Insomnia | Commentary

A History of Toaplan

By David Neal / December 10, 2008

Toaplan Co., Ltd. formed largely from the ashes of the company Crux in 1984 (Crux, in its turn, had formed from the ashes of Orca). Most of the early Toaplan games were released through Taito, while a few were published by Data East and SNK. Except for Mahjong Sisters in 1986, Toaplan did not self-publish until Horror Story in 1989.

Internally, the company had a few different development teams to work on various projects. Most of the shooting games were programmed by Tatsuya Uemura or Masahiro Yuge. The two worked together for Tiger Heli, Hishou Zame, and Kyukyoku Tiger, but in 1988 they helmed seperate projects: Tatsujin for Yuge and Hellfire for Uemura. To my knowledge, the two never collaborated again while at Toaplan, though it is possible they worked together again on Great Mahou Daisakusen at Eighting. Daisenpu, V-V, and Batsugun are among the few shooters not programmed by Yuge or Uemura. V-V and Batsugun were programmed in part by current Cave programmer Tsuneki Ikeda. Daisenpu was programmed by Lee Ohta, possibly with assistance from Etsuhiro Wada or others.

Toaplan's main musicians were the aforementioned programmers Uemura and Yuge (renaissance men), Toshiaki Tomizawa and Lee Ohta. Masahiro Yuge and Tatsuya Uemura learned to play piano at school, though Uemura grew a preference for the electric guitar while Yuge continued to play the piano in his adult years. I can't remember Tomizawa's training with certainty, though my recollection is that he was also trained on the piano, as he once mentioned interpolating a song into one of his soundtracks since it was the first piece he ever played. I know almost nothing about Lee Ohta or his background.

Graphics of the earlier Toaplan games were created by Koetsu Iwabuchi, Atsushi Kawaguchi and Kenichi Takano. Naoki Ogiwara, Yuko Tataka, and Sanae Nito may have been original graphics staff, otherwise they joined sometime around Tatsujin in 1988. Junya "Joker Jun" Inoue is often associated with Toaplan because of his work on Batsugun, but he wasn't hired until Dogyuun in 1992. "Joker" refers to Mr. Inoue being Toaplan's 54th employee. (A standard deck of poker cards is often called a "trump" in Japan. At some point, Toaplan's internal newsletter gained the anagrammed title A Tolanp (Japanese pronunciation of "a trump"). When Junya joined Toaplan, he became the final card of a 54-card deck: the Joker.)

While many software companies hire a few people here and there over time, my understanding is that Toaplan would hire essentially a complete new development team (programmers, artists, and sometimes musicians) in one go. This new team would then be tasked with creating a prototype for a new game, which would later be evaluated. This is how Zero Wing and Dogyuun were both started. With Zero Wing, Yuge's Tatsujin team and Uemura's Hellfire team found themselves between projects and so started to meddle around with it. This is why the soundtrack to the game features Toshiaki Tomizawa (the new musician), Yuge, and Uemura.

As Toaplan eventually came to be such a large company, it had an internal newsletter and workers would often check in on the other games in progress. There were company-wide meetings in which design ideas or balance suggestions would be brought up. These were often manic, high-energy affairs which could devolve into a pie in the face for someone proposing a bad idea, or shouting matches over whether a game was fair enough or too easy and consequently likely to lose money. Music for games was often picked in a similar manner. Musicians would shop several songs around and staff members would point out which ones they liked and which they hated.

It is sometimes suggested that the success of Capcom's Street Fighter II and the fighting game explosion killed Toaplan, but I think that was only one part of the picture. Toaplan, particularly Yuge's shooting game team, was making notoriously difficult shooters that were turning off many players. Some of the difficulty balance and hit box sensibilities being shouted about in company meetings kept the feeling of the games stuck in the previous decade. Often overlooked is a likely management or morale problem. Toaplan's long-reigning president Yoshiyuki Kiyomoto stepped down on June 1, 1992. Some time thereafter, the head of software development and several senior staff members left to join Tamsoft.

To increase profits, some members programmed ports of their games for the Mega Drive. Many of Toaplan's properties were also licensed to other companies for porting to competing consoles. Soundtrack releases came for every game instead of just some of them. Fortune-telling machines and similar non-game ventures were briefly explored. These efforts were not enough. Toaplan faced bankruptcy and closed its doors in very early 1994.


Masahiro Yuge and Sanae Nito, along with several new hires, created Kyukyoku Tiger II and released it through Taito as Takumi. Masahiro Yuge also worked on Giga Wing and Mars Matrix before leaving Takumi. He contributed to Great Mahou Daisakusen at Eighting and more recently designed Kuru Kuru Kururin, also for Eighting.

Tatsuya Uemura, Junya Inoue, Mikio Yamaguchi, Kaneyo Oohira, and Yoshitatsu Sakai formed Gazelle and released Akuu Gallet and Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon for Banpresto before painfully terminating the company. Uemura later did sound programming for Battle Bakraid and assisted on Great Mahou Daisakusen.

Kenichi Takano, Tsuneki Ikeda, Naoki Ogiwara, Toshiaki Tomizawa, and a few other Toaplan guys founded Cave and created Donpachi with some new staff. Satoshi Kohyama lent a hand on Donpachi and later joined Cave. After the collapse of Gazelle, Junya Inoue was also hired by Cave.

Toshiaki Ohta, Hiroaki Furukawa, Etsuhiro Wada and Shintaro Nakaoka worked at Tamsoft to create the Toshinden series among other games.

Yusuke Naora, artist for V-V, joined Square and has worked on the Final Fantasy series and other projects as an art director.

Lee Ohta and Saori Hiratsuka teamed up with Taito to bring us Gekirindan. Ohta disappeared afterward, but Hiratsuka was an artist for one of the Puzzle Bobble games before also disappearing.