The term "labour of love" is often bandied around in media circles, usually relating to a personally important project by an artist writer, and while it's possibly overused in some cases, it most certainly applies to John Szczepaniak's quest to chart the hitherto unseen history of the Japanese game development community.
It all began when Szczepaniak - an established video game journalist with years of experience to his name - decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the required funds to travel to Japan, interview some of the unsung heroes of the development community, translate their words, take photos and generally cover the cost of putting together a book and accompanying DVD. The goal of £50,000 seemed outlandish, but Szczepaniak silenced his doubters by eventually raising over £70,000. Volume 1 of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers arrived last year, and proved to be a complete and utter joy to read and digest. However, as its title suggested, it was merely the beginning; Szczepaniak had collected so much material that further volumes were required. We've finally gotten our hands on Volume 2, and it's a bittersweet experience - for reasons we'll go into shortly.
As with the previous edition, the book is made up of interviews with various Japanese game developers, most of whom will only be familiar to truly dedicated followers of gaming. Some of the interviews are with individuals, while others pull together multiple participants who served at the same company, giving a fuller picture of how each firm operated. For example, there's a lengthy section on Wonder Boy studio Westone Entertainment, with input from founder Ryuichi Nishizawa. The origins of Hudson Soft are covered in another chapter, and names such as Irem, Masaya, Falcom, NCS, Human, T&E Soft and others also appear. If you were an active import gamer during the 8 and 16-bit eras, then those firms - and the games they produced - should spring to mind quite readily.
The highlight of Volume 2 has to be the opening chapter, in which Szczepaniak interviews a series of anonymous developers under the catch-all pseudonym Hideo Nanashi. Some of the details in this chapter are so legally volatile that company names have been blanked out, and as you might expect, it's absolutely essential reading. Another shocking chapter concerns the founder of Zainsoft (also known as Xian Soft and Sein at points in its history), Takahiro Miyamoto, who is described by former employee Kensuke Takahashi as a "psychopath":
One time I kept working for nine days without any sleep. And then Miyamoto-san spotted me dozing off, and he came up behind me and kicked me as hard as he could. The desk and and myself went flying two or three meters, but I was so tired the pain didn't even register. I hit my head against the monitor hard enough to make the screen crack. But the only thing I cared about was whether the computer was working or not.
Each and every page is dripping with amazing facts and information, as well as jaw-dropping anecdotes - like the one quoted above - that could only have been unearthed during an informal, face-to-face interview. Some may have balked at Szczepaniak's insistence on actually travelling to Japan in order to speak with the developers - especially in the age of email and Skype - but by going the extra mile he has secured insight which would most likely have been lost if that human connection hadn't been made. For that, the author deserves our unreserved gratitude, as these stories might never have been told in Japanese were it not for his efforts, let alone translated into English.
The book is bursting with amazing content, including concept art, photos and other images which adorn each page, as well as a cover image exclusively illustrated by Satoshi Nakai, who worked on such titles as Cybernator, Front Mission: Gun Hazard and Gynoug. The use of imagery is more creative than it was in Volume 1 - Szczepaniak notes in his introduction that he has deliberately "abandoned stylistic consistency" because each interview subject is different. Rather than create chaos, this shift has resulted in a situation where each page has something to catch the eye and draw the reader in. Even in the monochrome edition - which we reviewed - the mixture of text and image is enticing, and an improvement over the occasionally sparse nature of the previous volume.
Now we come to the bittersweet element mentioned earlier. Volume 1 teased us with multiple "coming in the next volume" pages detailing the contents of future editions, and Volume 2 does the same - only this time around, we might not actually get to read these mooted interviews. In his intro, Szczepaniak reveals that despite his amazing efforts, sales of the first book were poor:
I fear that the intensity of my love for Japanese games caused me to incorrectly assume there must be a sufficient number of people who felt the same, thereby making these books a viable proposition.
He then goes on to beg the reader to spread the word and tell as many people as possible about the book and its predecessor. Volume 2, he asserts, cost more to make and took more time to produce than the first book, and Volume 3 can only be made if sales pick up. All of the cash raised from the sales of Volume 1 and the supplementary DVD were put into the production of this book, along with some of Szczepaniak's own money - from savings and loans. It would be a crying shame if his quest to document the history of Japan's vibrant and influential games development community ended here, so we entreat you to make a purchase - if you have even the most cursory interest in games from the Far East, then both of these books are essential reading.