“They didn’t see the need for a single developer to take the spotlight for a product,” revealed a Sega employee with the pseudonym ‘Ossale Kohta’. “They felt that the company should get the credit. If too much attention was given to the creator of a hit title, there was always the possibility that another company would poach them. Of course, I wanted to be recognised for my work”.
In the early years of the Japanese video game industry, Ossale Kohta’s story wasn’t uncommon. Even the most prolific of programmers, planners, artists and directors hid their identities behind alter-egos enforced by their employers. From Sega, to Capcom, Enix and Konami, the credit screens of arcade and console titles of that era were populated with mysterious nicknames such as ‘Phoenix Rie’, ‘Chanchacorin’ and ‘T. Oka’, to name but a few. But who were the talents behind them?
‘Ossale Kohta’ was none other than Kotaro Hayashida, the creator of Alex Kidd and the mind behind the very first concepts and gameplay mechanics of Sonic the Hedgehog. His is just one of the many incredible names whose stories and history are compiled for the very first time in Japansoft an Oral History.
The origin of the Japansoft title itself can be traced back to 2014 and the release of a series of books entitled The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers by video game journalist and writer, John Szczepaniak. Released in three volumes, Szczepaniak’s trilogy was a treasure trove of tales from the relative unknowns of Japan’s early gaming industry, filled with stories of unreleased consoles, games, and tales of the rise and fall of the country’s most prolific development houses. Funded by Kickstarter campaigns, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers spanned three volumes. Certainly a passion project for Szczepaniak himself, for all its merits, the series was somewhat text-heavy, and lacked the polish, lustre and aesthetic it so rightly deserved. But as they say, you should never judge a book by its cover.
Step forward Read-Only Memory publishing, who in 2018, launched a crowdfunding campaign with the aim of breathing new life into Szczepaniak’s series. Japansoft an Oral History was proposed as a carefully curated edit of the trilogy, accompanied by new illustrations, imagery, a brand new design and described by Read-Only Memory as a pseudo-sequel to its 2015 release, Britsoft an Oral History. Raising over £18,500 in its crowdfunding campaign, Japansoft an Oral History was released in January 2020.
An alternative perspective
Let’s begin with the glaringly obvious — Japansoft is a visual, physical and aesthetic delight. Accented by illustrations from Japanese illustrator, Yu Nagaba, and interspersed by photography and gaming magazine advertisements, in-turn, each chapter is organised and ordered into tales from individual development companies.
Giants such as Sega, Capcom and Konami are all included, as are a number of lesser-documented developers such as Nihon Falcom, dB-Soft and T&E Soft. In each case, the chapters are filled with the stories and experiences of their employees, each one unleashing fascinating tales and previously undocumented revelations from the period covering the late 1970s to the 1990s and into the dawn of the new millennium.
From the days of personal computing, marked by the Commodore PET, the NEC PC series and Toshiba HX-10, through to the revolutionary Nintendo Famicom, Sega Mega Drive and Sony Playstation, Japansoft provides fascinating insight spanning generations of Japanese computing innovation and releases.
Reveals and revelations
As an industry dominated in the modern era by western influence, Japansoft provides a fascinating alternative perspective, told by the Japanese video game industry’s traditionally secretive insiders. With this website being a Mega Drive blog, how could we possibly not showcase a few highlights of the book’s Sega chapter?
Yutaga Sugano, director and designer of Shinobi, reveals how Sega Technical Institute, the department responsible for titles such as Comix Zone and Kid Chameleon came to develop Sonic the Hedgehog 2 — a process not without its challenges:
“In 1991 Sega USA created a new consumer division, and the head was Mark Cerny. Later it was named the Sega Technical Institute… They wanted us to learn about America. The Sonic Team people joined; Sonic 1 was developed in Japan, then [Yuji] Naka-san said ‘Let’s go develop in America’. Naka-san picked the other team members… An independent team working on it in the US became a bit of an issue of company politics”.
Wonderboy creator Ryuchi Nishizawa reveals his first-hand experience of using Sega’s in-house Digitizer System — by modern standards, a painstaking means of creating pixel graphics:
“It was so big! Two big monitors. The right one had a light pen to draw pixels. As you drew, the left one would show the graphic at its real size… What’s astounding was that once you drew something, you had to store the data, and the external device was a ROM writer!… Each ROM chip cost around ¥500.”
Why were there so many iterations of Street Fighter II in the arcades? Capcom’s Noritaka Funamizu reveals all: “We had this constant problem of over-purchasing parts. We’d end up with more parts than machines to sell… Management would get angry at me and say, ‘Hey, go make something new! So we’d take leftover parts and make revisions of Street Fighter II!”
Aside from the pains and the politics, Japansoft truly conveys the fondness and passion felt by (most of) its interviewees. “I was confident that a day would come when the majority of people in the world would be enjoying video games,” highlights Manabu Yamana, Dragon Quest series programmer. “They were my hobby, my job and my life”. Capcom artist and producer, Keiji Inafune adds: “I think the reason why Japanese games were successful in the West was to do with the limitations of the hardware… With Western games people saw every limit as a problem… but in Japan we embraced them, and we made the best possible games we could”.
Throughout its 332 pages, Japansoft provides a rare glimpse behind the curtain, giving a name and a voice to the industry’s unsung heroes. While Szczepaniak’s original volumes contextualise their interviews with accompanying screenshots, artwork and photography, much of the imagery in Japansoft may feel slightly out of context for the uninitiated. However, the efforts of the title’s editor, Alex Wiltshire, to interweave the narrative of each interviewee are nothing short of a masterstroke. For fans of Sega, Nintendo, home consoles, personal computers and arcade titles, from the first page to the last, the reader is sure to be captivated by the book’s valuable and engaging stories.
Japansoft’s illustrated hardware showcase — a feature also seen in Britsoft — is a fantastic inclusion and truly highlights the importance of personal computing in Japan’s earliest software development days.
The enduring legacy of Japan’s contribution to video games is perhaps best summarised in the closing pages by Tomohiro Nishikado, creator of Space Invaders:
“I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and I found they were exhibiting Space Invaders. In the same museum, with only one floor separating us there were Van Gogh and Gauguin… When I was developing the game I had a good time, and I worked with the hope that others could get to have a good time with it. I did not even think it could be considered art”.
Much in the same way, Japansoft is not only a record of Japan’s early software scene, the book in itself is a piece of art, a work deserving of a place on the video game connoisseur’s bookshelf and a valuable documentation of a history that would otherwise have been so easily (and unfortunately) lost.
Japansoft an Oral History is out now: readonlymemory.vg
Britsoft an Oral History is also available at: readonlymemory.vg