Tuesday May 12, 2015
In what has now become a long-standing tradition, we once again join SEGA Producer, Yosuke Okunari, and President of M2, Naoki Horii, to discuss a title that has been treated with some hostility in our interviews to-date: Thunder Blade. Since the feelings surrounding this game cannot easily be summed up, we will spend some time discussing them today.
3D Thunder Blade releases on May 14th across North America and Europe!
About Thunder Blade
Thunder Blade was the seventh in the “physical experience” arcade game series from SEGA, released in 1987. The arcade machine featured a control stick that controlled the cannon and missiles, and a throttle lever on the left side similar to After Burner. When you moved the control stick left and right, the entire seat would move along with it. However, the monitor, which was located low on the machine and locked in place, required the user to turn their head the opposite way when they would make big movements to avoid incoming fire. It was also known for the fact that the weight of the control stick would change depending on the weight of the player.
In addition to the Deluxe kit above, there was also an Upright arcade kit.
As far as arcade hardware is concerned, the game ran on the same X-BOARD utilized by After Burner (II), featuring the same dual MC68000 and single Z80 processors, allowing for 256 sprites on the screen at once, with specialized scaling hardware. The sound was driven by a YM2151 and PCM.
The sound was done by Kouichi Namiki. The guitarist’s unique bass and drum sound combined with his work on Super Hang-On, and later Galaxy Force, went on to generate a new wave of SEGA music fans.
You Have To Know About This Game
Yosuke Okunari (below YO): It’s been less than a month since we left you with our little cliffhanger. Thanks for waiting (laughs).
– For all the people who have been reading the interviews to date, and yourselves, of course, asking the question “Why did you choose Thunder Blade?” would be rather silly. In any case, congratulations!
Naoki Horii (below NH): Thank you, thank you! So let me rattle some things off for starters. First, we’ve had Thunder Blade running at 15 or 20 frames per second since the early stages of the 3D Remaster Project, but it was really quite a mess. But even at that point, it already looked pretty amazing in 3D, which is why I’ve always been talking about how we couldn’t pass up making Thunder Blade, and how it would actually look really cool in 3D.
YO: Back during the first batch, we had absolutely no plans to do it. Then when we started the second batch, there were three titles everyone wanted to make—After Burner, Fantasy Zone, and Out Run. But we wanted to do more than just those three titles, so this was one of the two we added on. It would be a little weird to say we just do what M2 wants, but that’s kind of what happened here, similar to Fantasy Zone II for the PS2. Or maybe I just sort of got caught up in their enthusiasm.
After we ended the first batch and went on to the second, they started working on this secretly behind the scenes—one last game to make Horii-san’s dreams come true.
NH: In the end, while Thunder Blade is the last game, I’m just glad it got done.
YO: And now we can make it available to everyone. We were able to bring it out as the last game in the series only because of everyone’s support for the 3D Remaster Project.
YO: That’s what we believe. Speaking of that, did you guys at M2 get any mail from the fans saying, “We want Thunder Blade”?
NH: No mail, but every time I mentioned Thunder Blade on Twitter, people would reply.
YO: I’m sure everyone thought you were joking.
NH: Possibly. I don’t think people were taking me seriously.
YO: The only people who were serious were probably Horii-san and maybe 10 other people.
NH: Yes, 10 others.
– Ten people…
NH: Well, if that’s all, then the sales are going to be rough.
YO: So this time around, we are using Thunder Blade as a means to showcase everything M2 has done to date with the release of 3D Thunder Blade. And it’s quite a showcase at that. To be exact, the team members that were involved in 3D Fantasy Zone II W didn’t work on this game, but the people involved with the other games in the series, from 3D Space Harrier to 3D Out Run, have come together to showcase their skills.
NH: It is most certainly a showcase! In addition to the core staff, there was another programmer who has been persistently focused on the Thunder Blade programming behind the scenes, thinking “Is this game really going to come out?” So it’s like our full strength + 1. The programming for Thunder Blade really wasn’t suited for running on 3DS in the first place, after all.
YO: This is true. When we started batch 2, we went and got the source code from the dev group that used to be AM1*. When they handed it over, they said, “You should be able to do something as long as you have this, so give it a shot,” but from the beginning it ended up being an arduous task on a scale we were not expecting.
* AM1 – One of SEGA’s former arcade development groups. They are currently called dai-ichi kenkyuu kaihatsu bu (1st R&D Department), but SEGA employees are still often called AM1 internally anyway.
NH: The way the programming is written is like BASIC… I’m not sure if that’s even the way to describe it. It just executes on and on, and it’s really hard to get at (hard to convert into Assembly code).
YO: It was a lot of gritty, detailed work to analyze the original software, all while doing normal dev work.
NH: Yes, very much so. It’s a miracle we even got the code itself rewritten. I almost just want to take the original code, change it into text, and post it for everyone to see, just so people could see what we did. The amount of work we did isn’t normal—people would tear up if they saw the sheer amount of effort we put into it.
YO: They were working on it while doing After Burner, and when that was done, they were working on it during their breaks. Then on to Out Run, and working on this on the side.
NH: Pretty much. We were working on it little by little in the background. It’s as if the final puzzle piece just happened to turn out to be Thunder Blade. Though I always suspected that would be the case. I’m glad it’s all closing out with this.
YO: There’s this gentleman who’s really been a main player behind the scenes for the 3D Remaster Project. His name is Saito-san*, a programmer who we’ve spoken about in the interviews before. Had he not been around, this project may have never existed.
* Akira Saito: A programmer at M2. He often comes up in relation to the sound work.
NH: When I would have meetings with Okunari-san, I would say, “We’ve come this far, and if we don’t make Thunder Blade, Saito is going to flip a table.” He really would have (laughs). I had to have something to keep him motivated (laughs). When you hang the carrot in front of the horse, he’s gonna go for it, you know?
YO: You sure that’s something you want to say in this interview, as the president of the company?
NH: Well, I hung the carrot in front of myself, as well. It’s a little odd doing that to yourself, but anyway. I mean, I like the other titles and all, and I played them a lot. But we’ve been at this marathon for near two years now, right? The reason we’ve been running is because Thunder Blade is waiting at the finish line.
I mean, when is there ever going to be another chance for this? So here we are, getting Thunder Blade into this second batch. No one else out there is just going to say one day, “Hey, you know what we should do? We should port Thunder Blade.”
YO: You’re right.
– I see.
NH: Back when the arcade version was originally running, I always felt sorry for the game. It’s sort of how you really feel for the kid who never quite makes it. You know, the unpopular kid. It was the kid at the arcade who never got the spotlight. But the game itself, the way it is presented, the technology used, it’s all really amazing. People who port these games, or people who do remakes or knockoffs, they will understand what I’m getting at. It’s one of those games “you have to know about”, and I feel a sense of duty to shine the spotlight on it.
Back then, there wasn’t anything for it on home consoles, so you couldn’t buy it and pass it around between your friends. And even if you went to the arcade, your friends would want to play other games, so it just wouldn’t happen. So we’ve come this far carrying this desire to let everyone else know about the game. But suddenly there was this opportunity—the possibility that Okunari-san might actually let us do it if we pushed hard enough. So the time had come for Thunder Blade’s day in the sun.
– You’ve been talking about Thunder Blade since the start of the 3D Remaster Project. Seriously, I went back and looked. You were talking about it back during 3D Space Harrier.
Times Thunder Blade has been mentioned in the interviews to date
– Even if you had been maybe working on it behind the scenes back then, the possibility was still really slim that it would actually happen.
YO: Nothing was decided during the first batch. We didn’t even know we were going to be able to do a second batch.
NH: We had it running on the 3DS hardware, and while the framerate was still really bad the game showed a lot of promise. I really felt that it was something we would have to do at some point. And in order to plant the seed for people to buy it if it DID come out, I made sure to bring it up as often as I could.
– So you were planning for it the whole time?
NH: Sort of, yes.
– So up until you started working on the second batch, there wasn’t even a possibility that this game would happen.
NH: It’s always Okunari-san’s style to mix one or two games into the line-up that he would say these games would usually never happen, but now is just the right time. And thus they get a remaster. For the PS2 SEGA AGES 2500, it was Fantasy Zone II. This time it’s Thunder Blade.
NH: It’s not easy to make it happen, after all.
A Look Back at the History of Thunder Blade
YO: I want to spend some time going over the history of Thunder Blade here. When you talk about SEGA’s “physical experience” series, they were really the stars of arcades back then. The first game, Hang-On, had its signature red bike kit, and then Space Harrier had its moving arcade cabinet. They both generated a lot of conversation around them. Then along the same lines as Hang-On, Enduro Racer came out with an arcade kit that you controlled yourself, followed by Out Run and then Super Hang-On. After that, After Burner. So at this point, you could say things had pretty much reached a peak.
NH: Out Run and After Burner were the pinnacle of glory.
YO: And the next game was Thunder Blade. Speaking from the point of what the arcade kits did, Hang-On was one where you moved the kit, and Space Harrier was the first one where the kit moved itself. Then Enduro Racer again was one you moved yourself, and Out Run’s kit moved itself. Then Super Hang-On was one you moved yourself. So they were basically alternating like that, okay?
Then came After Burner, which improved on Space Harrier and Out Run’s formulas with its Double Cradle cabinet. They have one at the Huis Ten Bosch resort in Nagasaki, where one of the main displays in the Huis Ten Bosch Game Museum in their Game Kingdom. You can play it on certain days… Anyway, so this cabinet came out. And there’s no other places you can play it anymore, but at the time of its original release it was everywhere and people were really excited about it.
So after that, it was said that a helicopter game was going to be released next, and people thought it would be an even more amazing game than After Burner. That game was Thunder Blade. Following the pattern of the preceding releases, it was a game that you would move yourself.
I myself was a gamer going to the arcades back then, and I haven’t talked to any of the development staff about this, so I don’t know anything about the background. But if I had to conjecture, I’d guess that the reason they would alternate between arcade kits that moved or had to be moved by the player was due to the space available to place the kit at the location. Basically, there are two types of arcades: very small, compact places and larger sites. So I get the impression they basically targeted those two sectors separately. And back then, small scale arcades were quite common.
NH: For those places, basically there was only room for compact kits outside table-style cabinets.
– That was the case, wasn’t it?
YO: So if an arcade didn’t have room for Out Run or After Burner, they could have Enduro Racer and Super Hang-On. So perhaps they wanted to provide some kind of vehicle game that wasn’t a bike for a low cost. Back then, I imagined that they released Thunder Blade to satisfy that market.
– I see.
YO: Thunder Blade shipped far fewer units than After Burner, but quite a few units still got out there. Probably something like 3 times as many as the 8th title in the series, Galaxy Force. More than Power Drift, even.
– I do seem to have the recollection that it was very common at the time, actually.
YO: However, the fact that you had to move it yourself, combined with the unique control style required of a helicopter, the feeling of speed… You know, with After Burner, that game makes you feel like you’re moving fast and a lot of its impact comes from that, but if you try to get that kind of speed out of Thunder Blade, you’re just going to be running into enemies and smashing into buildings… But if you slow down too much, the game loses some of its impressiveness, and you become a target for enemy fire. The game is hard. And then throw in the way the kit is built, and it’s just a hard game to move around in the way you want.
So I think that’s why it had such a hard time on the market. And with After Burner out there at the same time, I figure most people just opted for that game instead. That’s probably why it wasn’t in the arcades for very long. At least that’s my impression.
– There were a lot of Thunder Blade kits out there, but for me, I just didn’t see many people getting all that into it. I actually remember sitting in it the first time and being really impressed, but… I never came back to it. I don’t really recall having put much money into it. I think I probably spent more time watching other people play once in a while.
YO: Thunder Blade required you to overcome some pretty high hurdles to play. At the very beginning, it’s like, “TAKE OFF,” but you have no idea what you need to do. That’s where you START at. Racing games had their own hurdles, like having the gear shifter and no automatic option. You wouldn’t know when you were supposed to switch gears. But despite that, for Out Run at least, you could still move and focus on the steering wheel and the accelerator. And with After Burner as well, you could at least play, regardless of speed.
Thunder Blade tried to take the feeling of flying a helicopter and simplify it, but also recreate that atmosphere of being in the cockpit. But for most people, that was just a pretty high hurdle.
– But that said, it was a really interesting game because it had a two-perspective loop that it would progress through. And in the 2D top view, you could change your altitude as well. There were a few helicopter games like Kyukyoku Tiger (aka Twin Cobra) out at the time, but not many of them let you change your altitude, and the fact that the Thunder Blade kit would react to your weight was really interesting. From the point you took off, it really felt like you were moving it yourself. But whether that was easy to play or not is a totally different discussion. (laughs)
YO: They were being very serious when they built it, that’s for sure.
– But watching other people play, the ending is super short and there were only 4 stages. It was such a weird little game. That said, each stage has top and back view parts that it switches between halfway, so if you actually play it, it’s pretty long.
YO: I’m just guessing, but I think the ending probably just didn’t make it schedule-wise.
NH: No game has enough time.
– Whether it’s Out Run or After Burner, they all had proper (?) endings, you know? So when I saw the ending to Thunder Blade, I was a little confused.
YO: The games back then were made very quickly. You could build one out in three months. That’d be unthinkable these days.
– It doesn’t have a second playthrough. It just ends suddenly. So in that sense, it left quite an impression.
YO: After that, in the year following the arcade version (1987), it was ported to the Sega Mark III, and was released for the Mega Drive as a launch title as Super Thunder Blade. Since it was a Mega Drive launch title, Super Thunder Blade got a lot of attention, and would see a number of ports in the future… And even Yuji Naka, who would go on to work on Sonic and Phantasy Star II, worked on it as a programmer. I hear he banged it out in about three months.
– And around this time, there was a pretty big gap between arcade machines and home consoles like the Sega Mark III and Mega Drive. It was a time when arcade ports played starring roles on the home console lineups. But starting with “physical experience” games like Hang-On and Space Harrier, porting turned into a creative exercise. People were really curious how that experience could be recreated at home.
NH: Finding creative ways to reconstruct the experience was a really interesting thing to watch play out.
– And because of that, gamers at the time would pay a lot of attention to magazines and other sources to stay on top of those developments. In a way they were being educated so they could appreciate what the ports were doing. Myself included.
YO: Yeah, back then magazines like Beep would explain technical topics in a way that even elementary or middle school kids would understand. “How were they able to port Space Harrier to the Mark III?” “Why is there a frame around it?” Things like that. Like how they approached the technical side of things, such as, “We draw the character as a BG layer so it looks huge.” You’d think, “I dunno what a ‘BG’ is, but that’s what they said!” I think people who remember that are the types of people who are our main supporters for the SEGA 3D Remaster Project.
– Especially with the “physical experience” arcade games, the creative approaches to overcoming the gap in software and hardware capabilities helped to educate and mature the SEGA fans. They got to see all kinds of interesting attempts—many of SEGA’s ports made valiant efforts to recreate the arcade experience, but not all of them were successful. (laughs) Sometimes the attempts just left you with a vague feeling of sadness.
NH: Like “Ouch, you shouldn’t have done that.”
– That’s right. So for like Fantasy Zone, which I know isn’t a physical experience game, I thought, “Wait, where’re the background graphics?” But at the same time, I kept thinking how amazing it was. I think SEGA fans have been honed that way, bred that way even. So then with the SEGA “physical experience” games, which have you flying into the background with the scaling technology making sprites flow at you, I remember thinking “Man, there’s no way they can port this,” despite not really knowing anything at all. And when ports actually came out, I noticed that a lot of them were pretty different from the arcade versions.
Maybe it’s because of that, but it took a pretty long time for Thunder Blade to be released for the PC Engine and the X68000. The porting quality was higher than others, but it had taken them a lot of time and effort.
Perhaps it was the time gap, or maybe other factors, but the ports just stopped happening after that. And because of that, the game sort of fell off everyone’s radar. At least that’s my personal impression of the situation.
NH: Really, and I hear that a lot. But the way the game overlaps its sprites to enhance the space the game happens in and the way it shows depth creates an amazing experience in flying a helicopter… It really is a piece of work. The experience is very convincing. It did so many things right, but it was just close, you know. It’s really that kid who should have been, but wasn’t. That’s all I can say.
3D Thunder Blade, Easier to Play Than Ever!
YO: So I thought that maybe Thunder Blade was tough because of its controls. Perhaps that pushed people away. And now since we are porting it, we aren’t only going to reproduce it exactly as it was, but M2 has also gone in and made a number of adjustments as well.
The easiest one to notice is the speed adjuster. Pressing the L button will cause you to speed up, but now if you release the button you’ll maintain your speed. You don’t need to hold it down, so once you set your speed, you don’t need to worry about it anymore and you can focus on your controls.
In addition to that, if you turn the difficulty down to one star, you won’t take any environmental damage. This is pretty ground-breaking for this game.
NH: It is. In the original, if you hit something you would just crash and lose a life.
YO: This was one of the reasons Thunder Blade was so hard—the fact that compared to After Burner, there were also obstacles in the background that you had to avoid as well. And they are hard to dodge, which I think was exacerbated by the tricky controls.
– Crashing into buildings was definitely one source of deaths in the game.
YO: In Galaxy Force, you’d take damage to your speed and energy, but for this game, when you lower the difficulty to the easiest setting, running into an object just stops you in place, so flying is less stressful. Now you can just focus on moving your helicopter and shooting enemies. It’s much simpler as a shooting game. I think this change really makes a big difference.
– I tried playing with the difficulty set to one, and it was perfect for me since I was so out of practice.
YO: If you think, “man, this is hard,” while you’re playing, you can just drop it down a notch.
– Well, I think there some hardcore people out there who will refuse to do that though. (laughs)
YO: If you set it so you don’t take damage and get used to it, you stop getting hung up on the stage layout. The layout isn’t really that tricky in the first place, honestly.
– Back when you had to feed money into it to play, it was a really high hurdle to get past since you really needed to understand the stage layout to be able to progress. The stage itself attacks you.
NH: Like in the cave.
– You can run into the buildings in top view if you drop down to low altitude. You get shot at too. You’ve got to control your speed really well if you want to progress, which isn’t that hard, but it used to take a lot of money until you got the hang of it. It reminds me of Galaxy Force, too. You can really start playing that game after you realize it’s a racing game that you shoot in.
YO: Well, on that front, that’s where the Special Mode comes in. It’s this game’s “real deal.”
– Oh no! Here we go!
Continued in Part 2!
Join us tomorrow for the conclusion of our 3D Thunder Blade interview and a look into the Special Mode. As always, we do love hearing your feedback on these posts. If there’s something you are looking forward to, or even something you learned, let us know and share with your fellow fans!
Posted by Julian in SEGA 3D Classics on 3:55:55PM May 12, 2015
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