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

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