You may recall that last year, veteran games journalist John Szczepaniak raised enough money through Kickstarter to travel to Japan and interview a wealth of games industry professionals for his book, The Untold History Of Japanese Game Developers.
Well he also took a video camera along with him on the trip and has just released a DVD documentary of the same name, which functions not only as a companion to the book but also as teaser for it.
I received a copy of the DVD this week and have to say that it’s a fantastic independent documentary. At 4 hours in length and covering a wide variety of nerdy topics, this isn’t a film for the casually interested games player but, if you’re reading this blog then I’d say you’ll find lots here to interest you – not least because the awesome Yoshiro Kimura puts in an appearance.
A travel documentary for gamers
In my emails with John I’ve described his DVD as a “travel documentary for gamers”. By which I mean that part of its appeal lies in the way it follows the author on his ambitious journey across Japan and into the heart of the obscure. As a backer of his Kickstarter project I see the film as an opportunity to tread in his footsteps for 4 hours and see what it was like to put the book together. To see him staying in traditional ryokans, to eat dinner with ageing Japanese game designers or walk through the shops of Nakano Broadway is a rare treat – even for someone who has been to Japan several times.
One highlight of the film is when John and his compatriots visit the now abandoned engineering facility of Hudson, where the Bomberman creators worked on hardware projects like the PC Engine’s Beecards. Did you know that Hudson’s plant had a miniature steam engine that ran on rails in and above the offices of the plant, like a monorail, and was big enough for the staff to ride on? I didn’t and it’s amazing to see this forgotten piece of gaming history for real – something I would probably never do on a simple holiday.
A portal into an alternate gaming dimension
The above sentence is another one that I’ve used to describe John’s DVD to him. As much as I know about videogames after more than 30 years playing them and nearly 15 years working in them, this documentary has opened my eyes to a history that has largely gone uncovered in the west. You see this in some of the games discussed in the interview – such as Misty Blue, an amazing looking anime adventure game made by Streets of Rage composer Yuzo Koshiro – as well as in those that John encounters when he visits a shop that sells old Japanese PC games.
As well documented as the console business of Japan has been, I really feel that Japanese PC games are all but lost in many cases and this film highlights just how much could be done to bring these forgotten but no less interesting games under the spotlight – particularly in the segment that shows John visiting the Game Preservation Society to see how these games are being archived and preserved before their magnetic discs degrade to be lost forever.
The wide gulf between the western and Japanese gaming world is ironically best shown when covering western games. Throughout his journey, John makes the effort to offer each of his interviewees a special gift and in many cases these gifts take the form of one of that person’s games converted to a western micro-computer like the Commodore 64 or the ZX Spectrum. In almost every case the designers are shocked to see a very different interpretation of their own game and one even reveals that he had no idea there were people playing his games outside Japan in the Eighties.
To me this shows just how much work there is still to do in documenting international gaming history and makes me appreciate efforts like the Untold History of Japanese Game Developers even more.
Yoshiro Kimura and real human beings
Of most interest to anyone reading this blog will of course be the section in which John visits the home of Yoshiro Kimura. Solid information about Lovedelic is pretty hard to come by so I found it fascinating to see Kimura draw a map of the old Lovedelic office from memory, detailing where all of the 13 employees sat and describing how the office manager would cook at least one meal for them every working day. It sounds very cosy and completely alien to most modern game developers. There’s also a section in which John and Kimura play with a clay “potato people’ board game that Kimura built for fun last year. It’s not videogames, but it tells you so much about Kimura’s unbounded creativity.
What’s really nice about this section is that you get to see what Kimura is like as a person. You get a feel for his general demeanor, his personality… He comes across as a very warm individual – something I think is reflected in his games. And this is one of the major selling points of the DVD, in my opinion. It takes a heavily unmediated look at the real people who made classic Japanese games and makes you feel like you’re in the room there with them. These are all rich, interesting people who, partly because of the isolation of the Japanese games industry and partly because of a lack of journalism, have never been seen in an English language video before. What a treat!
Should I buy the DVD?
Short answer: Yes!
Long answer: Well it depends how interested you are in the topics. If you’re just interested in the Yoshiro Kimura section then the £40 asking price might be a little steep and I’d suggest waiting for the book which I hear will include around 30 pages covering Kimura’s interview. However, if you’re interested in all aspects of Japanese videogames and want to see an eclectic peek into its world – particularly the obscure games of the Eighties and early Nineties – then I can’t recommend the DVD enough.