This interview is from Hobonichi, Shigesato Itoi’s website, from 16 years ago. I don’t believe it’s been translated, and it’s a fairly long interview– this is just part 1, focusing on Smash 64 and it’s origin and development. You can find the original interview here.
We’ve kept you waiting! “The Secret Base Above the Tree” No. 4 delivers information straight from the source about the hit game that’s been on the charts since its release in January— Nintendo All-Stars! Super Smash Bros.
The stage for this interview is Ryuoh-cho, a small town next to Kōfu, Yamanashi prefecture, where the game studio “HAL Laboratories” is located. The president of this studio, Mr. Satoru Iwata, is called “Japan’s number one game programmer,” and has programmed countless games, including MOTHER 2. Video game fans will be familiar with them as the team behind the “Kirby” series. On an extremely clear, sunny day with a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji, the Hobonichi editorial team traveled to Ryuoh to visit HAL Laboratories, and were told a great number of stories about Smash’s development.
For the first meeting, we were given an overview of the history of HAL Laboratories by Mr. Iwata, then told the story of how “Smash Bros.” was born by its director, Mr. Sakurai.
No. 1 of 4
“We made a very game-like game, which is a rarity these days. But initially, it wasn’t received very well.”
Satoru Iwata, President
The company was founded in 1980. This year will be our 19th, next year will be our 20th year of operation. If you asked me how many games HAL Laboratories (from here on out referred to as “HAL Labs”) has made, total, we’ve never actually counted. Specifically talking about the very early, initial games we made for the PC, it’s hard to even say how you would count or define “one” game, so I can’t really give you an answer to that question.
Editorial team annotation: President Iwata– ah, well, it’s okay if I call him Mr. Iwata, since that’s what I always call him, right– Mr. Iwata is simultaneously Hal Labs’ president and the IT manager for “Almost Daily.” We always see each other in Tokyo, but this is the first time “Almost Daily” has gone to Yamanashi to visit Hal Labs. Yamanashi is great, the mountains are great. Mt. Fuji is perfect. This interview started off with a very refreshing, brisk feeling. I feel like Mr. Iwata, here in Yamanashi, is more president-like than usual. Impressive as always.)
Mr. Iwata’s talk continues.
I was working on the NES since 1983. Initially, I heard this company called Nintendo released this really fun machine, and I thought, “huh.”
And, coincidentally, one of the parent companies for HAL when it started up was doing a lot of business with Nintendo, and through those people I introduced myself, saying “give me something to work on,” and I got a job, which was the beginning.
Before the release of the NES, HAL Labs made computer games, or PC upgrade hardware, basically peripherals, it was that kind of company. We did a lot of things other than make games. Afterwards, the decision was made to direct our endeavors on games, and our company began to focus on game development.
Director Masahiro Sakurai
After April, this will be my 9th year, I think. I joined this company when I was 19, and now I’m approximately (laughs) 28, so.
(Editorial team annotation: What does “approximately” mean? Well, I guess it’s fine (laughs). He’s a handsome man1 that’s probably fighting for the number 1 or 2 such spot at HAL Labs. Rumor says that when he’s working, he’s always wearing a bandana. He’s not wearing it today. I wanted to see it, so I’m a bit disappointed.
(Mr. Sakurai keeps talking).
This is my fourth game I’ll be directing. The first was the Game Boy Kirby game, and the next was the Kirby for NES, then SNES, and then the 64 rolled around and for the first time I was told “you can do something else,” so I did this.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I didn’t come up with other prototypes this entire time, but as far as results go, I’d always been directing Kirby, was how it felt.
I came up with the initial idea for “Smash Bros.” The project plan was first brought up on around October 1996, I think. Mr. Iwata wrote the code, and I made the models and animations, only in the beginning though, of course.
(Editorial team annotation: Smash Brothers is being shortened to “Smash” by the staff. If you shorten it, it almost feels like you’ve basically won, doesn’t it. Kimutaku, Sumasuma, Sumabura.2
That was when we called it “Pepsiman” at first, then we used the view from our window of the Kofu basin and Mt. Fuji as a background and so we gave the prototype codename “Ryuoh/Dragon King: The Fighting Game.”
(Editorial team annotation: The name Ryuoh was taken from the town that HAL Labs’ building is located, Ryuoh-cho. Although just hearing the name invokes a super-powerful-sounding fighting game.)
(Mr. Sakurai, while playing Ryuoh)
The percentages at the top of the screen, the way moves launch opponents, how higher percentage results in more knockback, all of these ideas were here from the beginning.
Separate from this, I was making progress on an action-adventure style project plan at the same time. With two proposals in paper form and two test ROMs, I presented them to Nintendo in May, two years ago. While they were both received fairly warmly, but the one that made it through was the other one, the action-adventure game.
But HAL Labs hadn’t made a single Nintendo 64 game at that point, and if possible we wanted a game to be released by Christmas, so if we were gonna make a new game we wanted something with a more efficient, quicker development. And if we were going to release by Christmas, we had roughly one year and one month for development. If we were going to make a game in that limited timeframe, well, it would have to be the fighting game, is how that turned out.
Of course, that was under the assumption that we would cram and crunch as much as possible. And so we started development on this game. Being allowed to use Nintendo characters was something that was decided later.
(Editorial team annotation: Apparently, it’s not pertinent to simply call “Smash Brothers” a fighting game.)
When people think about a game with “Nintendo characters fighting each other,” they think “what?” and they’ kind of turned off a little. I sure think so. The words “fighting game” are loaded words, with a tendency to have a lot of preconceptions. However, this game has a lot of parts that don’t fit in nicely into the simple genre of “fighting games.” Moreover, us, as the creators, and the people at Nintendo recognize this game as an opponent-based action game.
Fighting games have some slightly different components and factors compared to other genres. For normal games, for example, you have a single protagonist, and then using the protagonist as the axis the surroundings slowly open up. If it’s an RPG, you have the initial town, then you introduce the people around the protagonist. As you make progress the world around you opens up— that sort of progression is presented a lot. Fighting games immediately have around 8 protagonists. And each of these characters has to stand on their own as characters.
If we’re talking about famous fighting games for home consoles, you have “Street Fighter,” “Tekken,” and “Virtua Fighter,” but these series initially became popular through arcades, and the key to their popularity on home consoles was due to this flow of “now you can play it at home” soaking into the general populace. It’s hard for original, new fighting games that are developed for home consoles to be acknowledged and recognized. In addition, all of the popular fighting games have characters that all have an abundance of unique traits. Each consumer has a character they individually like, and each character is a key component in the game. So in addition to creating the game, it’s vitally important that you take these 8, or 16 characters and make them shine without diluting their unique flavor, and get them to stick in the audience’s head.
We were told that there hadn’t been many successful original fighting games for home consoles, for example, so in order for this game to avoid that, we really thought carefully about what kind of fighting game this should be. To bring something newsworthy to the 64 software lineup. To have unique selling points that other games could not mimic. And we thought up a lot of ideas, but in the end, we went with the concept of “Nintendo characters in a battle royale.” We were confident that it was an idea that a lot of people would endorse, and most importantly, we were confident that there was a large audience that was waiting for this kind of game. To make it a reality, Mr. Iwata had to do a lot of work, and we needed Nintendo’s permission, starting with Mr. Miyamoto.
End of part 1
1. In Japanese, Itoi writes “二枚目,” which refers to a sort of gentle, handsome/beautiful man. It term itself originates from kabuki theater, where it refers to an actor that specialized in playing handsome, refined lovers.
2. Kimutaku refers to a member of SMAP, Takuya Kimura. Sumasuma is SMAP’s weekly show. Sumabura is the abbreviation for Smash Bros. in Japanese. This sentence is just a short word-association type joke (it doesn’t translate very well).