You’ll want to sit down for this.
There is Space Battleship Yamato animation you will probably never see. No joke.
If you lived in Japan back in 1985, you had a chance. But now, forget about it.
Where was it? Exclusively on video screens at Taito Game Centers, the nation’s biggest video arcades. Taito is still in business, the Game Centers are still there, but the Yamato game is long gone, along with all the other Laserdisc games of its era.
Laserdisc games were a departure from the limited-bit CG games of the 1980s; they took full advantage of video bandwidth to provide stunningly detailed images that would take computer graphics cards another 20 years to match. After all, they were etched onto laserdiscs, the best video technology there was before the arrival of DVD. LD games reigned supreme from 1983 to 1986, but the format was too bulky for home use, so they were only accessible in public arcades–which was the key to their eventual demise. But they were as striking to watch as they were to play, a fully cinematic presentation in a time when vector graphics were the best other games could offer. (See Wikipedia’s entry on LD games here.)
The technology was used in two different ways. One combined a high-resolution LD image in the background with lower-resolution CG images in the foreground. Examples were Astron Belt, Firefox and M.A.C.H. 3 (shown above, left to right). They were 3D shooters in a cockpit environment controlling an aircraft or spacecraft. The goal was to target and destroy enemy sprites against a photo-real backdrop.
The second type had input controls that would allow you to interact with pre-made animation scenes. Examples were Time Gal, Badlands, Road Blaster (all shown above), Super Don Quix-ote and Ninja Hayate, all of which utilized custom-made anime. Their counterparts in America were Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, both animated by Don Bluth Studios.
It was only Taito’s second LD game (following Ninja Hayate) and stood out for more reasons than its technology; even today it is the only Yamato video game based solely on Final Yamato. Naturally, the initial plan was to base it on the first TV series, but this proved daunting when it became obvious that 1974 TV animation wouldn’t measure up to the LD game standard of ten years later. But when Final Yamato premiered in 1983, looking as sharp and modern as Taito’s game developers could ask for, they went for that instead. Even so, it was just a starting point.
Extracting scenarios from the film for interactivity was easy. Repurposing it for fully-rounded gameplay was tough since they would need a lot more footage than the movie provided. This is where the new animation came in; roughly 20 minutes of links, inserts and entirely new scenes that accounted for about 80% of the game. The remainder consisted of movie footage used for cutscenes.
We should all pause at this point and thank Mr. Masaru Enomoto, longtime Yamato devotee and chairman of the Yamato Party fan convention. He and his close friends were tenacious enough to obtain one of the extremely rare laserdiscs used in the 1985 Taito game and provide us with a video copy. That’s the source for all the stills shown in this article, and could possibly be the only surviving artifact from this amazing project. That’s what now makes it possible for us to examine the game from beginning to end.
After inserting a coin, the game begins with a launch scene chosen randomly from Farewell to Yamato, Be Forever, or Final Yamato. Interestingly, both the Japanese Yamato and English Star Blazers logos pop up during this phase, indicating that someone in the production chain had their eye on America. Ah, what might have been.
The game’s interactivity starts immediately if an impatient player hits a button during the launch sequence. In the Farewell launch, for example, Yamato leaves the undersea dock and instead of proceeding to the surface it descends to the ocean floor where a marine volcano awaits.
The player is prompted by an arrow to dodge it and then thread the ship between underwater stone pillars. Getting either move wrong ends the launch before it can even start.
Successfully rising to the surface jumps to the Farewell to Yamato launch as we know it.
If the Be Forever launch sequence comes up, the ship bursts out of the asteroid Icarus as in the movie…
…but if you don’t respond in time to a movement prompt, the ship slams into the asteroid ring. Oops.
The Final Yamato version starts from the EDF dock in the giant sea cave. Yamato cruises out toward the entrance…
…and is then prompted to dip so it doesn’t smash into the low-hanging rock at the cave opening.
The next obstacle is a huge wave that crashes over the bow; the ship has to launch before a follow-up wave can swamp and sink it.
From there we’re off to outer space with three lives and a lot of Denguil enemies waiting to take them away.
The next image is a startup screen offering four stages that must all be beaten to reach the fifth and final stage. From this point, a successful run-through of the game with no errors could be accomplished in about 15 minutes, but this was a challenge even for experienced players.
Stage 1: Pluto Airspace
You begin as a gunner on Yamato looking out from the bridge (bridge windows are on a video overlay not shown here). In the first half, you move a cursor with a lever and hit buttons to fire at incoming enemy ammo. After this, Denguil fighters appear and must be shot down. Any that get past you score a hit on the ship and the damage meter starts counting.
After the first wave is knocked out, an insert scene shows the second wave being launched from the Denguil Carrier.
The second wave attacks you, followed by the carrier. All must be hit to continue the game.
In a cutscene from the movie, Lugal de Zahl orders the launch of hyper radiation missiles. These must be shot down with cursor movement and button-mashing.
The object is to be smooth and methodical; Yamato will die quickly if you are careless. Some missiles break into two when hit, but only one needs to be hit again. Hitting all of them clears the stage. If you take too many hits the game jumps to the destruction scene from Final Yamato and you lose a life.
Stage 2: Destroy the enemy fleet
After a farewell salute to Earth, the Cosmo Zero launches from the rear catapult and the mission begins: Kodai must locate the Denguil Mothership so Yamato can destroy it.
Now you’re in the cockpit and flying (the cockpit overlay is not shown) when enemy fire comes at you. As you knock it out, you accelerate through what looks like warp effects, and Denguil fighters appear to shoot you down. If they get past your guns, they’ll hit you.
You drop back to normal speed and have to take out a sentry ship (or a carrier) to clear this stage.
Stage 3: Water Planet Aquarius
Continuing from the last stage, Yamato arrives in the clouds near Aquarius and is immediately attacked by Denguil’s hyper radiation missiles. This time Sanada’s counterweapon is used to shoot them down; you react to onscreen graphics that prompt you to fire in time.
Next Yamato runs into sentry ships and has to dodge their fire. This is done by shifting the ship in response to a directional arrow.
A huge wave of fighters launches for Yamato and has to be taken out either by the smokestack missiles or the pulse laser batteries, again as directed by onscreen graphics. If you don’t fire in time, ammo rains down on the ship. This is followed by another round of radiation missiles, a repeat from stage 1.
More radiation missiles come next and you shoot them down one by one from the bridge. If you fail at any of these tasks, you lose a life.
Finally, Kodai calls in from the Cosmo Zero with the coordinates of the Denguil mothership. Captain Okita orders all the main guns to fire simultaneously. As the guns rise, a digital counter gives the firing angle. If you don’t hit the firing command at precisely the right angle, they fizzle out and smoke.
But if you get it right, the shots connect and the entire Denguil fleet is wiped out. Lugal de Zahl’s remaining ships flee and the stage clears.