Arcade clerk, translator, book author, game design educator, manga collaborator, magazine journalist, prolific strategy guide writer, movie script writer, and developer of numerous games including Paladin's Quest, its sequel Lennus II, Legend of Legaia, and the FEAR. Hidenori Shibao was the embodiment of a modern day philosopher-bard whose works - hundreds of varied works - transcended media boundaries. It doesn't matter what game system you hold allegiance to, the industry has lost someone we could all learn from.
In this special tribute piece, video game historian John Szczepaniak talks about meeting Shibao to interview him for the Untold History of Japanese Game Developers series, which has now been published in its entirety.
A few days ago I read about Hidenori Shibao passing away - the news broke on Tuesday 3rd April, and it hit me like a punch in the gut. It would be disingenuous to say we were friends in the traditional sense; after all, I had met the man only once in Tokyo, on 2nd November 2013, where I interviewed him for a mere three-and-a-half hours. But I tremendously respected his views and creative output, while his insights into the industry are of great value.
Hidenori Shibao was the first backer of my Untold History of Japanese Game Developers project, pledging his support mere seconds after the campaign went live; we had chatted via email and social media about the nature of the Japanese games industry, games journalism, and the importance of documenting history. His 16 page interview was published in Volume 3 of my books on 21st February. After receiving a complimentary copy he posted about it across social media, and about a month later he passed away.
Born on 12th December 1962 in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, he'd celebrated his 55th birthday only a few months earlier. It highlights the fragility of human existence. Japan has the highest average life expectancy in the world, and for men it's just over 80 years - statistically, Mr Shibao left us a quarter of a century too early.
Currently this is his last published interview, but the fact it took five years to come out has left me with some guilt. Of course Mr Shibao was no stranger to long and difficult projects. His sequel to Paladin's Quest on Super Famicom, Lennus II, stretched from two to four years with no guarantee it would ever be finished or published.
Once he had Volume 3 we joked that it was like my own Lennus II.
HS: What was really bad was that before Lennus II, when I was writing strategy guides for Super Famicom games, I was 26-years-old and making 20 million yen a year. But once I switched to working full-time on Lennus II, my salary for the last few years dropped to 2 million yen a year. That really hurt! <laughs>
J: Quite a difficult chapter in your life.
HS: Not quite as difficult as my divorce. <laughs> But when we finally finished Lennus II - and we weren't sure that we ever would - it was extremely satisfying. One of my favourite film directors is Terry Gilliam, but watching his movies fail one after another really comforted me at the time. Like, "this is no big deal!"
It's a strange feeling to have interviewed someone no longer with us. As the vessel for their thoughts, their memories, in many ways their philosophical legacy, you take on the responsibility of safeguarding their gift to the world. We're fortunate that Hidenori Shibao so meticulously documented his work online, but of course it's all in Japanese, and having spoken with him it's clear he had much to share. Plus someday that URL will expire and then the memories will exist only on the Wayback Archives.
Below find a selection of memorable quotes from Hidenori Shibao, describing his introduction to the industry, highlights from his career, plus his views on key topics.
J: Rather than games, you studied law at Waseda University?
HS: I think it was 1982. <laughs> That would be an extremely long story! Actually, when I got into Waseda, I wanted to study literature. But I failed the entrance exam and couldn't get into the literature program. The law program is harder to get into, but I did manage to get into it, and thought learning about lawyers and the law would be interesting. But once I was in the program, it could not have been less interesting! <laughs> So I studied the law for my first year, but by my second year started to get more interested in writing and editing, and was spending most of my time in part-time jobs related to that. I was also working on books myself - the first one, which was connected to my work, was about famous mansions in Japan, and I travelled all over the country getting materials. None of that had anything to do with law, of course.
In Japanese colleges, you join a circle - like a club. I joined the Waseda Mystery Club, which was focused around detective and science-fiction novels. The senior members there would graduate and go to work for major publishers and get on various editorial boards, and they were able to send a lot of work my way. I had contacts at Shogakukan, Shueisha, Kodansha - all the big, famous Japanese publishers.
J: At some point you were also a manga writer?
HS: I did do a little work on original manga, but only a little. I worked with the manga writer Hiroshi Takahashi a number of times, like on this combination manga strategy book. <holds it up> I've worked on manga related to games - I have a lot of friends who work on manga, and co-workers, and I've collaborated with them on coming up with ideas, sometimes as credited work, sometimes not. But you know, when I write design documents like these, sometimes I have to draw little pictures, and then I just want to kill myself. <laughs> I'm so bad at it.
J: Did you work on anything before Paladin's Quest?
HS: I did work on a game before that. When I was 26 or 27, Pioneer had the Carrozzeria Car Navigation System, and there was talk of using it for things beyond navigation, like maybe some sort of voice-based game you could play as you drove. I gave a presentation for a game idea, a quiz game I designed that you could play as you drive, similar to Trivial Pursuit. The navigation system's voice would ask the questions and whoever is in the passenger seat would press the buttons.
And also Sharp had a sort of digital notebook thing... Like a digital address book, basically, that had software on small card-style cartridges. It was very limited in functionality, but I designed some software for it, like one that told fortunes, and a very simple English conversation tool. And that led to me getting the job with Asmik, who published Paladin's Quest. My in with Asmik was, once again, a friend who was a fellow member of the Waseda Mystery Club. He had wanted to start a game studio and he asked me if I had any ideas, so I created a bunch of proposals for him.
J: In England and America there's been controversy regarding games journalism. A publisher sends free games to a magazine to review, and they also advertise in the magazine. So there's an inherent conflict of interest.
HS: As someone who has been both a journalist and a creator, I can appreciate both sides of this. You know, I was hoping the internet would provide more diversity of opinions, but it's really been quite the opposite.
I really only know about Japan, but games in Japan are quite expensive, and the users here are extremely concerned about getting ripped off... So they just end up focusing in on the scores and ignoring the textual part of reviews that would potentially give them a better idea if they'd like it or not. I think that's really become a problem. It's definitely a different world than it was back then, in terms of that sort of information, and it's hard to say which was better.
J: You know Metacritic? It averages scores from English magazines. One infamous example, Fallout: New Vegas, the developer missed receiving a publisher bonus because their average was short one point.
HS: Food is a great analogy for that. Some people like spicy foods, and some people hate them. But if something was truly delicious, yet spicy, it would lose points on Metacritic because of all the people who dislike spicy things. Movies have the same sort of issue, with Rotten Tomatoes, so I guess that's just how it is nowadays.
J: I was fascinated by Lennus, or Paladin's Quest, after reading Zack Wood's Gamasutra article on it and "sekaikan".
HS: I was one of the early developers to really prioritise sekaikan. Nowadays in Japan, though, the term is considered something of a cliché, and I'm a little reluctant to use it! Mechanically, this game, Lennus, has things in common with other RPGs of the time, but I wanted the world to be one that players wouldn't have experienced in any other game…
When it came to Legend of Legaia, we had a big fight about this. You know how there's signs in front of, say, an inn, right? But Japanese and English don't exist in that world. I guess you could rationalise it as saying the sign said "inn" in Legaian and it's been translated into English, but I wanted the sign to show a bed, or a moon, or a lamp or something. But the staff just wrote "inn" on the sign in English letters. I fought hard to get that changed, and to this day, I wish I'd put my foot down. When I'm creating a world, I'm really a stickler for avoiding familiar words and concepts when writing character names, or monster names and such.
J: You mentioned Legaia earlier, tell me about it.
HS: Another regret I have with Legend of Legaia - maybe my biggest regret - is the anime-style voices in the battle scenes. I despise them! But I was told that we needed it for marketing purposes, or something like that. So whenever I would play the game to debug or balance it, I'd always turn them off. I really hated them. The text I don't mind so much, but the voices...
This is an aspect of Japanese game development I'm not fond of. There are so many things you "have to have". You have to have battle voices. You have to have a moe character. It makes it hard to create anything original. There's always a lot of: "Well, this is very popular, so you have to have this." It ends up feeling like everything's a copy of such-and-such anime, or such-and-such game, and I find that terribly disappointing.
J: I believe on a lot of projects you weren't credited?
HS: An example of a game I'm not credited on is Toro Station, which is a download-only game for PlayStation platforms, featuring the character from Mainichi Isshou. As a writer on it, I wrote the scenario, and some of the news that Toro conveys. It's probably okay to talk about that. The service has been discontinued now, but you can still see videos of it on YouTube.
J: With games, a player interacts. There's debate about whether games should be for storytelling, like books and film, or if it should create its own unique interactive language and not worry about other media. Having written a movie screenplay and developed games, your thoughts?
HS: When I was in second grade, there was a World's Fair in Osaka. When people ask what videogames are like, particularly role-playing games, I always think the World's Fair is the closest comparison. We never encountered foreigners in our normal life, but at the World's Fair, there they were! And there are all these little pavilions you can visit, and each one is like another country, offering a completely different experience... Meanwhile in role-playing games you travel the world, visiting a variety of towns, and dungeons, and having adventures. And I think those are very similar experiences. At the expo, you're asking, "What can I get to eat in here?" and in games you're asking, "What sort of magic can I get in here?"...
J: So would you say you're sceptical about the current trend of open-world games?
HS: In Japan, we talk a lot about "otsukaigata",* particularly in regards to classic RPGs. You visit a town, you talk to the king, he sends you to get the golden sphere, you get the golden sphere, then onto the next town, where you talk to the next king, and so on. I've heard people call it the "seeing-eye dog era" of RPGs. But the appeal of it to creators is that you can make your players experience what you want them to.
(* Literally "errand games" - more casually known as otsukaige)
J: Where is the Japanese games industry heading?
HS: There are a lot of layers to that question. One is that, right now, smartphone games are extremely popular, and posing a major threat to Nintendo. So everyone's copying that, coming up with new ways to monetise them. But the business model isn't based on Nintendo; it's based on pachinko games, which are very popular in Japan. It's all about keeping customers playing, getting them to put in as much money as possible. Console games have been on a very different path. Should we be adding social features and using their monetisation models? Personally, I love traditional console games, and that's what I'd want to play, but realistically, it isn't practical to make something like this nowadays.
I'd like to finish this memorial by relating a conversation we had about the second sequel to Paladin's Quest which never entered development, or Lennus III as it would have been called. At the time he felt it was a bit silly to describe a never developed game so long after the fact, but given that the plans for this final instalment only ever existed in Mr Shibao's mind, it reinforces the importance of recording history while we still have the chance. That was one of the founding reasons for starting this project. And this goes not just for game development, but all industries. We live in an age where recording audio or imagery is so easy, where writable media is cheap and plentiful - sadly, what we do not have is an unlimited amount of time.
J: I've heard that Paladin's Quest / Lennus was actually meant to be a trilogy, and there was going to be a third game. What happened to it?
HS: The problem was that Lennus II, which was supposed to have a two-year development cycle, ended up taking four years to finish. It was like the entire project was cursed! Unfortunately the game didn't sell at all. It was a huge bomb, and the last thing anyone wanted to hear after that were the words "Lennus III". So Lennus III only ever existed in my head, where I had a strong sense of what the concept would be, and that's where it'll be locked away forever.
J: I'd like to document it for the world.
HS: I don't mind discussing it. I had a setting in mind but it's hard to know where to begin explaining it! Okay, "Lennus" is actually the name of a satellite of planet Raiga. Lennus II tells the story of Lennus' opposing satellite, Eltz. The setting for the third game would have been Raiga itself. The story would have provided the background for why the people of Raiga built the two satellites in the first place. It seems a little silly to be telling this story now, more than 10 years after the fact, but... Let's see... Each of the satellites had a copy of Kormu, and were created as part of a field test... Now, how should I explain this... Okay, why were they doing these tests at all? Well, the Raigans, as a people - do you know what telomeres are?
J: I do not.
HS: It's a part of the DNA in our genes that limits how many times a chromosome can reproduce, and the Raigan people are running out of time - they only have about 15 generation left. And then even if they reproduce, their children will just die. And when the people of Raiga learn that the end is near for them, one of the things they do is build these satellites, Lennus and Eltz, to experiment with new races. And that would explain why there are so many different races on these worlds, and why they're at odds with each other. Anyway, that's the background story of the series that would be uncovered during the characters' adventures in Lennus III. There were a lot more pieces that would tie it all together, of course... I wanted to deal with some issues of racism and such as well.