I’ve read a lot of books on video game history, and I’ve heard a lot of the same stories told several times. Therefore, rare is the story I haven’t heard yet; and here we have a book — the first of three massive volumes, no less — that is absolutely packed cover-to-cover with things I didn’t know, things I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and things I didn’t even know that I wanted to know, but it turns out I’m really glad I know them now.
I first became aware of author John Szczepaniak’s work years ago through an article on The Escapist titled “Obscurity Below the Radar”, which told a fascinating tale of high-level video game hardware collectors who dealt in prototype software and development equipment that the general public was never meant to see, or even know about, much less obtain. While the true nature of these collectors was perhaps a bit over-dramatized in the article, it was nonetheless a gripping read that I revisited numerous times. In the subsequent years, Szczepaniak went on to write for Hardcore Gaming 101 and other games sites. In the early 2010s, he visited Japan solely to meet and talk to a who’s-who of video game developers who shaped the very gaming industry in Japan, from computers to consoles, and arcades as well.
We’re not talking about the eponymous names that every game fan knows, however — not the Shigeru Miyamotos or Hideo Kojimas. Szczepaniak talked with programmers and designers from the development studios that created the games that shaped what can really only be referred to as the hardcore gamer culture of the ’80s and ’90s: folks from Telenet, Hudson, Tecnosoft, Falcom, Game Arts, Quintet. The makers of games like Ys, Lunar, Valis, Thunderforce. These are the favorite games of those of us for whom Mario and Sonic were just not enough, the games that separated the serious video game enthusiasts from everybody else with a game console attached to their TV. These are the games that filled in the wide gaps between the major first-party releases, and, in all likelihood, probably kept the video game industry thriving.
Dozens of conversations with the creators of these games are all right here, in this book, and damn, are they just flat-out fascinating.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any well-known names here, either — iconic video game musician Yuzo Koshiro and Mega Man producer Keiji Inafune, for example, are both interrogated herein. So is ZUN, the elusive creator of the Touhou series of doujin games. But to be honest, the majority of the names in this book were unfamiliar to me. After reading their stories, however, their profound contributions to the evolution of video gaming becomes clear, and very much appreciated.
Some conversations are about technical aspects of their development environment; others are about the creators’ philosophies about game design and enjoyment. Szczepaniak asks most of his subjects what the first video game they played was, requests a sketch of the floorplan of their development offices, and grills them about unreleased games. In addition to interviews with creators, producers, and programmers, there are a few interviews with fans, collectors, and translators, too.
Another nice touch is that there are several pages memorializing developers and creators who have passed away, often with lists of their contributions and some words about them from their colleagues.
One of the things worth noting is that there is much conversation about computer games, rather than console games, here; so many of these developers worked on games for the PC-88 and PC-98 series, or the MSX, in addition to work on Famicom or arcade games. What surprised me is that even though I’m mostly a console and arcade game fan, these interviews illustrated how those early computer games directly influenced the console games, and in the process, I became much more interested in the computer side of Japanese video game history (not that I’m going to start collecting old floppy disks from Japan, by any means) because without it, there would have been no evolution into console games as we know them. I was just coming to this realization as I was reading the book, when the author himself states on page 360:
“This is a recurring theme – Japan’s computer history, forever intertwined with its console history, is almost unkonwn outside Japan, despite having a significant knock-on effect on the rest of the world. With the exception of Nintendo, and a few arcade specific developers, much of the bedrock for Japanese games is in its computers.”
It all really fleshed out what I thought was my already extensive knowledge of video game culture. I can honestly say I learned a TON from this book…and there are two more volumes yet to read. I look forward to picking them up.
There was a DVD of footage from Szczepaniak’s travels, featuring some of the interviews, gameplay demonstrations, and lots of rare items originally released with the book, but only a small quantity of this video was produced. Luckily, the Hardcore Gaming 101 YouTube channel has a playlist of quite a few segments from this DVD available to watch.
All three volumes of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers are available from Amazon.