With 36 interviewees and over 250'000 words, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers reveals more information and secrets about the history of Japanese videogames than ever before.
There's first-hand accounts of Konami's and Namco's secret game consoles, the pre-history and origin of Game Arts, some unusual events at Telenet, and never before heard stories from inside Falcom. The secret politics behind Enix's game programming contests are revealed. There's a tour of the Love-de-Lic and WARP offices, and layout sketches of many other developers. There's detailed insight into the culture of computer, console and arcade games, including interviews with high profile collectors and preservationists.
From the dawn of games until after the millennium, there are recollections from Japan you won't find anywhere else, never before seen archive photos, and detailed information on unreleased games.
"After much original research, John completed the first volume of this unprecedented trawl through the history of Japanese game development last year, and we're happy to see it make its wider bundle debut here. The detail and the interviews go far beyond what we've ever seen in English before - skim it for highlights, dive deep for obscurities you never imagined." – Simon Carless
"John Szczepaniak is like the David Attenborough of Japanese Game Development. This utterly fascinating, expertly executed book fills a giant void in the English language history of Japanese video games."– Amazon Review
"We now have a window into Japanese game development and its history where previously there was only hearsay and PR press releases. The absence of any PR people acting as gatekeepers is also very apparent here and the result is a clear and very human take on the people being interviewed. Much of what is revealed is also utterly fascinating. There are also poignant aspects to the book too, as many important and interesting figures have sadly passed away. These individuals are given obituary pages listing their works as well as their involvement. It's eminently clear that this kind of book is very much long past due."– Forbes
"While one could accuse the book of almost being too detailed, once you're ensconced within those information-rich pages you become even more ravenous for data, rather than feeling overwhelmed by it. As the many heartfelt remembrances in the book — which include such late legends as WARP's Kenji Eno and Bubble Bobble creator Fukio Mitsuji — attest, the world of gaming owes Szczepaniak a massive debt. The people who made these games aren't getting any younger, and some of Japan's most famous developers have sadly passed on since the glory days of the Famicom. This is a part of our industry which is slowly but surely slipping away, and we should all be very grateful indeed that Szczepaniak has taken the time and effort to catalogue this amazing period for future generations."– NintendoLife Review
"From the very beginning it is evident that one of the big draws of the book is exclusive info about Japanese home computers from the eighties, platforms virtually unknown in the west but that were the first training ground for many newcomers in the gaming industry, who, economic and technical limitations notwithstanding, went to release many innovative or socially relevant games. With 36 interviewees and more than 500 pages, The Untold History of Japanese Video Game Developers is a book full of previously unknown and interesting info for fans of retrogaming and obscure japanese developers. We are happy that many info on cancelled projects and facts about the development of some of our favorite games were preserved in this book."– Unseen64
"There are hours and hours worth of reading material contained within, as author John Szczepaniak painstakingly conducts interviews with scores of the most prominent names in Japanese gaming."– NEO Magazine Review
Interview with Kouji Yokota
27 September & 10 October 2013, Shade company offices, Tokyo
When starting this project there were several names which readers repeatedly requested coverage on. One was Super Famicom-era developers Quintet, which spun off from Nihon Falcom. Another was Nihon Falcom itself, plus Nihon Telenet and Game Arts. Mr Yokota has worked for all four of these companies, in addition to being head of Shade, which itself spun off from Quintet. Joining me on the day was Preservation Society President Joseph Redon, who brought with archive materials related to Mr Yokota's career. When we walked into the meeting room we spotted something special...
JS: There's a PC-88FH Black model over there!
KY: *laughs* Yes, that's right. Actually, I tried to activate them and they still work. Would you like to see it?
*the PC-88 comes to life, playing the classic opening track to Falcom's Ys III, loud and rich*
JS: What was the first game you saw?
KY: If you're talking about videogames, it was Space Invaders. And there used to be an upright driving game, I think that probably was the first game I was exposed to.
JS: When did you want to join the industry?
KY: I actually had my first computer at around the age of 20. So I was already interested in that kind of field. And I really like arcade games; Space Harrier by Sega I found very impressive, so I was very much attracted to the industry.
JS: Was your first job at Nihon Telenet?
KY: My first job, yes. My friend was already working there and so he introduced me to the company.
JS: How did you learn techniques for pixel art?
KY: There are several techniques that you can use. For example together with colleagues, fellow designers, we tried different colours, or used dithering techniques to create additional colours, but there's no established technique that you can learn or study, you just develop your own way. First we were doing a technique called [dithering], to test various renders. You go through a trial and error process and try different colours, while looking at the screen. Computer graphics back then, the shape of the pixels wasn't really a proper square - it was a rectangle. So if you tried to draw a diagonal straight line, because of the rectangular shaped pixels it was quite difficult to have a very linear line. But by changing the colours that constituted the line we wanted to draw, by overlapping the dots or pixels, we learned how to display clear lines. So that was really an outcome of trial and error.
JS: Some sketches say Soul Blader 2. (above)
KY: We wanted to make Soul Blader 2, but actually instead we made Illusion of Gaia. This was not done by me, but by someone else. But based on these sketches I created pixel art. I made character graphics and boss designs. This is one of the boss monsters. These are made by professional designers, and then based on these I created graphics for different characters. So for each stage map this type of sketch was created, so there were multiple people involved in the process. We sort of shared the responsibilities.
JS: Nihon Telenet and Atlus both worked on a version of Megami Tensei. How did Telenet get the license, and how come their game was different to Atlus' version?
KY: I had just joined the company at the time so I am not sure of the exact details, but I heard that when licenses to make game versions of the Megami Tensei novel were simultaneously acquired by Atlus (Famicom version) and Nihon Telenet (computer versions), the companies wanted to avoid the stereotypical genres of each system - action games on the Famicom, role-playing games on home computers. So they each ventured into the opposite genre. I don't know if this was because of instructions from the original author, or a voluntary staking out of territory by the two companies. Around this time, Atlus and Nihon Telenet were in contact with each other, and when Nihon Telenet later started developing for the Famicom, we received a brief orientation session from an Atlus employee.
JS: If you left Falcom in 1991, you must have been there when Masaya Hashimoto and Tomoyoshi Miyazaki left to form Quintet?
KY: Actually I wanted to leave with them. But you know, I had a family to look after, so I didn't take the adventure of leaving the company with them. So I stayed and they left before me. And then Yuzo Koshiro of Ancient left. But when those two people left, obviously the company didn't like that and there were some problems, with regards to them leaving. So I didn't want to leave with them, because I wanted to avoid having any trouble with the company. So I completed the original version of Ys III, and then after completion of that, Hashimoto-san and Miyazaki-san left the company. Then after they left we did the conversion of the original Ys III, and when we were working on this conversion they started Quintet.
JS: I actually interviewed Koshiro-san a few days ago. Did you work alongside him?
KY: I was good friends with Hashimoto-san; we'd go out for drinks and visit each other's homes, and so on. Koshiro-san and I were working for Falcom at different times, so I didn't know him at the office. But at Quintet I came to know him indirectly. He was freelancing by that time, so we contracted out to him the music in ActRaiser. Yuzo Koshiro was already in a family business and he was a contractor, so he was working at home when doing ActRaiser. So I often visited him at his home and I saw him at the Quintet offices.
JS: Why were so many people leaving Falcom?
KY: Falcom was a conservative company, and games console were gaining momentum rather than computers. So we already had this desire to do console games even when we were still at Falcom, but the company said no. Nintendo's cartridge ROM business was considered high risk. So the company was reluctant to follow that. Having said that, maybe they were right in not doing it, because Falcom still exists. So maybe as a management decision, they made the right one. But as a creator, I was frustrated by the company's attitude. So for example, we wanted to make an action game for consoles that was similar to Ys III, but we couldn't do that. But later on we realised these desires with ActRaiser. So that's actually what happened.
JS: In 1991 you started freelancing, including on Gaiares for Telenet. For graphics?
KY: Sega was to launch the Mega Drive and they requested that Telenet come up with a game; Telenet staff were talking about creating a game for the system. After I left Falcom, one of my [former] programming colleagues who still worked at Telenet came to me saying that he had to work on this Mega Drive game, a shooting game, and the deadline was coming up, "So would you like to work with me?" So I said, "Oh, that sounds very interesting!" And that's how I got involved. It was a very small project, only involving a small number of people. We had a very good programmer for the game, and actually, initially there was only two of us. Myself and the programmer. Initially we weren't focusing too much on the graphics, but the memory was size was doubled from 4 megabits to 8 megabits after we started the project, so we added the 4mb equivalent of story and visuals afterwards.
JS: Let's talk Quintet. Could you briefly tell me your role on ActRaiser, Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, Robotrek, Terranigma, and I believe you were in charge of Granstream Saga?
KY: For ActRaiser I was involved in converting it for the international, overseas version. The localisation. For Soul Blazer my main responsibility was the map graphics. With Illusion of Gaia I was responsible for the characters and designing the world. For Robotrek I was doing the design for the robots.
JS: Mr Miyazaki wanted Illusion of Gaia (above) to be a direct sequel to Soul Blazer. But Enix wanted a stronger hook, so Moto Hagio was brought in, along with Mariko Ohara to write the story. Can you comment on the situation?
KY: The initial plan was to make Soul Blazer 2. But Enix wanted a hook, as you said, and wanted some celebrities for the game, so Moto Hagio and Mariko Ohara. Also don't forget Yasuhiro Kawasaki for the score, the music. [Ms Hagio, Ms Ohara, and Kawasaki-san came to meet with the development team and] were to be involved, and those were the instructions. Ms Ohara came up with the broad outline of the world and the story she wanted for the game. We got together for meetings with Miyazaki-san and discussed how to proceed. Miyazaki-san had some ideas that he wanted to implement [from the original Soul Blazer 2 plans], so he would take the world created by Ms Ohara and try to realise his ideas within this world Ms Ohara created. The maps were created based on ancient ruins, and I had a lot of materials for that, so I supplied materials to design the stages.
JS: There was also the idea for Will's hair to move when near secrets. This was your idea?
KY: Yes, that's right. We thought it was quite interesting if the hair would move, because no one had done it; making the hair move was something new to try. So we thought, should we try it? We had the idea that the hair would move because of wind, and maybe we can apply that in a cave, and players could find the secrets because of the wind coming from holes or certain secret places, in caves; it would move the hair while in the caves. So by using the hair movement you could search these out.
JS: ActRaiser is part of a trilogy with Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia?
KY: Yes, I think like you said there are resemblances among the three games, because Miyazaki-san kind of liked the idea of having a god versus a demon, in which the main character is on the side of the god and battles the demon. That is the underlying concept that he likes to adopt, which unites those three games. He liked to grapple with the themes of creation and destruction, and he was good at entwining human existence within the context of creation and destruction in order to create drama. I think Miyazaki-san became very popular because he was able to come up with a convincing script, incorporating pathos, or a kind of sadness into it.
JS: Your worked on Lunar: Eternal Blue for Game Arts.
KY: Actually, I was very happy to see you brought in Lunar 2 on Mega CD!
[Mr Yokota was visibly very pleased at the number of his old games we brought in]
KY: I used to have one.
JS: Lunar 2: Eternal Blue has special meaning for you. Please describe your involvement.
KY: Yes, so basically I was responsible for the boss monsters, but at that time nothing was set in stone as to how the bosses would be attacking, so I came up with the ideas and proposed them to the programmer, and worked on each of them, one by one. Some of the bosses hadn't been designed at all, so I came up with the designs from scratch. There was one key monster that was still only a rough idea, but the deadline was just around the corner, so I thought up almost the entire design myself and added a lot of details. Particularly, there's this character called the Star Dragon. Although it's a dragon, it appears in the form of a human being. I was the one who actually came up with the idea and decided most of the details for this particular character. So those were the portions I was deeply involved with.
JS: After the game ends there's a second quest with happier ending. Was this always intended, or was it added on request?
KY: Yes, I think it was intended from the onset. They explained the overall flow of the game to me, and I heard that my character the Star Dragon appears after the ending and becomes a crucial character. So I think that was the intention from the beginning. That was what I thought, and so I was assuming there was going to be a second ending.
I was working as a freelancer at that time, so I don't know what exactly the main people on the development team were actually intending to do. But when I joined this project it was already decided that the second ending would be the heroine going back to the moon, and for the second ending she would be reunited with the main character. Yes, I think they originally wanted the girl to be reunited with the main character, but maybe they were concerned about finishing the game in time. So maybe they decided to create the first ending as a potential stopping point, just in case there wasn't enough time in the development schedule to create the events that became the second ending.
In fact, they might have been planning to create a Lunar 3, but didn't know if they'd be able to do it. Lunar 2 was a Mega Drive game, and that system was nearing the end of its lifespan, and they knew the hardware would be retired soon, so they were trying to fit in as much as they possibly could.
This is just based upon my assumptions, but I knew they were behind schedule back then. They were originally supposed to release Lunar 2 much earlier, but the game was delayed significantly, and ultimately became the final RPG released for the [Mega CD] hardware. So this is just my assumption, but perhaps they took their plans for the unrealised Lunar 3, and inserted them into Lunar 2 as the second ending.