By Lewis Packwood
Thanks to the high-profile split between Konami and Hideo Kojima, the cancellation of the promising Silent Hills and a damning report that criticised working conditions at the firm, things haven’t been looking too rosy at Konami of late.
Added to that is a statement by the company indicating a possible future focus on mobile gaming, along with the reveal of “erotic Castlevania pachinko”, leaving many wondering whether the Japanese gaming giant will continue to invest in mainstream gaming at all. On Friday, further reports emerged on French site Gameblog suggesting that the departure of Konami’s technical director meant that it was ceasing development on all its console franchises except PES.
So, with the last Kojima-authored Metal Gear on shop shelves and the future output of Konami looking uncertain, now seems as good a time as any to look back over the company’s illustrious history. And boy oh boy do they have a lot of fantastic games to their name - in particular an astounding run through the late eighties and early nineties in which they produced a slew of now-legendary franchises, from Castlevania to Contra.
But perhaps the most interesting titles are the ones that have almost been forgotten, including Motocross Maniacs on the Game Boy - an early foreshadow of the all-conquering Trials HD - and oddball shooters like Sexy Parodius. I’ve picked out a few of Konami’s highlights, but bear in mind this is a highly subjective list - if you think I’ve missed any stone-cold classics, let me know in the comments.
Track and Field (Arcade, 1983)
“Finally”, arcade goers cried, “a game that recreates the elegance of athletics via the medium of whacking buttons as quickly as humanly possible. Rejoice!” And lo, arcade cabinets were smote, and button-repair mechanics were on constant standby, and the wrath of arcade owners knew no bounds. Especially when cheeky schoolkids started employing the advanced technique of rubbing biros and metal rulers across the buttons to improve their scores, thus smiting the cabs all the more quickly.
Gradius series (Various, 1985–2008)
The Gradius games (aka Nemesis for some Western releases) were some of the best horizontally scrolling shoot ‘em ups around in the eighties and nineties, mostly thanks to their newfangled power up system. Gradius V is often regarded as the pinnacle of the series, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Gradius: The Interstellar Assault on the Game Boy, which was hands down one of the best games for the system - and one of the best looking, too, thanks to its fancy 2-megabit (count ‘em!) cartridge. The series has been on hiatus for the past few years, unless you count the 2011 slot machine Gradius The Slot. Which I don’t.
Gradius V. Oooh, pretty (Image credit)
Castlevania series (Various, 1987–??)
As a kid, the idea that a vampire hunter would head out to to defeat Dracula armed with a whip seemed entirely plausible and inherently cool - after all, Indiana Jones used a whip, and he was possibly the coolest person in my nine-year-old world. As an adult, it seems like a fairly poor choice of weapon for tackling the undead, unless you’re planning to whip cigarettes out of their mouths for a bet, but at least it provides the all important ability to swing off chandeliers.
Having played through the original Castlevania recently I can testify that it’s excruciatingly difficult, but thankfully the series has mellowed out a bit in its old age, and the recent Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was a 3D tour de force for the series (shame about Lords of Shadow 2, but hey, moving on). Special mention goes to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for pioneering the Metroidvania genre (along with Metroid, natch).
Contra series (Various, 1987–2011)
In Europe, these games were known as Probotector and featured robots instead of burly brodudes, ostensibly because of German censorship laws. Probotector is a portmanteau of ‘robot’ and ‘protector’ - so you see, minister, the robots are PROTECTING us, so it’s ALL RIGHT for them to be shooting up the place, because they’re PROTECTING US WITH GUNS. Contra, on the other hand, is a Latin preposition meaning ‘against’. No, I don’t know either. Brodudes AGAINST aliens? No idea.
Anyway, in Europe they eventually started calling the games Contra from 1996 onwards, presumably because everyone realised Probotector was a stupid name and they probably had better things to do than censor brodudes. Contra III: The Alien Wars (aka Super Probotector) for the Super NES was possibly the peak of the series, which has been AWOL since 2011, unless you count the slot machine Contra 3D. WHICH I DON’T. (Is this it now Konami? Are all our favourite franchises to end their days as slot machines?)
Metal Gear series (1988–??)
One of my favourite facts about Metal Gear is that the cardboard box was in it from the very beginning, showing how intrinsic a part of the series it really is. That and the fact that in Metal Gear Solid V you can research and upgrade your cardboard box with a poster of an animé girl or even use it to go sledding. That Kojima eh, what a guy. What on earth is going to happen to the series without him at the helm? Let me guess… slot machine?
Can you spot Snake? (Image credit)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game (Arcade, 1989)
Konami held the license for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for many, many years, and they milked that license HARD. Man, there was some serious reptilian teat chafage. But in a welcome change from most lazily licensed properties of the 1980s and 90s, quite a few of the TMNT games were actually really good, notably TMNT: Tournament Fighters on the SNES and the original Game Boy effort (although it was far, far too easy).
But easily the pick of the bunch was the 1989 arcade game, which featured all four turtles - Alvin, Simon, Theodore and Einstein - along with their signature weapons - Bo Diddley, Stilton, Grapes and… I don’t know… just a gun or something. To be honest, my memory of the franchise is hazy. I mean, it was TWENTY-SIX YEARS AGO. Man that makes me feel old.
Motocross Maniacs (Game Boy, 1990)
When Trials HD came out and everyone was praising its genius, I could be seen grabbing the elbows of passers by and smugly informing them: “Well, that’s just Motocross Maniacs in 3D that is. I mean, Konami made that game waaaay back in 1990 man, for the GAME BOY of all things! And it was ace, the controls were spot on perfect, and the courses were just like rollercoasters, and… hey, where are you going? Come back! I’ve got screenshots to show you!”
Tiny Toon Adventures (NES, 1991)
Along with the TMNT games, Tiny Toon Adventures is proof of Konami’s uncanny ability to take licensed properties and actually make decent games out of them. This sounds like a simple enough thing to do, but if you’ve ever played The Flintstones on the NES, or pretty much any Simpsons game, you’ll know how easy it is to massively screw these things up.
Cybernator (SNES, 1992)
Cybernator is another run-and-gun game like Super Probotector, but instead of playing as weedy little robots on a mission to protect stuff (or something), you’re a massively obese robot on a mission to F**K S**T UP.
Axelay (SNES, 1992)
Axelay was the Super NES game that you showed off to your Mega Drive-owning mates. “Look at that massive lava dude swinging his arms around in 3D! Can your console do that? Can it? Can it?! ANSWER ME GODDAMN IT! Feel the burn, FEEL IT! [Pause] What?... Yes OF COURSE it’s meant to be flickering like that.”
Massive flickery lava dude (Image credit)
Lethal Enforcers (Arcade, 1992)
Out of all the games on this list, Lethal Enforcers is probably the one that holds up least well when viewed through the harsh prism of hindsight. But trust me, when this game came out, during those brief five minutes in the early 90s when digitised graphics were THE FUTURE, this looked photo-realistic. Even now though, the graphics still hold some charm; it’s like shooting your way through Turner and Hooch crossed with Die Hard II, with occasional cameos from a hostage who looks a bit like Lily Tomlin in Nine to Five. Actually, I’d pay to see that crossover movie. And why has there never been a video game based on Nine to Five? “Press X to hog tie Dabney Coleman.”
Parodius (SNES, 1992)
Parodius was a PARODY of GRADIUS (geddit?), hence why you were shooting penguins and dancing girls instead of aliens. The SNES game was actually the second in the series but the first to be released in Europe, and there ended up being around half a dozen Parodius games altogether, most of which never left Japan.
A notable entry is 1996’s Sexy Parodius, in which the final boss is a woman in an “erotic costume”. I can sense your outcry, but when you find out the reason why she’s wearing an erotic costume, you will be ashamed of your words and deeds.
Rocket Knight Adventures (Mega Drive, 1993)
In the 1990s, there was a terrible, terrible period when publishers were falling over each other to create anthropomorphic animal mascots in an attempt to ape the success of Sonic the Hedgehog. Limp efforts such as Bubsy the Bobcat and Ty the Tasmanian Tiger deservedly fell into obscurity, but Sparkster the Opossum from Rocket Knight Adventures… well, he also fell into obscurity. But undeservedly so, as he was the star of a fantastic game. At least it got a sequel or two: no slot machine as of yet, though.
Snatcher (Mega-CD, 1994)
Snatcher was directed by Hideo Kojima and was essentially a visual novel that looked like a cross between Blade Runner and Akira. It knocked around on several platforms in several versions in Japan, but in the West the only version we got was for the Mega-CD, which is now exceedingly rare. The game is notorious for being fairly gruesome and bloody, as well as downright awesome.
Poor old Gibson (Image credit)
International Superstar Soccer/Pro Evolution Soccer (Various, 1995–??)
I have no interest in football and I’m utterly terrible at football games, so I have absolutely no clue what to say about the ISS series (which was later replaced by the Pro Evolution Soccer series to show Konami’s disdain for the teaching of creationism in schools). Suffice to say it was pretty good at the start, then got better, and now isn’t as good. Or so I’ve heard.
Get the ball off that one! Go on, get it! (Image credit)
GTI Club (Arcade, 1996)
This game tasked you with barrelling about a European town in a Mini, and hence will always be known as the Italian Job game that never was. It’s notable for the fact that the arcade cabinet had a handbrake – a laudable decision that has rarely been copied. Many happy hours were spent in my youth doing handbrake turns in a Mini around faux Turin – and later, once I got my driving licence, around Tesco car park.
Beatmania series (Arcade, 1997–2002)
The game that launched Konami’s Bemani division and essentially kickstarted the craze for plastic musical instrument game peripherals. It featured a turntable and a few buttons, it was insanely hard, and some people got INSANELY good at it. See the video.
Rakuga Kids (N64, 1998)
OK, so Rakuga Kids was never going to give Street Fighter a run for its money, but it’s worth mentioning as one of just a couple of 2D fighting games available for the N64. It looked brilliant, with a vibrant art style reminiscent of PaRappa the Rapper on the PlayStation, and it also had a character called Beartank. Who was a bear. But also a tank. Genius.
Suikoden II (PlayStation, 1998)
Some people say this is better than Final Fantasy VII. I’ll just leave that hanging there for a sec so you can get your rage/awe properly worked up. Then I’ll launch this bombshell at you: I hated Final Fantasy VII. BOOM.
Show me the bone dragons in FFVII, why don’t you? (Image credit)
Dance Dance Revolution series (Arcade, 1998–??)
It’s difficult to overemphasise just how huge the DDR (aka Dancing Stage) series was back in the early 2000s. People loved it, and when the home console port came out for the PlayStation, people bought it in droves and spent weeks attempting to convince themselves that the soft, slippy, unresponsive mat was somehow just as good as the arcade version. And even though the masses have moved on, Konami are still making DDR machines, and there are still plenty of dedicated fans. Like this guy.
DrumMania and GuitarFreaks (Arcade, 1999–2012)
Long before Guitar Hero and Rock Band, there were DrumMania and GuitarFreaks. Both games were huge in Japan, and could be linked together so that two people could play guitar and another person could play drums. Then one day in the mid-2000s, the manufacturer of the guitar peripherals, RedOctane, approached Harmonix with the idea of making a similar guitar-themed game for the American market, and the rest is history. But know this: if it wasn’t for Konami’s wonderful idea of creating a rhythm action game with a guitar controller, your attic wouldn’t currently be stuffed full of expensive and unused plastic instruments.
Also, ‘Super Shomin Car’ is brilliant - you can keep your Black Sabbath, I’ll stick with the J-pop.
Oh, and ‘Luvly Merry-Go-Round’, that was ace, too.
Silent Hill series (Various, 1999–??)
Oh god, the ghost babies in the school. That bit in the first Silent Hill stands out as the first time I properly lost my s**t in a video game. Resident Evil may have had a couple of jump scares, but Silent Hill had unease down to a tee, to the point where when something actually did happen - like the ghost babies or, god forbid, the nurses - it was pant-wettingly scary. And don’t get me started on Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2. So far, there have been ten games in the main series, the last couple of which have been fairly mediocre, although Silent Hills looked set to change all that. And now it won’t. Ugh. But at least there’s a Silent Hill slot machine on the way, eh? Eh? EH?
Nightmare fodder (Image credit)
Silent Scope (Arcade, 2000)
The arcade version of this game had a massive sniper rifle attached to it with a smaller screen in the sights that showed a close up view of where you were pointing the gun on the main screen. It turned out to be a lot of fun, if incredibly difficult. The Dreamcast home version was exactly the same but without the massive sniper rifle, and it wasn’t as much fun. It turns out that the massive sniper rifle was what made it fun. Also, staring at scantily-clad women increased your health, for some reason. And when you find out the reason, you will be ashamed of your words and deeds.
Ring of Red (PS2, 2001)
An underrated gem, despite sounding like an unfortunate digestive problem. This turn-based tactics game is set in an alternative version of Japan after the Second World War, where a Korean War-style scenario plays out and the country ends up divided into a communist north and capitalist south.
Both sides develop mechs to cope with the mountainous terrain, but unlike the futuristic vertical tanks in, say, Armored Core, these mechs are wonderfully primitive, slowly wheezing and grunting about under diesel power. It’s unique and brilliant, but sadly the game never received a sequel.
Zone of the Enders (PS2, 2001)
ZOE is another franchise that was worked on by Hideo Kojima (he was the producer), and the first game looked utterly astonishing when it whizzed onto the PS2 in 2001. Sadly, the game was over a bit too quickly, but it looked and played brilliantly - and the sequel was even better.
Boktai (GBA, 2003)
Kojima also produced the Boktai games (seriously, what are Konami going to do without him?). The first two games in the series had a photometric sensor built into the game cartridge, which could sense when it was daylight – and not any old light mind you, actual sunshine. The main character Django is a vampire hunter, and you needed sunlight – actual sunlight – to charge up his gun and to destroy certain bosses. It was bonkers, but brilliant - and a gun charged by sunlight is a much more sensible vampire-slaying weapon than a whip, in my book.
Django drags a coffin about - did you get the reference? (Image credit)
So, there you have it: Konami’s highlights. Here’s hoping that despite recent indications, there are plenty more to come. Games, that is, not lists.
Lewis Packwood is a freelance writer and co-author of A Most Agreeable Pastime.