Making Mr. Gimmick!

Posted By at 12:04 AM on Friday March 30, 2012

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This August, 2011 interview with Sunsoft programmer Tomomi Sakai was conducted by Shun Arita of Cyzo. Sakai birthed the little-known masterpiece Mr. Gimmick (also known as Gimmick!), a NES game that only saw release in Japan and Scandinavia. It was commissioned by sharc.

“Play games for an hour a day!”

Takahashi Meijin

In the words of Master Takahashi, games are a form of entertainment with such an addicting appeal that once you start playing, you won’t know where the time went.

Nowadays, it seems like we don’t hear a lot of good news coming out of the gaming scene, but, from 1980 to 1990, video games occupied the heart of Japanese subculture.

Remember back when the only thing on your mind was “What amazing games will we see next?!” Clarice Disc, a record label specializing in the revival of retro games in the 21st century, has packaged the excitement and anticipation of that era into CD form.

Sunsoft Soundtrack

Rom Cassette Disk In SUNSOFT: Disk System Compilation (City Connection)

Rom Cassette In SUNSOFT, released by the label on June 29th, is a game music CD featuring a compilation of over 200 songs from unforgettable Sunsoft NES titles such as The Mystery of Atlantis, 53 Stations of the Tokaido, and Ripple Island. Following release, its large collection of tracks has made it a hot topic not only for game music enthusiasts, but also casual gamers from back then.

That brings us to this article, an extension of the previous interview. I’d like to hear what what one of the staff members who worked on Mr. Gimmick, the legendary Sunsoft action game that debuted during the final years of the NES, has to say about the days when the gaming industry burned bright.

Continuing from last time, when we heard from game music whizz Masashi Kageyama, I’ll be asking programmer and game creator Tomomi Sakai about the secrets behind the birth of Mr. Gimmick.

Mr. Gimmick: A Gathering of Sunsoft’s Elite

Arcade Gallery

Ever since his days as a student, Sakai has poured his heart and soul into programming and video games. He’d churn out source code day and night, creating and recreating object animations on his computer like an artist practicing his sketches, until the program could execute animations for all the characters in the game right before his eyes. He first got his start in arcade games.

“Arcade games aren’t profitable if people can continue playing for long periods, so their level of difficulty is steeply curved. After a short period of time, the games will actually start to attack the player. However, there are also players capable of clearing the games, giving them a glimpse into an unseen world. There was a novel on the subject, actually. At the time (early to mid-80s), the mettle of a gamer was measured by how much of an audience would be watching them play at arcades. Those who were truly skilled weren’t just people who were good at games, they were crowd-pleasers whose gameplay charmed the audience. They knew how to charm people. That’s the basis of entertainment, I think.”

Sakai has backed up his claims. The title he developed, Mr. Gimmick, is an action game whose charm increases as players polish their skills.

Mr. Gimmick Cartridge & Manual

Despite this, however, the game was so difficult that casual players weren’t able to clear it, so Mr. Gimmick had the misfortune of receiving a negative review in Famicon Tsuden (now Famitsu and published by Enterbrain, then published by ASCII), one of the most prominent gaming publications.

The fact that it was released in 1992, during the game industry’s migration to 16-bit platforms like Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, also detracted from the game’s popularity.

“At the time, most dealers wouldn’t partner with us to distribute Mr. Gimmick. When we exhibited it at places like the Tokyo Toy Show, people would come up and ask “Is this game for the Super Nintendo?” When they learned it was for the NES, they’d lose interest and walk away. And there I was, thinking I’d get a good response for making a next-gen game on the original Nintendo!” [laughs]

True to his word, Mr. Gimmick was a game ambitious enough to surpass the limits of the Nintendo.

“At the time, there were two really talented designers named Iwata and Kagoya who’d worked on Blaster Master. I’d always thought about how I’d love to have them participate in making an original game of my own design, so I arranged for it to happen. [laughs] In my mind, if I finished my team’s game just as they finished theirs, it would be easy to get them to join the production of Mr. Gimmmick, so I fine-tuned my game’s development schedule to complete it on time. Iwata was already working on Batman, but Kagoya’s designs really suited Mr. Gimmick. Even Morota, a genius sound programmer who had already left Sunsoft, did me a big favor and participated as an outsourcer.”

Sakai didn’t just go to extremes to ensure a superior development team:

“Speaking of technology, the Nintendo used 256 tiles, but switching them all out at once was a waste. We streamlined the process by dividing the number of tiles into 2 groups of 128 and separating them into, say, enemy characters and protagonists. By further dividing the tiles into 4 groups of 64, not only were we able to reduce waste, we also decided on the chip specs by keeping in mind the fact that we’d be able to switch out tilesets to use as background cogs and floor animations.”

Sakai, a talented programmer, put a variety of ideas into Gimmick, not to mention investing an extraordinary amount of thought into the music.

“Around that time, I heard the music from Out Live, a game being developed on the TurboGrafx-16, and I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather have doing Mr. Gimmick’s music than the composer, Masashi Kageyama, so I asked him. The only thing was that the Nintendo didn’t have enough voices to reproduce the feel of Kageyama’s chords. We had Kagoya for the drawings, so that was taken care of. If I did my best to create the animations, we’d be OK on that front, too. I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about the music quality if Kageyama was going to be our composer, but I had to do something about the fact that there weren’t enough sound channels. That’s when I decided our game would have a built-in sound expansion.”

In the words of Sakai, they needed an unbeatable staff in order to rival the Super Nintendo, and Mr. Gimmick was developed thanks to the appointment of a large number of Sunsoft’s elite.

“The game took 10 years for people to appreciate it,” Sakai laughs bitterly, looking back on the past.

With its pop graphics and a cool, fusion-style soundtrack, Mr. Gimmick was a hot topic amongst certain game fans at the time. It continues to be loved by retro gamers, and expert playthroughs that capture the game’s charm still captivate audiences on internet video sites.

The Perfection Even the World-Famous Miyamoto Was Buzzing About

Shigeru Miyamoto

Shigeru Miyamoto is a game designer who has participated in the development of big hits like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Kirby, all of which have had an enormous influence on the history of gaming.

As mentioned above, despite not becoming a hit, Mr. Gimmick captured players’ hearts. As proof of this, Sakai notes that the game had some unexpected fans.

“After completing Mr. Gimmick, an acquaintance of Miyamoto’s was kind enough to mention to me that Miyamoto said Gimmick was a lot of fun. Mr. Miyamoto doesn’t seem to be the type to praise other people’s work, so he added that he thought Miyamoto regretted being forced to admit it. Considering I’d always wanted to make a game that outdid every other action game out there, including Mario, that made me really happy.”

Not only did the game receive praise from the world-famous Miyamoto, Sakai says that ever since the release of Mr. Gimmick, other companies have appropriated ideas that were introduced in the game. He’s also discovered, via anonymous comments on video sites, people who claim that their appreciation for Mr. Gimmick inspired them to become programmers themselves. The spirit of Sakai, and his game, Mr. Gimmick, that supported his convictions and defied the flow of time, have certainly had an impact on the gaming industry.

“Age Has Nothing to Do With Conquering Life!”

Sakai continues to challenge himself. After the release of Mr. Gimmick, the independent designer founded his own company, known as Electric Sheep. Following a career developing all sorts of video games, he left the gaming industry and now makes a living as a writer and web engineer. He also pursues a variety of hobbies on his own time, such as bass fishing, language study, and photography. Several years ago, he began performing music.

“After watching YouTube, I’ve developed an interest in composing lyrics and performing all the parts of a song myself.”

You might be impressed by the scope of Sakai’s multivaried interests, but he asserts that he doesn’t have that many.

“For me, pursuing my hobbies is the same as conquering a video game. It just takes place outside of a TV screen. Next, I want to try my hand at novels.”

A natural-born gamer since the days of Space Invader-style games, Sakai is presently working his way through the events of a game called “Life”.

“Back then, anything was possible. In Irem’s Spelunker, you’d die even if you’d only fallen from a small height. However, the developers likely thought it to be perfectly natural that someone would die from a fall. They had that freedom. Games from the Nintendo era were less polished than games today, and there were a lot of titles that were pretty unrefined, but we also had a lot of motivations and setbacks that you could only experience back then. The era of chaos was definitely the most interesting, no matter what genre of game you were creating. I think I was happy, being involved with games back then.”

Looking back on the age of Mr. Gimmick, Sakai at last murmurs to himself, “Maybe I should try programming something again…”

In this age of mild and easily-accessible games, I ask the readers to try once more to enjoy the life-or-death thrills of Sakai’s elegant creations.

Read the preceding interview with Mr. Gimmick composer Masashi Kageyama here!

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3 Responses

  1. Fascinating read, I have taken much inspiration from Mr Gimmick- and i want to spread the word with fan art & a possible remake!

  2. […] casi debutante, y que por desgracia jamás se volvería a reunir para realizar ningún otro juego, abandonando el mundillo para dedicarse a otras […]

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