The Mak­ing Of…

The rise and fall of Kouichi Yot­sui, the man be­hind a work of ar­cade ge­nius


We meet Kouichi Yot­sui, cre­ator of ar­cade leg­end Strider, un­der the shadow of Mount Takao

Ev­ery­thing is set in mo­tion with a dev­il­ish cackle. Grand­mas­ter Meio, a cloaked vil­lain en­shrined in white flames, floats up the screen, the en­tire globe in his hands, and then onto the golden domes of the Kazakh Soviet So­cial­ist Repub­lic of 2048, a wash of dra­matic synth mu­sic cas­cad­ing forth as the hero flies onto the screen on a glider. Strider has barely be­gun, and al­ready it’s a thrill ride.

Twenty-five years af­ter the ar­cade game’s re­lease, project lead Kouichi Yot­sui is no longer at Cap­com, and he doesn’t hold the world in his hands. In 1991, Street Fighter II would ar­rive and go on to re­de­fine how ar­cade play­ers spent their ¥100 coins. Strider, mean­while, was con­signed to a strange fate, re­garded as an un­for­get­table in­flu­ence yet barely touched by Cap­com un­til its re­make ear­lier this year, in which Yot­sui had no hand.

We meet with Yot­sui, now 51, near the base of Mount Takao, out­side of Tokyo. Snow lingers on spec­tac­u­lar ranges hemmed by tall trees, a scene so strik­ing that it feels as if fu­tur­is­tic agent­ninja Strider Hiryu could leap out at any mo­ment with his dis­tinc­tive fly­ing cart­wheel and dis­patch us with his Cypher plasma sword.

“I’ve no idea why I joined a game com­pany,” Yot­sui ad­mits as we set­tle in at a dis­creet soba restau­rant. He had grad­u­ated from a film course at Osaka Univer­sity Of Arts with­out a job to move on to. In a rush to re­pay his debts to a lo­cal post-pro­duc­tion film com­pany, Yot­sui flipped through a ca­reers mag­a­zine and found the high­est start­ing salary. That was at­tached to a job at Cap­com, which he joined in 1986 as a graphic artist un­der Tokuro ‘Arthur’ Fu­ji­wara, work­ing on ar­cade games such as Ghouls ‘N

Ghosts. While Yot­sui made sev­eral videogame pro­pos­als of his own, it was then-new head of devel­op­ment Akio Sakai who sug­gested the project that would end up be­ing Yot­sui’s first and last game for Cap­com as head plan­ner.

“Sakai had the idea of mak­ing a project that com­bined an ar­cade game, a home con­sole game and a manga, and we dis­cussed the idea with Fu­ji­wara,” says Yot­sui, who was cred­ited on the game as Isuke. “Then we took the idea to manga com­pany Moto Kikaku.”

The home con­sole ver­sion was for the 8bit NES, a hugely un­der­pow­ered ma­chine com­pared to the ar­cade ver­sion’s pro­pri­etary CPS-1 board. Strider was only the third game to use the hard­ware, and Yot­sui’s ex­pe­ri­ence with the board on Ghouls ‘N Ghosts is partly what scored him the gig. He was adamant that his would be the de­fin­i­tive ver­sion of Strider.

“In those days, ar­cade games were still Cap­com’s main busi­ness, and I had always been in­volved in those games, so when they opened a con­sumer games di­vi­sion, I stayed where I was and [Masahiko] Kurokawa took on “I WAS FRUS­TRATED. I WANTED TO DO MUCH BET­TER BUT THE TECH­NOL­OGY AVAIL­ABLE TO US COULDN’T KEEP UP” the home ver­sion of Strider,” Yot­sui says. He notes with a sly smile that the bosses would send the staff they dis­liked to the con­sumer di­vi­sion, which was in a sep­a­rate build­ing. “Nat­u­rally, I wanted to make sure the ar­cade ver­sion was bet­ter than the home ver­sion and the manga. The game world and story were cre­ated by Kurokawa, the manga artist [Moto Kikaku’s Tat­sumi] Wada and my­self over din­ner.”

They de­vised the story as though it were a manga, and then di­vided it up between the three ver­sions. “We started with the pro­tag­o­nist, Hiryu. Be­fore we got to the idea of him be­ing a ninja, it was dif­fi­cult, but once we’d set­tled on that, the way he would move and the sort of game that would suit such a char­ac­ter came eas­ily. We fo­cused on cre­at­ing a set­ting that had not been seen be­fore in a videogame.”

And what a set­ting. From the rooftops and gantries of near-future Kaza­khstan – based en­tirely on pic­tures from books and imag­i­na­tion, but pop­u­lated with killer ro­bots and armed guards – the ar­cade game took in the snowy wilds of Siberia; the Fly­ing Bat­tle­ship, Bal­rog, with its anti-grav­ity gen­er­a­tors; the Ama­zon; and the Grand­mas­ter’s lair on the Third Moon.

“Kurokawa and I went to the same univer­sity and we both made films, so both of us were into plots and sto­ries,” Yot­sui ex­plains. “We came up with lots and lots of ideas for set­tings, and we cre­ated all sorts of de­tails that were never used in the games. I just used the parts that would con­vey the at­mos­phere I wanted play­ers to feel, and left the rest to the imag­i­na­tion.”

Yot­sui had the CPS-1 board’s power to help re­alise his own ideas. The tech­nol­ogy al­lowed his team to craft un­usu­ally large char­ac­ter sprites and even larger en­e­mies, catch­ing the eye with gi­ant robot foes in the form of a go­rilla, a cen­tipede and a fowl with an F-16 for a head.

“Be­fore CPS-1, we just used cus­tom hard­ware,” Yot­sui says. “At the start of mak­ing a game, we’d fig­ure out how much mem­ory we needed for sound and the other specs, and had the hard­ware built for us. It wasn’t such pow­er­ful gear, though, just enough to run char­ac­ter sprites at 16x16 pix­els. A 32x32-pixel pro­tag­o­nist was some­thing spe­cial. So Hiryu seemed very large, and we couldn’t have achieved that with­out the CP Sys­tem. If it had been any more pow­er­ful, we would have never gone home at night.”

By oth­ers’ ac­counts, Yot­sui worked his core team (him­self as plan­ner, two pro­gram­mers, three back­ground de­sign­ers and three ob­ject de­sign­ers) ex­tremely hard. But de­spite the ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy at their com­mand, the re­sults always fell short of what was in his head. As a film direc­tor, he dreamed in 3D, and en­vi­sioned ev­ery­thing at im­pos­si­ble scale.

The thrilling sec­tions of the game where the en­vi­ron­ment turns against Hiryu – land­mines ex­plod­ing in his wake, flames that chase and bite at his heels, bursts of elec­tric­ity to dodge, anti-grav­ity boss fights – are noth­ing com­pared with Yot­sui’s vi­sion, where the player would out­run in­com­ing mis­siles, for ex­am­ple. “There were lim­its to what we could achieve back then,” Yot­sui sighs. “I was frus­trated most of the time, be­cause I wanted to do much bet­ter but the tech­nol­ogy could not keep up.” But while the re­al­ity couldn’t quite meet the am­bi­tion, such se­quences were the early pre­cur­sors to the

beau­ti­fully scripted ac­tion set-pieces we see in the likes of Un­charted and Tomb Raider.

Yot­sui’s per­fec­tion­ist ten­den­cies and filmic de­sires caused the game to over­shoot its bud­get and miss its De­cem­ber 1988 re­lease, in­stead hit­ting ar­cades in March 1989. “Ar­cades [then] were mainly pop­u­lated by se­ri­ous game fa­nat­ics, or otaku, and since there weren’t so many games avail­able, they would play any­thing that came out,” Yot­sui says. “There were a lot of shoot­ing games at that time. Street Fighter II wasn’t out yet, and the fight­ing game boom had not yet be­gun. I wasn’t try­ing to an­swer any par­tic­u­lar de­mand with Strider – at Cap­com, we made games as we wanted to make them.”

Nev­er­the­less, he ad­mits that he tried to de­sign the game in such a way as to ap­peal to ar­cade gamers and ex­tract their money. The ac­tion on­screen had to ap­peal to the player, but also to the per­son stand­ing be­hind them watch­ing, and Yot­sui felt he must show new lo­ca­tions with ev­ery stage and a con­stant stream of new ideas.

“Level two was es­pe­cially im­por­tant, be­cause it showed that the game would keep chang­ing, and made the player won­der what was com­ing next,” Yot­sui says. “Also, while a large boss en­emy would usu­ally come at the end of a stage, we put a robot go­rilla right at the start of the sec­ond stage so that you would see it right away. I might have made it slightly dif­fer­ently for a home con­sole, be­cause the syn­tax is dif­fer­ent.”

The NES ver­sion of Strider was never re­leased in Ja­pan, though it reached North Amer­ica in July 1989, and the manga se­ries sim­ply sank with­out a trace. Yet de­spite reap­ing awards and good­will from fans, Yot­sui’s su­pe­rior game failed to set the ar­cade scene on fire. Dis­ap­pointed at his de­layed, over-bud­get game’s fail­ure to fill Cap­com’s cof­fers – and, in­deed, to ful­fil his own vi­sion – he left the com­pany soon af­ter its re­lease. He was there­fore long gone when Street Fighter II turned the ar­cade into a one-on-one battleground, caus­ing an ex­plo­sion in pop­u­lar­ity for game cen­tres in Ja­pan and suck­ing wal­lets dry.

He was not in­volved in the many ports of his game that would fol­low, ei­ther. US Gold’s 1989 Amiga, Am­strad CPC, Atari ST, Com­modore 64, DOS and ZX Spec­trum ver­sions were miss­ing cer­tain bat­tles, au­dio el­e­ments and en­e­mies, and couldn’t hope to match up to the CPS-1 board’s graph­ics ca­pa­bil­i­ties, but they still re­viewed well. It was Sega’s Mega Drive port, now fondly re­mem­bered as one of the 16bit con­sole’s best games, that came clos­est to the orig­i­nal, and it’s the ver­sion that wins Yot­sui’s ap­proval to­day.

A smat­ter­ing of se­quels and re­makes fol­lowed, though none later than 2000, and gen­er­ally crafted with lit­tle love. Hiryu filled the off years with cameos, pop­ping up as a playable fighter in Namco X Cap­com and the Marvel Vs Cap­com se­ries. Fi­nally, Cap­com en­gaged Dou­ble He­lix to col­lab­o­rate on a pol­ished mul­ti­plat­form re­boot that was re­leased in Fe­bru­ary this year, with a sat­is­fy­ing fight sys­tem, new ex­plo­ration el­e­ments, and even nods to the NES ver­sion and Cap­com’s 1999 Strider 2 (not to be con­fused with US Gold’s 1990 Strider II).

What does the fa­ther of the char­ac­ter have to say about it? “I re­ceived a sam­ple copy for 360 and I had some opin­ions about it, but it’s not for me to say what they should do,” Yot­sui says. “It’s de­signed for a dif­fer­ent au­di­ence.”

Af­ter Cap­com, Yot­sui briefly worked with for­mer col­leagues Akira Ki­ta­mura and Shinichi Yoshi­moto at Takeru, which re­leased just a few games (among them 1991’s Co­coron), be­fore mov­ing on to Puzz Loop de­vel­oper Mitchell Cor­po­ra­tion, where he made his own “Strider se­quel”, Can­non Dancer, re­leased in the west as Os­man. The game bore strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties in terms of its core me­chan­ics, but its story of an over­bear­ing cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­ety that crushes artis­tic val­ues while tout­ing false free­dom ap­peared to be an out­let for Yot­sui’s own frus­tra­tions with the mak­ing of Strider. He also made an­other game that re­called the ac­ro­batic game­play of Strider, the Square Enix-pub­lished Moon Diver, in 2011.

Mitchell Cor­po­ra­tion went out of busi­ness in Novem­ber 2012. To­day, Yot­sui is a free­lance de­signer who says he has trou­ble sell­ing his ideas. In con­ver­sa­tion, he is friendly and light of tone, but he ap­pears to feel his best years are be­hind him, given a re­cent dearth of re­spect for in­no­va­tion among the higher-ups. He says that if any­one takes him se­ri­ously, it is only be­cause of Strider. He is cur­rently look­ing to li­cence 12 of his ar­cade games for re­lease on iOS, An­droid or PC.

“I’m not mak­ing any­thing at all right now,” he says. “It has be­come im­pos­si­ble to make con­sumer games. I have games I want to make, but my games don’t sell. I make pre­sen­ta­tions here and there, but no one is in­ter­ested. I tell com­pa­nies to stop mak­ing the same old games and to let me make some­thing orig­i­nal. But re­cently, they just don’t lis­ten to me.”

Of course, it’s nat­u­ral to spec­u­late that Yot­sui’s per­fec­tion­ism made him dif­fi­cult to work with. Or per­haps his pride just got the bet­ter of him. But what price artis­tic ge­nius? Part of the rea­son the 2014 Strider was so warmly re­ceived was the legacy of the 1989 game that spawned it – and that in turn is thanks to Yot­sui’s clar­ity of vi­sion.

“I’d like to make ac­tion games for home con­soles,” he says. “I’d like to make some­thing mys­te­ri­ous that no one has ever seen.” We put to him the idea of self-pub­lish­ing or pos­si­bly crowd­fund­ing. For a mo­ment he pauses to con­sider it, and in that mo­ment there ex­ists the pos­si­bil­ity of a new ac­tion game from the cre­ator of Strider, made ex­actly the way he wants to make it.

Yot­sui placed this would-be boss early in level two in or­der to mix things up and get ar­cade play­ers itch­ing to see more

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