After Burner II – Developer Interviews
Written by Anadara on 21.06.2019
These two Afterburner interviews are from 1988 and 1996, but I have compiled them (by subject matter) into a single interview. The seminal arcade title was mostly developed by the three-man team of Yu Suzuki, Satoshi Mifune, and musician Hiroshi “Hiro” Kawaguchi.
Here they discuss the cabinet design, stage design, and conclude with a series of humorous anecdotes about working at Sega AM2. Since Afterburner II is so similar to the first game, most of the interview is about After Burner generally rather than the sequel.
Yu Suzuki – Lead Developer / Programmer
Satoshi Mifune – Programmer
Hiroshi “Hiro” Kawaguchi – Composer
Ryu – Sega Console head
Project Beginnings and Planning
The After Burner II cabinet.
Suzuki: I’m Yu, whose name you can see on the hi-score screen when you power the game on. I did the planning and software coordination for After Burner II. Hang-On was my first game, then I did Space Harrier and Out Run.
Ryu: I’m Ryu, in charge of Console Development at Sega. I also helped out on the Out Run console port. I’ve also worked on the Anmitsu Hime series.
Mifune: After Out Run was finished, we had some free time before the next project started, but once things got underway, we became very busy. For After Burner, we assembled nearly the same team as we had on Out Run, which was done mostly by the three of us: me, Yu, and Hiro doing sound. The fact that Out Run was a hit was undoubtedly a contributing factor, but After Burner was developed with the intention of being Sega’s first true blockbuster. Because of that it began in total secrecy, both within and without Sega. Yu was supposedly working on a project called “Studio 128”, which apparently entailed some other things as well, but in any event, it was really top-secret: hardly anyone at Sega knew about it.
Suzuki: I think the arcade version of After Burner began development in the beginning of December, 1986. Our planning process for After Burner was completely different from the normal process at Sega. Typically, you start with a design document and build the game off that, but we sort of made things up as we went along. We’d first come up with a bunch of ideas of things we wanted to do, then we selected the ones that sounded most interesting and tested them out.
I think it was a very wasteful process. For example, if we had three different ways to do something, well… we’d test out all three to see which was best. If two of the ideas seemed good we’d have to go back and revise things again, and no one really knew where this was all going. We did have something you could call a design document, but it was very vague, and always changing depending on the circumstances at hand.
There were two other big things that happened during the development of After Burner. First, Sega adopted a flex time system. Sega told us they wanted “to make a game that surpassed previous profits”, and to realize that they wanted us to be able to develop games in a free environment; they weren’t going to try and keep tabs on everyone like in a traditional 9-5 workplace. So we were able, with After Burner, to work in a place away from the main office, at hours of our choosing.
Second, this was the first game that we made with a computer. We wanted to prove to Sega that we didn’t need expensive machines or computers to make our game, so we developed After Burner on the PC-98. We had a lot of fun, but most of all I’m happy that it all came together.
Hiro: The movie Top Gun was really popular at the time, so we had no trouble at all deciding that our next game, after we finished Out Run, would be dogfighting game with fighter jets.
Suzuki: Top Gun was an influence, but before I saw Top Gun, I already had the idea for a fighter jet game taking shape in my mind. In the beginning I was thinking of something more like Laputa: Castle in the Sky, something with that science-fiction anime feel. But Sega’s taikan games were to be sold not only in Japan, but in America, Europe, and all over the world. So we ended up switching things to an F-14 fighter jet, something that would be recognizable and approachable for anyone, no matter what country they were from. Americans, especially, tend to prefer realistic worlds to the fantasy, anime-ish worlds that Japan likes. Although, by now I think Americans largely understand the appeal of those fantasy worlds, too.
Mifune: The very first thing we researched for After Burner was how to rotate the surfaces of the sprites. Once we’d achieved this, it felt like the first big hurdle had been cleared. Another big milestone was making the smoke trails from missiles look realistic and cool.
Hiro: Yeah, the missile smoke looked really pathetic at first.
Mifune: We figured it out as we went along, trying many different tricks to make it look cool. We ended up with those big smoke trails that can almost fill up the screen.
Suzuki: For the stage backgrounds, I wanted to it to feel like you started out somewhere in the Mediterranean and were heading towards Russia… but I don’t think we did a good job showing that progression. (laughs) That’s how I wanted it to look though.
Ryu: I thought you were going to say it was the Persian Gulf or something. (laughs)
Suzuki: Well, I’ve never seen the Persian Gulf. Just like Rocky IV, I was thinking if I made a game with Russia as an enemy for the US to beat, it would sell well. But if I used real scenery, it would be hard to tie everything together, so I ended up using a lot of imagery from my own head. You know, there are pyramids in Europe too, around Italy. In Out Run I actually went to scout out locations, but this time I didn’t have time. I looked at the magazine “ab road”, an overseas travel magazine. Hey, it only cost 300 yen. (laughs) I tried to make the scenery look at realistic as possible.
I believe that 16-bit systems are not allowed in the Soviet Union yet. They violate COCOM’s rules, I heard. Anyway, I wanted to show the Kremlin in After Burner, but I abandoned the idea. Really large sprites like that took up too much memory, because they needed many sprites drawn from different angles. A flat landscape only requires 1 sprite, but even a single column needs a lot to be drawn. The landing scene also took up a lot of memory, but it’s done automatically (from a fixed viewpoint), so we didn’t need to prepare multiple sprites for it.
Mifune: The refueling scene was something we added for variety, and in the course of creating it, we also came up with the landing scene. Yu said he wanted it to be a scene like in Top Gun, where a motorcycle is running alongside the jet. So we added a motorcycle, and before you knew it, it became the Hang-On bike (laughs), and then the ferrari from Out Run got in there too.
Suzuki: I really wanted to do a lot more, but we didn’t have enough time. For example, I wanted to have guys parachuting to escape from their downed planes. Guys would land on another plane and hijack them, or maybe a scene where you’re parachuting while embracing Princess Mia. The characters in my games are important to me. Space Harrier, Hang-On, and Out Run all had human characters that stood out. I wanted to do that for After Burner, too.
Suzuki: It’s my intention to keep making taikan games. I’ve now made Hang-On, Space Harrier, Out Run, and After Burner, but (and this is a small exaggeration) they all feel half-finished to me. Maybe After Burner is about 60%. I really wanted to do dogfights in After Burner. Right now the game is you vs. many enemies, but I wanted to show realistic fights too, like 1vs1 dogfights, or 1 vs a few. That was something that, due to various circumstances, got kind of lost in scheduling and technical problems. But the progress we made on the idea is something I want to fulfill in a future game.
Making more and more realistic games is the direction I want to go in. In a normal car you don’t just explode when you touch something! That is something I thought as I watched other driving games, and I tried to portray a greater degree of realism in that regard with Out Run. Games aren’t reality, of course, so you do need a lot of tricks and techniques to bring a sense of realism to a game. But to the extent possible, I still want to avoid doing things that seem to clash with reality and make the player go “that’s weird.” A world that seems like it could really exist, where you can do things that seem like they’d really be possible–that’s what I’m aiming for.
Out Run, After Burner, I still think they’ve got a way to go. To do them absolutely perfectly would have cost way too much. If only I could create things without having to worry about the cost, it would be wonderful, but. For that reason, “simulation” might be going a bit far, but I do want to make games that are close to reality.
Designing the Cabinet
Suzuki: The exact development costs are, of course, highly confidential, so I can’t talk about that. But it was incomparably more expensive than a normal cabinet, that’s for sure. There’s really nothing else like it: the board, the mask roms, the cabinet itself, everything had to be changed. Well, actually, doing everything brand new would have been nearly impossible, so to a certain extent, we used some of the same things. After Burner really represented the accumulation of a lot of technical innovations. In Hang-On, the backgrounds were kind of empty, but since Out Run we’ve switched to a new system. So technology-wise, it’s completely different from our previous taikan games, Space Harrier and Hang-On.
The truth is, by the time we started developing After Burner, I was already wanting to make a gyroscopic cabinet like the R360.
Mifune: The first prototype we built–just the steel frame and monitor–had amazing power, and felt really good. But it was deemed too dangerous, so its power was lowered. That first impression stuck with us, though, and influenced the final version of the After Burner cabinet.
Hiro: As for the throttle control, it was something we started talking about in the middle of the first After Burner, but by that point the development was near its end, and adding a throttle would have destroyed the difficulty balance we’d created, so we released the game without it. But, as feared, without the ability to adjust your speed it was too hard, and there were a lot of other related gameplay problems that came up. So very soon after, we decided to release After Burner II as a “renewal” version, with the throttle included.
Music and Sound
Hiro: The first thing Yu told me about the music was “Let’s make it about the guitar this time.” Actually, he had asked me to do guitar-based songs for Out Run too, but it was a little impossible with the capabilities of the hardware then. But Top Gun’s main theme featured a really strong guitar line, right? So this time for sure, it had to be guitar! The very first work I did for After Burner was to use a little bit of Sega’s money and buy a guitar (laughs). Then I practiced and practiced.
For the music, I didn’t bring Yu completely finished versions of the songs. Instead, I brought him phrases and riffs that I felt captured the atmosphere he was looking for. If you take into account the pieces I rejected myself, I made close to 100 songs that ended up not being used.
Some of the song titles, by the way, were temporarily used as the title for the game before we settled on “After Burner.”
Mifune: That’s right, I remember that. The title “Out Run” had a very deep meaning for Yu, and it came to him very easily, but with After Burner we all brought a bunch of candidate titles to the table. “Red Out” was one. We had a really hard time deciding.
Hiro: I put a great deal of effort into the sound effects, too. I dug through tons of war videos. During that time I did a lot of experimentation with 3-D sound inside the cabinet, seeing if it would be possible to create a sound space even though the speakers move when the cabinet moves. I did some serious research! (laughs) Eventually I realized it wasn’t going to work, and we settled on 4 speakers. (laughs)
Secrecy and Tomfoolery at Sega AM2
Mifune: After Burner and Power Drift were developed at “Studio 128”, and together took a little under two years. After that we returned to the main offices, and then Sega AM2 was established.
Hiro: It was only about a 5 minute walk between the AM2 offices and the main offices. We had about 10 people then. Normally when offices are separated, cliques develop, and relationships can degrade, but in this case things were always harmonious. I think it’s because everyone was too busy talking about the Legend of Macchi, aka Masahiko Kobayashi. (laughs)
Mifune: Yes, Macchi’s stories were truly legendary. They could literally fill up an entire book. (laughs) Sega was full of really strong, intense personalities back then, there’s so many funny stories.
Hiro: Whenever we went out drinking, the conversation would always turn to Macchi. (laughs) These days he’s just a normal guy, but we had a lot of fun back then. Here’s one of his exploits: Yu told Macchi “this is a top secret project! Do not let ANYONE in the development room without my permission!” Well, he followed those orders to the letter… one day the President of Sega came to see how things were going, and Macchi told him: “Sorry, no permission, no entry” and sent him away. The exchange between them was really funny: “Sorry, I can’t do it.” “But I’m the President!!!” “Nope, sorry.” After that Yu got a good scolding from the President. (laughs)
Mifune: I also remember how in those days Yu was quite the prolific programmer, and during the final phase of the review, each night when he was done working he’d set up a futon and sleep beneath his desk. While he was sleeping, Macchi, thinking to improve Yu’s work, would upgrade his computer’s work environment with the latest versions and fixes.
However, this had the effect of deleting the data Yu had worked on the previous day. Yu would wake up very early to begin working, but it took him about a week to realize what was happening, and each day he’d repeat the same work. When he finally realized something was strange and what was going on, he flew into a livid rage at Macchi. (laughs)
As for all those hidden messages in After Burner, the development was very busy, so at one point I asked Toujou (who is currently at AM3) to help out. He used to make a lot of jokes about the PC98 machines we were using, and at some point these got embedded in the game as hidden messages.
Stuff like “Macchi” and “Lucy” are nicknames from our staff then, but really, I think only the staff will understand them. (laughs) The reason you see the secret text “DUKE” on the demo screen, though, is that T.K loved Golgo 13.