The Untold History of Japanese Video Game Developers – Impressions of the new book

  • Title: The Untold History of Japanese Video Game Developers
  • Author: John Szczepaniak
  • Book
  • Published in August, 2014

This book was kickstarted in 2013, last year, and the final book — or rather, the first volume of it — finally released recently to backers. The book will be available soon on Amazon, but right now it’s backers only. I backed the kickstarter, and got my copy (Gold edition cover) a couple of days ago. The book is a collection of interviews with Japanese game developers; the author used the kickstarter money to go to Japan and interview as many people as he could. He had issues, and him and his initial interpreters have been having something of a war for several months now. I won’t get into all of it, but if what he says is true they’re awful, but he probably did not help the situation by so publicly criticizing them so harshly. Also, the project was originally supposed to be one book, but this volume is over 500 pages and it’s only something like a third of the material. I just hope that future volumes cost a lot less than this one did… they should, with how the interviews are done already. I have not read the whole book yet, but I have read parts of all of the interviews, and have a reasonably good sense of the volume. I won’t go in to detail about most of the interviews, though; that is best saved for the reader! Because this book really is a must-read for anyone interested in Japanese videogame history.

Fortunately, despite the problems between Szczepaniak and the interpreters, the book released, or this volume did at least, and it’s pretty good! He mostly did a good job with the interviews. It’s quite interesting, and I definitely will want to read the other volumes too. Some of the interviews are about games or things I know about and others aren’t, but that is obviously the intent, to try to cover anything he can, and not only the popular stuff. That’s great. Of course, I’m sure that people from today-popular companies would be less likely to be able to talk to the press like these people do… there are no Nintendo people here, and this does not surprise me — Nintendo is, of course, infamously reticent about talking to the press, unfortunately. But he talked to everyone he could, and apart from some <REDACTED> segments (some of which could be quite interesting, such as the one about Vic Ireland… ah well), it’s all here in the book.

So who is here? The main focus is on older developers who worked on games in the ’80s and ’90s, not more recent projects. This makes sense; the point is recording earlier Japanese gaming history, while the people who made that history are still here. It’s a valuable and important effort! As some people in the book make clear, many of the Japanese themselves don’t seem to consider recording this kind of thing to be as important as some Westerners do. There are some cultural reasons behind this, explained in the book, but also videogames are a recent medium, and many do not appreciate their importance. Many of the people interviewed also often don’t appreciate that Westerners might be fans of them or their games; many of these developers know little of Western fans, even for popular series like Lunar. There are exceptions of course, like Megaman series creator Keiji Inafune who is a noted critic of Japanese game-industry insularity, but most of the rest of these guys are not like that. And it is all guys, unsurprisingly.

Most interviews are with Japanese developers, but one chapter is with a French guy who lives in Japan and runs a game preservation group, which is trying to make accurate backup copies of all old Japanese computer games. It’s a challenging task — making archival backups of floppy disks is no easy matter, and floppies do NOT last well at all over time, they’re already breaking down. Also, huge numbers of games are created for computers, and it is not all well documented like it is for consoles. For console games it is easy to get a list of, or a physical collection of, a complete library, but computer games are an entirely different story. It’s probably even worse in Japan than in the West, since computers never were as popular as they became here in the West. This means even fewer copies of the games, and trying to preserve all Western computer games before those stupid floppy disks all break down is an impossible enough task! But this guy is trying to do it, and that is very cool, and important. As he says, someone has to record those games while we can. As I said earlier, some of the interviews are with well-known people, like Inafune or ZUN (of Touhou fame), while others are with little-known artists or programmers who worked for various studios large and small. It’s a mix, and that is great because this book is a real cross-section of the whole industry, not just of the popular console games. This is a much more interesting book than it would be if it was only bigger names.

I should discuss some of the core interviews, but that would be hard without writing far too much. Every interview has something interesting in it. I will say a bit about some of them now, though; I need to, that is the subject of the book! Jun Nagashima of Falcom discusses Popful Mail. He didn’t know whether there had been a Western release, typically, and the conversation about development is interesting. Kouji Yokota of Shade (and previously Quintet) discusses The Granstream Saga,, as well as earlier titles. Good game. You’d think he’d know that the Quintet games have a popular following outside of Japan, but not really, apparently. His details about Lunar 2, and the characters he worked on who were changed for the worse in the PS1/Saturn remake, was also interesting; I love that game, of course. Katsutoshi Eguchi of WARP discusses Kenji Eno and his unique works. Yoshiko Kimura talks about UFO, Rule of Rose, Chulip, and L.O.L., all very unique games. The Rule of Rose development details are great. For the long conversations with Yasuhito Saito, Takaki Kobayashi, and Keite Abe of dB-Soft, they are interesting because they are mostly about old Japanese computer games, a subject about which I know little. are all interesting. So are the rest of them, though! Another great section are the interviews with Masakuni Mitsuhachi (developer) and Kohei Ikeda (co-founder) of Game Arts. Among other things, they discuss the classics Silpheed and Thexder. One of the developers of the original Silpheed actually came to the US to help Sierra work on their PC/Apple IIGS ports; quite rare, back then! As for Sega CD Silpheed, he describes how, indeed, the game is part-streamed video, and part-realtime polygons. Backrounds are mostly streamed, apart from destructible parts. There are also interviews with several more preservationists, including one man who has a huge collection of magazines and guidebooks for (Japanese) games.

There is one more interview I would like to talk about. It’s not of a Japanese developer, but the short interview with Steven and William Rozner, makers of the PC Mega Man games, was quite cool. Szczepaniak says that the Inafune interview inspired him to look the DOS game programmers up, and they were willing to talk, something that previously was not the case! I got MM3 and MMX for the PC back in the early and mid ’90s, and have always wondered what the story was behind them, MM3 particularly. This interview had more of it than I’d heard before. The detail about that MM3 was originally a different game with an early ’90s eco theme made a lot of sense! I wish that he had asked some questions about the MMX and SSFII ports, but John only asks questions about MM1 and MM3. Fortunately the Rozners also talk about those later (1995) DOS ports, as well as the earlier original titles, but there were more questions about the PC ports of Mega Man X and Super SFII that should have been asked. Why the robot ride armor wasn’t in PC MMX isn’t mentioned, for instance. Ah well. Anyway, it’s a very good book, get it!

The only real complaint I have about the book is that is that there are some spelling mistakes here and there; the book needed a bit more copy-editing. Perhaps the most unfortunate was misspelling Kenji Eno’s job title on the “noteworthy Japanese developers who have died” page, but there are more. Oh, and why isn’t John Szczepaniak’s first name on the cover and spine, only his last name? It’s kind of odd! It should say “Volume I” on the outside of the book as well, but it doesn’t, unfortunately. Otherwise, though, it’s good work. It was worth backing the book, regardless of the drama. Buy this book, and read it! It’s very interesting.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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