How a UK animator is bringing Irem’s classic shooter back to life
How UK artist Paul Johnson is bringing Irem’s classic shooter back to life with an anime-styled project that hits every mark
The legendary shoot ’em up R-Type has reached beyond its arcade origins to land on everything from Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum to Nintendo’s Game Boy, but Irem’s game has never been realised in animation form before. Paul Johnson tells us why, and how, he’s doing it. Your R-Type animation has attracted a lot of attention as a ‘fan project’, but you’re an animator by trade, right? I guess I am now. I studied Japanese at Sheffield University, and when I graduated I thought that speaking Japanese meant I could become a translator of Japanese. I did a few games and novels, but unless you want to largely take on 50,000-page contracts for patents for new battery chargers, there’s really not much work in that space. It was looking like I was going to have to find work in data entry or at McDonald’s. Then this animation production company in Australia, Planet 55, stepped in and got me working on character design and ship design for an animated series, Prisoner Zero. I could do that from home and online, and that particular project has just finished, but it kept me working as an animator, and that’s what I do now. How did the R-Type project begin? Tom [Jenkins, channel producer at Channel 4’s games YouTube channel #Mashed] really liked the Star Wars thing I did, and because #Mashed works with content creators, animators and whatnot on YouTube, he seemed to just like the idea of working with me, and he didn’t really mind what it was. He said I should come up with some ideas and he’d do the same, and then he’d run them by the right people at Channel 4.
With the Star Wars project I got a bit of a reputation for focusing on the bad guys and showing what happens if there’s no plot armour for the good guys. So I suggested a three-minute short of Generation 1 Transformers with the Decepticons absolutely crushing everyone. They liked the idea, but they weren’t sure Hasbro would be as open as Lucasfilm to releasing fan art. But they obviously liked R-Type as subject matter. Why was Irem’s game your next choice? I remember when I was a kid, having been born in Lincoln, we moved to Skegness, and suddenly arcades weren’t something I had to go on holiday to the seaside for any more. There was no more waiting for that one time a year. Suddenly I was surrounded by arcade games, and one of the first ones I played there was R-Type. Then, when the Master System came out, I played it to death again, even though I could never complete it, because it was way too hard for me. I had the Commodore 64 version, too. I think back, and there’s just always been a lot of R-Type in my life. What are you tr ying to capture in the animation? Is it the feeling of playing that kind of arcade shoot ’em up, or the R-Type aesthetic? The objective, I guess, was thinking about how I could take a 2D horizontal shooter and imagine it as a fully animated battle scene, as if it was from something like Macross. That led to a lot of interesting things, because we only really see R-Type from the side, so I was having to think about how wide a piece of scenery might look, or what a particular boss might look like face-on, viewed in a 3D plane. That was really interesting to me, and there was a lot to work out. That was great fun, and quite a challenge. How concerned are you with accurately recreating the famous R-Type universe? That was the charm of the challenge. Some of what I had to go on was stuff like 16bit sprites, I guess. So there are those brown insect-looking things that attack you, but it really could be anything from what you see in the game, so I just interpreted it as some horrible pulsating thing with claws. However, if you look at it from the top, you’ll find it still looks exactly like it does in the game, really. So it’s a work of interpretation of being inside an R-Type level. You’ve only shared a work-in-progress sample so far, but it created quite a reaction. Were you expecting that? No, not at all. I thought it would just be a few old men like me who played it at the arcade. I mean, I got some of that, but I also got an absolute shitload of people in Japan getting really excited. Suddenly my Twitter went crazy, and I think about three-quarters of the reaction came from Japan. That was really nice. When will you be finished? It’s a bit of a test for me. It’s the first thing I’ve done where I haven’t had a year or two to get it finished. So we’re looking at late April on #Mashed at the moment. It should be about three minutes long. So it’s not a huge animation, but there’s potential for other games after this.
“With the Star Wars project I got a bit of a reputation for focusing on the bad guys”
Animator Paul Johnson attracted attention in 2015 with his sevenminute, animestyled TIE Fighter short, which has been viewed over 5m times to date. You can see snippets of his near-finished R-Type project via his Twitter account, @OtaKing77077