A rare interview with the director of 1987's breakout side-scrolling brawler.
In 1986 and 1987, Yoshihisa Kishimoto could do little wrong.
Four months into a new job at developer Technos, he led a team to complete side-scrolling arcade brawler Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun, the first in a franchise that would spawn more than 30 games in Japan.
He and his team followed with Double Dragon, another arcade brawler, this time with an art style designed to appeal internationally. It worked and the game exploded, becoming one of the industry's most popular titles, doubling his salary, and cementing his job security.
Over the course of a year, he'd created the two biggest franchises Technos would ever have.
"For better or worse," he says in an interview with Polygon, he simultaneously built an empire and backed himself into a corner where Technos didn't want him to work on much else. He cites it as one of his main regrets and part of the reason he left the company years later.
Yet today in 2012, Technos is long dead, and he's once again working on both series. When games are this successful, it can be hard to stay away.
From Data East to Technos
Like many artists, Kishimoto saw his empire begin with a girl and a break-up.
Fresh out of art school in the early '80s, he landed a position as a game designer at Data East, which he describes as "like being in school" since he learned a lot on the job. After a few early experiments, he began making a name for himself heading up laser disc titles.
"THERE WAS A GIRL AND SHE DUMPED ME, WHICH PULLED THE TRIGGER."
This was the era of Dragon's Lair showering arcades in quarters, thanks to laser disc-based hardware enabling games with full screen animation, and Data East had its own take on the technology. Kishimoto developed games that mixed flashy cartoon-like visuals with over-the-top action: helicopter combat in Cobra Command and car chases in Road Blaster. Neither reached Dragon's Lair's earnings, but both found loyal fans.
One of those was Data East competitor Technos, which wanted in on the laser disc business. Shortly after Road Blaster's release, Kishimoto received a call from a headhunter.
The Kunio character became a fixture on Technos' logo over time, appearing in the above art at the beginning of the Neo-Geo game Super Dodge Ball.
Kishimoto in 2012 with author Florent Gorges, who wrote a book in French about Kishimoto's career called "Enter the Double Dragon."
He took the appointment. Showed up, sat down, and told Technos he had something else in mind. He pitched a game that didn't need laser disc tech - a semi-autobiographical game based on his teenage years, with a main character loosely based on himself.
A self-proclaimed rebellious youth, Kishimoto says he got into fights in school on a daily basis. Which, he explains in retrospect, was partially the result of a rough break-up. "There were family reasons as well, but there was a girl and she dumped me, which pulled the trigger," he says.
Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun
His pitch to Technos, then, was for a game about these resulting fights, as well as his love for the Bruce Lee movieEnter the Dragon. It would be a single-player brawler, centered around a high school student getting into scuffles with local street toughs.
Technos agreed and Kunio-kun was born.
[Editor's note: While "Kunio-kun" refers to the main character who appeared in many games, we're using it as shorthand in this story for the original title, Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun. The game also made its way to the U.S. with a westernized art style under the name Renegade.]
Double Dragon's origins
After completing Kunio-kun, Kishimoto found himself with various mandates for a follow-up, which he originally envisioned as a direct sequel.
Higher-ups suggested a two-player game because it could earn more money in arcades, and asked him to design an art style that would appeal to international audiences. Kishimoto knew that once again, he wanted to take inspiration from Enter the Dragon - which, when combined with the two-player concept, gave the game its title.
Double Dragon was born.
In many ways, Double Dragon was a Kunio-kun sequel in new clothes - a Final Fantasy-style sequel with similar mechanics but a new cast and setting. Kishimoto's childhood high school gave way to a disaster-ridden city inspired byMad Max and Fist of the North Star, and his cinematic ambitions came through memorable cut-scenes and a continuously-scrolling world that added a sense of progression missing in many games at the time.
Double Dragon (above) and Double Dragon 2 (below) both feature dramatic opening scenes: in the first game, enemies kidnap your girlfriend; in the second, they shoot her.
The formula worked, and Technos had its first international hit, popularizing the side-scrolling beat-'em-up genre and making a name for itself in the U.S. Before anyone could blink, ports started appearing for every home and portable console within reach.
THE GAME WENT ON TO REGULARLY APPEAR ON LISTS OF THE BEST GAMES OF ALL TIME.
The game went on to regularly appear on lists of the best games of all time, has been often cited as one of the most successful early co-op titles, and - whether because of its narrative approach or simply due to the popularity - led to main characters Billy and Jimmy and enemy Abobo becoming game culture icons.
As Double Dragon became a franchise, however, with many sequels over the next 10 years, it had trouble staying ahead of its competition..
Sequels and spin-offs
Part of Double Dragon's struggle over the years, as Kishimoto laments, is that it's long been one of the game industry's least consistent franchises.
It started as a side-scrolling brawler, but later became a versus fighter. It has kid-friendly art in some games, but edgy content in others. It was a cartoon, a movie, and a comic book - and if you put the three side-by-side, it becomes a "Where's Waldo?" game spotting the similarities. Even the Double Dragon Neo-Geo versus fighting game, which was theoretically based on the live action movie, looked nothing like the movie. And there was a Battletoads crossover.
Perhaps most jarring, each game's promotional artwork ended up looking dramatically different from what came before it, as pointed out by arecent thread on popular message board NeoGAF, giving a taste of a game industry without brand managers.
"MANY DIFFERENT PEOPLE WORKED ON DOUBLE DRAGON'S GRAPHICS OVER THE YEARS."
To some, this inconsistency is part of the series' charm. To Kishimoto, it's embarrassing.
"Many different people worked on Double Dragon's graphics over the years, and Technos often outsourced the game design to external companies, so there was no consistency to the branding or the quality," he says. "I personally find it unfortunate, but that's the way Technos handled its titles."
Kishimoto points to consistency as part of why Double Dragon had trouble keeping up once Capcom released Final Fight in 1989.
"This is something Capcom did very well with Final Fight and is one of the reasons why it succeeded in taking the baton from Double Dragon," he says. "Capcom had better hardware and technology - there was a technical limit to what I was able to do at Technos - and from my understanding, it put a lot of money and effort into properly branding its title."
The Double Dragon movie stands out as particularly off-brand, starring the guy from Iron Chef, the guy from Party of Five, the guy from Terminator 2, and the girl from Who's the Boss? Kishimoto had nothing to do with it. "I can watch it if I don't think of it as a Double Dragon movie," he says. "It's not really a Double Dragon movie."
He says the main issue was the people making the movie weren't in contact with the people who made the games. "I think having the two collaborate is the only way a game can be successfully made into a movie."
Part of the franchise's inconsistency also stems from unofficial products - poke around and you'll find an unlicensed anime series, unofficial games, and bootleg merchandise. "It's very difficult to stop people from copying video game ideas," Kishimoto says. "Technos tried to stop lots of companies from copying its games but ultimately couldn't stop a single one."
"IT'S VERY DIFFICULT TO STOP PEOPLE FROM COPYING VIDEO GAME IDEAS."
One of the higher profile unofficial spin-offs is the Neo-Geo fighting game Rage of the Dragons, which put the word "dragon" in its title and included main character brothers "Billy" and "Jimmy," and boss "Abubo." It was as similar a follow-up as many legitimate Double Dragon games, but made without the blessing of the licensor (at that point a company named Million, which acquired the rights to the Kunio-kun and Double Dragon franchises as Technos went bankrupt).
"I personally had nothing to do with Rage of the Dragons and neither did the license holders," says Kishimoto. "So, technically, it's illegal. But Million is a small company and it doesn't have the finances necessary to stop people from creating Double Dragon spin-offs."
Kishimoto doesn't see all unofficial spin-offs as the end of the world, though. Earlier this year, a group of fans releasedAbobo's Big Adventure, a free Flash side-scrolling brawler starring Double Dragon villain Abobo in what its developers call the "ultimate tribute to the NES," and Kishimoto says he's fully supportive and thinks it's a great game.
"I don't mind if people use the series as long as they make quality products," he says. "There are titles out there that, for example, use the 'Double Dragon' name but have a ninja as the main character, and that's the kind of thing that bothers me. I just want people to protect the franchise by upholding a certain quality in whatever they're making.
In the 25 years since Double Dragon's debut, Kishimoto has taken a variety of jobs.
He spent almost a decade at Technos, where he had his hands in most of the company's lineup. At the time, he says smaller projects took three-to-four months while larger ones took 10-to-12, and he constantly found himself working on two or three games at the same time. It led a a large body of work, though he says he wasn't personally responsible for any of them to the same degree as he was with the original Kunio-kun and Double Dragon.
"Kunio-kun and Double Dragon became franchises after their initial success," he says. "Technos wanted to continue them because both franchises made money, and as a result, I wasn't able to create many other original projects while working there."
He says that's part of why he left, though not the entire reason. "I got tired of making games for the same franchises," he says. "Also, over the years the company made a lot of money and started spending it on real estate and even bought a racing team, so it was spending less and less on game development. Ultimately, I got fed up with the way it was handling its finances."
Post Technos, Kishimoto struck out on his own, collaborating with companies like Compile Heart and Masaya on games that never made it big on the scale of his previous work.
"I GOT TIRED OF MAKING GAMES FOR THE SAME FRANCHISES."
These days, he runs Plophet. Similar to Superbrothers and Mossmouth, it's as much a pseudonym as a studio, with Kishimoto the only employee. He splits his time making mobile games and contracting for Million as a middleman for those looking to use the Kunio-kun and Double Dragon brands.
In 2011, he released iOS board game Vier where players move pieces around a checkerboard, trying to be the first to arrange four of them into a square formation. It's available in both generic and "Nekketsu" versions - the latter using art from the Kunio-kun series.
Double Dragon: Neon
While Vier and a few other projects have kept Kishimoto connected to Kunio-kun and Double Dragon in recent years, a pair of western teams would end up working with him on Double Dragon for the series' 25th anniversary. To revive the franchise, publisher Majesco and developer WayForward approached Million with a license proposal.
After initial negotiations, the companies struck a deal for Double Dragon: Neon, an '80s-themed, primary color dusted, downloadable Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network game. A mash-up of features and scenes from the first three Double Dragon games, remade in a new 3D art style (which in some circles has proven controversial), embracing words like "gnarly" and "bodacious."
In an effort to avoid the kinds of inconsistencies that have appeared in the past, Kishimoto supplied WayForward with graph paper reference sketches, gave approvals on designs, played builds, and sent feedback.
"HE'S HAD EXPERIENCES WHERE HE'S BEEN BURNED DUE TO DEVELOPERS THAT WEREN'T ABLE TO DELIVER THE QUALITY THAT HE WAS PROMISED."
"It was difficult in the beginning stages because [Million and Kishimoto] are very proud of their IP and it's difficult to trust someone to 'update' their game to a more current design," says Taiki Homma, a Majesco producer who funneled all communication to Kishimoto.
"It was important to emphasize to Kishimoto-san how solid WayForward's track record was because he's had experiences where he's been burned due to developers that weren't able to deliver the quality that he was promised," says Homma. "However, once we were able to show the solid artwork and fluid gameplay delivered by WayForward, the approval process became a mere formality.""Overall, I feel it's a very western adaptation of Double Dragon," Kishimoto says. "It feels like a new take on the series; the general mood and feel remind me of the original arcade game, but the mechanics cherry-picked the good parts ofDouble Dragon 2 and 3, and the visual style is very American."
Early on, part of Double Dragon: Neon's development process involved smoothing out communication between WayForward and Kishimoto, given that this was the first time he had worked with a U.S.-based development team.
WayForward director Sean Velasco remembers sending over an early development version of the game with a placeholder main character - Max from Centipede: Infestation - standing in for Billy and Jimmy, and Kishimoto sending back notes about how he looked too young, wasn't strong enough, and didn't have working animations. "It all ended up just being a big miscommunication because it was such an early build," says Velasco. "But you could tell from there, [he] had a very close eye on what we were actually putting together."
Ask Velasco and Kishimoto for examples of legitimate feedback and they both flock to the same one first: Billy and Jimmy's hairstyles.
"They originally had these big soft-serve pompadours," says Velasco, "and he was like, 'No, no, no. We can't do that. They look like aging rockers. If you could make it a little more spiky like the Fist of the North Star guy [that would be a better fit].'"
Kishimoto went on to request putting the music from the original Double Dragon into the game, and raised flags when he noticed combat changes like when WayForward added the ability to run or removed the full nelson grapple to improve the pacing.
"It was that gentle direction of, 'Hey, this is a little different than something that we'd see in a traditional Double Dragon game, but if you guys can explain it or you can make it make sense, then you can go ahead and give it my blessing,'" says Velasco.
With Neon behind him, Kishimoto plans to continue his work at Plophet, consulting and making mobile games.
His current "dream" project, he says unprompted, is to make a fighting game that mixed martial arts fighters would enjoy. "Games today glamorize fighting and depend a lot on special effects," he says. "I want to design a game that makes the fighting experience more realistic."
It's just a concept at the moment, however. Much like in the latter days at Technos, he's having trouble making an ambitious original game, while Double Dragon and Kunio-kun titles tend to fall in his lap.
"Plophet is a small, poor company so I would need to get funding from a big publisher to finance a project of that size," he says. "Unfortunately, Japanese publishers are struggling so it's very difficult to get funding, especially for fighting games that cost a lot to make."
"THERE ARE 10,000 FIGHTING GAMES RELEASED EVERY YEAR, BUT THEY'RE ALL BASED ON THE MECHANICS I CREATED."
But none of this dilutes his confidence as a developer. He still casually throws around claims like how he thinks he's the best fighting game creator in the industry.
Bold, perhaps, considering he hasn't worked on them full time in over 10 years.
"Well, the genre has expanded," he says. "There are 10,000 fighting games released every year, but they're all based on the mechanics I created. The systems and hardware have improved drastically, and I haven't kept up with all of them, but in terms of fundamental game mechanics, I still think I'm the best."The question at this point, inevitably, is if he'll get the chance to prove it.
Yoshihisa Kishimoto/Plophet, WayForward, Majesco, Technos, Retro Game Guide, Atlus, DiC Entertainment, Moby Games, Spong, Imperial Entertainment, Evoga, Team Bobo, Ray Barnholt