‘Humanity needs it all’
In part one of our interview series with Yoshiro Kimura, I asserted that Kimura-san is the game dev equivalent of Bob Ross. Before announcing that opinion, I should have remembered that not everyone thinks the image of a boy kissing a frog as they blast off into outer space is as wholesome as I do. While Kimura-san shares many of Bob Ross’s personality traits, his art shows little of the same adherence to calming realism that made the famed TV painter such a hit.
This was especially true in the days of the PS2 and the Wii, two consoles with audiences large enough to support even the most bizarre, potentially unmarketable games at retail. Kimura-san really got to cut loose back then, with a particularly keen eye for the twilight years of adolescence, the place where childhood ends and adulthood begins. It’s a painfully human place, where feelings define perception of reality, and innocence and evil can walk hand in hand with no contradiction.
These places can be funny, scary, or just plain “inappropriate” by puritan standards, but in Kimura’s hands, they never failed to provoke. Rule of Rose‘s cruel and unusual coven of young women, the kiss-crazy protagonist of Chu Lip, the child-monarch of Little King’s Story, and of course, the laser sword-stroking antics of No More Heroes are just a feww examples, all bearing Kimura-san’s signature.
For part two of our three-part interview with Kimura-san, we talked about how he defines this era of his career, his disdain for the idea of big publishers, love, death, gratitude, regret, and a lot more. Peeling back the layers, this onion’s guts are starting to show…
Though Suda51 is the name most closely associated with No More Heroes, it was Kimura-san who produced both of the original games in the franchise. His management and creative input helped mold the initially humble, Wii-exclusive property into an industry icon. In doing so, he inadvertently played a huge part in Grasshopper gaining the necessary clout to later partner with mega-publishers like EA, Warner Bros. and GungHo Entertainment, the latter of whom eventually bought the studio outright.
Kimura-san left Grasshopper after his work on Shadows of the Damned wrapped up, well before the GungHo acquisition. When asked how he felt about his part in helping Grasshopper become so well-known, while leaving the company before that fame yielded much financial return for him personally, he said “My actual honest answer is that it doesn’t matter if a big company or a tiny company publishes a game. Interesting games can come from anywhere.”
“If I’m even more honest, well… let’s say I’m put off by arrogant people. I just don’t like them. Arrogant and successful people at big companies? I like them even less! I dislike them, in fact. I can’t maintain a fake smile in front of such people for even ten seconds.”
“So let’s say my dream is… let’s say ‘a small ship can sail just fine with small sails.’ For now I don’t even want to consider the possibility of selling my team to a large company.”
“Though, uh, who would want to buy this bunch of onions?”
“I don’t want to put up appearances for bosses. I want to make good games for the people who want to play good games. I only want to think about two things — the games, and the people who play them.”
That doesn’t sound like something you’d hear from a developer who has multiple, big-budget console titles under his belt, but that says just as much about Kimura-san as it does about how much the gaming landscape has changed. There was a time when just about every AAA game publisher forced itself to take at least a couple of risks a year, and those risks couldn’t happen without artists like Kimura-san. That said, as gaming’s childhood was coming to an end, sometimes those risks would end up being cut short mid-leap, resulting in a fall. Or at least, a stumble.
Sony published the psychological horror game Rule of Rose in Japan, co-written by Kimura-san, but then passed off its publishing duties to Atlus and 505 Games for Western territories, presumably out of fear of public backlash against the game’s more ‘sensitive themes.’ That fear may have been well-founded, as the game’s UK launch was eventually cancelled, thanks to outcry from various European officials. All the controversy, combined with a relatively small print run, has made the game one of the more pricey and sought-after collector’s items in the PS2’s library.
Still, the fact that games like Rule of Rose, Chu Lip, and Little King’s Story ever made it to boxed retail in the first place seems like a miracle in 2017, when most big-budget games need to sell in the multi-millions, at a $60 or more price point, in order to break even.
Kimura-san seemed wistful about his days on big consoles, though it doesn’t seem as though he ever felt like an insider. Looking back, he said “I have always sort of existed on the fringe of the game industry. Even back in the gorgeous and bountiful PlayStation 2 era, I was lurking in those dark corners. You hear a lot of Japanese game designers’ names mentioned — I’m not like them. I’m a poor game designer.”
Humility was clearly the dominant mood coloring Kimura-san’s perception of those years, as he said “Two keywords come to mind whenever I think back on that era — ‘Gratitude’ and ‘Regret.’ I have gratitude for the publishers and team members who gave me a chance. I have quite a bit of regret that I wasn’t able to guide the people who believed in my ideas to financial success.”
“That’s why, in this era, right here, right now, I want to succeed at something. And it’d be great if all the people who work with me end up filthy rich (laughs). Whatever the case may be, as time moves on, I learn more and more, and I evolve. Dandy Dungeon is a game I’m proud to say we put an extreme amount of thought and care into. I wonder if our players will recognize this via a nice little in-app purchase…?”
People who have enjoyed Kimura-sans past games will likely get more than their money’s worth from buying a few ducks in Dandy Dungeon. Despite how different his games appear on the surface, a common thread ties them all together, though the strength and marketability of that thread may vary. No More Heroes drew the attention of critics and consumers alike with its brash displays of sex and violence, but was later praised for its multiple layers of symbolism, and meta-commentary of gaming as a whole. Chu Lip has many of the same traits, but with all the violence replaced with cute, PG-rated smooching.
Seeing the stark contrast in popularity between the two games, and the general lack of games about love and empathy in the world today, I wondered if Kimura-san was concerned that love couldn’t work as a game’s central theme. Unsurprisingly, he showed no signs of discouragement, saying, “I don’t see why games about ‘Love & Peace’ can’t sell! Killing is part of humanity, just as is being in love. Humanity needs it all.”
He used the topic as an opportunity to let a little info slip on his new project, coyly sliding in with “So, hey, the game we’re making now, Black Bird, is a shooting game, and it’s one where you kill a whole lot of humans. Stay tuned for more on that one.”
“But a lot of people point out similarities between No More Heroes and Chu Lip. I suppose they both have surreal tones and a Dadaist feel about them. Also, both of them use toilets as save points (laughs).”
Grateful for the tease of his next project, and still adjusting to the fact that I was talking to the person who co-created so many unforgettable games, I succumbed to a question that only Kimura fans would understand. I asked him if Dr. Peace from No More Heroes was related to Dr. Peace from Million Onion Hotel.
Dashing my hopes, he ended that debate once and for all, stating, “Yeah, we get that question a lot about Dr. Peace! I’ll set the record straight: the Dr. Peace in Million Onion Hotel is no relation to the Dr. Peace from No More Heroes.”
Ah well, maybe next time! Suda51 recently hinted that the next Travis Touchdown adventure will feature collaborations with some indie developers, so anything’s possible.
Tune in this Friday when we conclude our three-part interview with Kimura-san, featuring his thoughts on Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideo Kojima’s rejection of the “artist” label, his choice to make a talking onion his company mouthpiece, and a lot more. And thanks again to Tim Rogers for the excellent translation and interpretation work.