The Mak­ing Of…

How a one-time Namco re­search project turned into a PlaySta­tion clas­sic

EDGE - - CONTENTS - BY DANIEL ROB­SON & NATHAN BROWN For­mat Ar­cade, PS1 Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Namco Ori­gin Ja­pan De­but 1994

How an an­i­ma­tion ex­per­i­ment went on to be­come the ar­cade and PlaySta­tion clas­sic, Tekken

Kat­suhiro Harada took an odd route into de­vel­op­ment. While read­ing psy­chol­ogy at Waseda univer­sity, he de­cided he wanted to work with the ar­cade games he’d spent his youth sneak­ing out of school to play. He weighed up his op­tions – a stu­dio, an events company, a spe­cial­ist mag­a­zine – but he had no ex­pe­ri­ence and no trans­fer­able skills. He saw a vacancy for a sales rep at an ar­cade, fig­ured a knowl­edge of the ways of the hu­man brain would be use­ful, and ap­plied for it. Then for another job and another, fir­ing off CVs to ev­ery big videogame company of the time. “I ap­plied to Namco, Sega, Cap­com, Taito, Square and many oth­ers,” he tells us. But he was busy with stu­dent life, and in no mood to wait. “I was study­ing; I was busy with my yacht rac­ing so­ci­ety. I didn’t think I re­ally wanted a job with Namco, but they were the first company to of­fer me a job. I ac­cepted it.”

He would go on to break Namco’s record for first-year ar­cade sales, earn­ing him suf­fi­cient ku­dos to press higher-ups for a move into game de­vel­op­ment. Twenty years later, he’s still there, now over­see­ing a se­ries that, back in 1994, was just an idea. At that time, Cap­com’s Street

Fighter II se­ries ruled the 2D fight­ing game genre and Sega had got to mar­ket early with the polyg­o­nal 3D Vir­tua Fighter. Namco wanted to make the game to beat Sega, and was al­ready pulling ahead from its ri­vals in its un­der­stand­ing of high-poly tech­nol­ogy, but its de­vel­op­ment staff were still find­ing their feet in the tran­si­tion from 2D. Hav­ing the tech was one thing; know­ing how to use it to make games was another mat­ter en­tirely. The so­lu­tion was, in a way, ob­vi­ous.

“Some staff joined us from Sega who had worked on Vir­tua Fighter,” Harada says. “They were mainly an­i­ma­tors, and some pro­gram­mers. Then we had a team at Namco that had made

Knuckle Heads, this re­ally bor­ing 2D Namco fight­ing game, and a plan­ning team too.” They set to work, but they weren’t re­ally mak­ing a fight­ing game at first. “The most im­por­tant part of a fight­ing game is how the char­ac­ters move. It was an an­i­ma­tion ex­per­i­ment. We knew 3D hu­man body move­ment would be crit­i­cal for the next 20 or 30 years of games. The cre­ation of

Tekken was not only about mak­ing a new game – we were also re­search­ing the fu­ture.”

It was a re­search project with the steep­est of learn­ing curves. Th­ese were prob­lems that sim­ply didn’t ex­ist in 2D games, where re­al­ism was a pe­riph­eral con­cern. When you throw a punch with one arm, your other arm moves as well to keep your bal­ance, some­thing games played from a side-on view never had to show. And in

Street Fighter II, ev­ery character gets hit from the front or the back, never from the side. What hap­pens when a fighter con­nects with a right hook in a 3D space at 60 frames per sec­ond? “2D fight­ing games are like a flip book, ev­ery frame de­signed one by one. They are like pic­tures that we watch from a side-on view, but the 3D fight­ing game has space. It wasn’t just about the cool­ness of the an­i­ma­tion, but how we could ac­tu­ally make the character hit the op­po­nent. That was the tough part.” It was a fac­tor in the decision to es­chew

Street Fighter’s fan­tas­ti­cal moves and base Tekken on more re­al­is­tic punches and kicks. That was a prod­uct of the time, too: with the move to 3D games, de­vel­op­ers and play­ers were lean­ing more to­wards the re­al­is­tic. “When peo­ple saw 3D, they thought the era of vir­tual re­al­ity had fi­nally come,” Harada says. “So we thought ev­ery­one wanted some­thing more re­al­is­tic. Poly­gons look real, with smooth move­ment, so we thought, ‘Let’s cre­ate Chi­nese kenpo,’ or, ‘Let’s repli­cate the real skill of judo.’ It wasn’t like we all thought, ‘Let’s dif­fer­en­ti­ate our­selves from

Street Fighter.’ It was about recre­at­ing some­thing that ac­tu­ally ex­ists in the real world.”

Yet even that proved com­plex. With eight char­ac­ters in pro­duc­tion for the ar­cade ver­sion, each with their own fight­ing style, the work piled up. There were a cou­ple of hun­dred an­i­ma­tions per character – noth­ing by mod­ern stan­dards, of course, but it was sim­ply too much for a team mov­ing from sprite-based 2D. Namco started hir­ing, as­sign­ing mul­ti­ple staff to each character. By the time the project was com­plete, the team had grown from around 20 to almost 50.

Twenty years later, Harada is still coy about the de­signs of the char­ac­ters them­selves – no sur­prise given how many of them seem to be based on fa­mous stars and films. He ad­mits Paul, the hard-hit­ting biker with the im­pos­si­bly tall blond flat­top, was in­spired by a character of the same name in the manga JoJo’s Bizarre Ad­ven­ture. Masamichi Abe, now at Nin­tendo but back then a mem­ber of the Tekken plan­ning team, was a fan. Oth­ers were more ob­vi­ous; Harada has never pub­licly ad­mit­ted the in­spi­ra­tion for bare-chested kung fu fighter Mar­shall Law, though there’s a sub­tle ad­mis­sion of Bruce Lee’s in­flu­ence to be found on Law’s al­ter­nate cos­tume. On the back, the num­ber three is writ­ten in blue. Blue Three: Bruce Lee.

Harada re­grets this ap­proach, since dif­fer­ent peo­ple draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from dif­fer­ent places meant there was no con­sis­tent style across the cast. “I’d redo the character de­signs,” Harada says when we ask what he’d change in ret­ro­spect. “They may have been unique, but they didn’t re­ally have any mean­ing. In Vir­tua

Fighter, cos­tumes were al­ways the same, so peo­ple would see a character and know who they were im­me­di­ately. Street Fighter was the same. Tekken was a bit half-hearted in that area. Look at Michelle: she’s just wear­ing a white shirt and black trousers, but in [her al­ter­nate cos­tume] she looks like a Na­tive Amer­i­can. There was no

con­cept there. It lacks con­sis­tency.” The fi­nal game lacked bal­ance, too. “We did almost no bal­anc­ing,” Harada says. “Back then, de­vel­op­ers just went by how things felt. They did it man­u­ally, not with a cal­cu­la­tor. It was only around the mid­dle of de­vel­op­ment on Tekken 2 that we start­ing us­ing nu­mer­i­cal con­ver­sion and cal­cu­la­tion.” There were in­fi­nite com­bos – Jack could use his Cos­sack Dance

“WE DID ALMOST NO BAL­ANC­ING. BACK THEN, DE­VEL­OP­ERS JUST WENT BY HOW THINGS FELT. THEY DID IT MAN­U­ALLY”

to kick away an en­tire health bar with his stubby lit­tle legs – and one-shot kills. “We just used our senses; there was no the­ory at the time. In that sense, Tekken 1 isn’t re­ally a fight­ing game. It should be called a hu­man body ac­tion game. They have abil­i­ties, and they hit each other, but it’s not re­ally a mar­tial arts game.” Per­haps that lack of bal­ance ex­plains why

Tekken failed to take off in Ja­panese ar­cades; it sold well enough, but few placed two cab­i­nets back to back, as was then – and re­mains – cus­tom­ary for ver­sus fight­ing games. In sin­gle-cab form, it was po­si­tioned as a tech­ni­cal showcase of Namco’s 3D prow­ess, but play­ers didn’t take it too se­ri­ously. Thank­fully, Tekken would fare much bet­ter when, three months after launch, it made its way from the ar­cade to store shelves.

Tekken was a per­fect fit for PlaySta­tion, and not only be­cause its four-but­ton con­trol sys­tem – one for each limb – was a per­fect fit for the con­sole’s con­troller. It was also a gen­er­a­tional leap for­ward for one of gaming’s most popular gen­res on new hard­ware as early adopters were cry­ing out for tech­ni­cal showcases. Now, for the first time, home con­soles could of­fer the same level of graph­i­cal fidelity as the ar­cade. PlaySta­tion Tekken was almost ar­cade per­fect.

But not quite. While the move to CD-ROM gave con­sole de­vel­op­ers more space, 650MB still wasn’t quite enough for Namco. On the ar­cade ver­sion, when a fighter was cho­sen on the character-se­lect screen, an an­i­ma­tion would play; that was cut from the home ver­sion. The con­sole ver­sion’s an­i­ma­tion data was com­pressed to about 70 per cent of that of the ar­cade edi­tion. It would be­come more se­vere as time pro­gressed – by Tekken 3, it was down to ten per cent.

Harada speaks of a gen­er­a­tional split among the Tekken team, with an old guard used to work­ing in 2D to strict hard­ware lim­i­ta­tions, and what Harada calls the Poly­gon Gen­er­a­tion – 20-some­things who had cut their teeth on roomier, more pow­er­ful sys­tems. “They would say to us, ‘We’re jeal­ous! You have 2MB of mem­ory! In our day, we only had a few kilo­bytes. You can do any­thing with 2MB.’” That old guard, how­ever, knew all about data com­pres­sion. They tin­kered end­lessly, not only with the size of the data but where it was placed on the disc. Data on the outer por­tion of a CD is read faster than data to­wards the cen­tre, and that re­al­i­sa­tion meant that

Tekken, de­spite be­ing one of the most com­plex PS1 games of the time, had the fastest load times around. And it was all thanks to the old hands. “Masanori Ya­mada was in charge of it,” Harada says. “He’s still with Namco, and in a se­nior po­si­tion. We called him a ge­nius.”

Tekken re­viewed well around the world, and had the sales to match, with more than a mil­lion units sold world­wide. The game per­formed bet­ter in Europe than in any other ter­ri­tory, a trend that con­tin­ued for 20 years. To date, se­ries sales stand at a shade over 43 mil­lion units – more than half of them Euro­pean. Harada be­lieves that Sony pub­lish­ing the game in the ter­ri­tory was key, lend­ing it a level of brand ku­dos it would not have en­joyed with Namco’s name on the box.

Tekken 2 would ar­rive in Ja­panese ar­cades just five months after Tekken re­leased for PlaySta­tion in the ter­ri­tory. Harada pro­vided the voices for Yoshim­itsu and Mar­shall Law, and worked on Kuma’s an­i­ma­tion. By the time Tekken 4 rolled around, Harada had risen to the role of di­rec­tor. He had fallen into game de­vel­op­ment almost by ac­ci­dent, but now Tekken is his life’s work. Even to­day, he seems sur­prised that he has de­voted his en­tire ca­reer to a sin­gle se­ries.

“In the game in­dus­try, tech­nol­ogy de­vel­ops so rapidly, doesn’t it? Trends come and go, [and] I was scep­ti­cal about whether one ti­tle could last so long, make money for so long. When you look back in his­tory, there have been so many fight­ing games, es­pe­cially in the ’90s. But how many re­main now? Very few. Games would re­lease and fade away. I never thought it would last this long. No­body did.” Least of all his par­ents, who found them­selves ut­terly dev­as­tated by their son’s cho­sen pro­fes­sion. “They were both civil ser­vants – they served their coun­try,” Harada ex­plains. “I have two older sis­ters, but I was the only boy, so they had high ex­pec­ta­tions of me. They wanted me to work for a bank or trad­ing company – you know, be a so-called ‘salary­man’. This work is some­thing my par­ents could not un­der­stand. There was no such oc­cu­pa­tion when they were kids, and they kept telling me they were wor­ried about my fu­ture.”

They needn’t have wor­ried, of course, but Harada was so con­scious of their dis­dain for his work that he couldn’t quite tell them the truth. We’ve all kept the odd se­cret from our el­ders, but Harada man­aged to hide his true job from his par­ents for a decade, his cover only blown when they saw him on the cover of a mag­a­zine pro­mot­ing Tekken 5.

“Tekken was so vi­o­lent,” he says. “I was raised in a strict fam­ily. I stud­ied a lot, took sport se­ri­ously, didn’t get into fights... So I told them I was work­ing on some­thing else. First I told them I was mak­ing Prop Cy­cle. Later it was Taiko No Tat­su­jin. I think it came out four or five years after I joined Namco. My ju­nior staff made that game!”

Twenty years ago, Tekken was just an idea. Even­tu­ally, Namco’s un­bal­anced, in­con­sis­tent an­i­ma­tion re­search project helped put PlayS­ta­tions in homes across the world. In Ja­pan, mak­ing one’s hobby a job has long been frowned upon. But few peo­ple – even his par­ents – can now dis­pute that Harada’s has been time well spent.

Yoshim­itsu, a twirling ninja with a me­chan­i­cal arm, would be­come a se­ries fix­ture, and go on to ap­pear in Soul Cal­ibur

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