Overnight, Nikkei Shimbun — Japan's Wall Street Journal, approximately — published a grim report on the current state of former video game development powerhouse Konami. While a troubling read for fans of the company's classic works, none of Nikkei's findings should come as a real shock for the attentive.
On the contrary, Nikkei has essentially confirmed what many have suspected for some time now: Konami is run with an authoritative hand by company co-founder Kagemasa Kozuki (whose name contributed the "Ko" to "Konami") and has all but abandoned its video game business in favor of more profitable, less risky projects. The apparent ouster of superstar designer Hideo Kojima from his own studio has been the most high-profile indication of this tectonic shift in Konami's direction, but based on Nikkei's article, Kojima is merely the latest in what appears to be a universal dismantling of Konami's legendary talent.
Translator and editor Thomas James, aka pepsimangb, published a loose summary of Nikkei's report via Twitter (you can check out an easier-to-read version here), shedding light on the situation for Western readers. Within Nikkei's report you can find what appears to be a no-nonsense explanation of the Kojima situation — he was pushed out of the company as a result of delays and budget overruns with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain — as well as claims that long-running franchises like Suikoden, Love Plus, and Hudson's Japan-only game series Momotarou Dentetsu have been taken out behind the woodshed.
As of press time, we've inquired about an official response to the Nikkei report and have been told it's pending. Nevertheless, while it would be comforting to think that Nikkei's report deals in alarmism and exaggeration, those aren't the respected publication's stock in trade. Certainly the article bears out a number of insider rumors I've heard over the years as well. For example, when former Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi all but vanished from the public eye about five years ago, I was told he'd essentially been demoted to a janitor's role. While that seemed like the most ridiculous form of hyperbole at the time, Nikkei indeed reports that employees who fall into disfavor with Kozuki (no matter how highly placed in the corporate hierarchy) are reassigned to work as security guards or as janitorial staff at Konami's fitness clubs. Actual firings tend to be rare in Japan for both cultural and legal reasons, but the equivalent action — shameful demotions to meaningless positions — has reportedly become a common practice at Konami.
Other Nikkei statements, such as the claim that employee email addresses are periodically randomized in order to confound outside contacts, are definitely true; even employees whose entire purpose is to communicate with people beyond the company's walls can become hidden behind scrambled email addresses. Anyone who's ever dealt with Konami's internal PR has likely experienced the frustration of scouring recent press releases in pursuit of up-to-date info for key contacts. While many major Japanese game publishers tend to be walled-off to the public, even a company as secretive as Nintendo maintains a certain degree of transparency through its shareholders' meetings. Konami, on the other hand, seems clam-tight; as NeoGAF moderator duckroll points out, this likely has much to do with the family-operated nature of the business. Satoru Iwata was Nintendo's first leader to have been drawn from outside the Yamauchi family, sure, but that's nothing compared to the quorum the Kozuki family has over Konami.
The deprecation of video games as a business for Konami has been in the cards for quite some time. Again, their fitness clubs have been a major money-maker for more than a decade, and casino and mobile properties are by far the company's biggest breadwinners in the gaming space. But even without any inside information, it hasn't been too difficult to watch the arc of Konami's trajectory away from the video games that have defined it for millions of fans. The writing was clearly on the wall several years ago at Tokyo Game Show, when their booth consisted entirely of two properties: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and mobile game Dragon Collection. "Dragon Collection is the big money-maker," a company representative mentioned when I admitted I'd never heard of the game. There was an air of inevitability about it all.
Clearly Konami isn't getting out of video games entirely; while writing up this summary I received a press release about the launch of a new Yu-Gi-Oh game for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. But the Konami we knew throughout the '80s and '90s — the one whose every release was practically guaranteed to be a masterpiece pushing the boundaries of contemporary console technology — appears to be a thing of the past, along with all those beloved games they created. We'll undoubtedly see the series we love from time to time... but probably not the way we'd prefer.
Konami in its prime created many of the games that helped make those of us at USgamer into lifelong fans. Below, the team has shared some of our favorite Konami memories and experiences. What are yours?
Looking back at the history of Konami, it's seemingly impossible to single out just a few of the great games they produced over dozens of genres and dozens of years — but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway. As a child of the late '80s/early '90s, no other developer really captured my attention like Konami. Especially with their outstanding arcade games: I distinctly remember the first moment I ran into their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cabinet back in 1989. Even then, I knew to be wary of licensed games, but the attention-to-detail packed into every level showed me the people working on this thing actually cared. (The same couldn't be said for the NES adaptation.) As soon as I got back from that shopping trip, I phoned up friends to tell them about the amazing experience I had that might have been some wonderful dream brought on by too much Lik-M-Aid.
A few years later, Konami upped the stakes with a premise that never should have made sense: a Simpsons arcade brawler. And yet, it somehow worked. Like Ninja Turtles before it, The Simpsons strove for authenticity, but took things a step further: Each level is absolutely crammed full of gags, characters, and other detail from the shows first two seasons, and even though they bent the rules just a little for the sake of moving things along—last I checked, Moe's Tavern isn't underneath a graveyard—but I'd gladly accept Mr. Smithers as a mad bomber for the chance to hit Life in Hell rabbits with giant mallets in Krustyland.
Understandably, Konami realized that making expensive console games isn't the best way to turn a profit. And while that doesn't excuse their treatment of employees, from a purely Capitalist standpoint, it's hard to blame them for ducking out of a hostile industry. But my bleeding heart doesn't feel the same way: This is a company with a legacy and a history that needs to be preserved and maintained, and I can only hope they make an attempt to do this outside of licensed pachinko tables.
The Konami symbol used to be an almost universal indicator for quality. At their best they could stand toe-to-toe with Capcom, their rival and the other powerhouse of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. Konami also had what were four of the very best games on the Sony PlayStation - Silent Hill, Suikoden II, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Metal Gear Solid. Those four games in particular have helped Konami retain a diehard following that has stuck through the company through thick and thin over the years.
As for me, I've personally followed Konami in one form or another since the days of the NES. I didn't play a lot of Castlevania or Gradius, but I did manage to finish both Contra and Super Contra; and yes, I knew the famous Konami Code by heart. My fondest memories, though, are reserved for Blades of Steel - the sports game that was arguably the best hockey sim of its generation. Played from a somewhat unconventional side-to-side perspective, it had slapshots, checking, fights, and penalties, though no offside rule (that just made it faster and more fun).
But of course everyone remembers the synthesized voices the best, beginning with the muffled "The Blades of Steel" and including such phrases as "Get the pass" and "AAAHHH!" It did more than even some sims today to capture the speed, action, and slightly goofy appeal of ice hockey. Along with NHL 94 and a handful of other games, it's one of a handful of sports sims that are still fondly remembered today.
Much like Capcom, my memories of Konami are wrapped up more in individual franchises than the company itself. But for a very long time Konami's logo and their distinctive chime meant quality for me and it's a shame to see that fall by the wayside. At least we still have PES... for now, anyway.
As silly as it is to say, I feel an odd sense of personal betrayal at the news about Konami disavowing its legacy in the name of cheap mobile games. This is a company whose products I've worshiped since I was 11, but it seemingly doesn’t care about its fans' feelings any more than Dracula cares about a lash from a low-level leather whip.
Of course, business is business, even in an industry that's supposed to be dedicated to fun and frolic. That doesn’t stop other game companies from maintaining a balance between straining for a profit and keeping things whimsical. Reviewing the legacy of Nintendo’s late Satoru Iwata also served as a prime reminder that fun can indeed mesh with business.
But whereas Nintendo takes great pride in its decades-old franchises, Konami has cast its properties aside with a callousness that’s heartbreaking. I feel like a kid who built a soapbox racer with their older brother, only to have that brother become too "cool" for the project and subsequently bust it up to prove something to the other neighborhood kids.
All I can do is clutch my striped beanie, finger the propeller and say "Gee whiz, Konami. I thought we had somethin' special going here" while I ruminate over my memories
Some folks might point and laugh when I reveal the first Konami game that made a huge impact on me, though. It was Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. I first played it at a friend's house when we were supposed to be working on a French project for school. We spent hours in the cursed land of Warakiya instead of muddling through the nuances of Quebecois dialect. We got a pretty crummy mark on the project as a consequence, but man, it was worth it.
I borrowed the game for myself and meandered here and there. It didn’t matter that the townspeople's clues are vague, or that the game gives you little indication of what you’re supposed to do next. I just found great pleasure in opening up new areas for myself, whipping werewolves, and harvesting Dracula's body parts. Ew.
Castlevania II: Simon's Quest kept me busy for hours, and the fact most of those hours were aimless made no difference to me.
As for myself, I've come to terms with the fact that I will almost certainly never play another new Castlevania game or experience modern-day Gradius in HD. I don't have to like it, but I can also be realistic about it. You can never go home again, and all that.
It chafes, though. Konami to me was synonymous with great video games throughout the NES and Super NES years, and even on into the PlayStation era. The company's designers always knew how to push available tech in stunning directions. And Konami games weren't simply programming showcases, either; underneath the top-grade visuals and music, you had some of the best design in the industry. Kat and I recently experienced just how well 1987's original Metal Gear holds up today, and the design of the original Castlevania was so subtle and well-considered that simply contemplating the sophistication of Simon Belmont's sprite launched me into an ongoing long-term project of picking apart the creative design of classic video games. But even when Konami produced a dud, you could still be sure you were about to witness industry-leading audio-visual design.
During the NES era, Konami sat alongside Capcom as the company to follow. You knew one of those silver-trimmed boxes would offer incredible fun, even for a licensed game like Tiny Toons. As I've been counting down the best Super NES games released in America, I came to realize that every single Konami game so far has ended up on the list. And when I began importing games in the PlayStation era, I suddenly became aware of dozens of Japanese Konami releases I'd missed out on — they weren't always as good as the games that made their way to the U.S., but it was worth exploring to find just how many treasures lurked behind a wall of impenetrable kanji. Back when I used to buy tons of game CD soundtracks, my collection was approximately 50% Konami, 50% Squaresoft. Konami has been a force to reckon with in video gaming for nearly as long as I've been gaming.
These things can't last forever, though, and plenty of other favorite publishers have fallen by the wayside. At least with Konami there's still a slim hope that someday they might re-enter the gaming market again — which is more than you can say for a company that's truly and completely gone, a la Irem or Compile. Right?