– The game uses sound really well, doesn’t it? Like the fanfare that plays when doing chains.
Toshitaka: That came up, actually. Just having a sound play every time you cleared out some panels wasn’t very interesting, so we decided to make it a scale instead.
– Where did the idea of having garbage blocks come from?
Hitoshi: Competing against another person is usually fun no matter what you’re doing, but the Versus Mode in Panel de Pon was actually quite boring at first. All you did was swap panels around until 3 lined up and disappeared, after all. That’s when we started thinking about different ways you could attack your opponent, like by having the bottom of the screen slowly rise up, or making their panels invisible. The only thing we wanted to avoid at all costs was having an attack that caused stuff to fall from above.
– So there were quite a few attacks that didn’t make the cut, then.
Hitoshi: Then we started to think about what could be done to get rid of garbage, and eventually landed on the idea of making it possible to switch them back to regular panels. Being able to use those panels to make chains was not something we had considered, though. It just ended up being possible as a result.
Toshitaka: We had all sorts of ideas, but they just weren’t interesting enough to keep around.
Hitoshi: It was tough to get the game systems to where they are now. Since it all started with a single moment of inspiration, we weren’t really thinking of what to do afterwards.
Toshitaka: It was after we got the basic systems in place that things really started to get difficult for us.
Toshihiro: We even tossed around ideas like “Explosion Chains,” didn’t we?
Toshitaka: Yeah. We made small garbage blocks that would rain down, and the explosion blocks attached to them would set off a series of explosions that would turn them back into regular panels.
Toshihiro: I did like how flashy the explosions were, though. But the idea of having things fall from above was too obvious, so we had been avoiding it from the very beginning.
Hitoshi: Exactly. The entire point was to have things come up from below.
Toshihiro: Despite that, one of our first ideas was to give up on the “from below” idea and have Explosion Chains rain from above, though.
– It seems like a lot of work went into the graphics as well. The design work done on the panels, for example, really makes them stand out.
Hitoshi: One of our biggest priorities from the start was to make sure panels were visible and easy to process–whether they looked plain or fancy wasn’t the problem. Making something easier to see may make it look boring as a result, so we worked to make everything surrounding the puzzle part itself look good.
– Panel de Pon really lives up to its name in that way1. The panels themselves stand out, and that characters surrounding them move about in interesting ways.
1 Panel de Pon literally means “Panels with a Bang!”
Yumiko: Thinking up characters was really difficult. Starting with a shape similar to a heart, I started doing things like attaching feet to rabbits’ faces. I couldn’t come up with anything good and just kept sticking limbs to faces. (laughs)
Hitoshi: We had a picture of Manhattan as the background in the beginning, too. (laughs)
Toshitaka: We were trying to think internationally, and tried to recreate that global feel by having pictures like those in the background. The story was originally about traveling across the globe and battling along the way.
– For a puzzle game, I feel like there was a lot of work put into the world and characters. There are a lot of finer details too, like how the characters move.
Toshitaka: We had our designers propose ideas freely, disregarding limitations imposed by the hardware. There were some things that we figured would be tough, but not impossible. (laughs)
– You can make a perfectly fine puzzle game without characters, but it’s hard not to get attached to them after all the work they’ve had put into them.
Hitoshi: That’s also a sign of the times. Before Panel de Pon, Nintendo’s puzzle games only ever did the bare minimum for characters and sound. We always figured puzzle games should focus on the “puzzle” aspect over all else. The thing is that the puzzle games other companies put out started to change–adding things like stories, endings, and all sorts of other elements. Despite the genre itself changing so much, how on earth could Nintendo possibly get away with releasing a puzzle game for the Super Nintendo that’s “just” a puzzle game? So we started talking about making a story, and adding an ending and all that. I left it all up to Toshitaka, though.
– There are lots of modes, too.
Hitoshi: Endless Mode and Versus Mode were ideas we had from the very beginning. Around that time we had people on the inside expressing their desire to play “a mode that ends,” but we couldn’t figure out what to do, since panels will continue to rise up from the bottom no matter what you do. They suggested we made it so that the game ends after you clear a certain number of panels, and that’s how we got Stage Clear Mode. We made Score Attack Mode because we wanted a way to test our own skills, but Endless would take too much time so we created a mode with a fixed time limit.
– There’s a puzzle mode too, of course.
Hitoshi: Puzzle Mode came from when we had the game looked at within Nintendo. We were told the game had a lot of action elements to it, and that there should be a way to just enjoy the “puzzle” parts. After asking for clarification, we were told that we should add a mode where you have to clear away all the panels within a fixed number of moves, and that’s exactly what we did.
– The matches [the developers] have against each other get extremely heated – you host your own Panel de Pon tournaments and everything! When I watch you play it does seem like you’re having a lot of fun, but I’ve got to ask: How did you develop all your techniques?
Hitoshi: Shinya pioneered most of the game’s techniques. Anybody could do them if you showed them how, but Shinya was incredible at always planning his moves a few steps ahead.
Toshitaka: He was worthless in actual matches, though. (laughs)
– What’s your longest chain?
Hitoshi: x26 chain.
Toshitaka: It took everything we had just to keep counting past 13. The reason a question mark pops up is because we weren’t sure whether or not there would be enough space for us to add more numbers and figured it was unlikely for anyone to ever get a chain that long anyway, but we ended up getting above 13 with ease.
Hitoshi: Getting 13 while playing by yourself would be nothing short of a miracle. Even if you were amazing at the game, you’d probably only get one a day. We decided that leaving anything above 13 as a question mark was fine, but since so many panels pop up in head-to-head matches we ended up seeing more of them than we expected. As the techniques used in-game continue to advance, I feel like the system is advancing right alongside it.
– The North American version of Panel de Pon received quite the facelift.
Hitoshi: We thought about releasing it as-is, but after asking people on the American side whether or not we thought the visual style would fly we were told that it would probably only appeal to the small segment of people who are into Japanese animation. We were convinced, and got some time to switch it to a Yoshi aesthetic.
– Seems like it was good that you did. I’ve heard it was received positively.
Hitoshi: We received 1996’s “Best Puzzle Game,” “Best SNES Game,” and the Game Boy version won “Best Game Boy Game.” So, three awards in total. It was organized by a fairly famous game magazine overseas, with the winners decided by voting.
– Do [the developers] feel any kind of emotional attachment to puzzle games?
Shinya: I don’t really like puzzle games, but I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Panel de Pon.
Toshihiro: I’m a big fan of puzzle games. I used to play lots of Tetris and Cosmo Gang: The Puzzle. I like games with simple controls, where you can really tell how you improve the more you play them.
Hitoshi: It’s not like we’re all making puzzle games because we like them. In fact, it’s probably better to have people who don’t like them at all be in charge of making them. If a fan of puzzle games made one it would probably end up being too similar to something else.
– You could say that your main programmer hating puzzle games ended up leading to the creation of a brand new kind of puzzler.
Hitoshi: I’m amazed he was able to put aside his feelings and put such deep thought into making a game in a genre he hates–and do it well! (laughs)
Toshitaka: So if you want to make something new, learning to hate the genre could be a good starting point. (laughs)