You may not remember Irem's PlayStation 2 games, but I do. When people lament the loss of video gaming's "middle market" as the industry has shifted to the two polar extremes of big-budget games and cheap mobile titles over the past decade, what they're really mourning is the demise of fresh, inventive games like the ones Irem made as the millennium dawned.
The likes of R-Type Delta, Disaster Report and Raw Danger, and Steambot Chronicles have no analogue in today's gaming space. They were made by teams too large to line up with today's indie developers; felt too janky and unpredictable to find peers in the triple-A space; and lacked the outlandish determination to be overtly weird the way games by auteurs like Suda51 and Swery65 do. The closest thing you'll find in today's market would be, say, Splatoon (if it weren't so polished) or Dark Souls (if it didn't take itself so seriously).
There's a very good reason for this disconnect: Video games have grown too expensive to accommodate the sort of devil-may-care approach Irem's PS2 games displayed. They prioritized concepts over execution, invention over refinement. Disaster Report with its sometimes single-digit frame rates would be excoriated in today's market by sour-hearted YouTubers who prize 1080p/60fps presentation over actual content. R-Type Delta would be reamed for being too short to justify a full retail release — or worse, its addictive system of unlocking weird new ships to control for achieving in-game feats would be replaced with a soulless pay-to-play scheme.
No, no one makes games in the style of Irem's PS2 games... including Irem. The publisher realized several years ago that their game business had become a money pit and abandoned console games altogether. Like tinier, quirkier prophet of Konami's future, Irem jumped ship and shifted its focus entirely on raking in barrels full of cash with casino games, effecting a total and complete withdrawal from game development and publishing; even their back catalog titles on PlayStation Network and Nintendo Virtual Console vanished along with them.
Sadly, Irem's departure also drove a nail into the coffin of several promising games the studio had in development: Steambot Chronicles 2 and the fourth episode of Zettai Zetsumei Toshi, the survival series whose first two installments were localized under the names Disaster Report and Raw Danger. (The third chapter in the series, ZZT3, had appeared exclusively in Japan on PlayStation Portable, presumably too late in the platform's life to warrant localization.) ZZT4 had been slated for release in mid-2011, but in light of the devastating Tohoku earthquake in March of that year, Irem elected to delay the game indefinitely — though as director Kazuma Kujo told me a few months later after leaving the company, Irem had already decided to abandon video games at that point. The unfortunate coincidence of the Tohoku event and ZZT4's themes (Irem had promoted it at Tokyo Game Show 2010 by installing an actual earthquake simulator in their booth) simply served to accelerate the process.
Kujo, who had overseen both the ZZT games and the open-world, free-form narrative robot adventure Steambot Chronicles, left Irem around this time to establish a company called Granzella. His stated aim at the time was to continue creating games in the mold of his Irem projects, even if he didn't have the rights to the original properties themselves. Since then, Granzella has been running quiet, prompting many to wonder if the studio had silently folded without ever producing a single game — a fear that was put to rest a few months ago when he company announced it had acquired the rights and content to the ZZT series. Kujo and his team won't simply be making a game like the ones they had worked on; they'll be working on the games themselves.
Kujo tentatively announced a Fall 2015 release for his company's first release, which means a Tokyo Game Show demo of some sort seems practically mandatory. While the game hasn't been confirmed for a TGS appearance as of yet, I'm holding out hope for last-minute news. At the very least, it will be interesting to see if speculation that the new ZZT will in fact comprise the cancelled fourth game pans out; while four years has been plenty of time for Granzella to put together an all-new game, the digital archivist in me would hate to see a nearly completed game scrapped altogether. ZZT4 was to be a PlayStation title, which would make a PS4 or Vita conversion relatively painless.
Whatever form Granzella's first release takes, what matters most to me is that the game retain the anything-goes spirit of Kujo's work with Irem. Take Steambot Chronicles, for example, a game that won me over instantly with its Ghibli-esque steam-powered robot suits and then truly impressed me once I came to grasp its unapologetic openness of design. Not only did it allow you do perform odd jobs to earn cash, Shenmue-style, it also provided numerous avenues through which the player could be either good or bad with more subtlety and nuance than the binary morality meter of BioWare's RPGs. Yes, it was a little clumsy in places, and it lacked the visual panache of PS2 games with bigger budgets. And sure, some of the game elements didn't come together as well as its creators presumably hoped. But there was just so much to do in Steambot Chronicles without it ever degenerating into a to-do checklist the way contemporary sandbox games games do; it remains wholly unique. After watching the sequel evolve and develop from a PS2 game to a PS3 project over the course of multiple Tokyo Game Shows only to vanish after an unceremonious cancellation, I can't help but hope Granzella secretly has a new Steambot Chronicles up its sleeve... or maybe the old one, reworked for yet another new platform.
As for the new Zettai Zetsumei Toshi project, I dearly hope that the move to higher-spec systems (whether Vita or PlayStation 4) doesn't compromise the series' fundamental sense of personality. The first two games in particular walked a peculiar line between authenticity and surrealism, presenting players with the realities of survival in the wake of a natural disaster; hats weren't simply something to collect but also an important tool for minimizing sun exposure, and players found themselves dashing from one fresh water source to the next, like Sonic the Hedgehog zipping between air pockets in an underwater stage. At the same time, the games also layered heavy melodrama atop the basic struggle to survive, with the player's tale intersecting with those of jewel thieves and murderers. Despite all this, the games retained an unapologetic sense of playfulness, with amusing (and often counterproductive) dialogue choices and collectibles that often felt much stranger than was strictly necessary.
This is the form of video games that's become far too rare today: Compact, dense, inventive creations that perhaps could have stood a touch more polish but more than made up for their roughness with genuine good-spiritedness. Bigger than an indie game, yet far from AAA status. And it's not as though Irem was somehow unique in publishing games like these — everyone did. Konami had oddities like Lifeline and Spy Girls, Sega had the Headhunter games, Capcom gave us Godhand, and so forth. These games withered and vanished as the market for niche games at retail became untenable, however, and that's what makes the long-awaited debut of Granzella so exciting. If anyone stands a chance to revive this vanished corner of gaming, janky and inventive and confident enough to resist pandering to the Akihabara crowd with tacked-on borderline pornography, it's Kazuma Kujo and his team.