An Interview with Noriyoshi Ohba

Sega’s prolific director on shaping the Mega Drive revolution

Noriyoshi Ohba graduated from Waseda University in 1987 and moved directly into a career at Sega, starting out as a planner on Master System favourite Super Wonder Boy: Monster Land/Wonder Boy in Monster Land, before directing Mega Drive Shinobi sequel, The Super Shinobi/The Revenge of Shinobi. He went on to direct all three of the hugely successful Bare Knuckle/Streets of Rage titles: finely-tuned urban brawlers that not only helped shape the scrolling beat ’em up genre, but also confirmed Ohba’s place in its history. His other production credits include Clockwork Knight and Sakura Taisen/Sakura Wars for the Saturn. In 2000 Ohba founded Sega’s Overworks studio, responsible for respected Dreamcast RPG Eternal Arcadia/Skies of Arcadia. He departed Sega in 2004 to serve in a series of senior positions at Interchannel, Light Weight and GungHo Works, before becoming an executive producer at games and CGI company Premium Agency in 2010, where he was joined by Sega legend Yu Suzuki.

KS When did you start playing video games?

NO When I was a teenager there weren’t any game consoles on the market, so my first would have been the Family Computer Disk System, which came out while I was at university. Space Invaders was released when I was in high school, and I used to play that a lot in cafés. I also often played Avalon Hill’s PanzerBlitz and Panzer Leader1 1 The PanzerBlitz and Panzer Leader board games, released in 1970 and 1974 respectively, were among the first to feature open-ended board design that allowed players to create their own scenarios. board games. I think I learned game design through playing board games.

KS How did you come to work for Sega?

NO At university I studied economics and business, and majored in marketing and statistics – so I was a non-science graduate. In the Japanese manufacturing industry at that time, it was only toy, game or stationery companies that would hire graduates without science degrees. I wanted to pursue a career related to product manufacturing so I opted for the game industry. Sega was the very first company I worked for, and I was hired as a planner, despite not having any specialised knowledge at the time. The first title I worked on was the classic Wonder Boy in Monster Land, which taught me the very basics of game development and computer skills. I also learned much about level design and balancing. Monster Land was groundbreaking as an arcade game and had elements of game design and balancing that were similar to home console games.

Sega was the very first company I worked for, and I was hired as a planner, despite not having any specialised knowledge at the time.

KS What were the key technical challenges of developing on the Mega Drive?

NO The Mega Drive was cutting-edge at that time, and the hardware was easy to work with so there wasn’t much of a challenge – the Master System was far more challenging. I would say the hardest thing about developing on the Mega Drive was finding ways to maximise its potential.

KS The Super Shinobi/The Revenge of Shinobi brought the acclaimed series from arcade to console. Can you describe how the project got started?

NO The arcade game Shinobi was very popular. It was developed by another team, but we were tasked with developing the home console version. I was the game designer and director of a small development team – one planner, three full-time programmers, four full-time designers and Yuzo Koshiro for the sound. Although we kept the ninja theme of the arcade version, we completely altered the game design and game system to highlight the features of the home console – that was what made the game so successful.

KS What, in your opinion, are the key differences between an arcade game and a home console game?

NO Arcade games you enjoy for three minutes, for 100 yen and they make you happy. On the other hand, home console games cost 5,800 yen and have to provide gameplay for many hours without making the player bored. I am conscious of taking into account these distinctions. As for the game design, the main difference is that home console games have health points – or a life meter – and the maximum HP builds up over the course of the game. With The Super Shinobi I retained the feature whereby if the player falls into a bottomless pit, they die – which is the same as in the arcade version and preserved the feeling of tension in the game. However, the player doesn’t die when they are hit by an enemy. As a designer this gives you a degree of freedom when setting the difficulty level for bosses in the later stages of the game. The greater the freedom in this respect, the more likely it is that you can create a game that provides long-lasting fun as well as a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction for the player when they complete each individual stage.

We called games like The Super Shinobi ‘athletic action’ – abilities like the double jump and wall jump exemplified the high athletic characteristics of the protagonist.

KS Did Western action movies influence the game’s ostensibly American settings?

NO I watched various genres of movies for reference, but I don’t think they particularly influenced the settings. The Western portrayal of ninjas is slightly different to the Japanese, so I tried to make the characters match this Western image as much as possible, while being careful not to make them look fake. This was very challenging. I think that Westerners see ninjas as Superman-type characters or wizards, whereas Japanese people imagine them more as martial artists. I found Sho Kosugi’s acting in the American ninja movies to be a very useful reference – although I felt the movie itself was rather fake.

KS What do you feel really set the Shinobi series apart from other action platformers of the time?

NO We called games like The Super Shinobi ‘athletic action’ – abilities like the double jump and wall jump exemplified the high athletic characteristics of the protagonist. To make it more interesting, we tried to create variations in the action depending on the situation the player was in. One of the game’s key features was that the levels were designed to gradually improve the player’s skills, maximising their satisfaction upon clearing a level. For example, the longest jump was in stage 6 – the China Town stage – and the most difficult jump was in stage 7 – the port stage. If a player could complete stage 6, they should also be able to complete stage 7. If they learned to use ‘Jutsu of Fushin’ (Art of Self-Levitation), clearing the game was much easier. There were many ways players could defeat enemies – the giant dinosaur boss, for instance, could be defeated with only eight attacks if the player retained power-ups. To retain the power-ups, the ‘Jutsu of Ikazuchi’ (Art of Thunder) technique was effective. To defeat it even quicker, the player could use just three attacks using the ‘Jitsu of Mijin’ (Art of Particles) technique. So, if a player had at least four lives at that point, it was possible to complete the stage.

KS Your next project at Sega was Bare Knuckle/Streets of Rage. How did this idea originate?

NO After the development of The Super Shinobi was complete, I discussed with Yuzo Koshiro some ideas for making a ‘Street Karate’ game. We looked at titles such as Double Dragon and Final Fight and used detective TV shows like Starsky & Hutch and The A-Team for reference – then we proceeded to create the concept for Bare Knuckle.

After the development of The Super Shinobi was complete, I discussed with Yuzo Koshiro some ideas for making a ‘Street Karate’ game.

KS Why do you think the beat ’em up genre had become so popular at that time?

NO It was popular because it was very exhilarating to play and also offered a multiplayer mode. But we felt other games in this genre were lacking something, so we designed Bare Knuckle to include more cooperative elements, so satisfaction was derived from achievement and strategic play rather than from exhilaration alone.

KS In your opinion, what were the most important elements in Bare Knuckle?

NO What I cared about most was the combat system – its strategic elements and how it felt to play. The basic concept of the enemies is very simple – they move around in order to surround the player – so the key is for the player to move in such a way to avoid this. We developed a series of moves to enable strategic play. ‘Jumping while holding’ allowed a player to vault over enemies to escape an encirclement. ‘Throwing’ enabled the player to throw the enemy to either the front or the rear. The thrown enemy also had collision detection, so you could use this tactically to avoid becoming surrounded. ‘Attacking from the back’ is a reverse attack that offers the player an option if quickly approached from behind. This varied combat system provided players with choice and, as such, a feeling of achievement.

KS Did you always plan for Bare Knuckle to be a series?

NO We didn’t expect it, but I had always hoped to make a title that would become a series. In Bare Knuckle II, the main feature was the increased range of moves, which we hoped would enhance the sense of exhilaration. We had to cut down on some of the strategic elements, but I think it was a success in its own way.

KS The level of experimentation seemed to increase with the second title, with more offbeat enemies and stranger environments – a pirate ship and a swamp among them. Did you feel that you could really get creative with the series at this point?

NO Even in the original Bare Knuckle, we had some surrealist elements – the police officer shooting a bazooka, for instance. Those aspects were escalated in the sequels, because as a team we enjoyed an extremely creative atmosphere, so we could explore lots of ideas to create fun and interesting gameplay. With Bare Knuckle III, I experimented with the narrative and developed multiple plot lines and endings – something that I had wanted to do since The Super Shinobi, which had two possible outcomes. We also introduced a kangaroo as one of the player characters and increased the overall speed of action in the game.

As a team we enjoyed an extremely creative atmosphere, so we could explore lots of ideas to create fun and interesting gameplay.

KS Why didn’t Adam make it into Bare Knuckle II?

NO He does appear, as a character that is kidnapped. I wanted to increase the variety of actions, so added characters with power – Max – and with speed – Sammy. However, due to the memory capacity of the game, only four player characters could be included. Because Axel and Adam are similar, and Sammy is Adam’s brother, we decided to cut Adam.

KS What do you think is the secret to creating a memorable boss encounter?

NO For me it’s all about including strategic elements for the player to master and designing the boss’s movements in such a way that the player can figure out the right attack strategy. Also, it is very important to make the boss look strong.

KS Which was your favourite title for the Mega Drive?

NO It has to be The Super Shinobi. That was my first hit title.

This excerpt is taken from Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works, available now from this site.

Footnotes

  • 1 The PanzerBlitz and Panzer Leader board games, released in 1970 and 1974 respectively, were among the first to feature open-ended board design that allowed players to create their own scenarios.