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What’s in a name?

When it comes to videogames, the title is literally everything. It must stick inside the player’s head and stay there for eternity 🙂  The title becomes the brand, leading to franchises, sequels, merchandising, and maybe possibly stuffed animals! When I worked at Taito Software in North Vancouver from 1988 to 1990, my American boss Alan Fetzer taught me that videogame titles could only be a maximum of four syllables – no more. Just think about some of the most well-known videogame franchises in the world:

Mario – Zelda – Metroid – Sonic – FIFA – Halo – Call of Duty

Need for Speed – Warcraft – Diablo – Gears of War

 Metal Gear – Kirby – Pokemon – Angry Birds

I think you get the idea. A successful videogame name is short, sweet, and creates an image that stays with you for a long time.

I had the privilege of creating several titles for published videogames. I can tell you that dreaming up the name for a videogame isn’t easy. There is so much riding on it. A great name that grabs people’s attention creates buzz. A terrible name will hang around your neck like the proverbial millstone. A ton of money gets spent on videogame promotion – it’s critical to have a great sounding title. However, what matters more than anything else is the gameplay.

The first videogame title I created was for the Japanese sequel to The Legend of Kage (pronounced KAGE, not CAGE) for NES, which Taito released in 1987. Some of you might remember the flying ninja who madly rotated his blade like a lawnmower. Taito Japan created an awesome sequel which had four stages and sixteen levels, with beautiful cinematic sequences.. Taito Software decided to release a North American version. I was asked to submit a set of possible titles in 24 hours. I grabbed several sheets of paper and brainstormed 48 different names. From this list, the title Demon Sword was chosen. Later on, I created the titles Wrath of the Black Manta, The Flintstones – The Treasure of Sierra Madrock, and The Jetsons – Invasion of the Planet Pirates.

So, how did Lufia and The Fortress of Doom get chosen? Well, the story goes something like this. It was definitely the burning question with Taito Japan about what to call this game for the North American market. My managers agreed that the Japanese title Estpolis was out of the question. I didn’t like the title; I knew American videogamers wouldn’t get it, either. I was asked to come up with a name. The way I looked at it was that the entire adventure wasn’t about the player – it had nothing to do with you being Maxim’s descendant. That was different for an SNES rpg at the time. The story was ultimately about this young girl named Lufia and her connection to the Sinistrals. I put it to Taito Japan that we simply call the game Lufia. I felt that the name could stand alone by itself and would be instantly recognizable. I believed the title could be the start of a successful series (was I prescient, dear Lufia fans? 🙂 ) I received the green light to call the game Lufia. Ultimately,Taito America was responsible for approving the name because it was their product. I sent a fax with my recommendation.

Taito America didn’t like Lufia.

To be specific, they thought the name by itself wouldn’t resonate with North American videogamers. I argued that there was already a precedent with Nintendo games like Mario, Metroid, and Zelda. They countered that those games were already well-established Nintendo titles; Lufia was completely unknown to the market. Taito America told me they would reply in a few days. It actually took a full week before they offered their solution.

They wanted to call the game – Lufia and the Fortress of Doom.

My first reaction was that I wanted to gag. Taito Japan was aghast. I recognized immediately that the subtitle was a clear adaptation of the movie title Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  In 1989, Taito Software released the NES title Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The rationale for the subtitle from the American perspective was that the story revolved around the Sinistrals and the Doom Fortress, although I strongly suspected they didn’t play deeply enough into the game to understand the story of Lufia. Taito America felt it would resonate better with the American audience that simply calling it Lufia.

The Japanese taught me that there are times when you must compromise to achieve a larger goal. I succeeded in naming the game Lufia, and we added the subtitle to get Taito America’s buy-in for publishing it. Looking back, I think it was a worthwhile bargain.

Next time – The race to the 1993 Summer Consumer Electronics Show

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid


If there is one fault Japanese videogame publishers have to this day, it’s the myth that they know videogames better than anyone else. Because of their historical success with coin-operated arcade titles, followed by the Nintendo and Sega and Playstation videogame consoles, Japanese business managers in videogame companies like to think that the reason for their success is their all-knowing expertise. This myth goes along with another one that still exists – that Japanese videogamers are inherently better than North American players. I had to contend with this mythology as the sole non-Japanese employee at the Taito R&D facility. On the one hand, as a Taito employee from North America, I was an immense asset to the development team. On the other, I was viewed as an outsider. In any case, I had to prove myself in what were challenging circumstances.

The following weekend in mid-March, I headed out for the world famous Akihabara electronic district in northeast Tokyo – what was then six square blocks of consumer electronic madness in over 430 stores. Standing there on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of packed crowds, I couldn’t believe I was really there. But indeed I was. My mission was clear – find a videogame shop that sold imported titles from the United States. It took about a half hour of searching, but eventually I discovered a second floor store up a narrow flight of stairs. It was full of titles from around the world for different platforms. I quickly snatched up copies of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and and Final Fantasy II. They weren’t cheap either – about 9,000 yen ($90) each. When I bought them, I suddenly realized that I was going to need some kind of converter for my Japanese Super Famicom in my apartment. Japanese titles were cased in oval packages. USA titles didn’t fit the Super Famicom. So I spent another 4,000 yen on a converter made by Hudson ($40). My gamble was already proving to be expensive.

I still have my Japanese Super Famicom and a small library of Japanese games. I also have my Super NES and about 35 titles.

I arrived home at my apartment in Hamadayama, a small town in western Tokyo located in Suginami (“Cedar Wave”) Ward, and started playing Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. To my disappointment, I polished off the game in just over two hours. It was a short plot, with chunky characters, a clunky combat system, and not very challenging monsters. But that was the point of this Square title. They claimed it was made for beginners who were not used to the Final Fantasy series. I thought it was a rushed title to fill their quota for North American releases. On Sunday, I started playing Final Fantasy II and realised how similar it was to the original NES version of Dragon Warrior, only with slightly better screen scrolling, music, and sound. The combat system was a step up. I took the game at a slightly slower pace, but I managed to finish it within two days. After playing the two games, I wrote up a report and met with my managers. Once again, I emphasized how much better Estpolis looked and played than the Final Fantasy titles. I gave them direct examples about combat, graphics, music, sound, and player interface. I pointed out the difference between Square’s limited text and our ability to tell a proper adventure story. I said they had something unique on their hands; we had a great opportunity to release something special.

Taito Japan was nervous about releasing an rpg videogame overseas because the company was not known for roleplaying titles. The last Taito rpg title sold in North America before Lufia and the Fortress of Doom was Dungeon Magic for the NES (another title I still own with my original NES). That game barely broke even, so I understood why Taito wasn’t keen about a SNES rpg. However, in a rare moment of opportunity, I was asked to talk with Taito America and see what they thought. Several of the key Taito America staff were good friends of mine, so they were excited to hear I’d found something interesting because they were looking for one more title to fill the product release schedule. My Taito America counterpart Larry Stalmah asked me to send him an EPROM set so he could play the game. I transmitted the game code over a dial up network to Taito America. He got back to me one day later and said he wanted to release a North American version. Larry would take care of convincing Taito Japan’s directors about getting approval for localizing the title.

Now I had an ally at Taito America.

Next time – How we decided on the title ‘Lufia and the Fortress of Doom

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

When last we left our hero…

As I rode the Toyoko line from Tsunashima back to Shibuya in southwest Tokyo, I was thinking about how I was going to change the minds of my corporate Japanese managers about localizing Estpolis for the North American market. In the early 1990’s, developing Super Nintendo games was a very expensive business. Nintendo controlled everything when it came to physical game packaging, printing, and production. You paid Nintendo for the cartridges, circuit boards, EPROM chips, math co-processors, game manuals, and game packages. The cost for an initial production run was at least a minimum of several hundred thousand dollars. The onus was on me to prove that my gamer intuition was absolutely spot on and that this title would be a worthwhile investment.

In 1993, the SNES had been out for almost two years. When it came to fantasy role playing games, there was a very limited choice available. You were looking at Actraiser, Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, and The Legend of Zelda. That was it. I’d played all these games from start to finish. They were good examples of SNES ” first generation” titles – the term developers use to describe the iterations in software development. Estpolis was the next step up – it was a second generation title. To put it in perspective, 1994 SNES titles like Donkey Kong Country and Final Fantasy III were third generation videogames.

From 1987 to 1990, Taito was considered by the videogame industry as one of the top five global publishers for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). This was extraordinary considering that at the time, there were at least 45 NES publishers! It was an extremely crowded market. In May, 1988, I was originally hired by Taito Software (the North American headquarters) to work at their Lonsdale Quay facilities in North Vancouver. By the time I joined the Japanese R&D centre in 1992, Taito was suffering from poor North American Game Boy, NES, and SNES sales. They were also involved  in serious legal  issues with Atlanta based Turner Home Entertainment around the classic Hanna Barbera Studio licenses The Flintstones and The Jetsons. All North American operations were concentrated at the Taito USA office in Wheeling, Illinois. Taito Corporation sent a new Japanese senior manager to the United States to oversee their videogame sales. He previously worked for the sales and marketing division of BMW Japan. He knew nothing about videogames or the current trends in gaming. Later I would learn that he actually didn’t even like videogames.

So what made Estpolis different from Final Fantasy II or The Legend of Zelda? Here’s what immediately caught my eye as a “professional” videogamer:

Playable introduction sequence – The introduction took place 100 years before the player’s character appears in the game. Letting the player participate in the pre-history was totally unique. No one had ever done that in a Nintendo title. It set the stage for everything that happened afterwards. By the way, here’s a fascinating snippet of Lufia lore – in case you ever wondered who created the evil name  ‘Sinistrals‘  <— I did 🙂

Bright, colourful graphics, and animated magic spells – The character and background graphics for Estpolis were bright, colourful, and detailed. Honestly, they made Final Fantasy II and The Legend of Zelda look dull by comparison. I have to emphasize here that I’m talking about where we were at in 1993. This game was graphically better looking. The magic spell animations were big and colourful. I remember casting the lightning spell and watch the shocking white bolts dance on the screen. It’s also worth mentioning that the group offense and defense magic system played really well and looked very nice.

Large text buffer – Many people commented over the years how the story of Lufia reads like a real fantasy adventure. There’s a reason for this. The developers created a text buffer that could handle a whopping four lines of ASCII text at 28 CHARACTERS PER LINE. There was 112 character space for writing dialogue. I like to joke that Lufia ‘invented’ Twitter! 🙂 Another piece of Lufia lore – if you wondered who wrote the dialogues – that was me as well, with the help of an awesome Japanese translator named Dianne, who hailed from Australia. We had a ton of fun going over the dialogue, which was re-written from the original Japanese text.

After 20 years, I still have the original translation files from the game. I made sure to archive Lufia’s history. I also own a final beta cartridge of the game.

Next time – How Taito America and I convinced Taito Japan to localize Lufia for the United States.

Doctor Arkanoid

Doctor Arkanoid

lufiaJune, 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the classic Super Nintendo role playing game Lufia and the Fortress of Doom. I can’t believe 20 years have passed; it really still seems like yesterday when I saw the original Japanese version of the game Estpolis in March, 1993, at Taito Corporation’s former research and development centre in Tsunashima, Japan, just north of Yokohama. I’d been hired in the summer of 1992 as their overseas 3rd party development producer – an incredibly awesome job where I collaborated closely with Nintendo of America, Sega of America, Taito America, and third party game developers in Europe, South Korea, and the United States. Like all Taito staff, I wore the company uniform, performed company exercises beside my desk at 8:45 a.m. sharp, and lined up to recite the company motto precisely at 9:00 a.m. We also repeated it again at 5:00 p.m.

Lufia was a very successful title when it was officially released in the fall of 1993. It sold approximately 900,000 copies, won three awards, spawned numerous sequels, and developed a bit of a cult following among video game players. In 2013, there are still quite a few gamers who recognize the name whenever I mention it. But what the videogame industry doesn’t know is that the North American version of  Lufia and the Fortress of Doom almost never happened. Taito management originally never seriously considered releasing  an overseas version. Karma is a strange thing, but at the time, Taito Corporation had no plans to release a North American version of the game. The truth of the matter is that Lufia and the Fortress of Doom would never have happened at all – without me coming along and being a real pain in Taito management’s backside about the game’s potential in North America.

It was on a Monday morning in March, 1993, when I saw the Japanese Super Famicom team playing what looked like a very bright, colourful, fluid, action role playing game that strongly reminded me of Dragon Warrior by Enix and Final Fantasy by Squaresoft. The game music was also very well composed, compared to other Super Famicom titles of that time. I asked the producer whose game it was. He told me that it was Estpolis, a Taito RPG for the Japanese market. I was very impressed with how it looked and played. Right away I recognized that there was nothing else like it on the market in North America – it was an impressive looking RPG. I told my managers how cool and unique this title was, compared to what I’d seen in North America. I remember they were surprised to hear this – they were corporate managers, not game developers. I asked them if they had considered possibly developing a localized North American version. I’ll never forget how they hummed and hawed for a moment before answering me.

“You know, Anthony-san, we don’t think this sort of game would do well in North America”, they said.

“Why do you think that?”, I asked.

“Because”. They paused. “We don’t think video game players in North America like action role playing games“.

One of my strengths as a video game designer is that I still possess a keen gamer’s intuition for knowing a potential hit videogame when I see one. At the time, my gamer gut was screaming that this title had hit potential.

I knew that I had to convince them.

To be continued –

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

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Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum!, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum! with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.