Behind the Story

12/26/2021
DODONPACHI DAI-OU-JOU
:: 怒首領蜂大往生
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  • SPS
  • That’s the type of person I am. Or to put it another way, that’s my only real talent.
  • // Chapter 1
  • “Everyone laughed the first time they saw the final boss. It was like something I would’ve thought up—something an elementary school kid would’ve thought up (laughs).”

    DoDonPachi DaiOuJou boasts some of the highest difficulty in the long history of the shoot-‘em-up genre. “Hibachi” is its legendary final boss. From the moment the encounter begins, Hibachi seems to have no intent of letting you evade its ferocious onslaught. The fundamental strategy for this boss is the same now as it ever was: spend your own lives to unload your firepower into him. “It’s not one you can win in a fair fight.”

    “I asked Umehara-san up front, ‘Why would you pick this title?’ I mean, DaiOuJou is the least suitable shoot-‘em-up for a one-off competition.”

    The difficulty is so high that there’s a non-trivial chance it won’t even make for entertaining viewing. This is what SPS means in the above quote, and yet Umehara told SPS he intended to have the two players conduct a simultaneous competition in this game.

    “Umehara-san had only decided to have a score competition between fufufu-san and me. He didn’t actually know anything about the game.”

    In the game’s intensely difficult second loop, players’ lives are brought down to zero. There are no continues. It’s not uncommon for even the most dexterous players to get a game over after making a slight mistake. Indeed, DonDonPachi DaiOuJou is a game where this happens daily. Nevertheless, Umehara states his intent to go through with it “for real.”

    “Even after I explained all that, he said it was on. At that point, I’ve got to go for it. Outcome be damned.” SPS steeled his own resolve.
  • // Chapter 2
  • SPS had been a home console gamer as a young boy, but he began frequenting the arcade in middle school. In his native Shikoku in the nineties, arcades were treated as a “haven for delinquents.” They weren’t considered a place for kids to play, but there was an undeniable attraction to them. He would play anything and everything, regardless of genre.

    Whenever he was close to and arcade, he would get so excited, he couldn’t help but “break into a sprint.” This was what the arcade was to him. Anyone who grew up in the age where arcade games were special will know this feeling well.

    It may come as a bit of a surprise that the crux of his gaming career wasn’t shoot-‘em-ups, but Puyo Puyo. He was good enough to win his way through the Osaka qualifiers at an official tournament (the “Bayoeen Tour”) and qualify for nationals. Nationals allowed him to make friends with other Puyo Puyo players from around the country, and he began making yearly pilgrimages to play against them. This was SPS’s entry point into the gaming community.

    His first foray in the shoot-‘em-up genre was after watching a strategy video of the shoot-‘em-up Battle Garegga at a fellow Puyo Puyo player’s house in Tokyo. Battle Garegga was included in the Kemonomichi 3 title lineup, so its memory is sure to be fresh in the minds of many readers.

    “I thought, ‘Man, what is this?’ I wanted to try dodging the ‘winder.’”

    Black Heart is the boss that appears in stages five and seven, a jet black tailless airplane. Its strafing machine gun fire is commonly known as “the winder.” It was an attack concept that had never existed in shoot-‘em-ups before, and the visual impact was incredible.

    Shoot-‘em-ups saw a rapid increase in difficulty during a certain period, and became a genre unwelcoming to beginners. Still, this did nothing to deter SPS’s desire to try them.

    “The weirdos who actually had the nerve to want to try these games were the only ones left.”

    This statement is nearly identical to one of his opponent, fufufu. Shoot-‘em-up players, sometimes referred to [in Japan] as “shooters,” are people of an odd disposition.
  • // Chapter 3
  • RayStorm, Radiant Silvergun, Batrider… Battle Garegga wasn’t available at his local arcade, but there was no shortage of titles that would later be dubbed classics.

    SPS’s foray into shoot-‘em-ups started with nothing. He had no theory, no information, no peers. He would simply read the strategy articles in GAMEST magazine and copy them. In a rural neighborhood, that was all one could do. His scores weren’t up to a nationally competitive level; his focus was on improving his personal best. And he did improve, little by little, but looking back, he says he “certainly wasn’t very good.” Nevertheless, he enjoyed the game enough to keep at it.

    Things changed in the 2000s, with the emergence of the social networking site, “mixi.” SPS was invited to a shoot-‘em-up community, allowing him to acquire first-hand strategy tips. Still, this game wasn’t so soft that that was enough to make all the difference. More trial and error ensued.

    “I was completely on my own. Even with information at my disposal, it felt like I had to figure things out for myself to get anywhere.”

    Even useful information was nothing more than text and hearsay. Understanding the minute details on screen and reproducing those strategies correctly was no easy task. Simply mimicking things at surface value didn’t work. It was around this time that DoDonPachi DaiOuJou came out.

    “When DaiOuJou came out, I just kept playing and playing. All I could do was build experience.” There was no advice. No way to capture footage. “I wasn’t experienced enough to get any feedback, so all I could do was grind experience. But that’s not good enough, you know? I would never win (in the score attack scene) that way.”

    Why move that way? He would start with pure mimicry and work up to an understanding, repeating the grind day after day. It was only after many years of this that he realized he’d gotten any better.
  • // Chapter 4
  • SPS had been living the shooter life in Kagawa until moving to Tokyo in 2008. The catalyst was the Xbox 360 port of Cave shoot-‘em-up Ketsui: Kizuna Jigoku Tachi.

    “Gan”—a man familiar with both SPS and fufufu, and an incredible shoot-‘em-up player in his own right—was a play tester for the Ketsui port when he approached SPS, who at the time held the high score for the “A” ship.

    SPS’s only connection to Gan was that they’d met when Gan visited Kagawa from his home in Kanto a year earlier.

    “I replied right on the spot. ‘Okay, I’ll quit my job and head over’ (laughs).”

    SPS had a full-time job as a salaried employee, but he quit and came to Tokyo a week later. This was only a short-time gig for a few months, yet he had no hesitation.

    “You can find work if you look for it. You can do anything you put your mind to. But if I’d refused then, I probably wouldn’t have ever had another opportunity to work in game development. I saw it as a chance.”

    He was approaching the end of his twenties, an age when you start to have some idea of your own stature and potential. It was surely no bad thing to have a stable job in one’s hometown. Yet he had no reservations about this offer. That was how important shoot-‘em-up games were to him.

    “It’s pretty stupid, right? I got swept up in the excitement (laughs). He said they’d set up a place for me to live, but once the port was out, that was it. That was the agreement.”

    He would get to work on the shoot-‘em-ups he loved so much. “That was really all that mattered.”

    Once he was in Tokyo and working on play testing, SPS quickly came to understand why Gan had reached out to him. Though the game wasn’t bad, from the perspective of a diehard shoot-‘em-up player, it left much to be desired. He felt strongly that the game “must not be released in its current state.”

    “No one wants to be involved in something only for the reaction to be, ‘Geez, that’s it?’”

    Something felt indescribably off due to differences in hardware. There were slight differences in how the game behaved that were difficult to fully convey. In order to facilitate side-by-side comparisons, the two recorded video at the arcade. They went well beyond what was asked of them.

    Gan: “I had my day job to worry about, but SPS worked on it around the clock. If he hadn’t, the Xbox 360 version wouldn’t have been as good as it was.”

    To have one’s name in a game’s credits is a goal and an honor for many shoot-‘em-up players, including Gan. “We felt the same way,” says SPS. He, too, was praised for his work ethic and was able to continue working on the game development side.

    Gan: “I was relieved. Before reaching out to him, I’d wondered if it was really right to set him up with no foundation.” SPS’s stay in Tokyo was extended incrementally. The contract for the housing provided by the company had expired, so he moved into Gan's house. It didn't take long for the two of them to become close friends.
  • // Chapter 5
  • “In general, I like to reason things out,” SPS says. That’s not to say improvisation and playing by feel are beyond him, but, he says, “If I can’t reproduce it, it affects my success rate.” So SPS’s style is to reason things out logically as much as possible.

    “Besides, looking at it objectively, I have to imagine my ability to play by feel is no match for the best players out there, so I’d rather not bank on that.”

    For example, in the case of DoDonPachi, in the most difficult situations such as stage 2-5, he prioritizes survival. His opponent, fufufu, on the other hand, remained focused on score even in those situations in their past score attack rivalry. Even in a top-tier score battle, the right answer is different for each player. They each have a different strategy.

    The prodigious fufufu is able to make bold point grabs even in tricky situations. He may be the more skilled player overall. If they competed for average results over numerous attempts, fufufu might come out on top. “However,” says SPS, “The scary thing about high scores is that it's not enough to have a high average. You only need to get the highest score once, so it's not a world where only the strongest players win. You also need luck, and to be able to connect everything in a single run. So it’s hard to say. Of course, it's easier to win if you're good at what you do, but that's not always the case in all titles.

    Maybe it could be likened to being a “strong driver” in motorsports. The goal in a race isn’t to have the fastest lap or to get first place in the qualifying session. It’s also not to get a big lead and overwhelm the opposition. You construct a race by calculating backwards the steps that will lead to victory. Identify the necessary gambles without wasting time, all while maintaining a safety margin. These are the skills not of a “fast” driver, but of a “strong” one.

    “This game isn’t so generous that you can get by on sheer skill.” SPS’s way of speaking brims with the persistence of a tactician. In DaiOuJou, even these two masters have no guarantee of clearing the second loop. Seeing what elements they focus on is sure to be a highlight of this event.

    Gan: “For those who haven’t seen it before, the 2-1 boss’s opening blanket of bullets is pretty amazing. I think the whole shoot-‘em-up community is going to be wringing their hands, saying ‘Don’t be hasty, please. Don’t do anything rash.”

    Gan is talking about the stage 1 boss during the second loop, one of the game’s difficulty spikes and a “place for prayer.” After clearing the first loop, your extra lives are reduced to zero. In that state, players must avoid a blanket of bullets that includes many random elements. Just watching is enough to make one’s “heart hurt.”

    Gan: “Even while I’m watching over his shoulder, I’m (mentally) dodging those bullets along with him…but I can’t keep up. It’s like a building pressure.”

    Although the event rules allow one retry even after a game over, if a player makes a mistake, his last twenty minutes of effort go down the drain. The pressure only increases as they lose their safety net. The road ahead is tough, but the first thing is to just get past 2-1. If they can get through that, they’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel and can enjoy themselves (even though they may not reach that light). The 2-1 boss is the turning point that will determine how the rest of the event unfolds.

    “It wouldn’t be great if one of us gets to keep moving forward and the other has to start over. It wouldn’t be fun to watch, it wouldn’t be heated.”

    The rules state that one retry is allowed, but SPS hopes it will stay a parallel race. This is because “more than ninety-nine percent of viewers will be people unfamiliar with shoot-‘em-ups.”

    But at the end of the day, this is still “the least suitable shoot-‘em-up for a one-off competition.” Before even considering the simultaneous competition element, isn’t it entirely possible he won’t be able to get past 2-1? When I asked this question, I got a surprising answer: “I don’t think that’s a big issue. Because I’m not doing this alone (laughs). As long as my opponent beats it, it still makes for a pretty picture, something digestible.”

    It’s a “sort of insurance,” he laughs. To the shoot-‘em-up player, the audience unfamiliar with shoot-‘em-ups is itself an opponent to quell, which makes fufufu an “ally as well as an enemy.”

    Gan: “I think they both feel that way. It’s like when they had to cross the steel scaffolding in Kaiji (laughs).”

    The pressure is not something he’ll endure alone, but together with his rival. Perhaps their past rivalry as high-level score attackers is the very thing that allows them to trust one another.

    “He’s got raw skill and precision, I’ve got mentality (laughs)… I’m also thinking it’s time to take up running.”

    “Preparation is everything,” says SPS. This is the mentality he speaks of. His eye coordination and focus aren’t what they used to be. There are times when he feels the effects aging has had on his stamina. These concerns are things he must meticulously address in his “preparation.”

    On the other hand, he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about his mental state on the day of the event.

    “There’s no point in letting the pressure take you down. Whenever I take part in an event like this, I go in with the mindset that I’ve already given up. Failure would be only natural. How could this go well in a single attempt? When I go in with that mentality, things do go well as a result.

    It's because this is a one-shot competition that he must throw himself away. Powerful words from a career veteran who’s seen many battles.
  • // Chapter 6
  • “There’s no difference between us and Umehara-san, in terms of our dedication to the game. Which makes me wonder why there are no pro shoot-‘em-up players.”

    He mumbled this as we headed back to the station following the interview, and I found myself at a loss for words. It was drizzling out.

    Shoot-‘em-up games had their own summer, once. Until the early nineties, the most respected people at the arcades were the high scorers. Among them, the shoot-‘em-up players got the most attention. This was evident in the very fact that they weren’t referred to simply as “high scorers,” but by their own special label: “shooters.”

    High scores were collated in commercial publications like GAMEST and Mycom Basic Magazine. In the late eighties, when deadlines for logging high scores approached, participating arcades would be overcome with an odd energy. The scorers wore hellbent expressions, not those typical of patrons at a place of amusement. Galleries of spectators surrounded the tabletop cabinets, watching games unfold with bated breath. Successful high scores were rare, and it was not uncommon for players who failed to meet the challenge to punch the table, shouting and screaming so loud it echoed throughout the establishment. Some people may see that as childish. On the contrary, it shows how serious these players were.

    “Only in that era did they have that kind of passion.” SPS is not wont for passion himself. He experienced the high score deadlines of Arcadia magazine in the 2000s. But, he says, it’s different.

    “You can’t get that kind of motivation if you’re not in the environment they had back then. It’s a different level of enthusiasm. They had to physically travel to get information. They didn’t know anything about their opponents. They didn’t know how things turned out until they saw the results the day a magazine came out, and only then did they feel the frustration of defeat. The level of frustration people felt back then must have been completely different. It was the perfect environment for generating that kind of heat. Things were different in the past. Back then, people really acted like they were staking their lives. There was also star count(*1) to worry about. Mentally, we’re the same. It’s just this…I don’t know…we don’t really have that desperation, like if we don’t accomplish this we’ll just die. For better or worse, I guess.”

    Those who got to experience that era were of the generation at least three or four years older than him. “Playing under the constraints of a deadline is an old sensibility,” he says, while now players have no choice but to treat it as “part of a lifestyle.”

    The biggest reason for this is the lack of new titles. The updating of high scores for existing titles has tapered off, and has naturally become a less frequent occurrence. Deadline or not, a record that can’t be beaten can’t be beaten. So players have no choice but to treat arcade visits as part of a lifestyle, doing what little they can to improve their score incrementally.

    “My thoughts and beliefs about score attacking haven’t changed since coming to Tokyo. It’s just a matter of whether or not I have what it takes to become the top player. I think a lot of score attackers are that way. It’s a lifestyle, so there’s no way to change the level of passion. But a lot of people around me have stopped playing. There aren’t new titles coming out, so the community shrinks. There’s a loneliness to that aspect.”

    He wanted to be involved in the shoot-‘em-up games that meant so much to him. That was reason enough for him to quit his job and move to Tokyo on his own. He’s poured “easily a car’s worth of money” into a single title. He was at the arcade as soon as its doors opened and trained continuously, even forgetting about meals. He probably staked everything he had on the game. Just as Umehara once did for fighting games.

    The shoot-‘em-up games that were the object of such passion are now completely obsolete. There are no signs of new releases to come, and the pool of rivals is ever shrinking. As esports gain momentum in the world at large, they remain a pipe dream for shooters. Their summer came too soon.

    The windfall for fighting games and the downfall of shooting games. There are any number of ways to rationalize it. But all rationale is meaningless for those affected directly. To put it another way, we don't get to choose where or when we are born, and our fate is determined by the times and circumstances that have nothing to do with our own efforts. That's all there is to it, and there is no right or wrong in it. There’s no right or wrong, but that’s exactly why it’s such a hard pill to swallow.

    “…I’ve dedicated just as much effort, so I’m not sure what the difference is.” SPS’s voice contains a vague hint of doubt. Something about it was upsetting to me.

    There was once a manga series called Eikou naki Tensai-tachi (*2) [Unsung Prodigies]. It was a collection of life's tragedies and comedies related to chance. The reason why this series had such a long run was that it dealt with themes many consider to be universal. SPS's question is the same, at its root. The reason it strikes such a chord is that it’s universally relatable.

    Gan: “He’s unbreakable, you know. At this level, the chances of a high score being updated come maybe once a month, maybe not. So when you miss that chance, it hurts. For me, those days make me want to stop playing altogether. But SPS just keeps inserting coins.”

    SPS: “That’s the type of person I am. Or to put it another way, that’s my only real talent.”

    He came with nothing but fortitude. He’s sure to continue that way. On December 30th, 2021, an indomitable man will take the stage.

    *1 Count—When a high score was achieved, the arcade where it occurred would receive a “star.” The more stars an arcade had, the higher its rank, so getting a high score was a matter of honor not only for the players, but also for the arcades where they played.
    *2 Eikou naki Tensai-tachi—Young Jump Weekly (Shueisha); 1986 Issue 23-1992 Issue 24
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  • // Other Story
  • ・SUPER STREET FIGHTER 2X :: Kotaka Shoten.

    ・SUPER STREET FIGHTER 2X :: Yuvega

    ・DODONPACHI DAI-OU-JOU :: fufufu

    ・DODONPACHI DAI-OU-JOU :: SPS

    ・PUYO PUYO TETRIS :: kazu

    ・PUYO PUYO TETRIS :: Amemiya Taiyou

    ・STREET FIGHTER 5 :: Kawano

    ・STREET FIGHTER 5 :: Tokido