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

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