I’ve been meaning to review these books for a while now, but it was only a few months back that I finally got around to picking up the third and final volume in John Szczepaniak’s trilogy. I don’t really buy video game history books but these have proven to be the exception to that rule and I believe that they deserve more attention. Back in 2013, John – backed by funds from a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign – toured Japan for several months, interviewing Japanese game developers in order to obtain and preserve firsthand accounts of what it was like creating games in Japan in the 80’s, 90’s, and – to a lesser extent – the 00’s.
You see, Western developers are interviewed all the time, and there exists a wealth of information on the development and publishing of video games in America, the UK, and Europe, going all the way back to the birth of the hobby. But as far as Japan goes? It’s only really the big superstars who have spoken out and revealed secrets. Japan has historically been a major player in the video games arena, and yet barely anything had been documented regarding the country’s development houses, big or small. Mostly it’s a cultural thing. As well as not wanting to dwell on past glories, Japanese developers and publishers simply didn’t see the point in archiving production materials and source code. Even to this day, there are many who can’t believe that fans outside of Japan are even interested at all. There is also an air of corporate secrecy with publishers denying interviews or any kind of behind-the-scenes access at all. Sometimes it’s because they simply aren’t interested. Other times, it’s because they are fiercely protective of their ace developers – who have historically hidden behind pseudonyms – and will refuse interviews in order to prevent rival studios from head-hunting. Many ex-employees are also bound to NDAs or unwilling to speak about what went on behind the walls of their former workplace(s).
The upshot of all of this is that nobody really knew about the 1980’s Japanese computer scene. Machines from Sharp, Fujitsu, and NEC were big business in Japan and spawned countless innovative games and franchises, yet most gamers outside of Japan are non the wiser. Even the bulk of 90’s video game development in Japan remained undocumented, despite the fact that the hobby was becoming far more mainstream, and the interest in how the games were produced was growing thanks to the internet and dedicated retro segments in magazines.
John aimed to break through these barriers and speak to as many people as his time in Japan would allow, building a picture of Japanese game development for his books. Secrets are revealed, amusing stories are shared, and the thought processes behind the creation of well-known games are finally recorded on paper. Across the three volumes, John interviews figures from the likes of Enix, Falcom, Mitchell, Square, Konami, Sega, Chunsoft, Eighting, Taito, Touhou, Capcom, Hudson, db-SOFT, T&E Soft, Irem, and many, many more. In total, there are around 1,400 pages of information to get stuck into including technical stuff, cultural recollections, and even office layouts sketched by interviewees.
For me, the most interesting parts were those that described the Japanese home computer scene in the 1980s – the most popular computers, which models the developers enjoyed programming for, how these guys got into the games industry, and some of the crazy practices that went on back then!
There was nothing like these books before John Szczepaniak embarked on his quest, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t any others in the future. John is incredibly frank in his author notes and explains that the crowd-funding money was nowhere near enough to finance his trip and the subsequent printing/publishing costs. He had to use a lot of his own money to get the job done, knowing that this niche project was heading for a big loss. It’s difficult to imagine many (if any) other video game journalists being prepared to take such a personal financial hit in the future and continue where John left off. The mainstream interest to make books like these a commercial success simply isn’t there.
And that’s a massive shame because, as the memorial pages scattered throughout the books attest, many key figures from Japanese game development have already passed away without sharing their stories – a sad situation that isn’t going to let up as the years continue to pass.
The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers only exists because John willed it to against all odds and rational reason; driven by his passion for video games (Japanese games in particular) and the conviction that documenting this stuff was important for the hobby and future generations. In this respect, John Szczepaniak became more of a historian than a video game fan, doing thankless work that few will appreciate, as his stark author note from Volume 3 perfectly illustrates:
“…I’m not entirely sure I care anymore. But that’s what I tell people when asked about these books today. Having spent five years (half a decade!) of my life on these books, I can honestly say that for me, they were a waste of time and a failure. They should never have been written, and whatever value a few academics and the tiny number of readers claim, the cost to myself was too great. I started this project in my fresh-faced twenties, and now I’m an aged man in my mid-thirties, having lost my youth and the best years of my life on a Quixotic quest which should have made me rich, famous, and respected, but instead gave me nothing. These books are expensive to produce and they sell poorly. What non-existent money they make is not enough to cover their production or my living costs…
“…recently I’ve seen articles related to “celebrities” on Youtube, who post intellectually bankrupt nonsense and who, despite contributing nothing of value to society, are now millionaires. Logan Paul went to Japan and mocked a suicide victim, and according to some analytics made up to £71,000 – more than I’ve made in the five years working on these books. Money just flows to these clowns. Whereas myself, who has documented history, has recorded the foundations of modern technology, receives nothing. This is infuriating. I am incredulous as I am bitter and angry. It is as if I have fallen into a reality which is not my own. How did society get so broken?
I loathe these books and this world which allows imbeciles to rise above works of substance and genuine value. There are 800,000 words which fill the 1,400 pages of my books. If the word ‘anger’ was etched on every micro-millimetre of ink of those hundreds of thousands of letters it would not equal one-millionth of the anger I feel at having being denied what I am owed for creating these books. People praise them, but nobody buys them. I put the digital up for sale and nobody bought it – but when I made it free for a few days, thousands downloaded it.”
Perhaps you find the above pretentious, arrogant or melodramatic. In that case, I won’t deny that you have a point. However, John also has several valid points and pieces of commentary to make.
These are great books, and utterly essential for anybody with an interest in the Japanese video game industry’s origins and early days. They are crammed full of exclusive information and invaluable accounts from those who were there in simpler times, before working through into the boom years as the industry evolved dramatically in the 90’s before becoming the mainstream entertainment monolith that it is today. Furthermore, I absolutely believe that The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers trilogy will come to be regarded as an invaluable resource in the future, especially if this is the first and last time that the majority of John’s interviewees will speak to a journalist about their work.
In closing, I’ll leave the Amazon links for the books where you can purchase physical copies or digital editions.