The Fathers of Tecmo Super Bowl

The end credits of Tecmo Super Bowl were always one of my favorite parts of the game.

They begin by crowning you “Super Champion” as the head coach is hoisted onto his player’s’ shoulders. You hum along to the victory music as you read the “1991 roster” of your winning team, bedazzled by a starry night sky. Then, as Joe Montana points to the heavens in front of countless cheerleaders and fans, we are introduced to “A. Shimoji, Programmer.”

Shinchiro Tomie (L) and Akihiko Shimoji (R) — the "Fathers of Tecmo Super Bowl"

Shinichiro Tomie (L) and Akihiko Shimoji (R)—the “Fathers of Tecmo Super Bowl”

Once just a name on the screen at the end of a successful Tecmo Super Bowl season, I started wondering more about this man when I picked up the game again three years ago. As I met more people my age who still play Tecmo Super Bowl in live tournaments or online, I thought about how much I’d love to sit down and pick the brain of this genius—especially after doing extensive research online and learning Shimoji has never been interviewed in America about the game.

Then I thought to myself, hey, I’m a serious investigative reporter. (See photo above.) Who says I can’t track down Shimoji and have this conversation?

But it turns out I never would have found him if it weren’t for the kindness of a Japanese man with the same name.

I reached out to the only Akihiko Shimoji I could find on Facebook, asking if he was the creator of Tecmo Super Bowl. He politely apologized that he was not the man I was looking for. Unable to find any other Akihiko Shimojis online, (Hey, you try navigating www.google.jp sometime!) I was afraid that would be the end of it. Then, seven months later, this man wrote back to tell me he located the other Akihiko Shimoji, who was working for a phone app game development company in Okinawa.

Seriously. If a Japanese journalist was trying to hunt me down in America, do you think Bizarro Lou Raguse would care enough seven months later to still help him out? This gentleman provided me a link with an email address, and that’s how I finally reached the father of Tecmo Super Bowl.

And that’s when I learned there are actually two.

Shimoji, who felt nostalgia at first mention of Tecmo Super Bowl, insisted I bring his former colleague, Shinichiro Tomie, into the conversation. I learned these two guys together are primarily responsible for TSB as we know it.

Both men were in their mid-20s when they first worked together on the original Tecmo Bowl. Tomie was the director. The idea man. Shimoji was the programmer. The one who turned Tomie’s ideas into reality.

They are different in many ways. Tomie is an athlete. An excellent soccer player. He’s extremely outgoing and loves the spotlight.

Shimoji prefers to let others take center stage. He’s not athletic, although he enjoys watching sports. He prefers tinkering with cars and electronics. And of course programming.

What the two had in common, is that when they began working together on the follow-up to Tecmo Bowl in 1990, they wanted to make the most enjoyable sports video game that had ever been created.

“At the time, Tecmo Super Bowl’s production was pushed by Director Tomie’s strong wishes. As a programmer, I also wished to fulfill his goals as much as possible as well,” Shimoji said. “But Mr. Tomie and I both had a desire to create a great game. Because of this, the development of the game took such a long time and was a continuous process of trial and error.”

The hard-driving Tomie admits he was tough to please:

“I am extremely grateful for Shimoji san for listening to my crazy requests throughout the creation of the game. He pulled many, many all-nighters, and I’d like to apologize for that now!”

But before their work together began, they first needed to learn American football.

“Before the game’s production, I did not even know the rules,” Shimoji said. “But afterwards I was always looking forward to the games on television.”

Japan had limited NFL coverage, but Shimoji and Tomie recorded as many games as they could that were shown on Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) satellite TV.

Those NFL highlights, along positional statistics delivered from America, and various analyses in “Touchdown PRO” magazine, perhaps the only NFL magazine published in Japan at the time, provided Tomie with the background knowledge needed to create each player’s attributes.

“Because I wanted to use the unique formations and strategies, I often watched the videos in slow motion while rewinding them and jotting down the players’ movements on paper,” Tomie said.

That quote is amazing when you consider Tecmo Super Bowl has 64 different plays. Can you imagine this man, who at one point knew next to nothing about the game, pausing, rewinding, and watching in slow motion as Thurman Thomas takes a direct snap from the shotgun? Taking notes on how many receivers the Oilers split out in their run-and-shoot formations? And remember, NFL cameras follow the action—not a wide view of all 22 players on the field as they finish their routes or blocking assignments.  I’ve been an NFL fan my whole life and I don’t know if I could pull it off.

“For a game to be playable over and over, many aspects had to be changeable, and we wanted many different and unique plays to be achievable,” Shimoji said.

Then consider the work put into calibrating each player’s abilities. Tomie is the one who decided to make hapless defensive players bounce right off of Christian Okoye (popcorning, as we call it in The Tecmo Universe.). And he was the one who made Bo Jackson into what I once assumed was a Japanese god.

“Unfortunately, he is not well known in Japan. But he is always someone of high popularity to me!” Tomie said. “When I first saw him play on television, it was quite a big impact. This raised the question, ‘How do I represent that big impact through a game?’ Specifically, how could I show his uniqueness in the game? In the end, we struggled with how to calibrate his max speed. We wanted to show how “unstoppable” he was in the game. As an opponent, his speed is a terror. But in a way, that also adds a different element to the game—how to stop the unstoppable. Not just Bo Jackson, but there are so many unique players in the NFL, so it is very important to make each of their characteristics different and fitted to them. Unique players make a unique game, and with each unique character, each formation and strategy can be changed greatly. This is what made the game so fun—you would never know exactly what would happen with different match-ups.”

From that perspective, Tecmo Super Bowl is closer to the real NFL than many of us give it credit for.

Bo Jackson isn’t Tomie’s only favorite player. Warren Moon, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Lawrence Taylor, and Walter Payton from Tecmo Bowl also share that honor.

“I didn’t care too much about positions, I just liked the charismatic players,” Tomie said.

Tomie doesn’t remember if he took much advice from other Tecmo employees in shaping players’ abilities. He says he simply chose from the unique players, and made them as powerful as he wanted.

Then it was up to Shimoji to create a database and program all the players’ abilities.  And that’s just the way Shimoji liked it.

“Tomie is someone you can trust to work with,” Shimoji said. “Tomie loved American football.”

Shimoji told me September 1991 was their cut-off date to finalize the team rosters. My guess is that any discrepancies with actual NFL rosters at that time can be attributed to the slow transfer of information across the globe in the analog age.

Shimoji at the 1990 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, picking up his award LIKE A BOSS

Shimoji at the 1990 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, picking up his award LIKE A BOSS

Also on the programming side, many Tecmo fans have questions about the game’s apparent bugs. The attributes “Quickness” and “Accuracy of Passing” don’t seem to have any effect. The punt returner gets a safety’s speed while the kick returner takes on an offensive lineman’s attributes. You can stand right on top of a fumble for five seconds without picking it up, and Player 2 seems to never recover an onside kick.

The short answer as to these questions, according to Shimoji, is that they were restricted by deadlines and technology. They crammed as much into the game cartridge as they could fit, and didn’t have time to do any more.

“As a programmer, there was still so much that I wanted to do. I wanted to check for more bugs, but our schedule and ROM were pushed to the limit. For the NES at the time, the ROM, the backup data, and the power of the CPU were all pushed to the limit,” Shimoji said. “Compared to other Tecmo games, it’s about four to eight times larger.”

Tecmo Super Bowl was the first video game to officially license every NFL team and (nearly every) player. (QB Bills, QB Eagles, and QB Browns might still be waiting to be paid for their appearances.) The game cartridge included a battery inside that allowed you to save your progress between gaming sessions. Amazingly, 25 years later, that battery in my game and every other that I’ve seen still works. Heck, I changed the battery in my damn car key fob twice in just the last year!

Tomie may have misunderstood what I meant by “quickness” and “accuracy of passing” in the context of each player’s attributes. But if he truly doesn’t remember that aspect of the game, then his answer tells me changing those features wouldn’t have made much of a difference. His answer is still worth sharing:

“With quickness, do you mean the initial velocity? I believe that it really did effect the game and plays. For example: Marcus Allen. His max speed was quite slow, but his initial velocity is quite fast, I believe. The way this could be used was through quick turns. You could use it by quickly dodging a tackle. With passing, we wanted this to go along with the different characteristics of the QBs. If a QB had a strong shoulder, but bad control, the ball could go flying anywhere. Not to be rude, but I believe Dan Marino is a good example of this! I’ll say this for his reputation as well, I am a big Dan Marino fan,” Tomie said.

Prior to working on Tecmo Super Bowl, Shimoji and Tomie collaberated on Tecmo Bowl, then a game called “Captain Tsubasa II,” which was released only in Japan.

When Captain Tsubasa II was completed, the two men met over lobster in Los Angeles to discuss ways to make Tecmo Super Bowl better than the original.

Nothing gets those creative juices flowing like buttery Los Angeles lobster

Nothing gets those creative juices flowing like buttery Los Angeles lobster

“With Tecmo Bowl, Tomie wanted 60 frames per second and have a good movement in the game, and I also wanted to match that and create a fast moving program. To make the speed a priority, we made each team have nine players,” Shimoji said. “But to show the excitement of NFL, we decided 11 players should be on each team for Tecmo Super Bowl.”

The men were bothered by the fact the players would appear smaller on screen than they did in Tecmo Bowl. So they mitigated that by developing more cut-scenes during exciting plays—the zoomed-in animations prior to a blocked kick, a diving catch, or everyone’s favorite—the receiver and defender leaping through the screen. Shimoji made sure the clock did not tick during the cut-scenes.

Shimoji went on to explain the difficulties he had accomplishing some of their goals for TSB from a programming standpoint:

“The CPU of the NES prevented 22 players from moving at the same time, so we struggled with that for quite a bit.”

Shimoji conquered that problem by utilizing a subtle blinking effect that tricked the NES into thinking there were fewer than 22 players moving at once.

I wondered whether these men would change anything about the game if they still could.

“I’d like to be able to have a system to really let the characteristics of each player shine through. Also, the stadiums. If I could have it so there’s a noticeable difference between playing as a Home or a Visitor, that would be great. And the weather—depending on the season, if it rained, or snowed. And maybe if it was cold, showing the players’ breath becoming white,” Tomie said.

If showing the players’ breath is one of the game’s most lacking features in the eyes of its creators, I think that shows us they accomplished the important stuff.

Shimoji no longer has access to the game’s code, which is now owned by Koei Tecmo. He retired from console game programming at the age of 40 and keeps busy developing phone apps from his home in Okinawa.

Following his work for Tecmo, Tomie took a job with a different video game company, Spike Chunsoft. Both men are now 54.

Neither Tomie nor Shimoji still plays Tecmo Super Bowl, they told me, adding that they are sorry to say it. Shimoji admits he currently doesn’t own a working NES system.

Reviewing their goals for Tecmo Super Bowl, I think it’s safe to say their most important one was to create replay value.

“We wanted to create a game that is playable for long amounts of time. At the time there were many games that were [no longer enjoyable] once completed, so we wanted to create a game that could be played over and over,” Shimoji said.

That’s why it’s surprising that Shimoji had no idea about the extent to which Tecmo Super Bowl has been played over and over. More than a dozen tournaments are organized each year across the United States. The largest, in Madison, WI, had more than 260 participants in February 2016.

This was all news to Shimoji. After I told him, Shimoji searched for and proudly posted a link to the Tecmo Madison website on his Facebook wall—telling his friends and family about the pride he feels from the success of the difficult project he completed 25 years ago. He told me:

“Honestly, I was unaware that it was being played so much as to have a tournament for it. I am extremely happy to know that it has survived 25 years from the release and is still being loved by people. At the same time, I have nothing but gratitude to the fans of Tecmo Super Bowl and want to thank them from the bottom of my heart.”

 

Author’s note: A huge thanks to Tara Sullivan for her translation.

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