We’ve spoken with Mikito Ichikawa, Junko Ozawa and Sensu about the sequel to Space Mouse from 1981.
In 2016 I was lucky enough to get to interview Mikito Ichikawa, a Japanese game developer who’s been making games since the eighties. He’s worked with some of the country’s most famous developers and been involved in the making of classics such as Streets of Rage 2 and Slap Fight MD.
In recent years his studio, Mindware, has worked on several remakes and remasters of several lesser-known Japanese classics, and it was in relation to such a release – Cosmic Cavern 3671 – that we got in touch with eachother. I’m very happy with how that earlier interview turned out, so I was eager to interview him again this year. Not only that, but I got the chance to speak with industry legend Junko Ozawa and newcomer Sensu as well.
A busy few years for Mindware
Mindware has not exactly been lazy since the release of Cosmic Cavern 3671. In 2016 they also released a similar remake of Space Mouse from 1981, as well as the pinball simulation Pinball Parlor. The next year, they did a remake of the classic, Japanese arcade game Heiankyo Alien, and in 2018 they remade a game called Alien Field. They also released an original game called Cosmic Snake that year.
While there were no new Mindware-releases on PC in 2019, they recently released a brand new game: Space Mouse 2.
Just like Cosmic Cavern, the original Space Mouse was not made for consoles or the arcades, but 8-bit home computers. In the early eighties the Japanese market was dominated by computer platforms such as Sharp MZ-80 and NEC PC-8001, and like in Europe and North America there were a lot of enthusiastic computer users who created games as a hobby. These games were often published in text form, in the computer magazines of the era.
In practice this meant that the game’s source code, often in the BASIC programming language, was printed over a number of pages as a program listing which the readers could then type in on their own computers. The finished game could then be saved on cassette tape. Since the computers of the day had limited amounts of memory, games were usually small, and a pretty solid game could easily fit onto two pages of typed code and «only» require a couple of hours to type in.
This was how the original Space Mouse was distributed:
– The original game was developed by Geimu Kiyoto, Japan’s first star game creator, and was published in the October 1981 issue of Japanese personal computer magazine I/O as a program list. It was also sold on cassette tape, Ichikawa tells me.
In 2012. the game started on it’s path towards modern systems:
– I was fortunate enough to meet Geimu Kiyoto in 2012, and he gave me permission to port and arrange Space Mouse. The year 2016 was the 35th anniversary of Space Mouse. So we included the original game, an arranged version I created when I was in eighth grade, and a more advanced version, and released it as a special Space Mouse 35th Anniversary Edition.
The sequel is similar, but different
In Space Mouse, the goal is to navigate through a skyscraper-ish level scrolling upwards. At the same time, you must avoid being killed by enemies approaching from the top of the screen. Sometimes you may be able to pick up coins, which will enable you to kill enemies and also eat your way through the floors. There is a surprising amount of depth to this simple concept, and I’ve written more about the game here [in Norwegian].
Space Mouse 2 was not originally meant as a sequel, according to Ichikawa:
– Space Mouse 2 was originally a separate game, a very small game that had a few things in common with Space Mouse. It’s a very interesting game, and while it’s a completely different game, it has so many elements of Space Mouse that we’ve expanded it and released it as Space Mouse 2.
The sequel turns the original concept on it’s head, and adds a number of new systems. In Space Mouse 2, your task is to make your way towards the bottom of vast and dangerous caverns, while eating dots like a true Pac-Man. Ichikawa describes the game as a «dot-eating game», and it’s these dots that are your main source of points. Enemies will continuously drop new dots or increase the value of existing dots they pass over, which means that as long as an enemy is alive it will generate potential points on the screen.
This creates interesting dilemmas for the player. Should he or she attempt to clear the screen of enemies in order to make progression easier, or let them live in order to hopefully get more points?
These dilemmas plays into the game’s combo system, where the points you get depends to a large extent on what your combo level is. You increase this level by eating dots and destroying walls, and the higher it gets, the more points you get. But it’s also very easy to lose your combo level completely by making a mistake, which means that you always need to think before acting. Chosing the wrong actions might lead you into situations where you’ve no option but to lose your combo level, or might be forced to take considerable risks to maintain it.
Simple, strategic and dynamic
Risk versus reward has been a central theme during the development of the game, the developer tells us:
– Our design philosophy is that the game should be «Simple, Strategic and Dynamic» («SSD»). Since we are mainly creating games that are score-competitive, we try to make sure that there is a big difference in the score between risk-taking and non-risk-taking, even if you reach the same level as you play.
To complicate matters, you also need to consider your oxygen level. You’ll always lose oxygen at a steady rate, but what really drains it is digging through walls. While in the original you’d need coins to do this, in Space Mouse 2 digging is always possible. However, picking up a coin gives you a certain time where you can dig without losing oxygen, as well as destroy enemies. While a coin is active, you will also keep your combo level even when doing things that would normally cause it to revert to zero.
Since there is always a lot to consider while playing Space Mouse 2, it can be a pretty hectic game. But thankfully it doesn’t actually need to be. You can simply activate turn-based mode, which gives you all the time you need to consider each and every move. This also means that you don’t have to be an experienced or talented arcade game player to succeed in the game. The turn-based mode is a feature Ichikawa is very proud of:
– The turn-based mode takes the action completely out of the game and allows it to be played as a strategy game. Junko Ozawa was able to complete 1000m and [the game mode] Piyo Love thanks to this feature, and she said, «I wouldn’t have played as much as I did without it!» We’ll be adding this feature to our Mindware games in the future.
Legendary music creator
Junko Ozawa is perhaps a name you’ve heard before, if you know a little about the history of arcade games from Japan. She was hired by the legendary arcade game maker Namco in 1983, and worked on music and sound effects for classics such as Gaplus, Rolling Thunder, Pac-Mania and The Tower of Druaga. After a pause from the games industry she’s back, with the soundtrack for Space Mouse 2.
Ozawa tells us that the music for Space Mouse 2 was meant to sound like the soundtrack for an eighties arcade game:
– First of all, the game was like a classic arcade game, so naturally the music was like that. We used software called Korg Gadget, which is capable of reproducing sound sources from Namco’s early arcades, and made it sound like it was made in those days, with no more than eight notes. I used the same waveforms as in the old days, but I also created a lot of new tones for Space Mouse 2.
But the game’s music is not all about nostalgia. There’s also interactive elements, and when asked if there was something Ozawa was particularily proud of, she mentioned this:
– In Space Mouse 2’s Piyo Love mode, the songs change depending on the number of chicks you take with you, and I think we were able to create an interesting performance with the programmer, Mr. Ichikawa’s love for the game.
A new generation
Unlike Junko Ozawa, Sensu is completely new to the games industry. Space Mouse 2 is the first game she’s worked on, and she’s had several roles during development. One of these was to create the game’s cover image, which features the two playable characters that are otherwise only shown as small, pixelated sprites in the game. She also voiced one of the two playable characters, YOU (the other being voiced by pro-wrestler Risa Sera).
– There was one thing that was most important to me when I was in charge of the characters in the game. It was to make sure that the character that the player controlled felt comfortable. The story and the characters weren’t detailed to begin with, so I started by establishing the character of YOU in my mind. I drew illustrations and imagined them, and wrote lines that expressed a different childishness from that of Alice [from Space Mouse 1]. I hope the result feels comfortable for everyone who plays the game.
This is not a game with elaborate cutscenes, but the characters make exclamations when important things happens during the gameplay. Since the sprites are so small, the voice acting plays a very important role in making the characters come to life:
– Video game voices are usually less than 30 seconds long, so I was conscious of taking advantage of the characterization of the game. During the recording, I imagined myself as a four year old energetic child. I thought it would be difficult to get an image of the character from the dot picture, so I did my best to make the YOU come clearly to mind.
Sensu is also a talented Space Mouse 2-player herself. I asked her if she’s got some hints for new players:
– Hint… yes. What I suggest is that if you’re not a fan of action games, progress a little further in turn-based mode! I guess that’s it! I’m not a great gamer to begin with… (I love playing games!). And please, please take the chicks with you and YOU!
Chasing old games
Mindware are not about to rest on their laurels now that Space Mouse 2 is out. They’re working on a number of games, and several of these are remakes of forgotten, Japanese classics. Sometimes getting the rights to do these games is a big challenge, according to Mikito Ichikawa:
– I am always chasing after the rights holders of various old games. I publish every game in the order of when I can contact the rights holders and then I can publish that work. I had been looking for my last game, Alien Field, for almost 25 years. It’s a development business, but it’s like detective work.
The same is true for their next planned release, Hover Attack. This game was originally released for the NEC PC-88 in 1984, and is a scrolling action game where the player controls a hovercraft through caves full of dangers. Interestingly enough one can also land and control the pilot separately from the craft. Ichikawa tells us that Mindware has been hunting the rights for Hover Attack since the nineties, and that it was only last autumn that they finally got in touch with the copyright owner.
A fun point regarding Hover Attack is that Mindware aren’t just making it for the PC. They are also creating a version for Sega’s most famous console, the Mega Drive. This is pretty unique; while there are several homebrew games being released for old systems, this is a brand new release from a developer who was actually active on the console back in its heyday. The Mega Drive-version of Hover Attack will be released after the PC-version.
This isn’t their only project:
– We also have a puzzle game called Uooty coming out soon. It has taken us more than 20 years to find the rights holder for this game too.
Ichikawa prefers to make remakes of games which build on original game ideas, and when he gets access to the rights to these he will work mostly at home until the game is near completion. Once the rights are secured, this process can be quite speedy:
– An example of how I was able to develop it in a very short period of time was Heiankyo Alien 3671, where I started writing the program on July 14, 2017 and released the package version on October 14, 2017. In exactly three months I programmed and designed the game at home and produced the booklet for the package version at the company. These were done by me alone.
Over the years, he’s programmed in everything from machine code for Z80 and 68000 processors to different variants of the C programming language. Today he’s using C++ and C# together with the Unity game engine.
Also a pinball company
Making video games is not the only thing Mindware does. As their homepage, pinball.co.jp, indicates, they’re also involved in the pinball business. They sell and rent out physical pinball tables in the Tokyo area, and this is a large part of their business. They’ve also designed and tested a pinball table of their own, and hope to license this to an existing manufacturer of pinball tables. Sadly, it’s been around fifty years since the last time pinball games were made in Japan (by Sega), and according to Ichikawa there are only five or six remaining manufacturers in the entire world.
Still, gamers got to playtest Mindware’s table in the recent Sega game Judgment. This came about because Mindware had created a PC-version of the table, in the game Pinball Parlor.
– Mr. Nagoshi, the producer of the YAKUZA series, was aware of the game. A friend of mine, Mr. Setsumaru [also the sound designer of Space Mouse 2], has worked at Sega for over 25 years. He was at an early planning meeting for Judgement when Mr. Nagoshi said, «I’d like to include Pinball Parlor in my next game.» Mr. Setsumaru raised his hand and said, «I’m a friend of the CEO of the company that made that game.»
As a result, you can find the pinball table Ichikawa designed in arcades in the game’s virtual world, and take a fun break from punching bad guys.
An expanded interview with Junko Ozawa will be published in the next few weeks!