Blog:Starblade: The Home Ports
An update to an earlier post: A former Technosoft staffer has settled the debate on how the Sega CD version of Starblade functioned, and there's new information on the 3DO version.
In case you don't know, Starblade was an arcade rail shooter released by Namco in 1991. Unlike their earlier Galaxian³ attraction, Starblade's impressive 3D graphics were done entirely in real-time and did not rely in any way on LaserDiscs. After the initial hoopla died down, it was then some poor developer's turn to make this game run on a home machine that had no business running it.
On the Mega CD/Sega CD, that developer was Technosoft. Yes, the same Technosoft that made the Thunder Force games. Ex-employee Naosuke Arai gave a brief technical explanation in the book Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Volume 3: "The indestructible background elements were indeed streaming off the CD based on the player's coordinates. So it was partially real-time, in a way. Other elements were real-time, but there were no actual polygonal calculations." It doesn't sound like FMV was used as some previously thought.
Arai also said he believed they were working through a middleman, but he didn't say which one. Japanese Internet posts say it was Telenet Japan. Strangely enough, GameFan reported in their very first issue that a number of Mega CD titles were in the planning stages in Japan including Starblade from Wolf Team, which was owned by Telenet Japan. (Golden Axe 3, Thunder Force V, and Shining Force 3 were among the others named.) This might just be a coincidence, however, as they indignantly dismissed these claims in issue 4, claims they made, while bashing other magazines' international coverage.
(I should also note that another former employee tweeted in October 2017 that Starblade was their last game at Technosoft before they left.)
Starblade also made its way to the next generation 3DO. I talked to one of the programmers, Akihito Koriyama, who was a contractor with developer HighTech Lab. Japan. He confirmed that the 3DO port used FMV for the background imagery and "flying objects were pre-rendered 2D objects." Those objects were rendered behind the FMV and, after some trickery with transparencies (as illustrated here), could appear to come out from behind elements in the FMV. So despite the fact the 3DO was a more powerful system, there's apparently no 3D used here either.
Koriyama added that "it was a big job" for the graphic designers and programmers. The animations were huge, and files totaled over 100,000 during production. He gives most of the credit to his colleague Yuji Shingai, who he describes as a "real genius programmer." Shingai, who was also a contractor, previously worked with Koriyama at Game Freak and later contributed to games like Intelligent Qube. On Starblade, he was responsible for retrieving all 3D vertex data from the arcade machine using an in-circuit emulator. This took several days, as Koriyama recalled, but the data was then used by the CG team to render the FMV with LightWave 3D using Amigas and Raptor workstations. Most of the original programming was done by Shingai, while Koriyama mainly programmed tools and edited the audio and video.
All that effort paid off because the effect is quite convincing. I've put together a side-by-side comparison video (see below) of the FMV from the first segment of the game and footage captured from 3DO hardware. You have to look very closely, but you can see shootable objects peek out from behind the FMV.
The PlayStation port, called Starblade Alpha, was also developed by HighTech Lab. Japan, but Koriyama was not involved. This actually seemed to use at least some real-time 3D graphics.