The lesser-known videogames of famous designers

From Pac-Man's Toru Iwatani to Gears Of War's Cliff Blezinski, here are some lesser-known games from some famous names...

We’ve all heard of Pac-Man, Pokémon, Super Mario Bros, Gears Of War and SimCity, and most of us could probably recall the famous names who made them, too. But like pop singers, painters, filmmakers and any other kind of artist you could mention, some videogame designers will always be associated with their biggest hit. It’s inevitable, then, that the famous names on this list have also been responsible for some games you may never have heard of – and in some cases, their lesser-known pieces of work are well worth tracking down.

So to begin, let’s head back to 1980, and the creator of one of the most lucrative arcade machines of all time…

Toru Iwatani

Famous for: Pac-Man

Perhaps the most celebrated coin-op from gaming’s golden age, the colour, design and sounds of Pac-Man are probably still familiar even to a generation far too young to have played it when it first came out. Toru Iwatani was still in his mid-20s when he created Pac-Man (original title: Puck-Man, as gaming nerds everywhere know), and his maze-chase concept was quite different from the legion Space Invaders clones at the time. Although its fame built up slowly at first, the trickle of players soon became a flood; within its first year, Pac-Man had cleared the $1bn revenue mark, and is now widely considered to be the most profitable arcade machine of all time.

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With all those coins being poured into arcade machines all over the planet, and the Pac-Man merchandising industry being worth well over $1bn by itself, you might think that Iwatani spent the rest of his career sitting in a gold throne and counting yen banknotes – but no. For his remarkably popular work, Iwatani received no reward of any sort.

“The truth of the matter is, there were no rewards per se for the success of Pac-Man,” Iwatani said in an interview for the VH-1 show, Game Break. “I was just an employee. There was no change in my salary, no bonus, no official citation of any kind…”

Also made: Libble Rabble

Understandably, the games Iwatani designed after 1980 couldn’t match Pac-Man’s extraordinary success. But Libble Rabble came close to matching its infectious playability: it had similar cartoon-like graphics, some catchy sound effects, and addictive, single-screen gameplay. The object was to stretch an elastic line around pegs on the screen, and trap the various mushrooms and monsters within your little enclosure. To do this, the player had to move two independent arrows – one red, one blue – which held either end of the elastic line.

The process of getting the hang of the control system was a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, which might explain why it was more of a cult hit than a global success. But once the controls were mastered, Libble Rabble was a lot of fun, and full of character. It pushed the boundaries a bit, too, since it was the first arcade machine with a 16-bit processor inside it.

Relatively obscure though it is, Libble Rabble has never been quite forgotten: a great conversion appeared on the Super Famicom in 1994, and you can still download an emulated version of the game for the Wii’s Virtual Console. Funnily enough, Iwatani himself rated Libble Rabble above his biggest hit; “The game concepts make it quite an interesting game – even better than Pac Man,” he once said. “But it didn’t do as well as I expected…”

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Shigeru Miyamoto

Famous for: Donkey Kong, Zelda, Super Mario Bros

Few designers have been responsible for quite so many extraordinary games as Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto. Had he simply retired in 1983, he’d still be fondly remembered as the creator of Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. But Miyamoto never rested on his laurels, and never stopped designing or producing hit games; 1985’s Super Mario Bros is still widely regarded as the defining platform game, and was one of the main reasons why Nintendo’s Famicom/Entertainment System console was so popular.

Then came The Legend Of Zelda, Kid Icarus, Pilotwings, Super Mario Kart, Star Fox, F-Zero and Pikmin, to name a few. Miyamoto didn’t create these games in a vacuum, of course, and many, many other artists and designers helped him along the way. But at the same time, it’s difficult to think of another industry figure who’s had quite the same guiding influence as Miyamoto-san.

Also made: Devil World

Miyamoto was so prolific in the 80s, it’s little surprise that some of his games were less celebrated than others. One of the most obscure, perhaps, was 1984’s Devil World. Only released in Japan and Europe, Devil World was an entertaining maze game for the NES. The player controlled a little green dragon who roamed a scrolling labyrinth, avoiding monsters and collecting various crosses and little white pills. Although not especially original, it was a thoroughly entertaining game, with some charming graphics and character designs – some of them looking markedly similar to those seen in the later classics, Bubble Bobble and Ghosts ‘N Goblins.

Unfortunately, its lack of a release in America meant that it never came close to acquiring the status of Miyamoto’s other games of the time. Nintendo of America were notoriously touchy about religious iconography in its games throughout the 80s and early 90s, and with Devil World full of crucifixes, Bibles, and cartoon demons, had Nintendo released it in the US at all, it would almost certainly have been under a different name, and with wildly different graphics. Maybe it’s better that Devil World remained undiscovered, but with its fiendish theme intact.

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Will Wright

Famous for: SimCity

Game designer Will Wright fed his fascination with architecture and engineering with his seminal metropolis-building game, SimCity. First published in 1989, the game was a hit, perhaps because it straddled the line between complexity and simplicity so beautifully; the minutiae of taxation and budgeting could be explored, but it was also fun to just construct a big bustling city and see what happened when you unleashed a tornado or a giant lizard.

The basic premise of SimCity was so popular that each of its later iterations proved to be as popular as the last, with new versions appearing on each generation of computers and consoles since. In the meantime, Wright continued to expand his Sim universe, bringing us SimEarth (1990), the insect world of SimAnt (1991), the astonishingly successful The Sims (2000), and his final game to date, Spore (2008).

Also made: Raid On Bungeling Bay

Way before his Sim games made him an industry celebrity, Wright’s first ever project was this top-down shooter for the Commodore 64. Popular enough at the time to be ported to the NES and MSX (no doubt buoyed by the mid-80s love of helicopters in the wake of shows and films like Airwolf and Blue Thunder), Raid On Bungeling Bay showed flashes of Wright’s later brilliance.

The helicopter behaved quite realistically, with an attempt at simulating the movements of a real chopper, and with its free-roaming play area, the game could be seen as an early version of EA’s Desert Strike. The background details of the various buildings and roads also bear a passing resemblance to SimCity, and it was, in fact, while making Raid On Bungeling Bay that he first had the idea of creating a city-building game. As he sat at his computer, constructing the backgrounds with a level editor, he thought, wouldn’t it be just as much fun to build a city, rather than blow one up?

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A year later, Wright had an early version of his game, then called Micropolis, and the rest is so much videogaming history.

Cliff Blezinski

Famous for: Gears Of War

The designer formerly known as Cliffy-B (and also nicknamed Dude Huge) was responsible for the Unreal series, and most famously of all, the ultra-macho, third-person cover-shooting series Gears Of War. With its robust, meaty gameplay, equally meaty characters, and its smoothly-designed control scheme, the original Gears Of War felt perfectly suited to the Xbox 360’s chunky controller. Subsequent series entries constantly upped the stakes and the gory fireworks, while at the same time retaining the rock-solid cover-mechanic and controls that Belzinski designed back in 2006.

Also made: Jazz Jackrabbit

Blezinski has cited Shigeru Miyamoto as a major influence, but a quick glance through Cliff’s murky grey landscapes and square-jawed heroes, and you might wonder what bearing the Japanese Mario creator’s games could possibly have had. Blezinski once said that he would design cute, colourful games if he could, but that his work always comes out grungier and darker than he’d intended.

Yet years before Gears Of War or Unreal, Jazz Jackrabbit, a side-scrolling platformer designed as the PC answer to Sonic The Hedgehog. Although not the most obscure game on this list, it’s inarguably less famous than Bezinski’s later work, and while a Jazz Jackrabbit game appeared as recently as 2002, the series as a whole is so uncharacteristic of Epic Games or Blezinski’s style that some players may not have realise who’d been behind it.

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Look a little closer, though, and hints of Blezinski’s stamp are there to be found. The music’s bouncy and the backgrounds are colourful, but the central character’s still clutching a machine gun and blowing up everything he sees. Undoubtedly, Jazz Jackrabbit was the Marcus Fenix of furry 90s videogame mascots.

Fukio Mitsuji

Famous for: Bubble Bobble

One of the greatest platform games ever made, Taito’s Bubble Bobble was also one of the earliest and most enjoyable two-player co-op games. Starring two colourful dragons, the aim was to trap enemies in bubbles and then burst them. Players could assist each other by blowing bubbles for each other to bounce on and make their way out of narrow gaps, or engage in a race to see who could catch the most items at the end of a stage. The cute concept was born out of Mitsuji’s desire to create a game that boyfriends and girlfriends could play in their local arcades. The result was a hit, though not one of Pac-Man’s magnitude.

Mitsuji-san made the sequel Rainbow Islands a year later, though its single-player gameplay and pace gave it a very different atmosphere from the original Bubble Bobble. Although niche characters, twin dinosaurs Bub and Bob have continued to turn up from time to time – they’re the adorable window dressing for the Puzzle Bobble series (or Bust-A-Move), and a new entry in the series appeared for the iPhone in 2011.

Also made: Popils (1991)

After Rainbow Islands, Mitsuji was involved in the creation of Syvalion, Darius II and Volfied, before he left Taito in order to work as a freelance designer. His last game was Magical Puzzle Popils, a quite obscure title due to its solo appearance on the Sega Game Gear handheld.

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Popils’ lesser-known status is a shame, because it’s a charming little title, and full of the same touches Mitsuji brought to Bubble Bobble: the opening screen, with its simple characters and accompanying text (“A beautiful princess fell in love with you…”) is remarkably similar to Bubble Bobble‘s “Let’s make a journey to the cave of monsters!”, and even the static stage designs look familiar.

A more cerebral game than Bubble Bobble, Popils is a platform puzzler, where the player has to navigate each screen full of obstacles in order to reach the princess on the other side. Simple yet infuriatingly addictive, it was a sublime handheld experience; had it appeared on the Game Boy instead of the Game Gear, it may have been a big success.

Hideo Kojima

Famous for: Metal Gear Solid

The young Hideo Kojima had only been at Konami a short while when he created Metal Gear, a remarkably original action game that subverted the usual run-and-gun mechanics of the 80s period; instead of taking on an army like Rambo, its hero Solid Snake had to pick his battles carefully, avoiding patrol guards and only occasionally getting into fire fights.

If that game was a hit, with the NES adaptation selling well enough in America to spawn a sequel (which Kojima had nothing to do with), then 1998’s Metal Gear Solid was a phenomenon. Taking the top-down action of Metal Gear into the third dimension, it defined the stealth genre, and made a star of its monosyllabic central character.

Also made: Penguin Adventure

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Like Cliff Blezinski, Kojima’s name is so readily associated with the Metal Gear Solid series – or, to a lesser extent in the west, the Zone Of The Enders games – it’s hard to imagine him being involved in anything cute or cartoonlike. But just one year before Metal Gear came out, he co-designed a little action adventure game called Penguin Adventure.

A sequel to 1983’s Antarctic Adventure, the game starred Penta, the penguin hero who would later appear in Parodius and the Japan-only platformer, Penguin Dream Story. A sort of into-the-screen, pseudo-3D platform game (think Space Harrier, but with less floating), Penguin Adventure involved jumping over holes in the ground and collecting fish. Oddly, if you fell through a crevasse, you sometimes had to buy a trinket from an angry Inuit in sunglasses.

Utterly unlike anything Kojima would make later in his career – there’s no anti-war philosophising or fourth-wall breaking in this game – Penguin Adventure does have one idea that could have sprung directly from his brow: multiple endings. A relatively unusual feature in games at the time,  the hidden ‘good ending’ could only be accessed by pausing the game a single time before completion – a devious tactic which is typical Kojima.

Hironobu Sakaguchi

Famous for: Final Fantasy

Fans of J-RPGs are likely to recognise Sakaguchi-san’s name immediately. Shortly after joining Square (later Square Enix) in the mid-1980s, he was the director Final Fantasy, a game that revolutionised the RPG genre on consoles and, legend has it, saved the studio from the threat of bankruptcy. Sakaguchi directed the four sequels that followed, and also worked on other RPG classics, including Chrono Trigger and Front Mission.

Also made: 3-D WorldRunner and Rad Racer

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Before Square made their name as one of Japan’s foremost RPG developers, it tried its hand at all sorts of different genres. Square’s first ever game (which Sakaguchi also worked on) was The Death Trap, a text adventure for the NEC PC-88. Sakaguchi also worked on two NES action titles, both quite clearly based on hit arcade games of the time; the first was 3-D WorldRunner, an into-the-screen rail shooter inspired by Sega’s hit, Space Harrier. It did add a few extra ideas of its own, though, including the ability to speed up and slow down the rate of your progress through the pseudo-3D levels, and a few power-ups to add variety.

Next came Rad Racer (called Highway Star in Japan), a driving game that bore more than a passing resemblance to another Sega coin-op, OutRun. Both Rad Racer and 3-D WorldRunner were packaged with a pair of anaglyph 3D glasses (the ones with blue and red cellophane over the lenses), something Square hoped would make the games a gigantic success. Unfortunately, although the titles would eventually gather pace in America, Square was facing some serious financial problems, and it took Sakaguchi’s all-or-nothing approach to Final Fantasy to turn the studio’s fortunes around.

Satoshi Tajiri

Famous for: Pokémon

The Pokémon series became such a phenomenon in the 90s, it might come as a surprise that it came from such humble beginnings. Designer Satoshi Tajiri was obsessed with hunting and collecting insects when he was a child, and Pokémon was effectively a fictionalised version of his childhood, with its young hero collecting and training monsters in a countryside not unlike the sleepy outlying Tokyo region Tajiri grew up in – although called Ash Ketchum in America and Europe, the hero was even called Satoshi in the original Japanese version of Pokémon.

Tajiri and his team at Game Freak spent about six years on Pokémon Red and Blue (Red and Green in Japan, confusingly), and the lengthy development almost put the studio out of business. As it turned out, Game Freak’s dedication to its concept was entirely justified; combined, the two versions of the game sold more than 10 million copies in Japan alone, kicking off a cultural juggernaut that took in comics, toys, animated films and TV shows, trading cards, and numerous videogame sequels and spin-offs.

Also made: Jerry Boy

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Before they began to make games together, Tajiri and artist Ken Sugimori (who’d go on to design all 151 Pokémon characters) worked on a fanzine together. Then, in 1989, they decided to start making games, their first being Mendel Palace (or Quinty), an action puzzler that involved flipping tiles to kill enemies. They also produced Yoshi, a colour-matching puzzle game, for Nintendo – its first publishing deal with the gaming giant.

The best and most underrated of Game Freak’s pre-Pokémon games, though, was Jerry Boy. A colourful, cheerful platform game with some incredibly catchy music, Jerry Boy featured a little shimmering blob of jelly, who could stretch up to reach platforms, stick to walls and run across ceilings. He could also swallow items and spit them at enemies – a vital tactic against the game’s various giant bosses.

Although simple and unassuming, it’s a beautifully balanced game, and the character designs are recognisably Sugimori’s – many of the bosses, such as stage one’s giant pink bird, look uncannily like Pokémon. There are some great graphical tricks, too, including a stage set on the moon where the entire level rotates beneath the player’s feet, like a 2D precursor to Super Mario Galaxy.

Only a modest success, the game was released in a heavily edited form in the US as Smartball, which removed several scenes in order to make it look less cute. A sequel to Jerry Boy was once in development, but sadly, was never released.

Yuji Naka

Famous for: Sonic The Hedgehog

The blue hedgehog with the red trainers and the need for speed ignited a much publicised rivalry between Sega and Nintendo, and helped shift the former’s Mega Drive (or Genesis) in considerable numbers. At the time, no other platform game looked as fast or vibrant as Sonic The Hedgehog, and for a few years in the early 90s, both Sega and its mascot were just about untouchable. The fondness and goodwill for Sonic is such that, no matter how uneven his later adventures became, the character’s endured where other cute and furry mascots have faded into obscurity.

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Also made: Girl’s Garden

Having joined Sega as a programmer in 1984, Naka was responsible for all sorts of games before he scored a major success with Sonic The Hedgehog. He was lead programmer on the legendary pseudo-3D thrill rides Space Harrier and OutRun, coded the original Phantasy Star for the Master System, and did a great job of porting Ghouls ‘N Ghosts to the Mega Drive in 1989.

Naka’s most obscure work, though, was probably his first: Girl’s Garden for the Japan-only SG-1000 console. It was an exceedingly odd little game, where you played as a little girl collecting flowers while avoiding murderous bears, and perhaps because of its rather twee subject matter, never appeared anywhere else. It’s an interesting, quirky early effort from Naka, though, who was just 19 when he designed it. And in the game’s primary colours, blue skies and rolling green hills, there are vague glimmers of Sonic The Hedgehog – who knows, if Naka had thought of replacing the little girl with a hedgehog, and the flowers with rings, he may have had a hit with this game, too…

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