With many alumni from Looking Glass Studios, game designer Ken Levine founded Irrational Games in 1997. Their first game was System Shock 2. Released in 1999, it was a sequel to System Shock, a first-person shooter released five years prior. Despite gaining a following, it fell by the wayside in favor of the more popular Doom. This seemed to foreshadow the fate of System Shock 2, as it had been released in the wake of Half-Life, causing it to disappear from the public consciousness rather quickly. Mr. Levine attempted to pitch a sequel to System Shock 2 to the game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, but they were ultimately rejected due to its poor sales performance. The subsequent dissolution of Looking Glass Studios in 2000 all but ensured the series’ abrupt end as the rights were acquired by Electronic Arts.

Irrational Games would go on to develop other titles such as Freedom Force, Tribes: Vengeance, and SWAT 4. Though these titles were modest successes, Mr. Levine desired to create another game similar to that of System Shock 2 – one with a free form and a strong narrative. In 2002, his team came up with a gameplay mechanic centered on three factions: drones, protectors, and harvesters. Guarded by protectors, drones would carry a desirable resource while harvesters attempted take it away from them. With a rough outline of what this hypothetical game entailed, all they needed was a setting.

The team unveiled a demonstration in 2002 built on the second Unreal Engine for the Xbox. This demo was set on a space station overtaken by genetically altered monsters. The protagonist was named Carlos Cuello, who worked as a cult deprogrammer – that is, someone charged with rescuing people from a cult, readjusting them to a normal life. They could be hired for much more nefarious purposes as well. As an example Mr. Levine gave, parents could use their services to deprogram their daughter who was in a lesbian relationship. The narrative was also intended to be political in nature with the main character having been hired by a senator. Unfortunately, the team ran into a twofold problem with this concept. They collectively agreed it was not what they set out to make and were having difficulties finding a publisher. They considered scrapping the project, but once their efforts to make a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 began appearing in various gaming publications, they decided to go forward and fully revamp the concept.

In a stroke of good fortune, 2K Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, offered to publish the game based on the core drone/protector/harvester concept in 2004. Even better, the team was allowed freedom to develop both the story and the setting. Both had changed considerably since the project’s inception. By the time Mr. Levine and his team found a willing publisher, they contemplated setting the game in an abandoned World War II-era Nazi laboratory unearthed by twenty-first century scientists. The experiments then formed the ecosystem centered on the three aforementioned factions. Many elements from System Shock 2 found their way into this project including psychic powers, a character relaying important information to the protagonist over a radio, and story elements delivered through scattered audio recordings.

Internal strife and communication problems brought about due to the team expanding from six to sixty people wound up making for a somewhat troubled production. To make matters worse, the environments they came up with were considered bland. Fortunately, these issues were resolved when the team’s artists realized the true importance of coming up with visions to meet the goals of the level designers.

This wasn’t the end of the team’s production woes, however. According to level designer Jean Paul LeBreton, Mr. Levine was distrustful of the more egotistical new hires. He often got into arguments with them to enforce his vision. Moreover, the executives of 2K Games were concerned with the project’s growing budget. As the mid-2000s saw an increase in popularity for the first-person shooter genre thanks to Halo and Call of Duty, they requested that Mr. Levine market the game in a way so as to compete directly with those franchises. This meant having to shift away from the first-person shooter/role-playing hybrid they set out to create in favor of placing more of an emphasis on the former half of that equation. As the targeted release date drew near, Mr. Levine ordered the team into round-the-clock development, only exacerbating the strife among themselves. Thankfully, 2K Games granted Mr. Levine’s team an extra three months, allowing them to fix programming errors that were otherwise difficult to catch.

January of 2007 marked a crucial moment for playtesting. Damningly, the feedback they received from players was mostly negative, as they believed the game to be too dark to see, causing them to get lost. They couldn’t even trust the man on the other side of the protagonist’s radio feed, describing him as a “lecherous Colonel Sanders”. Taking these criticisms to heart, the team addressed the problems. In a second late-stage playtesting session with the game being described as being ninety-nine percent complete, the feedback was still negative with the audience feeling no connection to the protagonist. The next day, Mr. Levine and his team decided to add an introductory cutscene to the game. He originally opted not to include any cutscenes, feeling ideologically opposed to them, but he and his team felt it was a good, quick way to respond to the criticism.

At long last, the game was released in August of 2007 under the name BioShock. While System Shock and its sequel wallowed away in obscurity for the longest time before receiving retroactive vindication, BioShock was a commercial success upon release. The Xbox 360 version sold nearly 500,000 copies. Meanwhile, critics adored the game, believing it to be a significant step forward in storytelling for the medium. On the subject of the best years in gaming, 2007 is popular choice with the release of BioShock being a common reason to cite for holding such a belief. Despite all of this, the game’s hellish production cycle ended up causing many members of the team to leave Irrational Games to pursue other projects once it was finished. Whenever one wished to extol the medium’s artistic qualities, BioShock was quick to be mentioned. Does it stand to this day as one of the medium’s greatest story-driven experiences?

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To the Moon proved to be a hit in the independent circuit upon its 2011 release. Using RPG Maker, the creators opted to create an experience devoid of combat. In a sense, Freebird Games followed in the footsteps of the cult classic Yume Nikki in how they did not use the software for its intended purpose, yet created something more memorable than many games that treat combat as their bread and butter. Though critics admitted the gameplay was lacking, they had a lot of praise for both the story and its soundtrack. The theme song, “Everything’s Alright”, was written and composed by one Laura Shigihara.

With a French-American mother and a Japanese father, Ms. Shigihara grew up in both the United States and Japan. She had been classically trained on the piano for eleven years, and taught herself how to play the guitar and drums. In her college years, she was given an old version of Cakewalk. From there, she learned about mixing, arranging, and production through recreating video game soundtracks, eventually leading her to create her own songs. A friend ended up leaking her original material to Japanese record companies. She was offered contracts to become a singer, but she turned them down for personal reasons.

When she returned to the United States, she took a job as a sound director for a company that produced an audio talk show and English learning programs through Apple of Japan. During her tenure there, she cut a studio album and composed her first soundtrack for small game called Wobbly Bobbly. Such was the extent of her excitement that she told them she would work for free. They liked her music so much that she was paid to create music for subsequent projects. From that point onward, her portfolio blossomed, with one of the most notable projects she contributed to being the highly popular 2009 tower defense game, Plants vs. Zombies. Her continued success saw her participate in a compilation album arranged by Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka entitled Play for Japan. It was a charity effort in response to the devastating Tōhoku earthquake, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 15,000 people. The album also included contributions from other prolific game composers such as Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo, and Yasunori Mitsuda.

Ms. Shigihara’s submission for the album was a song called “Jump”. She had written the song some years before 2011, but didn’t arrange or produce it until that moment. Writing the song made her think of two things. She thought about the many times in life one must go forward and hope for the best and how everyone has a child inside that just wants to be told everything will be alright. From there, she was struck with inspiration. Ever since she was a little kid, she had always wanted to create a video game. She would design Mega Man levels on paper and write stories for hypothetical RPGs. As she composed “Jump”, she imagined a boy living in the hospital. His mother helped him cope by taking him on a grand adventure right where he was. Ms. Shigihara’s friend, Emmy Toyonaga originally wanted to help her make an animated music video for the song. However, Ms. Shigihara was captivated by her friend’s concept art, saying at that exact moment, “We should turn this into a game!”

Using the same software Freebird Games used to create To the Moon, Ms. Shigihara, along with Ms. Toyonaga and an artist by the name of Matt Holmberg set forth on this new project. The game was named Rakuen after the Japanese word for paradise. Four years in the making, the project saw its completion in January of 2017, seeing its official release in May of that year. The game was met with a reception not dissimilar to that of To the Moon. Critics praised its heartfelt story in particular, believing it to be a step forward for the medium as a whole. In the 2010s in particular, many developers tried to tug at their audience’s heartstrings with their narratives. How did Rakuen fare against these myriad competitors?

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A Question for the Readers #6: Late to the Party

We’ve all had a time in which, for whatever reason, we didn’t check out that one landmark work when it was released. Maybe you were too busy at the time and forgot about it until years later. Perhaps you weren’t in the mood to see what it had to offer. It could’ve even resulted from the decidedly strict limitation of not having been born yet. Whatever the case may be, I’m positive we’ve all had that experience in which we didn’t get into a work months, years, or even decades after the fact… sometimes to our detriment. Ever hear the phrase “You had to be there”? I feel that applies to certain works out there. It’s not to say they haven’t held up well, but for a lot of them, you miss out on a certain something by getting into them after the fact.

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Bokosuka Wars


In 1977, businessman and personal computer pioneer Kazuhiko Nishi along with Keiichiro Tsukamoto founded a company they named ASCII. It started off as a publisher of a magazine with the same name before Mr. Nishi found an incredible opportunity: getting to speak with Bill Gates, who had co-founded Microsoft in 1975. These talks led to the creation of Microsoft’s first overseas sales office dubbed ASCII Microsoft in 1979. It was thanks to these valuable business propositions and Mr. Nishi’s role in marketing Microsoft Japan’s highly popular MSX home computer that his company became very successful.

In 1983, ASCII Entertainment held a “Software Contest” wherein other PC enthusiasts could enter their creations. A man named Kōji Sumii won the contest, and the name of his submission was Bokosuka Wars. Originally released for the X1, a home computer manufactured by Sharp Corporation, this title proved to be extremely popular in Japan. Such was the extent of the success of Bokosuka Wars that ASCII ported it to almost every home computer platform and gaming console available at the time. Despite its popularity, it never saw a release outside of its native homeland. As a result, many Western fans had no way of knowing that many masterpieces in the years to come owed at least part of their success to this game. With its silent legacy having been fully released by this point, how well has it stood the test of time?

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The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap


In the final days of the Game Boy Color’s lifespan, Capcom’s subsidiary, Flagship, and Nintendo collaborated on two installments in the latter’s venerable The Legend of Zelda series: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages. Both games were released simultaneously in 2001 to a warm reception. The ability to access extra content by linking both games was a novel concept that only added to their appeal. With two successes under their belt that were worthy additions to the Zelda franchise, Capcom began work on a sequel for the Game Boy’s newest model – the Game Boy Advance.

However, before they could begin this project in earnest, a new proposition suspended development. Nintendo was interested in bringing A Link to the Past, popularly considered the series’ greatest 2D installment at the time. Once the port was released in 2002, players discovered it came bundled with a new title: Four Swords. Though more of a bonus feature than a full-fledged game in its own right, Four Swords marked the series’ first foray in multiplayer gameplay. Indeed, in its original form, it could not be played alone. This new feature played a major role in the Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past selling over 1.5 million copies.

With staff members freed up, Flagship resumed their initial project. Taking cues from the art style featured in The Wind Waker, this new installment, entitled The Minish Cap, promised to be a quality, original Zelda installment for the Game Boy Advance. It saw its domestic release in November of 2004, and debuted internationally in the months that followed. Interestingly, despite being touted as the Game Boy Advance’s Christmas “killer app” in Europe, The Minish Cap was released shortly after the launch of the Nintendo DS. This was not unlike how the Oracle installments debuted just before the Game Boy Advance’s launch. Regardless, The Minish Cap, like most games in the Zelda franchise, was highly regarded upon release. It was named GameSpot’s Game of the Year for the console in 2005. Does The Minish Cap stand as one of the final hurrahs of the Game Boy product line?

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Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth


When Nintendo launched the console to succeed their long-running Game Boy product line, the Nintendo DS, Capcom decided to create ports of Shu Takumi’s Turnabout Trial trilogy. As they were being created, the company elected to localize the three games, bringing them to North America and Europe. To Capcom’s surprise, the series, dubbed Ace Attorney, became a sleeper hit abroad. While working on the DS port of the original trilogy’s final installment, Trials and Tribulations, producer Motohide Eshiro had an idea. They could make a spinoff series, casting a major character from Ace Attorney in the lead role. He met up with Takeshi Yamazaki, who had worked as a planner for the bonus episode that would be included with the debut installment’s rerelease. To his delight, Mr. Yamazaki agreed to work on it. Mr. Eshiro would later describe the meeting in his blog on the official Ace Attorney website as a “reckless suggestion with an inspiring, reckless response”. Regardless, they began meeting daily soon thereafter.

Mr. Eshiro and Mr. Yamazaki quickly decided to have this hypothetical spinoff series take place on the crime scene rather than in a courtroom. Many points of contention arose from these “endless discussions”, including searching for contradictions in a crime scene, being able to play as multiple characters, and how they could possibly retain the spirit of the series without featuring a single courtroom battle. Mr. Yamazaki originally wanted to create a detective game starring Ema Skye, a character who had debuted in the bonus episode he worked on. Mr. Eshiro instead pictured Miles Edgeworth, protagonist Phoenix Wright’s rival and friend, as the main character. Fan feedback had demonstrated over the years that his popularity matched Phoenix Wright’s, and thus the decision was made. This game was to be developed as both a spinoff and follow-up to the original trilogy.

In March of 2008, the official Ace Attorney developer’s blog hinted toward the game’s existence. It referred to the game as a “NEW Turnabout, NOT Trial”. It was also stated that more information about the project would be released during an orchestral concert playing music from the series. At that time, the developers showcased a trailer revealing the game along with a new central character. Seconds after the revelation, an official website was launched. During the Tokyo Game Show of 2008, the gameplay was demonstrated, confirming that various characters from the main series such as Franziska von Karma were slated to return. Announcing the game was halfway finished by that point, they even allowed visitors to play a demo of the first episode. According to a poll conducted by Famitsu magazine, this presentation received more attention than that of any other portable game featured at the show. The game eventually saw its release under the name Turnabout Prosecutor in May of 2009.

Shortly before its domestic release, Capcom trademarked “Ace Attorney Investigations” as the game’s English title. Similar to how they showcased the game to the Japanese public, a playable demo was made available at Comic-Con in July of 2009. In North America, Europe, and Australia, the game was titled Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth. The game was released in those regions in February of 2010. Due to the comparatively low sales of the series’ previous installment, Apollo Justice, Ace Attorney Investigations was not translated into any other languages beyond English, much to the chagrin of many international fans. Ace Attorney Investigations has the distinction of being the first entry in the series made without it input from its creator, Shu Takumi. Did Mr. Eshiro and Mr. Yamazaki create something worthy of bearing the franchise’s banner?

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