Some Twitter threads from a former Home Data/JSH programmer:
- Tails' Sky Patrol/Boon Boon Kabun
- There's this Game Gear game called Tails' Sky Patrol. I have quite a few memories of this game. Probably because I made it three times. Other than the Game Ger version, there were two other versions of the game completed.
- The first version was for an unannounced game system (let's call it "X"). "X" had a monochrome LCD screen, Z80 CPU, one BG layer plus sprites, and the sound was two channels plus PCM. It was a very standard design, meant as a cheaper alternative to the Game Boy, aimed at a younger audience with an educational focus.
- The X version was planned as a launch title. It's not often you get to work on a launch title, and it was also my first time working on an action game, so I put a lot of effort into it. I was responsible for all of the programming. It was a new platform, so there wasn't really any development environment, so I also built the tools. Near the end of production, we were short on resources so I asked someone else to do some of the boss programming.
- The original X version didn't have Tails as the main character. I can't give any particulars, but the enemy designs still have the same impression as the original, so I'll let you use your imagination.
- Even though the game was completed, before they could put out even a press release, the entire X project was cancelled, so only those involved in it even knew it existed. To recoup some of the costs of developing the game, we were asked if we could get the game running on the Game Gear, which had similar specs to the X. Because the CPU was the same and the resolution was very close, I thought I could get the game running as-is on the Game Gear, so I started out making a translation API for the Game Gear hardware, and built an emulator to translate the monochrome data to GG character data. I think it took about two weeks to get it running, but the graphics were still monochrome, which obviously wouldn't fly on the color Game Gear.
- The business team went to Sega, who decided to put Tails in the game. At that point, proper development on the Game Gear version started. The game itself was the same, but there were some changes in the world design to fit the license, if I remember right. By this point, I was working on Ristar for the Game Gear, and a different team handled Tails. They redrew the character graphics, added demo scenes and a training stage, and adjusted the game balance for the Game Gear hardware. The X version was actually a 1M ROM, and it was quite an ordeal packing the map data into that space. The GG version was 4M, so they had a ton of space to add things. There was so much space that the character data didn't even need to be compressed.
- It was of course released as Tails' Sky Patrol. It combines action, shooting, and racing elements, and has a unique game design that I don't think you'll find anywhere else.
- About five years later, for reasons I can't say, we needed to produce a Game Boy title on an extremely tight schedule. We decided to do a port of Tails' Sky Patrol. Of course, Sega owned the rights to the characters so we had to redraw them, but our company owned the program. It's probably easier to think of it as a port of the X version.
- Development was handled by staff from the same team as Daiku no Gensan, Kachikachi no Tonkachi ga Kachi, and Samurai Kid. Just like the port to the Game Gear, the characters were redrawn, demo scenes added, and the design was adjusted for the Game Boy. Porting the programing from the Z80 to the 8080 was quite difficult because the IX and IY registers couldn't be used. I was actually hospitalized during development, and I'm sorry for any additional pressure this put on the rest of the staff.
- The game was completed as a GB/GBC dual compatible title. I'm hugely thankful for everyone on the staff for making a well-built title with a really cool character. The GB version was called "Boon Boon Kabun" and the completed version was shown off by Nintendo. Unfortunately, because of contract reasons, the release was cancelled even though the game was complete. In all my years working in the game industry, this and the X version were the only titles I've worked on that were cancelled after completion. Even today I still regret what happened.
- That said, for me personally Tails' Sky Patrol was where I got my start with action games. If it weren't for that title, we wouldn't have had GG Ristar or Samurai Kid, either.
- GG Ristar
- The MD version of Ristar is often considered a hidden gem, but I'm here to talk about the Game Gear version which has never been rereleased. I was responsible for programming the player, map system, and hardware driver, and was also the total director of the project. When word came of a Game Gear port, the Ristar project was still called "Feel" and the MD version was still only about one-third completed.
- Sega of America wanted to release the MD and GG versions at the same time, so we weren't able to wait for the MD version to be completed before starting work on the GG version, so we worked off what had already been completed and were asked to expand on it as we saw fit. In this way, the GG version is about half port, and half original game, which I find interesting as it isn't something you see very often. The game as a whole shifts the focus making it a more athletic game, with the focus on collecting the stars. (As in exploring the map and traversing the terrain to collect the stars.)
- While porting, we would get new versions of the MD ROM which we copied by eye and ear. No source code or resource files were provided. Seeing new builds often, we watched the MD version of the game continue to improve, and we could see first-hand the effort Sega's developers were putting into the game. We regularly sent our builds and got feedback from the MD version staff, but they gave us a good amount of freedom to build the game as we saw fit. I'm very thankful for that! Probably the worst thing that happened was when we didn't copy Tomoko Sasaki's tunes quite right. The sound driver for the GG version was programmed by me (under the name "Kazune Hiiragi"), and the music data was created by Chikayo Fukuda, who is now at CyberConnect 2.
- We were quite limited on space, as the MD version had a 16 meg ROM, while the GG version was only 4 megs. By compressing the character data, we were able to get away with only cutting one stage. We also compressed the backgrounds, but the characters specifically were reduced to about 30-40% of the original size. Additionally, since we didn't want stars to reappear after they scrolled off the screen, we had to check over 200 collection flags when drawing the backgrounds. This would be easy on a modern CPU, but on the Z80...
- The player character has more than 300 patterns, which was more than could be tracked with a single byte. We used pattern FF as a special flag that checked another byte for the pattern, so we could show more than 256. If you don't touch the controls, Ristar goes into several different idle animations. We wanted to replicate as much as we could from the MD game, which is why there are so many patterns!
- Since the project was initiated by Sega of America, there were quite a few requests and requirements. Here's two of the ones I thought were most interesting: In the American release, the second stage starts on top of a ship, but the Japanese version has a stage before this where the player walks across clouds and rainbows. SOA said "American kids won't understand walking across clouds and rainbows" so the stage was cut. The other is on the stage 3 boss. There's an audience seated in the background, but we got a bug report from SOA saying "the background looks like 666". We adjusted this for the final version, but you can still sort of see it... There was also a secret password system. I picked the passwords myself, and they were just on my own tastes at the time.
- Hermetica (what became Yoshi's Cookie)
- So there's this game called "Yoshi's Cookie". I wasn't directly involved in this game, but I suppose you could say I was the "original author". The general sequence of events was: Developed an arcade game called "Hermetica" -> did poorly on location test -> went looking for another way to sell it -> BPS was interested in it -> BPS took the game to Nintendo -> Yoshi's Cookie was released.
- The graphics, sound, and overall feel of the game are completely different, and there were things added, but the basic game rule of "line objects up to remove them" is still intact in its original form. But even as the original creator of Hermetica, I don't know much about what happened with it after our direct contact with BPS.
- The Hermetica project staff consisted of four people: I was the project leader and handled the planning, game design, and program; there was also an artist, a sound designer, and a tools programmer who helped out. The original request from above was meant to clear out old board stock, which seems backwards but was an important consideration for the company.
- At the start of the project, it was just me coming up with the game design. I built the original prototype on the X68000, and after tweaking and refining the design this prototype became the essence of the 1-player mode. After passing an internal greenlight meeting, the project needed a two-digit code name, and I chose "18" without hesitation. A lot of people at the company, including myself, considered the project a bit of a gamble.
- Development proper began at this point. There was a request from above to give the game an "alchemy" theme -- lined-up pieces would turn to gold before disappearing, and an alchemist would appear in the attract sequence. The title "Hermetica" also came from alchemy, of course. I had my own ideas, but it was important to keep the company's goals in mind.
- As for the game program, the board I was working on had only two background layers, which was quite an ordeal to get the blocks and cursor moving around as if they were sprites. The 2P mode wasn't even even implemented until just before the day of the location test. The 2P mode rules came to me particularly easily, and I was quite confident that they'd be fun to play. I really wanted to put it out exactly like that, so I deliberately waited until it was too late to do anything else.
- Location tests were done at game centers at Kandai and Tarumi. At some point, the title was changed from "Hermetica" to "Archimedes". The results were... not so good. Internally at the company, we thought the game itself was quite good, but the numbers from the location test changed that opinion all at once. Even the distributor said it was garbage. In the end, we didn't even make up development costs, much less sell the boards we needed to get rid of.
- Deciding it wasn't a good fit for our own business, we looked for a way to turn it into a consumer or PC product. Many companies expressed interest after checking out the loaned board, but they all were playing it safe. Sharp wanted to release it as an SX-Window application, but SX-Window had a small install base of mostly business users...
- The best response we got was from BPS, who we went with. The porting and arrangement were handled by them. The extent of my involvement was answering some questions about the design details from Alexey Pazhitnov.
- While the original objective of clearing out the old boards wasn't met, the project budget was very low, and sales were an order of magnitude higher than expected so it was actually an extremely profitable project. As such, the internal view of the game became quite positive again, even though the game itself hadn't changed one bit!
- The next time I saw the game after that was the day Yoshi's Cookie was released. I preordered it and picked it up from the shop like any other game. Buying my own game at the store, it didn't really feel like it was my game anymore; now it was BPS and Nintendo's game. There was also a commercial before the game's release. My grandmother wasn't someone who knew very much about video games, but it made her so happy to see a commercial for something her grandson made sung by Haruo Sanwa.
- As for the differences between Hermetica and Yoshi's Cookie, obviously the graphics and sound are completely different. The character abilities were also removed as there was no longer character selection. The 1P mode had blocks appearing from all directions, not just the top and right sides, while the 2P mode didn't have the blind attack and the stage layout was different... I think that was it?
- Ninku 2
- This game's called Ninku 2: Tenkuuryuu e no Michi. It's a fighting game with 8 characters, a story mode with drama sequences, a vs. CPU mode, and a 2-player versus mode using a link cable. I was responsible for the GG hardware driver and battle system, plus other programming like the adventure part engine. My contribution was purely as a programmer.
- Actually, while cleaning the other day I found the move lists created by the designer along with a password list. The cheats were meant for debugging, and may not be in the final version. Also, late in development, moves were added directly into the programming and so there may not be any documents in existence that properly list them all. Programming a fighting game wasn't much of a stretch for me, as I'd previously programmed the X68000 version of Garou Densetsu. If I'd had more time, I would have liked to improve the AI further.
- One unique thing about this game is that when the characters move further apart, the screen zooms out and shows smaller sprites, and zooms back in again when the characters move closer, with two different levels of zoom. That's not all, though; there was supposed to be a third zoom level even further in using the GG's sprite doubling capability, making for three levels of zoom. The characters were nearly as tall as the screen in this mode, and the effect was much more dynamic than you'd expect from a GG game. For some reason, though, Sega told us we can't use the sprite doubling feature, so we had to cut the third level of zoom. As a result, reviews complained about the "weird zoom out feature". I kind of regretted it... I'm not sure if it's related, but a bit later, another fighting game using the same sprite-doubling zoom feature was released, called Virtua Fighter mini. Ugh.
- Anyway, since we had a 2-player versus feature, we wanted to emphasize the sound here. Originally, we thought that since this mode required two Game Gears, we could use them both for 6-channel BGM, but in practice this turned to not really be worth the effort. That said, one thing I thought I could do myself as the programmer was slightly phase the sound between the master and slave systems, giving an interesting chorus effect with little effort. This actually wound up giving a great sound when you try playing it. Though it's not so easy now to get two Game Gears, two copies of the game, and a link cable all together... I don't know of any other portable titles that did this so it might have been the first, but if anyone knows any others let me know.
- (In response to a tweet about the Sega logo having the same sound in Ristar and Ninku 2) This is because the programmer is the same and the sound driver is the same, so some things just wound up getting reused.
Ran a few code comparisons on their titles and here's what came up:
Comparison between GB Rockman World 2, Undercover Cops, and Fighbird suggest that Ayakashi no Shiro, Ca Da, Nanonote, Trump Boy, and Trump Boy II might also be by them. I don't think any of these have credits. Ca Da is attributed to Outback, who are known to have subcontracted some of their titles, while both Trump Boy titles have a copyright for Minamimachi Bugyosho, which was an animation studio, not a developer.
Comparison between FC Yanchamaru 2 and Paaman 2 suggests Casino Derby may also be by them. Like GB Ca Da, this is published by Yonezawa and attributed to Outback. Again, no credits that I'm aware of. Fighbird also came up, but this one is attributed elsewhere to Tamtex?