We love an Atari insight at Arcade Attack so we tracked down yet another Atari alumni! Joe Sousa was a key tester there in the early 90s having tested/designed a variety of Lynx and Jaguar games. He even co-designed Adrian’s favourite ever (possibly…) Jag game, Kasumi Ninja! He also worked on the NUON console which is truly fascinating!
How did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and can you remember the first video game you ever worked on?
It was 1993. I was finished recovering from a skiing accident and had to drop out of school. I needed a job and saw in the classified section of the San Jose Mercury news that was a job testing software. I had been working at Fujitsu through a temp agency, and I was testing hard drives. It was a temporary gig and I needed a permanent job, so I applied to test software. There was indication that the job was Atari. When I got the call to come for an interview I found out it was Atari. I was already a big fan of the ST as I had owned one since the late 80s. I had to take a test by playing a game and then writing a bug report. I think I was the only candidate that was familiar with the ST and knew how to use Spell Check. That and the fact that the Test Manager, Tom Gillen, was also a drummer (we talked about the ST’s music prowess) gave me the upper hand and I was hired. The first game I ever worked on was California Games for the Lynx.
You’ve tested a good number of Atari Jaguar games in your career. Which are your personal favourite games for the Jag and are there any games you never took a shine to?
My personal favorite game for Jag is Kasumi Ninja. Not because it is a great game, but because I had a lot more involvement with the game. I was one of the co-designers and a great deal of the sound effects were me being thrown to the kung fu mat (ha ha! – Ed). I also really like Raiden as that was my first lead Jaguar assignment. I even had the stand up arcade unit in my cube. I was charged with making sure the Jag port was as good as the original.
Well, I constantly pestered the developer to change things to make it like the original, but there were just some things that couldn’t be replicated. In the end, I think it came out pretty nice and I am proud of it. I also really liked AvP, Cybermorph, Tempest 2K, DOOM, and Val d’Isère. Games I was not a fan of; well I didn’t like playing Asteroids/Missile Command on the Lynx. We had to play the same rev for months waiting on the first Jag games to come in for testing. I was never fond of Club Drive (us neither, is an understatement – Ed) or Trevor McFur either.
Did you ever work on any unreleased games, and if so, can you share any your thoughts on which of these games looked the most impressive?
I did a little bit or work on the NFL game that was supposed to be developed on the Jag. I mostly gave advice to Tom Gillen who was producing it. I think out of all the employees at Atari, only myself, Scott Hunter, Lance Lewis and Ken Saunders watched American Football and knew the rules. It never got past a few design docs and texture samples for grass.
You worked at Atari during a really pivotal and disruptive time in their history. How do you reflect back at your time at this iconic company and why do you feel they ultimately failed?
I loved my time at Atari. There were some ups and downs, but for the most part, it was a blast working with the people there, and we all got to wear a lot of hats. Yes, I was a game tester, but I also got to do SFX, game design, and a lot of other things that made it a dream job. I think the company failed because of the PlayStation. They had more resources and great tools for game developers that Atari simply couldn’t match.
Which games do you feel really pushed the Jaguar to its limits and do you feel the console was mismanaged?
I think that DOOM and T2K really pushed the hardware to its limits. I’m not sure that the console was mismanaged, I don’t think anyone could had done any better with what they had to work with. It was a pivotal time in the industry and the age of Atari has simply passed.
Out of all the games you have worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?
I would have to say Cybermorph. It was the first time I tried my hand at level design and John Skruch told me he really liked the way I played with the color pallet, and the flow I was able to achieve. I also named a couple levels after my daughters, Brianna and Kelsey, only I mixed up the letters to create new names. I also spelled out “Joe + Bonnie” but you can’t see it unless you’re looking at the level from outer space, which is impossible given the game’s camera angles. (if someone can hack the ROM so we can see this we’d be eternally grateful! – Ed)
If you could be transported into any one of the video games you have worked on, and live there for day, which game would you choose and why?
Wow, that a cool question! In AvP I was Science officer Sousa. I think it would be fun to be on a spaceship exploring new worlds. Of course in AvP I am only a log entry who is dead, but before that, my character must have been alive and doing sciency things right? 😉
You have worked with Scott Hunter for a number of years. How did you two first meet and ultimately become such good friends?
We met when Scott came in to Atari for an interview. Scott was new to the area and we just had a lot in common. We both liked sports (which was unusual at Atari) and we lived relatively close to one another. Scott is just a really cool guy and we just had a natural chemistry I suppose.
The NUON is a fascinating console (and I feel ahead of its time). How did you get the opportunity to work on this console and how do you reflect back on your time here?
I was working at SCEA at the time with Scott. We had both been promoted out of the test department and we were both recruited by Bill Rehbock. He and Greg Labrec were also as SCEA and chose to leave to work with Richard Miller and John Matheison at VM Labs. It was a chance to get the band back together and give it another go. The dot com era was booming and we all thought about that too. I really enjoyed my time at VM Labs because we all worked incredibly hard to try something new. We were a little fish in a big ocean. Working with DVD manufacturers was harder than we thought it would be. We thought they would embrace the interactivity of gaming on their platform, but they didn’t care about the games enough to cultivate them, they only cared for the advanced DVD features.
You helped produce some of NUON’s most respected titles in Iron Soldier 3, Tempest 3000 and Space Invader’s XL. Do you have a personal favouriite out of those three games and why do you think the NUON never really took off?
They were all fun to produce and I have some very fond memories of working with the Marc at Eclipse during development of IS3, he is a really good guy, and very German! Working with Jeff Minter was a trip, but so fun! He and I share a fondness for dried crushed herbs lit on fire and inhaled to promote wellness lol. He is one of a kind! Space Invaders XL was fun because if was trip down memory lane of spending hours on my 2600 playing Space Invaders. One of my favorites. I was also able to travel to Japan with Scott Hunter and Keita Ita to hammer out the licensing deal, which was awesome! The main reason NUON didn’t take off was our lack of funding. We were always on the verge of running out of money so we had to things as creatively as possible. It’s hard to compete with Juggernauts like Sony and Sega when you have a hard time paying rent.
How did you get the opportunity to work at Sony and how did the culture of this Japanese company compare to Atari?
Well, SCEA was not really very Japanese. The closest we got was going out for Japanese food. It was a great place to work and I still have really fond memories. When Scott and I first started there, all the SCEA employees would gather for meetings in the break-room. When left 3 years later, it was a giant company with hundreds of employees.
If you could travel back in time and work on any video game, which game would you have loved to be involved in?
I would have loved to have worked at Infocom, making Zork and all those great adventure games. Sierra Online would have been a blast to work at making the Quest games (Kings, Police, Space) and Leisure Suit Larry. I would have also loved to work at Origin with Lord British. Ultima is still my all-time favorite game franchise and meeting Lord British at E3 is still one of the greatest things to have happened to me!
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
The Avatar from the Ultima Games, Lara Croft, Solid Snake, maybe Pacman, lol, I really don’t know.
Screenshots from Moby Games