Conversation with Kenji Sada


Kenji Sada was instrumental in making The Wing of Madoola. He was the game designer, team lead, and main programmer. After working on Madoola, Sada was the game designer and main programmer of Blaster Master. Besides his games, Sada also impacted Sunsoft's work in other ways. His tile and level editors allowed artists and designers to see what their work would look like in real-time (see here for a demonstration) and likely contributed to Sunsoft's later NES games looking so good.

You might want to read Stefan Gancer's "Making of The Wing of Madoola" article before this, since I skipped asking a lot of the questions he asked there. You should also buy Gancer's Sunsoft history book if this is the sort of thing you're interested in.

A couple other things- First, this conversation kind of goes all over the place because of the wide variety of questions I had. Sorry about that. Second, you really have to give Sada credit for taking part in this. He took the time to answer all of my questions in English about a project he'd worked on over 30 years ago. Make sure you follow him on Twitter for being such a cool guy.

Nathan: I've spent the past few months disassembling The Wing of Madoola as a hobby project, and I would really appreciate seeing your perspective on some aspects of how the game works.
One thing I noticed is that Madoola uses a fairly complex level format with multiple layers of metatiles to save ROM space. What was your team's process like for designing a level, and then implementing it in the game?

Sada: It's not so much level design. To make the map wider, I came up with a multi-level tile configuration. Based on this, Sugiura, in charge of background graphics, created the tiles and the entire map.

N: Thank you for the information! He did a great job, the backgrounds look nice for a 1986 game.
While most NES action games placed enemies at fixed points in the level, Madoola has randomly spawning enemies. Do you remember how this mechanic originated?

S: I can't quite remember, but I think I specified which character appeared on each 256x265 tile.

N: I'm sorry for not being more specific. I was more interested in knowing why you chose to design the game with randomly spawning enemies as opposed to how it's implemented in the game code. It makes Madoola stand out compared to other action games. You're exactly right about how the randomly spawning enemies work though, you have a very good memory!

S: The reason was that I came up with it first and it was easy to implement; with Blaster Master I changed my mind and wrote a dedicated editor and told a staff to place characters using it. I think you now know more about implementation than I do.

N: Ah, that makes sense. It's definitely easier to implement than manually placing enemies in the stage. Do you remember how long Madoola was in development for?

S: I think it took about six months; I started working for Sunsoft in the spring of 1986, and the game was released in December.

N: Was six months considered a normal amount of time for a game? Would you say that the development was fairly relaxed, or were you stressed and trying to meet a deadline?

S: Considering that Madoola was a simple game and that we had four inexperienced staffs, I would say that it was about average. However, at the end of the project, it looked like we would not meet the deadline set by the company, and we had to add two additional programmers. It was not particularly stressful, but I was working about 15 hours every day.

N: Wow, 15 hours per day is a lot! I work as a programmer and I can't work for more than 8 or 9 hours per day. How did you stay motivated? Also, do you remember what the two additional programmers were working on?

S: I don't remember the details, but it may have taken me a long time to produce a coherent result because I work so slowly. It is motivating when an idea actually moves on the screen. The two programmers were responsible for the movement of the enemy characters. Actually, Metafight was also delayed in the same manner, and two additional programmers were responsible for working on the movements of the enemy characters.

N: I definitely know what you mean, it's great to see something you programmed actually working onscreen.
N: You filled a number of roles on the Madoola development team, like team lead, game designer, and main programmer. Was this common practice at Sunsoft, and do you think this approach worked well?

S: In Sunsoft's NES project, the project leader was always a programmer. This method makes it easier to determine feasibility in terms of planning, and I think it is suitable for small-scale development. On the other hand, to increase the volume and quality of the content, I think it is necessary to have a full-time producer and designer. Small-scale projects have produced successful examples such as "Gimmick!" but as large-scale projects like "Final Fantasy" became a hot seller, success would have become more difficult.

N: Thank you for that explanation, it makes a lot of sense. Having familiarity with how the NES hardware works must have been an advantage when designing games for such a resource constrained system.
I noticed that the arcade version of Madoola has developer credits on the high score table if you read it vertically. Do you remember what each person's role was?

MOROTTAR -> Naohisa Morota / Sunsoft FC Sound Legend
SIMOMURA -> Character Graphic / worked on "Ripple Island"
SYUGIURA -> Kazuyuki Sugiura / BG Graphic and Map design / worked on "FC Fantasy Zone", etc.
ATSUSHII -> Atsushi Sakai / Program Helper (enemy move) / leader of "Ripple Island", etc.
NAKAGAWA -> Program Helper ? Sorry I forgot.
They are FC version staff. I did arcade port alone.

N: Thank you for the credits information, it's very helpful. Do you know why the arcade version was created? Was it your idea or somebody else's?

S: The sales department decided to do it. I don't know why.

N: Were there ever plans to release Madoola outside Japan, either on the NES or in the arcade? I noticed the arcade version has better English than the NES version.

S: Richard Robbins criticized Madoola so harshly that there was no international expansion. He said that games that sell in the U.S. are violent action games like Contra, and that female protagonists are not worth talking about. The English for the Madoola FC version was written by me. What was used in the arcade version was an elaboration of it by Sunsoft America.

N: It's a shame that he felt that way, I think Madoola could have done well in the US. Do you know why the arcade version didn't get released in Japan either?

S: May be it was because the location test did not go well. The test was done at a batting center near the annex where we developed the game.

N: I guess it makes sense, I think Madoola is better as a console game than an arcade game.
I saw in that interview you linked that Richard Robbins also came up with the changed story for Blaster Master with the radioactive frog. What did you think at the time when you heard about the story?

S: I don't remember it well, so I guess I didn't think anything of it. I didn't create the story myself. One thing that bothers me about the change is about Blaster Master Zero's own machine, Sophia. That always shakes at the same frequency whether it is standing still or running. Metafight/Blaster Master's tank vibrates at a frequency proportional to its speed only when it is running.

N: In general do you think the Blaster Master Zero games are good sequels, or are there things that they could have improved on?

S: I have not played it, so I write this based on what I know from the Youtube video. It is a good remake that enhances the events and characters that were lacking in the original. What is especially nice is that there is a big surprise for the player over the final battle. Whether it is a novel, a movie, or a game, I think what consumers look for in creative works is surprise.

N: Thank you for providing your perspective, I agree with both of your points.
When you were working on NES games, did you feel limited by the small ROM size?

S: I was not aware of the amount of ROM remaining during development. Fortunately there was no shortage, but this was one of the necessary management I neglected.

N: Both Madoola and Blaster Master are action games with an emphasis on exploration. Did you ever want to make another game like that, or did you move onto other projects (e.g. Nantettatte Baseball) because you were getting tired of focusing on that sort of game?

S: The sales team planned "Nantettatte Baseball" based on Atsushi Sakai's idea (changeable data cassettes), and I was only in charge of production. I was not very interested in baseball and did not know the rules very well. I am not satisfied with the perfection of Metafight as an exploratory platformer, so I would like to create something along the same lines again next time.

N: What aspects of Blaster Master do you think could be improved on?

S: First of all, there was no decent level design. During production, there was no design from the perspective of looking at the whole game as a whole. We just packed ideas that we wanted to do, and didn't pursue fun from a player's point of view. I was so preoccupied with the size of the map that I didn't have any gimmicks or events to match the size. I have to fix everything from the beginning.

N: I'm surprised you brought up level design. In the Western game community, Blaster Master is generally considered an excellent game that has some relatively minor gameplay issues keeping it from being perfect. However, I can see how a more modern approach at the same style of gameplay would need more detailed levels like you mentioned.
One thing I really like about Blaster Master is how the world is split up into levels. This makes the gameplay more streamlined compared to other exploration platformers like Metroid. Each level is self-contained and has the same goal (find and defeat the boss to access the next level) so the player always knows what he/she has to do next. If you make a new game like Wing of Madoola or Blaster Master, I hope that you'll keep that system the same.
What aspects of Wing of Madoola and Blaster Master are you the most proud of?

S: When I started making games at Sun Electronics, I began with the scrolling display process. When I learned about the Famicom specifications, I was impressed by the functionality achieved while trading off cost, and I decided to create something that would bring out the best of this performance. My mentor Akito Takeuchi said "If you can't keep up with the processing, just use 30 fps processing" but I wanted to make a 60 fps game at all costs, so after much thought I came up with an omnidirectional scrolling method that was suitable for the Famicom and implemented it. As a result, I think I was able to achieve smooth movement for an omni-directional scrolling action game on the Famicom.
The reason why Metafight has both a side-view and a look-down view is because I had ideas I wanted to do with each method. There was a certain amount of response to the idea of using different sprite arrangements for the side-view characters to express movement. For the overlooking screen, I realized the process of hiding the character's body behind a wall, as in "The Return of ISHTAR" and "Alien Syndrome" on the Famicom, which has only one BG screen, but this was never talked about.

N: That was the last question I had. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all of my questions. It's been great to learn about how two of my favorite games were created. In my opinion, your focus on both gameplay and technical excellence makes the games you worked on stand out. I have a small Wing of Madoola fansite, would it be OK if I published this conversation on there?

S: Of course you can do it. Thank you for being interested in my works.