Interview: Mikito Ichikawa of Mindware

Mikito Ichikawa Cosmic Cavern

This is the English version of our interview with Mikito Ichikawa. Written by Joachim Froholt.

A couple of weeks ago, the game Cosmic Cavern 3671 was released on Steam. It might not look very special for a typical gamer, but it certainly got my attention. You see, Cosmic Cavern 3671 is a remake of a Japanese game originally released in the early eighties, for a platform only a few people know of today: Sharp MZ-80. My first computer was a Sharp MZ-80A, and if it had not been for that amazing little machine, I would probably not have become the gaming enthusiast I am today.

As it turned out, the man behind the remake – who is the boss of the game development studio Mindware – shares my nostalgia and passion for the Sharp platform, and we started talking with one another. He turns out to have a very interesting history as a game developer.

Mikito Ichikawa is probably not a well known name for western gamers, but if you’ve been around for a while, you’ve undoubtedly heard of some of the games he’s worked on. His rap sheet includes the Sega classic Streets of Rage 2, where his company did the sound design, and the cult classic Slap Fight MD for Sega Mega Drive. In the more recent times, he and his company has worked with Nintendo among others, and developed the well received Wiiware-game MaBoShi’s Arcade. This game got a score of 9/10 when it was reviewed by Eurogamer, and is a devilish puzzler with three modes of play.

Mikito Ichikawa (t.h) med Devin Monnens, som har oversatt svarene hans i dette intervjuet.
Mikito Ichikawa (right) with Devin Monnens, who translated his responses for this interview.

From hobbyist developer to founder of his own studio

Like many other developers of classic games, Ichikawa first encountered gaming through the arcades:

– My first game was Asteroids by Atari. In Japan, Space Invaders had become a big hit. Back when I was seven, I didn’t know about Space Invaders, so I asked my mother about it, and she took me to the arcade. However, I didn’t have much interest in Space Invaders, but was extremely excited by Asteroids, Ichikawa tells us.

Soon after, he got himself a computer. But it was not a traditional, fully assembled computer as we think of them today:

En Sharp MZ-80A.
My Sharp MZ-80A from 1982.

– My first computer was a copy PCB of the MZ-80 (possibly pirated). It was a barebones board without any parts, a monitor ROM, and an Font ROM, as well as a list of parts. I assembled the parts list, and after installing them little by little, I completed the machine.

The result was a computer that could run software created for the Sharp MZ-80-platform, although he readily admits it did not look very cool. That hardly mattered though – a computer is, after all, not a decorative object, and the important thing is what you can do with it. For Ichikawa, this was something quite different from what one would probably assume:

– At first, I used the computer to run aerodynamic calculations. I suppose I was a very odd elementary school student. My friends weren’t able to completely understand what I was trying to do and treated me like a nutcase.

Klassiske Dig Dug var en inspirasjonskilde for unge Ishikawa. Dette bildet er fra Steam-versjonen.
Dig Dug was a major source of inspiration for the young Mikito Ichikawa. This picture is from the recent Steam release of the game.

But he still maintained hist interest in arcade games, and it was largely due to Namco’s classic “digging game”, Dig Dug, that he wound up as a games developer:

– When I was in fifth grade, Dig Dug was all the rage, and once I saw this game, I wanted to make games. The Famicom (Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System) didn’t exist yet (it was released in 1983), so my friends happily played the games I developed. Because I loved seeing the reactions of my friends, I continue to develop games today at 45.

Unfortunately, he no longer has access to any of the older games he wrote for his Sharp MZ-80, but even though they were much simpler affairs than the arcade games of the era, he gradually became better and better at developing them.

Et av spillene Ichikawa fikk publisert i bladet Pio Magazine var et hjernetrimspill for MZ-700. Koden er på hele 19 sider, som ble rekord for bladet.
One of the three games Ichikawa got published in Pio Magazine was this puzzler. The code spans 19 pages, which became the record for the magazine. Photo: Mikito Ichikawa.

Back then, one of the most important distribution channels for what we today know of as indie games, was something as simple as computer magazines and books. The readers would send in their games, and could sometimes expect a small payout if their games were good enough. Then the code was printed in the magazines, so that other readers could type them into their own computers. This is also how Ichikawa got his early titles distributed:

– I contributed a program to a magazine and entered a contest. I met with some success this way, and since I wanted to make games at even a higher level, I started working at a game company.

This was in 1985, at a time where the games industry was very much unregulated. In his first years in the business, Ichikawa were frustrated by the situation in the business. Not only was it common that people took the credit for other people’s work, but higher ups in the industry tended to greedily take advantage of younger programmers who they were able to push quite far. Ichikawa saw how many of these young developers were burnt out, and even witnessed multiple deaths that he feels was a result of this practice. Shocked by how the industry treated the people who were a part of it, he decided in 1987 to start his own games company, where he wouldn’t allow anything like this to happen.

MNM Software bidro blant annet på utviklingen av Streets of Rage II.
MNM Software contributed to the development of Streets of Rage II.

This company was called MNM Software, and in addition to being a safe haven for young developers, it would specialize in making original games instead of doing clones, that were so common at the time. Many of the games MNM developed were for japanese formats such as the Sharp X68000 and the NEC PC-9801, and for this reason, they’re not particularily well known in the west.

One of the titles he himself is the most proud of, is the role-playing game Gage for PC-9801. This is so unknown in the west that it does not even have its own Mobygames-entry – despite being the largest game his company ever completed, in terms of manpower used. The game also had an unique soundtrack, composed by an old school friend by the (not entirely unknown) name Yuzo Koshiro.

MNM Software also created an official Star Wars-game for the Sharp X68000. This production was inspired by the original Star Wars arcade game, but instead of trying to get the license before starting work on it, Ichikawa and company decided to just go for it. When they had a result they were satisfied with, they showed it to an impressed LucasArts – and with some help from Sharp Corporation, they managed to secure the license.

Wii-spillet MaBoShi's Arcade er et av Mindwares nyere spill.
MaBoShi’s Arcade for the Wii is one of Mindwares more recent games.

The company also worked together with Sega, and were among other things responsible for the strategy game Take the A-Train MD (in the A-Train series) and the sound design of the classic fighting game Streets of Rage 2. They also created Slap Fight MD, an expanded Mega Drive version of an older arcade game. Ichikawa explains that this was the game project from the MNM days that took the longest time to complete. But at this time, something else happened – which had big concequences for MNM Software:

– In 1992, I came down with a serious illness, and although my doctor said I didn’t have much longer to live, Ichikawa tells us.

As a result, MDM Software shut down most of its business while Ichikawa was bedridden. At one point, he weighed as little as 36 kilos, and it seemed the doctors would be right in their prognosis. But he survived, and in 1995 he had recovered enough to start working again. MDM Software was also resurrected, now under the name Mindware. But it would not be quite as focused on making computer- and console games as before:

Mindwares nyeste prosjekt er flipperspillet Pinball Parlor.
Mindware’s current project is Pinball Parlor. This is an early screenshot.

– Since 2001, Mindware’s URL has been at http://pinball.co.jp. That’s because one of our goals right now is to become a manufacturer of physical pinball machines. In the summer of 2003, we completed a prototype and were able to test it in an arcade, but since 2003, I have been very busy, and it is still extremely difficult to get the money to manufacture a pinball game. Currently, we offer pinball rentals and sales through Mindware.

Mindware’s own pinball game was designed by Ichikawa himself, with advice from the legendary pinball game designer John Popadiuk. Even though the physical release seems far off, we will soon be able to play the game. Mindware is currently working on a PC-version, which is supposed to release on Steam in september (you can vote for it on Steam Greenlight).

In addition to this, his relatively recent creations include a scrolling shoot’em’up called Super Chain Crusher Horizon, which runs in the very unusual resolution 3200×800 pixels. It was released in 2012 on Steam.

Cosmic Cavern debuterte i Juli 1980-nummeret av I/O Magazine.
Cavern 2160 got its debut in the July 1980 issue of I/O Magazine.

Cosmic Cavern

Now we’re getting to Cosmic Cavern. The original game was released in July 1980, for the Sharp MZ-80K. It was distributed as a code listing in the Japanese computer magazine I/O Magazine, and developed by Takaya Arita. The original name is Cavern 2160, which is a reference to the original creator’s birthday.

Et lite utdrag av artikkelen om originalspillet.
A small part of the original article.

In the original game, the goal is to protect an underground base for as long as possible. It is constantly under attack by snakes who attack from the surface at the top of the screen. Your character can dig tunnels and in that way try to create traps for the snakes to fall in. This will render them unconcious for a short while, and while they’re dozing off, you can kill them. It is also possible to place lures which they’ll eat and fall asleep, so they can be killed that way.

The game looks quite simple. But when playing it, you discover that there is far more room for tactics than what is initially apparent, and for a game written for a home computer in 1980, in the BASIC programming language and distributed as text in a printed magazine, it is actually quite impressive. And what’s more, this underground survival game has many elements we later find in games such as Dig Dug, Boulder Dash and even Minecraft. It is, in other words, also interesting from a historical point of view.

One would perhaps believe that the reason Ichikawa decided to make a new version of Cavern 2160 was that he had played it himself as a child. This is, however, not the case:

Slik ser Mindwares Steam-versjon av MZ-80-spillet ut.
Mindware’s remake of the MZ-80 version of the game.

– About two or three years ago, I was able to play the original version on the MZ-80. Although it has been a noted game in Japan since that era, I didn’t have the opportunity to play it back then. So I made a re-creation of it so I could play it myself. As a result, more and more more of the rhythm of my daily life became deeply absorbed by this game, and I was determined to share it with the world!

The original creator, Takaya Arita, is not working in the games industry today, but is instead a well known figure in the academic community in Japan. Thanks to this, Ichikawa had no problems getting in touch with him:

– It was very easy. Since Arita-san is a famous person, when I searched for his name, I found him immediately, and he granted me permission as soon as I contacted him.

In my eyes, Cosmic Cavern 3671 is a great example of how even relatively obscure classics can be brought back to life, and I hope other developers pay attention to what has been done here. The game has three separate modes of play, which you can freely choose between, and these ensure that it is not just a nostalgic and informative history lesson, but also an interesting game to play even today.

The first mode is a completely authentic version of the original from 1980. This means that the graphics are either in black/white, green/black or cyan/black (the various MZ-80-models had different screens, but none had more than one colour), and created using the machine’s expanded ASCII-based symbols. The sound is simple, using the “beeper” (not entirely unlike those ancient MS-DOS-games).

Ichikawa explains that he borrowed an MZ-80-machine from an aquaintance, where he tested the original game to make sure the remake is as authentic as possible. It is faster than the original game was, but feels very much like a real MZ-80-game. Here are a few comparison shots from the actual version, running on my MZ-80A (yes, I typed it all in):

The second version of the game is an improved version created as if it would have been released for the successor to the MZ-80-platform, namely the MZ-700. This version has colours, and some new elements such as a diamond which you can find and collect to double your score (the longer you wait to collect it, the bigger the bonus will be – but as the difficulty also increases, so does the risk that you’ll die before being able to use it). This version of the game represents an interesting chance to get aquainted with a platform that was actually quite popular in many European countries, despite being largely forgotten today.

Her har vi MZ-700-versjonen.
This is the MZ-700 Arrange-version.

It is, however, the third version of the game that takes Cosmic Cavern to a new level. Ichikawa explains:

– The MZ-700 Arrange version was the first game I improved upon. As it neared completion, I got the idea of creating a 1980s Arcade Style Arrange Version.

This version of the game has character graphics created by Hiroshi “Mr. Dotman” Ono, and sound and music created by Ichikawas old friend, Yuzo Koshiro. Both of these men are respected figures in the Japanese game development scene. Hiroshi Ono was hired by arcade game pioneer Namco in 1979, and has been involved in the development of over eighty games since then – including some of history’s most iconic games. These include Pac-Man, the aforementioned Dig Dug, and the classic space shooter Galaga. From the early eighties and on, he has been known as an authority on pixel art in Japan.

Arkade-versjonen av spillet.
The arcade-inspired version.

Yuzo Kohshiro is another veteran, who’s made the music for quite a few classics over the years. If you’ve played the old Streets of Rage-games, or more recent games such as Shenume, you will have heard his work. To make the sound in the arcade-inspired version of Cosmic Cavern extra authentic, Ichikawa and company created an emulated version of the sound chip Yamaha YM2203. This chip was used in many old arcade games, as well several computers from NEC.

Both Hiroshi Ono and Yuzo Koshiro were more than willing to join the project. Mikito Ichikawa explains:

– When I decided to make the 1980s Arcade Style Version, I offered the two of them the opportunity to work on it. Since I worked together with Yuzo many times in the past, things went forward very smoothly. Hiroshi Ono was also very interested, since I had shown him a sample of my game two years ago when we first met, and we have worked closely ever since. When he showed me the characters he drew, I settled on their personalities. I had a great time.

Spilleren har akkurat plukket opp diamanten i arkadeversjonen.
The player have picked up the diamond, thus doubling his score.

Computers in the Japanese games market

When we think of classic games in the west, we normally associate Japan with console games – and predominantly games for the various Nintendo-platforms. But as Cosmic Cavern shows, computers have also played an important role in the history of Japanese games.

– In Japan, before the Famicom was released, the MZ-80 and PC-8001 were very important machines for people who wanted to make games at home. After the Famicom was released, simulation games and RPGs were all the rage on both the Sharp and NEC personal computers, and many people played mainly action games on the Famicom, Ichikawa tells us.

He continues:

– The way I see it, in Japan, initially, the interest in games for NEC and Sharp machines was from the end of the 1980s to about the first half of the 1990s. Since you couldn’t make full-blown simulations and RPGs for dedicated home game machines, Sharp came out with the X68000 and NEC made the PC-9801. With the exception of recent years, I think that was the last time there was a separation between PC and home game consoles.

Figurene er små, men det er lett å se likheten med Mr. Dotmans tidligere spill.
The characters are small, but it’s easy to see the resemblance between them and the ones in the previous games Mr. Dotman has worked on.

As Ichikawa touches on, there’s been a change in the recent years. Everyone who pays attention to Steam will no doubt have noticed an increased amount of Japanese games being launched there – often from independent developers, but also from larger companies. It seems that computers have once again gotten a significant position in the Japanese game development scene, although it also seems that another type of platform is dominating:

– I have no idea how large a scale the market is these days. I sense that in Japan, the smart phone game market is extremely big. As for people who play PC games on Steam, it looks like there are many people who are avid gamers. They are the driving force behind Cosmic Cavern 3671, Ichikawa concludes.

I would like to thank Mikito Ichikawa for taking the time to respond to my questions. His answers were given in Japanese, and translated by Devin Monnens (pictured with Ichikawa earlier in the article). I’ve also collected information from other sources, most prominently this interview from a few years back.

Below, I have provided the original questions and answers in English & Japanese. This does not include our conversations on Steam, which also provided information for this article.

* Can you give a quick introduction of yourself?
1971年に生まれ、1980年頃からゲームを作り始め、1985年から仕事としてゲームを作るようになり、1987年に会社を創業し、1992年に大病で医師から寿命を宣告され、1995年に復帰し、2004年から任天堂と仕事をするようになり、2012年に3200x800dotのシューティングゲームを開発し、先週、Cosmic Cavern 3671をpublishしました。I was born in 1971 and started working in the game industry around 1980. I have been making video games as a job since 1985, establishing my own company in 1987. In 1992, I came down with a serious illness, and although my doctor said I didn’t have much longer to live, I recovered in 1995. Since 2004, I have been working with Nintendo where I developed MaBoShi’s Arcade, and in 2012, I developed a 3200×800 pixel shooting game, Super Chain Crusher Horizon. Last week, we published Cosmic Cavern 3671 on Steam.

* What was your first experience with games/computers?
最初のゲームはAsteroid(Atarai)でした。日本ではSpace Invaderが大ブームを起こしました。当時7歳だった私はSpace Invaderを知らなかったので母に聞くと、ゲームセンターに私を連れてってくれました。しかし、私はSpace Invaderにはさほど興味を示さず、Asteroidを非常に気に入りました。
最初のcomputerは、MZ-80のcopy PCB(maybe pirate)でした。パーツの載ってないBoardと、Monitor ROMとfont ROM、そしてparts listを渡され、少しずつパーツを実装すると、完成しました。

My first game was Asteroids by Atari. In Japan, Space Invaders had become a big hit. Back when I was seven, I didn’t know about Space Invaders, so I asked my mother about it, and she took me to the arcade. However, I didn’t have much interested in Space Invaders, but was extremely excited by Asteroids.My first computer was a copy PCB of the MZ-80 (possibly pirated). It was a barebones board without any parts, a monitor ROM, and a Font ROM, as well as a list of parts. I assembled the parts list, and after installing them little by little, I completed the machine.

* Did you know early that you wanted to make games?
最初は空力計算を行うためにcomputerを使っていました。私は非常に変わった小学生だったと思います。
まわりの友達は私が行おうとしていることを全く理解できず、変人扱いされていました。
私が小学5年生の時にDig Dugが流行り、このゲームを見てからゲームを作るようになりました。まだNESが無かったこともあり、友達は喜んで私が開発したゲームを遊んでくれました。この友達の反応を見るのが大好きで、45歳になった今もゲームを開発し続けています。

At first, I used the computer to run aerodynamic calculations. I suppose I was a very odd elementary school student.

My friends weren’t able to completely understand what I was trying to do and treated me like a nutcase.

When I was in fifth grade, Dig Dug was all the rage, and once I saw this game, I wanted to make games. The Famicom (Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System) didn’t exist yet (it was released in 1983), so my friends happily played the games I developed. Because I loved seeing the reactions of my friends, I continue to develop games today at 45.

* How did you enter the games industry yourself?
プログラムを雑誌に投稿したりコンテストに応募したりしていました。
これで一定の成功を収め、さらに高いレベルでゲームソフトを造りたくなり、ゲーム会社で働くようになりました。

I contributed a program to a magazine and entered a contest.

I met with some success this way, and since I wanted to make games at even a higher level, I started working at a game company.

* How did the cooperation with Sega come about?
Take The Atrainと、Street of Rage 2に私は関与しました。
他にも、Slap Fight MDの開発中にたびたびセガに行きました。役員だった人が私の家から100m位の場所に住んでいて、この人の車に乗せてもらって帰宅することもたびたびありました。

I helped work on Take the A-Train and Streets of Rage 2.

Beyond that, I often visited Sega’s offices while developing Slap Fight MD. One of their staff members lived 100 meters from my house, and he often brought me back home in his car.

* What was your role on Streets of Rage 1 & 2?
SoR 1には私は関与していません。
Sor 2ではゲームデザインの部分と私の会社でsound driverを担当しました。

I wasn’t involved with the first Streets of Rage.

With Streets of Rage 2, my company was responsible for developing the sound design section.

* What game(s) from the MNM days are you most proud of?
どれも非常に想い出深いです。非常に独創性が高く、在籍していた人のうちかかわった人が最も多かったゲームとしてGage( for PC-9801 series )と、最も開発に時間がかかったSlap Fight MDの2つです。

They are all very memorable to me. However, two of the most original ones were Gage (for the PC-9801 series of computers), which took the most people to develop, and Slap Fight MD, which took the most time.

* I understand your company is also doing work in the pinball field – can you give us an overview of what you are doing these days?
2000年からMindwareのURLは http://pinball.co.jp です。
実機のピンボールメーカーとなることが今でもゴールの一つな為です。2003年の夏に、プロトタイプが完成しゲームセンターでテストを行う事が出来ましたが、2004年以降非常に忙しくなり、又、ピンボールの製造には非常にお金がかかるので未だ達成できていません。現在、マインドウェアではピンボールのレンタル、販売を行っています。
このプロトタイプは傑出した面白さと新しさがあるので、Aug.2016にPC用に発売しようと思います。

Since 2001, Mindware’s URL has been at http://pinball.co.jp.

That’s because one of our goals right now is to become a manufacturer of physical pinball machines. In the summer of 2003, we completed a prototype and were able to test it in an arcade, but since 2003, I have been very busy, and it is still extremely difficult to get the money to manufacture a pinball game. Currently, we offer pinball rentals and sales through Mindware.

By the way, since the prototype was incredibly fun and original, I want to try and release a PC version in August 2016 [note – release date has been pushed to september].

* How did you come up with the idea to make a new version of Cosmic Cavern?
2~3年前に、MZ-80の原作をプレイすることが出来ました。当時から日本では著名なゲームだったのですが、当時はプレイする機会がありませんでした。
これを自分で遊ぶ為に、改造を加えていきました。この結果、私自身が生活のリズムを崩しかねないほどこのゲームにのめり込み、このゲームを世に出そう!と決意をしました。
MZ-700 Arrangeが最初に私が改良を加えていきついたゲームです。これの完成に近づくと、80年代Arcade風のアレンジのアイディアが浮かびました。この段階でHiroshi Ono 、 Yuzo Koshiroにオファーをする意志を固めました。

About two or three years ago, I was able to play the original version on the MZ-80. Although it has been a noted game in Japan since that era, but I didn’t have the opportunity to play it back then.

So I made a re-creation of it so I could play it myself. As a result, more and more more of the rhythm of my daily life became deeply absorbed by this game, and I was determined to share it with the world!

The MZ-700 Arrange version was the first game I improved upon. As it neared completion, I got the idea of creating a 1980s Arcade Style Arrange Version. At this point, I decided to make an offer to Hiroshi Ono and Yuzo Koshiro.

* Was it easy to secure the license? I imagine Takaya Arita had not expected this interest in his old game?
とても簡単でした、有名な方だったので検索したらすぐに判明し、コンタクトそたらすぐに許可してくれました。
他のインタビューの回答にも丁寧に答えていただき、協力していただきました。

It was very easy. Since Arita-san is a famous person, when I searched for his name, I found him immediately, and he granted me permission as soon as I contacted him.

We worked together, so he answers questions in other interviews.

* How has the cooperation with Hiroshi Ono and Yuzo Koshiro worked?
80’s Arcade Style Versionを作ることを決めた時に2人にofferしました。
Yuzoとは何度も一緒にゲームを作っているので非常にスムーズに進みました。
Hiroshi Onoとは、2年前に初めて会い私のゲームのサンプルを見てもらい非常に気に入って下さり、以降親しいです。
Hiroshi Onoがキャラクターを描いて、それを見て私は性格を決めていました。非常に楽しい時間でした。

When I decided to make the 1980s Arcade Style Version, I offered the two of them the opportunity to work on it.

Since I worked together with Yuzo many times in the past, things went forward very smoothly.

Hiroshi Ono was also very interested, since I had shown him a sample of my game two years ago when we first met, and we have worked closely ever since.

When Hiroshi Ono showed me the characters he drew, I settled on their personalities. I had a great time.

* From the west, it’s easy to get the impression that Japan is all about console games. What position does the old computers such as the Sharp & NEC machines have in Japan?
日本でNESが発売される前は、MZ-80,PC-8001は家でもゲームをやりたい人にとって重要なcomputerでした。
NESが発売されてからは、Sharp ,NEC共にパソコンではSimulation gameやRPGが流行り、NESでは主にアクションゲームを遊ぶ人が多かった。
私から見て、日本で最もNEC ,SHARP machineのゲームが面白かったのは80年代終盤~90年代前半の頃でした。丁度家庭用ゲーム機では本格的なsimulationやRPGが出来ず、SHARPはX68000、NECはPC-9801を出していて、近年を除くとPCと家庭用ゲーム機がすみ分けていた最後の時期だったと思います。

In Japan, before the Famicom was released, the MZ-80 and PC-8001 were very important machines for people who wanted to make games at home.

After the Famicom was released, simulation games and RPGs were all the rage on both the Sharp and NEC personal computers, and many people played mainly action games on the Famicom.

The way I see it, in Japan, initially, the interest in games for NEC and Sharp machines was from the end of the 1980s to about the first half of the 1990s. Since you couldn’t make full-blown simulations and RPGs for dedicated home game machines, Sharp came out with the X68000 and NEC made the PC-9801. With the exception of recent years, I think that was the last time there was a separation between PC and home game consoles.

* Also, what kind of market is there for PC games in Japan these days?
今は、大きな規模かどうかは私にもわからないです。
日本だとSmart phoneのゲームのマーケットが非常に大きいように感じます。
SteamでPCのゲームをプレイする人は、ゲームに熱心な層の人が多いように見えます。このことはCC3671にとっては追い風ですね。
I have no idea how large a scale the market is these days.

I sense that in Japan, the smart phone game market is extremely big.

As for people who play PC games on Steam, it looks like there are many people who are avid gamers. They are the driving force behind Cosmic Cavern 3671.

Final bonus: A video of my MZ-80A-version. Note that it is not running in BASIC, but in Uwe Maxim’s BASIC compiler: