Chunsoft 30th Anniversary – 2014 Developer Interview

Chunsoft 30th Anniversary – 2014 Interview

Chunsoft founder Kouichi Nakamura reflects on thirty years of game development in the first part of a lengthy interview with Famitsu, conducted in commemoration of Chunsoft’s 30th anniversary. Nakamura offers plenty of insight into Chunsoft’s varied catalog, from mainstream hits like Dragon Quest and the Mystery Dungeon series to their early forays into self-publishing and Nakamura’s own history as a prodigious hobbyist developer. Stay tuned for part II!

—I’d like to begin by saying congratulations on Chunsoft’s 30th anniversary! In honor of this occasion, I’ve brought a boatload of Chunsoft and Chunsoft-related games here…

Nakamura: Whoa, amazing! Hah, you’ve even got Tetris+Bombliss there. (laughs) It makes me really happy to be greeted like this—most people aren’t aware that we developed that game! (laughs)

—It’s a legendary game. (laughs)

Nakamura: Now that I think I about it, in a certain sense, that may be true. Especially when you consider all the amazing people like Tsunekazu Ishihara (of Pokemon fame) who were involved.

—Can you tell us how Tetris 2 + Bombliss came to be? I realize we’re taking an immediate digression here, but… (laughs)

Nakamura: (laughs) It started when Ishihara played Tetris for the first time, on his computer I believe, and really fell in love with it. He did a bunch of research and learned that it was made by someone in the Soviet Union. Ishihara was planning to go to the Soviet Union to secure the rights, but he discovered that Henk Rogers (creator of The Black Onyx) of Bullet Proof Software (BPS) had just beat him to the punch and got the rights. Ishihara also met with Alexey Pajitnov (the creator of Tetris) when he came to Japan. He learned some greetings and basic expressions in Russian too. (laughs)

—He sounds like Tetris’ number one fan. (laughs) But you’re right, all those famous people… it’s amazing.

Nakamura: BPS then released a port of Tetris on the Famicom, but the controls in that version didn’t allow you to rotate the tetromino pieces while dropping them—it only allowed for “hard drops”. At Chunsoft we started playing the Famicom Tetris, and by and by, the desire grew in us to create a version of Tetris that would satisfy our desires as Tetris players…

Ishihara was so obsessed with Tetris that he wrote a book about it, and he gathered me and Masanobu Endo together and entreated us: “Let’s make our own Tetris game!!” That was how Tetris 2 + Bombliss got started.

Koichi Nakamura (2014)

—At the dawning of the Famicom era, with all the top aces gathered together… that’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of development.

Nakamura: Everyone was so excited about it, it felt like we were back in one of our high school clubs. (laughs) We learned a lot while creating our own Tetris game, and eventually decided to make something with our own original rules, and that was how Bombliss got added to the mix. Ah, thinking about it all now, it’s very nostalgic for me.

—Thank you for sharing such a precious story with us. How does it feel now to be celebrating 30 years of Chunsoft?

Nakamura: Seeing this list of all the games we’ve made over the years, 30 years seems like quite a long time, and yet it also went by so quickly… when I look at that list, and all the things we’ve done, I’m also filled with a lot of pride.

—Yes, you were very busy those 30 years!

Nakamura: Yeah, we were active from the era of the PC-8001, the dawn of the home pc/console era. We were right there at the start of it all.

—I understand that programming was originally a hobby of yours, which eventually led you into designing your own games.

Nakamura: Indeed, it all begin for me with the game submissions I sent to magazines like I/O, so while it may be 30 years for Chunsoft, if you include the time I made games in high school before establishing the company, it would be more like 34 or 35 years that I’ve been making games.

—Back then, in high school, did you believe such a long career making games was your future?

Nakamura: At the time, I wasn’t thinking this would be a long-term thing. My goal in those days was just to try and re-create, on my computer, something that resembled the games I had played at the game center. Later, with the release of the Famicom and other home consoles, I realized it would now be possible to play arcade-quality games in the comfort of your home. But, to be honest, when I look at smart phone games and modern consoles, and how much power they contain in such a small device—it’s really all the more amazing to me, having lived through and experienced the early PC days.

—When did you decide that you were going to make a living as a game designer?

Nakamura: Since my high school days.

—And you stuck with that dream the whole way.

Nakamura: Yeah. Since high school, I knew I wanted to join a game company, or create a game company like Namco.

—Namco, that makes sense.

Nakamura: Well, it’s because at the game centers back then, Namco’s games really shined. (laughs)

—It’s quite the bold ambition to want to start your own company like that. Were you more inclined toward the administration and management side, or the creator side?

Nakamura: I wouldn’t say I never thought about practical administrative things, but I wasn’t very conscious of it. My love for games was the starting point for me, and from there I gradually became obsessed with creating them myself.

—The programming, too, has made so much progress since those early days of BASIC and Cobol.

Nakamura: I no longer understand modern programming languages very well. (laughs) It was around the Famicom that I started moving away from programming, and into other roles.

—Yes, I understand you started working on the business side of things more starting around the SFC/N64/PS1 era.

Nakamura: Yeah. I believe I worked as a programmer up to Otogirisou. After that I shifted toward producer and director roles.

—I’d like to trace back some of that history, using this chronology and list we’ve got here to identify some of the key “turning points” for Chunsoft. And the first turning point I can see, was when you first established Chunsoft as a company. You were still in college, then?

Nakamura: That’s right.

—What led up to you deciding to start Chunsoft then?

Nakamura: Since high school, I had always thought I would go to Tokyo and start a game company. When I actually did make it to Tokyo and began college, I started talking about those plans with my friends. So four or five of us started using my apartment as our office, where we made games like Door Door mk II and Newtron.

Nakamura’s earliest original games, Door Door and Newtron.

Then we said, hey, why don’t we try and register as an official corporation and rent out an office, even if it’s a single room. It was just before I was going into my second year of college, during spring break, that we went around with a realtor and found a good place, and Chunsoft was officially established that April.

—Are any of those original founding members still working at Chunsoft?

Nakamura: The only ones left are myself and Kazuhiko Nakanishi (Chunsoft Product PR manager).

—I imagine many people from this generation don’t know the origins of the “Chunsoft” name… would you mind explaining it again here?

Nakamura: You’re probably right. (laughs) I liked mahjong in high school, and played it a lot. One of my friend’s nicknames for me was “Chun”, from the mahjong tile. We used that name for the main character “Chun-kun” in Door Door. That game turned out to be a hit, and we thought it was a good omen, so we chose Chunsoft as our company name.

—After establishing Chunsoft, the Famicom came out. What was your first impression of it?

Nakamura: I thought “This is amazing!” I believe the first game for the Famicom was Donkey Kong. I remember being shocked when I saw it: I couldn’t believe you could now play an arcade-quality game at home, at that price!

—And did you think you wanted to get into Famicom development yourself?

Nakamura: I did, yeah. I was imagining all the cool things we’d be able to do with it.

—The first Famicom game you made was a port of Door Door, and then came The Portopia Serial Murder Case only 4 months later. Including yourself, how many developers were working at Chunsoft then?

Nakamura: We had three or four programmers, not including me. We had one person working on graphics, generally, so about 5-6 people in total. Today it’s hard to believe we made games with so few people back then. (laughs)

—Nakamura, I imagine there are many games you like, but what game(s) would you call your starting point?

Nakamura: It would have to be the old arcade games. I played most of the famous and popular games then. The first would be Space Invaders, I think.

—Would you call Space Invaders a “formative experience” for you, then?

Nakamura: Well, before Space Invaders—even before there were game centers—I would play pinball games that were set up at the rooftop level of department stores. Also, those old gunscope games, where you pull the trigger and the tanks would go crashing down… remember those?

—Ah! Yeah, I remember them!

Nakamura: I played those, and also driving games, the ones where a steering wheel was affixed to the machine, and you’d drive these twisty paper roads that scrolled downwards. I loved those, I played them a lot.

—It sounds like you played many analogue games before the digital wave came crashing in.

Nakamura: Yeah. So before Space Invaders, there were block-breaking games, and that game where the little clown dances around popping baloons, “Circus”… I played the heck out of those too. And then, before long, we entered the era of Space Invaders… I played that game so much that I could pretty much play forever on a single credit. But there were bugs, and sometimes I’d just suddenly die for no reason.

—Hah, really?

Nakamura: There was a bug that would cause your ship to explode even though you didn’t do anything. Otherwise, though, I could play all day for 100 yen. The staff used to have to come over and tell me, “Excuse me sir, but we’re closing soon…” (laughs)


Nakamura: I guess that’s a good problem for a game center to have. (laughs) But yeah, I was that obsessed with Space Invaders.

—And how did it come about that you started using a computer to make your own games?

Nakamura: Before high school, I had no interest in computers, but in school we got to use them in class, and there was a club centered around them. It wasn’t an official school club—just a group of individual enthusiasts—but there I saw a demonstration of some Heiankyo Alien-type game. When I saw it, my thought was, “Hey, if I join these guys, I can play games every single day for free!” (laughs) That was my motivation for joining the club, and it was also my first real encounter with computers. After I joined them, one of the older students taught me programming, and I found programming to be totally fascinating—not just games, but all of it. After that I was hooked.

—That was the BASIC era.

Nakamura: Yes, though at first we learned something even simpler than BASIC… I was taught to program on a programmable calculator. You could only code 256 lines worth of information, and it was extremely slow. Your eyes could literally see it scroll through the 256 steps, line by line. If you tried to make it do something too hard, it would cause technical problems. (laughs)

—In those days you really needed to know how to optimize and simplify your code.

Nakamura: Yes. But by learning those techniques, I came to understand the inner workings of the computer on a deeper level. It was a kind of competition between us in the club, to see who could run something the fastest, or who could write a program with the fewest lines of code.

—It’s like the programming itself was a kind of game, right? And from there, you became interested in computers themselves.

Nakamura: That’s right. I remember I got a part-time job to save up money and buy a computer, but I was very confused about which computer I should buy. There was the NEC PC-8001, the Sharp MZ80, and many other choices.

The MZ was the mainstream choice then, as the NEC had only just come out, but the NEC could use color, and there was also this really popular game that had been submitted to I/O called “Geimu Kyoujin”… the guy who made that game had used an NEC computer, and I was a huge fan of his Space Invaders-clone game too. “I want to do that too!”, I thought to myself, and went with the NEC. Now that I look back on it, it was a very fateful choice… who knows how different my life would have ended up had I chose the MZ80.

—Another “turning point”, then.

Nakamura: Yeah, I think so.

These specific issues of the long-running Japanese computer magazine I/O contained several of Nakamura’s student projects, including clones of the arcade games Space Panic, Scramble and River Patrol.

—Did you start making games by manually typing in the code from those I/O submissions, then?

Nakamura: That is how I started, but before long I really wanted to make my own games, and little by little I began to write my own, real programs.

—Did you always stick with NEC computers?

Nakamura: I used NEC computers from the PC-8001 up to the 8801. At that time, my computer was hooked up to my CRT tv, so you couldn’t display a lot of text like you can today. It was limited to something like 40×20 characters. And being a tv CRT screen, it was hard to see. (laughs) So I did all my programming in black and white. For debugging, too, back then printers were still too expensive to own individually, so I had to check each line of code one-by-one as I went.

—You got to experience that very early era of no sound and no color.

Nakamura: Yeah. We counted memory in kilobytes… the words “megabyte” and “gigabyte” were unknown to us, and frankly, I think that much space would have been beyond our comprehension. (laughs)

—The size of a single e-mail today could hold countless old games.

Nakamura: I wonder how many Dragon Quests you could fit in a single iPhone photo. (laughs)

—Right, the first Dragon Quest was only 64kb. I heard you had to shave off a lot of the dialogue to make it fit.

Nakamura: We had to get rid of more than half of the katakana characters, and then we had to re-write the names of spells and towns with the remaining characters. That kind of tear-jerking work truly was the defining feature of game development in those days.

—Chunsoft worked within a diverse number of genres back then. You started with action games like Door Door and Newtron, but also did things like Portopia, an adventure game.

Nakamura: When people think of Chunsoft, I think they mostly think of Dragon Quest and our sound novel games, but originally we focused on action, or what you might call “real-time” games. And there were other games we made then, from a wide variety of genres, which never garnered much popularity.

—Were you essentially making the games that you all wanted to play yourselves, then?

Nakamura: That was part of it. Also, we’d also see an arcade game we thought looked neat, then try and re-create it “by ear”, and then submit that to the various computer magazine contests. We did that with Konami’s Scramble, for instance.

—It seems like those programming competitions were really a defining feature of that era. I’d like to circle back now and ask about the creation of Door Door… your meeting with Enix was another fateful turning point, was it not?

Nakamura: Yeah. Right when I started my third year of high school, Enix held a computer programming contest. The NEC PC-98 had just come out, but it cost around 300,000 yen (3000 USD), which was too expensive for a high school student. There was an NEC shop near my house, and one day the owner handed me an Enix flyer for the contest, saying “Nakamura, if you win this contest the prize is 1,000,000 yen (10,000 USD).” And the game I created for that contest was Door Door.

—Wow, you just created it all of a sudden like that!

Nakamura: Back then, copyright with computer games was murkier than it is today, and my first thought was to make a knock-off of Namco’s Dig Dug, which I was really into at the time. However, the idea of just creating an imitation started to bug me, and people around me told me that if I was going to submit something to Enix, I might as well aim for an original game. Of course it seems obvious now that I think back on it. (laughs) So I started to think about how I could translate the appeal of Dig Dug into a different form, and Door Door was the result.

—Ah, that makes sense. The rocks in Dig Dug are kind of like the doors you open in Door Door…

Nakamura: Yeah. It’s the same basic concept, of herding enemies to defeat them.

—You were awarded the runner-up prize for Door Door. I believe the first place prize went to Kazuo Morita, the creator of “Morita Shogi”.

Nakamura: Yeah. He didn’t win for his shogi game though—it was actually a war simulation game he submitted, “Morita Battlefield.”

—That contest was your connection to Enix… and I believe Yuji Horii also submitted a game.

Nakamura: Horii submitted a tennis game called “Love Match Tennis”… I’m surprised I still remember the title, especially seeing as I have a hard time remembering the titles of most recent games. (laughs)

Morita’s Battlefield (PC-8801) and Love Match Tennis (PC-6001) from Enix’s 1st Game & Hobby Program Contest, authored by Kazurou Morita (1955-2012) and Yuji Horii and awarded the best program award and judges’ choice award, respectively.

—(laughs) You also met Enix producer Yukinobu Chida then, which led to the formation of the core Dragon Quest team.

Nakamura: Yeah, though Koichi Sugiyama and Akira Toriyama joined later. As for Horii, he originally ran a reader-submission column in Weekly Shonen Jump, and while he contributed to this contest anonymously, he came to the award ceremony in his capacity as an editor/journalist.

—Was it there that you started talking about making a game together?

Nakamura: No, it didn’t happen right away. Later, after Chunsoft made Newtron, the Famicom came out, and we ported Door Door for it. In due course we approached Enix about porting Newtron as our second Famicom title. However, in those talks, Enix expressed a preference for a more adult-oriented title, and suggested we make some kind of adventure game next.

I said I was worried about our ability to make a good adventure game given the memory constraints of the Famicom, but Chida suggested The Portopia Serial Murder Case, which could work because it only had 20 pictures. From there we met with Yuji Horii, who was the scenario writer for Portopia. That game was the first project Horii and I worked together on.

—So porting Portopia to the Famicom was a vital link in the chain, then.

Nakamura: I didn’t know if we’d actually be able to make Portopia work on the Famicom, but we employed a lot of tricks with the graphics and text and somehow pulled it off. Now that I think back on it, Portopia too was a pretty impressive feat given the space limitations.

—Portopia became a very famous game. That meme about Yasu1 is still popular online today…

Nakamura: There was no internet back then, but Portopia steadily spread by word-of-mouth. Chida had a producer-like role and tied everything up, while Horii wrote the scenario, and Chunsoft did all the programming.

—Did you do the programming yourself?

Nakamura: Yes, for Portopia, I programmed everything. That was also true with Door Door, and for the first Dragon Quest (everything excluding the music).

—All of it?!

Nakamura: That’s how things worked back then. (laughs) Though starting with Dragon Quest II, I did less.

—That makes sense though, considering what a jump in volume/content there was from DQ1 to DQ2 and beyond.

Nakamura: There was a question I was asked earlier for another interview, about what has been the biggest challenge during these 30 years with Chunsoft, and the hardest period, I feel, was the making of Dragon Quest II. (laughs)

—Given your 30 year history, that’s surprisingly early! Can you tell us more about that time?

Nakamura: As I mentioned above, I had worked with teams before, but our roles were always clearly defined, and everyone worked on their parts independently, more or less. But with Dragon Quest II, for the first time we had 3 or 4 different people working on the programming. It was my first time working together with others like that, and in the beginning we had a really hard time deciding the things that needed to be decided, and we began without really having a meeting of the minds, and this caused all kinds of problems. Halfway into the development bugs started cropping up and things suddenly started going awry, but no one knew in whose portion of the programming the bugs resided. None of us were true “professionals” then—we still had one foot in the student world—so everyone started blaming everyone else” “This is your fault!!“, and it created a hostile atmosphere in the development.

Honestly, during that project, I spent more time mediating between conflicts than I did debugging. (laughs) And because of all that, the release date got delayed. The finished game also had a lot of balance issues, despite how much of a struggle it was… it was such a disaster that I actually thought about quitting altogether.

Dragon Quest II featured a cross-promotion event with idol Anna Makino, whose debut single “Only Lonely Boy (Love Song Sagashite)” was written by Koichi Sugiyama and is present in the game in chiptune form; players could win Enix Famicom software and autographed goods by finding “Utahime Anna” within the game and mailing a photograph of their screen to the specified address.

—Wow, it was that bad…

Nakamura: Yeah. However, at the same time, when I was asked what the best experience I’ve had in my 30 years at Chunsoft was, I can also point to the release day of Dragon Quest II, when we saw people standing in those amazingly long lines to purchase the game.

—It was a huge hit.

Nakamura: It caused such a commotion that it got featured on the news. I was so happy.

—It felt like the popularity of Dragon Quest took a huge jump from DQ1 to DQ2.

Nakamura: From our perspective as developers, when we played the finished version of DQ1, we all thought it was really well done, the balance was good, and we were convinced “this is going to be huge!” However, despite steady sales, it didn’t have the impact we had hoped for, and in light of that, when DQ2 exploded, I was a little surprised: “wow, so many people are playing a game that is this difficult…”. I still feel that way today. (laughs)

—Yeah, that whole area around Rhone was really hard…

Nakamura: The Defeat spell is a real nightmare. (laughs)

—Even you think so too! (laughs)

Nakamura: Everyone did. (laughs) I thought it was brutal when I actually played it myself. And yet, perhaps it’s partly that challenge that contributed to the series’ growth in popularity, as everyone was talking about it. And back then you couldn’t just look up solutions online.

—DQ2 came out very shortly after the first game, too. You said it was delayed, but even then, it was less than a year between them. That seems unbelievably fast to me.

Nakamura: And yet we were constantly told “you’re late!” (laughs)

—How the times change. (laughs) How did things change around you, after DQ2 became a big hit?

Nakamura: At the development office, that final push was a crazy and chaotic time. But once the development was over, it took about 2 months for the carts to be produced and released commercially. So by the time they went on sale, at Chunsoft we were already in the middle of planning our next project. Thanks in part to that timing, I remember feeling a gap between our feelings as developers and the public excitement when Dragon Quest II was actually released.

—I see. That’s another feature of the cartridge era, no doubt. Well, I want to ask more about the Dragon Quest series, but I’d also like to move on to our next “turning point”…

Nakamura: Yeah, at this rate, we’ll never get past the early days of Chunsoft. (laughs)

—I think the next turning point, then, would be when Chunsoft become a publisher with Otogirisou. That game was released before Dragon Quest V, but the decision to become a bonafide publisher came earlier. How long had you been thinking about going that route?

Nakamura: I think more than wanting to be a publisher per se, we just wanted to make our own original games. Unfortunately, with each successive Dragon Quest game, the scope of the developments kept getting bigger, longer, and requiring more and more staff… there was no free time for us to work on our own game. However, once the Super Famicom came out, we took that as our cue: “if we’re going to become a publisher, it’s now or never.” Masanobu Endo had actually just created his company Game Studio for the same purpose, so we talked things over, and we decided to both approach Nintendo at the same time about licensing.

Otogirisou (弟切草, 1992), Chunsoft’s first self-published game, as well as the first game to bear the “sound novel” tag.

—You went together?

Nakamura: Yeah, I remember it well.

—And then Otogirisou was the first game Chunsoft published under their own name, in 1992.

Nakamura: Nintendo was very enthusiastic and readily gave their approval, and we had wanted to release something earlier… however, we were busy assisting Enix with Dragon Quest V, so we couldn’t get anything started any earlier. When the time came, we asked ourselves what we could make that wouldn’t be too time-consuming in terms of programming and graphics, and the “sound novel” was our answer.

—I see. Otogirisou definitely has a lot of volume to it, but structurally it is a simple game, for sure.

Nakamura: Yeah. Of course, that wasn’t our only reason for choosing sound novels. The Super Famicom could do far more realistic sounds than the Famicom, even voice sampling, and we thought the sound novel would be a good format to capitalize on those new features.

—You showed an early prototype of Otogirisou at the Nintendo Space World event, and there were no background graphics at all at that time.

Nakamura: That’s right. Originally, the background was just a textured page (like from a book) with text, with the occasional animation like lightning or a car coming at you. However, when we announced the game, our marketing partners weren’t thrilled. “I get what you’re going for, but it’s going to be very hard to sell like this.” The gaming magazines said the same, that it would be hard for them to feature. (laughs) Partly for that reason, we added about 20 different backgrounds that change depending on the scene.

—Being a new genre, I can imagine it was difficult for people to evaluate. It strikes me as very ambitious, though, for a new publisher to come out the gates with a brand new genre!

Nakamura: Yeah, I don’t know. People have said that to me a lot, but if you look back at the very beginning of video games, for me, the conception of “genre” didn’t exist. Take action games, for example: within that label you had shooting games, you had stuff like Pac Man and Dig Dug, and you had more puzzle-y games too. It was very diverse. On the same note, with adventure games, there were Ascii Magazine’s games like Ometesandou Adventure and Minamiseizan Adventure, which were pure text adventures… but you also had things like Mystery House, which had a few pictures, or war simulation games like Fleet Commander. I played all those, and while I recognized there were many different types of games, I never thought about it in terms of genres.

—Ah, those games you mentioned… so much nostalgia. (laughs)

Nakamura: (laughs) There was one point in particular that we really wanted to challenge ourselves on, with Otogirisou. Despite the fact that Dragon Quest had been such a hit, I had friends and family members who hadn’t really played it much, and when I asked them why, they told me things like “It’s hard to read because it’s all hiragana” or “I can’t figure out how to use the controller.” I thought I would like to try creating a game that allowed those kinds of people the opportunity to experience games and get used to using a controller.

To that end, a game where all you had to do was read would be best—the controls, too, would be simple and only require you to select from different choices. It would be a game where you could enjoy the twists and turns of a good story, and that way, you wouldn’t need good reflexes, and it should be something that the aforementioned people could play.

As for the hiragana issue, the Super Famicom hardware allowed us to use kanji script, and that was huge. Furthermore, based on my own experience, I felt like the text adventure genre didn’t really have a good showing on the current consoles, and I wanted to change that. Otogirisou, then, was the solution I came up for all those various problems.

—How were the sales?

Nakamura: We initially shipped out 120,000 units. At the time I remember wishing we had sold a little more (laughs), but Otogirisou had a really long tail, and we kept delivering extra shipments of 10 or 20,000 at a time, and ultimately it sold over 300,000. In the beginning, especially, it was often sold out, and people began to talk about it as this mysterious game: “I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never seen it in stores…” Maybe it helped contribute to the scariness. (laughs)

—Right, like an urban legend. (laughs) So then, after Otogirisou, you made Dragon Quest V, and about a year and half later, you released Torneko no Daibouken.

Nakamura: After Dragon Quest V, we moved away from the Dragon Quest series, which was part of our resolution to develop our own independently published games.

—Deciding to part ways with such a huge development as Dragon Quest—that seems like another incredibly fateful decision… did you ever have second thoughts about it?

Nakamura: We really wanted to make our own games, our way, and we had already made five Dragon Quest games so we felt a little burned out on it by then, like we’d given all we could. So there wasn’t a lot of wavering there.

Torneko no Daibouken’s graphics and interface were ever-so-slightly more accessible than its progenitor, 1980’s Unix-made Rogue.

—Torneko uses Rogue as its base (as do the Fushigi no Dungeon games), and just as Chunsoft’s sound novels forged a new genre, I believe Torneko was the beginning of “roguelike” games on home consoles.

Nakamura: The Fushigi no Dungeon games have all been produced by my colleague Seiichiro Nagahata. He loved Rogue and used to play it all day long. I remember when he showed me Rogue: “Look at how fun this game is! Let’s make a game like this next!” However, the first time I played it, I had no idea what the hell was going on. (laughs) I especially remember having no idea what the different items did. I was stuck for 2 or 3 days, not knowing what to do. Then, at some point I obtained two of the same item, and by using one of them I was able to identify and remember what it did. Once I realized that was the appeal of the game—figuring out what everything did on your own—I was hooked.

—The original Rogue only used alphanumeric symbols, so it was really difficult to get a grasp on. (laughs) The ‘@’ symbol was used for the hero.

Nakamura: Exactly. (laughs) And ‘!’ was used for potions.

—Players today would be shocked to see it, I think. (laughs) Why did you use the Torneko character when you decided to bring the Rogue genre to consoles…?

Nakamura: Compared with mainstream RPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, I felt the rules for Rogue—including the system wherein you lose all your equipment, money, and levels when you die—were a little hard for new players to understand.

I thought we should at least let players know the names of items and monsters, and as we thought further about how to make it easier to grasp, we started to think that using Dragon Quest characters might be the best way to achieve that. Then we asked which Dragon Quest character would be most appropriate… if we made Torneko the hero, it would be easy for players to understand the goal of collecting items and treasure. So we asked Yuji Horii and he gave us his permission, and Torneko no Daibouken was born.

—Torneko no Daibouken was a surprise hit.

Nakamura: Yes, it was. Naturally the influence of Dragon Quest was a big part of that, I think.

—Looking at Chunsoft’s games from this point onwards, I get the sense you had two teams working: one for sound novels, and one for the Fushigi no Dungeon series. Your next sound novel, Kamaitachi no Yoru, was a huge hit. This was the start of a long relationship between Chunsoft and Kamaitachi no Yoru’s scenario writer Abiko Takemaru (the mystery writer for the Hayamisankyoudai series).

Nakamura: Yeah. We worked with him on many, many games after this. (laughs)

—Do you mind if I ask how you met him?

Nakamura: A lot of the feedback postcards we got for Otogirisou asked us to do a mystery game next. So we sent out letters to about 20 different popular mystery writers: “We’re making something called a ‘sound novel’, would you be interested in writing for us?” Abiko sent us a reply, saying he had played and liked Otogirisou, and so we invited him to work with us on our next game.

—Ah, real letters… that really sends me back. Abiko worked with you on the sequels to Kamaitachi no Yoru, but he also helped out on TRICKxLOGIC, I believe.

Nakamura: This year is the 20th anniversary of Kamaitachi no Yoru, so it’s been a 20-year long working relationship.

—When you were making Kamaitachi no Yoru, did you have the sense it would be a hit?

Nakamura: Actually, it was kind of thanks to Famitsu, but you guys printed some columns that ranked people’s excitement for new games, and Kamaitachi no Yoru kept climbing up… it made me think, “This is going to be a hit!” (laughs)

—Thank you. (laughs) People have different things they remember about Kamaitachi no Yoru, but for me personally, I remember how one of the side-stories began with the spooky text “Press Reset…” That really got my heart racing. That kind of a trick felt characteristically Chunsoft.

Nakamura: I remember that was something Abiko suggested. He asked “Can we do something like this?” If I remember, he asked if the hardware could recognize if the system had been reset, and I answered that it could. He actually only began writing that side-scenario after he learned that trick was possible.

—Normally the reset button is something you’re not supposed to press, so I was super nervous. Well then, one year later, you put out the first game of your flagship series, Shiren the Wanderer. Why did you decide on creating a game with an original character, as opposed to making a direct sequel to Torneko?

Nakamura: When Nethack came out, it was an evolution on Rogue, and allowed for thrilling new actions like being able to steal from the shops inside dungeons. We wanted to replicate that excitement with our next roguelike game. But Torneko was a merchant and it would be weird for him to steal. On top of that, there were a lot of items and monsters in the Dragon Quest universe that didn’t translate very well to a roguelike setting, so we decided we’d write a brand new scenario, and that became Shiren.

To be Continued in Part II… Coming Soon!

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  1. “Han’nin wa Yasu!” (“Yasu’s the culprit!”), a ubiquitous pop-culture spoiler popularized in part by famous comedian Beat Takeshi, who played and spoiled Portopia live on his All Night Nippon! radio show in early 1986. While that exact phrase is not present in the game itself, it’s become a stock response with regards to murder mysteries, as well as other spoilers that precede any other knowledge about a given topic.

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