The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers: Volume 2

I was a big fan of volume 1 of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers and praised its remarkable insight into Japanese game development. For any gaming fan volume 1 was an essential look into the often secretive world of 80s and 90s gaming and a lot of what I've said about Volume 1 holds true for this volume too.

The cover art by Satoshi Nakai is pretty cool. ©CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

The cover art by Satoshi Nakai is pretty cool. ©CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Volume 2 kicks off in spectacular style with a frank and deep discussion on the yakuza and their involvement in the entertainment industry. This is the first in-depth and honest discussion in mainstream media by my reckoning, nothing like this has been investigated before and the extent to which the yakuza influenced and helped grease the wheels of the video games industry is astonishing to read. The names of theindividuals and the companies involved have been redacted but this is still remarkable testimony of how the yakuza protected many arcades and ensured that the game boards weren't stolen to be cloned. The interviewee presents it as a necessary evil for many companies but also discusses how his daughter was kidnapped by the yakuza and only freed when he dropped an arcade machine from a well-known company outside their headquarters, it was a threat of sorts but it worked and his daughter was released. Accounts like this are remarkable and I for one am glad that they are being collected as they would be lost forever. 

The rest of the 29 interviews are interesting and cover many different aspects of the industry but of particular delight were: 

  • the interview with Hudson's #7 employee Takashi Takebe, who discusses the origins of this well respected but poorly documented company, famous for Bomberman and Pang amongst many other properties. It was interesting to hear how it changed from supplying computing hardware into a software house when it saw an emerging market. It was one of the first Japanese companies to see potential in the burgeoning micro computing market in 80s Europe and so many of its titles were converted to these machines. 

  • There are a few interviews with people who worked for Zainsoft, a company that produced interesting if buggy messes of games. Some if the interviewees' were very candid and spoke about these 'black corporations', companies that treated their workers extremely poorly and were often violent towards them. There are recounts of people being locked in their offices and being forced to work for 20 hours a day, being unable to go home for months on end and even having computer monitors thrown at them. This all seems far-fetched but with so many people from the same company saying the same thing consistently it does sound like this occurred and was actually quite common, it must have been to be given a label of 'black companies'. The most violent and shocking account is by Kensuke Takahashi who worked for the company for 4 years, it is a look at the darker side of game development. Another revelation is that Sega was involved in these practices too and this was one of the reasons that it went into deep decline as many people shunned their products in disgust.

  • The origins and the closure of one of my favourite game companies Westone is covered with a couple of interviews including an in-depth interviews with Ryuichi Nishizawa, Kouchi Yotsui and Maki Ohzora. Nishizawa was one of the creators of Wonder Boy and the Monster World series, including one of my favourites, Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap. The discussion about who benefits most from home conversions is really thought provoking as even though arcade game producer Westone made two long running series it was the conversion licensees who benefited most. Nishizawa comes across as a kind and creative figure and this interview is a real highlight. 

  • Ohzora was the character artist for Westone and hearing her discuss her inspiration for the world's she created is really insightful and well worth the read. 
  • Shinichi Sakamoto was a composer for Westone and worked on Wonder Boy in Monster Land and Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap. It is an extremely short interview but as the composer of one of my favourite video games, very insightful.  

  • Professor Yoshihiro Kishinito, formerly of Namco, shares a credit list of early Namco games, something that is invaluable for gaming historians as many creators were only able to sign in pen names in games.  

  • The interview with Human alumnus is interest as the company produced some interesting titles in its time but according to the interviewees it was the vision of the individual creators rather than company ethos or vision that developed this mentality. Producer Taichi Ishizuka discusses Mizzurna Falls, a pre-Shenmue open world game with a Twin Peaks style mystery. I came across this game a couple of years ago and much like Deadly Premonition it is a diamond in the rough kind of game. The discussion behind its creation is great and considering the tiny team and budget it had, all the more extraordinary. Szczepaniak recommends viewing a Let's Play by Resident Evie and having seen this play through a few weeks ago I can recommend that this is the best way to experience the game as it seems janky and awkward to play, but has an intriguing enough premise to watch the 9 or so hours of video.

The book ends with Szczepaniak dismissing the Japanese game development Downfall Myth, the idea that Japan is becoming bankrupt of gaming ideas with many of the games companies going onto the more lucrative mobile gaming sector, but he provides a list of over 100 Japanese games from the last generation (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, DS, PC) that defy the myth that Japanese game development is declining. It's a powerful rebuff to the Microsoft perpetuated Downfall Myth which aimed to promote western games, a sector where the Xbox is doing significantly better than in the east.

As a book archiving years of Japanese game development history this is a marvellous work. As with the first it is a tough read from cover to cover, as naturally there are some interviewees and topics that are more interesting than others for me and whoever reads this but it is great stuff nonetheless.  This book is an unprecedented account of Japanese game development from the people who were there and that is why volume 1 and 2 have been such an important piece of work that will hopefully improve our understanding of this period of time. I find these books are essential and hope that volume 1 and 2 are successful enough to support volume 3.