Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Memories from Sega's Golden Age

By Edge on at

Growing up in Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, Tetsuya Mizuguchi dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. He spent the majority of his time outdoors, training on the field, till, in the fourth grade, he became friends with another boy whose parents owned a toyshop. Mizuguchi would visit the shop and gawp at the colourful Atari videogame boxes that busied the shelves.

Around this time, he and his friend started frequenting the local arcade. A nascent hobby soon became an obsession; the pair would begin skipping classes in order to play. “I wasn’t book smart,” he says. “I wanted to have more real life experiences; to become street smart.” In art, however, Mizuguchi found a subject as compelling as the arcade. He became diligent in his studies, earning a place at Nihon University in Tokyo to study media aesthetics, a pioneering course about the intersection of art and technology.

Three decades later, this interest has defined the designer’s oeuvre, which stretches from the luxurious physical experience of the racing game arcade cabinets of his earliest work (Sega Rally, Manx TT Super Bike) through the intricate fusion of music and games found in Space Channel 5, Lumines and the seminal Rez, which will be given new life later this year as a PlayStation VR title. Here, he describes his journey to date, and the games that have defined his life’s work.

Megalopolis: Tokyo City Battle

Developer/publisher: Sega Format: Arcade Release: 1994

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When I was at university a friend of mine showed me a copy of The Bitmap Brothers’ Xenon 2: Megablast on the Amiga. It was like a shock to me, opening my eyes to the new possibilities within the medium. It was one of those eye-popping moments 
in my life, when I realised a brand-new perspective on what video games could be as an art form. It’s worth mentioning because of what came later.

Sega was my first real job out of university. I had an unorthodox route to working there, to say the least. Even though during my university years I was thinking about games and playing them, I still didn’t think the video game industry was going to be my profession. One day I visited the arcade and saw this huge cabinet in the corner, an R360. It could rotate and the player had to be strapped in with a harness. I thought: ‘What the hell is this, and who the hell makes it?’ I saw the name Sega on the side and immediately went to their headquarters in Tokyo.

I walked straight up to the receptionist and said to her: ‘I want to work for Sega.’ She patiently explained to me that I needed to go through the proper channels, send in my application, come in for an interview and so on. I asked her how I should go about that and, after that, went home and applied. During the interview process I told the interviewer that the current games on the market were not the types of games I wanted to make. They felt dated to me. I wanted to make games with the future in mind. The interviewer said to me: ‘You are kind of out there, but we could probably use someone like you in our company. We need someone with crazy ideas.’ That’s how I got my job at Sega. It was a small company at the time; probably fewer than 200 employees. They made me a planner, but my first project was not a game development project.

Sega and Namco owned a mini amusement park called Joypolis. It was larger than an arcade but smaller than Disneyland. They had an attraction there called AS-1, a simulator ride in which people would take part in a futuristic flying-car chase through Tokyo. We handled the visuals for the ride, as well 
as balancing the motion of the cabinet’s hydraulics. At the same time, in the UK, we were partnering with a virtual reality company called Virtuality. I worked in the research department for that project – so things have really come full circle with the forthcoming release of Rez Infinite.

Anyway, I was happy because I didn’t want to make the kind of 2D arcade games that were being worked on at the time. They were so stale and boring to me. I wanted to work on the games of the future, so these projects suited me well. They kept me busy for quite some time. Then, when realtime polygon counts began to increase for the first time, I knew that 3D game making was the place I needed to be.

Sega Rally Championship

Developer: AM5 Publisher: Sega Format: Arcade Release: 1995

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I wanted to make a rally game. The opportunity came with the arrival of polygons. Suddenly we had textures and we could do so much more in the genre. With textures we could go to the desert, or off-road – things that hadn’t really been possible before. I pitched the game to the executives at Sega. They gave me a flat-out ‘no’. They told me that no rally game had ever been anything close to a success. They even said that rally games are jinxed. I was so passionate. I had it in my mind as to how it would be designed. I begged them to give me a chance. They said: ‘What if it doesn’t work out and we lose money?’ I told them that if it was a failure I would quit the company and they wouldn’t even have to pay me for the work. They told me that was an incredibly irresponsible thing to say. I told them I didn’t care. I had to make this game.

I think it was this passion that, in the end, won them over. They relented and myself and about ten other people were given a chance to make the game. Now, we were all in our early to mid-20s. None of us had designed a game before. None of us had even experienced racing before. The executives told us that there was no proof or hint of success here. That’s when I argued that, in order to perfect the experience, Sega should allow us to carry out some research – location scouting and so on. We wanted to follow a rally, and interview the drivers, the kind of research one might carry out for a movie.

Again, the executives were incredulous. Travelling anywhere to make a game was unheard of at the time. They told me that, if the game was a success, I could take a holiday and do some travelling. We fought that through as well. I told the executives, if the company wouldn’t allow us to go, we would go on our own dime. At that point, the company said: ‘OK – this one time we’ll allow you to travel for research.’ It was all thanks to us pushing through, encouraging each other and, eventually, managing to make things happen.

The game was a big success, as everyone knows, but my immediate boss argued that this was actually down to the resistance that we’d faced in trying to get the project off the ground. He told me that it was all because the executives had pushed back, so the team came together and worked harder as a result.

Manx TT Super Bike, Sega Touring Car Championship

Developer: AM3, AM5 Publisher: Sega Format: Arcade Release: 1995, 1996

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After the success of Sega Rally, the company gave me a little more room to make my next projects. I worked on Sega Touring Car Championship, where we got to visit Mercedes, Alfa Romeo, all of these other car manufacturers. It was amazing. Sega Rally took about 11 months, which was a pretty short amount of time. Sega wanted us to come up with an idea for what was next and deliver it much more quickly. For Sega Touring Car Championship we were only given about five or six months. We had to rush it and haphazardly put out a game. It wasn’t a huge success. 
I learned an important lesson there, about ensuring that games are given enough time to fully develop.

Around that time we started work on Manx TT Super Bike, a motorbike racing game for the arcades. That involved some research too – all the team got motorcycle licences. It was better in terms of the length we had to work on it – closer to a year – but I learned another important lesson on the project. You see, I had a very clear idea of how I wanted the game to feel. The lead programmer told me that what I wanted to achieve just wasn’t possible. There was a little back and forth over what would be the better way to go. I ended up respecting the lead programmer’s decision. The game shipped but, even now, it doesn’t sit well with me. It wasn’t executed the way I had envisioned.

The lesson I learned was that, if you have a vision, you need to push through to the end. If you don’t, you ultimately just make everyone else unhappy. That experience had a huge after-effect on developing Space Channel 5 and Rez. It gave me the certitude to push through with my visions for those games, even when there was resistance.

Space Channel 5, Space Channel 5: Part 2

Developer: UGA Publisher: Sega Format: Dreamcast, PS2 Release: 1999, 2002

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The kernel of the idea for Space Channel 5 was actually someone else’s, initially: Takashi Yuda’s. He had an idea to create a traditional music video that rolled as the player tapped the buttons correctly, in time with the music. We started thinking about how we could make it fun and bright and quirky. That’s when all of the layers came together and the idea for what we released was born. For our research we watched all of the music videos that Michael Jackson put out. We spent so many hours going to musicals, everything from Stomp to Broadway – every musical we could afford tickets to! Musicals were an ideal reference material because they merge song and narrative. They create this kind of synergistic spiral that keeps the crowd going. We wanted to transport the same experience into something interactive, using a call-and-response dynamic. We did so much research, and that’s how the elements that you see in my games were injected.

Michael Jackson was a huge game fan. He came to visit Sega quite often. There was a thread of communication between him and us. We sort of got lucky. During one of the visits we were about a month out of mastering Space Channel 5. We showed it to him; he said: ‘How can I be a part of the game?’ We were so close to launch and there was just no time to make it happen. The ideal scenario for us was to save this for a sequel. But who is going to say ‘no’ to Michael Jackson? So, in the end, we went back to him with a plan for a cameo appearance. I wasn’t sure if he was going to be OK with what we proposed, or if he was going to ask for a larger-scale involvement. But he was totally happy with our idea. He really just wanted to be a part of the project, I think. As soon as we had the ‘yes’, the team worked on it for about two weeks. Such a short amount of time.

I told Michael that I needed vocal performances to put in the game: ‘Hey!’, ‘Chu!’ and all the rest of those exclamations. He recorded himself and sent me a tape. The problem was he spoke incredibly softly. We put the effects in the game but they felt totally wrong because the main character has very high energy levels in her vocal recording. So I had to email him back to ask him if he’d re-record the vocals with higher energy! Finally he sent another tape. It was better, but still not quite as high-energy as I’d hoped.

Rez

Developer: UGA Publisher: Sega Format: Dreamcast, PS2 Release: 2001

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During the time that I was working on the rally games I travelled a lot. On one of the trips I was led to a Street Parade in Zurich Switzerland in 1997, with 300,000 people gathered in the city centre for a concert. It blew me away. I think it appealed to the art student in me! The merging of sound and light, and the meaning behind it all perfectly synched in my head.

I’d had a number of thoughts brewing in my head for years and years. The marriage of game and music, creating music as you shoot down enemies. When the home console technology caught up, and came to a point where we felt able to bring the idea to life, I knew it was time. 
I wanted to make a game that could put the player into a trance-like state.

Again, we had to do a lot of research because there weren’t really any games like this at the time, or at least, not enough to consider it a genre. I took my team clubbing. We also visited Taiko drumming festivals and watched hours and hours of recordings of street musicians. It wasn’t just a case of listening to the music. We also took notice of the shapes and colours, and how we felt as the performance progressed. These were all things we wanted to translate into our game.

The basic idea was that shooting would produce sounds, which could then synch with the music. Quantization was key to ensure that the sounds players made fell in step with the music. This would mean any player could play the game ‘in time’, as it were; the rhythms of play would always be synched, and play would feel good. When we first made this work, it felt like magic.

Lumines

Developer: Q Entertainment Publisher: Ubisoft Format: PSP, PS2, PC Release: 2004

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You know, I didn’t miss having my games in arcades. They have a very limited audience, mainly young males. There are so many constraints to deal with too. You have this short game limitation, which means that you can’t really give people proper narrative or stories. For me it was a relief to move away from those restraints.

I remember when the Sony PSP was announced. I could see it was a strong audiovisual device and so I immediately started imagining what kind of game could work well with the hardware. I knew that, with the PSP, players would be able to play my game at any time, in any place, so it was a case of figuring out what kind of game would work well with that context.

I thought about making a puzzle game that used music. It was a new idea, I think, at the time. I put together an incredibly small team. This was a very special project for me. Nobody believed in that game. I guess because it was a new kind of game on a new kind of hardware. When I came to E3 that year, I showed people my game. Everybody looked very sorry for me. They said that there was no market for puzzle games these days. The told me that there was no market for music games, either. In the end they were proven wrong. Lumines sold well. I had a confidence in the game and, in the end, it worked out. It proved all those lessons from years ago to be right. If you believe in your vision, and stick by it, things will work out.


 

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This feature originally appeared in Edge. Issue 293, featuring Mirror's Edge Catalyst, is available now. To try a free two-issue Edge subscription, click here for iOS or here for Google Play Newsstand.