyed no matter how many years pass, rather than creating something connected to a temporary fad or something that only a certain group of people will enjoy. When creating a game, I simply continue to work on it until it reaches a point where improvement is no longer possible, no matter how long it takes, so I suppose I am simply not interested in things that change with the times.

Additionally, I have tons of ideas for games that I’ve wanted to make since the 80’s, and they still seem interesting in my mind even though so many years have passed. I am looking forward to one day creating and playing them in the future!

When presenting Tarotica Voo Doo at exhibitions over the last few years, people have been playing and enjoying the game as if it were in the same category as the retro-style pixel art games that have become popular recently. The fact that people can enjoy the game without even realizing that it is running on the MSX is proof of the game’s universality, and this is something that I am very proud of.

What made you keep designing for the MSX after all these years? Why stick  with it rather than move onto other systems/engines?

Of course, for work I developed for the PS, N64, and iPhone(iOS), with Java, for the ARM architecture, and have written 3D applications for Windows. I have also used Perl and Python for server-side programming.

I used to enjoy programming with JAVA1.0, but it became more difficult to write programs with the forced transition to object-oriented programming in 2.0. Backwards compatibility was removed from iOS after Steve Jobs passed away, and I became unable to use older APIs that I had grown used to playing around with. The various languages and systems that now exist are remarkable, but with updates, old ways of doing things stop working, and new ways are forced on us. I think this is ridiculous.

Imagine if you had a favorite musical instrument, but one day its shape suddenly transformed and it started making a slightly different sound. No one would use this kind of instrument, but in the computer world, these kinds of bizarre occurrences are commonplace.

I am not a programmer by nature, so my game creation process is more like adding or removing LEGO pieces, checking how things look, adding more pieces, and repeating as necessary. It’s an extremely analog method, similar to carving a Buddhist statue.

I recently came to the realization that developing on the MSX is similar to the LEGO method I just described. It kind of reignited my enthusiasm for it, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with the MSX recently. All reference
materials are fully accessible, and deeper-than-intended usage is permitted. Furthermore, when trying to put together a new feature, I often discover that the API, BIOS, or commands necessary for my implementation
are already part of the existing MSX architecture. Besides the vast resources at hand, the MSX is simply an astonishingly well-designed system that still holds up 30 years later without the need for updates.

One more important thing is that there are many other MSX enthusiasts who are keeping its history and legacy alive. Through their numerous efforts, it is possible even today to continue using and developing on the MSX.

Tarotica Voo Doo looks to make players feel like they are playing a game for the first time. How did you work to make your game feel this way? Why  make something so new and different for players?

The answer to this is simple: it is because the game’s system is new. Of course, newness in itself isn’t necessarily meaningful. There was a certain type of feeling I wanted players to experience through
this game, and this system was the result of my search for the best way to accomplish this. The result simply happened to be something new.

What thoughts went into designing the mansion? In filling it with fun puzzles, unique fights, and its silly story? How did you create such a deep world to explore?

I feel that there are two types of creators: Those who imagine the whole before they decide the details, and those who imagine the details which they use to create the whole. 

I belong to the latter category, so I focus on things like creating animations with interesting movement or  making sketches of rooms that I feel like drawing. I then put together the many small things I have made to create the whole.

For this reason, while I am in the middle of creating, I have no idea what type of game it will become, what the story is, or how events will unfold. However, in order to create a cohesive work, it is important to find a sort of balance, so I just kept adding things to places that needed it and removing things from places that didn’t, and the final result ended up being Tarotica Voo Doo (laughs). I only learned in hindsight that the game is looked at as being very original and unique.

Even though the end result may feel as though it is out of my control, I have found that a game’s trajectory from start to finish is actually predetermined to some extent. To elaborate, the course that a game takes during its development process is often decided by the basic systems and rules that you come up with at the very  beginning, and as such, these elements are extremely important. Similar key elements in other creative works would include the personality of a character in a novel, or the riffs that you decide on when composing a song.

In my case, when first setting out to create a game, I place importance on inventing systems that I haven’t seen before, systems that emphasize simplicity, or systems with high potential (the type that you have to actually create before you can see what is possible).

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games  you've particularly enjoyed?

I haven’t had a lot of time to play games recently…

This is off-topic, but a couple games that I tremendously admire are Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. The things that those games set out to accomplish were clearly defined since King’s Field on the PS1, and I  realized that the hardware has been able to finally catch up. Also, Star Strike HD by Housemarque. The fact that they created a 360-degree shooting game from the 80s using modern technology is fantastic.

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?

Actually, I think that independent game development is easier now than ever before. There are a huge number of free tools and development environments, and there are also many indie events to present your games. Furthermore, by putting your game in the Indie category, you automatically get an exemption from having to compete with the graphics of AAA titles. Now is the time for everyone to make games! (^^

Of course, Tarotica Voo Doo will run on actual MSX hardware, so today’s indie devs can even make games for the MSX!!!

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