Street Fighter Producer Yoshinori Ono on His Love Affair With the Games
Yoshinori Ono is the flamboyant, effusive producer of Capcom’s wildly successful Street Fighter series. Most game producers appear at a fan expo like last week’s PlayStation Experience wearing a pressed suit and a just-the-facts demeanor. Not Ono. He bounds in wearing Street Fighter costumes, carrying Street Fighter action figures, and generally behaving like the world’s biggest fan of the long-running fighting game series.
In many ways, he is.
Street Fighter remains one of the most enduring franchises in gaming. Since its launch in 1987, the game’s proven formula of over-the-top, supernaturally infused martial arts action has navigated changing tastes and platforms to remain one of the most popular games going. Capcom has sold some 500,000 cabinet versions of the game and more than 35 million PC and console versions over the years.
Ono didn’t invent the franchise, but he’s largely responsible for its brilliant resurrection in 2008 with Street Fighter IV, bringing the series into the 3-D era while respecting its 2-D roots. With Street Fighter V coming to PlayStation 4 and PC in February, WIRED chatted with Ono about his lifelong love affair with the franchise, which started when he played Street Fighter in Japanese arcades almost 30 years ago.
Discovering Street Fighter
“When I first played Street Fighter one, we didn’t even have information coming out in magazines,” Ono says. Besides the standard array of martial-arts punches and kicks, Street Fighter‘s playable protagonists could perform fireballs and spectacular flying uppercuts, but the inputs for these were secret and non-intuitive. Figuring out the game’s hidden special moves was a matter of observation, trial, error, and lots of 100-yen coins.
“We were just at the arcades looking over people’s shoulders and seeing what they were actually doing. When I saw someone do a Hadouken, I could see, ok, he’s turning the joystick around, he’s doing something there,” Ono says.
“At the time, watching this person play in front of me, I thought maybe, somewhere in the shadows, this person must be linked to Nishiyama-san, who was the producer for the first Street Fighter. But there’s no way there were people all over the world who are related to the people who worked on the development team.”
The original Street Fighter didn’t use the now-familiar layout of three punch buttons and three kick buttons. Instead, it had two massive, soft, pressure-sensitive buttons, and the harder you pounded them the stronger your attacks. “At the time, there was a problem with the pressure sensor, where if you tried to do the Shoryuken motion and press the button, it wouldn’t come out,” Ono says. “I tried it many, many times and probably got it to come out twice. But Capcom finally realized there was an issue with the pressure sensor itself, and that’s when they came up with the solution of going to the six-button layout.”
“Today, Street Fighter is very much a strategic game where you’re reading your opponent and competing with them on a mental level. But for Street Fighter one, it was more like—and Nishiyama-san might get mad at me for saying this—it was a lot of both guys going whaaaaaaa and pushing the buttons like crazy people, and that’s how the matches came to an end.”
It was the game’s sequel, Ono says, that truly changed the way people played in arcades.
“When Street Fighter II came out, it was the first time where I had to pay a little more attention to what my opponent is doing, to figure out what was going on. How are they moving? What tendencies do they have? It really was a real match between minds.”
Ono’s First Character
“The first character I played was Chun-Li,” the only woman on Street Fighter II‘s roster. “I naturally gravitated toward playing a female character.”
There weren’t many opportunities to play as a woman, Ono remembers, not just in fighting games but across all genres. “At the time you had Metroid, with Samus Aran, but only the hardcore players actually knew that Samus was female,” he says.
“The whole idea of playing this beautiful—well, I say ‘beautiful,’ but looking at her now, it’s a 16-bit graphic, not that pretty now, but at the time—there’s this well-endowed woman with a beautiful body and I get to play as this character. Not only that, her moves are not that hard: All I have to do is bang on the buttons really hard and she does her lightning-legs attack. I felt like you didn’t have to be that good, you could just play with passion.”
Joining the Fight
Ono, skilled at programming and music, got a job at Capcom’s sound department, but very soon discovered that the work of making some of the world’s most popular videogames could be grueling.
“The first title I worked on at Capcom was the Mega Drive [Sega Genesis] version of a game called Muscle Bomber, and I don’t remember what that was called in America,” Ono says. It was Saturday Night Slam Masters, a wrestling game that Capcom was converting to home game machines. “I had to take the music that my supervisor did on the arcade CPS motherboard, and convert that into FM format, for the Mega Drive.”
“I really suffered to get that done,” he says, laughing. “But within Capcom, I was actually quite praised for how good I was at converting the CPS format into the FM format. Ono’s skill at converting between two incompatible early-1990s digital sound formats would land him on the Street Fighter team, but he’d end up stuck with another painstaking task, one whose results would be almost invisible.
While he had worked “unofficially” on Super Street Fighter II Turbo, his first official Street Fighter job was on Street Fighter Alpha, a brand-new game that would introduce a new art style, characters, and gameplay mechanics. Capcom was creating the game using its then-new CPS-2 arcade systems, but Ono says the company wasn’t sure that every arcade in the country would want to upgrade to the expensive new machines.
“Some arcades didn’t have as many funds, so it wasn’t as easy for them to upgrade,” Ono says. “We wanted to make sure these arcade operators could still get Street Fighter Alpha in their hands, so we made a CPS-1 version at a lower cost so they could afford it.” Making a version of the game for lower-spec hardware meant that the high-gloss musical tracks again had to be converted into primitive, 1980s-era FM sound, and so Ono was assigned to the team producing the lower-end version of Alpha.
“I had to work very hard and suffer very long hours of work,” Ono says. “The CPS-II team, dealing with really high-quality sound like you’d hear from a piano, they’d come in to work at 6 AM and leave at 8 PM. For us on the CPS-1 team, we were working until midnight every single day and pretty much cursing the CPS-II team.”
“This is really bringing back old feelings,” Ono says after he recounts this story. Kaname Fujioka, now the director of Capcom’s Monster Hunter series, was in a similar situation, he says, adjusting the game’s graphics to the lower-end requirements of the older arcade hardware. “He also suffered a ton on that title. We can laugh about it now, but at the time we were just sick of it—this is insane, what are we doing?”
Adding insult to injury, the game that Ono and his team nearly killed themselves making barely even saw release, and is more of a historical footnote today. Work-related stress would catch up to Ono again in 2012, when he collapsed from exhaustion following a press tour.
“The first Street Fighter title where I got more involved on more of a producing level was Street Fighter III,” Ono says. His job title shifted to “sound producer,” which meant that he’d be going outside the company to wrangle musical compositions from freelancers. “There was a lot of discussion about changing the way we do things at Capcom. So instead of doing everything internally, there was a shift to try working with outside composers.”
It was Ono’s outgoing, extroverted personality, one that Street Fighter fans know so well today, that got him outside Capcom’s office and into the public eye, bit by bit.
“The producer said, ‘hey, Ono-kun, you’re pretty social, why don’t you do this,’” he says. “Our headquarters are in Osaka, so I ended up going out to Tokyo a lot, meeting with people and working with people on the outside. Then, that producer took me in and showed me how to promote the game, how to work with marketing and sales. That was where I got the first taste of how to handle that side of the business.”
While Ono has certainly suffered for his art over the years—even collapsing from overwork and being hospitalized in 2012—he still has an infectiously positive attitude towards his job.
“That was definitely something that the producer for Street Fighter III really saw in me. No one else saw it, but he saw it. He saw through me. And he was able to see that aspect of my personality, seeing that I could see the game and view the game on the same level as a fan would, to ave the same values as the people playing our game.”
“Development is extremely difficult, don’t get me wrong,” Ono says. “Making a video game is really tough. But he was the one that let me get out there, meet with the media and share my passion and actually talk with the fans, and he let me have a really fun time at work.”
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