John Szczepaniak has a passion for Japanese games. His first two books on The Untold History Of Japanese Game Development have uncovered many interesting and unusual stories about classic and obscure games. Merman talked to John about how he did it.
John has a long history of retro gaming articles, for both websites (Hardcore Gaming 101, Gamasutra) and print magazines (gamesTM, Retro Gamer). He is meticulous about his research and has revealed much about Japanese classics such as the Metal Slug series. But his biggest project has been to visit Japan, talk to the developers themselves and gather the stories straight from the source.
Merman. When did you first play or import a Japanese game?
John: My first game ever was Pac-Man in the arcades, or the local corner shop. Later they also had Kid Nikki, Rally X, and a whole bunch of others from the time. Since I grew up in South Africa my first home console was a bootleg Famicom. There wasn’t much official support from games companies, and so most kids had a Famicom, or an import SNES or Genesis. My Famicom had burgundy and gold colours, and the games came on little pastel cartridges. The colourful aesthetics of it left a big impression.
M: How did you get into games journalism?
J: Totally by accident. I was planning to go to university to study fine art, but my friend Darran Jones saw some articles I posted on forums and suggested I write some for his retro section in GamesTM. This progressed to freelance writing for multiple magazines and websites. When Darran became editor of Retro Gamer magazine, a position he still holds, I freelanced for him regularly and eventually became staff writer for a time.
M: Which Japanese game had the biggest impact on you, in terms of originality and mechanics?
J: Oooh, tough question. So many… Probably something from the 16-bit era. Maybe Mystical Ninja on SNES was an early example? I was very impressed with the Mode 7 effects, which affected both the bosses and level layouts – it was an Action RPG which I preferred over A Link to the Past, since it was far zanier and featured simultaneous two-player. Though I also recall being amazed by Gunstar Heroes on Mega Drive, despite a certain UK magazine scoring it quite low, and also Ranger X. I feel really lucky to have grown up witnessing the 16-bit era as it happened, with all the breakthroughs and surprises. There’s a ton of later Japanese games which had a big impact, notably on Saturn and Dreamcast, but this could end up being a long list! The last game to really impress me was Valkyria Chronicles on PS3, both in terms of well balanced mechanics and also art style.
M: How long did it take you to learn to read and speak Japanese, so you could play the games more?
J: I started studying it at school, in Year 10. I took the GCSE after three years, and then the A/S level exam after an extra year. So about four years of study in total. In truth, the best advice for anyone curious is to just study Katakana. It’s immediately useful. The rest of the language, you won’t actually be able to make use of it until you get really good. I recall playing through Metal Gear Solid on import, trying to read the text and listen to the audio, but GCSE level Japanese doesn’t really help at all! <laughs>
M: What prompted the whole Untold History adventure?
J: Deep concerns over the lack of English interviews with Japanese developers, especially regarding topics which I find interesting. The big names, like Miyamoto and Kojima, get interviewed all the time, and I never bother reading them anymore because rarely do you get anything new. The Iwata Asks interviews were good, but obviously Nintendo focused. The stories are out there, and Retro Gamer often has good Japanese interviews when freelancers can get them, but the language barrier means it’s a slow process. I wanted to overwhelm readers with interview material, like smothering them under a big wasabi filled duvet.
M: In the book you compare it to an RPG – which stats did you increase the most over your two months in Japan, and how is your character shaping up since your return?
J: It was closer to three months! Stat increases: Endurance, Fortitude, and Morality points. Since returning I’ve been thinking about changing Job Class, from Writer to Paladin or Cleric perhaps. The random encounter rate for Writers is laboriously high, while the Gold drops are inversely proportional and thus far too low. I want more Gold damn it – it’s always about the Gold! Right now I’m enjoying the post-game bonuses. Will I get a sequel…?
M: What was it like immersing yourself in the culture for such an intense period, with interviews nearly every day?
J: Sadly, by conducting interviews every day I experienced very little culture, at least while in Tokyo. I had 10 days off over three months. Most of what I saw was tube stations, and the inside of offices and coffee shops. Visiting Hokkaido and Kansai was amazing though. These were little bubble adventures where I left Tokyo for a few days. In Kansai I went to Kyoto and Osaka, and never changed my clothes for three days. I also hung out with a couple of buddies and… We got up to some “merriment” around old Osaka. At one point I also flew to Hokkaido, and embarked on a hike to reach the old Hudson building, and stayed in a capsule hotel. This was cool – just hanging out with the guys from dB-Soft, who then put me in touch with an old Hudson employee.
M: The Kickstarter campaign had exclusive covers – would you use crowdfunding again for future projects, and what would you do differently?
J: I will NEVER use crowdfunding again! The reasons could fill a 10’000 word essay. To keep it brief: on a fundamental level I disagree with the democratisation of creativity. The creators of content should be above the petty demands of the plebeian masses; it is their vision which is the most important thing. At best I dislike bending my will for a single editor – with crowdfunding I suddenly have a thousand wannabe editors who all demand that I fulfil their requests. When I don’t do this they get irate. Once, when I didn’t kowtow to a demand, someone said, “I funded your project and now I regret it!” Really? I checked their pledge… They didn’t “fund” it, they backed the lowest possible reward tier! I ended up refunding a load of people just to silence their incessant whining. I will never put myself in that kind of position again. It’s like I tell everyone: I am not a democracy, I am an autocrat.
My dislike of crowdfunding is reflective of a much wider problem we face today. Consumers are far too inclined to meddle in the creative process, demanding that content providers bend to their whims, and vilifying them when they do not. I dislike the current situation a lot. I kinda just wish everyone would be quiet, and either engage with what they like, or just leave it alone if it isn’t what they’re looking for. Too much meddling these days.
M: There is an abundance of artwork, both design sketches and personal cartoons, in the books. Were the interviewees always happy to share such material?
J: Oh yes, very much so. Anyone who creates does so with the intention of it being seen. A lot of this work is part of a game’s development, but goes unseen except by members of the team. Some developers have been storing it for years, decades even, and I think they were happy for a chance to have it documented somewhere permanent. There were one or two instances where I couldn’t print a piece of art, but that’s because it was drawn by someone else and was still under copyright of the publisher, or protected under NDA. But such instances were rare.
M: Japanese companies used nicknames to prevent the best designers and programmers being hired away – does this make research harder, on top of the language barrier?
J: Oh yes, immensely so. We have a very incomplete understanding of who made what. There’s a lot of examples where they didn’t even credit the developers under nicknames. So it’s the duty of every journalist and interviewer out there to find more names. Ask about colleagues, ask who they worked with. Developers are passing away, and just now we won’t be able to document anything at all.
With Volume 2 it was tremendously satisfying to include a list of all Namco staff on their early arcade games. Right from the company’s start, up until the mid-1980s. These are beloved classics, many of which see re-releases to this day, and until I published this list the world had no idea who made them. Namco wanted to keep this a secret, and wouldn’t allow it to be published in Japan, but thanks to Professor Kishimoto I was able to share this knowledge.
M: You compiled a list of over 100 games from the last generation to defy the myth that the Japanese game industry is declining. Do you see positive signs for the future?
J: Maybe… I started thinking about that list sometime in 2012, I think? It’s now 2015, and while there are quite a few recent Japanese releases which I like the look of, notably on PS Vita, there’s not been enough to make me actually buy any of the “current” gen systems. The PS Vita seems to be getting all the original, quirky titles, the more creative stuff, whereas the big HDTV platforms have painfully limited portfolios.
How long have the current three been out? Two years? It’s not just Japanese games, I’ve gone through the international release lists of all the current systems, and there’s barely 10 games in total which I would describe as interesting. There’s just nothing that excites me, so I’ve recently been collecting for older systems, filling in the gaps, and at a fraction of the cost.
So, positive signs for the future? To me the entire industry, irrespective of country, is failing to produce the same level of creativity as the previous generation which constituted that list of 108 games. We saw a falling away of the “middle-tier” style of game with the transition from PS2 to PS3. You know, cheaply made games but with interesting ideas or twists to keep it fresh. With increasing costs it’s fallen away even more. I think that’s why the PS Vita is getting most of the good stuff. Lower development costs. With the saturation of the indie market that’s no longer the saviour we all once thought it was.
I don’t know what the answer is. There needs to be an easier and cheaper method of distribution for smaller professional companies to release games and still get exposure. Maybe we’ve crossed the Rubicon and the glory days are finally over.
M: Was it a pleasure to discover the hidden stories and previously unheard of games? Was it like an archaeologist making a major find?
J: Pleasure isn’t the right word. It was satisfying and exciting at the time, discovering something that maybe only a dozen other people on the planet knew about it, but in actual fact it’s a tremendous and agonising burden. Over the years a lot of people have said “let’s keep that off the record”, to the point where I will decline listening to something I can’t pass on. That’s why I never sign NDAs. I consider it my responsibility to pass on information to the public – that’s why I dig into obscure topics. I am only satisfied when enough people know about it so that I can forget it. Some people accuse me of being elitist, accumulating so much exclusive knowledge, but that’s absolutely not the case. As I lay awake trying to sleep I am haunted by the knowledge I’ve not yet shared, or am not able to share. The redacted statements in the book are pieces of shrapnel embedded inside my mind which I will carry forever.
I actually told my family that if I’m hit by a bus they must post my laptop to an associate in Japan, so they can then spread the information. It’s such a relief, for example, publishing not only the list of Namco staff, but the memorial page for one of Namco’s legendary programmers, who helped start the company, but passed away very young.
The worst part of all this is that it’s become my job, my source of income, meaning not only does it cost me money to facilitate the books, but I rely on sales of it to get everything out there. I wish I could a get some kind of financial grant and just release it all for free.
M: Volume 2’s distinctive artwork, the PC Engine Golem, was created by Satoshi Nakai. Was it fun to work with him?
J: Mr. Nakai is one of the funniest, coolest people I’ve ever met. When we were emailing he’d regularly send me joke images he’d made, just for fun, which were hilarious. Plus he’s a real character in person, if you read his interview. It’s a shame it’s only text, and not subtitled video, because he’s very witty. I remember playing Assault Suits Valken on import for the SFC, back in the day, and also Gynoug on Mega Drive, I would never have guessed that someday I would be hiring the artist and designer of these games to paint the cover of a book I’d be writing.
For the cover I gave him carte blanche to paint whatever he liked. I simply gave a list of some of the topics in the book, and mentioned that there was a lot of PC Engine coverage, and he did the rest. Each new rendition of the cover was a joy to behold. He hinted that he liked doing it so much he was tempted to try his hand at creating a Mega Drive Golem. I hope he paints an entire family of console golems.
M: The back of Volume 2 mentions a third book and a teaser picture of the proposed artwork. How advanced are the plans for Volume 3?
J: Well, I have all the interviews, just over 30 of them. Most are listed at the back of the book. But none of them have been transcribed yet. There’s over 50 hours of audio, and it’s going to cost a small fortune to hire someone again to transcribe and also translate into English as they’re doing so. I haven’t started anything yet.
Because Volume 1 ended up being so much longer than expected, nearly double the size, my printing and shipping costs were nearly twice as much. I burned through a lot of my savings, and in order to fulfil backer pledges I had to invest all the money from the DVD and everything from Amazon sales. Volume 2 was written entirely, 100% off my own back.
First I need to clear all the debt bringing V2 to fruition. Then I want to replenish my savings to their level prior to the Kickstarter. And finally, I don’t intend to go into debt again, so will be waiting for a sufficient volume of cash to complete V3 in its entirety.
I can’t understand it… A lot of websites don’t even bother replying to decline my offer of a free review copy. It’s sad. Obviously no one cares about history – that’s literally the only thing I can think of. They’re just dismissive of old games. Sure, there’s about 100 people on various forums who seem to love retro intensely, but generally the public and the mainstream websites don’t give a damn. Otherwise both books would be number 1 bestsellers. EDGE magazine makes 18k sales a month, while both GamesTM and GamesMaster pull in over 12k, according to official ABC figures. All feature classic game content, and yet I’m not even pulling in 5% of that market. I’ve concluded that retro games, especially Japanese games, are actually more niche than I thought. I love them a lot, but that does not mean others do. I had hoped readers would take to social media and make news of V2’s publication go viral, but they never did. Ah well.
Still, that puts me in the same esteemed ranks as Half-Life and Shenmue, with the final and third instalment always just out of reach. Shenmue started in 1999. It’ll be 20 years by the time the saga is finally complete. Look me up in 2033.
M: Do you still play a lot of retro games?
J: Hell yes! What kind of crazy question is that? I’m kidding, but it really surprises me to meet people who collect retro games but don’t play them. I met a guy at a retro store in London, who collects MD games, but never plays any of them. I don’t care about having a mint copy, or the manual, or the box to be pristine. It’s always about playing the game. I’ll buy a loose cartridge with scratches all over it, as long as it functions. I’m honestly not a collector in the strictest sense, despite owning hundreds of original titles. I only own a game if I want to play it. I recently bought about 50 titles via the CEX website, because you can get classic PS2, Xbox, and GC games for about 50p upwards, some of which are legitimately awesome.
About a year ago I bought a new RGB modded N64 plus an Everdrive cartridge, to enjoy an authentic playing experience on original hardware, rather than emulation, with the best possible image on an old CRT television. And in the last month I removed the laser drive from my Japanese Saturn and installed a RHEA motherboard, to read games directly off SD card. I’ve now digitised my entire Saturn collection, and I’ve started playing the English fan-translation of Dragon Force 2, on the actual proper hardware! Plus I’ve got the fan-translation of Sega’s Rent-a-Hero on Mega Drive to start. A new fan-translation is like a new game release to me.
When I write about old games, I really hope that it encourages people to try them. Sure, some games are more fun to read about than actually play, but if you’re not trying some of them out then I’m wasting my time. I have an open mind when it comes to games; I actually enjoy not just 2D sprites, but early polygon games with grainy textures. The original Silent Hill is scarier than its sequels because the low-res textures are so dirty looking.
I love retro games not for the nostalgia, not at all. Many of the games I played in my youth I can’t stand anymore. For me it’s all about discovering the titles I wasn’t able to play, and finding the undiscovered gems that still hold up. It’s like an adventure, exploring the release lists and searching for stuff that still has that spark. In recent years I discovered the super obscure DIOS, for PC-88, and despite some major flaws it’s really, really cool. Don’t fear the unknown – take a jump and see what fun oddities you find. Read forum lists of great, obscure games, and try them. Imagine this: when you’re playing that super old game no one talks about, and you’re loving it, you’re also quite possibly the only person on Earth seeing and experiencing those things at that time. It’s a kind of lonely feeling, isn’t it? You play the original Mario, and there’s probably a thousand others still doing so. But Tryrush Deppy? How many people are playing that right now?
Go, go now and play something – ANYTHING – weird.
Thanks to John for answering the questions. The two books are a fabulous read, lavishly illustrated with photos, design documents and cartoons/sketches. They unearth fascinating details about how the games companies worked, how famous developers got their start and even reveal previously unknown or unreleased titles. From a discussion about the yakuza involvement in the industry to the use of Unreal Engine, anyone with an interest in Japanese gaming should be reading them.
Volume 1 on Amazon:
Volume 2 contents on Hardcore Gaming 101:
Volume 2 on Amazon:
Volume 2 on CreateSpace:
Black & white version: https://www.createspace.com/5806890
Colour version: https://www.createspace.com/5829426
John’s work on Hardcore Gaming 101: