Working at Sega during the Age of Genesis was a great thing, and many of the titles that era spawned are now widely regarded as classics. Some of them kept up with the changing hardware while others disappeared forever. Among the latter is Sega’s famed fighting series Eternal Champions, which still has gamers awaiting that proposed Saturn sequel. The change to the 32-bit era left a lot of things behind, including many a developer, such as SegaSoft.
Recently, we had the chance to talk with someone who worked at Sega and was a part of the Eternal Champions mythos and worked at both Sega Interactive and SegaSoft as well. Hideki Ikeda is a programmer with almost two decades of experience, and his profession has taken him everywhere from Origin Systems and Midway Games to the mighty Sega itself.
Sega-16: You didn’t start in programming with video games. How did you end up going in that direction?
Hideki Ikeda: Ever since high-school, I’ve been programming in Assembly language (6502 was my choice at the time for Apple ][+ and //e). In 1989, I met Robert Morgan at CalPoly Pomona (California Polytechnic University) in the 8086 Assembly language class (at that time, Robert was working on Robocop port) and he introduced me to Rod Nakamoto (at that time Rod’s company was called “Interactive Design”).
I just had completed a contracting job with California Agriculture department on an educational software for high school students on Apple, and one of the modules I’ve written was a calendar program in 6502 Assembly. I brought the stack of printout of that module to Rod Nakamoto on my interview. Because Rod was also an Assembly language programmer (he also designed Mockingboard for Apple ][+), he inspected my code. He must have liked what I did (I comment a lot) because he offered me a position at the end of my interview! I remember I told Rod that “I’ll work for free!” when he explained to me that they couldn’t pay much. I didn’t care, I just wanted to make video games.
I’ve always loved video games, I remember my first “PC” game I was exposed to was back in 1979 in Japan (I was born in Yokohama, Japan) and my math teacher brought a TRS-80 to school. They had this simple ASCII art based BASIC game which scrolled from left to right on top of the screen and you were to shoot it like Space Invaders. What was fascinating was that you can edit the BASIC and changed this “<-=+=->” UFO to put your name instead and shoot it. I wanted to make my own games ever since.
Sega-16: You were at Interactive Designs when it joined Sega. What was the transition like?
Hideki Ikeda: To a naive programmer, it was exciting. To be able to tell friends “I work for SEGA.” I never wanted to leave. My father once asked me “When are you going to quit working for that toy company ‘see-gah’ and get a real job?”
Sega-16: You worked on a few titles for the TurboGrafx-16 before moving on to the Genesis. What major differences did you notice in programming between the two consoles?
Hideki Ikeda: Other than 65C816 versus Motorola 68000? Hardware programming-wise (i.e. v-blank syncing, etc), I think Robert Morgan can do a better justice explaining it. As for me, 68K spoiled you because it had multiply instruction (although it was rarely used because optimization was everything back then so you rather shifted registers to multiply by 2’s).
Sega-16: You also did a few Game Gear conversions of some Genesis titles, like Greendog. Do you think the machine was good for producing faithful ports?
Hideki Ikeda: There’s a big difference between Z80 and 68K. But I do think the basic concept of sprite and cell-based graphics were the same for GG and Genesis. There were plenty of things you cannot do on GG and envied Genesis’ features, but back then, it was basically an art to work with what you have and make the best of it.
Memory constraints was another issue, mostly art and sound had to be reduced to a point where it fit in the banks (separate slots of memory which you had to bank-switch on demand). I remember in Greendog port, I had to actually start removing alphabet characters that were unused in text and credits (such as letter “Q”) to fit in the cartridge memory.
Sega-16: Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side is one of the more powerful Sega CD titles, and it really seems to be making good use of the hardware. Were there any particular hurdles to overcome during its development?
Hideki Ikeda: John Kuwaye was the lead for EC and EC-CD, I was still working on GG products during EC (I think it was Sonic Pinball for GG), and was a support programmer for EC-CD. John is a kick-ass programmer. You probably have to ping him for this question to do justice.
Sega-16: Mike Latham said he loved the machine and that it was the types of games released for it that did it in, as opposed to the actual hardware. Do you agree?
Hideki Ikeda: Yes, of course (assuming I read/understood your question). It’s the same today as back then. It’s not the hardware that does justice, it’s the software. If the game is not fun, it doesn’t matter what the hardware is capable of. Back then, we used to look at other games and wondered “How did they managed to do that?” or “I didn’t think it was possible because of the limitations of the hardware” (like Gunstar Heroes). Some of the programmers around the world did amazing things by working around the quirks and limitations of hardware. It’s cool because we would do some analysis and theorize what or how they did it and learn from it.
Sega-16: Had it not been discontinued, how long do you think it would have taken programmers to really tap into the potential of the 32X? Did any of the games released show signs of that?
Hideki Ikeda: I think just like any new platforms, once you pass the hurdles of growing pains, we can begin to concentrate more towards creativity.
Sega-16: The SegaSoft titles you were working on were canceled. What games were they and what were they about?
Hideki Ikeda: You might have a better interview talking to Frank Lucero about this one. The last one we (John Kuwaye, Andrew Tjew, and I) were working on was called Bug Wars which turned into G.I.Ant (as in “giant”). Bug Wars was John’s baby, but Frank incubated John’s idea and grew it into G.I.Ant, which was a cool concept of a game based on real-time strategy (back then, we were addicted to Command And Conquer and Warcraft II) and hand-to-hand combat (as in Eternal Champions-type fighting).
Sega-16: What exactly happened to SegaSoft? I know it went under due to Sega’s financial troubles, but it seemed to be making a niche for itself with PC titles.
Hideki Ikeda: Back then (1997), I was naive, we all were I think. We should have seen it coming, most of us just assumed everything was fine and didn’t worry. We should have seen the sign but back then, none of us had the experiences of game companies (even as big as SEGA) just closing studios, etc. Today, I see it more often, back then I was so happy working for SEGA that I didn’t pay too much attention to any signs.
But now, I am thankful, because what I learned at Origin Systems in two years about software development was a lot more education compared to seven and a half years at SEGA. I guess it’s a different attitude of thinking/philosophies as well when programming in C++ compared to Assembly Language.
Our thanks to Mr. Ikeda for taking the time to chat with us!