The Road to Ace Combat: What Connected Air Combat 22 to the First Ace Combat? The Developers Look Back on the Series’ Early Days.
In order to understand the origin of Ace Combat, I listened to Jun Omura and Hisaharu Tago, who were involved in the development of Air Combat 22, a predecessor to the series. The two were also involved in the development of the newest title, Ace Combat 7.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, a flight shooter that was released on January 17, 2019 for consoles. It’s well known that the Ace Combat series was developed based on the Namco arcade game “Air Combat,” but concepts regarding its predecessor have not been made clear until now.
For this interview, I asked questions to the development staff of Air Combat 22 (“22” from here after), a game that began operations in March of 1995 and one of the predecessors to Ace Combat, in order to have an even deeper understanding of the series (including the latest title). They are Jun Omura, Director of “22” (Development Producer for Ace Combat 7), and Hisaharu Tago (Ace Combat 7’s VR Mode Director and currently DLC Director for 7).
This has become a precious interview that not only covers the accounts of “Air Combat” and “Air Combat 22”s birth, but other topics such as the arcade game situation of the mid-90s as seen through the eyes of these developers and connections to the latest title, Ace Combat 7. The content spans multiple pages as a result, but please by all means, read all the way through it.
The beginnings of “Air Combat 22” and “Virtual Reality” of the 90s
--Thank you for providing this valuable opportunity today. I look forward to working with you [on this interview]. Could you first introduce yourselves?
Omura: I am Jun Omura, and joined Namco in 1993 after graduating from school. I worked on development of several medium/large cabinet arcade games, and “Air Combat 22” was the first one I was given the lead on.
I always liked airplanes, and just when I was appealing, “I want to make a game for plane lovers!” there was talk of making a sequel to the first “Air Combat” (the first “Air”) arcade game, and that led me to participating in the development of “22.”
After that, I transferred to making household games such as MotoGP, Death by Degrees, Soul Calibur III, and The Idolmaster series.
I mostly did support work for projects after those titles, but for the Ace Combat series, I was involved in Infinity and 7, the latest title. For 7, I was the development producer
Tago: I joined the company a year after Omura in 1994. Unlike Omura I told my supervisor “I’m a military fan!” rather than “I like planes.” Then he told me “I have the perfect spot for you!” and the place he led me to was “22” where Omura was at… At the time it was called “Air Combat II” and I was kind of asked to be involved, so I joined. However, arcade game development was really fast back then, and the scope was small enough that we were able to complete the game with a small number of people within a year.
Omura: Yes, the team was small and there was less content compared to games today (regarding scope of development).
Tago: (When I was participating in its development) we were bustling about changing circuit boards, and we were upgrading from SYSTEM 22 to the newest SYSTEM SUPER 22 at the time. We didn’t have a lot of resources for making [assets] so we used the text editor Emacs to look at internal data, played the game and made adjustments, and learned the contents in the specification document.
At the time we had other product lines (development stages), but this “P2” written in the specification document for “22” represents the final step before mass production, and it is where we put in final touches.
It was unusual for people to come up with thick specification documents at that stage. Usually people would write as much as they could in a “Final Specification Document” as the last reference document before they got put into the company archives.
*SYSTEM 22: Namco’s arcade system board that made texture mapping possible. Used for Ridge Racer and Cyber Command.
*SYSTEM SUPER 22: An arcade system board that added 2D scaling. Used for Air Combat 22 and Time Crisis.
Omura: We had a senior member within the “22” development team that was also a programmer, and I remember him saying “Development is based on the specification document, so let’s write the best we can!” I remember learning about a lot of things while writing [the specification document].
Tago: [That senior member] was a person with large ambitions and made lots of things, and was even kind enough to create the “rapid-fire missile mode” which was sort of a secret feature for the game (laughs).
Also we had Hiroyuki Kawada as part of the sound staff for “22.” He’s known for writing music for the space shooting game Star Luster in the past.
Omura: Though we called it a project back then, it was a really small-scale development effort compared to today.
Tago: In Namco’s arcade development [process], you would first go to the “Development Design Group” that was in Yokohama’s Kohoku ward at the time and develop the hardware design and mechanical aspects, then go to the YCC (Yokohama Creative Center) that was in the Kanagawa ward at the time to develop the software.
Regarding software, we had 9 people in a single room develop it. We entrusted the visual assets to an outside group, which was around 3 people. Compared to the development of the latest title Ace Combat 7, we were like ants and very small in number. It’s pretty amazing now when you think about it.
--I see, so it was called “Air Combat II” at the time. Also I noticed that on the cover of this proposal document there is a section for a “VR General Manager,” but what was the meaning behind this?
Tago: Medium/large arcade cabinets are games that are based on hands-on experience/sensation, so in order to connect that to virtual reality, Namco at the time named it the “Main VR Development Group” rather ambitiously. At least that’s what I was told by my supervisor (laughs). I don’t know if that’s true or not though (laughs).
Omura: Back then the word “Virtual Reality” was praised extravagantly, so that group was named like that to show they were proactively developing a VR game.
Tago: In those days, other game studios had several game titles with the word “virtual” incorporated into them. Remember, 3-4 years before we joined, Namco released “Galaxian 3.”
“A preface to VR” was written on the cover for the pamphlet at the time. In general, any game that was a hands-on experience/sensation type was listed as VR, and the company seemed to be aware of that enterprise. However, we as developers weren’t able to reach that [level of immersion] and thought “that name is really stretching it.” If anything, we used the name “Development and Planning Group” since we were a subordinate organization and were still affiliated as such.
Omura: I had times where I submitted a proposal and was told “You can’t do that because this isn’t virtual reality!”
Tago: In today’s “virtual reality” with the HMD goggles, it mainly relies on the experience/sensation of the player’s visual perception, but back then we were trying to present that in a different manner.
Omura: For 3DCG, we initially only had polygons, but we were then able to add textures to those polygons during the mid-90s, increasing the realism and sense of immersion. It really was a time when "virtual reality" was of great interest to the public.
Tago: Additionally for “22,” we upgraded the circuit board from SYSTEM 22 to SYSTEM SUPER 22, so although there wasn’t too much of a change in the polygon count, we were able to expand on how things were presented.
Specifically, when we went to SUPER 22, the 2D aspects were enhanced. Since we could paste sprites instead of making polygons for the various gauges, we were able to better allocate things represented with polygons in the game.
--In February 2019, I actually headed to Kurihashi Round1 Stadium in Saitama where it has the only confirmed working “Air Combat” cabinet in the Kanto region and played both titles. I was then able to play it, but why was a SD cabinet version for “22” never developed?
Tago: Actually, SYSTEM SUPER 22 wouldn’t fit in the SD cabinet. That’s why it was only on the DX cabinet.
Omura: From a legal perspective (electronic safety law), we weren’t allowed to put it in the [SD cabinet] without passing tests.
Tago: The board for SYSTEM SUPER 22 was split into 4 pieces, but the noise from the flat cables connecting the circuit boards were bad… So “22” wasn’t able to fit in the SD cabinet. Also the DX cabinet cost a lot, so we weren’t able to push out that many copies of “22”...
--How much did the DX cabinet cost?
Omura: This DX cabinet was from the first “Air” so I wasn’t involved in the design of the cabinet, but it was a sophisticated design that felt authentic and was great.
Tago: It never got boring no matter how many times we debugged it. I remember exclaiming “Why can’t we press this button (on the panel) !?” (laughs)
According to stories told by those who designed the hardware, the DX cabinet for the first “Air” used expensive molded parts everywhere, especially the front panel, so it had quite the high cost. Due to the problem of this high cost, we planned on modifying existing DX cabinets with stickers and other things for “22.”
*Author’s note: The skiing game Alpine Racer was known for its expensive cabinet in its day, and Air Combat’s DX cabinets supposedly came close in terms of cost
Omura: There are stickers on the large displays of these DX cabinets to change them cosmetically for “22,” but the triple tube rear projection monitor was a generic product so these were cheaper due to economies of scale.
Tago: In general, from the highest cost it was: Cabinet -> Cabinet cosmetics (exterior molded parts) -> Light-up sign -> Display. Additionally if it was one of the motion cabinets, the base that the cabinet sat on had to be strengthened so that increased the cost even more. Pretty nostalgic topic.
--I’m surprised that the display was cheaper! Have you also heard any details of the birth of “Air Combat,” the predecessor to the Ace Combat series?
Omura: If you’re a regular middle school or high school boy, you naturally admire fighter pilots, and if you see something like “Top Gun,” you get passionate even if you don’t think about fighter jets on a regular basis right?
In that sense, it seems the people who proposed the first “Air” at the time thought, “if we release a game with a fighter jet theme, they’ll definitely love it and play it!”
Tago: Things become clear if you read the proposal plan for the first “Air,” but it says “The game will be presented in a way to make the player feel like a hero,” and is just basically the concept of the current Ace Combat.
Portion of the proposal document for the first “Air.” The concept that makes up the foundation of the Ace Combat series: “make the player feel like a hero” is mentioned
Omura: Additionally, the proposal for the cabinet at the time prioritized the sensation of “sitting in a real fighter jet,” so it imitated the shape of a cockpit and look of a fighter, but that concept was polished and what resulted was the DX cabinet.
Tago: A senior member told me this back then, but the first concept that resembled the nose of a fighter jet would be too expensive if molded parts and cosmetics were incorporated, so they ended up removing those. Personally, I think a DX cabinet that only had the cockpit area would be cooler than the first proposal.
I also heard that they were looking at including motion of the cabinet itself. However this would again lead to high costs so the result of them cutting down various parts resulted in the final DX cabinet. Also I remember them doing checks for a connected “Air Combat” versus mode.
Omura: It wasn’t “22” but we used 2 cabinets of the first “Air” and tested a connected versus mode, but due to various reasons it wasn’t able to make it in development.
Tago: I remember Omura talking about this back in the day, but those connected versus modes were 1v1s so “it resulted in the two chasing after each other’s tails, and it becomes a chore rather than a game.” When I heard this, I had just joined the company and my heart felt it was going to shatter (laughs). I had thoughts like: “I think it would be fun if people could face each other! Games like Final Lap exist!” (laughs).
Omura: Realistically there were circumstances like, “If we have multiple people vs multiple people there is the possibility that it would be a good game, but if we do that then there’s the circuit board capabilities and selling price...”
Tago: This is another story I heard, but there were proposals to have rudder pedals in the first “Air” as well. However, the game would become really hard if they did that so they removed it.
Omura: I think that was the right decision. We didn’t make it as a flight simulator; we developed it as just a shooting game. Plus I don’t think people would know how to use rudder pedals unless they really liked airplanes and were knowledgeable about them.
--I just witnessed the “beginning of history” for the series...I’m really moved! But it does seem like adding rudders to the “Air” game system would have made it even more complicated and difficult.
Tago: Compared to the first one, “22” definitely is more entertaining. Even when we were playing it, I remember thoroughly investigating fun, entertaining elements [to include].
Omura: “22” used SYSTEM SUPER 22 so its performance increased to the point 1 frame could have 4000 polygons and we were able to display lots of enemies.
The first “Air” SYSTEM 21 could only render 1000 polygons per frame (both ran at 60 fps) and could barely render you and an enemy plane. There’s a scene where 2 wingmen join in, but we could only do it in limited scenarios, and it ended up into a 1v1 game.
Since we could introduce multiple enemies in “22,” you can introduce strategy in choosing which enemies to shoot down first, and we were able to build that into the game.
Tago: There were limits on launching missiles though! (laughs)
Omura: It was the same for the first game too, but I built “22” as a game “where you shoot down planes with your guns.” The enemies release flares to disrupt your missiles, but since missiles automatically chase enemies and shoot them down after locking on and launching, it feels less engaging as a game. So I adjusted it so that people could use their techniques to enjoy the aerial battles and be able to clear the game with just guns.
A single specifcation document connects "Air Combat" to "Ace COmbat"
--I see, so it revolves around gun gameplay if you’re skilled! I like it. On another topic, for the end credits for the first Ace Combat game, it lists you guys in the special thanks section, but did you help with its development in some way?
Omura: For Ace Combat, the CS (console) Development Group reached out saying “We’re making a household game for the PS with a dogfighting theme, so let’s work together!” right when development of “22” was starting.
Additionally, development of “22” was further ahead, so we offered any resources that we could, and helped the development of the first Ace Combat in that manner.
Tago: [Content-wise] it was a really simple production, on the “what is a flight shooter?” level. We were also at the climax of “22”s development so we weren’t able to oversee too many things, but we passed down some of the know-how through “22”s specification document.
From there, things like “behavior where enemies automatically get within firing range” were naturally incorporated into the first ACE as features. In the end, the director for the first Ace Combat “wanted to include our names” so we checked to see if our names were correct in the end credits.
The CS side was in a different room, so the “22” staff never went into the room and created things directly.
This Development Code V150 “Air Combat 22” P2 Specification Document connected “Air Combat” to “Ace Combat,” and is historically important.
--The fact that this one specification document connected “Air” and “Ace” makes it very valuable. I can’t believe that I’m laying my eyes upon it right now. By the way, the first “Air Combat” was exhibited at the 1992 AM Show, and then the company’s first “Ridge Racer” (“Ridge” hereafter) began showing up in arcades a year later. At the time, which was more popular?
Omura: Ridge Racer of course. “Ridge” was a racing game and a large part of that popularity probably had to do with the fact that it had no prerequisite conditions and appealed to a wider customer base (laughs)
Tago: After that in 1995, we released “Alpine Racer” along with “22” and medium/large cabinets became more geared towards casual players.
Then after that, the direction that games like the horse racing game “Final Furlong” took would finally lead us to games like “Race On!” Taking all those into account, titles like “Air” that are suited to a smaller core demographic are games that “chooses their customers.”
---In that case, was the income from “22” in those days just average?
Tago: We had good numbers at our location test. But sorry, I don’t remember the exact numbers since it was so long ago.
Omura: But it was a game that chose its customers, so it didn’t get played as much as “Ridge.” You have a car in “Ridge” so it's intuitive and easy to drive, but with “Air Combat” people get separated into those who can fly planes and those who cannot. We made it relatively easy to control for “Air,” but in the end those who couldn’t get the controls weren’t able to play it to its full potential.
Tago: Back then I just joined the company I wasn’t very familiar with game creation, and thought “maybe you just fly the plane normally.” But what surprised me when reading the specification document was that it had detailed measures for the enemies to come closer to the player aircraft, and I was able to learn that “ you can’t fly if you don’t do that.”
My fondness didn’t change, but I was shocked after seeing what goes on in the background and thought “I guess you really have to think through all these things in order to make a game” while reading.
Omura: It was filled with know-how. I made things myself too and learned a lot of things for the first time.
Tago: We were pretty astonished. Since the “hero experience/exhilaration of shooting down enemies” that is a staple of the Ace Combat series already existed from the beginning, we thought “What the player wants (now and in the past) aren’t that much different.”
--Regarding the music, in Ace Combat 3D Cross Rumble, there were arrangements of “22”s “If the Sky is Burnin’ Out!” and “Surrender Me,” but was there a time when the developers asked for your opinion when putting these songs in?
Tago: That made us really happy. We didn’t directly ask them to put it in, but I was told by someone that joined the company around the same time and was in charge of consoles, “We put it in!” and “We were able to put it in!”
Omura: Kazuhiro Nakamura composed them for us, who was in charge of sound at the time. Personally, they’re my favorite compositions. It just sounds so cool and makes you burn up whenever you hear it, and I love it!
Tago: Rock fits well with “Air Combat” doesn’t it? (laughs)
Omura: There were movies like “Top Gun,” so I requested the sound lead to give it a rock feel. I liked how the movie Street of Fire ended so I asked them “Please have rock music for the ending song!” for “22,” but that was rejected (laughs).
Tago: And then he kept on saying “Rock! I want rock!” I wanted a more mellow way of ending so I fully supported the sound lead’s decision (laughs).
Omura: My thinking was that I wanted [the player] to still feel like they were on fire as they left the cabinet and I didn't want to suppress that feeling by ending in a mellow way, but I listened to the views of other people and finally chose to end it so that it left a lingering memory (laughs).
--I see, ”22”s music had those kinds of implications behind them! Also, if there were any reactions or reviews by users back then that left an impression on you, I would like to hear them.
Tago: One thing that I will say is that reviews back then wouldn’t be sent directly to us. Correspondence from customers were screened before coming to us, and it wasn’t like today where you can search for the customers’ raw and unfiltered voices on the internet.
Of course those with the energy to write reviews generally praised it, so we gratefully read them. With Twitter, I felt like we finally noticed what people really thought when we saw things like “22” nostalgia posts that say “that advanced mode where you went for gun kills was hard.”
Omura: I’m the same as well. Unlike today, the customer’s voice had a hard time reaching us back then. When we exhibited it at a business-oriented game show, we had people from game magazines go “This is amazing!” and praised it, so that made us happy.
From what I remember from watching customers at game centers, those who knew the mechanism of planes like how you climb by pulling the stick back and dive by pushing the stick down didn’t feel out of place controlling it. However, it’s alien to those who don’t, so I realized we should have put in a feature where you could invert the stick controls from the beginning.
Tago: I remember you talking about it! It was just like you described.
Omura: Regarding that bit, I think there were a lot of people that got stuck by that gameplay-wise. It’s a bit late, but it definitely was a point of contrition.
--I can definitely understand that. When I first played Ace Combat, it took me a while to understand that pushing the up arrow would make you dive and pushing the down arrow would make you climb. It was an element that was hard to understand until I realized the mechanism of airplanes.
Omura: Kind of like “If I press the up key, it should move up on the screen!” (laughs)
Tago: I just remembered, but we talked about this in the development room too. There were lots of reactions from players that said “Why does it face the opposite way!”... Oh right, there was an announcement made at Namco back then, that President Nakamura will play the games that were completed.
And the conditions were that if you didn’t get President Nakamura’s OK, it was no good, and the President back then vigorously played all the games made by the company. I remember being very anxious when watching him play (laughs). When the president came, the tension was strained to the max. If he said “It’s not very fun,” it was pretty harsh and we would have to remake the game if it was bad enough (laughs).
Omura: But he wasn’t too strict when checking, and he probably wanted to see the completed game with his own eyes before it was released to the world, carrying the name of his company on its back.
Tago: Really!? I was really nervous since I thought “The president will be playing [our game].”
Omura: Of course you get nervous, but he never said harsh things like “This isn’t good, fix this” for “22.”
-- I guess the president really just wanted to play the games.
Tago: That being said, for the first and second year after I joined the company, the president’s checks were so sublime. It was the president after all, with a new employee.
The president would play the game dressed up in his suit, and I was nervous just from trying not to be impolite. Plus the secretary would offer juice and towelettes, and I was overwhelmed by that unique atmosphere.
--I didn’t know there were stories like that concerning President Nakamura! Also from what I’ve heard, Namco in the 90s had a development studio in Kanagawa’s Yokohama right?
Tago: At the time there was the Yokohama Creative Center (YCC). I joined in 1994 but development groups for business purposes were split between the YCC and the “Yokohama Future Research Center” in Kohoku.
In 1994, large projects like Galaxian3 for the Theater 6 system were at the Yokohama Future Research Center, relatively small projects were at the YCC, and projects that were almost completed were done at the Yokohama Future Research Center. We left behind full scale cabinets for Ridge Racer and Ridge Racer 2 at the Future Research Center.
Omura: After that, the Yokohama Future Research Center led hardware development, designed cabinets, and planned electrical/mechanical layouts while software development was done at the YCC.
Tago: VR Zone’s Junichiro Koyama was originally from the Yokohama Future Research Center’s design group, and whenever we needed to ask for a layout or cabinet design, we would drive a company car to the Yokohama Future Research Center via the Daisan Keihin Road.
--I see, that’s how it was like. By the way, for “22” and other games, what are some important things to look at in these proposal documents?
Tago: Everything is worth looking at and filled with information, and other than the early title of “Air Combat II,” the specification document points out to have the enemy maneuver so that they constantly end up in front of the player’s plane when they are being chased.
Other points are the terrain, field of vision, and use of waypoints to move AI aircraft. This waypoint method of movement is used in today’s Ace Combat as well.
Omura: Regarding waypoints, I remember the programmers having a hard time with it. It wasn’t working as intended.
If it was a simple path, the AI would follow it but didn’t look like they were flying, so making it look like they were actually airplanes flying through the air and still getting them to hit the waypoints was difficult.
Tago: If we forced them to hit a waypoint they didn’t move like airplanes, and if we tried to make them look like they were flying they had a hard time hitting the waypoint, so it was very analog and hard to manage.
Omura: For that reason, we set up a 3D object for the passage determination instead of a point, and if the plane passed through the object, it would register as it had hit the waypoint. After that, the programmers struggled quite a lot with controlling the enemy formation behaviors.
What I mean is that when you try to make the entire formation turn, the movements of the inner and outer planes aren’t the same. If we don’t bridge the gap between the movement distance well, the formation won’t look clean when turning. I remember having a discussion like: “Is it alright if the formation shape falls apart a little?” “Sure.”
Tago: Also at the end of the proposal document, we provided resources for selecting aircraft that should appear in the game. Personally I like small carrier-launched attack planes that seem old or small aircraft that look like they are working hard, but they weren’t able to be used in “22.”
Omura: And those aircraft were too small. They’re cool, but as enemies in an operational 3D shooting game… not so much, so we decided not to use them.
--I see. So what were the criteria for selecting the 3 playable aircraft for “22”?
Omura: We saw that “these are pretty popular” back in the day, and choosing them was pretty straightforward. Aspects such as having popularity from “Top Gun,” looking cool due to the canards, and being state-of-the-art back then with that futuristic sense were some reasons.
However, I thought stealth aircraft didn’t look very cool when looking at them from the rear at the time. Variable geometry wings or three surface aircraft just have that look of a fighter jet, but nothing really sticks out for stealth aircraft compared to existing ones, so even back then I remember people would see this unconventional plane and say “it looks like a UFO.”
*Three surface aircraft = aircraft comprised of canards, wings, and horizontal tail for 3 wing sections
Tago: Wait, really!? I personally think the vectored nozzles on stealth aircraft are science fiction-esque and really cool!
--At the time, stealth planes were still in their infancy, even in the real world... I feel a sense of history.
Tago: (Pointing at the modeling for the stealth aircraft) If you look at the shape of the nose or wings, it does look distinct and a little different.
Omura: A little off topic, but the development speed of manned fighter jets has slowed down since the end of the Cold War. On the other hand, efforts have skewed towards development of unmanned aircraft, so as a fan of manned jets I’m a little sad.
The relationship between “Air Combat 22” and “Ace Combat 7”: Speaking about the 24 years of progress
--Mr. Omura has been involved in the Ace Combat series since “Infinity,” and Mr. Tago from “7,” but what would you say has changed when comparing “22” to “7” while it was in development?
Tago: I was in charge of Ace Combat 7’s VR mode, but I thought “the final product isn’t too different from ‘22’.” What changed was the knowledge that was born while I had been away from VR development, and I learned a lot of things.
Things like the stimulation from sensation, excitement from immersion, and creation of pacing that I had created out of habit from my experience were actually explained back to me by VR Producer Jun Tamaoki who said, “We actually explain it in this way now.” I thought “Wow, logical explanations have been created for these things that I had been creating out of habit.”
Ace Combat puts a story on top of that and made it easier to lead players to a stronger sense of excitement. That’s why my feeling that “the games themselves don’t change all that much” was the first impression I got when I came back to develop Ace Combat.
Omura: The base hasn’t changed, but the workload has increased. Over 20 years has passed between “22” and “7” and there is a huge difference in the advances in hardware itself.
Like how Tago said before, we would write text files in Emacs for things like enemy placement, but now we can set and edit them in a GUI editor. However even if things had become more convenient, the workload has increased beyond that.
Since “work is efficient but variation increases,” creating the game has become really difficult. The 20 person scale of “22” doesn’t even compare to the large scale seen in “7”
Tago: At the very least, I see the way we go through development now as a good change. Especially in “7” I made lots of things with the GUI editor, and the nice thing is that you can immediately see the completed item right there in the tool.
We call it “iteration” but in UE4, the cycle of Plan -> Do -> See is established while being visualized right on our PCs, so I thought “This is way easier to make than putting in data directly through Emacs back then!”
I’ve been told by Tamaoki: “I thought you would end up fiddling around even as a director!” (laughs). My impression is that “the development environment has changed, but it’s fun.”
--Mr. Omura, you were the Development Producer for Ace Combat 7, but what did you feel about the story which would have a principal theme about unmanned aircraft in “7”?
Omura: Times have changed and unmanned aircraft are being operated in the real world too, so I think the approach fits the current age.
Tago: It is a trend after all. Maybe we’ll see manned aircraft become mainstream again in the future.
--We don’t know what the skies of the future will be like, indeed a “Skies Unknown.” By the way, there was a drawing of a fox with a revolver in its mouth in “22”s dogfight mode with the words “ACES” written on it, but it looks similar to Trigger’s emblem, the protagonist for “7.” Is there any relation to “7”?
Omura: Kosuke Itomi, the narrative director for “7” would know more about Trigger, but the mark that shows up in “22”s dogfight mode is actually a wolf.
For the background setting for “22,” there were separate squadrons like the “150th Tactical Fighter Squadron” or “119th Tactical Fighter Squadron” for each mode and they had team names like “ACES,” “AERIES,” and “TOP GUNNERS,” and would show up on the screen.
Omura: The beginner mode had “AERIES” with an eagle carrying missiles, the advanced modes had “TOP GUNNERS” with an eagle carrying a pistol, and the dogfight mode had a wolf carrying a pistol in its mouth. We weren’t able to set up an intermediate mode. I want to ask about the similarity between Trigger’s mark from “7” and the wolf from “22”s dogfight mode, but I haven’t yet (laughs).
Tago: That pistol carrying wolf is exactly like Trigger’s mark. I’m really curious about that (laughs).
Omura: At first I thought about using “Rookie’ for the beginner mode, but I changed it after hearing that “it’s not good since it feels like you’re being looked down upon” by native speakers. Additionally, “AERIES” was a word I happened to find in an English dictionary when thinking up a title name, and means “chick of a bird of prey.”
However, “AERIES” isn’t a word used commonly so maybe it’s not such a good idea to use in a product…that was what I thought after release (laughs). As a game creator, I think the most fun part of the job is when you’re writing proposals or specification documents while thinking “It would be so fun if we could make something like this.” That’s also because you only run into problems after writing (laughs). But that’s because we’re working to make something complete, so it’s still fun.
--I see, there were specific reasons for certain designs and names. (Looking at the proposal document) Other than “Air Combat II,” I see that it was called “Aerial Force” too.
Tago: “22” was a name that we settled on towards the end of development, and really came out of nowhere.
Omura: Internally, I was pushing for the title to be “AERIAL FORCE,” but with the authoritative decision by the then-president, we settled on “Air Combat 22” at the very end to better appeal the SYSTEM SUPER 22 hardware. In the intro demo for “22,” there is an “AF” written on the carrier where planes are taking off from, which was a relic of the “AERIAL FORCE” name.
The fighting game boom as seen through the eyes of developers of medium/large cabinets: the changing trends in the arcade scene at the turn of the 21st century
--I see, there was a possibility that the name “Air Combat 22” and “Ace Combat” might not have existed. When I saw the number “22” I wondered what it signified.
Tago: If we went with “AERIAL FORCE,” there was the possibility that it might have not connected to Ace Combat. However it was conceived under the name “Air Combat II” at the beginning of the project.
The people most affected by the last minute change were the designers who had to make the title logo. I remember them working furiously to make the change.
Omura: Within the company, it was tentatively called “Air Combat II” to make it easier to understand.
Tago: It was the president’s word, so I don’t think there was too much thought put into it. Except those who heard about it were like “what!?” at first and thought “there’s an extra 2 in there.”
Omura: Looking back at it now, the name “22” took people by surprise and I’m alright with that.
Tago: The moment someone says “What’s ‘22’?” you’ve “won” (laughs). It has to stand out in a game center where everything is showy, so it’s no good if it blends in with the background. The instant someone has questions about the title, you have won, sort of. Maybe this was President Nakamura’s shining sensibility in action (laughs).
--Indeed, if you glance at “22,” you start to wonder about its meaning. Also were there any plans for a sequel to “Air Combat 22” once the first “Ace Combat” was released for consoles?
Omura: Unfortunately, no. “22” didn’t have that much sales success for the company. Oh, but there was this story. After the creation of the first “Air” and “22,” there was discussion of “what should we make next,” and someone proposed “how about helicopters?” and I thought “what!?” while they began researching technologies for it (laughs).
Then, when the first stage of tech research finished up, there was a request for an attraction-type game for the Namjatown theme park that Namco was planning at the time.
In the end, they naturally decided to use the results from the tech research to build something with an attack helicopter. This was the “Fire Bull” attraction in Namjatown. It was once part of Namjatown but it has been removed a while ago.
About “Fire Bull,” the player would get in the cockpit enclosure and put on a HMD with a small camera attached to it. The window area of the cockpit was painted green, and we used green screen technology to combine the game footage so it looked like you were flying through the air when looking out the window.
With this method, you can still show the person riding inside and display the sky or enemy helicopters in the background, and it was a unique VR experience where you didn’t have to replace the person with an avatar character. The development team combined the real and virtual and called it “R&VR.”
Tago: It was an attraction that combined the HMD and green screen, and we showed the blended footage using the camera on the HMD. It’s close to what you see on weather forecasting channels.
People often say that it would be more fun if they could pair their VR goggles with some kind of movable ride enclosure. And this attraction not only implemented this, but combined green screen technology with it, and I thought it was amazing. I also wondered how sophisticated the system was. If I recall correctly, it used a special circuit board tailored for it.
Omura: However, that was a rail shooter so you couldn’t control it. And that’s right, “Fire Bull” used something called SYSTEM SS22 DS.
Tago: The part that stored the circuit board was made from a very large frame, and was way bigger than your regular arcade cabinet. It was so big it was called a big wooden box. Along with its rendering capabilities and scale, I thought “what is this monster..!”
Omura: SYSTEM SS22 DS was big since it had to display two things with one board.
--Listening to stories about “Fire Bull,” it’s kind of like today’s MR (Mixed Reality). I’m astonished that they had the expertise for that kind of implementation back then. It sounds like it might connect to “Ace Combat Assault Horizon”s helicopter sections or “7”s VR mode.
Omura: The technology for the HMD itself has existed for a long time. Also with VR/MR, there are periodic booms along with advancements in technology, and can be shown with an upward spiral (laughs).
Tago: There is one boom just under every 10 years, right? (laughs) “7”s VR mode is just one part of that loop, so if you came into the game industry between VR booms, they might think “VR is amazing,” but we think “technology is evolving, and history will be written again” (laughs).
--”22” started operating in arcades in March 1995, and was in the same period where “Tekken,” born from the PS compatible arcade board SYSTEM 11, was first ported to the PlayStation. As developers of medium/large arcade games, how did you view the fighting game boom in those days?
Omura: At the time I was able to see the making of Tekken since it was close to our group, and I honestly thought “they’re making something amazing.”
Tago: I joined the company because I admired medium/large cabinet games like Star Blade, so I was a bit conceited thinking “medium/large cabinets are the best!” When I saw Tekken, I thought “Alright! Medium/large cabinets will still be going strong!” (laughs).
I really was arrogant at the time, and thought there would be a SYSTEM 23 after SYSTEM 22 and the numbers would keep going higher and there would be a great future…! (laughs)
An employee who joined around the same time as me was involved in Tekken’s development, so he would try to appeal to me: “We’re able to use polygons with this board too, the fighters move like this now,” stuff like that.
Omura: You get more and more fruits if you win a battle in Tekken right? I thought it was good taste by having those icons be the cherry, strawberry, and apple from Pac-Man.
Tago: Omura, the way you view things is different!
Omura: I like easter eggs like that. But it might not make sense to those who don’t know (laughs). Back then there were more people that could keep up with those small details.
--Back then It was the heyday of the fighting game boom. There was a game magazine with rankings of popular arcade games back then, and though “Air Combat 22” was in the top 10, “Virtua Fighter 2” had 3 times as popular, so I was surprised.
Omura: Virtua Fighter was very popular. When Tekken came out, it used SYSTEM 11 which was PlayStation compatible so it was available in the household, and there was a cycle where customers would come back to the game center after practicing at home, and that was neat.
Tago: It’s a nostalgic story. After 1995, competitive fighting games expanded further and further, and there was a shift from medium/large arcade games that focused on core players to household games and games suited to the general customer. Of course at the time I was still arrogant about games that focused on core audiences (laughs).
I admired Star Blade and also experienced the rise of medium/large machines so I was a little hesitant about the expansion of household games at the time. Despite my arrogance, there were times that I thought “one day, I’ll be making a household game.” In the end, I would experience developing games for the PC though (laughs).
--Namco’s progression on the PC… Now that you mention it, around 2005 they had Counter-Strike NEO for the Linux-compatible SYSTEM N2 arcade board. I was just getting into PC games with Valve’s Half-Life 2 at the time, and I was surprised at the “merging of arcade and PC gaming contexts.”
Tago: Counter-Strike NEO was an experimental game that brought in the established genre of PC and FPS games to the arcade. I was working on a follow-up title, a RTS in the UGSF world called NEW SPACE ORDER.
Gradually, with the advent of PCs and compatible boards that were easy to mass-produce and had improved performance over the years, it was getting to the point where if you made a single arcade-exclusive board…[it wouldn’t have been successful].
--Speaking of UGSF, I was surprised that a new Star Blade title that used the O.R.B.S cabinet was in development at one point.
Tago: While they were working on developing VR on HMDs like how Omura was talking about earlier, the half-spherical O.R.B.S cabinet was born with the goal of experiencing the same amount of immersion without goggles. It was first developed by volunteers and the idea was “for this kind of game, it has to be Star Blade.”
Also there were some sad memories where I begged to be able to participate in this project before I went to work on NEW SPACE ORDER, and when I finally got in, I had to leave in a week because work on NEW SPACE ORDER was starting up (laughs).
In the end, the O.R.B.S cabinet never took shape and I was really frustrated. We didn’t want to kill off the efforts of Star Blade, so we worked full force on the P.O.D. cabinet for “Mobile Suit Gundam: Senjou no Kizuna,” and was somehow able to put something together. But it’s still sad that Star Blade never made it on there…
--I see, so that’s what happened. Someday, I would like to play a new Star Blade game. Also I feel like starting from the second half of the 90s, games like “Ridge” that were an extension of reality became more popular in arcades than Sci-Fi games like UGSF.
Tago: Yes, after the 90s games took a more realistic direction. After “22,” I felt a shift to “make real-life experiences into games” when working on development of Alpine Racer. It felt like games that were focused on core audiences like “22” or Sci-Fi types wouldn’t do so well at the arcade market at the time.
After that, the name “game center” changed to “amusement center,” and after the company worked hard to figure out how to appeal to mainstream customers, there was an air of working to make medium/large machines answer to the needs of the mainstream users. It felt like we took a direct hit from the trends of the time.
--Finally, how did you view the sight of the hardware that was developed independently for arcades swallowed by console compatible machines at the turn of the century?
Tago: I felt my arrogance being shattered… I knew the cost of circuit boards were expensive, but I felt desolation at the fact that no one understood that “high cost boards/cabinets = a sense of specialty.”
It was mentioned in other media outlets, but at the time there was internal research into the SYSTEM 30 series as well as improvements to the SYSTEM 20 series, so I thought “we’ll move to the 30 series later on.”
However, development of the 30 series was cancelled and the PS compatible 10 series family continued to be updated. Eventually, it led to the PS2 compatible SYSTEM 256. And while medium/large machine development became even more difficult than before, PS compatible boards were becoming mainstream, and I thought “I guess times really do change.”
Like the 10 series, the Dreamcast-compatible NAOMI boards also went through this as it was also a time when a lot of home gaming equipment was being re-used.
Omura: It was just the trend of the times. In the first half of the 90s, arcade boards had higher specs, but technological advances in computer hardware had spilled over into mass-produced home video game consoles.
Technology advanced to the point where the PS-compatible SYSTEM 10 could be mass produced, so I remember thinking it was becoming harder to show the superiority of these higher quality boards that were produced in low numbers. I felt the same when the PS2 was released, and thought “I guess this is the trend of the times.”
--It’s easy to be influenced by the trends of the times… However, looking at the situation of arcades recently, I saw that companies like Bandai Namco announced “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures: Last Survivor” in December 2018, so I felt that arcades are still putting out games that can hold their own.
Tago: Arcades have the advantage that customers would accept any game, even if we released something a bit more experimental. For consoles, it’s hard to release lots of experimental titles due to the large investment involved, but arcades are a place where customers can directly evaluate new endeavors and challenges, so I think there are still some untouched areas. That being said, Namco likes making hardware with strong quirks, so I can’t help but think their usage was a little too particular (laughs).
Omura: How do I say it, they’re peaky! In a good way. It’s kind of pointy in a way.
Tago: Yes, they’re peaky! The board and cabinets reveal these peaky elements to the point that we ask “do we really need this fancy sign?” or “isn’t this too costly?” I remember thinking it would be really bad if we made one mistake on how we used the decorations or hardware. But I’m sure the customers were attracted to those things as well and played our games, so I think they will continue to play them.
--Thank you so much for these precious stories.
Thus ends the interview regarding “Air Combat 22.” Up until now, detailed accounts regarding the genesis of ideas for the early Ace Combat games (including the arcade titles) have been nonexistent at times, and when players tried to look back on the origins, they couldn’t figure out the starting point. With this interview, there was the huge discovery that the current Ace Combat’s “Hero Experience” had been incorporated [into these games] since the first “Air Combat.”
Additionally, there were discussions about “Ace Combat” and “Air Combat 22,” the connection to “7,” as well as the arcade scene in the 90s, and resulted in an important interview that offers a glimpse of how things were like back in the day. On the other hand regarding Ace Combat 7, the DLC is scheduled for release early in the summer, so let’s wait and look forward to those.
Original article by: Suzuki G
Link to original article: https://www.gamespark.jp/article/2019/04/14/88931_4.html