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