Interview with Yoshio Sakamoto and Hiroji Kiyotake

FamiConnichiwa, everyone! I'm Akinori Sao, a writer in Kyoto.

This is my final interview with video game developers to commemorate the release of the NES Classic Edition system. The last topic is Metroid, which was originally released for the Family Computer Disk System in August of 1986.

Metroid has ardent fans all over the world. As a science fiction game, it was a little different from Nintendo's other games at the time. How did it come about? I will be discussing this in detail with Yoshio Sakamoto and Hiroji Kiyotake.

And now for Sakamoto-san and Kiyotake-san...


Sakamoto-san, it was your second year at Nintendo in 1983 when the Famicom system was released.

Sakamoto: Yes.

As a young employee, what did you think of the Famicom?

Sakamoto: One time, I had the chance to go observe a developing partner's factory and that was when I saw the molded article for the first time.

A Famicom before its release?

Sakamoto: Yes. The Famicom before mass production. Someone from that company expressed thanks to Nintendo, but I didn't know what that person was talking about. (laughs) I was in Research & Development Department 1, which wasn't directly involved with development of the Famicom, so I didn't know much about it.

Even though you were a Nintendo employee. (laughs)

Sakamoto: Yeah. (laughs) I only learned about the release of the Famicom after some time had passed, so I was a little late in becoming aware of it.

Kiyotake-san, the Famicom came out the year you entered the company.

Kiyotake: That's right. I was in Research & Development Department 1, which was mainly working on Game & Watch, but I joined the company right when the Famicom went on sale, so I went to a department store during the Christmas season.

Game & Watch: A line of handheld game devices with LCD screens, each of which contained one game. The first game was released in 1980, and the line went on to sell a total of 43.4 million devices worldwide.

Sakamoto: To lend sales support. (laughs)

Kiyotake: Yeah--at retailers. (laughs) And when I went to the department store, the Famicom was selling well and even selling out. Then I would recommend other companies' products! (laughs)

Even as a Nintendo employee?! (laughs)

Kiyotake: Uh-huh. (laughs)

Sakamoto: I went to lend support, too.

Oh, really.

Sakamoto: I was told that I should and that it would be a learning experience, so I went to help out at a certain department store in the Kansai region, and all I remember is people asking for discounts. Someone said, "I took a train from far away to buy this, so if I do, throw in a couple free games." (laughs)


Sakamoto: So I'm not sure if I really learned anything by going to help out at retailers! (laughs)


Today's topic is Metroid. Congratulations on its 30th anniversary!

Sakamoto: Thank you. Has it really been that long?

Kiyotake: 30 years have passed, huh?

Metroid was originally released for the Family Computer Disk System. How did you come to develop this game?

Family Computer Disk System: A peripheral product for the Famicom system released in February 1986. The floppy disks used with the system had greater memory than ROM cartridges, allowing players to save game data.

Sakamoto: Development began with just Kiyotake-san and another new employee. My boss at the time was Gunpei Yokoi--whom I mentioned in our discussion about Balloon Fight--and he believed that if you can draw, you can make games.

Gunpei Yokoi (1941-1997): During his time at Nintendo, Yokoi-san worked on game devices such as Game & Watch and Game Boy, and he was an integral figure in development of such products as Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.) and Dr. Mario.

And you left development to these two new designers?

Sakamoto: Yes. But while they had both made Game & Watch titles, they didn't have any experience developing video games for a television.

Kiyotake-san, did you feel like saying "Don't be ridiculous!"

Kiyotake: No, but maybe that was only because we had no clue what development of a video game would be like. Besides, we were told to throw it together any old way, so we didn't sweat it. (laughs)

You worked at your own pace.

Kiyotake: Right. And we knew guidance would come in at the end, so we felt like we'd be fine as long as what we had begun making didn't get canned.

Ah, so what did you two new employees have in mind as you began making the game?

Kiyotake: As we were working, the Super Mario Bros. boom hit. So we wanted to make something that had what Super Mario Bros. didn't have.

Super Mario Bros.: A platform game released for the NES system. Originally released in Japan in September 1985.

What Super Mario Bros. didn't have? Like what?

Kiyotake: As a simple example, you know how Mario slides a little before stopping?


Kiyotake: So we tried to make a dead halt.

You began with movement?

Kiyotake: Yes. We wanted to make actions that Mario didn't have. And then...

Sakamoto: Aren't you forgetting something important?

Kiyotake: Am I?

Sakamoto: Super Mario Bros. is about avoiding enemies.

If you touch one, you lose a turn.

Sakamoto: In response to that, Kiyotake was complaining, saying, "Why do we have to avoid them?!" (laughs)


Sakamoto: When you began making Metroid, you wanted a technique called a Screw Attack for doing a spinning jump to defeat enemies. Isn't that right?

Kiyotake: Oh, that's right! (laughs)


How long did it take for the two of you new employees to develop the game?

Kiyotake: Not quite ten months.

As you were working, could you see the end? Did you have a vision of its final form?

Kiyotake: Rather than worry about finishing up, we had never made a complete video game before, so we had absolutely no idea of the final product.

You didn't have any experience with regard to how to polish up a game like that.

Kiyotake: None at all. At the time, we were just thinking about how we could make it an enjoyable game.

Sakamoto: I didn't join development of Metroid until about the last three months. (laughs)

So for nearly ten months, two new employees worked on development, and you joined the team to polish it up in the last three months.

Sakamoto: I wasn't the only one to join. Everyone in Research & Development Department 1 joined at the end.

Earlier, Kiyotake-san mentioned guidance coming in at the end, and that really happened--via mass mobilization of the department.

Sakamoto: That's right. Everyone in Research & Development Department 1 contributed to Metroid in some way.

How far along was the game when you and the others joined?

Sakamoto: To be honest, it was hardly done at all! (laughs)

Oh... (laughs)

Sakamoto: Everywhere had the same backgrounds and you could only do the same things. The characters were moving, but the rest of the game design was mere bare bones.

At that point, was the Metroid aesthetic in place?

Sakamoto: Yes. It was dark, with a well-built player-character who hurls through enemies. That was all there.

What did you and the others work on?

Sakamoto: The first thing I worked on was the main character Samus's movement.

Kiyotake: I had specialized in character design, so I had Samus moving in a variety of fine-tuned movements. But that ate up memory.

And if you then added backgrounds and sounds...

Kiyotake: It would never fit. So Samus's movements got drastically reduced. (laughs)

Did you think, "No way! I spent almost ten months making those!"

Kiyotake: I was practically in tears, but everyone was helping out, so I didn't mind them being reduced as long as we were able to complete Metroid.

Sakamoto: Then we added all sorts of things, like changing the color of the backgrounds so players could tell when they had progressed.

Kiyotake: Yeah, we did...

Sakamoto: But I can't criticize Kiyotake-san and the other designer. They had jumped straight from Game & Watch into the world of software development for the Family Computer Disk System.

That's like asking someone who has only driven a go-kart to drive a car.

Sakamoto: It was just like that! Yokoi-san had said, "If you can draw, you can make games," to a couple newbies with no experience making video games, and they had done the best they could.


Kiyotake-san, weren't you the one who named Samus Aran?

Kiyotake: Yes, I was.

About ten years ago when I did a magazine interview, I heard from Sakamoto-san that you're a soccer fan and took that name from the real name of Pelé, the King of Football.

Kiyotake: Yeah. (laughs) Even though it may not really be his name...

Yeah, it isn't. (laughs)

Kiyotake: I thought so. (laughs)

Apparently, you thought Pelé's real name is Samus Arantes Nascimentos.

Kiyotake: Yeah, yeah, something like that.

But if you look it up, it's Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

Kiyotake: Yeah, I was totally off! (laughs)

Sakamoto: But Arantes was right. (laughs)

Yes, that much is! (laughs)

Kiyotake: I thought that conjured up the right image, so I used that name.

How did you decide to make Samus Aran a woman?

Sakamoto: Once we entered the final stage of development, we started talking about having different endings depending on how long it took players to clear the game. We wanted to prepare a reward for people who cleared it more quickly.

Kiyotake: We wondered what would surprise everyone and talked about removing Samus's helmet.

Sakamoto: Then someone said, "It would be a shocker if Samus turned out to be a woman!" And everyone thought that would be interesting and wanted to do it, so we decided it right away.

Kiyotake: Yeah, we decided that in a flash. Back then, people played games over and over, so we wanted to give a reward for playing through quickly. Then we decided to put in four endings, with Samus removing her helmet or her suit and so forth.

As they played, everyone thought Samus was a tough, musclebound guy, but they learned in the end that Samus was a woman.

Sakamoto: People who played it back then were shocked. And even now people talk about it like a kind of legend. (laughs)


You mobilized everyone in Research & Development Department 1 to finish the game in the last three months. When Metroid was completed, how did you feel, Kiyotake-san?

Kiyotake: I was overjoyed! It was especially impressive when we added audio. When just myself and one other person had been working on it, we had only been able to put in simple sounds like "Pew! Pew!" (laughs)


Kiyotake: And even though we had only moderately developed an aesthetic, it was thrilling when proper audio came in.

How about you, Sakamoto-san?

Sakamoto: By the time I joined the project, we didn't have anywhere near the time necessary to make new elements and plug them into the game.

Because when you joined the team, it was scheduled for release in three months.

Sakamoto: Right. So we used what was available and struggled to figure out what we could do and how we could make it fun.

You used what was at hand.

Sakamoto: That's right. Gradually, Metroid grew into a game, and when it was nearly complete, the ending crawl came together with the names of members of the development staff. When I saw that, I almost cried.


Sakamoto: The sense of fulfillment was incredible, so it really hit me.

I suppose it was all the more moving because of how difficult it had been.

Sakamoto: Yes. Actually, when they asked me to help, I refused at first.


Sakamoto: I had a feeling it would be grueling.


Sakamoto: Before working on Metroid, I had been working on something else. Then, almost as if the timing were planned and just when I was about finished, a senior designer said, "I'd like to ask you about something." That designer wondered what we could do for Metroid. At first, I refused, but that person persuaded me, so in the end I said, "Fine, I'll do it." And despite the lack of time and memory, we finished it up in three months. That's how I became involved with Metroid, and before I knew it, it had practically become my life's work! (laughs)

Yes, indeed it is! (laughs)


To finish up, would you please say something to the fans about what you hope they will get out of Metroid, which marked its 30th anniversary on the NES Classic Edition?

Kiyotake: Well, I hope people who played it 30 years ago will remember what an incredibly difficult time they had clearing it back then.

And to first-time players?

Kiyotake: I'd like to say, "This is how hard games used to be!" (laughs)


Kiyotake: And I'd be happy if, as they play, they imagine the greater number of movements that Samus originally had.

How about you, Sakamoto-san?

Sakamoto: "I want parents to play games with their children." This is what we often hear, right?


Sakamoto: Well, I hope three generations will play Metroid together. The NES wasn't just for children. Adults played it back then, too.

Yes, that's right.

Sakamoto: Those people eventually became parents and then grandparents.

After 30 years, that would be true.

Sakamoto: So I strongly hope all three generations will play together. Grandfathers can draw upon their old experience.

Kiyotake: And maybe be the most skilled! (laughs)

It's quite possible! (laughs)

Sakamoto: I'm very interested in knowing what different generations will feel when playing Metroid, a game we made 30 years ago.

They could take family trips to hot springs! (laughs)

Sakamoto: Yes, I hope three generations will play together at hot springs!

There's one more thing I definitely want to ask about. You mentioned almost crying when the ending came together. But about Benkei Dining, which shows up in the credits...

Sakamoto: Oh! (laughs) That's what you want to ask about so badly?! (laughs)

Yes! (laughs) It's well-known to some fans, but after the credits, it says, "SPECIAL THANKS TO..."

Sakamoto: "TOHRYU MAKO BENKEI" shows up, right?


Sakamoto: We were working late every night those last three months, so we ordered from restaurants near the company. Benkei Dining, the Chinese restaurants Tohryu, and another called Sometime Mako, were especially helpful, so we decided to put those three into the credits.

I see.

Sakamoto: Actually, Tohryu closed quite a while back.

Apparently, Benkei Dining closed a few months ago, too. That really brings home the passage of 30 years.

Sakamoto: Yes, it really does. It's too bad.

Kiyotake: But if you work hard and clear the game, you can see those credits, and I hope players will check out the different endings for Samus.

It's like a challenge created 30 years ago for people today! (laughs)

Kiyotake: Yes, it is. And it's a tough one!