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artwork from R-Type Dimensions EX
Artwork from R-Type Dimensions EX.
Tozai Games

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How NES launch negotiations, Tetris, and Lode Runner inspired boutique game publisher Tozai

We look at the history of the company keeping classic American game franchises alive — with a distinctly Japanese flavor

“Japanese gamers hate American games.” So goes one of gaming’s most enduring misconceptions.

As with all clichés, there is some kernel of truth to the idea that Japanese video game enthusiasts look down their noses at imported software; hence the phrase yo-ge kuso-ge (“Western games, shitty games”). Overall, however, Japanese gamers have a varied and nuanced a relationship with American and European games. It can range from blind adoration to near-xenophobic contempt. A well-crafted Western game can easily rocket its way up the Japanese charts, as seen recently even with indie titles like Shovel Knight and Undertale.

Of course, a keen observer might note that many Western indie titles have a decidedly Japanese vibe to them; Shovel Knight riffs heavily on (Capcom’s) Mega Man, and Undertale plays like a love letter to (Nintendo’s) EarthBound. But bear in mind that those older works owed a great deal in turn to the primal Western works that inspired their own creators.

Publisher Tozai Games stands as a testament to this decadeslong common bond. With offices that straddle the Pacific, Tozai manages a handful of legacy intellectual properties that have transcended borders and languages for decades. Established as a management firm to help forge trans-Pacific licensing arrangements for venerable Japanese properties, Tozai eventually evolved into a publisher in its own right. Its most recent release — R-Type Dimensions EX for Nintendo Switch — hails from Japan, but its other recent productions (including Lode Runner Legacy and Spelunker Party) speak to its focus on games with a deep international legacy.

Fittingly, Tozai president Sheila Boughton and chief advisor Scott Tsumura have had a hand in publishing globe-spanning properties since the ’80s. Tsumura worked at Irem during the company’s formative years as a maker of legendary arcade titles, where he oversaw the development of early entries in the vintage franchises Tozai manages today. Boughton, on the other hand, worked at Spectrum Holobyte and Bullet-Proof Software and helped bring innovative titles to new regions. Among other titles, Boughton had a hand in Xanth Software’s pioneering first-person deathmatch shooter Faceball 2000 and, even more famously, Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris.

Boughton says it was her involvement with Tetris that started her on the path that eventually led to Tozai’s inception. “My second job was to help Alexey come from Russia and move to the United States. It was a very different [experience] from the more traditional business world,” she says, and it sparked her interest in international video game publishing.

Both Boughton and Tsumura went solo to work as consulting agents during the ’90s, where their prior experiences proved invaluable for both Japanese and Western game publishers looking to establish a foothold overseas. “At that time, there were a lot of companies that didn’t have access to foreign markets,” Boughton says. “Now, that seems sort of impossible — agents have kind of gone by the wayside, because everybody has access worldwide. But back then, there were lots and lots of [companies] that didn’t have homes in overseas regions. We worked with companies in Japan, the U.S., and Europe to bring their titles to territories for licensing and translation and localization.”

A few years later, the two established Tozai as a way to consolidate and formalize their efforts. And — apart from a couple of detours, including Tsumura managing Nintendo’s U.S. development team Nintendo Software Technology as president and chief operating officer — they’ve been doing it ever since.

R-Type Dimensions EX screenshot
A screenshot from R-Type Dimensions EX.
Tozai Games

Entertainment systems

Tsumura’s relationship with Nintendo goes back much further than NST — all the way back to the earliest days of the company’s console business, in fact. His then-employer Irem was an essential third-party partner for Nintendo during the formative years of the Famicom in the early ’80s. The studio also played a special role in the Famicom’s transformation into the Nintendo Entertainment System for the U.S.: It was the only third party whose games appeared alongside Nintendo’s at the NES launch.

“The NES launched with 17 games,” say Tsumura. “Two of them were not Nintendo games. 10-Yard Fight and Kung-Fu were produced by Irem and licensed to Nintendo to be included as launch software.” As it turns out, he says, Irem’s unique standing in the NES launch came about as a sort of apology to Tsumura.

Prior to the launch, Nintendo took a strong interest in the arcade version of Irem’s Kung-Fu (called Spartan-X in Japan). Specifically, it caught the eye of company president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Based on a Jackie Chan film called Wheels on Meals, Kung-Fu was an early side-scrolling brawler designed by Takashi Nishiyama, who went on to create the original Street Fighter a few years later at Capcom. To many, the game’s home conversion stood out as the second most impressive title in the NES launch lineup, right after the legendary Super Mario Bros. Kung-Fu on NES sported colorful visuals, tight controls, and rock-solid programming. Its excellence shouldn’t come as a surprise, though; Nintendo produced Kung-Fu’s NES version in-house under the supervision of Mario designer Shigeru Miyamoto. Initially, however, Tsumura had other intentions for Kung-Fu.

“Nintendo wanted to license Spartan-X for the Japanese market for Famicom,” he says. “But I didn’t give them the OK. Then Yamauchi called the president of our parent corporation directly, and they established a license without my knowledge. I was so mad!

“I spoke often with Mr. Miyamoto, and he didn’t realize this [had happened]. We were both surprised. I wanted Spartan-X to be Irem’s first product for Famicom in Japan, but Nintendo [produced] it instead.”

While this could have shattered the relationship between the two companies, Nintendo was quick to mend bridges. “Nintendo — not Yamauchi, but other people there — wanted to make it up to us,” says Tsumura. “I think that is one of the reasons they licensed our two games for NES.”

Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, Kung-Fu and 10-Yard Fight’s appearances as NES launch titles worked out well for all parties. Nintendo got to entice prospective customers with a slick action game and a sports title that appealed to the U.S. audience. And both games sold fairly well, which likely helped soothe the unhappiness Tsumura felt about the circumstances of the games’ development.

This Kung-Fu fight also explains one of the most distinguishing features of Irem’s 8-bit releases in Japan. Unlike NES cartridges, which were hidden from sight when inserted into the front of that console, Famicom games plugged into the top of the system. Japanese publishers typically tried to make their games stand out with colorful plastic cartridge shells and detailed label artwork, which rose proudly — sometimes garishly — above the console. Irem’s Famicom cartridges, however, stood apart from the competition’s thanks to a unique feature found in no other publisher’s games: An embedded LED located along the top edge of the cart, which glowed a bright red when the console was powered on.

“Nintendo didn’t like different designs for carts,” says Tsumura, “because they manufactured [other] publishers’ [cartridges]. But we thought, sometimes, when you finish a game, you don’t know if the system is on or off because there was no [indicator].” (Unlike the NES, the Famicom didn’t possess any sort of built-in power indicator.) “That’s why we decided to [include] lights as something special in Irem cartridges.

“Nintendo didn’t want to make this special exception,” he says, but ultimately Irem won that favor as a way of ameliorating any potential bad feelings after Yamauchi went over Tsumura’s head. Today, early Irem Famicom carts rank among the system’s most popular releases among collectors — not necessarily because the software itself is always exceptional, but because the shining red LEDs embedded in the company’s ornate white carts create make such a striking impression.

As time went on, Irem and Nintendo remained steadfast allies. Nintendo even distributed the 1987 arcade version of Irem’s original R-Type in the U.S., despite having effectively exited the coin-op business outside of its promotional PlayChoice-10 cabinets by that point. For its part, Irem published a steady stream of games on Famicom and NES, many of which went on to become cult favorites.

Lode Runner Legacy artwork
Tozai Games

Lode bearing

Irem’s greatest successes indubitably came in Japan, where audiences ate up the company’s takes on a pair of games that got their start in the U.S.: Spelunker and Lode Runner, both of which have — many years later — become cornerstones of Tozai’s current lineup.

Based on a minor PC hit by Tim Martin, Irem’s 1985 home adaptation of Spelunker was the company’s first internally developed console success. Famously difficult thanks to its utterly unforgiving design — players have to execute pixel-perfect movements in order to even make it past the first screen — Spelunker on Famicom struck a chord with Japanese audiences. Yet even its popularity pales compared to that of Lode Runner, which was one of the first Western breakout hits in the Japanese market.

Of the many legendary games to emerge from the PC market that expanded in the wake of the U.S. console industry’s “Atari Crash” of the early ’80s, perhaps none has proven quite so enduring as Doug Smith’s 1983 trap-’em-up platformer. Simple but challenging, the original version of Lode Runner cast players as a stick figure gathering treasure and avoiding enemies in a maze of brick floors, ladders, and wires. Lacking the ability to directly attack foes, the player’s only means of defense was to drill holes in the floor to snare enemies. A descendent of trap-action games like Space Panic and Heiankyo Alien, Lode Runner brought a sense of speed and strategy to the platform genre that set it apart from its forebears. Its built-in level editor didn’t hurt, either, giving players the freedom to design their own stages and share them with friends.

Perhaps nothing speaks to Lode Runner’s appeal like the many ways in which it intersected with the Tozai team’s lives from the very beginning. Smith’s masterpiece won fans around the world upon its debut, even behind the Iron Curtain. “This literally is, and was for a long time, [Pajitnov’s] absolute favorite game, long before he came to the United States,” says Boughton. “He knew Lode Runner and he loved it. He said it absolutely was one of the most well-developed and perfectly balanced games between action and puzzle that he’d ever seen.

“He told me that he created a whole disk, a whole bunch of levels, and he left them in the Soviet Union when he came over here. I’d give anything to have his original levels that he created back!”

Still, both Russian and American enthusiasm paled in comparison to Japan’s love for the game. Lode Runner did quite well for itself in its 1983 Apple II incarnation, but it took on a life of its own the following year, when Hudson released its own take on Smith’s masterpiece for Famicom.

“It was the first third-party game to sell over a million units when it released in Japan on the Famicom,” says Boughton. “It was really something.”

A graphically overhauled rendition of the Apple II release, Lode Runner for Famicom has served as the basis for many Japanese-developed follow-ups to the game, including 2017’s Lode Runner Legacy. The Famicom version managed to feel true to its source material despite boasting revamped visuals. It even retained the PC game’s level editing feature, allowing players to save their creations via the cassette-based Famicom Data Recorder peripheral that accompanied Hudson’s Famicom BASIC programming cart and keyboard. (The Data Recorder never shipped outside of Japan, so the U.S. release of Lode Runner, as with America’s versions of Excitebike and Wrecking Crew, never benefited from that critical option.) The Apple II release sold hundreds of thousands of units in the U.S.; the Famicom version sold millions.

“That’s always been the big question: Why was Lode Runner so much more popular among Japanese players than American players?” Boughton says. “Even though it was a big success in America, for sure, the Japanese loved it. I think part of it is difficulty level. I think Western players give up more easily than Japanese players do. I don’t know, scientifically, if that’s true ... it just seems that there is more persistence from Japanese players.

“You jump back to Spelunker, and that’s such a classic example of a game that did so much better in Japan than it did in the U.S. And it’s a very tough game.”

Tsumura agrees. “Japanese gamers like to think more — they like a challenge. They don’t give up as easily. Lode Runner is both puzzle and action, combined. Japanese gamers like puzzles, so the game seems suited for Japanese players.”

Lode Runner Legacy director Takuya Banno credits the success of Hudson’s Lode Runner to the fact that it’s a complete package. “It’s all more evolved in the Japanese version,” he says. “It keeps the core essence of the action puzzle game, but they made it fancier. Cute characters, better music — something lacking in the U.S. game at the time. That’s how they made such a big contribution to Lode Runner’s popularity.”

Lode Runner hit Famicom at the perfect time, debuting a few short days after the console’s first anniversary. It was around this time that the “Famicom boom” began and sales of the machine accelerated rapidly in Japan. Lode Runner shipped just as millions of kids and families became Famicom owners and began looking for interesting games to play on their new consoles, and it reaped the rewards of this timely arrival.

But while the Famicom’s newfound success undoubtedly boosted Lode Runner’s sales, Tsumura feels the reverse was even more true. “Lode Runner helped Famicom,” he says. “Before that, NEC had published Lode Runner on [PC-8801]. It was popular, so people knew about Lode Runner already. Right after Famicom Lode Runner, the arcade version appeared. That was June 1984 or so — July. It was also popular, and every market had Lode Runner. It was synergy.”

The arcade version of Lode Runner is where Tsumura’s relationship with the series began — a connection that remains strong 35 years later via Tozai. Where Hudson published the game on Famicom, and NEC handled the Japanese home computer version, Irem designed and distributed the arcade game. Lode Runner became one of a small handful of games to make the unusual journey from American PCs to Japanese arcade cabinets around that time, along with the likes of Sega’s Choplifter — a journey, Tsumura says, that posed a great many logistical challenges.

“It was difficult to convert to arcades, because arcade games are very different from PC games,” he says. “At the time, nobody was porting games from PC to arcade. PC games didn’t fit the arcade culture.

“With a PC game, you buy it and then you can play forever, anytime you want. But with an arcade game, you put in the coin and then maybe play for a few minutes. Then you die and have to put [in] another coin. In those few minutes, an arcade game must show how it’s interesting for the player while giving them enough motivation to continue playing.

“We felt like PC games or console games were like not using a real sword to fight. They were like using a wooden sword.”

“An arcade game is like using a real sword,” adds Boughton. “It really counts.”

“Right,” agrees Tsumura. “Because you get killed, it’s over. Versus on computer: Boom, ouch. Then you can continue to [play] again, and again. So it’s a really different experience. So we added extra enemies and new features. If you walked over the heads of three enemies in the arcade version, you would score a bonus. And there was a shimmering coin at the beginning of a level, and if you captured that first, you got a really hefty bonus.”

Lode Runner Legacy screenshot
Lode Runner Legacy screenshot
Tozai Games

Running through history

Thanks in part to its impressive work on the arcade conversion of Lode Runner, Irem eventually took control of the console rights and published several experts-only sequels to Hudson’s release on Nintendo’s Famicom Disk System. The property bounced from publisher to publisher in various regions through the years, as its original publisher and owner, Brøderbund, underwent a series of mergers and acquisitions.

Currently, Tozai owns the series outright.

“I was just coincidentally working with [Lode Runner designer] Doug Smith,” says Boughton. “Scott had known Doug for many, many years, and I was working with him, representing his titles through licensing relationships. When we got back together, the opportunity came up to actually acquire the IP from Doug. So that kind of started the next phase of our history, from that point.”

For the first decade of its existence, Tozai worked primarily behind the scenes as a licensor, but the advent of digital distribution allowed the company to make the leap into publishing. Beginning with 2008’s reissue of Spelunker for Nintendo’s Wii Virtual Console, Tozai has served largely as the publisher for the properties it manages. The company has also become increasingly involved with the actual development process, as with Lode Runner Legacy.

As for Legacy, its producer Banno’s involvement with the property further underscores Tozai’s international outlook. Banno fell into the company’s orbit thanks to that other classic Irem PC conversion, Spelunker, during his time at Microsoft’s Japanese arm helping to build the Xbox presence in that market.

“I was at Microsoft, doing Xbox-related business,” says Banno. “I was the sixth or seventh member of Xbox Japan. I was not a game creator; I was on the business side. I was responsible for the game portfolio in Japan — I talked to publishers.”

While Japanese gamers have long been happy to embrace certain Western games, that’s less been true for Western consoles. Like Atari’s consoles in the ’80s, the Xbox line has always existed at the outer fringes of Japanese tastes, despite Microsoft’s determination to break into the market. Microsoft encountered something between resistance and apathy straightaway upon entering Japan, and overcoming this obstacle fell in part to Banno.

“I began thinking, ‘Well, Xbox was struggling in Japan. What games would help the Japanese market?’ I started thinking about Spelunker — maybe reviving Spelunker would help the Xbox business in Japan. Spelunker is an old game, but it had a strange kind of popularity in Japan, [despite having] such a weak character.”

Of course, a straight port of the old NES game wouldn’t do anything to move the needle for an entire platform two decades later. To make Spelunker work for the Xbox audience, Banno knew he’d have to modernize the concept. The obvious solution: Use new technological opportunities to freshen the experience.

“I was also part of the Xbox Live team,” he says, “so I was always thinking about how we could enrich the game experience online. Back in 2000, no game console had the broadband connection ... well, Dreamcast did, but it was narrowband. The Xbox was the first console to add a full online experience to games. I started thinking, ‘What if you combined a classic game with online features? Then you could evolve the game, the whole experience.’ Unfortunately, I left Microsoft [before it came to fruition]. But I still wanted to take Spelunker online.”

Banno wasn’t prepared to give up on his vision of a networked overhaul of Spelunker, and his ambition eventually led to his partnership with Tozai. “I knew Scott and Sheila when I was at Microsoft, but we [had] never talked about Spelunker. After I left Microsoft, I contacted them and said, ‘Hey, I want to make a new Spelunker, an online game.’” The result of this team-up, Spelunker World for PlayStation 4, shipped in 2015 and was followed in 2017 by a co-op-focused sequel, Spelunker Party! for Switch and Windows.

“I see parents and and children playing Spelunker together on Switch, and it’s exactly what I wanted to see,” Banno says. “I don’t really like calling games ‘classic.’ Nobody calls Super Mario a classic game, because they keep updating it. I want Spelunker and Lode Runner not to be ‘classic’ games, too. I want them to be the latest games.”

Tozai is indeed the latest and perhaps last of the many companies to have produced their own distinct takes on the Lode Runner series. “So as far as we know, there’s something like 100 Lode Runners from more than 20 companies,” says Banno.

Banno’s own contribution to Lode Runner’s history has been to take the series online, as he did with Spelunker. Inspired the success of Spelunker World, Banno decided to take a similar approach with Lode Runner Legacy. It features extensive customization elements, calling back to the all-important level editor feature that helped the Apple II release stand out 35 years ago.

“Lode Runner is a very simple game, you know? There’s 100 Lode Runner games,” he says. “Some even had 3D. But creating a new Lode Runner is a big responsibility — it’s really hard. There’s a lot of pressure. You don’t always know what the correct approach is.” Rather than second-guess himself, Banno says he “decided to go back to the origin, to preserve the very basic game design. But we added a new experience with an online [component].”

In addition to its level editor, Legacy allows players to create their own character sprites, and to share them online along with their custom stages. “I thought that sharing should be the key of the new Lode Runner,” he says. “But if you can create levels, why not create characters? It’s always been about creating and sharing.”

“The level editor was such a unique and important feature of Lode Runner,” says Boughton. “So many people talk about it who had played it when they were young. It really deserves its place in history. The latest version is called Lode Runner Legacy in tribute to Doug.” [Smith died in September 2014.] “It’s pretty incredible that Lode Runner is still alive and has been brought out on virtually every platform. We’re proud of that, and I know Doug was proud, too.”

Also new in Legacy is the inclusion of voxel-based character sprites. The runners that players create don’t take the form of simple 2D bitmaps, but rather, three-dimensional objects, giving the game an almost Minecraft-like vibe. Banno says any similarity to Minecraft is merely coincidental, though.

“Voxels were inevitable, because they make characters easy to create. So it’s not that we just imitated Minecraft. I want people to create characters and share them easily, and voxels were the best option to do that.” At the same time, Banno seems happy to entertain comparisons to Microsoft’s voxel-based juggernaut if it helps younger players take note. “Lode Runner is such a famous game — a great game. But not many young people know about it. If we didn’t do anything, it’s going to be totally forgotten. We have to help those young players understand what Lode Runner is.”

“Our dream is to have people who were young and loved Lode Runner, who are now parents, to play co-op with their children,” says Boughton. “They can enjoy nostalgia themselves, but also show a really great, original work to their kids so the younger generation can really appreciate it. It’s important to keep the old games alive. Some companies do it well, and others kind of let them slide into oblivion. We’re trying to keep it alive.”

Banno and Boughton agree that a back-to-basics approach to Legacy made the most sense. While Legacy adds numerous online and customization bells and whistles, the underlying gameplay doesn’t vary significantly from what Apple II owners experienced three and a half decades ago.

“When introducing Lode Runner to the younger generation who never knew about Lode Runner, you have to keep the very basic style to let them know this is Lode Runner,” says Banno. “Action plus puzzle. We didn’t go the way of [3D sequels like] Cubic Lode Runner. We took the authentic approach. We may be able to evolve Lode Runner from here. But for now, I think it’s important to go back to the origin in order to define Lode Runner for today.”

As for Lode Runner’s future, Banno hasn’t decided on a specific plan. He does, however, have a sense of its general shape. “We had some other ideas during development,” he says, “like a tower — a cylinder that you can walk around. You’d never go into the middle. The level keeps rotating so you can see the enemy on the other side. We had that idea as another approach to Lode Runner.

“I don’t know about going too bold, like completely 3D. That’s too big a challenge for rebooting Lode Runner. Maybe that’ll be the next challenge, or the next one after that. I do see potential for going beyond the 2D structure. But I don’t have the answer yet.” Wherever Lode Runner and Spelunker do end up going from this point, Tozai intends to ensure they’ll continue to embody the legacy of those original franchises and their creators, along with the common threads and interests that unite Japanese and Western gamers.

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