Kirby creator gets bad RSI, extols the virtues of trackballs

Masahiro Sakurai, creator of the Kirby franchise and most recently director of Kid Icarus: Uprising, has a problem: his repetitive strain injury is getting to "the point where it's starting to restrict my work and lifestyle," according to his latest Famitsu magazine column.

"Using a mouse, keyboard or gamepad make my arm tired, so I can't use them in a continual manner," Sakurai wrote. The only device I can use for an extended period of time is a joystick. It's posing problems when I'm test-playing something in progress."

RSI is something that affects millions, but for someone like Sakurai who's been coding ever since Family Basic in the mid-1980s, it has to be particularly annoying. "I figure that if I cut down on writing emails and other things, try not to type in so much data myself, and start giving more verbal directions, that'll reduce the amount of keyboard-oriented work I have to do," he said. "But if I'm going to be supervising other people's work, there's no way to cut down the amount of mouse usage I need to perform. I'm trying to work it with my left hand in order to give the right one some rest, but that definitely cuts down on my work efficiency..."

Sakurai's solution: Try using a trackball. You don't see them in large-scale mainstream use these days, but trackballs have a history that predates mice, seeing use in classic arcade titles like Marble Madness and Missile Command.

HAL Laboratory, which Sakurai worked for from 1989 to 2003, made trackballs for a variety of 8-bit computers during the '80s, and they actually played a major part of Sakurai's early game-dev years. "Kirby was drawn with a trackball on the Game Boy and NES," he recalled. "The internal hardware team at HAL came up with a way to connect a trackball to the NES, then use a dev tool that ran on a Twin Famicom disc to draw graphics. It was great because you could draw and animate graphics right on the NES screen with the trackball, clicking on numbers onscreen to go between animation frames. It really had a beneficial effect on HAL's NES and Game Boy development in some ways I think we really had a powerhouse system."

With luck, Sakurai's experience with trackballs will help his arms get better soon. "I've been familiar with trackballs for years," he concluded, "so controlling one should be easy...in theory! Hopefully the day will come when I'm able to use them for extended periods with my right hand again. I hope this gets healed up!"

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