There must be few things as disconcerting as waking up to find an email in your inbox from a group of computer nerds nearly 10,000 kilometres away, asking you about games you made as a high school student nearly 30 years previous, and linking you to a forum topic where not only do they have your entire life mapped out (with personal contact details), but they have side-by-side comparison photos of you from when you made the games and more recent photos, taken from the faculty website of the university where you work.
Hell, some people might even describe this as downright terrifying.
But that's precisely what we, the writers of HG101 and Tokugawa forums, ended up doing. And thankfully, rather than reporting us to the police for stalking, Professor Ishikawa seemed impressed at our determination.
Professor Hiroshi Ishikawa: No problem about using English. Where did you learn Japanese? That you could figure out who I am seems to indicate you know more of the language than you are letting on. Anyway, good detective work!
I first became interested in Professor Ishikawa's games after discovering Kagirinaki Tatakai, an exclusive for the Sharp X1 computer, back when everyone was excited about finding the inspiration Treasure used for creating Bangai-O. The actual game which influenced Treasure turned out to be Hover Attack, which wasn't very interesting. But the search for it resulted in the discovery of Kagirinaki, an overlooked gem from 1983 and still tremendously fun to play, even today as the article explains.
And secondly, it was staggeringly ahead of its time: with 3 selectable weapons, destructable environments and realistic physics, there was nothing else like it in 1983 and there wouldn't be anything like it for many years to come (comparisons could be drawn to the British-developed Exile on the BBC Home Computer, but this lacked the realtime deformable landscape of Kagirinaki). I was also fascinated by the fact that the author of the game was credited on the title screen alongside the publisher Enix - which was something that seldom happened in Japan. It seemed like a lost gem which deserved significantly more recognition, but had apparently been overlooked due to being on hardware less popular than NEC's dominant PC-88 range.
Professor Hiroshi Ishikawa: Kagirinaki Tatakai was my first original game that was completed. It was motivated by the novel the Starship Troopers (宇宙の戦士) by R. A. Heinlein. The book features powered suits like the one in the game. I tried to imitate the powered suit depicted in the cover illustration for the Japanese translation. I just googled the Japanese title and found a page with a picture of the book and some plastic models. Isn't the internet wonderful? Anyway, if you read the book, there is a scene toward the end where they go down the tunnels inhabited by spider-like aliens. Hand grenades and portable rockets to make holes in walls in Kagirinaki are taken straight from the novel. You may also remember there were some yellow spider-like aliens in the game.
I also remember playing the famous Moon Lander game about that time, that led to the physical motion of the powered suit in the game. There was also a game called Time Pilot that I liked around that time, which had the homing missiles, which also appear in Kagirinaki Tatakai. By the way, in some ad for the game that appeared in magazines, Enix advertised the 'Exocet-like' missiles. Exocet was a real-life anti-ship missile that became famous by sinking British warships in the Falkland Conflict about that time. It was sold to Argentinians by the French.
The second time I was aware of Professor Ishikawa's work was when discovering Brain Breaker, during research for an article on the history of Japanese home computers. It was another Sharp X1 exclusive, again published by Enix and developed by the same mysterious 'H Ishikawa'. From here I went back to the Kagirinaki box, on the back of which was a profile of its creator, complete with fresh-faced photo of him from his high school days. It took a while trawling Japanese blogs to find a collector who could provide a high-resolution scan (thanks to Hiroshi Miyajima) which revealed the kanji for Ishikawa's first name (also Hiroshi 博), and then assistance from a whole series of Tokugawa regulars to translate the profile text.
As the Japanese text on the Kagirinaki Tatakai box explained:
Born in the 42nd year of the Showa Era (i.e. 1967). Lives in the Aichi prefecture. Is in the first year of [Japanese] high-school. Has owned a microcomputer for 2 years.
With this we trawled the internet until we discovered the professor's university page, along with a photo which confirmed we'd found our developer. It also listed his contact details. One of our main questions when contacting him was whether there were any other hidden releases to discover. With the high quality of both Kagirinaki Tatakai and Brain Breaker, we were eager to find more.
Professor Hiroshi Ishikawa: Those two games were the only games that became commercial. I had written a few games before Kagirinaki Tatakai on the Commodore VIC-1001, which is the same as the VIC-20 in the US. I bought it, I still remember, in March 1981, my first computer. VIC-1001 had a 6502 CPU and had about 6KB of RAM, using an expansion RAM pack. Most of the games I wrote on it were half done and the only completed one I remember was a copy of a game called Scramble, which I wrote by 'hand assembling', meaning I had to first write 6502 assembly language and then assemble it by hand using a table that was in the manual. It's amazing to think that they included the machine instruction table in the manual of a personal computer! I bought a Sharp X1 in May 1983, when I had just entered high school. In Japan, the school year begins in April.
Given that the title of Kagirinaki Tatakai is also the Japanese name for the Led Zeppelin song "Battle of Evermore", and the title Brain Breaker is also the name of a song by 1980s Japanese heavy metal band Dementia (not to mention that your mothership in Brain Breaker is called Zeppelin), we assumed that the professor had to be a huge heavy metal fan. His reply to our questions on classic hard rockin' bands proved rather surprising.
Professor Hiroshi Ishikawa: The only song I know by Led Zeppelin is "Stairway to Heaven." So I am sorry to say that I am not really a Zeppelin fan. As for Dementia, I've never even heard of them, sorry. At the time I listened to some random heavy metal bands that happened to be played on the radio or my friends liked, such as Accept and Quiet Riot. But I also liked pop songs like Duran Duran, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Prince, The Police, Billy Joel, and Joe Jackson.
Enix held their second game programming competition in the summer of 1983, when I had just turned sixteen. I wrote the original version of Kagirinaki Tatakai in just one month, using the BASIC compiler from Hudson Software, which you might also know as the maker of many games for X1 at the time. I originally named the game "Assault V", which pretty much didn't mean anything. There was already a game from the first Enix competition that was named 宇宙の戦士 (Starship Troopers). So I couldn't use the title. After they informed me that my game was chosen as one of the ten winners, they suggested to change the name to Kagirinaki Tatakai. I agreed because it reminded me of another SF novel called the Forever War (終わりなき戦い) by Joe Haldeman, which also featured powered suits. I didn't know that it was the title of a Led Zeppelin song.
Fascinated by the development atmosphere of the time, we asked him to elaborate on the work he did for Enix, and also the development of the ambitious Brain Breaker.
Professor Hiroshi Ishikawa: After the X1 version of Kagirinaki Tatakai was published by Enix, they asked me to port it to PC-8801, which is another 8-bit computer sold by NEC. It was much more popular than X1 and I imagine if it could be ported, it would have sold much more. By the way, Kagirinaki Tatakai eventually sold about 3000 copies, I think. The porting, however, turned out to be impossible (for me anyway). The bitmap graphics scrolling was too much for the 8-bit CPUs of the time. You needed some hardware help, like sprites that came later, to move a lot of graphics around the screen. X1 managed to do it through the use of the PCG, as it was called then, which stands for Programmable Character Generator.
In X1, you could basically design your own letter characters and move them around as a unit of 8x8 pixels by just writing one byte to some memory location. Without it, porting to PC-8801 was impossible. At first I thought I could do it by using letter characters for terrain and only using full-graphics for aliens and such. But eventually Enix turned it down as not good enough. I was paid nothing for this effort, which was much more than the effort required to write the original game since I also had to use the assembly language for speed.
From here we asked what Professor Ishikawa could recall of Brain Breaker, since it was hugely ambitious and the complicated nature of its gameplay prove fascinating. We also linked him to the HG101 feature on it.
Professor Hiroshi Ishikawa: In about the spring of 1984, I went back to the X1 and started making Brain Breaker. It was an ambitious project, written in all assembly language and eventually taking up the whole 64KB of RAM. It took me till November of 1985 to complete the game, dangerously close to the entrance exams for university. Subjectively, the work required for Brain Breaker was something like 20 times that for Kagirinaki Tatakai. It was too much. I didn't want to do any more programming. So once I entered the university, I went without doing any serious programming for two years. After that, I did some game programming paid by the hour. It was for the MSX version of Kaiketsu Yanchamaru [Kid Niki in the west]. But it was not much effort, which suited me.
I read your feature on it. I had completely forgotten the details. I am glad it sounds like a very fun game. I do remember the game Elevator Action, from which I took the, well, elevator action. The obfuscation you talk about was really necessary if you didn't want the game to end in two hours, as the amount of sheer information that can be incorporated in the game was limited by both the amount of memory and storage and by the fact that it was written by a lone teenager after school.
One of the forum users on Tokugawa also asked why he chose to study natural sciences at university, as opposed to continuing with programming, since as already demonstrated he had some excellent game design skills.
Professor Hiroshi Ishikawa: Why did I go to natural science? Well, I had two interests toward the end of my high school years. Elementary Particle Physics and Artificial Intelligence. I eventually went back to the latter but I first tried some physics and mathematics. I had done too much games programming at the time and I was really fed up by all the work it involved. Also, the two commercial games were not that much of a success, sales-wise. I remember meeting a few times with someone in Enix even after I went to Kyoto, discussing the possibility of developing more games. But eventually, I decided I didn't want to use up my college years developing more games.
So to answer your question about my other games clearly: there were the two commercial games, the failed port to PC-8801, and earlier games that I wrote on VIC-1001. That's it. None other than the two commercial games can be retrieved now, as they were never out and I don't have them any more.
The only other question we had was regarding the source code, since one member of Tokugawa expressed an interest in translating it, and also possibly porting it to the PC-98 using Turbo C++.
Professor Hiroshi Ishikawa: About the source code: I wish I had it but nothing is left except for the retail packages for the two games, which I can't load since I don't have the X1 any more. At the time I didn't have a printer so there is no printout either. Since there are emulators and the tape file for the game on the Internet, I suppose it is not completely impossible to reverse engineer the games from their machine code.
Not wanting to take up any more of Professor Ishikawa's time, since his university page shows him to be involved with many complex research projects, we left the questions there. But for anyone who hasn't yet played Kagirinaki Tatakai or Brain Breaker, we highly recommend you check them out.