December of 2014 marks the 20-year anniversary of Tekken’s original arcade release. Tekken games have sold over 41 million copies (Wikipedia), marking it as the all-time best-selling fighting game franchise.
In 1993 I wrote an important report to Namco Ltd. in Japan. Namco needed to become a dominant player in the growing fighting game genre. And to be successful in N. America it would require elements that had not yet existed in Namco’s “beat em’ up” style games. This report served as the catalyst for the making of Tekken.
My transition to Namco in 1993 was by way of Atari Games. There I was also a product manager, splitting time localizing Namco games (Namco then owned Atari) for the American market and working with original Atari products. Namco games had a movie-like production style that I always appreciated. When the opportunity presented itself, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Already at Namco were former Atarian’s, Frank Cosentino and Kevin Hayes.
Namco had just developed a new arcade hardware called System 22. The debut game was Ridge Racer, Namco’s answer to Sega’s revolutionary 3D driver Virtua Racing. Ridge Racer displayed beautifully rendered 3D polygons and Gouraud shading running at 60 fps. It was state-of-the-art and for its time, breathtaking.
In Japan, my point of contact was Kohei Teraoka from the Overseas Sales Department. Each day by fax and phone we communicated about the many games in development. I could not have wished for a better colleague.
A Hole in the Product Mix
In America, Namco’s product lineup was becoming narrow and overly reliant on large driving games. Appealing to a wide range of players, they produced steady income and configurable cabinets (upright style to deluxe s/d) for different types of locations. But the market was becoming saturated, tastes were changing and I could sense a shift was coming. However, to their credit, Namco continued to push the limits of technology. Though at times not viewed as the operator’s best friend, they in large part advanced the industry to what it is today.
Fighting games began surpassing driving games as the core genre. Prior to Tekken, Namco’s “beat ’em up” games had little appeal in the US market. The anime-styled side-scroller button mashers Wonder Momo and Knuckle Heads, and the controversial Splatterhouse are relatively unknown games in America. Two games having a strong influence were Double Dragon by Technos (1987) and Final Fight by Capcom (1989).
Games that Shaped the Genre
I was involved in fighting games from the beginning. In 1994, Punch-Out!! (designed by Genyo Takeda) was very much a statement game. Its faux-3D style was years ahead of its time. Two of the most influential games in the genre was Karate Champ by Technos/Data East (1984) and Yie Ar Kung-Fu by Konami (1985). They originated the PvP (player vs. player) style of fighting game.
At Atari, I lobbied engineering to create a beat ‘em up type game. Despite research and evidence, morality outweighed a trending shift in the marketplace. And I can’t fault anyone for that, but it is what it is. I earned the nickname “Blood & Guts Momoda”. Eventually, attitudes changed and the team of Mark Pierce and Rob Rowe created both Pit-Fighter in 1990 and Guardians of the Hood in 1992. Of the later, I lobbied to equip each character with a small set of skill moves, but it was rejected. It would have become a hybrid button-masher and skilled fighting game. I remained confident a better game was waiting to be built.
In 1993, two important games hit their stride. Mortal Kombat II by Midway, and the iconic Street Fighter II by Capcom. Both sequels outperformed their predecessors. Not only was this unusual, but served notice of the growing popularity of the genre.