RPGs are often considered as a foundation block of the Japanese development industry, with the region's studios still producing a high number of these titles on a yearly basis. Whatever systems you own there are likely to be RPG titles available that were developed in Japan — especially if you have a DS or, increasingly, a 3DS — so it's an intriguing tale that places the origins of the genre in the country at the feet of a Dutchman who would go on to be co-founder of The Tetris Company. Yet that's the case with Henk Rogers.
In a fascinating article published on medium.com (originally from issue 26 of The Magazine), Rogers discusses his journey to Japan and the development of The Black Onyx. He observed that he jumped into game development with little experience and unable to speak Japanese, but saw a gap in the market for the NEC-8801 system.
There was a gap left from Dungeons and Dragons. I later found out there were a handful of people playing the game in Japan, but there was no community and certainly no cultural familiarity with the language of ‘rolling a character.’
...Next I looked at what kind of games were doing well in Japan. It was immediately obvious to me that the core difference between the two markets was that there were no computer role-playing games in Japan. The US had Ultima and Wizardry. But there were no such adventures in Japan. I thought, I could do that.
What follows is a tale of trials and tribulations, with a tight development schedule, limited hardware resources, failed business deals and early struggles in the marketplace. The turnaround came when, running out of money, Rogers introduced the concept to editors of major magazines in Japan; with the subsequent positive review coverage, it would go on to be the top-selling game in Japan for that year while also setting new standards in branding.
I sat down with each editor and asked them for their name. I typed this in and then asked them to choose the head that looked most like them. In this way I taught them how to roll a D&D character. Then I left them to play.
All computer games at that time were sold for 6,800 yen. I priced The Black Onyx at 7,800 yen and explained to retailers that, with 40 hours of gameplay, the game represented far better value for money than its rivals. More importantly, it also granted a bigger cut for the store.
It [a plastic, rather than cardboard, case] made the game appear more valuable. It was something people would keep out, on display; their friends would see the game and ask about it.
The Black Onyx would eventually be released as Super Black Onyx on the Famicom (the original NES in Japan), with improved gameplay and new maps, but it didn't take long for Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest to arrive, which took the foundations laid by Rogers' game and improved on them in ways he couldn't.
I was flattered on one hand. But I also realized that I didn’t quite understand the Japanese aesthetic and way. These games were quite different to mine, and just struck a more effective cultural chord.
Rogers continued to show a good eye for opportunity, however, securing early rights for Tetris on Nintendo hardware and co-founding The Tetris Company. Looking back on The Black Onyx, however, he best typifies how some bold, perhaps reckless, decisions helped him to achieve success and kick-start a genre.
If I think back on that journey, thirty years later, it’s like a ludicrous dream. It was the kind of project that’s so unlikely to work you’d only attempt it when you’re young and brave and stupid.