This interview was originally published on Level 42. Special thanks go to both Justin and to former site editor, Michael Brown, for handing the piece over to Siliconera. Additional thanks to Active Gaming Media for making this talk possible.
For anyone willing to openly award themselves the status of “gamer” during the NES era, Blaster Master is a game that requires no introduction. Boasting some of the most progressive game design for its time, together with a brilliant audio score and visuals that tested the limits of the 8-bit hardware, it has become a “must play” title for later generations of gamers as well in order to be properly educated and cultured in classic gaming.
Though a number of somewhat lackluster entries in the series have appeared over the years for the Sega Genesis, Game Boy and original PlayStation, none of these quite managed to live up to the expectations of fans who could sense that these games lacked the original inspiration that made the original so revolutionary.
That is until the recent release of Blaster Master: Overdrive on WiiWare, the first game since the series’ NES debut to be handled under the scrutinous eyes of the original game’s creator.
Yoshiaki Iwata, creator of the original Blaster Master for the NES and producer of Blaster Master: Overdrive sat down to discuss both games, commenting on design, old memories, struggles, the disappearance and re-emergence of Sunsoft, his personal view on Blaster Master, the next direction for Sunsoft, and why “retro” games matter.
Before we get in to discussing Blaster Master: Overdrive, could you begin by telling me a bit about your memories and experience working on the development of the original Blaster Master? Could you tell me about your role in particular?
Blaster Master creator, Yoshiaki Iwata: For the original Blaster Master I came up with the title, designed the opening, handled the map design and layout, did the boss design…aside from the game’s character design I was pretty much involved in all areas of the game’s production. The overall creation of the project as a whole however incorporated the entire staff at the time.
The development team basically consisted of 1 main programmer, 1 sub-programmer, 1 lead designer, 1 character designer, and a sound programmer, so the game was more or less made with a team of 5 people.
How would you describe the game that you set out to create with Blaster Master?
While it may sound like a bit of a stereotypical response, basically we were trying to make the best action game to date, with all that entails. With Sofia (the game’s vehicle), we wanted to bring to life a sense of action that incorporated all 360°of the environment in a way that players hadn’t really experienced up to that point. Along with that, we wanted large, expansive maps so that we could support that vision.
Graphically we tried to push the limits of what the NES was capable of, and one way we tried to express that was with the game’s bosses. We wanted to really emphasize a sense of scale, bring out the difference between the Jason, the small character that the player was controlling, and these massive boss characters that players wouldn’t expect to appear on the hardware at that time…having these giant imposing bosses that would feel overwhelming on the screen, and then evoking in the player that great feeling of success from overcoming what felt like an insurmountable battle.
For the game’s sound, basically we just wanted cool songs.
Blaster Master was, from a design perspective, very progressive for its time. The non-linear level design and the exploration elements are still considered to be excellent game design by today’s standards, with a number of modern games now going back an revisiting that relationship between level design and game progression. Also, regularly switching to the “top-view” gameplay mode made it feel like you had two totally different games that meshed together very naturally. How did you come up with this sort of level design? Were you playing other games at the time or prior to working on Blaster Master that influenced you?
I was responsible for the game’s original design, which I feel like was basically transported from the original state that I had conceived it directly into the visuals allowed via game graphics. Again, the goal was really to try to pull off the best graphics on the NES to date. Simple graphics were more or less the standard on the NES at the time but I had this firm belief that it was possible to do something better, something prettier. I feel like we pulled it off and were able to show people what could be done [on the NES]. It left an impression around the office, and from what I’ve heard [the visuals] influenced the work of other games which were later made by other NES developers as well.
The transitioning between the side and top-views in the game was a combination of what the members of the development team wanted to create. With the team generally being fans of action games, at the beginning of the project when we were all first sitting down to start with the game’s planning, there was a actually a time when the core idea was to have Sofia be able to drive freely everywhere on the map, including the walls and ceiling.
We also didn’t want to make a game where the player just proceeds forward. We wanted the player to experience the feeling of excitement that comes from discovering something after endeavoring through a difficult search, which is why we composed a map that allowed the player to move freely between different areas. We really put a great deal of thought into that element of the game design and, I mean this in the best possible way, but we wanted the player to have to struggle.
There were two main reasons for creating the top-down view point, one of which was to allow for 360°shooting. The other was because it allowed us to express large bosses that really had an impact. As far as influence from games developed by other companies goes, there was a time when we looked at Nintendo’s Metroid as sort of a direct competitor, but aside from that there wasn’t really any other title that we were consciously drawing inspiration from during the development of Blaster Master.
Though it has been some time since you worked on the original game, do you recall any areas of the production process that you struggled with, or do you have any interesting stories or memories that you could share related the process of working on Blaster Master?
The Japanese version of the game, titled Cho Wakusei Senki Metafight, was the first game that I had worked on from beginning to end where I served a main role in the game’s development from the planning stages all the way through completion. The other part-time staff and I had it in our heads that we were going to create something really fantastic, really exciting, and we all gave everything we had to the title, just immersing ourselves in the game’s development all the way through development.
However even though we were all really confident that we had produced something great, the game actually didn’t sell very well (in Japan) and wasn’t received very warmly around the company [as result]. The title was initially looked down upon following the game’s release, which then, at that time, had confirmed that there was no hope of getting the chance to ever make a sequel.
I was then immediately set to work on developing another game as soon as Blaster Master was released in the U.S., sort of distancing me from what was happening with the game there. Actually, at the time when the game took off overseas I didn’t even hear anything about it, so there was never really any feeling of having made something that was met with positive response from players or that was doing well, since the game was never really received very well here in Japan. (pained chuckle)
I know that there were some differences between the U.S. and Japanese versions of the game.
The setting for the game’s story was changed for the U.S. version.
At that time, (story) elements typical of a lot of Japanese animation found in Metafight (the abbreviated Japanese title for Blaster Master) had yet to gain any real popularity overseas, so when we met with the U.S. staff we were asked to [change it], which is where the setting for Jason and Fred (his pet frog) came from.
(Editor’s note: The story for the original Japanese version of the game was much heavier than the Western version, involving the nearly complete annihilation of the planet Sofia the 3rd, which became the name of the game’s vehicle in the U.S. release.)
Also, there was a part of the map in Area 4 where the player was forced to control Jason and make a desperate suicide-leap for a ladder suspended in mid-air. We reluctantly changed that as well following complaints from the U.S. staff.
Given the original game’s success, did the design of Blaster Master influence other Sunsoft-developed games that followed in the 8-bit era? For example, Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Fester’s Quest seem to share a lot of similarities in their top-view gameplay design.
Graphically the game had a big impact on a number of titles that followed [from Sunsoft]. I was also the main designer on Gremlins 2, and I actually went to Hollywood in order to do research for the game on location while the movie was being filmed. I worked on Batman at that time as well, a game where coming up with a really great wall-jump [mechanic] was one of my main goals. The character designer for Blaster Master was also one of the main designers on Fester’s Quest, which probably explains some of the similarities there.
There are a good number of people who have very fond memories of Blaster Master for the NES, with the game often coming up as a personal favorite of the 8-bit era for retro game fans. Were you surprised by the reception that the game received overseas and that it has managed to remain in players’ minds so many years after the game’s release?
Honestly, I’m very surprised.
The fact that the game didn’t really resonate in Japan is probably one of the biggest reasons that it’s so surprising. Never really hearing any of that praise it didn’t really hit home, which is kind of too bad.
It’s kind of funny that the first time I ever really had any sense of the game’s success was about 10 years following the original release of Blaster Master, when a young staff member from the U.S. office said something to me like, “You’d definitely have become a super famous game designer if you were an American.”
But realizing over time how well-respected the game has become really does feel like a great honor. Given the opportunity I’d wholeheartedly like to try my hand at creating another game that might surpass fan expectations.
One of the most fondly remembered elements of the original Blaster Master is the music. Who worked on the music for the original? Has he/she done the music for other Sunsoft titles over the years? Maybe games only released in Japan? I think that a lot of fans would be interested in seeking out more music by the same composer!
The music for the game was actually created in cooperation with someone outside of Sunsoft who has worked on the music for a good number of other Sunsoft titles. That composer and the brilliant sound staff are definitely to thank for the great reputation that they helped build for Sunsoft game music back in those days.What’s too bad is that none of those people are working together anymore since they’ve all separated from Sunsoft [over the years].
Given the popularity of the original, it’s somewhat surprising that we didn’t see a game like Blaster Master: Overdrive until 2010, a game which has received good reviews in North America and has been greatly appreciated fans of the original. Why make this game now? Who at Sunsoft decided that now was the time to go back to the basics of what made the original so great?
The original proposal that kicked off the reboot of the franchise came from our company president. The revitalization of the Blaster Master series is linked to the desire to take another crack at the U.S. market.
To be honest, I really just want to continue to make action games. While Overdrive may not be a direct sequel, I think that it’s a game that allows the player to experience the refined simplicity of what makes action games enjoyable. It’s just really too bad that action games aren’t such a popular genre in Japan anymore, so chances for me to continue to work on such games are mostly non-existent. I’ve always wanted to make a bigger game that really expands on the Blaster Master universe.
What elements of the original Blaster Master did you decide were important, offering the “Blaster Master experience,” that you decided you had to keep for Overdrive?
I really wasn’t too conscious of anything like that. Maybe I was unconscious? (laughs)
What I really wanted was for players to recall and think back upon (the original) Blaster Master, and so my goal was to find a way to evoke that through this game.
One more focus was that, although I was directly involved with both the NES and WiiWare games, none of the original members have been involved with any of the other games in the “series” that have popped up occasionally over the years in any way. Some of those titles kind of strayed from what [Blaster Master] really is, so I wanted to try to erase any image or feelings that some of those titles might have created for players.
The original game is generally considered to be quite difficult and there are a lot of Wii owners who didn’t grow up playing the NES, who think that retro games in general are difficult. What elements of Overdrive did you change so that the game would be easier to get into for players who are unfamiliar with the original game or games from that era in general?
Blaster Master is Blaster Master, so I wasn’t concerned with any of that.
However since the development team for (Overdrive) is different from that of the original, there are a few little parts that reflect the fact that it’s a game developed by different people, even though I think that for the final product, as a whole we were largely able to convey the feeling that we were striving for.
How did it feel to revisit Blaster Master after so many years?
There wasn’t any period of struggling with the game’s design, because the image of the game was already right there in my head. The thing with this game was that I was acting as producer as opposed to being directly involved with the game’s actual development, but the difficult demands surrounding that role was something that I had already felt previously.
How many people worked on Overdrive? Were there people on the development team with memories of the original? How about team members who weren’t really familiar with the original? If that was the case, how did you go about trying to convey to them what it was that made the original so special?
The team consisted of 7 to 8 people, with only one of those people having worked on the original.
The biggest struggle with this project was definitely conveying the feelings of the original Blaster Master. I think that the best way to convey the sense of what made the game so compelling is to have someone experience the game directly through play. I don’t think that what is significant about the game can really truly be understood by merely having someone explain it to you or by just watching the game in action.
Regrettably, there are actually lots of things that myself and the rest of the team came up with during the development of Overdrive that we didn’t get to incorporate into the final product. If possible, we’d like to do something about that, find a way to make use of that material that as soon as possible.
Overdrive has a very 16-bit era look to it. Nowadays a lot of both players and developers are recognizing that, from a design and visual perspective, those games offer some excellent experiences. As a developer, do you enjoy working on these kinds of games?
I really believe that games are something universal. Nowadays, more games than we can possibly count continue to be born out into the world constantly, but most of them end up just fading into a state of being virtually non-existent.
If you look at different game companies, at most, they might be lucky enough to have maybe one game every 10 or 20 years that has the continued support and adoration from fans the way that Blaster Master has. I think it has to be a miracle that I’ve been able to be a part of something like that.
For me personally, Blaster Master isn’t a retro game, but just as real a game as anything else today. It represents a game where the creators were able to express exactly what it was that they wanted [with the game that they made]. Honestly, I think that Blaster Master would have been made even if the opportunity to make it had appeared 10 years later. I just want to try to make games that game fans can appreciate over the years irrespective of generation.
Does Sunsoft see Blaster Master as an original IP that can be used to expand into new projects? Is there any talk surrounding the possibility of either Blaster Master or Overdrive being ported over to another platform?
Of course, that’s something that we’re looking into.
Overdrive ended up being distributed on WiiWare for a number of reasons, but essentially we want to have the game running on whatever piece of hardware is supported by a large number of game fans with a love for Blaster Master. Passionate requests from players are what serve as incentive for us here, so please be sure to speak up loud and clear!
I see Overdrive as a sort of turning point for the series, and I’d really like to work to create an all-new world for Blaster Master. While I can’t say anything concrete, the setting for Overdrive actually has the game taking place prior to the original Blaster Master. I’d like to find a way shed more light upon that in the future.
You’ve been a Sunsoft employee for over 20 years now. As a game publisher and developer, Sunsoft was, and still is, a very well known name for game fans worldwide in reference to the games that the company was putting out between the mid 80s and early 90s.
However somewhere during the mid 90s, the name “Sunsoft” more or less disappeared almost entirely from the Western game market until reappearing again recently. What sorts of projects were you involved in during that quiet period? How did Sunsoft as a company change and evolve, and what is the company aiming to do in the near future following this recent revival?
Put simply, I was primarily involved with game development throughout the latter half of the 90s. I worked on games like Albert Odyssey for the Saturn, a number of PlayStation games including Tomak and Hard Edge (T.R.A.G. in the U.S.), several mahjong titles for the PS1 and PS2, the Sunsoft game compilations known as the Memorial Series and several versions of Puzzle Game Shanghai. Aside from that I’ve been working a good deal on the planning, development and management of games for various game sites designed for Japanese mobile phones.
There was a period (during those years) where game sales generally hit rock bottom and the outlook on our prospects for operating as a company in the game business whittled our staff all the way down to a mere 3 people, but I began working on game’s directed at digital distribution on mobile platforms which the company is using as a base in order to rebuild.
Sunsoft is currently looking to expand from mobile phone and iPhone games and once again step into the international market as a notable game maker. We currently have a game for home consoles under production.
Lastly then, is there anything that you’d like to say to the passionate fan-base of Blaster Master supporters and to players who maybe have yet to experience a game like Overdrive that expresses the exquisite design sense founded in a different generation of game design?
I think it’s really a shame that the mere fact that a game is considered to be “old” keeps players from experiencing so many games. I really hope that players will take the opportunity to give both of these great games a chance. Like so many other games that get classified as “retro,” Blaster Master is a game that expresses what’s so intrinsically interesting and enjoyable about action games.
The inherent nature of games which makes them so compelling is universal.