A chat with the legendary designer about his entry into the industry and his love of retro games.
I’m sitting across a table from Hideki Kamiya, mildly taken aback. This is, in part, because his response bypassed our translators entirely and came directly in English. Mostly, though, it’s because – I’m realising as my mind races to reshuffle the subsequent questions – this is not the typical answer given by an industry legend when asked how often they’re able to actually play games.
A much more typical answer is some level of remorse over not being able to play much these days, but that they found titles X or Y interesting over the past year or two. Be it because of a supernatural need for very little sleep, incredible talent and time-management, or perhaps just games really being his core pastime, Kamiya is very much not one of the typical.
Soon after, I am being schooled on not knowing enough about Columns. He is in disbelief that I dislike the music, until it becomes apparent that I’m only familiar with the Mega Drive game. According to the mind behind Devil May Cry and Okami, it’s all about COLUMNS 97 on the Sega Saturn: “The music is really good! You should try it!”
He’s right, it turns out. Columns on the Saturn sounds much better than the Mega Drive version in every way. But that’s not really the part of Kamiya’s after-hours gaming that is of particular interest. What stands out is how it reflects his preferences.
“I play a lot of classic games, Arcade Archives stuff,” he says. “I’m not up to date. It’s kind of a weak point.”
I play a lot of classic games… I’m not up to date. It’s kind of a weak point.“
While he does acknowledge that his fixation with retro perhaps helps him to create “apparently more unique” games, he still feels that this is something of an Achilles’ heel. He tries to play and study more modern titles, but just keeps on getting drawn back to eras gone by. In some ways, it feels like he is now looking backwards, away from when he first entered the industry, back towards his earliest childhood memories of playing games in the less densely-populated prefecture of Nagano, when childlike innocence allowed one to see games as things that just kind of appeared sometimes, as if from the ether.
“From childhood onwards, I really liked games,” he explains. “I used to play them at these ‘game corners’ in department stores.” This is pretty easy to envision. Many Western readers, certainly, will likely have memories of two or three arcade cabinets begging to eat their change while waiting on an order in the local takeaway shop. “By the time I was in junior high, I would go to arcades. I just really liked to play games – just playing games, and nothing much else.”
During much of this time, games were purely a hobby: a favourite pastime, certainly, but nothing greater than that.
“It was only after I read a magazine that contained articles about Shigeru Miyamoto and Masanobu Endo – the director of Xevious – that my thinking kicked into gear,” he admits. “That article really inspired me. I started to think of games more as creative works that were crafted by people, that maybe I can create something like the games I loved as well.”
There was just one small problem: this was a young industry that lacked formal training pathways. Kamiya, it seems, got his break by making the right effort while groping around in the dark. “When it came to making games, there weren't really any game design-related courses at the time, it wasn’t something I could major in… so I just went for it.”
‘Going for it’ involved a lot more than polishing up a CV and filling in some forms. He wanted to be a designer, and so Kamiya went to the extent of producing full game-design documentation to send to various video game companies. “I had designed this entire world and made these characters and this story that I presented to these companies, but as a result of this, one company, Namco, wanted to hire me as an artist instead,” he says, laughing. Despite how he may feel about his first design attempts today, they also managed to land him an offer from Capcom.
I read a magazine that contained articles about Shigeru Miyamoto and Masanobu Endo… That article really inspired me. “
This created something of a dilemma. “I had loved Namco’s games since I was a child,” Kamiya elaborates, while also making it clear that his feelings towards Capcom at the time were, to put it nicely, less enthusiastic. However, while Namco had interest in him as someone who could draw, the offer from Capcom was in the role of a planner / designer. “I had to choose between the ideal job at what I felt wasn’t the ideal company, or compromise my role to work for Namco. I was flip-flopping between them. In the end, I wanted a designer role, so I decided to work for Capcom.”
Times were changing, however, and for both better and worse the industry was moving away from those colourful Namco arcade titles that he had grown up loving. “I went to the show that preceded TGS and saw Namco’s booth. There were all of these games with sophisticated graphics. Watching Ridge Racer running at 60 frames per second was mind-blowing. Sega, too, was there with Virtua Fighter,” he says. The future of highly-detailed 3D games obviously excited the young Kamiya, and so when he found that Capcom’s presence was centred around a new revision of Street Fighter 2, his heart sank: “I was really worried and wondered if I had made a bad decision.”
It was perhaps the audacious way that Kamiya had applied for this work that proved his saving grace. As highlighted by Namco expressing interest in hiring him as an artist, the game designs that he had put together and sent in were visually rich and this is perhaps what secured his pass to work with the then-new 3D game developments he was so excited about.
“I was new and didn’t have any authority to choose my own projects,” he says. “But Shinji Mikami saw my drawings and thought I’d be a good fit for the cinematic aspects of his next game. Things such as setting camera angles and creating visual concepts for cut-scenes.”
And just like that, despite having no stomach for horror, Kamiya found himself working on Resident Evil. It’s a bit wild to think about, in hindsight. Resident Evil was his very first title, and from there he was bumped up to a game director role for the immediate sequel, Resident Evil 2. Despite Kamiya’s own general dislike of horror, hindsight has it making some sense that he was working on titles that traded so heavily in mood and atmosphere. He had entered the industry by accidentally impressing prospective employers with his artistic talent when he was trying to show an understanding of game design, after all.
Shinji Mikami saw my drawings and thought I’d be a good fit for the cinematic aspects of his next game. “
When asked if the atmosphere-first nature of Resident Evil rubbed off on him in any way, Kamiya takes a moment to think, likely wanting to say something more useful than a variant of maybe-but-also-maybe-not.
“At first, when working on games such as Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe and Okami, I would focus on an image – say, this stylish character with two guns for Devil May Cry – in my mind and have a very good artistic picture of what I wanted this to be,” he says, opening up a bit about his early design process. “As far as mechanics were concerned, I really relied on the talent and abilities of those around me to make it all come together.”
This approach lasted for some years, and while, when asked, Kamiya struggles to suggest what it is that has enabled him to remain relevant for so long, his openness about a continued need to learn, even when in senior roles, likely plays a part. “It wasn’t until I got to designing Bayonetta that the mechanics, as well as the style and design,” he tells us without a hint of hesitation, “that it all finally seemed to come together and I had this really strong grasp on everything.”
Not that Bayonetta has ever been in want of style. I mention that my favourite parts of the first game were the manic moments of Sega fan-service, particularly when it went all-in on After Burner. This is hardly an isolated example, and Kamiya seems to enjoy such indulgences: “When we were developing Bayonetta 2 on Nintendo hardware, they were kind enough to let us slip in some Nintendo IP; in the form of alternative costumes, for example,” he says. “It’s easier to do this with companies that you’re actively working with, but the one I would like to do next would be to work with Konami and do something with the Gradius IP. I think it would make the fans happy if I could use some of the music.”
Without the need for further prompting, he also adds, with just a hint of regret, that “I actually wanted to make a sequel to the game Getsu Fūma Den, but one already came out.”
Kamiya clearly isn’t lying when he says that he is playing mostly classic games, the stuff of his own childhood. It’s a theme that hangs in the air. While his entrance into the games industry was coloured by excitement for a future built from millions of texture-mapped polygons, the man we’re speaking to now, perhaps as a result of learning more and more about mechanics, or perhaps simply due to life experience, is giving greater importance to looking back. Notably, while he speaks of a variety of genres, the roads almost always end up curving back towards shmups.
In this sense, it seems unsurprising that his most recently-released work fits into this genre. Indeed, on the surface, SOL CRESTA – a sequel to a pair of 1980s shmups – seems like a long overdue work of self-indulgence, but for a good while the prospect of going so far as to twist the entire genre was on the table. What started as a dock-and-split gameplay idea caused sudden remembrance of the previous games, Moon Cresta and Terra Cresta. Platinum had always been about creating original titles, and Kamiya timidly consulted with Inaba about this conflict between original title and actual sequel.
The final product shows, pretty clearly, that an evolution of the original is where the team at Platinum landed. “Eventually, we collaborated with Hamster Corporation to help us create this style or… feeling, really. Like you’re in an arcade. We thought that harking back to this old-style arcade experience was maybe something that would get people’s attention.”
Did it get people's attention? Yes and no. The arcade cabinet set up at Platinum’s booth at this year’s BitSummit managed to stand out among an ever-growing collection of impressive-looking games on show, but it – and the series it belongs to – could never become the backbone of what Platinum is all about.
“Maybe, in terms of sales, SOL CRESTA wasn’t the most successful game,” Kamiya says. “But people have been enjoying it, so in that sense it’s a success.”
It seems pretty clear that this is a game that Kamiya was particularly enthusiastic about designing. There’s a genuine fondness for the types of games that inspired it, even a degree of hero worship. When he told us about the magazine article that inspired him to think about games creatively, it wasn’t Miyamoto that stood out to him. It was Masanobu Endo: “Endo was one of the bigger names in videogames at the time,” he says, keen for more people to know. “I believe, if I’m right, that he is one of the first people in Japan to have come out publicly as a game creator.”
This may go a long way in explaining that elusive staying-power that Kamiya himself has been unable to explain; too modest to deeply consider. His taste in games is very much his own, not guided by popularity, review scores or modern trends. His work comes from where he is at that moment, and right now, for all of the pies that he has fingers in, he seems to be particularly enjoying working on smaller projects: “In my current role, I’ve been able to be involved in many different projects. I’m very satisfied with the types of things I’ve been able to produce,” he says. “But, if Platinum decided to move forward only focusing on big, AAA games, I would find that very boring.”
Fans of Kamiya’s larger, more famous works have little to fear, though. The realities of keeping the lights on means that Platinum’s future will likely consist of plenty of both. “On the other hand,” he concludes, “if we focused only on more modest, targeted experiences like SOL CRESTA, we likely wouldn’t be able to turn enough profit to survive.”
Tim Henderson is an Australian games journalist who, despite living in Osaka for numerous years, somehow ended up organising this particular interview in Kyoto. He is (at least at present) not blocked on Twitter by Kamiya and you can find him here.