Japanese gaming history has always been seen as its own, self-contained beast. The common belief is that the country is dead set in its ways, and it will always act accordingly to please its own population rather than the needs of a globalized audience. This stereotype is far from true, and seeing how Japan benefited greatly from its success in North America throughout the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, it would be foolish to assume that the country never followed the money flow from its fans overseas.
You’d have to dig back pretty far to see how Japan was first dragged into the whole video game movement. During the 70s, most of the major gaming companies got their foothold in the industry by importing Pong and other popular North American arcade games, and with the influx of technology, it also allowed Japanese developers to really tweak and perfect the idea of what made a video game.
Space Invanders and PAC-MAN are two of the earliest examples of arcade games that became international sensations, helping Japan set itself apart in an era that was mostly dominated by Western developed games. Half a decade later, Nintendo made its historical move to conquer America, and Japan monopolized the video game market for nearly 20 years!
However, several of these iconic names and ideas you come across in the history of Japanese video games didn’t actually originate from members of the Japanese population. Rather, foreign businessmen who found a foothold in the country established several of the country’s most iconic companies and even its most popular genre!
Here are three examples of Japanese gaming staples that, while originating in Japan, were not actually established by Japanese people.
Many know Taito best as the gaming company which created Space Invaders. It set itself up as an early leader in the Japanese arcade gaming market by importing several huge hits from America and then reaffirming its commitment to the industry with its own enormous hits. Space Invaders was the largest, developed by the company’s leading designer Tomohiro Nishikado, and a good many other games both preceded and followed its success.
I’ve always been a big fan of Bubble Bobble and equate Taito to cute mascots, but that’s not always the case.
However, Taito itself was founded by a Russian Jewish businessman by the name of Michael Kogan in 1953. His company, which translates into “far east,” originated as a vending machine company before becoming Japan’s primary channel to distill and distribute vodka. Vending machines led to jukeboxes, obviously making the transition to arcade games all the more easier. The company founded strong ties to American publisher Midway, and the two distributed one another’s games in their respective countries.
Taito is now entirely owned by Square Enix, which is fitting given that Square Enix is now the perfect model of a publisher operating with both Japanese and Western mentalities.
The house of Sonic was not a Japanese founded business venture either. For my generation, SEGA’s history extends back to the release of the SEGA Genesis and its competition with Nintendo over the household gaming market. However, its true roots as a gaming company dig back even further into the 70s, when it set itself up as one of the leading arcade companies and founded a fierce rivalry with the other leading corporation, Namco.
Whenever one had an idea, the other was sure to copy and improve upon it. Galaga into Zaxxon. Time Crisis into House of the Dead. Virtua Fighter into Tekken. The list goes on, and the three decade rivalry SEGA shares with Namco makes its brief bouts with Nintendo seem cute by comparison.
SEGA, short for “Service Games,” as a general company extends all the way back to the 1940s with three businessmen by the name of Martin Bromley, Irving Bromberg, and James Humpert. Their company, called Standard Games, helped introduce slot machines into Hawaii and post-war Japan by bringing them off military bases and into the public. Crackdowns on slot machines in the United States forced the company further into Japan, which proved to be the perfect market for expansion. The trio changed the company name to “Service Games” to match their new home.
Their venture took off even further when it merged with rival company Rosen Enterprises, a two-minute photo booth company founded in Tokyo by an Air Force Officer named David Rosen. Branding the new company “SEGA,” Rosen changed its focus to coin operated games and large entertainment venues for arcades, pinball, and bowling. The natural evolution into arcades swept them up in this movement.
Of course, SEGA would go on to produce some of Japan’s greatest developers like arcade guru Yu Suzuki and Sonic creator Yuji Naka, but all this was possible thanks to a group of North American businessmen moving in on the nation as it looked for entertainment while recovering from the war.
Yup. Japan’s most celebrated genre has roots that can be tracked back to a foreign designer. Early franchises like Ultima, Wizardry, and Might & Magic certainly inspired a number of developers in Japan back in the day, but contrary to urban legends, Dragon Quest was not the first RPG developed in Japan for Japanese consumption to become a hit.
You’d have to look at a game titled The Black Onyx for that distinction. The game was released for Japanese home computers a full two years before Dragon Quest hit the market, and it sold 150,000 copies, a large number in those days. The Black Onyx helped set up many rules that Japanese RPGs follow, mostly through the idea of selecting combat options on a menu screen, albeit a much more complicated menu than Dragon Quest’s.
And unlike Dragon Quest, which employed an overworld exploration system similar to Ultima, The Black Onyx followed in the first-person footsteps of Wizardy and Might & Magic. We talk a lot about how Dragon Quest spawned countless clones on the Famicom, but these first-person RPGs had a large following as well. Think along the lines of the modern Etrian Odyssey series, and it’s easy to find where the influences of this game led.
The major problem that held the game back from being a larger hit, aside from the expensive platform, was packaging. Dragon Quest captured the imaginations of young Japanese gamers everywhere with its cute Akira Toriyama designs and colorful art, very similar to the manga they read in Shonen Jump. The Black Onyx was sold with very Western fantasy art on the cover, a little too foreign for its audience, and this was because the game was designed by a Dutch man named Henk Rogers.
Rogers moved to Japan after graduating from University of Hawaii with a computer science degree. He set out with the goal of introducing the RPG genre to Japan, and he did just that. It’s this man who sparked JRPGs into a phenomenon. Dragon Quest just dressed the idea up and sold it a lot better.
On a side note, Rogers did have a wonderful Japanese artist working on his game by the name of Rieko Kodama. She would go on to become one of the genre’s most legendary and influential figures under SEGA with titles like Phantasy Star, Skies of Arcadia, and 7th Dragon under her belt.