Advertisement

Thanks for the memories, Konami! – A quick retrospective

by Ron Duwell | March 28, 2015March 28, 2015 10:00 am PDT

Longtime Konami fans are right to be apprehensive about its future. The rumored departure of Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima is just the latest in a long line of iconic figures who have departed while the Japanese publisher re-shifts itself to focus on free-to-play games and the booming mobile market

It sucks, but that’s just the name of the game.

Not all hope is totally lost for Konami’s style of console gaming, at least. Flashback to about the mid-2000s when Capcom closed Clover Studio and lost a good deal of its star talent. For example, Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, Devil May Cry director Hideki Kamiya, and Phoenix Wright producer Atsushi Inaba.

Those aren’t exactly creative minds you can simply replace overnight! That’s a hall-of-fame lineup from one of Japan’s most popular developers! Capcom has recently been regaining its feet with a few up-and-coming teams handling its biggest franchises, but many of these towering figures went on to form Platinum Games and Tango Gameworks to reinvigorate the spirit of old Capcom games on a more indie basis.

There is nothing stopping Hideo Kojima from doing the same. However, like Capcom’s former stars, he’ll be forced to work without the franchise he is known for. Who knows? Without the burden of the Metal Gear franchise, perhaps he could do something new!

Anybody remember Zone of the Enders or Boktai? Good stuff!

In the meantime, Konami benefits from success on the mobile market, and it is also left with a massive library of classic gaming IPs which could lead to freemium titles or pachinko machines. Let’s take a quick stroll through memory lane to look at the classics that Konami is sitting on. What happened to the series, and is there any chance we’ll see them again in the future?

Metal Gear Solid

The obvious elephant in Konami’s room is Metal Gear Solid. Many longtime Konami fans view the franchise as the final bastion of Konami as a traditional game developer, but the potential departure of creative lead Hideo Kojima and the closure of Kojima Productions have thrown the future of this oasis into a deep crisis.

Konami has buckled down on the rumors, even going so far as to commit itself to a Metal Gear game beyond the departure of Hideo Kojima. Whether or not fans buy into a new game without Kojima has yet to be seen. The man has been the creative anchor for every game in the series, and unlike a lot of directors and producers from Japan, he remains the face of the franchise in the public as well.

No upstart, young and blooming developer is going to quickly replace a legendary developer with 30 years of unique storytelling and ideas to his name. Look for Konami to try and hype them as such though.

Metal Gear was born on the MSX2 home PC in 1987 out of the console’s inability to scroll, and it was brought to America via an ugly and forgettable NES port made beyond Kojima’s reach. Most discovered the series in 1998 when Metal Gear Solid revolutionized gaming cinematics and taught the world how to use in-engine graphics to tell a story.

Since then, it’s been a wild ride of convoluted stories, highs and lows, and awkward humor.

Metal Gear Solid 2’s incredible hype all came crashing down when we found out we were actually controlling Raiden for much of the game. Metal Gear Solid 3 had Snake chewing on frogs, amazing boss battles against The Boss and The End, not to mention that excellent 007-inspired theme song.

Metal Gear Solid 4 shocked us with the reveal of Old Snake and the pistol in his mouth. Peace Walker, good enough to be a main entry in the franchise, introduced Monster Hunter battles and the hilariously effective Fulton extraction system.

All wonderful memories for good or ill. I’m not so sure if anybody other than Kojima is capable of recreating such an insane consistency, and even if they were successful, it would come off more as imitation. “Look how closely we can emulate Hideo Kojima!”

Either that or the new Metal Gear will be a freemium mobile game.

I’m not so sure if I want to play such a game. The series’ timeline has come full circle, and the time is right to cut it off. Nothing lasts forever. It’s time to close the book on Snake, Raiden and Big Boss and allow them to survive intact in our memories.

Silent Hill

While not Konami’s second most important franchise, I’ll tuck Silent Hill right under Metal Gear Solid only because it is the only other series with an immediate future that could be in jeopardy. Hideo Kojima’s departure could also spell the end of production on this promising title, and poor Guillermo del Toro might even lose another chance to release a video game!

My knowledge of Konami’s survival horror doesn’t extend far beyond the first three games. Silent Hill was first released in 1999 as Konami’s attempts to capitalize on the survival horror fad which took off with the dawn of 3D graphics and the success of Resident Evil.

Nowadays, it feels a little unplayable, but who can forget running through those blocky, dark streets with nothing but a crowbar to keep yourself safe? Harry Mason’s “agile” feet could barely get the job done!

Silent Hill hit its creative peak with the second game in the franchise on the PlayStation 2. Silent Hill 2 still holds up today as one of the finest examples of Japan’s survival horror genre with its brilliant storytelling and playability. I mean, who doesn’t like games that they can actually control? This spark of genius trickled over into Silent Hill 3, a solid game that just had to combat standards that were a bit too high.

All three capitalized on the potential of 3D at the time, creating worlds that felt genuinely creepy and that picked away at the inner turmoils of your brain rather than rely on the cheap “Boo!” moments of other survival horror franchises.

Unlike Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill doesn’t have a consistent human face to put to it. No director or producer carried over from game to game, but only writer Hiroyuki Owaku seems to be the constant in the credits. He departed after the third game, and that’s when the series started to lose its relevance.

Releases started becoming smaller and smaller with Konami aiming for handhelds and even the Wii! Because every Grandma who owned a Wii wanted to struggle through these horrific worlds of hidden sexual desire. Most recently, it was pitched to fans as a Diablo clone in Book of Memories, and I don’t think anybody even noticed let alone cared to respond negatively.

Silent Hills was supposed to be the grand return to prominence, but as we said, who knows at this point. I have suspicions that Kojima’s name was attached to the game just to generate hype, similarly to how Lord of Shadows was dealt with, so perhaps him being a bit distant won’t affect development at all.

Maybe he was more involved than I give him credit for, and his departure affects everything! At least we got a sweet demo out of it.

Castlevania

Castlevania is the last of the three “big” franchises we are going to be talking about today. The kids might see Metal Gear Solid as Konami’s defining franchise, but I would be hard pressed to ever associate Konami with another franchise more so than I do with Castlevania.

For such a defining franchise, the series comes from humble roots. It began as a forgettable Famicom Disk System game that never came to prominence until getting an accessible port on the NES. Konami turned to Universal Studio’s classic horror films to mold this game, using iconic images of bats, vampires, Frankenstein’s monsters, and mummies to see this timeless 8-bit classic. Simon Belmont’s iconic whip also provided a different mechanic from the guns NES fans typically used.

This 8-bit success carried over for the next two excellent games, peaking with the Famicom version of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Japan’s is the definitive edition of that game thanks to the VRC6 chip installed by Konami to boost the quality of its soundtrack and animation. Nintendo of America did not allow this customization of its carts in the States, and our version is sadly only “almost a masterpiece.”

Konami also hammered out Super Castlevania IV for the Super Nintendo, one of the best tech-demos of all time, but the series found its new face in 1993’s Castlevania: Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine CD when Koji Igarashi first joined the franchise. His brand of storytelling and 2D exploration would kick off in its direct sequel, the legendary Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and carry on for six more portable games across the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS. Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow are proving to be the longest lasting of that bunch.

Rondo of Blood also got an American release on the PSP with Igarashi’s remake in 2010, seventeen years a little too late.

Most fans regard this run as the series’ peak and were dismayed when it came to a crashing end. Sales were not where Konami wanted them to be, and it instead turned to the AAA 3D market to sell its vampire hunting series. Koji Igarashi was stepped over on the 3D market, since his 3D work with Castlevania proved to be fruitless, and instead, Konami tapped Spain based developer MercurySteam to rebrand the series with a AAA look.

All seemed fine for a while. Lords of Shadow launched as the best selling game in the franchise’s history. While it might not adhere to what the purists want from Castlevania, the series could have been a lot worse as a AAA sellout. MercurySteam proved that with the release of the following two Lords of Shadow games, and both games bombed so spectacularly that the franchise might never have the chance to recover.

Do we really want it to though? We already lived through Castlevania being sold to us as an empty shell just using the franchise’s name. I don’t think I could handle the pain of seeing that again.

Unless Konami repairs bridges with Koji Igarashi to put the series back on track, I would rather have the Belmonts, Alucard and Soma Cruz solely exist in a happy place in the back of my mind. No need to drag the corpse out on this one anymore unless Konami does it right.

Suikoden/Ganbare Goemon/Gradius/Contra

Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill and Castlevania might be the three biggest franchises from Konami’s history, but they are hardly the only great examples of fine game development. Its B-tier franchises are equally impressive with a solid showing that could be the star lineup of a lesser publisher.

Did you know I am a fan of the Suikoden games? It’s true! There was a time earlier this year when I couldn’t talk about anything else, but my brain has taken a bit of a break from it thanks to the revival of Final Fantasy. That won’t stop me from sharing my beloved memories here though.

Suikoden, Suikoden II, Suikoden III and Suikoden V succeed about as excellently as a B-tier JRPG franchise possibly can. We’ll throw Suikoden IV under the rug for now. Each capitalizes on the world-building of the previous game to tell fantastic war stories with a constant sense of continuity. These four games are a “must” for any JRPG fan, with the peak of the series coming from the ultimate boss fight against Suikoden II’s big baddie, Luca Blight.

Konami has already tried to revive Suikoden two times since writer director Murayama Yoshitaka left to pursue other passions. Suikoden Tierkreis on the DS proved to be a solid game but hardly what fans wanted. Suikoden: The Woven Web of A Century also failed to impress Japan on the PSP and never made it to the States.

Suikoden is long dead, and sadly, I think it should remain that way unless Konami can find a way to hit that creative storytelling genius again. HD ports or even just simple digital releases of Suikoden III and V are the only concessions that can be made anymore for this beloved cult franchise.

Ganbare Goemon is a franchise that sadly never saw its best games released in the States. The first Super Nintendo game was localized as a beloved platformer called Legend of the Mystical Ninja, but Konami’s experimentation with Super Famicom cartridges in Japan didn’t fly well with Nintendo of America. The following three games, some of the best platformers you’ve never played, never made it to America.

The series saw a small revival with the release of the Nintendo 64 entries and a few crappy Game Boy games, but none are especially fun to play anymore. Konami’s last attempt to give Goemon a shot was on the Nintendo DS but it was never localized and crashed into the ground in Japan.

Ganbare Goemon was a fixture of the Super Famicom line-up, but his heyday never reached past a single generation. Sad, but that is was happened when a lot of franchises jumped into 3D.

Speaking of which, here’s Contra. This franchise defined the run ‘n gun formula, inspiring similar franchises like Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes and SNK’s Metal Slug. Again, the first three games are solid gold, with Contra on the NES and the Super Nintendo’s Contra III The Alien Wars walking away as all time greats.

The transition to the PlayStation all but murdered Contra, but unlike plenty of other franchises, Konami gave it two more chances to really shine. The PlayStation 2’s underrated Contra Shattered Soldier does a perfectly fine job of recapturing Contra III’s spirit, but Konami chose to follow up with Neo Contra, which sadly, did not.

Following that, WayForward was gifted the chance to develop Contra 4, which is an excellent run ‘n gunner that polarizes the hardcore fanbase. Nothing substantial has been seen from it recently, but Konami attempted a spin-off of the Genesis game Contra: Hard Corps by publishing Arc System Works’ Hard Corps: Uprising. Again, middling success led to the death of one of Konami’s early iconic franchises.

The last of Konami’s big properties we’ll talk about here is Gradius, from the very very early arcade days of the company. This SHMUP series defined the genre for nearly two decades, with the best being the PlayStation’s Gradius Gaiden and a small masterpiece revival in the form of Gradius V on the PlayStation 2.

What a wonderful game that is! Gradius as a whole though is outshined by its two main spin-off series, Parodius and Salamander. We know Salamander in the States as Life Force on the NES, one of the best the genre has to offer to this day.

Parodius succeeds wonderfully as a self-parody franchise which borrows all of Gradius’ main elements and sets them to cute and adorable sprites. You’ll never know what you’ll find in a Parodius game, and the franchise is secretly home to some of the greatest video game music you’ll ever find.

Shoot the core, baby!

Licensed Games

Not all of Konami’s best hits have been original ideas either. The publisher has dabbled in plenty of world known entertainment properties and done more of a fabulous job at reinvisioning them in video game form.

The most notable of the bunch is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which Konami used for a successful run of gorgeous arcade games in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When walking through a pizzeria in 1989, it would be impossible to find a video game on a home console that looked more beautiful than the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game.

This partnership went out with a bang in 1992 when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time hit the Super Nintendo. I mean…wow, what a game!

Konami is also responsible for that ridiculous six player X-Men: The Arcade Game. It’s not the deepest game, but when you and some buddies stumbled across that thing in an early 90s arcade, someone had to drop a quarter in it. We’d never seen such an impressive looking co-op game.

Konami’s second most impressive licensed run comes from Tiny Toons, and the company turned out three wonderful platformers for the NES, Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis. In line with early 1990s Warner Bros cartoons, it also made one of the better Batman games, The Adventures of Batman & Robin on the Super Nintendo. The graphics look like they could have been pulled straight from the popular cartoon.

Many will point to The Goonies II as Konami’s absolute best NES licensed game, and they aren’t far off. In an age before Metroid or Castlevania had written the rules of the ‘metroidvania’ genre, The Goonies II did so magnificently with one of the catchiest soundtracks on the console. Konami really knew how to work those NES sound channels.

My personal choice for the best licensed NES game Konami ever published though is Bucky O’Hare. Developed by members that would eventually go on to form Treasure, this challenging game is loaded with grueling level design, great 8-bit graphics, and some excellent ideas regarding power-ups and unique abilities between characters. Way ahead of its time and vastly under-appreciated. One of my absolute favorites.

Miscellaneous

And we have the one-hit wonders. Konami didn’t always capitalize on every great game it made, but probably, my weird taste could possibly be playing these up more than their financial statistics would show.

Azure Dreams is the clear winner for me in this bracket. This PlayStation RPG could have been a much bigger hit in today’s world, home to everything we love about the indie market. Randomized roguelike level design and combat, monster collecting, and town building, throwing in touches of a dating simulators and mini games.

I couldn’t defend its ugly graphics if I tried, but there is more than enough here to justify curious fans checking it out. Konami only ever followed up with a Game Boy Color remake to capitalize on the Pokemon explosion, but if there was a Konami franchise that deserved a second chance, left in the right hands of course, then this is it.

Konami also produced the highlight of the SEGA Genesis, a little game called Rocket Knight Adventures. While it might come off as a stereotypical mid-90s anthropomorphic platformer, Konami crammed enough genius and big, beautiful sprites into this tight action game to set it apart from the rest of the competition. Plus our possum hero is just too cute to be tossed into the pile with Croc, Gex and Bubsy. He should be cherished forever!

Two more games were developed for the Super Nintendo and Genesis, as well as a weird Rocket Knight HD revival a few years back, but none were able to recapture this lost masterpiece’s spirit.

The Goonies II often gets the most credit for being Konami’s first ‘metroidvania’ style game, but Knightmare II: The Maze of Galious is another early contender that only came out a month later. Stuck on the MSX2 in Japan, this lost classic is one of the best game’s you’ve never played, and it stars an adorable pair of love-struck knights.

This game evolved The Goonies II’s formula by being one of the first to include RPG elements in the genre, and it even is notable today for being the main inspiration behind NIGORO’s Japanese indie hit, LA-MULANA. Brutal to the end screen, but worth checking out.

Fans of the Super Nintendo gravitate towards Axelay a lot. This game is Konami just plain showing off, a SHMUP game with just the most boisterous and flamboyant 16-bit graphics imaginable.

Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa is a pretty standard platformer for the Famicom Disk System in Japan. It sets itself apart though by allowing players to control a genius baby throughout its colorful levels. Konami finally brought this to America many years later through the digital powers of Virtual Console on the Wii. Highly recommended.

Underrated Game Boy Advance gem Ninja Five-0 combines the best of old school stealth mechanics with a one of a kind grappling hook mechanic. Good luck finding an affordable copy on the second-hand market.

Vandal Hearts and its sequel get a brief mention for the sole purpose of being a “PSOne RPG.” That means somebody out there must passionately love it to pieces. Tough to play in the post Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem world, but never underestimate a game’s fanbase.

Most will point towards Metal Gear Solid 2 as the first great Konami game on the PlayStation 2, but many still loyally follow the mech strategy game Ring of Red, which beat it out the gate by a full six months.

Mentioned before but certainly not forgotten, we can’t neglect to include Hideo Kojima’s two major attempts to break away from the Metal Gear Solid series. His love-letter to the mecha anime genre, Zone of the Enders, puts a fast pace twist on battling aerial robots, and it hits all the right storytelling marks.

The other, Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hands, is also a wonderful little dungeon crawler that forces you to play outside on a bright day. A solar panel installed on the game’s cartridge powers our hero’s gun, and he uses it to blast away vampires. Excellent idea that works better on paper, but still a charming little game that deserves more recognition.

His pre-Metal Gear Solid games as well, Snatcher and Policenauts, rank right up there for their excellent storytelling in the visual novel genre. Snatcher on the SEGA CD gets a special nod for its outstanding localization.

/section]

Where do we go now?

We can go on and on from here, but I need to cut off somewhere. I’m sure I must have missed something. Let me know below! Konami has such a rich history, and a good many of these are unlikely to ever make it onto gaming shelves ever again.

I think you get the idea though that I don’t want them to unless Konami can revive them genuinely in a way that doesn’t insult their roots.

I am not being facetious here. I disagree creatively with the direction Konami has taken over the past few years, and I agree with fans that the departure of Hideo Kojima is the final nail in the coffin. Final Fantasy survived the departure of Hironobu Sakaguchi, but at the time, Square Enix was still making plenty of quality games and had other talent to step up. Konami has no desire to make such projects anymore, and it is lacking the depth to replace its best and brightest.

However, I also understand though that traditional video game development has become something of a burden on Japanese publishers. Only the likes of Square Enix and Nintendo have been able to find the kind of success on the AAA scene that these companies thrived on during their peeks. As a company, Konami has found a mobile market niche that has proven lucrative for it, and it must pursue it at all costs.

I am a firm believer that games are made to match the times they are made in, and the great ones will survive for generations. Konami had its time as a traditional game developer, but that time has sadly come to an end. Think about how many games I mentioned from this or the previous console generation in this editorial. Not many, huh?

Luckily, all the great games it has developed still exist in both game form and happy memories. Konami might be seeing the dawn of a new era of its business model, one which its older fans might not feel so inclined to follow, but the company still has 30+ years of revolutionary game design just waiting to be re-explored or examined for the first time by retro-gaming enthusiasts.

Hopefully, I’ve put you on the right direction!


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement