The Untold History of Japanese Developers by John Szczepaniak is an impressive tome bursting with interviews of many developers of classic games. This campaign, which was funded in June of 2013, required £50,000 but actually raised £70,092. Despite Japanese developers not getting as much press as they deserve in the West, it was obvious that many of us English-speaking gamers out there knew this was the case and wanted far more information. This hunger drew many, including myself, to the campaign. Although I did not personally back it, in the end I did purchase the book and “accompanying DVD” separately.
Without a doubt, The Untold History of Japanese Developers is packed with information. Over nearly 500 pages are devoted to interviews with a great many known (and unknown) names in the Japanese game industry. Even if you believe yourself to be pretty versed in knowledge of classic titles you’ll definitely learn something new. Many developers discuss things which were never revealed before, such as unreleased titles, or other little amusing anecdotes. There were many highlights for me, especially when conversations were directed towards games I personally love – and rarely receive much attention in the Western game world. If you feel the same way then this is already a must-buy book.
You can tell this book is outrageously good in the content department when I must restrain myself from revealing all the fantastic things learned while reading it. This unbridled gaming enthusiasm courses through the author and, hopefully, the reader as well when flipping through the pages. Here’s just a small listing of people and companies covered: Roy Ozaki and Kouichi Yotsui of Mitchell Corporation, Yoshitaka Murayama (Suikoden), Yoshiro Kimura (Love-de-Lic), Ryukushi07, Keiji Inafune. Then there are interviews related to Japanese gaming culture but outside of development itself such as with the Joseph Redon of Game Preservation Society interview. This, along with an interview of game book collector Keigo Matsubara are fascinating reads, despite not being directly pertinent to “game development.”
Thanks to Kickstarter backers there are sections devoted to things many gamers adore but don’t see much coverage of elsewhere. One example is an entire section of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers devoted to visual novels! The most interesting to me, a devout fan of the genre, was discovering that in Japan the term “visual novel” is not even really used in the same way! See, it’s cool little tidbits like this which are too cool to remain unknown to Western game fans.
It’s just incredible how this many interviews were conducted in such a short time span. That, paired with the fact that each one had to be translated and transcribed is another chunk of time. Then there’s the need to have all this content put together in “book” format and it becomes astonishing that this is already out for everyone to read. Amazingly, despite being a hefty read this is only half of the content intended. Another huge batch of interviews are still pegged for release with Volume 2. Some backers were displeased by this as a few promised interviews are not in the initial volume. Although this is an understandable grievance, it doesn’t really seem as though Volume 1 was cut short. Before getting the easy-to-carry ebook version it took over a month to get halfway through the tremendous amount of content provided.
The interviews are an absolute treasure. Everyone is likely to learn a great many new things while reading and be introduced to games they never knew existed. For that, it’s hard not to be grateful that this Kickstarter campaign was a success. Unfortunately, as someone with a reviewer mentality it’s impossible to ignore the points which I wish were more successful. There definitely could have been better editing. This doesn’t mean there are typos all over the place – in fact, there are surprisingly few considering how quick the book came out. The issue is purely in regards to aspects of interviews not being cut out when they probably should have been. Then there are my personal tastes which would rather not see the author “set the scene” by talking about great drinks and food everyone enjoyed. It’s not particularly relevant, and worse, it made me hungry!
All joking aside, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers will not ever be cherished for its visual presentation. In book form it feels incredibly retro with minimal design polish. Perhaps this was intentional? In any case, content is king here which is why lackluster visuals are more than permissible. The ebook release seemed to have a bit more issue with formatting, leaving some pages nearly blank aside from a few lines. However, it’s worth noting that if you buy the physical version an ebook copy is free through Amazon. As such, it’s hard to get too angry at its mistakes.
Finally, a question which played on my mind throughout each section: Where are the Japanese women of game development? Nowhere does the book suggest an exclusive male-only development world, and in fact references women involved in game creation multiple times, but that is what it presents via a cast of all-male interviewees. Now, I do not know know all interview candidates were selected (besides a mix between backer and Szczepaniak suggestion) but I’m certain there was no purposeful intent to ignore women. Still, recognizing this lack of gender diversity should have become quite obvious. I would have loved to see people such as Rieko Kodama and Manami Matsumae interviewed. Thankfully, as advertised within the book, an interview with Mayumi Nishimura is incoming with a later volume.
When it comes right down to it The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers is a monumental book that lovers of video games simply need to read. There are many smaller issues I have with it, but at the same time it is impossible to hide its many achievements. My hope is to see Volume 2 better edited but even if that isn’t the case I’m still looking forward to it. If the first volume was any indication then the next will be another must-have filled to the brim with amazing interviews of wonderful developers.