Another massive coup for our lil blog – Dylan Cuthbert is a legend amongst us retro gamers. Plucked from Argonaut and flown to Kyoto to work with Nintendo at the age of 18, without him there would be no StarFox (noooooooo!!!) or there would be, it just wouldn’t have been as good! Dylan’s career is impressive to say the least and it was an honour to pick his brains…
It’s been 23 years since its release but we’re still playing StarFox (StarWing) on the SNES so we’ll say THANK YOU now and gush over your achievements in a short while. Some of our team attempted programming back in the early nineties and failed miserably, what got you started?
My friend got an early ZX-Spectrum from his uncle “that worked in the factory” and I would go around to his house and we’d type in listings from magazines that almost always failed to work due to our bad typing or magazine print errors. Frustrated with this I suggested we try making something ourselves… I worked out how to create a looping bit of code that moved something across the screen and then that was it, I was hooked. I was about 10 years old. I was programming machine code by typing in hex within the next year, but first on a secondhand ZX-81 with 16k rampack I bought with my pocket money (I couldn’t afford a Spectrum).
Argonaut Games had been established since the early eighties and already had a strong following through the revolutionary Starglider on the Atari. How did you get your job there?
They advertised in one of the gaming magazines at the time and I was frustrated that I wasn’t learning enough about programming and the math surrounding programming at school, so I applied while I was doing my first year of A-levels (I was studying double-math and physics). I went for the interview and showed them the latest game I was making on the Spectrum which was a fun little Turrican style romp, and they were impressed but ultimately someone else got the job because I had no 3d demos or experience. So I went home and created a 3d rasterisation system on my Amiga using the Blitter with chained interrupts to render the polygons (just to make things err.. difficult for myself for no reason), and then sent that in on a floppy disk to them. The next day Jez called me and offered me a job. This was about 2 months after I had interviewed. I started in the Summer of 1989.
Your role in StarFox has been well documented, what was the hardest thing about being flown over to Japan at the age of 18?
Yes, a year later I found myself in Japan after a whirlwind of exciting work including making the PC version of Starglider 2 and making 3d engines for the Konix Multisystem and Gameboy. There was no hard thing about my trip to Japan, I loved every minute of it. After one week I decided I wanted to live in Kyoto.
On the flip side, what was the most exciting thing?
Visiting Nintendo and meeting all the people there of course! Back in those days Nintendo wasn’t a big brand in the UK so I probably wasn’t as humble and in awe as I should have been when I met people like Yokoi and Miyamoto. Maybe that helped communication because I didn’t hold anything back out of reverence and neither did Jez. We were both pretty aggressive in telling them their existing 3d technology sucked. (it comprised of a small DSP math chip attached to the Pilot’s Wing cartridge)
Shigeru Miyamoto speaks of you affectionately, how does it feel having praise from one of the most influential individuals (if not the most influential individual) in video gaming?
We have a long history now so he sometimes feels like an approving (or disapproving, depending on what I’ve been up to with Sony) uncle.
What was it like working with him and the team at Nintendo?
Well, intiially I worked in Yokoi’s group sitting next to the awesome “Hip” Tanaka (now CEO of Creatures Inc.) and being looked after primarily by the equally awesome Izushi who was basically one of the prime engineers behind the Game Boy and the Game & Watch (he programmed the earliest G&W games together with Miyamoto designing them).
So my first experiences were with Yokoi’s R&D1’s group and I loved it, a year later or so when I moved on to begin StarFox with EAD, Miyamoto’s group, I found the group to be a little less technical because they had traditionally used SRD, an external programming company (but with offices inside Nintendo), for their programmers, but that also meant we had a bit of a blank canvas to work with and could create our own development environment. Also, R&D1 also made hardware and gadgets (like the SuperScope) but EAD was purely game development. However it was at EAD where I learnt Miyamoto’s method of game design, with extremely high iteration of ideas and attention to detail, and the almost cold clinical ability to cut features that might seem cool from some perspective but just don’t fit somehow into the overall flow of the game.
StarFox deserved a 16-bit sequel – were you disappointed that StarFox 2 on the SNES was never released?
Well, it’s always a disappointment when a game you have worked on for a year or two isn’t released, but I notched it up to experience and carried on.
We’re big fans of your GameBoy works (X in particular) – for us, a lot of the magic has gone out of handheld gaming (we shake our fists at Candy Crush!) – what do you think of mobile gaming and would you ever indulge “free-to-play” projects?
I don’t close my mind to anything really – if I can find a way for free to play to work with me but not compromise the gameplay I will do it. I’d prefer games to be “events” though, creations that people spend some money up-front on, like the cinema. When I see the huge amounts of money being spent by single people on f2p games it makes me cringe a bit, because making games shouldn’t be about squeezing people for every penny they have. Obviously people who love money point at me and laugh when I say that.
The PS2 probably hasn’t received the recognition it deserves – its catalogue and capabilities (to my memory) blew everything else away at the time. Your duck in the bath demo is now legendary – what was it like first getting your hands on the console and was it obvious to you how successful it would be?
Well actually the PS2 sold very well for Sony, creating enormous revenue for them. It’s where we first saw GTA in its 3D incarnation and there was some truly brilliant titles on it. I moved to Tokyo to work on it in 1998 and the graphics chip and vector units blew the competition away at the time. I remember taking a demo I had written for the very latest video card on the PC, re-working it to run on the PS2 and the frame rate went from 10fps to 60fps. That pixel throughput was truly remarkable for 1998. My duck in the bath demo was rendered using a cloud of points representing curved surfaces and converted into polygons at variable resolutions on the fly using the VU1.
You founded Q-Games in 2001, we estimate still in your 20s, how difficult was it to get up and running?
Yes, I was 29 – it was nerve-wracking as hell but I didn’t see any other way to chase my dream. Ever since I started making games in my bedroom I had been doodling logos for the game studio I would eventually make. I was pretty geeky and introverted so it took some bold resolve to take the plunge.
Do you see yourself remaining in Kyoto for the rest of your career? We love Japan and would quite gladly live there (hint, hint – just kidding!).
Yes, Kyoto is where I’ll stay, it’s so rich and diverse. It has been no.1 on Travel & Leisure’s best city list for two years straight.
What have you got in the pipeline currently and can you give us a sneak peek?
The Tomorrow Children is having its beta test on Jan 21st and you can sign up now to join in (you need a PSN account and go here. We will be launching a short time after that. This game and the world we have created is something truly unique, you won’t have played anything like it before.
And finally, I know I’ve been rambling on, if you could go for a few pints with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
Lara Croft, of course… for reasons… or that girl from Tohshinden.
Thanks Dylan, all the best for The Tomorrow Children!