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From arcade to console: “Ace Combat” veterans recall the source of success of the series

Glory, silence, and recovery. After more than 20 years of wind and rain, the “Ace Combat” series is still the highest-selling entertainment flying game. In 2019, the sales of the new game “Ace Combat 7: Unknown Airspace” successfully exceeded the 2 million mark. In order to thank global users for their support, the game has been updated several times this year, rewarding players with camouflage and original equipment.

The behind-the-scenes stories of these original units can be traced back more than 20 years ago. The series first came out as an arcade game, and then moved to the host platform to create its own original world view and body. Many veteran developers of the year are still fighting for “Ace Combat 7”.

From the perspective of the creators of previous games, this article shows the source of success of the series through the memories of the veterans of “Ace Combat”. Without their perseverance and sweat, there would be no player moving in front of the screen.

■ Seeking roots and asking ancestors

Namco developed Japan’s first 3D polygon special substrate System 21 in 1988, and then made 3D shooting games based on it. In 1990, “Little Bee 3” used 3D polygons to display enemy aircraft, and the background was a fixed video played on a CD. “Little Bee 3” is just a fixed-track light gun shooting game, lacks freedom, but still gets praise for its leading-edge graphics.

In 1991, “Star Blade” also used a fixed orbit, but the screen became fully 3D, demonstrating technological progress. At this rate, Namco will soon be able to develop free-flying 3D games.

The enemy plane in “Little Bee 3” is a 3D polygon, and the scene is a fixed video

The screen of “Star Blade” is full 3D, and the movement is still a fixed track

In 1992, “Air Combat” allowed players to freely control F-16 fighter jets to compete with enemy AI. There is only one enemy plane on the same screen in this game, and the scene is deserted, but the fun of free flight guarantees the game’s durability. Namco has tried to make two arcade machines fight in-line, but only the one-on-one fight between two players lacks fun. Adding more players will encounter technical problems and can only give up. “Air Combat” eventually becomes pure Single player game.

Namco did not have a nominal “game director” position in the early years, and the project was often led by the main programmer or main planner. The leader of “Air Combat” Takashi Iwase is an arcade veteran who has applied for dozens of hardware and software patents for Namco. In 2004, Takashi Iwase was transferred to the management of the mobile game department by Namco, and has since faded out of development work.

“Air Combat” provides two types of frames: the normal version and the deluxe version: the normal version uses a smaller CRT screen and seats; the deluxe version provides a 50-inch LCD screen and cockpit seats. However, the cockpit instruments are just furnishings, not actual use. In order to simplify the operation, this work removed the pedal and only retained the joystick and throttle lever. Namco had planned to launch a frame with a complete F-16 nose shape, but it was too expensive.

“Air Combat” arcade frame, the left is the deluxe version, the right is the normal version

“Air Combat” exchanged simplified graphics for the experience of free flight

Although “Air Combat” is just a simple experimental work, it is a great first step for Namco. The plan for this work distilled the essence of the game into “simplifying the operating threshold, allowing players to shoot down enemies in rapid succession, and experience the feeling of a hero in air combat”. This idea is still used by future generations.

The 1995 sequel “Air Combat 22” replaced the base board with a more powerful Super System 22. The picture quality was significantly improved, the number of enemy planes on the same screen increased, and complex battle scenes were realized. The new third-person perspective is also convenient for players to observe. Enemy situation.

The leader of “Air Combat 22” is Jun Omura and Hisako Tako. Both of them are very interested in fighter jets, and they are in charge of such a project. This work can control 3 types of models: F-14, Su-35 and YF-22. Our models only differ in appearance and have the same operating performance.

On the left is Jun Omura, on the right is Tako Kuji

F-14 as a classic carrier aircraft is included in this book

Omura and Tako chose these three models for popularity reasons, but the aesthetics of the two are also different. Omura reviewed the appearance of the fuselage from a third-person perspective. He believed that the F-14’s variable wings and the Su-35’s three-wing layout were very beautiful, but the YF-22 did not look great from the rear. Many people also said that “the invisible machine looks Going up is as weird as a flying saucer.” Duohu’s view is just the opposite. He believes that the YF-22’s flat binary vector spout carries a sci-fi beauty.

Lowering the threshold of the game is still the development goal of “Air Combat 22”, originally a third-person perspective was added as this, and the determination of the cannon has also been strengthened. However, even so, the most basic operation of the game is still difficult for many players to understand. In level flight, pushing the joystick forward means diving, and pulling the joystick backward means climbing. This operation is the same as that of an airplane in reality. However, many people think this design is counter-intuitive. They think that “forward push joystick should be “Climb is right”, this problem can be described as a threshold for 3D flying games.

“Air Combat 22” plans to launch two kinds of frames, the normal version and the deluxe version, but the huge and complex motherboard is difficult to reduce the size, so the normal version was cancelled. Most of the deluxe version frames on the market are upgraded from the previous work “Air Combat”. , Which affected the sales of this work.

Su-35 was Russia’s strongest model

Duohu feels that YF-22’s vector nozzle has a unique beauty

As far as the coin rate is concerned, the income of “Air Combat 22” is not bad. It once entered the top ten in Japan, but it is still not a hot spot. Sega’s 3D fighting game “VR Warrior 2” was the hottest arcade masterpiece in Japan that year, and the coin rate was three times that of “Air Combat 22”. Namco’s most successful arcade game is “Tekken”, which is also a 3D fighting type. Even “Ridge Racing” is a bit more popular than “Air Combat 22”.

Faced with this situation, Omura and Duohu can only smile bitterly. The operating threshold of cars is lower than that of airplanes. This is true for both games and reality. It is expected that the popularity of Ridge Racer surpassed that of Air Combat 22 . After “Spine Racing” ushered in a number of sequels, the “Air Combat 22” team switched from fighters to spaceships.

“Fire Bull” is a very advanced arcade game. The frame is a spaceship for 4 people. The cockpit has a green screen. Players need to wear a helmet-mounted display for the game. The helmet is used to synthesize the background on the green screen. , Its principle is similar to today’s MR (mixed reality) technology game.

The large frame of “Fire Bull” can accommodate 4 players

MR-like special picture technology

Omura and Dahu admitted that they were avid arcade fans at their core, and hoped that Namco would continue to build more powerful hardware. At that time, Namco was indeed developing a new substrate System 30 for the high-end 3D arcade market. However, due to the successful sales of the PS host interchange substrate used in “Tekken”, Namco then decided to abandon the independent research and development of the substrate and switch to the host hardware. The System 30 was eventually cancelled. While disappointed, the two also realized that the arcade gradually The historical trend of recession.

After that, Omura moved to the host field and worked as a producer for series of games such as “Soul of Sword” and “Idol Master”. Duohu is unwilling to give up the arcade industry. He believes that special arcades still have an experience beyond the mainframe. He insists on developing various cockpit frames. This persistence has produced unexpected results.

After many years, Omura became the developer and producer of Ace Combat 7 and managed the work progress. Duohu served as the director of DLC and VR mode. His accumulated experience on the cockpit frame finally provided a reference for the development of the VR mode.

The VR mode of “Ace Combat 7” is directed by Dohu

As the two oldest seniors in the huge team of “Ace Combat 7”, Omura and Dohu are respected by all developers as the veterans. Compared with the crude development tools of the “Air Combat 22” era, the Unreal Engine 4 used by Namco is much more convenient today.

Even so, the speed of tool improvement is still not as fast as the expansion of the game scale. Back then, the “Air Combat 22” team only needed 20 people. Today, “Ace Combat 7” employs hundreds of people. However, no matter how the screen details and development scale change, the essence of the game remains the same. From arcade to console, from SD to HD, Namco still brings players an “air combat hero” experience.

In this regard, the best footnote may be a small logo: the logo of the protagonist Trigger of “Ace Combat 7” is a wolf holding a weapon, which is exactly the same as the ACES squadron logo of “Ace Combat 22”. Omura and Duohu do not know the specific connection between the two. Perhaps this is just an easter egg buried by later generations. More importantly, this spirit has been inherited by young people.

The left is the ACES squadron logo, and the right is the Trigger logo

■ Log in to the host

Namco originally planned to port “Air Combat 22” to the PS console. However, the performance of the Super System 22 is higher than that of the PS. The hardware structure of the two is also different, which brings many technical problems. Eventually the transplant became a new work, and “Ace Combat” was born.

The original “Ace Combat” and “Air Combat 22” are two works developed in parallel. The release of the former is only one month later than the latter. Omura and Duohu produced development documents for two arcade games to provide convenience to the host department. Therefore, although Jun Omura, Kuharu Tako, and Takashi Iwase were included in the credit list by the original “Ace Combat”, these three people did not directly participate in the development of the game, but only indirectly provided help.

Judging by the standards of the console game, the master planner of the original “Ace Combat” was the biological father of the series, but Kato was just an inexperienced novice. The console game is different from the short, flat and fast arcade works. It requires more complicated levels. For this, the team referred to a lot of animation and novel works.

Masao Kato, the leader of “Ace Combat” in early 1995

Fly the stealth aircraft YF-23 in this game

The two animations “Mobile Suit Gundam” and “Macros” are very popular, and they did have some influence on the “Ace Combat” series. However, the two works that really laid the foundation for the game were slightly unpopular.

“War Zone 88” is a serialized work by cartoonist Kaoru Shintani from 1979 to 1986. The story takes the Middle East war as the stage and tells the legendary story of a mercenary pilot. Mercenaries can get a bounty if they shoot down an enemy on the battlefield, and the cost of purchasing the body is deducted from the bounty. This design inspired the “Ace Combat” series of points system.

“Warzone 88” original comics

As a group drama, the mercenary group of “Warzone 88” is full of personality. They exchange bounty for different types of fighters. The rich list of aircraft is like an encyclopedia. This “Wanguo Brand Squadron” is a configuration unacceptable to the regular army, and it is familiar to the players of the “Ace Air Combat” series. However, “Warzone 88” emphasizes the importance of logistics. Equipment procurement personnel are not omnipotent. The shortage of parts will affect the combat effectiveness of the aircraft, which is more realistic than the “Ace Combat” series.

Kaoru Shinya said that the unique body can show the personality of the character, for which he even put the non-combat aircraft into battle. In reality, the X-29 was just a test machine built to test the forward-swept wings, but went to the battlefield in the comics. The original “Ace Combat” also followed this idea, including the hopeless mass-produced prototype YF-23 into the protagonist’s collection. In addition, “Warzone 88” also conceived a large number of thrilling special missions, such as high-speed drilling and flying in a canyon, which provided inspiration for the level design of the “Ace Combat” series.

Test machine X-29 in battle

“Warzone 88” has launched two adapted animations. The OVA version in 1985 became a classic, and the TV version in 2004 received mediocre response. Because there is no new work all year round, the younger generation of players do not understand “Warzone 88”, most of them are exposed to the above classic settings through the “Ace Combat” series. In the end, the “Ace Combat” series became the spiritual successor of “War Zone 88”, and Kaoru Niitani himself accepted this.

“Battle Fairy Snow Wind” is a novel serialized by science fiction writer Shen Lin Changping from time to time. In 1979, when the novel began serialization, modern fighters such as F-14, F-15 and F-16 were already in service. However, most readers knew little about the future of air combat. Shen Lin Changping used his rich aviation knowledge and keen insight to write an epic masterpiece on informationized battlefields, super-mobile air combat and drones, and slowly watched his predictions gradually over the next 40 years. Become reality.

“Battle Fairy Snow Wind” original novel

The essence of the original novel “The Battle Fairy Snow Wind” is to explore the symbiotic relationship between humans and machinery, and to refine this relationship into metaphysical thinking. The 2002 OVA animated version of “Battle Fairy Snow Wind” has a more gorgeous body design, but due to space limitations, the content of the novel cannot be fully restored. The animated version focuses on original fighters and aerial fortresses, downplaying technical thinking, and the same is true for the “Ace Combat” series of games. Of course, animation and games are different carriers from novels, and such a choice is understandable.

Among the team of the first “Ace Combat”, the developer who is most qualified to represent this series is the artist Masato Kanno. He has since participated in all orthodox works in the series and laid the art tone. When he was a boy, Sugano was full of interest in flying and the universe. He used to save the animation of Macross on TV on video tape and watch it repeatedly. The art design of sci-fi business cards such as “A Space Odyssey 2001”, “Alien” and “Blade Runner” also had a deep influence on him. Out of his love for “Little Bee 3” and “Star Blade”, Kanno became an employee of Namco. The first work in charge was the original “Ace Combat”.

In order to familiarize himself with the drawing software, Masao Kanno drew a phoenix logo as an exercise, which was formally appreciated by the chief planner, Kato. This logo has not only become a symbol of Phoenix, the protagonist of the original game, but has also been hung on the title and cover, and has even become the paint for all our aircraft.

The development team couldn’t be all aviation fans like Masato Kanno. According to Kato’s regular memories, three of his staff had no knowledge of aircraft at the time, and one was a ship fan. He didn’t expect these people to do much. Unexpectedly, that ship fan designed an air fortress. Despite its rough shape, this aerial fortress went down in history as the first original body of the “Ace Combat” series, achieving a leap from scratch.

Senior Artist Masato Kanno

The Phoenix logo is printed on the game title and body

The sky fortress that will appear as the final boss

In order to make up for the regret that the two arcade games did not have a battle mode, the first generation of “Ace Combat” added a two-person split-screen battle mode, but both players and Namco lacked enthusiasm for this mode, resulting in intermittent split-screen battles in the series. , Was eventually completely replaced by online battles.

In 1995, the Internet was still underdeveloped, and players’ feedback after the game was released mainly relied on mail envelopes. After the first generation of “Ace Combat” was released, Namco received replies from Japanese players filled with several boxes. Some people wrote their own scripts in the form of fan fiction, and some people drew a new original machine sketch, and the discussion was not hot. No less than the current Internet age.

Many replied letters believe that “the sequel should choose low-key military painting and give up the conspicuous phoenix pattern.” Masato Kanno’s response to this is hard to say. When designing this logo, he thought of the painting of motorcycles rather than fighter planes. He himself felt that this pattern lacked military flavor, but Kato regularly insisted on adopting the publicity painting. In fact, players can use hidden commands to turn the body into military camouflage, but obviously not everyone knows this feature.

What’s interesting is that as time goes by, more and more players are tired of low-key military camouflage, and become more interested in the publicity of the Phoenix logo. Twenty years later, the PS3 online game “Ace Combat: Infinite” pushed the Phoenix painting as an active skin, but it was well received.

Phoenix camouflage in “Ace Combat: Infinite”

The global cumulative sales of the original “Ace Combat” was 2.23 million, and it was one of the most popular works in the early days of the PS console. Kato was promoted to producer as a result, but after many years he will also serve as “Ace Combat X” and ” The director of “Air Killer: Flawless Ace”, continues to fight on the front line of development.

■ To mature

In 1997, “Ace Combat 2” has made significant progress in graphics, levels and music, and the series has entered a mature stage. Many developers that players are familiar with today also join the series team with this as a starting point.

As the most photogenic spokesperson, Kazunori Kono is the most familiar face of the series players. Kono studied design in university. At first he planned to enter the advertising industry. Later, he saw that the game industry generally lacked design cells, so he joined Namco. Kono originally wanted to be a planner, but at that time there were enough plans, and his superiors chose it as an art.

The graphics of “Ace Combat 2” has improved significantly

Kono Kazun started to participate in the series work from “Ace Combat 2”

Within Namco, Kono is a well-known control freak. His position has been continuously improved since then: art director, game director, producer, brand director… Kono said that from the beginning he was not simply satisfied with art work, he hoped He manages all aspects of the game and often studies things outside his job. In the end, he becomes the “brand director” is also his own requirement, so that he can manage all the details in a justified manner.

Kono’s first game as an art artist was “Ridge Racing 3” on the PS platform. At that time, Kono saw that his colleagues’ work was not pleasing to the eye, so he changed the textures made by others without permission. Colleagues denounced as “problem boy”, but his excellent art skills have also been affirmed.

Only one week after the work of “Ridge Racing 3”, the non-stop Kono Kazun joined the development team of “Ace Combat 2” and met Masaru Kanno who also paid attention to details. Both were responsible for the scene art and often focused on the details of the screen. The disputes caused the game to be postponed, and this relationship continues to this day.

However, Kono Kazun also admitted that Masaru Kanno does have a deep artistic skill. During the development of “Ace Combat 2”, the level scenes in charge of Masaru Kanno were higher than those of others. Kazun Kono needed a bowl of water and smoothness to improve the pictures of other scenes to the same level as possible.

The strategic map of “Ace Combat 2” has expanded from an archipelago to a continent, leaving behind a large number of classic scenes: the island base of Fort Grays, the port city of Anchorhead, the ice sea and snowfields of Snider’s Top, the tropical rain forest of Chopinburg, The sunset over the Spring Sea…These scenes have continued to today’s “Ace Combat 7”.

The continental strategic map still in use today

Anchorhead, a port city deduced by PS function

Another artist who emerged in “Ace Combat 2” is Yabuki Isshin, who is responsible for the body shape. In the previous game, Yabuki just converted the existing machine body into a game model. This game finally gave him the freedom to play.

The XFA-27 designed by Yabumu is the first original fighter in the series that can be manipulated by players. It uses variable wings similar to the F-14 and refers to the design of stealth aircraft such as YF-22 and YF-23. The XFA-27 engine is equipped with a vector nozzle that can turn left and right, and has a reverse thrust device for landing, but the picture of this work cannot show more details, and the relevant settings will not be realized until several sequels many years later.

The body model of the original “Ace Combat” is completely fixed. “Ace Combat 2” adds a small number of movable parts with limited range. For example, only the variable wing part of XFA-27 is movable. In fact, because the third-person perspective is fixed behind the body, a large number of polygons on the nose and belly are omitted from this perspective. This is naturally to ensure the number of frames.

Affected by “Battle Fairy Snow Wind”, “Ace Combat 2” has joined the drone family named “Zone of Endless”. The strongest body ADF-01 is dedicated to AI and cannot be driven by players. . The ADF-01 does not have a glass cockpit and uses sensors to directly capture the battle conditions outside the body. This design is unforgettable.

XFA-27 with excellent mobility

The third-person perspective omits a lot of polygons of the nose and belly

ADF-01 is dedicated to AI in this game

The eye-catching logo of the original “Ace Combat” only had a phoenix painting, and the two gorgeous original machines of “Ace Combat 2” became the series’ totem. Yabuki Yishin has since participated in the original machine design of all the orthodox sequels of the series, constantly bringing new visual impact to players.

Musician Tetsuichi Nakanishi also joined the “Ace Combat 2” team after the development of “Ridge Racing 3”. In his early years, he worked at Tecmo and made the soundtrack for “Super Bowl Rugby”. After that, he moved to Namco. He has become the core musician of the “Ace Combat” series and has persisted to this day.

In the original “Ace Combat”, Dongshan Chaoyang was responsible for designing the task process and enemy AI behavior as a planner. He was promoted as the main planner in “Ace Combat 2”, but the focus of his work remained unchanged. Dongshan asked the entire development team to brainstorm and provided 200 ideas. He himself was responsible for organizing the ideas into actual levels.

Tetsuichi Naka and West who contributed countless classic soundtracks to the series

“Ace Combat 2” leader Dongshan Chaoyang

Dongshan’s most impressive hurdle is the 17th hurdle, “Into the geothermal plant base”. The player starts to act at 14:57 in the game and cleans up the surrounding enemies within 3 minutes. Entering 15:00, the heat dissipation gate of the base will automatically open, and players need to get into the base to destroy the factory.

Dongshan Chaoyang proposed to prepare two soundtracks for the level, playing a more soothing track when cleaning the periphery, and playing a fast-paced track after the gate is opened. Nakanishi Zheyi initially thought that one soundtrack was enough and there was no need to prepare two, but he was eventually convinced by Dongshan Chaoyang. The origin of this idea comes from the theater version of the animation “Macro: Did You Remember Love”. The songs that sounded during the decisive battle made Dongshan fully appreciate the effect of music switching on changing the atmosphere.

However, this well-designed level almost broke out in the later stages of development. “Ace Combat 2” introduces 3D maps and dubbing commentary for the mission briefing. This also means that the team cannot change the level settings at will, otherwise the briefing part will have to be redone. In the later stages of development, Dongshan believed that “it would be more reasonable to use night cover action”, so he changed the scene from day to night. It was not until the eve of the game press that he remembered that the dubbing of the briefing was “break in at 15:00”.

At this time, the team had no time to re-dub or change the lighting. Dongshan came up with a clever remedy. He asked the artist to change the moon in the sky background into the sun in a total solar eclipse. After the game was released, many players praised this level. They thought that “the use of total solar eclipse cover action is very creative”, and finally let Dongshan breathe a sigh of relief.

Mission design drawing of “Into the geothermal plant base”

The sun in a total solar eclipse

The use of hidden elements to flexibly adjust the difficulty is a major feature of this game. For example, in the 14th level “low altitude surprise operations”, if the player maintains the flying altitude below 600 feet in the first stage, he can avoid the detection of the airport radar and destroy the enemy. Destroy the bombers on the runway, including the bombers that must be destroyed to enter the hidden checkpoint. The player can also rush over regardless of the height limit, but in this way the enemy will immediately take off, the bomber will choose to fly away, and the fighter will come to intercept the player. Dongshan’s recommended gameplay is naturally low-altitude penetration, so that the early stage of the level will be more dull, and the later stage will be more refreshing, with strong contrast and relaxation.

The performance of the machine is also a major point of difficulty adjustment. As the bounty continues to increase, the player’s machine is getting stronger and stronger, and the levels must be adjusted. This game contains a number of drilling levels. The route of the previous level “Break through the Canyon Base” is relatively simple. At this time, the player’s body is weak, and the straight-line flight path is not difficult, and the speed is full. The route of the later stage “Driving into the Submarine Base” is more tortuous. At this time, the player has also obtained a stronger body and can pass more complicated tests.

The process of “low-altitude surprise operations” is relaxed

The trajectory of “Breakthrough Canyon Base” is dominated by straight lines

The trajectory of “breaking into the submarine base” is more tortuous

The mission designed by Dongshan for “Ace Combat 2” can be described as a textbook-level template. After that, whether it is the sequel of the series or similar games of other companies such as “Air Force Delta”, “Eagle Strikes the Sky”, in terms of mission design, they have not departed from this Frame.

The cumulative global sales of “Ace Combat 2” is 1.09 million, which is only half of the previous game, but its reputation has improved significantly. If the sales of the first generation of “Ace Combat” largely accounted for the lack of game lineup in the early PS, then “Ace Combat 2” has stood out in the market where the masterpiece is like a cloud by virtue of its excellent quality.

“Ace Combat 2” cover design sketch

After that, Dongshan Chaoyang faded out of the “Ace Combat” series and participated in the development of a variety of “Mobile Suit Gundam” games. He finally left Namco in 2012. Higashiyama now often teaches as a lecturer, teaching his own game development theory to the younger generation.

Summarizing his career, Dongshan believes that game development cannot rely solely on enthusiasm or intuition, at least he himself cannot do it, because enthusiasm and intuition will sooner or later run out. For this reason, he keeps observing other film and television and novel works, thinking about the logic behind his success, and what he encounters in daily life has become the material for his observation.

It took tens of thousands of hours for Dongshan to sum up his own creative theory. This is a common situation for game directors, as well as sports players or novel writers. When Higashiyama was young, he set himself a goal of watching 100 movies a year and spending 500,000 yen to buy books as a reference. This figure was just average in the game industry at the time.

Now Dongshan can still recall his childhood life. At the age of 10, he hopes to buy a model of the X-wing fighter from “Star Wars”, but because the imported toys are too expensive, he tried to shape the X-wing fighter out of origami. Instead, it attracted the attention of classmates.

Dongshan can still easily fold out that X-wing paper airplane

Dongshan believes that no matter how old he is, he needs to maintain his 10-year-old mental state, be interested and curious about everything, and think more about “why” to get more answers. In this way, even a veteran who has passed the fateful year can continue to maintain vitality.

Source: Touch Music


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