The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers - Book Review

Japan has a rich history when it comes to video games but this has been rarely discussed or documented, at least in the West in english. There are a myriad of excellent books that discuss the history and legacy of video games but often they are from a western viewpoint and discuss the impact of gaming in the west like Game Over by David Sheff, Console Wars by Blake Harris or Power Up by Chris Kohler.  With so many Japanese developers there must be some amazing tales to tell but with the passing of some gaming legends like Fukio Mitsuji, creator of Bubble Bobble and Masaya Nakamura, founder of Namco, it is a case of now or never to get these stories told and written down for posterity.

Step in retro video game journalist S.M.G Szczepaniak, who has written for many gaming publications including Retro Gamer and Gamasutra, which is where I knew of his previous work. He started a Kickstarter in 2015 to create a book with the aim to get some of the stories and history behind the often secretive Japanese game development scene and shed light on this era of gaming. What follows is a 500 page plus book of interviews with honest and candid answers from the people who were there at the time video game history was being made. Without the PR people acting as gatekeepers of information what comes through is intriguing reading, and whilst there are some NDA (Non-Discolosure Agrements) in place for some of the interviewees, there is a rich vein of information here which is expertly mined by Szczepaniak.

The interviews are informal and you can see that for many of the interviewees Szczepaniak is well-versed in their history and impact on the gaming culture and so what emerges is a sense of kinship and understanding as some of the game developers have their moment in the sun and thus share information freely. Reading the book you start to get a real understanding of the Japanese culture at the time and of the huge economic bubble. Whilst I did not recognise all those that were interviewed the sheer number of interviews and the breadth of topics covered ensured that I was engaged throughout. Whilst not all interviews or topics interested me I did read it all from cover to cover over the course of a couple of weeks. I am not sure I would read the whole book again but I know I will dip in from time-to-time to re-read certain interviews I like or to research certain creators like Yuzo Koshiro.

Overall the book is an essential for gamers, covering a part of video game history that many of us do not know enough about. Anyone with an interest in retro games and Japanese culture should pick this book up and there is plenty contained within to engage.