Why did Resident Evil work? It’s not an unfair question. While many agree that it was Resident Evil 2 that turned the franchise into the powerhouse that it is today it required the success of the first game in order to happen- a game that has been released several different times and remastered. Twice!
By all accounts the first Resident Evil had terrible voice acting, a dodgy story, and one of my top five worst control schemes of all time, tank controls. And with all that going against it, the game turned out to be a hit. Why?
Today on Arcadology, we are going to dive into the creation and subsequent success of Resident Evil.
Before Resident Evil
The horror genre was underutilized in the early days of the game industry. Before the crash of 1983, there were only a few games that could be reasonably considered horror like 3D Monster Maze. In the decade that followed, most of which was during a boom in the slasher genre, there were more efforts to design horror games, and some of these games were both successful and memorable to this day: including Splatterhouse, Alone in the Dark, System Shock, and more.
But there wasn’t a moment in which the industry collectively decided to push toward developing horror, not yet. In the late 70s, Space Invaders prompted many companies to ride the “defending the earth against alien invasion” wave. Pac Man created a fascination with “maze chases.” Super Mario Brothers pushed everyone in the direction of side scrolling platformers.
Horror’s gaming moment arrived in the form of Resident Evil. Called Bio Hazard in Japan and released 1996, Resident Evil sparked a golden age of horror in game development that lasted through the early 2000s. The game’s origin though dates seven years prior, with another game titled Sweet Home.
Resident Evil’s Inspirations
Sweet Home is something that was out of place when it was released, in a good way. The game is a top-down 8-bit RPG that graphically would look familiar to fans of old school Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. Unlike those games though, it was a horror title, based on a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film of the same name. Capcom and game designer, Tokuro Fujiwara were brought on by the studio to make a game adaptation that would have a day and date release with the film. Prior to this, Fujiwara had worked mostly on arcade classics like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Commando, and possibly my favorite platformer of all time, Bionic Commando.
The game, loosely based off the film, takes place in a mansion where a documentary crew has been trapped by a spirit while attempting to preserve the fresco’s of a dead artist.
Some of the choices Fujiwara made for the game were a bit experimental. Unshackled from the need to follow the plot of the film exactly, as well as not needing to consider an arcade version of the game, Fujiwara developed game mechanics that were rather ahead of their time. These included being able to split the party up, dropping and picking up items, and permadeath. Also, check out this door transition. Look familiar?
Fujiwara’s success with Sweet Home would land him with a promotion up to Producer, which from what I can gather, meant that his days with direct, hands on development of games were over. Fujiwara though would carry the experience of developing Sweet Home and horror with him.
A few years later, on the verge of a new generation of consoles, a Capcom executive sent out a memo recommending that the company begin investigating the development of a horror game using 3D technology. Fujiwara, who had been wanting to get back into horror since his experience with Sweet Home decided to assign the project to his protoge, Shinji Mikami.
Mikami up until that point had been working exclusively on Capcom’s Disney license, his best seller being the SNES version of Aladdin, which let’s be honest, is a pretty tight game. According to Fujiwara, Mikami at the time was terrified of the horror genre, which meant that he was perfect for the role.
Mikami was unsure about the game- he didn’t know if mainstream horror game would sell and all evidence up until that point made it seem like a dicey proposition. Whether the game was ever intended to be a remake of Sweet Home or not is anecdotal information at best. What we do know though was that Sweet Home and another horror game, Alone in the Dark served as inspiration points for several of the design choices made.
So what were those influences? For Sweet Home first and foremost would be the conceit of the story, a group of people are somehow trapped in a spooky mansion, only instead of a documentary crew they were police officers. Additionally, concepts like strict inventory management originated in Sweet Home and found their way, in a way into Resident Evil. Additionally, Sweet Home placed an emphasis on puzzle solving, something that was quite prevalent in the gameplay of Resident Evil. In fact it is probably this element that is most inspired by Sweet Home.
And, as I mentioned, the door transitions.
What parts were inspired by Alone in the Dark? The camera angles, which, are honestly a bigger part of the design of the game than anything taken from Sweet Home. When Resident Evil was in early stages, the idea was to develop it from the first person point of view and build the game entirely out of polygons.
Technical limitations though prevented that idea from coming to fruition. After playing Alone in the Dark, Mikami and team understood the effectiveness of using a fixed camera angle with pre-rendered backgrounds. While he was certain immersion and therefore horror would be lessened by the switch, they did it anyway for the sake of creating higher resolution and more detailed environments.
This is a complete side note however, but Resident Evil 7 was widely considered a return to form for the franchise while ditching the third person camera angle in favor of the first person camera angle that the series was intended to have at the very beginning. Another fun nod to the early days of Resident Evil is the documentary crew, which could be seen as a reference to sweet home. But I digress.
Character and story shifted through development as well. Zombies were decided on as the ubiquitous enemy by either Fujiwara, or Mikami. Literally, both have claimed to be the progenitor of that idea in different sources. Eventually, after a prolonged development process, well, prolonged for the time period, Resident Evil would be released in 1996.
The Release of Resident Evil
Reviews for Resident Evil were great, many reviewers echoing that the game was one that could be a game changer for the industry. But even the reviewers with the most effusive praise still could not overlook the voice acting. In 1996, voice work was uncommon in video games, bit even then it was just downright awful. The dialog itself was poorly written, but it was the combination poorly written, and poorly spoken that made Resident Evil’s voice acting the height of hilarity. Historically, it was the voice talent that has been blamed for this. Is that fair?
Well, according to DC Douglas, the current voice of Albert Wesker, no, its not. On a voice acting panel in 2014, Douglas, unprompted defended the work of Sergio Jones, the original Albert Wesker stating that in the early days of game voice over work, actors were often brought into a booth with all their lines printed on a spreadsheet with no context given as to when these lines were actually being spoken. The director would then have the actors read each line with a different emphasis on each word and then files would be sent to the audio engineer in Japan who would pick and choose dialog based on what sounded best to his ear, not to what sounded best to the ear of a non English speaker. Special thanks to Josh Wirtanen from Retrovolve.com for this scoop.
Another common criticism of the game were the controls. Similar to those used in Alone in the Dark, tank controls were a necessary evil because of the fixed camera angle. In traditional free floating third person camera angle games, the directional controls are relative to the camera. When the camera angle is fixed the way it was in these two games, the orientation of the camera relative to the character had the possibility of switching between rooms, therefore left from one camera angle, would not be left in another. Make sense?
Tank controls solved this problem. On the d-pad, up was forward, down was backward, and right and left rotated the character clockwise or counter-clockwise respectively. The downside of these controls were that it made moving your character in any sort of evasive manner extremely difficult, because you couldn’t change direction, and move at the same time. Perhaps this added to the tension, but for me it was often an immersion busting frustration.
Strangely something that I saw repeated several times across reviews in different major publications of the time was praise for the story of the game. Maybe I’m pretty far off base, but the plot is intriguing in that it exists – but if you placed it directly into a movie you’d be accused of writing derivative pulpfiction, but without the self awareness that modern pulp stories bring to the table. That being said, did the plot factor into the game’s success? Well, let’s explore some possible reasons.
Why did Resident Evil Succeed?
First, the rental gambit. Did you know there was a difference in the difficulty between the Japanese and US versions of the game? Most of the time that means the game was harder in Japan and easier in the United States, but in this case it was the reverse. In the mid 90s, rental store chains were a big deal in the states and many of them carried all the latest video games. Capcom of America wanted the game to be more difficult so that it was less likely for the game to be completed on a rental. Now it would be tough to determine whether this had any impact without some raw data that I have a feeling blockbuster is no longer able to provide.
Still that’s one possibility. Let’s talk about the marketing. From what I can find, the game had a commercial that aired, but only in the Japanese market. The earliest commercial I was able to find for Resident Evil 1 in the United States market was this Christmas commercial for the director’s cut and Resident Evil 2. Obviously TV time is only one part of the equation. Many gamer’s in the mid 90s were subscribed to one of several gaming magazines, the most popular being EGM, GamePro, Game Informer, and the like. My thinking was that surely there had to have been a blitz in the magazines, right? Well, yes and no – prior to the game’s release, there were not many paid ads to be found in these magazines, it was only after March when these spots started appearing. There were two varieties, one featuring this iconic art from the game, and the other that basically gets the plot of the game wrong.
An interesting aside was that there were plenty of ads to be found for another horror game called “D” which at the time was soon to be released for the Playstation. It had already been released a year prior for the doomed 3DO.
While there weren’t a ton of ads to be found, there were plenty of preview articles, which sometimes felt like advertisements back in the day. These articles were filled with the gory, pun intended, details of the upcoming game, and for an adolescent horror fan such as myself, I ate it up. Like a zombie. Eating a –never mind.
So how about the plot? Well, despite the plot being, by my subjective measure kinda bad, the fact that it existed and had a tremendous amount of detail was no small feat for the type of game that Resident Evil was. Abundant plot was still something that was more likely to be found in an RPG in the mid 90s. Most games used it simply as an excuse to prop up gameplay. Resident Evil had an attempt at mystery and suspense in the story that unfolds throughout the game, with one decent twist packed in there, it definitely gets an A for effort. How did this factor into the success? This is probably the most anecdotal piece of this video, so take it for a grain of salt, but I recall in the early days of Resident Evil’s release, that there was enough plot to spark a conversation amongst other kids my age. Rumors about Wesker living were born immediately at the lunch table, as well as other elements. The plot, mixed with Easter eggs and hidden items possibly contributed to a strong word of mouth, which was gold to game executives in the 90s. But that, keep in mind is my conjecture.
Finally, lets circle back around to what started me on this discussion. Genre. Perhaps, the executive at Capcom simply read the tea leaves correctly, and identified that finally the market was actually ready for a horror game, and Mikami’s team managed to capitalize by offering gamers something inspired by some of the best horror games of the previous few years, and remixing it into something brand new.
Resident Evil’s Re-Releases
As I mentioned at the top, the original Resident Evil would be re-released several times over the following years. The Director’s Cut promised to restore the gore to the cut scenes, except it didn’t. Capcom blamed it on some sort of localization issue. The Director’s Cut also returned the game to its original difficulty by adding in an auto-aim that was in the original Japanese version that had been stripped away for the American release.
The director’s cut would be released again with dual shock support and possibly the most controversial change, a completely brand new score by composer Mamoru Samuragochi. Samuragochi, known as the Japanese Beethoven because of his deafness created a new score for the game that was widely panned. Just listen to this one track. Yes that made it into the game. The story gets weirder though when it comes out years later, that Samuragochi didn’t even write the music he was credited for, he had been paying a ghost writer. So not only was it bad, it wasn’t even his bad. Such a weird moment.
The horror genre in gaming did go on to see a boom period after Resident Evil’s release. Capcom benefitted with continuing the Resident Evil franchise, as well as starting the Dino Crisis series, which was basically Resident Evil with dinosaurs. Konami threw their hat into the ring with Silent Hill, and Square Enix had Parasite Eve. Clock Tower, a SNES game which predated Resident Evil, was given new blood, pun intended, as a 3D survival horror. In another video though, we will talk about the decline and rebirth of the genre.
For all the fun and quirks of the first Resident Evil, as a relatively early PlayStation game, it ultimately aged rather poorly. It’s interesting to look back on 3D games from the mid-90s and compare them to the pixel art games of the same time. Frequently, pixel based games have aged rather well over the years, and the 3D games, much like the earliest use of CGI in movies, have looked a bit worse for wear. Combined with the shoday voice acting, Resident Evil was ripe for the remaking when it came time to honor a contract Capcom had signed with Nintendo. But the remake, and what it meant for the franchise is another story altogether.
That will do it for this episode! If you like this stuff take a look at this video on the history of Dark Souls! You can find the channel on twitter at Arcadology, or you can follow me for my own personal thoughts @spoilerkevin. Until next time, thanks for watching Arcadology!
My good buddy Rob and I try our hand at the new ‘Overwatch Uprising’ event. We do as well as you would think…
I grab my good buddy Rob and we try to solve puzzles with portals. It goes as well as you would think…
For a kid, exclusivity meant conflict. For my part, I never involved myself in the arguments surrounding Mario and Sonic, but I was keenly aware of them as a seven-year old. Over the lunch table lines were drawn and fierce debate swirled over which character, which game, and inherently but never mentioned, which company was better. Today on Origin of the Series, we are going to be focusing on the Genesis Era of Sonic, starting with a brief history of Sega and going through the release of the first game. Welcome Origin of the Series: Sonic in the Genesis Era, Part 1.
The origin story of Sega is rarely straight forward. There are many important dates to consider as an appropriate jumping off point, but for the purposes of brevity, we are going to go to the one that serves as the catalyst for modern-day Sega, 1983. The video game market which by the early 80s encompassed both arcade games and home consoles turned into a bit of a dumpster fire in 1983. At least, in the United States. The market had become saturated, between limitless releases of Atari games, to the other consoles that were flooding the market, including Colecovision and Mattel’s Intellivision system. With too much supply and too little demand, the fall was gargantuan. Mattel suffered tremendous losses, and Atari would need to declare bankruptcy.
How did this effect Sega? Right around the time of the collapse, Sega had just entered the home console market with their SG-1000 console, auspiciously on the same day that Nintendo did with the Famicom. The SG-1000 was an underpowered unit compared to most of the systems, and weaker than the Famicom, but it would be on this that many Sega employees would cut their console programming teeth including Sonic programmer Yuji Naka with his first game titled Girl’s Garden.
Rosen and Nakayama’s Gamble
Their home console launch notwithstanding, the crash of ’83 spooked Gulf and Western, the company that CEO David Rosen had sold Sega to in the 1970s. Their response was to sell off the American manufacturing divisions of the enterprise. Not willing to let the company completely fall apart, Rosen and Hayao Nakayama, an executive from a Sega acquisition in the late 70s, led a buyout of the rest of the company. Sega came out of the crash as a brand-new company, David Rosen remained Chairman, and Hayao Nakayama became the new CEO.
Sega would release a revision to the SG-1000, the Mark II, the following year. It made up a bit for the lackluster performance of the original SG-1000. It wasn’t until the Mark III, otherwise known as the Sega Master System, that Sega took its first real steps into competing in the console market. Well, baby steps. Sega determined they would need a mascot to compete with Nintendo. Mario, the plumber, created as the protagonist of Donkey Kong when Nintendo had to pivot from making a Popeye game, had risen to immense popularity in both Japan and America. Sega’s first shot at a mascot was a spaceship named Opa-Opa from the game Fantasy World. Doesn’t that seem odd? Yes, it was odd – Sega realized it quickly and moved on to Alex Kidd.
The Sad Story of Alex Kidd
It is silly to feel bad for a digital mascot that never truly existed. Regardless, Alex Kidd’s run as the mascot of Sega is a bit of a downer as the character seemed setup for failure. Maybe the red jumpsuit was too close to Mario’s red overalls, and it was moot, but the first game in the Alex Kidd series looked like a seriously fun experience. It was titled Alex Kidd in Miracle World, and the player guided Alex through his adventures on the planet Radaxian. The gameplay was varied and colorful featuring strange bosses and interesting level designs. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite perform as well as one would hope for the mascot to take on Mario.
The following game reflected the uncertainty Sega had in both the character and the design of the first game. Alex Kidd and the Lost Stars was a traditional platformer with all the elements of the original Alex Kidd that made it interesting stripped away. Following that they stuck Alex into a BMX game, and then a strange game that was a bit of a commercial or Sega. Honestly, this is not an atypical treatment for a mascot. Mario is in all sorts of games, from Donkey Kong to Super Mario Bros, and even appeared as an NPC in games like Punch-Out. The problem was, without a single unifying success to tie the franchise together, Alex Kidd just seemed more and more scattered.
Alex Kidd was shelved, after a few more games, and with the launch of the new Genesis console. Hayao Nakayama still wanted a mascot, and he turned the development of one over to the employees of Sega at large by holding a companywide contest.
Creation of Sonic
After hundreds of submissions, there were a few finalists chosen for the new Sega mascot. And of those, one became the ultimate winner. A rabbit. Not the hedgehog you were expecting, the original winner of the mascot competition was a rabbit submitted by eventual Sonic character designer and Naoto Oshima. With the mascot settled, for now, Oshima paired with programmer Yuji Naka to develop a demo for the new mascot.
Oshima had worked with Naka previously on the Phantasy Star games, some of my personal favorites, and recently Naka had completed work on Ghouls n’ Ghosts, demonstrating that he had the platforming chops needed. Fortuitously, Naka’s most recent project had been cancelled, giving him the bandwidth to work on the new tech demo. Around this time Hirokazu Yasuhara would join the team as the director of the project. He had been en route to joining the Sega Technical Institute in in 1990, however his trip was delayed, and in the meantime, he joined Sega’s AM8 division, now known as Sonic Team.
Pivoting to the Hedgehog
The rabbit didn’t seem to be working for Naka, Oshima, and Yasuhara. Naka’s technical demo prioritized speed above all else. His inspiration for this was Super Mario Bros. in that there was a definite cap in the speed at which you could clear the level. Naka said in an interview with Retro Gamer Magazine: “Every time I played the first stage, I wondered why I couldn’t clear it faster the better I got playing it.” The rabbit however was envisioned to be able to pick items up with his ears, but the action took too long. In an interview with Sega Visions, Naka mentioned that because speed was important, that they thought a character that could turn itself into a ball would work.
After toying around with an Armadillo character, the other Oshima and Naka settled on a hedgehog, named Sonic. A possibly anecdotal story of the design of the character is that Oshima combined Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat for the basic sketch. This early version of Sonic had fangs, a human girlfriend named Madonna, and a rock band.
Meanwhile across the Pacific, Sega of America had a new president and CEO. Tom Kalinske, the former CEO of Mattel. Kalinske’s history was primarily in the toy business however his knack for running projects that appealed to kids was unparalleled. Before Mattel Kalinske was responsible for turning a vitamin chewable into Flintstones Vitamins – a product so ubiquitous with its jingles that I am hearing them in my head as a read this. Kalinske was recruited by Mattel after a particularly bright showing while testifying before a Senate subcommittee and became a shining star for the company. In the 1980s, he took over Mattel as CEO.
Internal politics forced him out from Mattel in 1987, and after a brief stint as the chief executive officer of Matchbox, Tom found himself vacationing on a beach. Where Hayao Nakayama, who knew him from Tom’s days at Mattel, found him. After a brief courting period, Hayao successfully recruited Tom.
Tom’s mission at Sega of America was evident – sell the Genesis to the American market. He didn’t have a lot to work with, unfortunately. Until word that Sonic was ready to be shared with SOA by Sega of Japan. When Tom and team received the proposed design, Sega of America had concerns. Primarily that his look wouldn’t appeal to a western audience. Madeline Schroeder, a product manager, was tasked by Kalinske and Marketing Director Al Nilsen to take SOA’s suggestions to the SOJ headquarters. The suggestions: lose the fangs, the girlfriend, and the band. Naka and team hated the idea of losing these features, but after a brief impasse, Nakayama informed Kalinske that the design changes for Sonic were approved.
Game Design of Sonic 1
While the debate over the look was happening, Naka, Oshima, and level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara got to work. Using Naka’s tech demo as a basis, Yasuhara began developing levels that took advantage of the speed of the engine and reached back into an older style of game for inspiration. Pinball. It’s obvious when you think of it, but much of Sonic’s level design was inspired by the way pinball machines would play. This inspiration struck a balance that Yuji Naka was seeking to appeal to both Japanese and American audiences.
Inspiration for Green Hill Zone
Despite the game containing six zones, it was the Green Hill Zone that got probably the most attention of them all – with good reason. Green Hill Zone was the first stage and the one that was needed to convince players to keep playing. First levels of games are fascinating, and there is a lot of good discussions to be had about them. Most importantly they should teach the player how to play and what to expect. Green Hill Zone does this by introducing many of the game’s mechanics, including enemies, traps, and alternate routes. Naka mentions that the iconic design of the level drew its inspiration from the artwork of Eizin Suzuki, as well as the natural beauty of California.
Finishing the Game
Naka and team worked doggedly to finish the game, most days upwards of 19 hours trying to finish the game. Despite the effort there were several things that needed to be cut from the game, including a two-player mode which would be later found in Sonic 2. and as the approached the finish line, they needed to find the right music. That music came from Masato Nakamura, the leader of the J-pop band Dreams Come True. The limitations of the Genesis sound chip, which could only produce four simultaneous notes, forced Nakamura into creating some of his most memorable work.
The Marketing of Sonic 1
During the development of the game SOA worked on creating a marketing plan to use Sonic as a way to gain market share in the US. Following the mantra “the name of the game is the game” originally said by Nintendo’s Peter Main, SOA did what they could to showcase the blazing fast gameplay. Character teases were used at various industry events before the releases. As the game reached completion Al Nilsen orchestrated a tour with the game where he had players compare Sonic to the later Mario Bros game. It was Sega’s version of the Pepsi challenge.
Reception and Legacy of the first Sonic game
The game was released in June of 1991 and sold well after Sega of America’s marketing campaigns proved fruitful. The edgy marketing attitude that was created for Sonic would carry over to Sega’s marketing strategy because after the release, Sega and Sonic were no doubt synonymous. The game garnered high praise among the gaming press as well. In a review from Gamepro, Sonic scored four screaming heads in four of the five categories, with only sound getting a happy face. Yeah, I know. Reviewer Boogie Man (not this Boogie) wrote that: “[Sonic] shows what programmers, artists, and game designers can do when they set out to produce a winner.”
EGMs review crew gave the game straight 9s out of 10 and one said “if you don’t buy it, it’s because you don’t have a Genesis yet.” What is strange is most reviews are harder on the music of the game with Raze magazine rating the sound an 82 out of 100 in their three-page review. Today the games standing on metacritic which considers all reviews past and present a very promising blank. Soon after the game’s release, Sega of America got the go-ahead to replace Altered Beast as the Pack-In game for the Genesis. The move, though a gamble, allowed Sega to gain ground on Nintendo in the fabled console wars of the early 1990s.
My personal view of the game. Sonic The Hedgehog is a fun platformer with a simple, well executed concept that has let it age with grace. The graphical fidelity of the game remains as sharp as ever, fitting in perfectly with the current renaissance that pixel art is enjoying. As far as the game’s legacy: Sonic The Hedgehog is considered one of the greatest games of all time. The debate becomes, what is the legacy when you consider all that followed? While I can attest of the value of the 16-bit generation of games, the following eras of Sonic were met with rising and falling levels of consistency. The character remains a fan favorite that hangs like a specter of past successes over Sega.
That does it for today’s episode of Origin of the Series. I hope you enjoy the new format, which will feature deeper dives on individual games. The next episode of Origin of the Series will be Part Two of Sonic in the 16-Bit Era. If you enjoyed this video, consider leaving a like and a comment down below. Additionally, if you spot any inaccuracies in the video, please leave a comment on the pinned fact check comment. My sources for this video can be found down below. Thanks for watching everyone! Please remember to subscribe and I will see you in the next video.
The first generation of Pokemon will always have a special place in my heart, as it was the first game I ever played. In 1999, little 5 year old Philip got his first games console, and a copy of Pokemon Yellow. On that day, I set forth on the journey that made me fall in love with video games.
Takumi is bae.
Ok, I know this track is really more commonly associated with Super Smash Bros than Fire Emblem, but the new arrangement in the new mobile game is so good, it made me want to rearrange it for the piano. Of course, in that context, it’s fast, aggressive, and energetic. I decided to try slowing it down, and make it a little more emotional, and romantic. Which is convenient, considering I made this on Valentines day.
The Dark Souls Trilogy is known for its punishing difficulty and fever dream plot. Set in a world where characters fight and claw at the dying of the light, the games have made a lasting impression on gamers far and wide. Today on the Season One Finale of Origin of the Series we are going to examine at how those games came to be, starting with the founding of From Software and venturing forth to present day. Welcome to Origin of the Series: Dark Souls.
Part 1: From Software and King’s Field
By all measures, 1986 was a tremendous year for video games. The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Dragon Quest, Bubble Bobble are just SOME of the games that were released in that year. What also makes 1986 remarkable is that Naotoshi Jin would have a life changing experience that led him to found From Software. That experience was a motorcycle accident that left Jin bedridden while he convalesced. While he was injured he considered what he could do with the money that he received from the insurance that he was paid after the accident, and decided to start a software company. Out of the wreckage of the accident, From Software was born. Initially From Software created business and commercial applications, such as agriculture software that managed pig feed.
Then in 1990 an economic slow-down hit Japan, prompting From Software to begin thinking about ways to diversify or change industries. Several employees within the company had already become interested in 3D modeling and it’s potential application with game design. Jin, despite loving the idea of getting into the gaming industry, was not sold on the hardware capabilities of any current PC or Console. From Software ended up waiting several years, until an opportunity arose in 1994 with the introduction of the Sony PlayStation.
The Sony PlayStation, currently in its fourth generation (fifth if you count the upcoming PlayStation 4 Neo), was something of an oddity born out of a failed partnership with Nintendo. The common method for playing games at the time was via cartridge – the PlayStation eschewed this in favor of more cost effective Compact Discs. Naotoshi Jin and From Software saw an opportunity to get onto the new console, which would be looking for third-party support. The result of this effort was a first-person dungeon crawl RPG titled King’s Field.
King’s Field told the story of a young royal who was looking for his father while dealing with an evil that has been spewing forth from an abandoned cemetery in the land of Verdite. Something I love about the From Software games is that all the kingdom names have a certain chewiness to them. Verdite, Boletaria, Lothric, to name a few. The game was a brutal challenge and featured dark, dank locales that remind one of a lo-fi version of the later Soulsborne games. King’s Field would be released on December 16th, 1994, only 13 days after the original PlayStation went on sale. It was the first RPG to arrive on the new system and was a success in Japan, successful enough to warrant a sequel.
In an interview with Game Informer in late 2015, From Software Managing Director Masanori Takeuchi mentioned that despite the massive success of the Souls games, King’s Field, to him is the most important game that From has released. Not only because it was their first, but because it encapsulates the consistent world view and game design aesthetic that From has been known for since its release in 1994.
King’s Field II would see a release in the United States, and would be titled simply King’s Field. Re-numbering for different markets was customary in the 80s and 90s. Other examples of this happening include the Final Fantasy series which saw Final Fantasy 4 and 6 released in the United States as 2 and 3, as well as Super Mario Bros, which had its sequel retitled as “The Lost Levels” and another game, Doki Doki Panic reskinned to be Super Mario Bros. 2.
Nothing happens in a vacuum and the King’s Field series is evidence of the essence of the Soulsborne games existing within the walls of From Software long before their development. From would continue to the series with two more King’s Field games, but their attention in the late 90s and early 00s shifted from dark dungeons to massive mechs with the Armored Core series, which is where Hidetaka Miyazaki would get his start.
Part 2: Hidetaka Miyazaki
If you talk to Hidetaka Miyazaki today and asked him what his influences are, he would have a laundry list of books, manga, and more. Among those he readily lists are Devilman and Berserk, as well as works by George R.R. Martin and Umberto Eco. He also keeps RPG rule books close at hand. That is today, but as a child, he lived a very different literary experience. Miyazaki was born in a poor family and as a child, rarely had the opportunity to purchase books. This led to him finding his way to the library, which he would use to borrow books that were often somewhat above his reading comprehension.
Whenever he came to a passage that he couldn’t understand, Miyazaki would often use his imagination to fill in the gaps in the story. When he grew up he attended Keio University where he obtained a Social Sciences degree. Miyazaki sums up his childhood this way: ““Unlike most kids in Japan, I didn’t have a dream. I wasn’t ambitious.” We are all our own harshest critic, but I can certainly relate to Miyazaki’s feeling of aimlessness as a youth. Discovering passion can sometimes take time, and for Miyazaki it would be a few more years. After attending University he landed a job at Oracle working as a typical salaryman job of Account Manager. He would work there for several years.
It wasn’t until he met up with some friends from University that Miyazaki’s life began to find the spark that he had felt was missing. One of his friend’s suggested that he check out the game Ico. For those of you unaware, Ico is the first game by the team that created Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian and puts the player in control of a boy named Ico as he attempts to escape a castle with a princess named Yorda. The game, much like the subsequent games that Team Ico has created relies in minimalist design and 3D puzzle solving.
Playing the game awoke something in Miyazaki. He began to applying for jobs at game studios across Japan and eventually was accepted by one. From Software. As part of his early duties for the company, Miyazaki would find himself directing sequels for the companies somewhat popular Armored Core series. After several years wrangling Mechs, an opportunity arose within the company, and it was a perfect match for Miyazaki.
Part 3: Demon’s Souls
Demon’s Souls was the first game that From Software collaborated with a publisher on, as well as the first game that they had the intention of a world-wide release for. Per Masanori Takeuchi, the project initially started around 2004 or 2005 as an attempt to create a new game that had the same game design philosophy as King’s Field. The game however was a failed project. Which, Miyazaki thought was a perfect opportunity. In an interview with The Guardian, he said this about it: “I figured if I could find a way to take control of the game I could turn it into anything I wanted. Best of all, if my ideas failed, nobody would care—it was already a failure.” Unfortunately, the project was floundering. Miyazaki’s work and leadership completely revamped the game. However, as a game on the precipice of failure, it launched with very low expectations, especially after a poor showing at the Tokyo Game Show.
Demon’s Souls had poor initial sales and a lack of support from its publisher. Sony head of WW Shuhei Yoshida thought due to the game’s challenging nature, the game was unbelievably bad. Because of this they passed on publishing the game in North America and Europe. Demon’s Souls though found itself in a strong lineage of games, like prior Origin of the Series subjects: Civilization and The Elder Scrolls, that vaulted into cult status based on a strong word of mouth campaign.
Hardcore gamers in North America found themselves importing the game across the Pacific, and eventually the overwhelming urge for the game prompted Atlus to pick up the publishing for North America, and Bandai-Namco to publish the game for Europe and Australia. With a global market finally available for the game, it thrived as a title that enticed gamers looking for something new and challenging. In a testament to the games popularity, the servers hosting the online portion of the gameplay have remained online well beyond the planned shutdown date in 2011.
The story of Demon’s Souls is somewhat more straight forward than later games. It centers on the Kingdom of Boletaria which has become enshrouded in a hellish fog after its ruler, King Allant conducted a dark ritual to gain more power. The ritual unleashed The Old One, as these rituals tend to go, the fog, and legions of demons into the kingdom. Knights from neighboring kingdoms have often attempted to broach the fog to never return. Your character is a plucky knight who managed to breach the fog and even make his or her way deep into the castle before coming upon a demon called The Vanguard. This is one of those planned death things.
From there, your soul awakens in the Nexus, and you are told you can never leave. You can get your body back however. From the Nexus, you can travel to different parts of the kingdom to take on hordes of evil that are infesting the kingdom.
Demon’s Souls features a combat system that feels like future Soulsborne games. Caution, defense, and timing are all paramount as you face off against enemies that can kill you with a well-placed combo. My personal feeling having replayed a bit of Demon’s Souls after extended sessions wish Dark Souls 3 was that the difficulty while an extreme challenge, is not quite the white-knuckle experience that later games would be.
In an interview with Game Informer, Miyazaki stated that he doesn’t like using the word “difficult” and that difficulty isn’t the true goal. Instead that he wants the players to feel a sense of accomplishment when they overcome obstacles. “The element of failure… was necessary to give players a sense of accomplishment.” In that same article, written back in November of 2009, Miyazaki hedged on whether there would be a sequel to Demon’s Souls stating, “he’s just an employee at a company” but that he would like to have another chance to implement the things he learned on Demon’s Souls.
Part 4: Dark Souls
Miyzaki did not have to wait long to get his chance at improving upon the concepts of Demon’s Souls. The next game, Dark Souls would be disconnected however and a brand-new IP, giving From a chance to select a new publisher for the game. When the game was first announced, From played coy with the details, only teasing a logo and a title, “Project Dark” no doubt the internal project name for the game. The game made its formal announcement with title and details in February of 2011. The intriguing thing that changed between the initial tease and the wide announcement, other that the title, was the games exclusivity. Originally planned as a PS3 exclusive, the game was also announced for Xbox.
Despite looking and playing similarly, there were a number of key differences between Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. The hub model would be deemphasized, and in its place a more seamless world. Soul tendency, a function in Demon’s Souls would not be making the leap into the new franchise. Another difference is the difficulty, or out of respect for Miyazaki, challenge. Miyazaki and team wanted Dark Souls to be much more challenging than the previous game. A quote from the game’s producer Daisuke Uchiyama is telling. “We want the players to scream, yell and be frustrated.” Not as eloquent as Miyazaki and Takeuchi espousing that the theme is the sense of accomplishment of overcoming obstacles, but just as accurate.
The story of Dark Souls is very minimalist. It would be unfair to say that it’s shallow though. The plot of Dark Souls is like a rabbit hole. On the surface it doesn’t seem like much but once you start going down you become surprised at how far you’ve traveled and you have really no other choice but to reach the bottom. I’m not going to go into the lore here, there are several channels that have thorough recaps of the lore. I will link a few in the description below. The brief version is that a long time ago dragons ruled the land and everything was gray and undying. There was no disparity. Then from the depths of the earth came a fire, giving power to the humanoids who dwelled there. Among those that took power included Gwyn, and he and his fellow lords strike down the dragons, bringing life and death, darkness and light to the world. When Dark Souls starts, it is now much, much later and the initial fire is going out. And when it does, the world will be plunged into darkness. Bad times.
It only took one week for Dark Souls to outsell its predecessor, positioning From Software further into the realm of high level developers.
Part 5: Dark Souls II and Bloodborne
When Dark Souls II was announced at the Spike Video Game Awards back in 2012 there was much excitement around getting another entry into the Souls-verse. Excitement for some fell away to consternation though as it was eventually revealed that Hidetaka Miyazaki would not be the lead for the project, only acting in an advisory role. Instead, the game would be handed over to the founder of From Software himself, Naotoshi Jin. Some fans posited dismay at what they were considering to be the From Software “B” team, a somewhat harsh assessment of the crew that created the sequel.
There were some rumors though that started to bubble up. One of the gaming blogs I perused during my research phase even had a post around the time that wondered whether Miyazaki was working on another huge project and couldn’t commit to Dark Souls 2. This would turn out to be correct.
Dark Souls 2 was designed with the same philosophy as the previous titles. The game’s director Yui Tanimura started in an interview that he felt this was two fold: first the sense of accomplishment in overcoming challenging obstacles, and second, the indirect connection with other players in that sense of accomplishment. On that second point part of the team’s goal was to create a stronger bond between the players they struggle through the game. From Software tried to remain very sensitive to not changing the core of the game, however they understood that things needed to change in the sequel. Tanimura in the same interview mentioned that: “…if we try to keep everything the same, this prevents us being able to provide a new experience and world to the players.”
On March 11th, 2014, the game was released to massive critical acclaim. It has gone on to sell nearly 3 Million copies world wide and won numerous game of the year awards. With the success of Dark Souls II, From Software was riding high in prestige and value. They would be acquired by the Kadokawa Corporation in May of 2014, and a corporate reshuffling took place. Naotoshi Jin, who just designed a tremendous success in Dark Souls II would step down from the company he founded and into an advisor role. Hidetaki Miyazki, would take his place. The following month, in June of 2014 at E3, fans of the Souls series would discover why Miyazaki was absent on Dark Souls II main crew list with the announcement of a brand new IP, Bloodborne.
Bloodborne is similar to the Dark Souls games, in some aspects, different in others. The setting of the game is more similar to a Victorian era England as opposed to an King Arthur Meets the Upside Down medieval fantasy. The development for Bloodborne began while From was putting the finishing touches on Dark Souls: Prepare to Die edition, and ran in parallel to Dark Souls II. Prior to the announcement of the game, footage of gameplay had leaked online with the title “Project Beast” attached to it, which led to some speculation as to what From had been working on.
Bloodborne, a PS4 exclusive was also a massive success for From Software. Though it didn’t have the cross-platform exposure of the other Souls games, it still did exceptionally well, selling over 2 million copies.
Part 6: Dark Souls III and Legacy
Rewinding a bit, it’s interesting to realize how busy From Software must have been in 2013. Development of Dark Souls II and Bloodborne was ongoing, and then suddenly, Dark Souls III materialized with Miyazaki pulling double duty to finish Bloodborne, and begin the process of getting Dark Souls III of the ground. Miyazaki has been saying for quite some time that he views Dark Souls III as a turning point for both the franchise and for From Software. Often when people think of that phrase they assume that something is going from good to bad, or vice versa, but in this case Miyazaki simply meant change. Dark Souls III would be the last game he would work on as a game designer and not a game designer-slash-president.
Dark Souls III for some is seen as taking the best elements of the original game, as well as Bloodborne and finding a balance. Combat was a lot more aggressive in Bloodborne but in the Souls games, aggressive play was often foolish. Dark Souls 3 still espoused being somewhat conservative when it game to attack but allowed the player a little bit more room to act. Despite this, the game was as challenging as ever.
Much like in the previous games, Miyazaki didn’t think in a scale of difficulty, but rather “unreasonableness.” While this may seem like a semantic difference, I can understand what he means. The famously difficult level in Battletoads isn’t simply difficult, but also unreasonable. The expectation of having to develop such muscle memory to execute in such a perfect manner is unreasonable. On the flip side, Dark Souls III presents you as the player with an opportunity to overcome a tremendous challenge, and to learn how to overcome that challenge when you die.
Dark Souls III ends the trilogy and the current story. The storyline is as vague and difficult to grasp as ever, but the elements needed to make sense of the three games are there for those willing to look. Something that I read in an interview with Miyazaki was very intriguing when it comes to Miyazaki’s relationship with plot. As I mentioned earlier, Miyazaki would often fill in the gaps of stories he couldn’t comprehend with his own imagination. In an article for The Gaurdian, which featured an interview with Miyazaki, writer Simon Parkin wrote: “…the story is hazy. You, like young Miyazaki, must fill in the blanks with your imagination, co-authoring the narrative…”
When coupled with the idea that Miyazaki has a “most correct” story for the Dark Souls games in mind, with all the different endings, yet doesn’t share what that is, it suddenly gives you a satisfying picture of Miyzaki’s overall design aesthetic.
Dark Souls III, like the previous games has been another critical and financial success for From Software. While Miyazaki intends it to be the last in the series, he would not dismiss the idea of another From Software designer asking to pick the series back up in another ten years. Miyazaki, for his part, has completed the trilogy. For fans of his though, he assures that despite now being president of the company, he will remain a presence in the game design process and that From software already has new IPs in the work, as well as a return to an old one, Armored Core.
This episode is different than previous episodes because of the relative freshness of the series. To assign a legacy to the Dark Souls games would be a little premature. So on that note, I’ll end on a quote from Miyazaki himself:
“To be honest, I’m really not interested on how I’m viewed as. The only thing I’m interested in is to keep creating something special.”
Part 7: Closing
Thanks for watching everybody. I will be leaving a list of the sources that I used to put this video together in the description below. If you enjoy this type of content, please consider leaving a like, comment and subscribing to the channel. As always, if you find something that is factually incorrect about the video please point it out in the pinned comment down below. Eventually I will be doing a corrections video on my first season of Origin of the Series. This officially ends the first season of Origin of the Series, I don’t have a date planned quite yet for Season Two but follow me on twitter @spoilerkevin and I’m sure I’ll be making an announcement there soon enough.
But that is all for today, and until next time, take care everyone.