Gaming culture, at least from a western perspective, and to a certain extent, worldwide, has become somewhat homogenized over the past twenty years. The console/PC standards that developers create towards has limited diversity between markets, meaning that big games are big games worldwide. For the most part, the games that define childhoods today will be looked upon with the same nostalgia by adults all over the world in a couple of decades.

The 1980s and 90s though we’re much more fragmented. The European computer scene overpowered the US industry crash, and while America adopted Japanese consoles the European console shift didn’t happen until the 16 bit era. Meanwhile, the international narrative is that the Japanese industry began with the Famicom which isn’t the case, the birth of Japanese gaming seemingly being a story lost to the winds of time.

This pair of books, then, in Read Only Memory’s Britsoft: An Oral History, and John Szczepaniak’s Untold History of Japanese Game Developers are both doing a great service by bringing stories to light about the early days of the development scene in the two countries, as told by people there at the time.

Untold History is very thin on editorial, and it’s nonexistent in Britsoft. Instead, the spotlight is shone on both books’ subjects, Britsoft comprising of interviews (originally conducted for the From Bedrooms to Billions documentary) edited together to form a narrative depicting the British industries’ rise and fall, while Untold History has more of a raw approach, presenting direct interview transcripts, with the very occasional background essay to profile companies. Each approach has their merits; Britsoft focuses on trends within the business at large, exemplified by certain anecdotes, while Untold deals more in specificity and particular working conditions in offices and on games.

The comprehensive approach taken by Szczepaniak often leads to details and anecdotes that would ordinarily be edited out and sacrificed for a broader story, while allowing him to lend more character to his subjects (interviews are often conducted with alcohol as a lubricant). It does, however, make for a disjointed read. Common threads running through interviews are often not highlighted well enough, and when one question is asked of multiple subjects, it’s often hard to mentally compare answers from a couple of chapters back. In contrast, Britsoft presents a much more consistent narrative thread, a rise and fall story of how the industry rose through from hobbyists working in their bedrooms to massively over expanding and being unable to deal with piracy and the rise of the console market.

Taking both books as companion pieces, it’s fascinating to see the contrasting development of the industry in each market. While both scenes certainly had amateurs exploring the limits of technical possibility, the Japanese scene was more organized faster, with more corporate environments existing as early as the late 1970s, and many recruiting young talent, or grabbing games to publish through design submissions to magazines. Still, the sense of a medium finding its feet, and the experimentation that existed as a result is evident in Szczepaniak’s work, most clearly in interviews with members of Hokkaido studio dB-SOFT, who placed a middle aged former taxi driver with no experience with games in a lead design role, leading to the controversial ‘Japanese Custer’s Revenge‘ sexual assault game 177.

While a cohesive meta narrative is missing in Untold History, little stories are preserved by Szczepaniak’s reluctance to edit. From little slices of company culture, to the innate working’s of Namco’s bizarre Negcon controller, even to some juicy details on Konami’s own console, planned alongside an abo donee fighting game, and then scrapped when the company caught wind of the PlayStation, these are things largely missed in Britsoft’s dealings with soundbytes and quotes that fit the book’s structure. While Inafune is here, and seems much more personable than many more edited interviews portray, Szczepaniak is more interested in the little guy. Unreleased games are an obsession to him, and Famicom development is largely ignored to investigate the development of programming languages in Japan, the home computer scene, and to an extent, the PC Engine (my favourite anecdote is about the PCE version of Prince of Persia. In the opposite scenario to NES, where companies famously created extra brands to get round rules designed to limit output, Hudson published PoP, but created a new label, Riverhill to do so, so it appeared more third parties published on the system than was the case).

Britsoft is a weighty tome, and unlike prior ROM books, is mostly text.

Britsoft is a weighty tome, and unlike prior ROM books, is almost entirely text.

Britsoft illustrates a cottage industry that blew up far too quickly for its hobbyist creators to keep up. Its subjects run the gamut from the Molyneuxs and Brabens down to artists and coders long since divorced from the business. It makes for an even handed tome, and as much as Dave Perry’s insight is appreciated, it’s discussions with the lesser known that are most appreciated (this is the only way you’d read of a Bullfrog staffer being bought a car by Peter Molyneux as a reward for passing his driving test, only to have the clunker break down a few miles down the road, a story that the more jaded could make wry observations about Molyneux with. I’ll leave you to do that on your own, reader). It’s mildly surprising, and slightly disheartening, that Britsoft is decidedly a rise and fall tale, with most of its subjects either moving out of the country, or out of the industry by the mid 90’s, primarily casualties of rising costs and piracy. Compared to the celebration ROM’s Megadrive/Genesis book was last year, and even the nostalgic love letter of Sensible Software before it, this is the bleakest of the publisher’s output to date, and while that’s no bad thing, Untold History has much more of a lighthearted bent, even in discussion with those withdrawn from videogames.

Both offerings compliment each other wonderfully to fill gaps in your nostalgic memories, or educate Johnny-come-latelies.  They’ll both have their own companion pieces meanwhile: Untold History has a second part already out physically and appearing soon on Kindle, which has a more editorial bent to help those unfamiliar with a lot of the deep cuts made in the first (and even to the most ardent Japanese game connoisseur, Untold History cuts to the bone). A third book is forthcoming. Meanwhile, Britsoft already joins Sensible Software 1986-1999, with a Bitmap Brothers time also inbound. What’s telling is just how many stories both volumes hint at still waiting to be told, and how eager I, for one, am to find out more.

About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)