Umihara Kawase is perhaps the very definition of a cult game: a title that will never be part of the mainstream gaming zeitgeist, but something that a very devoted group of fans worldwide hold in a very special place of reverence. It’s very much a series made for a specific type of gamer, one who savors mastering complex mechanics to zip through levels with stunning speed and precision.Being able to play Umihara Kawase like a pro, however, is something that takes lots of practice. These are difficult, physics-heavy platform games that require a great deal of dedication to learn the ins and outs of, but once you do, the results are amazing – and immensely satisfying.
Since its debut in 1996 on the Super Famicom, Umihara Kawase has been brought to life by a small team of artists, programmers, and designers. The lead designer, Kiyoshi Sakai, is currently employed by Agatsuma Entertainment, a company that acts as both a publisher and a go-between for developers and publishers. They’re responsible for the Guardian Heroes-inspired Code of Princess on 3DS, and more recently, they’ve put out the latest (and possibly final?) Umihara Kawase game on 3DS and PS Vita, Sayonara Umihara Kawase. The Vita version, published by Agatsuma themselves, is called Sayonara Umihara Kawase Plus and is available on PSN worldwide.
A key figure in the creation of these titles is Toshinobu Kondou, whose distinct character and art designs have come to define the beautifully surreal visual landscape of these titles. He’s also a part of Studio Saizensen, an independent development company. We talked over e-mail a bit with Kondou-san (and Sakai-san a bit as well) about the Umihara Kawase series as a whole and just what makes it so special.
Special thanks to GSK, Rica Matsumura, and Jason Moses for their assistance with this interview.
Game Developer’s Conference is this week, so I’m going to be busy hopefully gathering material both for here and for assorted freelance outlets until Friday. Seeing as how I’m not going to have time to write new material for a bit, I think it’s time to once again reach into the vault and republish a piece that hasn’t been seen in English before, and one that I’m particularly proud of.
This interview with Cave CCO Tsuneki Ikeda – known to shooting game fans as IKD – was originally conducted for France’s ig Magazine in 2010. A lot has changed since then, and not all for the better, in Cave’s case. Reading through the text now, you can definitely see Ikeda drop some hints of market troubles that would come to have a harsh effect on Cave’s shooting game development. It’s a very interesting read – but also quite heartbreaking.
And, of course, thanks to Jon Rogers for being awesome and helping to set this all up.
Much as I take pride in my knowledge of gaming history, there are a few areas that I could stand to learn more about. One company whose history I don’t particularly know that well – though I’ve always meant to learn more about – was Human, a Japanese developer and publisher prominent through the late 80’s up until the end of the 32-bit era. Human was known for a lot of things: Fire Pro Wrestling (perhaps the best-regarded wrestling game series of its time), a game design school that produced fascinating experimental titles like The Firemen and Septentrion (S.O.S. in the West), the groundbreaking Clock Tower series, and a sudden collapse that left the firm in shambles.
So when I was offered the opportunity to conduct an interview with Hifumi Kono, the former Human employee who went on to found developer Nude Maker, I jumped at the chance. I was eager not only to learn a bit more about Human’s history, but also to look a bit deeper into the game that defined the company’s later legacy, the Clock Tower horror game series, and its spiritual successor Project Scissors/NightCry. Read on for a candid look at Human’s past, Clock Tower’s influence and how it symbiotically benefited from Biohazard, living on pachinko earnings, and what happens when you play a classic Western horror game without speaking the language.
Remember watching that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain trailer that was unveiled at E3 2013? Do you remember first hearing those sweeping, powerful notes of the game’s vocal theme, Sins of the Father? I bet you do. But how much do you know about the amazing voice behind that and the Peace Walker vocal theme, Heaven’s Divide?
You might be surprised to find out that Donna Burke, the vocalist behind those two songs – and the voice of the in-game IDroid – has a very long and storied history doing English voices and musical work for numerous games from within Japan. Her list of previous projects includes numerous classics and fan favorites, and through her music and talent agency Dagmusic – which she owns and manages – she continues to provide the Japanese game industry with valuable voiceover and sound services.
I had the opportunity to talk with Donna about her past and previous work, how she came to Japan, what the English voiceover industry in Japan is like, all those different English accents, and – of course – those amazing Metal Gear songs. Read on!
The Japanese App Stores are a battlefield: the top grossing free-to-play apps rake in millions every day for their respective producers, jockeying for status and position on the charts, while thousands of others peter out after a few months or maintain a small but eagerly supportive audience. Others never even get off the ground – remember that Street Fighter card game? It went into beta around this time last year and nothing has come of it since. The freemium market might look like easy (or even greedy) money to a casual observer, but it’s actually a far harder nut to crack than most folks might think.
Monster Strike, a game which has been in a heated war with Puzzle and Dragons for top-grossing Japanese app for months, is noteworthy not only because it’s been such a huge hit in a very, very tough market, but because it’s something of a redemption story. Publisher Mixi operated a once-dominant social network in Japan that, in recent years, was rapidly losing ground to competitors like Facebook, Line, and Twitter – only to see business take a dramatic upwards turn as people picked up the game. The game’s designer, one Yoshiki Okamoto, is a man responsible for numerous classics at companies like Konami and Capcom, practically defining the late-80s-early-90s arcade legacy of the latter. Okamoto’s previous studio, Game Republic, suffered a terrible collapse after deals with western developers tanked, leaving them with massive debts that AAA development budgets require. Okamoto has now sworn off console development entirely, focusing strictly on mobile – thanks to Monster Strike’s roaring success. It might seem tragic at first, but knowing just how badly he got burned – and seeing just how fun Monster Strike is – Okamoto finding a new path and purpose in game development is actually a very happy story indeed.
I had an opportunity to talk with Okamoto and Koki Kimura, a producer at Mixi, about Monster Strike, along with Michael Oakland of Mixi’s localization team. We talked about the game and the ideas behind it, engaging in a lot of silliness in the process.
Before there was Square-Enix, there was Square and there was Enix, two Japanese publishing houses well known for their RPG output. During the heyday of the SNES, both companies had a US presence based out of Redmond, Washington, where they published some of the most beloved games of those eras. The inner workings of Enix USA during that time, however, have always been the subject of much rumor and fan speculation. What happened to localizations of Dragon Quest V and VI, Enix’s flagship franchise? Why did Nintendo publish Illusion of Gaia? And how did King Arthur and the Knights of Justice wind up the way it did? Is there really an Ark of the Covenant? Will we ever find Noah’s Ark? Where exactly is Atlantis and did Amelia Earhart land there? Are we alone in the Universe…
Ahem. I had the opportunity to talk to Robert Jerauld, producer during the first incarnation of Enix USA on all titles titles throughout the NES/SNES’s life. Robert’s early career trajectory took him from working as a Nintendo Game Counselor to working many roles on some of the most beloved games on the platform. Robert continues to work in the game industry to this day – he is currently an Executive Producer at Microsoft Game Studios, with credits on games like Zoo Tycoon, Gears of War, and Alan Wake. I am incredibly thankful and excited that Robert took the time to talk about his experience at Enix USA with us. Read on for a fascinating look of what Robert’s time at Enix USA was like!
Yusuke Kozaki is one of the hottest Japanese artists right now, and it’s not hard to see why: his work has a distinct, refined style that’s both stylish and has a more “realistic” look that gives it broad worldwide appeal. Kozaki’s work in games is especially memorable: besides working extensively with Suda51 on titles like Liberation Maiden and No More Heroes, he also did the designs for Fire Emblem: Awakening (along with some additional art for Super Smash Bros. 4).
This interview was conducted at Japan Expo USA 2013. I was unable to find an interested publisher at the time, and seeing as how Kozaki’s become much more well-known in the past year or two (he’s a big part of the Under the Dog anime production effort you’ve probably heard about) I think it’s a good time to put this out there. Just remember: this is a little over a year old at this point, but I still think it’s a really nice interview with some interesting info.
(Notes: This interview is originally from GDC 2010. It was published in Russian in the magazine Strana Igr/GameLand. This is the first time this interview is available in English.)