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Taito interview – how to turn 80s arcade classics into modern video games

GameCentral talks to Taito about how they’ve attempted to revive classic franchises like Bubble Bobble and Darius for the modern era.

The golden age of arcade games is long gone but many of the giants of that era still live on today, even if few of them pay anything more than lip service to the coin-op games for which they were once best known. The likes of Sega, Capcom, Namco, and Konami do occasionally reference their arcade heritage, and the contemporary console ports that came from them, but until recently Taito was so withdrawn from the industry that many probably assumed they no longer exist. But they do, and they’re in the midst of an exciting comeback.

Taito were acquired by Square Enix in 2006 and although they continued to release the odd mobile title, and even occasionally a new console game, most went under the radar, especially in the West. However, in 2019 they began a grassroots comeback, releasing new Darius collections and reviving past franchises such as The Ninja Saviors (aka The Ninja Warriors) and Bubble Bobble.

All those games turned out surprising well and have emboldened Taito to continue its approach, focusing on Bubble Bobble and Darius but also attempting to bring back more obscure franchises as well. We spoke, via email, to Taito producer Toyama Yuichi about the past and future of the company and while he wouldn’t be drawn on specifically which games are next he did suggest that major announcements are imminent. More importantly he is well aware of how well Rainbow Islands is regarded by old school British gamers…

GC: What is the status of Taito now and how much autonomy do you have to start new projects? There seems to have been a significant increase in new releases using classic IP lately, so what was the thinking behind that?

TY: We are in the process of releasing new projects, both for consoles and mobile apps, that are well received by users and are profitable.

There are many fans of Taito’s past IPs and we want to provide products that will please them. In fact, although this is a Japan-only title, we are distributing the smartphone app Magic Pengel: The Quest For Color for those who liked Rakugaki Kingdom, an RPG where you can draw your own pictures and have them move and fight in the game.

Puzzle Bobble has a particularly strong reputation overseas, so we’ve teamed up with Survios to release Puzzle Bobble VR: Vacation Odyssey, the first VR game from Taito. We would also like to release new games in the future, like we released Touhou Spell Bubble, a game that combines Puzzle Bobble and a music game, using characters and music from the Touhou Project. We have many other projects in the making, so please look forward to them.

GC: How many developers still work at Taito that were present in the old days? How have you been able to keep the Taito spirit alive all this time, especially when there were long gaps between releasing new games?

TY: Taito has been out of the console game business for a while but in the meantime, we have continued to develop arcade and mobile titles. In the arcade division there are people who have been involved in development for a long time and those people continue to carry on the spirit of Taito, as well as those who have newly joined Taito.

‘Be Playful in the Core’ is our value and belief for our daily tasks. Taito believes that as an entertainment provider, we should always be prepared for challenges and improvements and always remain playful to influence our customers and give them more surprise and excitement than ever before.

In Japanese, ‘True Heart’ is hidden in our motto. So our motto also contains that we have a hospitality mind and spirit.

The official motto may have changed, but I believe that this mindset has always been a part of Taito’s spirit.

GC: How would you characterise the Taito style of game as differing from its peers during the arcade era? Are you aware of any way that you may have worked that differed notably from your rivals at the time, that helped your games become so distinctive?

TY: Although each company went through a trial and error process because arcades themselves were in their infancy, we had been developing our own hardware since the electromechanical machine period and I believe we were able to create games that were unique by utilising the technology that has continued since then.

For example, Darius’s half-mirrored three-screen chassis and Body Sonic [the name for the cabinet’s built-in speaker system – GC] are examples of this technology, and I think they made a strong impression on many people at the time.

Speaking of uniqueness, many staff members joined Taito’s development department from other industries such as animation between the late 1980s and 1990s, and some people may feel that the style of the game changed drastically after this. Their individuality led to the creation of games like Gun Frontier (1990) and Pu·Li·Ru·La (1991), which had a different atmosphere from other companies.

GC: Given how much has changed in the games industry over the last few years, how do you go about trying to maintain the style and personality of the old games, given the opportunities and temptations that modern technology brings?

TY: As the performance of hardware has improved it has become possible to reproduce past titles not only faithfully, but also in HD and with additional elements on all platforms, which has been well received by our customers. In the future, we will continue to come up with additional elements that will please our customers, depending on the needs of the time.

For example, for the 40th anniversary of Space Invaders, Square Enix, one of our group companies, produced an interactive attraction called Space Invaders Gigamax, in which up to 20 people can play at the same time, using projection mapping on the windows of a building with a night view in the background. The project was well received by many people.

In Puzzle Bobble VR: Vacation Odyssey we used the Oculus Quest, a standalone head-mounted display, to evolve the familiar Puzzle Bobble game system into 3D.

We believe that these are examples of the successful integration of modern technology and classic games.

GC: Is there a feeling that Taito are underappreciated in the modern area? Many of your games, even Space Invaders, seem to be increasingly forgotten by younger gamers and yet are regarded as all-time classics by retro enthusiasts.

TY: Although it is not as crazy as it was in 1978, when Space Invaders first appeared and became a social phenomenon, it has been widely merchandised around the world for the past 10 years. In addition, the Space Invaders character is used as the logo of Taito Station, a game centre operated by Taito in Japan, and is recognised as a sign for game centres. In fact, as represented by the success of the arcade game Space Invaders Frenzy, we have continued to offer new Space Invaders games to new customers, and we are proud to say that the game has been loved by many since its release in 1978.

However, since we haven’t released any new console titles in many years, I think there are still some aspects that you mentioned. That’s why we are releasing games like Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, which is the first completely new game in the series in 24 years, and Space Invaders Invincible Collection, which is a collection of the original arcade version and the latest version of Space Invaders, to attract new customers.

Densha de Go! is being revived as an arcade game with high-definition and realistic graphics and is also being developed for consoles.

In addition to developing and publishing our own games, we have also teamed up with Atari to create The Ninja Saviors: Return Of The Warriors, the latest addition in the Ninja Warriors series, as well as Pocky & Rocky. With projects like the ones just mentioned, we will be focusing more and more on reviving our past IPs.

GC: Similarly, Darius Cozmic Collection worked very well as a reminder of what made the series great, but what is the future of the franchise? How can new technology shape the gameplay and does it become more difficult to innovate the longer the basic design remains the same?

TY: After the Darius Cozmic Collection, we’ve released Darius Cozmic Revelation, which is also great, so please play it! As for the future of the franchise, we’d love to make a new one.

In the special edition of the game in Japan, we included a postcard with a questionnaire for buyers asking what elements they would like to see in a new Darius game. The questionnaire asked about the game’s console, graphics, music, and play style, and also included options for new technologies such as ASMR, cloud gaming, and VR, in an attempt to solicit a variety of opinions and highlight what players want in a new Darius game.

We haven’t finished compiling the results yet, but we have received some pretty interesting and helpful opinions, so we’d like to keep those in mind as we think about it.

GC: This seems to be an issue for many long-running franchises, from lots of different companies, where they have had success reviving a retro series but only by creating new or remastered games that look and play very similarly to the originals. Is that necessarily a problem and do you see any possibility that these franchises could be adapted as modern 3D titles? Darius in the style of Star Fox, for example, or The Ninja Saviors that takes inspiration from Sekiro?

TY: What the original fans are looking for is HD and remastered titles, so we are thinking of releasing such titles first and, when they are successful, we will revamp them as 3D titles, as you mentioned. As for Puzzle Bobble, which has been releasing titles for mobile and other platforms, we are working with Survios, a company with a strong track record in VR game development, to release a 3D version of Puzzle Bobble VR in the near future.

We are currently developing the game, we are trying it out and we think it will be very interesting. When we released the trailer, we received highly anticipated comments from users, and we hope many of you will play it.

As for the other titles, we can’t reveal them here yet, so please wait and see!

GC: Rainbow Islands used to be regarded as one of the best games ever made, but many younger gamers have never heard of it today, so are there any plans to revive it and try to regain its renown? Are you aware of how well the game was regarded in Europe, thanks to its Amiga conversion, and do you have any new plans to capitalise on this?

TY: The game is also popular in Japan, but it was so well received in Europe! In fact, Taito is planning to put a lot of effort into making the Bubble IP from the Bubble Bobble series even more exciting than before, as it will be celebrating its 35th anniversary this year in 2021.

Of course, Rainbow Island is part of the series, so we hope to make it happen at the right time. I was again surprised by the strong popularity of the Amiga in Europe…! When we were working on Darius Cozmic Collection we received feedback from Europe that they wanted us to include an Amiga version of Darius+ but we didn’t have the Amiga hardware, and it was very difficult to get the software.

GC: What about other classic Taito franchises such as Elevator Action, Rastan, Operation Wolf, Chase. H.Q., and The NewZealand Story? Many of those were extremely well regarded in the 80s and 90s and still seem to have potential today.

TY: It’s been nearly 40 years since those titles were released, and that they were so popular in Europe at the time is something we’re very grateful for!

The staff member who is currently helping to connect Taito with the rest of the world is also from the UK and he has told us from time to time how popular these titles are, and we are also surprised to see that people all over the world are still loving Taito games, as we still receive many licensing offers from overseas.

First, we are reviving old titles from the Bubble Bobble and Darius series, but based on feedback from customers, we would like to consider other titles as well. If there’s a title you’d like to see revived, please send us a reply or something on Taito’s official Twitter for overseas fans and we’ll be happy to read it! (I can’t reply to you, though!)

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