Interview with Jim Gregory - Akira for the SNES
Author's note: since announcing this article another gentleman at Hand Made Software had been contacted, in addition to THQ in an official capacity. With regards to THQ, I'm still waiting for their approval on a statement - but I can categorically confirm that: thorough checks were made and they do not have any builds of Akira.
Akira was initially a cyberpunk / sci-fi / dystopian manga series by Katsuhiro Otomo, subsequently adapted into an animated film, from which several videogames were meant to be made. Taking place in Neo Tokyo in the year 2030, after the Third World War, the story revolves around several biker gangs, government experiments on psychic children, and anti-government rebels. A biker named Tetsuo has a run-in with one such psychic child, and is then captured by the government and experimented on himself. Except his powers grow too strong, threatening to destroy Neo Tokyo. Through all this, his childhood friend Kaneda attempts to save him. It's thrilling stuff.
For a few years now I've been searching for information on the videogame adaptations for the Akira film. I tracked down almost every member of the Amiga development team, from ICE Software, though none wanted to talk about it. I searched and eventually found scans of the Game Zone issue which featured it on the cover and gave me several leads - Larry Siegel was the man from THQ who spearheaded the project, while Jim Gregory was in charge of the SNES version. I even asked on our blog if anyone knew Larry Siegel and Jim Gregory. Later I provided scans of Game Zone, in the hope that others would join my search. Hours were spent trawling LinkedIn, Facebook, DeviantArt, Twitter, YouTube, anything which may have had profiles for other developers who I knew had been involved. Some developers I managed to contact, such as Tom Meigs of Black Pearl Software who confirmed that the Game Gear version had been cancelled after about 30% had been done. Others, such as Genesis artist Darin Klatt, I got hold of, but he didn't respond to my questions. I also tracked down at least half a dozen old acquaintances of those who had been connected to Akira, but none had been in contact for years. Along the way I also read various forum topics, with detailed descriptions of the Genesis version shown at CES, and rumours about review copies of the SNES release. A breakthrough had to be at hand, surely? I spoke with journalist Dennis Murphy of The Gaming Liberty, and he joined the cause, tracking down other members.
The more answers I uncovered though, the more questions it raised. What was the connection between Black Pearl, Hand Made, ICE and THQ? Had the rumoured Game Boy version even been in development? What about the Sega CD release? Why had no one been able to find Larry? The research slowly burned me out, and at one point I decided to hand over all my research notes to Frank Cifaldi of Lost Levels, who likely had more energy and the needed contacts to facilitate such research. Then, suddenly, last week Hardcore Gaming 101 received an anonymous email giving the physical address of Jim Gregory, claiming to be from a friend of his. It could have been a hoax - but the address pointed to Swinton, England, where Jim's company, Hand Made Software, had been based. Email addresses can be faked, but if someone is having us on, they'd have to go to a lot of trouble to fake a postal address.
I sent the letter. Two days later I got this email reply from Jim Gregory.
"Your snail mail letter arrived today and I am happy to confirm I am alive and well and living at this address. You tracked me down and I am now wondering who will play me in the movie. I am not sure how I can help you with your quest, but if you want to send me some questions I will be happy to cast my mind back and see if I can answer them. Probably best to use email rather than use the post though."
At last, a result! Jim of course has a rich history, working on several well known games, including several for Atari, such as Kasumi Ninja. The first thing I wanted to know was what he'd been up to since Akira, and what he was doing now.
"The story of my life after the Akira time is far too long and involved to cover here. I am still involved in game development. I am working with my sons - our current focus is on an amazing new game set for simultaneous worldwide release at the end of next year, after five years of development."
Had he been contacted before about Akira though, I wondered? I know that besides myself and Dennis Murphy, there has been at least one other person tracking down the Akira developers. When I'd contacted Tom Meigs, he'd mentioned there were others before me - and when Dennis spoke to Tom after I did, he again said there had been a few. As Jim explained, I was the first to speak with him.
"I have been contacted several times over the years regarding the games that I designed or produced or did art for. No one has enquired about Akira."
With confirmation of this, it was time for juicy, glorious details! How had Jim come to be involved with Larry Siegel and Akira?
"Larry Siegel was a great character and we got on well. I first met him when I was MD of Hand Made Software and he headed up the Atari Lynx development from Chicago. I travelled to Chicago and pitched to do a new game design for them, but he offered us a golf game project. That became Awesome Golf on the Lynx. Later he left Atari to set up Black Pearl. He travelled on spec to Japan to get the rights to Akira and amazingly they did a deal with him, because they admired his energy and enthusiasm. He was a big fan of the illustrated series and wanted to capture the excitement of the animated film in a video game. He asked us to do the SNES version, and we agreed."
Of course as everyone knows, the SNES version was never released, and this is why someone was needed to fill in the blanks. As Jim explained though, the fact a game is cancelled isn't as surprising as some might think.
"I think it worth reminding you that game development is a lot tougher and convoluted than many people realise. There are many factors that need to work out well before a game sees the light of day. I would estimate that less than 70% of games started get finished and something like 25% of completed games are never released. I could tell you stories of superb top class games that were focus group tested, fully completed and never released because the kids did not like them or the publisher had another game like that!"
Jim then went on to explain some of the challenges of working with consoles, where you need to appease both the demands of the film licensee, whose work you are adapting, and the console manufacturer, which has its own requirements.
"One of the greatest challenges of game design, when it is for a license, is meeting the demands of the licensee. They often do not understand the trade offs that are needed to accommodate the capacity and limitations of the target device, and they expect it to look like an animated feature film. Those days [around 1993 - ed] were very much on the cusp between the old 8-bit systems with limited graphics, and the 16-bit systems with limited graphics. Many of the emerging consoles were 'walled garden' development systems and the manufacturers all wanted exclusive titles rather than me-too ones. It was hard or impossible even to get the data to develop on their machines unless they approved you."
Like several other UK-based console developers at the time, Hand Made Software had to use some unorthodox methods to get a handle on the SNES architecture, which had its own unique shortcomings.
"For the SNES we had to use a bootleg 'amateur' system that severely limited what we could do. We had hired in a new guy that had worked on top selling titles including a motorcycle road race game. He was adapting that using the SNES Mode 7 trick to give a pseudo 3D effect. We had Akira and gang speeding along on the roads of Tokyo quite well. The fundamental issue was trying to get the old SNES to look and play like a bigger, better system."
So parts of the game had definitely been completed, to a degree at least. With the game being unreleased, any information that Jim could share on the subject would be invaluable. As he explained, their plans for the game would have been respectful not only to the original film, but to the manga comics the film was based on.
"Broadly speaking I designed a series of 6 game sections based upon the comic strip rather than just the film. The map of the city plus outskirts was accessed to determine destination and select missions or objectives. The road scene then had Kaneda driving to that selected destination and fighting/dodging stuff along the way. Once at the location we had created a unique massive mapping system that could display huge play areas with very few tiles used."
Jim's description of the driving sections to reach specific stages sounds reminiscent of David Crane's Ghostbusters game, and therefore had the potential to be excellent. With his description of the map there's also perhaps a hint of Spiderman VS Kingpin on the Sega CD, another excellent title. It certainly sounded good as a concept - what Jim described next makes it seem even more so, since the game would incorporate adventure elements. Having an overworld combined with huge side-scrolling maps, could it have played similarly to Ys III or possibly Popful Mail? Jim explained the side-scrolling stages...
"This was a walk-run-jump-crawl-swing-shoot section, to obtain vital game elements that unlocked other missions and objectives. Kaneda had access to several vehicles including his super motorcycle and the hover-bikes featured in the comics. The style was side on action adventure. Each section had an animated (boss) completion scene that aimed to match the graphics of the film. We produced a billowing smoke effect that looked great and fitted in well with the style and the game. The end scene was the Tetsuo boss monster scene."
The significant thing about this description is that it reveals the SNES and Genesis version were entirely different. As described by those who played it at CES, the Sega Genesis version was a collection of disparate styles and genres. A mixture of bike riding, first-person wandering, platforming, one-on-one fighting, and isometric shooting. A real mish-mash of ideas taken chronologically and exclusively from the film, whereas the SNES release would have been a much more coherent adventure platformer, which used additional material exclusive to the manga. This is a revelation, and one which Jim details further when explaining how Black Pearl was working on its own unique Sega versions.
"Black Pearl was a temporary operation and effectively merged into THQ when Larry went to work for them. There was no co-ordination of Akira development versions even though we had suggested a cross platform design."
Fascinated by his descriptions of a game which had the potential to impress but never made it, I asked if the development was stressful. His answers reveals how dedicated the team at Hand Made Software had been to the project.
"Not stressful as such, but it had its own challenges and issues. We must have spent at least 6 weeks initially dissecting the comic books and still-frame-grabbing from the laser disc version we had - remember laser discs? We specially hired a new, SNES-experienced lead programmer for the game dev. He was backed up by a couple of programmers and artists. The sounds we had were PERFECT and our musician had produced a perfect version of the film's wonderful music... which sadly could not be used due to separate licensing issues."
With this level of attention, and things looking on track, why was the game cancelled?
"It was not so much cancelled or scrapped as it fell into neglect. Larry transferred rights to THQ and we couldn't get clear agreement on the game elements with the project manager. They didn't understand the limitations of the SNES. The project was then victim to a number of disasters including the lead programmer leaving, and other work being more pressing."
Hearing this, another critical point was raised. On the Digital Press forums a user by the name of JDL emphatically stated the following: "I know that an ex-journalist for the French magazine 'Consoles Plus' owned a lot of EEPROMs, including the unreleased Akira. I'll try to recover his name if anyone is interested in contacting him." The user only had 15 posts, never gave the name of the journalist, and never provided any evidence for such claims. Could it be true? Jim was quick to put an end to such a fabrication.
"Parts were indeed completed and looked good. They were never put on any cartridge or disk by us for any outside journo. Only work-in-progress versions were sent, by modem, to THQ."
Well, that's one rumour that's been quelled. It's unlikely THQ would have sent out a review copy given the incomplete state of the game. While on the subject of rumours, I also asked about the Game Boy version of Akira, mentioned in Game Zone magazine but nowhere else. According to the article, it was being developed by ICE. Jim wasn't sure on the details, but the ramifications prove fascinating.
"I knew ICE and they did a few things with Larry. If I recall correctly, the GB version was an adaptation of another game they already had... but modified to call it Akira."
If this is true, then it's possible this game was released, albeit with a different name to Akira. Plenty of GB games were re-skinned for licensing purposes. One good example is Baby T-Rex on the GB, which was adapted into an Edd the Duck game for the UK market, sent out for review, but then never released. Even though you won't find Edd the Duck, its doppelganger Baby T-Rex is easily found and plays identically. Could it be, that out there right now, there's a GB game which at one point had been Akira? Unfortunately information on ICE's back-catalogue is scarce. In fact there appears to be two game developers with the same name, ICE Software, and International Computer Entertainment. One was based in Glasgow, Scotland, the other in Slough, England. One definitely worked on the Amiga release, but we don't know if they're the same ICE involved with the GB game. Searching THQ's back-catalogue of published GB games doesn't yield anything which make a good fit for Akira either...
So, let's look at the facts. The Famicom version was a direct tie-in to the film, a text heavy adventure game released only in Japan, and had nothing to do with the dealings of THQ. The Amiga version was released, though we know nothing of how it came about. We have plenty of screenshots of the Genesis version, developed by Black Pearl, and apparently completed. The Game Gear version was destroyed. We know nothing about the Sega CD release, apart from a couple of screens - which we can't even guarantee are from the Sega CD version. We have no evidence of the Game Boy version, though it may have been a GB reskin. The SNES version was in development by Hand Made Software, but never completed. Can Jim shed any light on this web of intrigue and the deals that Larry Siegel made?
"I do not know any more about rights but I do know that he was disappointed with the outcome of all the Akira developments. It was a very ambitious project and too much was expected from the older 16-bit machines. I think it was a project before its time. These days we could do a fantastic job on the modern Xbox or PC system. Even the iPhone has better graphics, more memory and a faster processor."
It seemed the odds were just stacked against it. Even so, everyone is keen to see something of these games. All we have are grainy scans of magazines, which recycled the same PR shots over and over. By any chance did he save any of the game's development assets?
"Sorry, but all has slipped into the vortex of time. We do have lots of the animations on an old disk, but we cannot read it!"
And that, folks, is all he wrote. Since interviewing Jim, though, I did pass on his details to Frank Cifaldi, the internet's leading expert on unreleased games and the person most likely to know how to salvage SNES animation files. So maybe, just maybe, we might get to see some of those animation frames one day.
Bonus Interview - Ryan Arnold of THQ
Addendum - December 22
I was able to contact Ryan Arnold, an administrator at THQ who deals with the company's data archives - he is quite genuinely, the vault keeper. Quite a few of those contacted during my investigation, not all of whom were quoted there, recommended contacting THQ in case they still had the old builds, which developers such as Black Pearl and Hand Made Software would have sent to THQ. What Ryan revealed was interesting, and also helped draw a line under the THQ investigation. I discussed his statement with him, but after several emails we agreed not to publish it - although it doesn't detail anything scandalous, some people may have been uncomfortable with the openness of it. Recently though, and after some consideration, Ryan has decided that he would be comfortable with publishing this information. As Ryan says: "It is rare that anyone cares about what a mastering lab tech has to say about the development process, and I would like to see my words become part of the public record."
As I'm sure all our readers will agree, what Ryan describes here is a fascinating look at an otherwise hidden world. My thoughts are with him and all other THQ employees, during what is no doubt a very difficult time.
This is what Ryan previously said:
First off, I want to make clear that I am not representing THQ here, so if you print any of this please don't call me an official THQ representative or something. If you want an official statement you should contact someone in PR. I've worked at THQ since 2004, so I don't know Mike Haller or Larry Siegel directly. I was in high school in 1993 so I have zero knowledge of the Akira games from a contemporary standpoint. Honestly, there are not many people at THQ from the SNES days. Anyway, I am uniquely positioned to give at least a little insight into the question of Akira prototypes from THQ. Before I was an admin at THQ I worked in the mastering lab for four years. One of our primary jobs in the lab was data archival and storage of source code and final builds / masters. As such I have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of everything stored in the THQ vault. To cut right to the chase I can tell you authoritatively that the modern THQ archive does not extend beyond the original PlayStation era. We have a few GBC games, but I think the oldest games in the archive are from 1998. I can tell you that there is absolutely no copy of Akira in any format anywhere at THQ.
Every time some old proto showed up in the lab when someone was cleaning out their desk (which did happen from time to time), I'd play it and file it away thinking about how many people would love to see it too. But the oldest prototypes I ever saw were all N64 / GBC protos, never anything on SNES or GameBoy. I am an avid retro game fan, and I was a huge fan of Akira as a kid. If there was any trace of Akira at the office I'd know about it. I'm not sure if it was the case with Akira, but I know that most of the time when THQ gives the licensor back the rights to a game we were working on, THQ hands over all the existing source code and any game assets. We recently did this with Disney when we gave them back the Pixar license. That means if 20 years from now someone is trying to track down the unreleased version of Ratatouille for GBA, they won't find it at THQ even though we worked on it, because we had to purge it when we gave up the license. Not sure that was the case back in 1993, but it's possible that all Akira assets went back to the license holder.
When we used to do Pixar games we'd do several SKUs for different ages. Typically you'd see at least two games. One being sort of a tween focused adventure game and the other being a "Yoda's desktop adventures" style activity suite for younger children. You can see examples of this in games that we did like the original Finding Nemo adventure game and the Finding Nemo Continuing Adventures which was a mini game collection. The Incredibles was the same thing, we had a platform action game and then an "activity game". With Ratatouille we started work on a mini game collection title but in the end there was only one Ratatouille game that shipped, which was the more standard action platform game.
I have seen lots of interesting hardware and unreleased stuff. One cool thing about the lab is that we'd burn all the pre alpha milestone builds for pitch meetings, so we would see all sorts of stuff that never saw the light of day. I am fascinated to hear about the dev process back then. It probably wasn't that different. We still get builds over the Internet, just not at 56K modem speeds.
I know we had Gameboy and NES burn hardware and test carts, so a Gameboy version is possible. I never saw any Genesis stuff in the lab. Of course the corp office has moved three times since then. Every move means a big asset auction. A lot of dev hardware gets sent back to first parties like Sony on Nintendo. I do see THQ proto NES carts show up in eBay from time to time, but I assume those come from the dev side and not publishing. We are pretty locked down. The closest I have seen to Genesis protos at work were some old Game Gear test carts (Star Wars and Madden if memory serves).
Bonus Interview - Tom Meigs of Black Pearl
I sent a few emails back and forth with Tom Meigs, who was surprised to find that screenshots of the Game Gear version made it out there. After emailing him a magazine scan, he confirmed that yes, that was the Game Gear version pictured. He also confirmed that all assets relating to the GG version were destroyed.
Thanks for sharing. I'm sorry that no one can find Larry. I'd love to find him too, and haven't seen him since the mid-1990s. I remember working on the Game Gear port which we were doing in house. The programmer took another job early into the project and I don't remember his name at this point.
All of a sudden I've gotten several emails about this game, which is really funny for a game that didn't really make it. We were making an original Genesis and Game Gear version. I don't think we had hired a team yet for a SNES version, although we wanted to do one. The Genesis version was being built in our Chicago office. We were building the Game Gear in the California office. The design for each was custom for the hardware. It was an original design based on the license. The GG version was a side scroller with levels connected together by Tetsuo on his bike (we tried to do 3rd person on the GG!) and a basic storyline. Our programmer left to take another job and the project wilted. We were at about 30% complete when we stopped on it.
Wow - you found blurry GG shots? Would love to see that. We worked with Hand Made on several titles - so that's probably correct that they got set up to do a SNES version. Yes the GG version was destroyed. We were trying to make a level tool so we could start stitching levels together better, but it all ended when our programmer left.
BONUS DESCRIPTION - NEOGAF
Description of the Sega Genesis by Whimsical Phil from the NeoGAF forums. Also known as journalist Phil Theobald, thereby making his testimony rather reliable, and also corroborated by various CES screenshots shown in magazines at the time. It makes for enjoyable reading and, in truth, is the only credible source for the gameplay of the Genesis version. What's especially interesting, is that he describes the FPS level, a screenshot of which sometimes accompanied previews of the SNES release in Nintendo magazines, despite Jim already clarifying that this wouldn't have been the case. What this points to is that THQ's PR department were releasing screenshot material without clarifying which system it related to.
And I was actually able to play THQ's Genesis Akira game back at a CES show ages ago (this, of course, pre-dated E3). Somewhere at my parent's house, I still have a sales flyer for the game with info and screens on it. I'll have to try to dig it up next time I'm there and get that puppy scanned.
If I remember correctly, it was announced for Genesis, SNES, Sega CD, Game Boy, and Game Gear, although I believe that the Genesis version was the only one on display on the show floor. The main gimmick of the game was that each stage played differently. Lemme see how many I can recall...
- A motorcycle racing stage that was a lot like Super Hang-On. As you would imagine, you were Kaneda racing against the Clowns.
- A FPS stage where you were Tetsuo wandering though the lab where he was being experimented on. Instead of a gun at the bottom of the screen, you just saw Tetsuo's hand, and when you fired at guards, he shot out a blast of psychic energy. This stage was about as impressive looking as a FPS could look on the Genesis.
- A side scrolling stage where you were Kaneda and Kei piloting that hover vehicle through the sewers. These stages weren't strictly side scrolling, though, as they were quite large and maze-like. You could fly quite a ways up and down as well as left and right. You used the gun on the vehicle to shoot down the guards' crafts.
- An isometric stage (think Viewpoint) where you were Tetsuo walking across the bridge (the one he would eventually destroy). Pressing the attack button caused him to swing his arm out in front of him, sending a wave of psychic energy out in front on him. The main enemy that I recall in this stage were rows of soldiers armed with the laser cannons from the movie. I remember being really impressed with the look of the Tetsuo sprite on this stage (complete with his tattered red cape).
- The last stage that I remember was a 2D beat-em-up (or was it a one-on-one fight?). Either way, you were a surprisingly large mutated Tetsuo attacking, well, whoever it was attacking you (Kaneda? Soldiers? I don't remember).
Seeing as how I was a big fan of the movie at the time, I talked to one of the head PR people at length about the game. She even gave me an animation cel from the movie (of the giant teddy bear and rabbit that attacked Tetsuo), which they were probably giving out to the press. Even though I was just a scrub working at Babbage's at the time (yes, I was one of those retail kids who snuck into the show), she gave me her business card and I kept in contact with her for a while getting updates on the game. Until, of course, she gave me the sad news one day that they had cancelled it.
Man, I really gotta find that sales sheet now.
Most screenshots taken from magazine scans found on Unseen64, most of which were sourced from the ASSEMbler forums.