TCW 011 - The Genesis of JRPGs
Jeffrey: This is they create worlds. Episode 11 the Genesis of JRPGs.
Welcome to They Create Worlds. I'm Jeff and I'm going by my cohost, Alex.
Jeffrey: Today we are going into a new subject, the evolution or genesis of JRPGs.
Alex: That's right. This is a topic that a lot of people think they know, but they don't actually really know!
Jeffrey: Really. Cause, uh, I would think I would know it. We've been inundated with a lot of Japanese RPG games over the last bunch of years er. Pretty much since we got kids, you got Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, Dragon Quest. You've got, um, Legend of Draggoon, all sorts of things.
Alex: Absolutely! And a lot of people think that that's kind of where the JRPG began was with Dragon Quest in 1986 followed shortly thereafter by Final Fantasy in 1987.
Jeffrey: That makes sense because I mean, that's when it first came out and. I would have thought that, Hey, these are the big first game that came out there and had RPGs.
Alex: Well, that was the beginning of RPGs on the Famicom, certainly, and the RPGs on the family, and then later on the Super Famicom PlayStation, et cetera, off into the future are the RPGs that we think of in the United States, because those are the RPGs that made it over here.
And certainly Dragon Quest. Is the RPG that defined the shape that Japanese role playing games would take pretty much thereafter with little innovations here and there, but kind of that basic structure.
Jeffrey: It would pretty much the linchpin.
Alex: Exactly. It was the point where the JRPG became kind of defined, but that was really. The end point of the first phase of JRPGs, because in point of fact, there had actually been RPGs going back three or four years before that, mostly in the Japanese home computer market, which did not make it over to the United States because Japanese computer programs just didn't migrate over here. At all, unless they received a Famicom or an NES port.
Jeffrey: So that's why we think that the original JRPGs were Dragon Quest and the stuff with the Famicom because it looked so primitive. Especially if you look at the original Dragon Quest game where the Japanese version, the character didn't even have different faces. He always faced one direction. Toward the player. He didn't face left right up, down. He always faced down.
Alex: Exactly because Dragon Quest was originally released in 1986 in Japan. Didn't make it over to the United States until 1989 and so they had a bigger cart size by that point, and they could go back and tweak a few things before they gave it a Western release.
Jeffrey: Which is always a good thing.
Alex: Not that it really mattered much because Dragon Quest was a horrendous failure over here. It's kind of funny. I mean, if, I think if you asked. The typical American RPG player, not somebody who's very obsessed with the Japanese culture and the Japanese games generally, but just somebody who has picked up Jay RPGs from time to time because they own the super Nintendo or a PlayStation or et cetera.
Alex: They would probably tell you that Final Fantasy is the granddaddy of JRPGs. It is the big one. It is the one that was awesome. It's the one that was huge. Square was the company that was huge. Et cetera, et cetera. And certainly in the United States, that's what became true after Final Fantasy VII hit big, but in Japan it is Dragon Quest period.
Jeffrey: Very much Dragon Quest. I mean, there were literally laws that say you cannot release Dragon Quest game on weekdays because people just lose their minds and just go. Well, I'm taking a thick day.
Alex: Well, and children being truant. I mean, there, it was a big controversy when Dragon Quest three was released in the middle of the week, and there were hundreds of school children that didn't show up to school that day and went and got in line to buy the game instead.
And so that was the point where the Japanese Diet. I'm not sure they actually passed a law, but the, they might have, but at the very least, Japanese Diet requested, let's not do this on a weekday anymore. Kay, thanks, bye.
Jeffrey: You know, we're doing it on very late on Friday, early Saturday so that people don't take as much time off.
Alex: And if you were to ask a random person, again, someone who doesn't have knowledge of the history
Alex: What the best selling PlayStation game in Japan is of all time, PlayStation one game.
Alex: They would probably answer something like. Final Fantasy VII or Resident Evil or Metal Gear Solid. One of these big classics. But no...
Jeffrey: That makes sense. I mean, those were big game that were here.
Alex: Dragon Quest VII.
Jeffrey: One of the last game to be released on the console.
Alex: Exactly. Which is partially what helped sales, because obviously by that point it had a larger install base that it could build into, but it sold over 4 million copies in Japan.
It was huge in Japan, and it was the bestselling PlayStation game. Final Fantasy VII did very well in Japan as well, but that is a game that actually did much better in the United States than it ever did in Japan. Because it kind of was in the right place at the right time. Anime and manga culture was finally starting. To become a little bit more mainstream amongst teenagers at that time.
Of course, Final Fantasy had these greatly updated graphics. Final Fantasy VII did over earlier RPGs had had this very Anime style with characters like Sephiroth and Cloud, and so it was kind of a confluence of where the technology, and the culture came together at the exact right time to really blow up in the United States. And it did well in Japan too, but it actually sold even better in the U S which was unprecedented for an RPG. So I think that's a large part of the reason why there's this natural inclination to think that Final Fantasy is the big thing.
The other thing is Final Fantasy changes all the time. I mean, they are constantly innovating. They'll try new leveling systems. They'll try new magic systems. They'll-
Jeffrey: Somtimes to its detriment
Alex: In my opinion, yes. But it's always pushing forward. It's always doing new things. For a while those were exciting new things. More recently, I would say not. But Dragon Quest has been the same for so long. And so it's usually been a little more graphically primitive. Obviously, Dragon Quest VIII was very pretty-
Jeffrey: Oh yeah!
Alex: - with our cell shaded graphics, but pre Dragon Quest eight it was usually a little more graphically primitive. It didn't evolve its gameplay systems very much. Heck they, they're still using some of the same eight bit sounds today for certain menu selection sounds and stuff like that that they used in the very first Dragon Quest. So it's a game that doesn't change as much, and I think there's a tendency to want games to evolve more technically in the United States.
And so that makes Final Fantasy in some ways a more impressive thing because it keeps evolving. It's like Dragon Quest. Like, didn't, isn't that the same it's always been? I mean, it's still turn-based combat and random encounters and you know, it just doesn't change as much. And I think that's another reason-
Jeffrey: The evolution of it is always really, really small. You have things like the original Dragon Quest I hero running around Dragon Quest II. We'll add a little bit more story to it and have three people running around and then we'll have a couple of more instead of two phases for the final boss, we'll have sort of like the gauntlet for the final bosses. Dragon Quest III, uh, you can have a four person party and you can switch those people out whenever you want to.
In Dragon Quest IV, they actually started to evolve it a little bit and they did the chapter system where they started doing the AI. For the other player that you could control...
Alex: i-I think it's a little generous to call what was in Dragon Quest IV artificial intelligence.
Jeffrey: [Uninteligble laugh]
Alex: I believe in artificial intelligence. Wouldn't cast beat and defeat 50 million times expecting that this time. The boss is going to die when I use the Insta kill spell on it.
Jeffrey: [Jeffrey laughs]
Alex: But, but yeah, so I know what you're saying. I just a-
Jeffrey: I know, but a lot of it's, uh,, uh apart from Christos, he's one of the characters in that game who is notorious in his default, normal AI mode on bosses- it's a bug where he only uses it on bosses and pretty much drains, all of his magic doing it.
Jeffrey: It was fixed in later incarnations of the game. So, yeah, there's a lot of baby steps with Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. It was very different. The first Final Fantasy had four people running around side-by-side combat. It was the same, mostly... it sort of kept it's pace was sort of how Dragon Warrior. Evolved, at least in Japan because we never really got the true Final Fantasy II Final Fantasy III in the United States. Those were actually NES cartridges right?
Alex: Right. And there were some evolutions there. I mean, Final Fantasy II, had a very big focus on story and on evolving characters. A lot like Final Fantasy. IV did that. We did get here as Final Fantasy II on the Super Nintendo. Final Fantasy II, was star Wars. It was just Star Wars, rebels, empire, all of this stuff. I mean, his fantasy setting, but it was Star Wars. And Final Fantasy three. There was a job system, just like Final Fantasy five, which we also never got had a job system.
Alex: And that made for some more complicated character building
Jeffrey: Can throw to get that idea. You can ord- even see a little bit of the initial rivalry between Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Dragon Warrior, and the original NES Final Fantasy game in the elf town. There's actually a little grave that here lights Erdrick. And that's a little jab at the original Dragon Warrior, the first three games where the hero of legend is Erdrick and you actually play as Erdrick in the third game.
Alex: Exactly. And there's always been this idea that their. Slight- on slightly different paths from each other. Both of them are in fantasy worlds, but Dragon Warrior is very, or Dragon Quest is very traditional, medieval, generic, medieval fantasy world with bright graphics and colorful towns and colorful people and colorful monsters.
Whereas Final Fantasy has always been this. Slightly edgier world. There's always this little bit of technological element that creeps in. This little bit of idea of fallen civilizations creeping in. You of course have Yoshitaka Amano's art, which is very mystical and faded and dark, and dreamlike almost. I mean, he did the Sandman comics of course-
Alex: -with Neil Gaiman, and so there's that different tone to it. And then Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest always has that bouncy score. That kind of bouncy, classical, happy musical score. Whereas the score and Final Fantasy tends to be. Often more melancholy, there's a lot more rock and roll influence, and a lot of the music, especially in the battle themes and stuff like that. So there's a big contrast there. So. In some ways they feel like two sides of the same coin. In the early days when the, on the 8 and 16 bit systems, when the graphics were- were pretty similar and the gameplay systems were pretty similar, just on slightly different evolutionary tracks.
Where it really diverges is when you get to the PlayStation and Final Fantasy VII just took a completely different track on presentation in JRPGs. Whereas Dragon Quest VII on the play station remained very traditionally Dragon Quest. And I think that's kind of the point where you get a big break in how the two series operate.
And of course the way Final Fantasy VII did it far more cinematic, far more movie like far more action packed. Is kind of what appealed to an American audience. And so that's why Final Fantasy-
Jeffrey: Mmm-hmm We want the big flashy thing.
Alex: Right, exactly. And so that's why Final Fantasy of that point becomes big. I mean, neither one was big before VII. It's not like Final Fantasy on the NES or Final Fantasy II and III on the Super NES IV and VI in Japan did well in the United States. They didn't! No JRPGs were doing well. In fact, Square decided that the reason that they weren't doing well is they were too complicated for an American audience.
So then they created Final Fantasy, Mystic Quest-
-specifically because they thought they needed something easier and more accessible for an American audience, and so they graded a little baby RPG.
Jeffrey: That one is really simple, simplistic. If you ever get a chance to play it, you'll probably beat it in an evening.
Alex: Exactly. And that's because that's what square thought the United States needed. And the same with Final Fantasy II, which I think most people know now that there were two versions of Final Fantasy II, which was Final Fantasy IV in Japan, released in Japan. The real version and the easy version for the little kiddies and in the United States; we got. The easy version.
Jeffrey: And the easy version doesn't make as much sense in certain aspects of it. And if you actually get a chance to play the true version with where someone has, say, modified the rom in order to have the language re-translated over, it's really interesting. Some of the extra abilities you get, and it sort of makes more sense in the context.
One of the cases is where you have Cecil becoming a Paladain from a Dark Knight. And in that battle sequence, the thing you fight shoots this wave of darkness at you that hurts you decently. But eventually, if you just like sit there and take it it, he'll die. The reason for that, you find that in the actual game is using that ability actually damages you. So he's actually giving up some of his life points in order to use that sbility.
Alex: Right. Because that Cecil is a mirror image of your Dark Knight character and your Dark Knight character has that ability in the real version of the game, but they took out all of the special abilities, almost all of the special abilities, in the easy version so you don't get that. And then you have no idea that you're just supposed to sit there and take damage until he kills himself because you have no way of knowing that he's harming himself. So yeah, that's an inconsistency that pops-
Jeffrey: I actually found out that you don't just sit there and take, damage, you are supposed to attack him.
Alex: Well you can, but-
Jeffrey: it goes faster,
Alex: Yeah, but not very much faster is the thing, because you do so little damage compared to his total hip points that mostly you can just let them run out of steam, you know, by defending instead, you know, you mitigate some of the damage and he kills himself eventually. And of course the other thing is it's easy, easy, easy. I could get all the way to the rematch with the Four Fiends inside the Giant, which is one of the last encounters of the game I could get all the way there. Without fighting a single random encounter. In other words, not leveling, not only not leveling up, but just running away from every battle and only fighting the bosses-
Alex: -would get me enough experience and get me enough leveling up that you could get that far without doing any random encounters. Which is certainly not the way it should be in a game like that back in the day when random encounters were in a very important and integral part to an RPG.
Jeffrey: And way before speed running.
Alex: Right. I mean, this has nothing to do with speed running and it's, and this has nothing to do with glitching. This is just, it is such an easy game that you barely have to level up or get your equipment up or anything to successfully get most of the way through the game. I mean, I finally hit a wall where I couldn't do it anymore and you actually had to level up. But, took a long time to get there.
Jeffrey: Mmm-hmm. And as a quick aside w we, uh, mentioned earlier that there's a difference between or used the terms interchangeably, Dragon Warrior, Dragon Quest. That was due to a copyright conflict with D&D, if I remember correctly.
Alex: Well with TSR. Dragon Quest was actually originally an RPG put out by another company called Simulations, Publications, SPI, which was one of the very major war gaming companies in the 1970s. And what they did is they put out a game that was a little less roleplaying game, a little more war game, where you actually had to use miniatures on a hex grid in order to do the combat.
And they also used a skills system instead of a character class system. One of the very early games to do that. So SPI had hard times. And TSR bought them in 1983 and got all of their copyrights and trademarks on their back catalog. So they kept the game going a little longer. TSR even released a third edition in 1987 and it was because of this Dragon Quest roleplaying game in the pen and paper world that ENIX could not call Dragon Quest Dragon Quest in the United States.
Jeffrey: And that's why we use the term Dragon Warrior Dragon Quest sort of interchangeably. Really, it should be referred to a Dragon Quest, Dragon Warrior witch is just what they used when they bought it initially to the States.
Alex: Exactly through Dragon Quest VII because VII came out here. We didn't get V and VI, but we got the I, II, III, IV on the NES, and we got VII on the PlayStation, and then with Dragon Quest VIII they finally started just calling them all Dragon Quest, and now every time they release a remake of a Dragon Quest game, which seems like it's all the time anymore, they use the Dragon Quest name, even for the older games that came out as dragon warrior, originally in the U S.
Jeffrey: Okay. So we've established that. Dragon warrior. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are pretty much the big progenitors of what we consider to be JRPG. But you're saying that there's computer games that predate these that are really more the core Genesis of JRPGs.
Alex: Exactly. There's games that came before, but the real Genesis is not even Japanese games period. The real Genesis is American computer games.
Jeffrey: American computer game?
Alex: Exactly. And specifically Ultima and Wizardry.
Jeffrey: So what Richard Garriott put out. His original Ultima series and Wizardry.
Alex: That's exactly correct. I don't think there's probably ever been a culture on the planet. That has been as good as the Japanese at taking something that they like borrowing from another culture, but then making it their own. Tweaking it and transforming it just so, so it becomes, it's kind of own unique thing. And its own unique, very Japanese thing.
Jeffrey: They Japan-ify it.
Alex: Exactly, I mean, we consider the United States, for instance, to be a melting pot. And it is because the United States takes in so many different cultures and they mostly kind of sort of live together. But the thing about the U S is there's this diversity.
So as the U S absorbs more cultures, the U S culture becomes more diverse because. It gives a little bit of itself to each new culture that comes in. Japan is kind of the opposite. Japan is not diverse. Japan stays very monolithic and it's hard to immigrate to Japan and hard to stay immigrated longterm to Japan, and so it stays very Japanese, but every so often they'll find something in another culture that they like and then they will transform it.
And you know? This goes back to during the Meiji restoration when the shogunate was taken apart and Japan started modernizing in the late 19th century. They went out and they knew they needed the westernized, and so they looked at every Western culture and they picked and chose the pieces they liked.
They based their military on the German model because the Germans had the best military. They base their schools system on the French school system because. They thought the French had the best school system and they kind of did this and every area they picked and chose, but then they blended in together, put a whole Japanese layer on top of it and came away with something completely different that was Japanese, but that had this base and various Western cultures.
Jeffrey: It's almost like they took the foundation of what made the things great. They cherry picked what they liked, and then they just use that at a framework really in order to... okay, here's where we want to go, but we don't inherit the kind of structure you want, but we need it to be us. So we were going to create this structure.
It will vaguely look like that structure, but it's going to be distinctly different because we're not just going to slap a new coat of paint on here. We are going to give it our own artistic, flair.
Alex: That's exactly right. And their own cultural flair. And that's something that the Japanese are very good at doing, and that's something that they did with RPGs.
Obviously in the United States, all role playing games are really descended at their base from Dungeons and Dragons.
Alex: Dungeons and Dragons comes out in 1974 it starts being played widely on college campuses. College students are also just about the only ordinary people that have access to computers that can do anything worthwhile in this time period through university computer labs.
Jeffrey: Mmm-hmm, and mainframes.
Alex: Exactly. And D&D is very mechanics heavy, you know, the original version of D&D a lot closer to a war game than, than later versions, just because that's kind of what it grew out of was the war gaming culture. And so...
Jeffrey: The table-top war gaming culture?
Alex: Exactly. Military miniatures and the like.
Alex: So there's this heavy kind of statistics element to it. There's this heavy kind of systems element to it, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that if you're the kind of person that likes finicky rule systems, you tend to be the kind of person who also likes programming because what is programming except taking a finicky rule system and making it do what you want.
Jeffrey: It's sort of like the, you get paid version of rules lawyering.
Alex: That's exactly correct. And so obviously there was this strong correlation between college students playing D&D and college students that were programming on mainframes. So. That's how you get the first computer RPGs. And as personal computers started to become more sophisticated with the release of the Apple II especially, but also the TRS 80 in 1977.
Alex: You naturally had some of these games that were being done on mainframes, migrating land over to PCs as well. Microcomputers as they were called back then.
So. The two kind of big series were Ultima and Wizardry, and they were complimentary in some ways, but very different than other ways. Just kind of like the whole Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy dichotomy. The big thing about Wizardry is that it was very tactical. You had multiple party members and you had multiple classes and you could mix and match them and you'd go into a dungeon, and it was all about the combat with the monsters in a dungeon.
Jeffrey: Yeah, it was just, it was first person view, pretty much, uh, sorta like Might and magic, if you're familiar with that one. It's straight on. You're exploring around may or may not have a map. You're probably better off writing your own map and you'd venture around, you find a dungeon. You go in, you loot the dungeon rinse, wash, repeat.
Alex: And uh, when you find a monster. A separate window pops up that has the monsters image in it and gives you the opportunity to have commands and in combat, which is certainly not, not something we've ever seen in a JRPG, right?
Jeffrey: Yeah. Like say. Dragon Warrior.
Alex: Exactly. And Final Fantasy back in the day.
Jeffrey: In the early versions. Yeah!
Alex: Exactly. So there's that and then you have Ultima. And the thing about Ultima that was very different from Wizardry, first of all, Ultima was a single combatant in the first couple of games. Now Ultima evolved into party based combat, eventually as well.
Alex: But in the first couple of games, one thing that's set it very much apart from wizardry is that you were controlling a single player. The other thing that really set it apart is that it had a tile based overworld.
Jeffrey: You didn't have an overworld and wizardry.
Alex: That's right. Wizardry was just dungeon. Just dungeon, dungeon, dungeon. Wireframe, Dungeons, black and white graphics. Well, you know, probably green and black graphics on your Apple II, but you know what I mean. No color. Just wireframe, dungeons, lots of texts, lots of statistics.
Jeffrey: You're just, the graphics are just a whipped cream and cherry on top of the game. It's not really integral to the game. While in Ultima, you really do have to care about the tiles because that dictates what you can see, where you can move and you can get a much better feel of the overworld, if I recall in like ultimate three, if you enter the forest, you just can't see around you. You're going to be one tile around you. But if you go out into the plains, you can see pretty far.
Alex: Right and Ultima had its quirks back in the day. It was not nearly as well refined. Ultimate III was really the first Ultima game that was any good.
Alex: Ultima I and Ultima II, especially, Ultima II was a God awful mass.
Alex: And Richard Garrett himself has said that the first three Ultima games were. Richard learns to program essentially. He always did every ultimate game from scratch. Back in the day, every Ultima game was a brand new engine. Well, I shouldn't say back in the day, every Ultima game, one through nine, nine being the last one was a brand new engine.
Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah.
Alex: Every single time he started from scratch. So as he got to be a better programmer, the games became better. Games for the first couple of additions of Ultima were a real mass.
Jeffrey: Yeah, they were pretty hard and pretty archaic.
Jeffrey: I actually own the collector's edition that had the first eight games on one desk and tried playing the first couple of ones. Three with the only one I could actually really play and get anywhere.
Alex: It's the first good one. Yeah.
Jeffrey: It's a very good one, but really... The one that really starts it all is Ultima IV.
Alex: Right! Because then after one, two and three are Richard learns how to program. What Richard Gary likes to say is that four or five and six is Richard learns how to tell a story. And that's kind of beyond the scope, what we're talking about now, because all of the morality stuff and other interesting characteristics that he introduced starting an Ultima IV don't really have any bearing on what happened in JRPGs.
Jeffrey: JRPGs really take their heritage from Ultima one through three and the first few Wizardrys.
Alex: Exactly. Because what you had an Ultima as you have the tile based map-
Alex: -and I mean if you take, say the map of Ultima III, and just lay it out and take the map of Dragon Quest and just lay it out. The colors are very different because one's on the NES and one's on the Apple, and obviously they're not taking place in the same world. So the layout is different. But, boy, do they look similar in terms of, boy, does that castle icon in Ultima III look a lot like the castle icon in Dragon Quest. And boy do those mountains look, or hills look a little bit like those hills. You know, it's the same type of map.
Jeffrey: They just changed it just enough in order to make it so they don't get sued.
Alex: Well, it's, I don't, I don't think it's not about that. It's, the reason it looks different is because the NES is a far more capable piece-
Alex: -of graphical hardware than the Apple II was, which is what the original Ultima games were programmed on. There, there's nothing nefarious here because it's not like they were copying Richard Garriott's worlds are copying Richard Garriott's ideas. It's just that that basic idea of a tile based overworld where you have icons representing castles and towns and dungeons that you then walk over and take you to another screen that portrays said location. You know, that kind of thing, very. Ultima .
A nd Ultima also, as it got more sophisticated, started introducing NPCs and the idea that an NPC might impart a crucial piece of information to you when you talk to them. The the first Ultima, not so much, start developing a little bit in the second Ultima is really the third Ultima, that that really got going. And so this idea of having these castles in towns where you buy and sell equipment, gather information, et cetera, and then go out onto this overworld and navigate this overworld to get to Dungeons.
That's a very Ultima thing. The idea of let's have a party of characters that have sophisticated attributes and sophisticated equipment, because that stuff was in Ultima, but those systems weren't as sophisticated in the early Ultimas as they were in the early Wizardrys.
Alex: And let's have them go out and encounter monsters and have these combats with monsters on a kind of separate screen because in the Ultima games it was calling it kind of all part and parcel. The overworld was tile based. The dungeons were wireframe first person.
Jeffrey: With tile based too, you had a top down little like square battlefield. You were on and you were on the bottom. The enemy was on the top and advance on each other.
Alex: Yes. In the later ones that started adding more tactical combat like Ultima III, but in the first couple of Ultima games, it it wasn't like that. It was actually just the monsters were appearing in this wireframe universe
Jeffrey: On in a one on one comabt.
Alex: Yeah. And this one on one combat. No, it is, as you say, in the later ones, because again, ultimate did keep evolving. So the combat really came from, Wizardry-
Alex: -and the exploration, the map, the MPC interaction kind of came from Ultima. And so that's kind of a little bit of where this came from in the Dragon Quest sense and we'll return to that. But of course, Dragon Quest wasn't even first. As we said, there were games on Japanese computers. The Japanese computer industry remained very insular up until the mid nineties it was the one area where you didn't get. IBM PCs taking over everything at some point.
Jeffrey: So they had a different kind of computer.
Alex: Exactly. There were several companies in the business. The IBM of Japan was NEC. NEC still exists today. I mean, it's still a big deal. And they still make computers. They're just, they're PC compatibles. They're not unique anymore.
Jeffrey: Yeah, If you, uh, are ever around, you might see some old NEC monitors.
Alex: Mmm-hmm, Absolutely!. And the reason that Japan was completely separate in the computer realm was a matter of screen resolution.
Alex: Because when you're talking Kanji,
with all of these little fiddly bits everywhere...
Jeffrey: Yeah. You have to have enough resolution and pixels in order to get some of the nuance.
Alex: Exactly. And so for the longest time, Japanese computers. Had a far higher screen resolution than equivalent Western computers
Jeffrey: A Western computer. Just think of how few pixels it take to make an a. Take out some graph paper and try to make an a with just filling in squares and then make a BC. Just draw out a whole alphabet. Now, that doesn't take much in a way of pixels in order to convey language. But in Kanji, take uh, look up online, a few basic Kanji characters. Now try to recreate those characters on that same graph paper. You're going to end up taking a lot more space.
Alex: Exactly. And so this kept the Japanese PC market apart for the longest time. This meant that not only were the games on Japanese computers unique to Japan, it meant that they never, almost never, came over here. They were never poured it over here. So there's a pervasive kind of myth that the entire Japanese PC games industry is visual novels and erotica.
Alex: Like any good myth, there's a grain of truth to it because a lot of the Japanese PC industry, especially today, is visual novels and erogi erotic stuff.
Alex: The erotic stuff, particularly because the console makers, even though they aren't as restrictive as they used to be, the console makers stop most of that erotic stuff from being published on their consoles because they have control over what goes on the console .
Jeffrey: And so a..
Alex: PC, it's an open architecture, open market. So...
Jeffrey: They drove pretty much all of that stuff off to computers and you don't really see it on console.
Alex: Exactly. Today, there isn't nearly the same thriving PC game space in Japan because it has largely migrated to consoles. Basically, every time a new console came along that needed to kind of gain some market share on the consoles that came before, the barriers to entry would lower a little bit more.
So the NES,
Alex: the Famicom, only the biggest of the big guys could really get on the Famicom because the cost of entry was so high because cartridges are expensive.
Alex: Then when Sega came along, Nintendo has all the big guys sewn up and the big guys aren't going to make games for the Mega Drive, which is the name for the Genesis in Japan.
Alex: So at this point. Sega has to kind of lure in the next tier of creators. So then some of the companies that have been very successful on PC in the eighties in Japan, like Techno Soft and Game Arts, that had kind of resisted getting onto console. Now came onto console with Sega because Sega made it a little easier cause they needed third party developers.
Then PlayStation comes along and of course PlayStation CD.
Alex: So then the barrier to entry is-
Jeffrey: A lot less!
Alex: -practically gone. There's still a barrier in the sense that the console publisher exerts quality control and can set certain rules about what kind of stuff, what kind of content they want to see and not see on their console.
Jeffrey: But pressing CDs is cents on the dollar.
Alex: Exactly. And so since Japan is already a very console centric culture, because the gaming culture is mostly children, because there's still the idea that adults should be doing serious work.
Jeffrey: Even in Japan.
Alex: Exactly. Even in Japan. So you know, in the United States there was kind of, for the longest time, not so much today, but for the longest time kind of this idea that. The consoles were where the kids played, and then the PCs were where the older kids or the adults played. You didn't have that kind of idea of the older audience playing on PC so much in Japan. Not that there aren't older people that do play games, but there are fewer. So the consoles had already co-opted a lot of little kids. And now by the PlayStation time, pretty much any Japanese publisher can produce content for a console. And so that wiped out most of the uniqueness and the Japanese PC space. But in the 1980s and even to an extent in the early 1990s there was actually a thriving PC games scene that really goes largely unnoticed and unremarked on in the West because we didn't receive ports of any of those games.
And so it was in this environment that, a lot of the uh RPG mechanics were also born-
Alex: -before Dragon Quest.
Jeffrey: How did really, did the Japanese even get wizardry and Ultima into Japan? Because, I mean, if they're so isolated, I imagine if their software would have trouble running on our systems, I imagine the reverse would have to be true.
Alex: So it trickled in very slowly. Apple did sell computers in Japan. .
Alex: They were very high priced, very pricey. Not many people had them, but there were Apple computers in Japan, and actually some of the very first RPGs came out of companies that started out as importers of Apple computers. The company, Nihon Falcom, which is pretty big deal, or was a pretty big deal in Japan. Still exist today, but is basically unknown in the United States.
Jeffrey: Yeah I've never heard of it.
Alex: Because they resisted longer than anybody getting on console. They stayed on computers as long as they possibly could. Even as everybody else was moving to consoles, Nihon Falcom stayed on computers. So they started out as a store selling imported Apples.
Alex: And so they had younger guys working in the store that were also interested in computers and interested in programming. And so then they start playing the games on the Apple, like Ultima.
Jeffrey: You have employees in the store who go, Hey, I should probably know how these systems work. Let's play some of these games and other stuff therefore , I can better relate it to the customer. And when they come in and say. Why should I buy this?
Alex: Sure, but I mean, they were generally- genuinely interested in programming as well. So they're playing these games, they're exposed to these games.
Alex: Then they take that knowledge and they start making games, not on the Apple two because the Apple II has a very small install base, but on the PC 8800 series and the PC, a 6000 series, which are kind of NEC's big uh series at that time of computers.
Jeffrey: The equivalent of TRS-80s and apples in Japan?
Alex: Popular microcomputer platform. I mean there were three companies that were kind of big in microcomputers. It was Sharp, Fujitsu, and NEC, and NEC was the biggest one. And, Sharp and Fujitsu, their computers tended not to get so many role playing games. They tended to get more action games.
Alex: The NEC computers got a lot of the, uh, roleplaying games. The NEC computers, because they had to devote so much resource to having decent resolutions and the like, weren't always as suited to the fast paced action games.
Alex: But they drew a picture really well.
Jeffrey: Pictures are good!
Alex: So that's good for graphical adventures, which we're also starting to come over at this time, and it's good for role playing games. And there were a couple of import export firms like Starcraft, which has no relation to the game. This is a company called Starcraft, that were bringing in small amounts of software. As some of these genres started to get more noticed, then there was more importing that would go on and even creation of whole new games Wizardry became a cultural phenomenon in Japan eventually.
Jeffrey: Really sort of like uh PAC man and invaders?
Alex: Right. I mean, not quite to that huge extent, but there were, there are Jap- Japan only wizardry games and there were Japan only wizardry games long after. They stopped making wizardry games in the U S long after SirTech had gone away.
Alex: And there was, you know, tie in merchandise and. There was even an anime at one point. These kinds of games became very big in Japan. But, it was still an underground thing and it happened gradually. We're kind of getting ahead of the story at the beginning here. There's only a little bit of this going on. You have a small number of people that have been exposed to Apples. Mostly people like the Falcon people, that are importing the hardware and so have a chance to play these games. And then they are starting to produce a small number of proto RPGs. They're really primitive. They're really finicky. They almost all have the tile based over worlds
Alex: because Ultima is clearly the leading light here at this point. First one was a game called Panorama Island,
Jeffrey: Panorama Island?
Alex: Yes, we are, you know translating, Japanese names into English.
Jeffrey: Right, right.
Alex: Doesn't always necessarily make sense, but that's kind of the literal translation of what it was, and it was a very finicky game from the looks of it. It's hard to, it's hard to find emulations of a lot of old Japanese games. They don't have the same culture that we do of emulating and preserving this stuff. So it's hard to find a game in the first place. And then, of course, none of these have really been patched and translated. I mean, popular games of course have been like Mother 3 and Final Fantasy games, Dragon Quest games.
But you know, these early games haven't been patched. So-
Alex: you have to be able to get on to really weird Japanese forums to find the games and the emulators in the first place. And then you basically have to know Japanese, or at least some Japanese to be able to-
Jeffrey: Even launch the game or navigate it.
Alex: Right. So it's not like there's a lot of video or commentary for a lot of these games circulating in Western circles just because of those hurdles. And who knows on some of these, the raw images that people have been able to find may not even be complete. They may be corrupted or modified in some way because-
Jeffrey: Or parodies.
Alex: Right. Though I mean, these, these aren't probably parodies, the ones I'm talking about, but it's just. It's hard to tell if you've really gotten a clean rom image because they don't have the same Cracker culture that developed in the West. And so the preservation is very spotty. So even when people play some of these games. It could be that they're missing key information on what they're supposed to be doing, or the rom has been, rom image has been modified in some way that it's not even playing properly because it's just not being emulated well, even
Jeffrey: it's not taking advantage of some aspect of the architecture it's supposed to run on in order to accomplish a goal so something doesn't get added right. Some sort of collision detection doesn't work. Who knows?
Alex: Yeah, so Panorama Island, it seems like a pretty weird game. I mean, you're wandering around this overworld on this Island. I guess it kind of takes place in the present day because there are things like flashlights and other modern things in it, but it's on a primitive Island with natives. So it's, it's certainly not set in the modern society. And, there's some tiles on the overworld map that have traps on them. You randomly encounter natives, which will sometimes sell you things, sometimes help you, sometimes attack you, and it seems completely nonsensical what they're going to do and when they're going to do it, which may be the fault of the emulation or may be the fault of the game being so primitive. And there are dungeons you explore and this and that. It's almost hard to fathom. It is playable game today, but I mean, that's true of a lot of really early hobbyists software.
Jeffrey: Oh yeah. A lot of the earlier software you would actually desirable almost. I think it was desirable. You're just dumped in the game given very few instructions and, figure it out!
Alex: Which is doubly hard to do when you don't have any original instruction material. And Japanese isn't your first language and you don't even know if the emulators working properly.
Jeffrey: Yeah. So doubly hard in that context.
Alex: And so you have that, and then you had another thread come in actually through the arcade of all places.
Jeffrey: Really? The arcade?
Alex: That's right. There's a fellow named Masanobu Endo. Who is very well known in Japan because he is the man who created the game Xevious.
Alex: Are you familiar with Xevious?
Jeffrey: I am not familiar with Xevious.
Alex: It's a scrolling shooter.
Alex: It's not an RPG
Jeffrey: like a rail shooter?
Alex: Yeah, it's a scrolling shooter.
Alex: It was released in 1982 it was released in the United States, right as the arcade market was beginning to collapse.
Alex: And so it got to release in the United States. Atari released it in the US. It's a Namco game. It didn't do very well in the United States because it kind of got lost in the crash of the arcade market at that time.
Jeffrey: It came out at a bad time.
Alex: It did. It was huge in Japan. Absolutely huge. It's basically the game that started the shoot them up craze in Japan. There were shoot them ups before Xevious and even a couple of popular shoot 'em ups before Xevious. But Xevious is the game that the Japanese think of when they think of the beginnings of the shoot'em up of the SHMUPs .
Jeffrey: That is the Genesis point.
Alex: Exactly. Because it was very popular. They had very colorful graphics. They were very clever. The various enemies were almost always done in very shades of gray.
Alex: And in graphics, hardware terms. Gray doesn't really count as a color. So by using various shades of gray, on the enemies, they were able to provide a lot of detail and what looked like a lot of color on the enemies without really using much in the way of color, which then allowed them to use all their color on the background scenery.
So it takes place in a very colorful world. You know, the shooters before that basically mostly took place in space because. Generating a black background is a lot easier and a lot less processor intensive than a full color background.
Alex: But Xevious was able to do a full color background and then still have these very kind of detailed enemies using these various shades of gray, which didn't take up the color resources and wasn't as processor intensive.
And so it was a very vibrant, very colorful game. Uh, the enemies had some interesting AI quirks to them. Some of them did that previous games had, and we're still talking pretty primitive AI at this point, but-
Alex: - still, kind of more interesting than some things before. And there were some big mothership bosses, was really kind of the first scrolling shooter to kind of have these big kind of boss encounters and they weren't the elaborate kind of shooter boss encounters that you think of in games like R-Type that came later because we are talking 1982 but-
Alex: -it's still different than what there was before. And so that kind of really ignited the craze for shooters. And so Masanobu Endo, very well known. And the interesting, the other interesting thing about him is at the time. Games were created by programmers. And you probably had some artists and some sound people too, because uh Japan went to team-based game creation much faster than the U S did. I imagine, in part because it's a communal culture to begin with. And so this idea of people working together to accomplish a task.
Jeffrey: Right, everyone working together to get this done.
Alex: Is, is really already ingrained. So they went to specialization far sooner, but Endo was the first person. In Japan to kind of consider himself a game designer. I'm not just the planner. I'm not just the artist. I'm not just the programmer. I'm the game designer because he was doing kind of all of it. Which was a little bit unusual in Japan.
Jeffrey: So it started in Japan.
Alex: Right. And they didn't have a name for it. But you see, Namco had this close relationship with Atari, and so he was over in Japan, in the U S one time, you know, visiting with Atari people and they're kind of talking about what they do and he's telling them what all he does. And he's like, well, you're a game designer.
Alex: I mean, if you're doing all of that, you're a game designer. It's like, Oh!
Jeffrey: I have a title now!.
Alex: Yeah. And so he prided himself on calling himself a game designer, and that was kind of unusual in Japan at that time.
Alex: Also, when he was in the United States, at some point he was exposed to Dungeons & Dragons.
Alex: And so his followup game after Xevious., Well there was a sequal to Xevious too, but kind of his next major project after Xevious is he wanted to kind of do this D&D thing, but in an arcade setting. So it can't be too finicky. It has to be kind of action-based.
Alex: But he wanted this idea of at least having some inventory and navigating dungeon mazes and whatnot in an arcade game. And so he created a game called Tower of Druaga.
Jeffrey: Tower of Druaga.
Alex: Which again, it came out in 1984 and this is a period of time. This is the low point of the U S arcade.
Alex: 1984 so that's not a game that made any kind of impact in the United States whatsoever. But again, very, very popular in Japan.
Jeffrey: What kind of game in the Sates would it be closest to?
Alex: Well, I suppose you could say it's a little like Gauntlet. It's only a single player. You don't have up to four players playing together. And you don't have the monster generators and just the wave, after wave, after wave of monsters coming at you. But it does take place in a maze and the goal is to get through all the floors of this tower. Each floor is a maze like place with monster scattered around it. You have a sword and a shield to use to fight them. And there's an exit hidden somewhere on the level, and there's a locked door you need to open to get to the exit. So you also have to find a key. So that's in certain ways, similar to Gauntlet.
And then on top of that, there are treasures on each level. So you don't level up like in an RPG, but you do improve your character by finding equipment. And so that's kind of the proto RPG stuff going on in this arcade game. It's not an RPG, it's, it's kind of RPG light. But then, you had some of these people in the PC scene being like, that Tower of Druaga was really cool, but if I'm going to do that on a computer, as opposed to in an action-ny arcade game, I need to add more RPG elements.
Alex: So you go from stripping the RPG out of the action. To adding the RPG back into the action.
Jeffrey: Depending on which platform it's on.
Alex: And that's how you get some of the first action. RPGs.
Alex: The kind of game that Secret of Mana is, is a well known example in the West. So Falcom releases a game called Dragon Slayer in 1984 that is an action RPG. I mean, it's very. It's got elements that you might find in the Legend of Zelda or in Secret of Mana. It's a little more action-ny and a company called T&E Soft releases game called Hydlide and I-
Jeffrey: Oh, Hydlide!.
Alex: Yes. You have to understand about Hydlide. Hydlide came to the United States five years after it came out in Japan in Japan Hydlide came out before the Legend of Zelda.
Alex: And so this idea of this action game where you're running around exploring things and then bumping into monsters, literally bumping into monsters-
Jeffrey: In order to fight them.
Alex: - in order to do combat with them. That was new and exciting. It relea- it reached the United States without really any modification after the Legend of Zelda. So of course it looks like shit in the United States because there have been three or four more years of advances in graphics and game play in technology.
Alex: And so anyone who saw it on the Fam-, on the NES in the United States were like, 'Wow, that game was awfu!".
Jeffrey: [Laugh] Well, yeah, I mean, you take a game that came out so much earlier and you put it into a modern era. People are going to go, well, you're giving me this brand new game. You're expecting me to pay $60 for it, and this thing has no capabilities that I would expect from a game of this era. It's like if you took an Atari game, slapped it into a Nintendo game and said, "Hey, this game's awesome. Give me $50!"
Alex: I mean, it was almost exactly like that. I'm the, the early computers weren't quite as primitive as the VCS, obviously, but it was almost exactly like that. So. Obviously in the United States, that game is just horrendous.
Jeffrey: Oh yeah!
Alex: In Japan it was very primitive, but in 1984 it was kind of revolutionary at the same time. And so these two games come out in '84 Dragon Slayer and Hydlide. I don't know exactly what the inspiration for Dragon Slayer was. Yoshio Kiya gives very few interviews even in Japan.
Alex: So I haven't seen an interview yet with him. John Szczepaniak, who did as his, in the process of doing a series of books called "The Untold Story of the Japanese Video Game Industry", where he interviews Japanese developers, he kickstarted the first book, and then he released a second book.
He's sitting on a Kiya interview that will theoretically be in his third book, which he's been kind of. Wishy washy on when it's going to come out or if it's going to come out. Because he went through a ridiculous ordeal both psychologically and financially, getting these books done that I won't go into cause that's his story. But the point is, I hope we get that Kiya interview at some point because he's sitting on it.
Jeffrey: And it has valuable information!
Alex: And it may have valuable information. So I don't know. For certain, the Dragon's Slayer was based on power of dialogue in any way.
Alex: But Hydlide definitely was-
Alex: -because the same John Szczepaniak and his second book has an interview with the creator of Hydlide,
Alex: And he says that Tower of Druaga has exposure to that as what did that, and I don't know the exact link between Dragon Slayer and Hydlide, and Zelda .
Alex: I think there has to be one. It's just common sense.
Jeffrey: Because it's a natural progression. If you look at it the way the games go.
Alex: Right. But the Nintendo people, it's often considered bad form in Japan to discuss what you copied.
Alex: What mechanics you borrowed, what you copied. It's kind of considered rude. It's kind of one of these things that everyone knows you're. You're borrowing, but it's kind of rude to borrow. So we just pretend you're not borrowing by not talking about it. You know, the whole, the whole Face thing-
Alex: -that is prevalent in Eastern cultures .Now, plenty of Japanese developers even with that, are still candid about what their influences were.
Alex: But it causes there to, it causes them to be a little more cagey in general. About influences.
Jeffrey: They may talk about it in general, broad terms, but they're not going to talk about it in anything resembling specifics. They're not going to specifically say, I took Zelda's whatever, or Hydlide's, whatever, and it helped me create X.
Jeffrey: They're going to say, I was influenced by creator A, and creator B, and that helped me create creation whatever it was.
Alex: And they may not even say that. And I, I found that in the interviews I've seen Nintendo people are particularly cagey about that. They'll go into their influences a lot, but they never go into the other games that influence them.
The Metroid people will talk about how much Alien influenced the aesthetic for Metroid .Or Miyamoto, will talk about how Bowzer was based on this Ox King character in Japanese kind of mythology. Or how Donkey Kong, started out as a Popeye game. And so the basic dynamic between Mario Donkey Kong and Pauline was based on Bluto and Popeye and Olive Oyl that they'll talk about that-
Jeffrey: They won't talk about specifically borrowinfg from games. They'll talk about borrowing from culture. They'll talk about borrowing from mythology, movies, music, nature, their kid. But not specifically anything within the field that they are doing.
Alex: Right. The, the Nintendo people, like I said, there are other designers that are more candid, like the Hydlide guy who says he was influenced by Tower of Druaga.
Alex: I think you can draw a straight line probably from Tower of Druaga through Dragon Slayer through to Zelda.
Jeffrey: Mmm-hmm. The question is, is there some link between Dragon Slayer and Zelda that, or multiple links in there?
Alex: Right. I think you can probably draw a straight line between those games, but I can't prove it, so I can't say that that's true. But the point is, that's kind of the other branch of Japanese RPG development is this action RPG element that actually came from taking D&D, stripping out the roleplaying mechanics, making it purely action for the arcade. Then inspiring computer game developers to keep the action aesthetic, but bring a little bit of the RPG back into it. And then transferred from the computer scene to the home console scene,
Alex: -through games like the Legend of Zelda and later on Secret of Mana. So that's kind of the action RPG track on the traditional RPG, you have a few of these early games like the Panorama Island game that are coming out. And then the point where RPGs start becoming a little bigger on PC. Actually happens with a foreigner.
Jeffrey: A foreigner?
Alex: That's right. Named Hank Rogers.
Jeffrey: Hank Rogers?
Alex: Hank Rogers is Dutch. He's from a Dutch family, though he spent a lot of time in the United States, attended college in the United States. He's most famous for being the guy that got Tetris on game boy.
Jeffrey: That's his pedigree.
Alex: That's, that's pretty good pedigree.
Jeffrey: Well true.
Alex: He went to school, the college at the University of Hawaii, and he got really into the D&D scene at the University of Hawaii. Big, big D&D player, he's discussed. I haven't talked to him, but in interviews I've seen, he's discussed how they would have these game sessions that would basically be going on for 24 hours, like all weekend long.
And people would drop in and out. You know, someone would play for a few hours, they leave. Someone else would come in and like they'd be running this game all weekend with just different people. And we're talking-
Jeffrey: I pitty the DM.
Alex: Well, and we're talking D&D at this point, not AD&D cause this is like '75 ish. So. It's a lot more fluid, a lot more free form. It's not so finicky as Dungeons and Dragons becomes later. There are a lot of holes in the original D&D rules, a lot of places where you basically just have to wing it. So, but I, yeah, still I pity the poor. I, I assume I, he didn't say in the interview, I, I would assume that the DMs are switching out during this whole thing too.
Jeffrey: I would hope so!
Alex: But it's kind of very freeform thing. So then, meets a girl, Japanese girl at college. And chases her back to Japan and they eventually marry. So it's a happy, it's a happy ending.
Jeffrey: Well, that's good.
Alex: But he goes to Japan to follow this girl. He doesn't know the language. He doesn't know the culture.
Jeffrey: Oh my.
Alex: He does have family working there. His family's in the diamond business, and so he's working for his father's diamond company in Japan.
Alex: I think he's basically working for him for free. It's like getting room and board obviously. They're not really paying him so much as he's a part of the family and they're kind of letting him-
Jeffrey: We'll let you live here, and do you your thing, maybe a modern, maybe a modest stipend or something, but yeah.
Alex: And he knows a little bit about computers and he knows a little bit about programming from his university days, but not much. But he decides. When it's finally time that he needs to figure out to do something for himself and not just freeload off the diamond business anymore. He decides that's what he's going to do is going to get into computer games.
And he kind of looks at the Japanese market that's out there at the time, and what he sees is that it's a lot of arcade clones. It's a lot of shooters. It's a lot of that kind of thing. Not really RPGs. Now the way he tells the story, usually he says there are no RPGs. Well, we know now that that's-
Jeffrey: Not true.
Alex: -not true. There were a couple of RPGs, but, but only a couple. That was definitely not the mainstream software, and I don't think they were selling all that well. So he decides he's going to do a role playing game, and he's familiar with Wizardry and he's familiar with D&D and so he creates a game called Black Onyx.
Jeffrey: Black Onyx.
Alex: Yeah, the Black Onyx. And it's a dungeon crawl kind of thing. 3d ish, dungeons, very Wizardry inspired, I think.
Jeffrey: Wireframe and all of that.
Alex: Uh, I think it might've actually been filled, but still.
Alex: Still inspired by by that aesthetic, and he makes a deal with a company called SoftBank to distribute the game. SoftBank backs out of most of their commitment. They take far less software than they originally said they were. He goes and tries and publishes it himself through his company. Bulletproof software that he's founded. It's not doing well, releases it around Christmas '83. And, uh, it's just not going anywhere.
So he decides that this is kind of funny. And just like we're talking about how the Japanese didn't know what to do with an American audience when it came to JRPGs, right? So they did Mysitc Quest.
Alex: And so at this point, the Japanese have no idea what to do with RPGs. So he decides that he needs to help the Japanese people understand what an RPG is. So he hires a translator.
Alex: He goes around all the computer magazines.
Alex: With a copy of his game-
Alex: -and his translator.
Alex: Because his Japanese language skills are still no good. And he helps them through character creation. He like explains to them, it's like now we're going to create this character and this character is you, and now you're going to take your character off and you're going to fight monsters and get treasure and all of these RPG things. And won't that be ever so fun?
Alex: And so this was successful in getting him some positive press.
Jeffrey: It was actually be successful because of the way that sounded sort of like, I would imagine the poor Japanese person they're going, "Yeah? Okay..".
Alex: It sounds ludicrous.
Jeffrey: It does sound pretty ludicrous.
Alex: But it worked!
Jeffrey: Somehow it works.
Alex: And he started selling 10,000 copies of the game a month in 1984. And overall sold about 150,000 copies, which was a massive success-
Alex: -in the early Japanese computer game market. And so this is kind of the point where RPGs start becoming noticed and people start getting acclimated in Japan to playing RPGs. And I'm sure Dragon Slayer and Hydlide, which also came out at the same time.
Alex: Obviously Hank Rogers, when he gives interviews, Hank Rogers is going to toot his own horn because-
Alex: -that's his job. I would imagine the Dragon Slayer and Hydlide probably also had had an impact here, especially since they were a little more action oriented, which made them a little more accessible. Black Onyx taking more of its cue from the Wizardry school. More complicated to create a character, which is why he had to go around and-
Jeffrey: Explain it to people.
Alex: - help people create characters. And so I'm sure there was a confluence of a couple of different things. It wasn't Black Onyx that did it all by itself, but that's, that's kind of the turning point in 1984 where you get the idea of an RPG starting to establish itself, in in the Japanese mind so that the Japanese may be more receptive to this kind of game, and it's not long after that that, or it's around the same time that games like Wizardry start coming over. You're getting to the point where it's reasonable to think that you could. Make an RPG on something like say the Famicom and have people actually understand what an RPG is and play it. That kind of takes us to a little company called ENIX.
Jeffrey: Little company?
Alex: It was a little company and it was really always a little company right up until it merged with Square or actually bought Square and became a bigger company.
Jeffrey: That's right. kids ENIX. bought Square, not the other way around.
Alex: That's right. Again, I think a lot of people probably assume that square was the big deal, but square was basically going bankrupt because of that Final Fantasy movie that didn't work at all and lost them millions of dollars, and so ENIX bought square, but ENIX was always a small company because they didn't have any of their creative talent in house. They always, they farmed out their programming and their creation. They had producers in house and they had their marketing guys in house, but kind of like electronic arts in its early days, the actual talent, they always farmed out, and that's still true even today within the Square-Enix conglomerate that exists today.
The Final Fantasy teams and the teams that work on other traditional Square products are all in house people that work for Square-ENIX.
Alex: The people that make the Dragon Quest games. Who made, who made Dragon Quest VIIII I mean, who actually did the game?
Jeffrey: Level 5!
Alex: Level 5. So even today, the ENX part of Square-ENIX still uses outside talent to actually make its games and just has producers and marketing people in house. To keep an eye on the games and sell the games.
Jeffrey: And Square just does everything in house, just like they have always done.
Alex: Exactly. So you've got, even with the two companies merged, you still have some of that same culture, uh, remaining distinct between the two companies. So ENIX was founded by a guy named Yasuhiro Fukushima. Mr Fukushima knew absolutely nothing about computers.
Alex: Mr Fukushima knew absolutely nothing about computer games, but he was a classic entrepreneur.
Alex: His father was actually in the entertainment business. He was actually running movie theaters in pinball parlors, and this was kind of a non traditional business area. And I think that probably inspired him to take some nontraditional paths too. So once he graduated from college, he tried to put an advertising business together and this just didn't work at all. After that though, he hit on the idea of doing a housing magazine. He had noticed that housing listings were only in the newspapers, and he felt that was a kind of inconvenient way to get housing information.
So what he did is he put together a magazine that would kind of collect all of this information one place, and it did very well. So you see, he was always trying new things, and he also spent some time in the United States. And based on his experiences in the United States with some of the fast food and automated food preparation equipment he encountered there, he decided that he would try to do low cost sushi in Japan, like using machines for sushi.
Jeffrey: Like an automat for sushi.
Alex: Yeah, kind of I think. It's, it's hard to tell from the exactly from the few articles I've been able to see on this thing, but I think it was something to that effect. This low cost, cheap sushi. Turns out, who knew the Japanese think that sushi is an art form and they don't want to McDonald's of sushi.
Jeffrey: Yeah. That's why they have very special, ritualistic, almost sushi preparation and communication between the eater and the preparer.
Alex: So that was a disaster. Absolute disaster. But then he decided, because he had spent a lot of time in United States and he knew that computers were starting to become big in the United States at that point. He thought that he would create a computer game company.
Alex: Because he's an artist.
Jeffrey: Why not?
Alex: He's an entrepreneur that likes new and interesting things.
Alex: So Fukushima a creates ENIX and he knows nothing about games,
Alex: -so what he does is he holds a contest .
Jeffrey: A contest!
Alex: A programming contest. Which actually became a very, a typical way for a lot of early companies to lure developers in. Basically you had a hobbyist community, just like in the United States, in the early PC market-
Alex: -you had people that were buying technical magazines, buying computer magazines and typing in programs from those magazines, you know, program listings for magazines. And so these magazines would solicit programs. From, you know, budding young programmers, usually high school or college students that were, you know, getting their feet wet and programming. So you had this underground programming scene already. And so a lot of companies would hold programming contests where they would announce that there would be a prize of like 300,000 yen for the first place finisher, and plus we'd publish your game.
Now what they don't say, what they never said is that 300,000 in prize
Jeffrey: . Yeah?.
Alex: Wasn't actually a prize.
Alex: it was an advance on royalties
Jeffrey: . Oh...
Alex: But they called it a prize.
Jeffrey: It's a prize that we will give you the honor of having an advanced royalty.
Alex: Exactly. But they don't call it, they call it a prize because that's what gets people to submit things. It's like, Oh my gosh, I'll have to do is write a game and I'll get $300,000 and plus they'll publish my game. But-
Jeffrey: Mmm, no...
Alex: -in truth, it was, well, they still got money, but it's just, it was an advance on royalties. So if your game didn't sell that well, you didn't necessarily-
Jeffrey: got that much money.
Alex: Exactly. So it was a little bit of a scam in that sense, but it was legitimate in the sense that you're a budding young programmer. You want to get into this professionally, and by entering this contest-
Jeffrey: You have a chance to get in.
Alex: Exactly. So he held a contest. He held a million yen contest, which was unusual.
Jeffrey: A million?
Alex: A million, yen. Remember, yen, not quite as valuable as the dollar. But-
Jeffrey: Yeah more like a hundred thousand or something?
Alex: The typical prize- Yeah I mean, the typical prize was 300 or 400,000 yen.
Alex: So yeah, it was much larger than the typical prize and nobody entered because. ENIX. What's that?
Jeffrey: Yeah. We don't know the company.
Alex: Exactly, but then he went on and had another contest and he was finally able to lower some people to submit games, including a fellow named uh Yuji Horii.
Alex: Yuji Horii was writing for a bunch of magazines at the time, youth magazines and the like, and he was programming on the side, and so he created a game and submitted it in the ENIX programming contest. And, uh, he won!
Jeffrey: Which game did he submit?
Alex: Love Match Tennis, which I'm not sure if they actually released or not. Uh, they may not have, but it was game called Llove Match Rennis.
Jeffrey: Love Max Tennis.
Alex: Love match.
Jeffrey: Oh, Love match. Okay.
Alex: Now remember in tennis, if you're shutting out your opponent, they'll say that the score is like 15 love.
Jeffrey: Okay. I never really played tennis on that.
Alex: So love match tennis, doesn't mean that it's like erotic tennis
Jeffrey: I love you tennis!
Alex: That doesn't mean it's necessarily erotic tennis. I, I assume that we are talking love in the tennis sense here of like being shut out 15 love 30 love.
Jeffrey: Not some sort of uh, strange thing.
Alex: And match. You know, you have tennis matches, you know, you have individual sets, within a match. And so not love match as we are using tennis as a way to determine your sexual compatibility, but like love 15 love 30 love match. A, competition. Tennis.
Jeffrey: Names are weird.
Alex: Yup. Another early person that won one of the early contests was. A fellow by the name of Koichi Nakamura.
Alex: Both of, both Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura, you know, won this programming contest. And what they did is they decided to use their prize money to go to Apple Fest in 1983 this was a very short lived computer fast, obviously focused around Apple computers.
Alex: And when they went to Apple Fest. They were introduced a little game called Wizardry-
Alex: -in the United States. They were introduced the Wizardry. And so this became their love affair with the Western roleplaying games. They actually got them, you know, direct, uh, access to them from the States. Nakamura, was by far the more talented programmer. And he was the programmer on all the early Dragon Quest games.
Alex: Nakamura, was a big Wizardry fan.
Alex: And I think he liked- I'm not positive, but I think he, the multi-party combat, the more in depth statistics, that kind of thing appealed to him.
Alex: Yuji Horii who was more of a creative guy. I mean, he did some programming, obviously, but that wasn't really his forte. He was more of a designer.
Alex: He really liked Ultima, and so they decided that they wanted to create an RPG. For the Famicom because they liked RPGs and they thought by, I suppose 1985 was probably when they started working on it. It was released in 1986.
Alex: They thought by then that the Japanese audience was ready to accept an RPG on a console-
Jeffrey: Because they already have some of this stuff brought in on PC and we had the arcade machine.
Jeffrey: So pretty much the population has had their appetite wet.
Alex: Horii wanted to do an Ultima type game. He wanted NPC interaction. He wanted tiled over worlds. He wanted castles and towns and plot and all of this. This is what he really wanted. This is what he thought was superior Nakamura really wanted Wizardry.
He wanted statistics. He wanted, battle screens with menus and options and things to do. All of that kind of thing. And this was kind of the fight between them, Ultima is superior, no, Wizardry, superior, no Ultima is superior, no Wizardry superior. And so what do they do?
Jeffrey: They meld the two.
Alex: They meld the two.
Jeffrey: And that's how you get Dragon Quest.
Alex: They meld the two and they simplify because, the Famicom is a system for children.
Alex: So not a full party like in Wizardry. One character.
Jeffrey: One character.
Alex: Because you got to keep it simple for the kids. They want statistics, but not a full D&D style, strength, dexterity, constitution intelligence, yada, yada, yada. So there are statistics, but they keep it very simple. Attack, defense, speed, hit points, magic points. So keep that very simple, make it very colorful, make it very cartoony, make it very kid friendly. And-
Jeffrey: You still get all those menus, because to this day, it still annoys me that for the first three games, you step on the stairs, you have to go into the menu system and select stairs.
Alex: Yeah. Yeah. And even in the fourth game, you still had to click door to open doors. Even normal doors that didn't need keys.
Alex: Still have to hit the door to open the door. Exactly. So you get your menus, you get your combat, you get your tile based overworld, you get your NPC interaction. You get your story. You get it friendly for the kids. You get Dragon Quest. You see, Horii was a writer, as I said, and Horii did a lot of articles for Shonen Jump.
Alex: Shonen Jump was the premier kind of youth oriented magazine. I mean, they do manga and if they do articles in it, it was, it was huge. And one of the regular contributors to, Shonen Jump. Was a fellow by the name of Akira Toriyama.
Alex: And at this time he's more known for Dr Slump, which was his kind of first big breakout hit. He's kind of just starting Dragon Ball at this point.
Alex: But he's still already well known because of Dr Slump and so Horii's editor at Shonen Jump, who was also in with Toriyama, is really enthusiastic about what Horii is doing at ENIX with this role playing game.
So he gets them together, he gets them together. It's like Horii, you gotta meet or Toriyama you gotta meet this guy and see what he's doing!
Jeffrey: He's doing some cool stuff over here!
Alex: Exactly. And so you get these Akira Toriyama character and monster designs, which became a big part of the appeal of the games as well.
Jeffrey: Yeah. He has a unique artwork that carries on and Dragon Quest to this day.
Alex: Exactly. He still does all of the designs for the characters and monsters up until this very time. So you get that added appeal of these very cute, very accessible characters that really, that the younger kids can relate to, especially since they're in the exact same style of this manga artist who's really becoming a big deal in Japan at that time.
Alex: And then the music is done by Koichi Sugiyama who still does the music to this day. He's older than the rest of them. And he was already very famous in Japan as a composer before Dragon Quest.
Jeffrey: H mm.
Alex: He became a fan. He became a computer game player, and he was a fan of ENIX games.
Jeffrey: What game? 'cuse it makes- we're making it sound like Dragon Quest was their first big game they put out.
Alex: No, they put out several games before that. Uh.
Alex: This was their first big Famicom game, but they were in the PC scene.
Jeffrey: Okay. We're already putting out games on the PC and that-
Alex: Their first games came out in 1983 Dragon Quest came out in 1986.
Jeffrey: Okay. So they've got three years under their belt, putting out games and establishing a presence.
Alex: Exactly. So Koichi Sugiyama writes them a fan letter about how much he enjoyed their games.
Alex: And so that's how they got in with him. And they know who he is because he's already famous.
Jeffrey: Right he's a famous-
Alex: So they're like, you should totally score this game that we're doing. And he's like, that would be cool. And so that's how you get this. They're kind of considered a Holy Trinity today of Hori, Toriyama, and Sugiyama. Really in the early days, you should really add Nakamura to that Koichi Nakamura who was the programmer on all the early games. You get these four people together and you distill this love of Ultima and Wizardry, make it accessible to the kiddies, and that is Dragon Quest. And that becomes the template, that basically all JRPGs follow for the next decade or more. I mean, all of these kind of experimental things going on on the computers before that just basically goes by the wayside, and Dragon Quest becomes the template for JRPGs and becomes the beginning of JRPGs.
Jeffrey: Really? That is great! And I take it Final Fantasy comes out of that? Or does Final Fantasy sort of manifest separately?
Alex: Oh, it comes out of it to a degree, certainly.
Jeffrey: Okay, so really Dragon Quest became first, and then Final Fantasy comes out.
Alex: Now, Final Fantasy is also drawing, obviously from Hironobu Sakaguchi and his friends started at Square. Square was actually a subsidiary of a power company.
Alex: Then you Shaw and the son of the owner of the company. Um, Masumi Miyamoto, Masumi Miyamoto became interested in doing computer games. And again, he had no idea how to do. He had nothing to do with computers or anything like that. He just thought that would be a really neat idea. And so he got a punch of college students from a nearby university to work part time for the company, actually making the games.
Alex: One of those was Hironobu Sakaguchi. And Hironobu Sakaguchi had an Apple. I think he actually had an Apple knockoff, not an official Apple, but he actually was one of the few people in Japan that actually had an Apple. So he was exposed to Ultima and Wizardry and all of this stuff.
Jeffrey: He already had to pre-exposure. He didn't have to be brought up to speed.
Alex: Right. And one of the other creators of Final Fantasy was massively into D&D. You may notice that in the very first Final Fantasy game, you have. Some creatures lifted directly from D&D, like Sahagin. Sahagin are a creation of TSR-
Alex: -water monster. And they appear in this game. And Illithids. They don't call them Illithid, I don't think. But they, they have mind fliers, you know-
Alex: -with the technical mouth. And that's because one of the, one of the team members was big into, to D&D. So they're drawing from the D&D influences and the Ultima, Wizardry influences as well in shaping what they're doing. That's where their personal passion for this stuff comes from. But there's no question there at this point. Following in Dragon Quest's footsteps. So they're also influenced by what Dragon Quest did, though, as we discussed earlier in the episode, taking it in a slightly different direction, more melancholy, more, more postmodern, more dreamlike, more incorporating technology, all of this kind of thing.
Jeffrey: It's sort of like we have civilization almost after a great reset. And there's always some kind of technology that's ancient and left around somewhere that is there and it's almost like part of the scenery and they don't really question why it's there so much. Is that. It's always been this way. There's always been this ancient stuff.
Alex: Exactly. And obviously in later Final Fantasy games, they start getting more and more steam punk, and then more and more modern. But even in the very early games, there's always things like airships and castles in the sky and towers that rise up from the middle of the earth and all of these other very fantastic elements, trips to the moon.
Jeffrey: Yeah. Trips to the moon in Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy I. You have, the, uh, where the air, Fiend of air is, it's actually supposed to be on a space station-
Jeffrey: -in orbit around the planet.
Alex: Exactly. So Final Fantasy then is following in the footsteps of Dragon Quest, and then everything else is basically following-
Jeffrey: Closely following along.
Alex: -along from those two. And so that's, that's how you get there. So Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, particularly Dragon Quest, but to a lesser extent Final Fantasy are the beginning of the JRPG as we know it today. It just would not be accurate to call it the beginning of Japanese RPGs period, which actually have this history going back several years.
Jeffrey: There was a lot more progenitors, earlier games that eventually led to it. I think that pretty much covers it. Is there anything else you want to go over?
Alex: No, I think that does it.
Jeffrey: And what shall we talk about next?
Alex: You always ask that.
Jeffrey: I do, because, I'm a horrible person.
Alex: Well before this, we did a two parter on Mediagenic, which was mostly two episodes on computer games.. Before that, we did two arcade focused episodes, so might as well keep kind of this pairing going and follow this up with another kind of console centric episode. And I've been, recently, I, uh, talked to a person that was very important to Acclaim Entertainment and he's not the first person I've talked to. I've actually interviewed both the cofounders of a Acclaim , Gregory Fischbach and Jimmy Scoroposki and Acclaim is kind of interesting because they were the first North American publisher to get into the NES market when the NES came back after the crash, and they were one of the biggest neck and neck with Konami and Electronic Arts as the biggest third party console publisher in the world in the 8 and 16 bit eras.
And then it kind of all fell apart. And so it's kind of a interesting rise and fall story. And why don't we do the history of Acclaim Entertainment next time?
Jeffrey: Sound fantastic. And we will see you next time on They Create Worlds.
Check out our show notes. at tcwpodcast.podbean.com where we have links to some of the things that we discuss in this and other episodes.
You can check out Alex's blog at videogame, historian.wordpress.com. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow us on Twitter @tcwpodcast.
Intro music is "Airplane Mode" by Josh Woodward found at joshwoodward.com forward slash airplane mode used under Creative commons. Attribution license. Outro music is "Bacterial Love" by Rolem music. Found at freemusic. archive.org used under a Creative Common Attribution license.