In 1985, artist Akira Yasuda showed up to a Capcom job interview dressed in pajamas and a tie. He left his portfolio at home, saying fans stole his work because it was too good. Asked why he chose pajamas, he replied he wanted to look presentable and that was the only thing he owned with a collar.
Capcom developer Yoshiki Okamoto sat on the other side of the room, amused by Yasuda's antics. Okamoto, himself known for pranks and outlandish behavior, liked Yasuda's work.
Yasuda got the job.
Without realizing it at the time, Okamoto was recruiting a team that, five years later, would develop the competitive fighting game Street Fighter 2. The franchise would go on to sell more than 30 million units. It would become a cologne.
Street Fighter 2 is one of the game industry's biggest success stories, but its history is often told secondhand, through official statements and loosely translated interviews. In an effort to remedy that, over the past year we tracked down more than 20 former Capcom employees and business partners and asked them to tell it in their own words.
They tell a story of extreme personalities coming together to make a game, and the egos, cultural differences, glitches, rivalries, lawsuits and police raids that followed.
Yoshiki Okamoto joined Capcom in 1984 after, as he often mentions, Konami fired him.
He did better at Capcom. Over the course of almost 20 years, he moved from designing arcade games to managing the coin-op department to overseeing the company's lineup. As most who worked with him point out, he took a unique approach to management.
Yoshiki Okamoto (Head of arcade development, Capcom Japan):
I've been told I was fired twice in my career. First, back when I was working at Konami [in the '80s], I was supposed to make a driving game but instead I made a shooter: Time Pilot. [That later contributed to them firing me].
Then the second time was when we were making Street Fighter . I was having an argument with my boss, Mr. Sakai. The argument was really heating up and I threw my pencil at him and hit his forehead. ... I was sure I was right in the argument, but since I threw my pencil at my boss I acknowledged I was wrong. So I went to [Capcom president and founder] Mr. Tsujimoto and asked him to put me in the sales division instead of the development division ... though that didn't end up happening. They actually put Mr. Sakai in the sales division instead.
Brian Duke (Western regional sales manager, Capcom USA):
Okamoto was definitely a character. God, he was so funny. ... He was the most fun character I think I have ever known in this industry.
James Goddard (Location tester and design consultant, Capcom USA):
Amazing ball of energy. Creative, passionate. Did I mention crazy?
Jeff Walker (VP of sales and marketing, Capcom USA):
Every meeting we had, the kid would do something bizarre. He'd get really wasted ... He's the kind of guy who would like run up behind you and try to pull your pants down when we were in Japan. Just a nut 24 hours a day.
He would prank you. He'd send over ideas for video games and want me to give him my input, and it would turn out to be porn. ... I just remember putting the CD into my laptop and playing it for [then Vice President of Sales and Marketing Bill Cravens] and some other people who were in my office at the time, because I thought [it showed] new games and I wanted to get their input on it as well. And instead, I treated them to a porn display. So that's what I was sort of known for after that.
"He would prank you. He'd send over ideas for video games and want me to give him my input, and it would turn out to be porn."
Akira Nishitani (Planner, Capcom Japan):
We often would work really hard, all through the night and into the morning, so during the daytime I would sometimes doze off. One time I fell asleep in a meeting, and Mr. Okamoto turned off all the lights, changed the clock to say 3 a.m. and made everybody leave the room, so when I woke up I felt like, "Oh shit, I slept until 3 a.m."
One time [Okamoto and his team] told me that they were taking me to Soapland, which is the area of Japan that is basically the bathhouses and a prostitution area and stuff. And I kept telling them, "Nah we don't need to do that. Nah, we don't need to." And they dragged me there, and I ended up finding out that it was actually Tokyo Disneyland.
One time he was giving me all kinds of shit and I was about ready to be done with it. And he was sitting there in his office one day, a rare day he had a tie on. So I walked up to him with a pair of scissors and cut his tie off right at his neck.
Okamoto was no pussy, I'll tell you that. He would fight the fight for his games, for his people. And yet, in spite of all that whirlwind of creative and crazy power, he also had lots of good advice.
He was one of the people that would take chances on things. A lot of his developmental team ... they were more inclined to, as they said, use the baseball analogy of it's safer to try to hit a single or a double than go for a home run. Okamoto would go for the home run. It wouldn't always pan out, but he was one of those people that took the chance.
As Okamoto moved up the ladder at Capcom in the late '80s, he began to build a team he felt could make a hit. For the arcade shooter Forgotten Worlds, he brought together artist Akira Yasuda and game designer Akira Nishitani, with Capcom development veteran Noritaka Funamizu overseeing them. The group would soon head up Capcom's biggest titles.
I would say that he's one of the strangest people that I've ever met in my life — in the top five. [Laughs]
There are too many [Yasuda] stories — you'll have to change the tape two or three more times.
Shinji Mikami (Co-worker, Capcom Japan):
He just focuses on drawing. He doesn't care much about anything else. If he draws one line and he doesn't like it, he throws it away.
Tom Shiraiwa (Translator, Capcom Japan):
He always slept under under the desk. He never went back home.
When Capcom moved its studios to a new building, [Yasuda] went to every floor and laid down to see how it felt to sleep there. Every floor.
At one point, [Yasuda] wanted to live a healthy life, so he said, "OK I'm going to drink milk." So he'd always buy these little packs of milk. He'd be working, and then he'd reach down to his little milk packs and drink them. Around his desk, he had like 100 of these packs. So he'd grab one, shake it, and whenever he'd find one with milk in it, he'd drink it and put it back, without even looking at it. And he never knew what the expiration dates were. So he started drinking milk to be healthy, but he was always complaining he had diarrhea.
[Years later] we were working on Red Dead Revolver and we were in the same apartment. And he basically always slept in the closet when there was a huge bed in his room. I just saw his legs coming out of the closet. And I asked him, why is that? And he felt much more peace of mind when he slept in the closet. ...
In some of the rooms [in Capcom's game Resident Evil], you would see a really dirty, beaten up toilet or bathroom or something. ... That's the kind of place he lived in. And he continued that way for a month or two months. And then he started cleaning his room like a maniac. He's a crazy guy. He just cleaned it like 100%, just so perfectly clean. And then he started making trash again. So that's kind of his lifestyle. And he also does the same with his diet. He keeps eating and eating — he's like a pig, right? Then one day he starts all the exercises and the diets like crazy and gets back to normal shape.
Yoko Shimomura (Composer, Capcom Japan):
He has a unique personality — different in a good way. ... I think that talented people are always a little different from the norm. ... There were a lot of people [on the team] who were outside the norm. I might have been the only one who wasn't.
I thought Nishitani was a genius because the way he described things was so different from everyone else. ... One thing I still don't understand is we'd have a pile of games, and Nishitani would say, "This has it. This doesn't have it. This has it. This doesn't have it." And he'd split the pile into two, and the titles that had "it" would always be ones that sold really well, and the ones that didn't were hit and miss. And I could never understand what the "it" was.
I would always approach it more as, "I like this. I don't like this." But Nishitani wasn't going by personal preference — he just had the ability to see clearly what games would sell. And because of that, I was sure that if we made a game that he thought had "it" then it would sell well.
Now there's a very smart, humble guy. He was so talented and he was so quiet. ... He was a planner through and through. And that's the difference. Game designers in America are idea and story guys sometimes. You know, sometimes mechanical guys. There's a wide range of what designer means. But a planner is someone who figures out how the fucking shit's gonna work, and wields all that creative energy and figures out how to make it happen. And Nishitani was the first guy I met that resonated with me as, "Hey this is how you do game design."
Mr. Nishitani really, really loves games. He's always thinking about the game he's making. He's always tweaking the details and just really seriously thinking about how to make the game better. So when someone's like that, you might think they have a very narrow vision — just concentrating on the game from his point of view. But it wasn't like that. When I had a suggestion I thought, "Maybe he won't take me seriously," or "Maybe he's not going to like this." But I just gave it a shot and he would usually say, "Yeah that's a great idea. Let's do that."
As an individual, I didn't think Funamizu was the most talented, but he has a very strong ability to trace people and interpret what they're saying. For me, if you tell me a game concept I might not be able to immediately understand it or continue where your idea left off. But if you tell him what you want and what you're looking for, he can easily interpret what you're saying and carry the baton really well. That's a really strong ability that few people have. It's funny — my boss would get mad, saying, "Funamizu only does the stuff that you tell him to do." But if you think about it, that's an amazing talent to be able to see other people's ideas through. ...
I was also impressed that Funamizu had a really good memory and he would remember every single thing I said. When we were talking, he'd reference things from years earlier. I've never seen anyone else with a memory that good.
He would teach me how to write concepts and the company rules and stuff like that. He was a really nice boss, almost a big brother to me.
Funamizu started at Capcom before Nishitani, but I was telling Funamizu, "Nishitani has talent and he's going to hatch out of his egg. But until he blooms, you and I are going to lead this team." I knew that Nishitani was going to be great.
When it came to work, Mr. Okamoto was very, very strict in the early years [while working on games like Forgotten Worlds]. But after I took over as the director for Final Fight, I feel he was confident in letting me oversee the team. So at that point he and Mr. Funamizu stepped back and were kind of like the producers.
[At that time, Capcom's job titles didn't align with modern standards. Nishitani's "planner" title on Final Fight is analogous to a game director in modern terms, while Yasuda also received a "planner" credit but was closer to an art director. Job titles mentioned in this story reflect team members' roles at the time of (or in some cases, shortly after) Street Fighter 2's arcade release.]
For Nishitani, Yasuda and Funamizu, the transition from Forgotten Worlds to their next project was one of the biggest of their careers.
Around the time of Forgotten Worlds' release, a separate team at Capcom released Street Fighter, a one-on-one arcade fighting game built with punch and kick "pads" that players would hit harder to inflict more damage in the game. Shortly after its release, rival developer SNK headhunted the team behind it, leaving Okamoto to take over Capcom's arcade division and inherit the Street Fighter franchise.
But he didn't jump directly into Street Fighter 2. First came Final Fight.
Joe Morici (Head of consumer games, Capcom USA):
I remember when I first saw [Street Fighter 1] — it had those big rubber [pads] that you punch with your fists. That had to come off the market because everybody was getting injured.
What we were hearing was everyone was getting bloody hands, it wasn't working too well and yadda yadda yadda. They removed the punch pad, they put buttons on it, but they only sold — I want to guess 2,500 to 3,000 units period.
Everyone was talking about the reason why it did not reach the level of success Capcom expected and the controls were the main problem I heard. ... It wasn't until later that customers and players started saying that the six-button [version] worked and earned much better than the units with original pads — and if we had only chosen to market it that way from the beginning, Street Fighter probably would have been the number one game of the year. ... There was a lot of interest in a sequel.
At first, Capcom USA wanted us to make something similar to Street Fighter 1 since it had been a success for them. But at the time Double Dragon was selling really well in Japan, so we decided to make Final Fight instead.
I don't generally do what people ask. Normally you're supposed to listen to your bosses, but I never did. ...
We went to America to do some market research. We went to arcades and watched people — we'd stay for the whole day, days and days, just watching. And we saw that side-scrolling games like Double Dragon were really popular at the time. So we said, "OK, we should make one of those." So we made Final Fight.
Then Capcom told us, "You have to call that 'Street Fighter.'" So we were like, "OK, so let's call this Street Fighter '89." We had it at a convention and we were showing it to people, but Street Fighter's reputation was really bad. So we thought, if the reputation's that bad, we're not going to name it Street Fighter. We're just going to call it Final Fight. ...
Capcom was in trouble at the time. If Final Fight didn't sell well, Capcom might have been in danger of going under. ... But it actually sold more than Capcom executives expected it to, so after it took off, they told me to create Final Fight 2. I'm not the type of person to do what I'm told, though. So I said, "Well, I don't want to do that." And then I decided to make Street Fighter 2.
[Yasuda tells the story differently. In an interview in Udon's Street Fighter X Tekken art book, he says he began early design work on Street Fighter 2 before starting on Final Fight but stopped because of a lack of ROM capacity to make the game he wanted. He also says Capcom renamed Street Fighter '89 not because Street Fighter had a poor reputation, but because the game didn't feel like a Street Fighter title. Nishitani says he doesn't remember the situation clearly, but didn't do any work on Street Fighter 2 himself until after finishing Final Fight. Yasuda declined to speak with Polygon for this story, saying he only does interviews if paid.
Producer equivalent Funamizu also has a slightly different take on the motivation to make Street Fighter 2. In Udon's Street Fighter: Eternal Challenge art book, he says that, after Final Fight, Capcom USA "made it clear" it wanted the team to develop the Street Fighter sequel it asked for originally. Nishitani backs up Okamoto's story, saying Capcom USA asked for a Final Fight sequel and Okamoto disobeyed. Funamizu also declined to speak for this story.]
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