The Incredible Real-Life Story Behind The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa

By Jeremy Hosking on at

Vadim was returning from school with his grandmother when he noticed, at the entrance to his home, blood had been spilled. As they climbed the staircase, more and more came into view, their front door a disturbing preview of what was inside. Pushing it open and stepping into the apartment, they saw their bathroom floor was absolutely covered.

“I really got scared that time. It turned out that my father was outside using a street phone when some guys tried to rob him. He knocked out one of them but the other one cut him with a knife. He can’t clench a full fist with his left arm since then, but it was OK... since his best punch was a right overhand.”

Such experiences were some of the influences that would many years later pour into Vadim’s self-developed indie title: The Friends Of Ringo Ishikawa.

Born in Moscow in 1981, Vadim (known as Yeo) describes it as not an easy time and place to live. Growing up as a teen through the mid 90s in a hard neighbourhood, he fought a lot. When a schoolyard fight escalated into him breaking his assailant’s jaw and the police getting involved, he was saved by unbiased witnesses who were able to corroborate the story and have the file closed: “after that I was quite scared to fight in the streets.”

Age 15, he took a keen interest in kickboxing at his local gym, over time switching to boxing due to medical issues with his legs and a bad eye injury sustained in a losing fight. “Two guys worked on me on the ground and my buddy was just standing there, watching…”

It’s perhaps no surprise that The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa’s (TFORI) opening launches the player jumping and kicking straight into a scrap with a rival gang. Their train trundling back towards town, this flurry of tightly controlled movement sits in front of a beautifully realised, pixel-art cityscape sunset. It merely hints at the atmospheric depth the game exudes as you grow to be immersed in this side-scrolling world, and “world” is the key.

At a cursory glance, TFORI is a clear cousin of the best of 80s and 90s side scrollers unleashed during the 16-bit era, its combat arguably equalling or even surpassing its retro cousins. However, as you freely explore these locales, complete with hands in pockets and cigarette lit, the true depth ekes out slowly and patiently.

Set during the 1980s in a rural, fictional Japanese town, you play as Ringo, a high school gang leader trying to live out his last autumn before graduation alongside his best friends. Devoid of mini-maps, quest lists and mission markers, the game’s Steam page description encourages you to “just live there and feel. And that's all.” Wrapped up in a grounded tale exploring themes of betrayal, loneliness and adolescence, players are free to peruse and wander as they like amidst the unfolding story.

This might mean discovering a video store down a side street and chatting with its pretentious staff, whilst later relishing the solitary peace of the riverside’s lush greens against a distant, hazy skyline. Or perhaps after waxing lyrical with a peer at the diner, you might skirt round brawling gangs on the edge of town and wonder what this dilapidated estate in the background once was. You may merely decide to pause for a moment of reflection, sitting on a park bench to light up a cigarette: for which there is a dedicated button amidst an otherwise-minimalist control scheme.

This virtual inhabitation has longstanding ties for Yeo. “My personal favourites are Final Fantasy 7 and XenoGears. And FF7 above all. It doesn’t have any freedom plot-wise but you can live in the game. With all those side activities and small unnecessary details, like a villa which you could buy. You can just fly all over the world and do stuff. So I wanted to do the same; I wanted to tell a strong story and make it possible to live in the game’s world. That’s all I wanted and loved in the games — to be able to live in their world.”

Such a love of gaming entered Yeo’s own world from an early age. “I was selling games with my friends since we were 15 years old. We made a company and worked for ourselves at the local market, it was very easy business. You bought the games — illegal of course, for hacked versions of consoles — at one place then you sold them with the margin at another. So we were hanging around, playing games and making some serious money. It didn’t last long but it was one of the best times in my life. That feeling of freedom and friendship, that all roads were open and there wasn’t anything we couldn’t achieve. Yeah, I liked that time a lot.”

One of Yeo's early notebooks about the game's concepts

Whilst Streets of Rage, Final Fight and later Persona 3 and Shenmue were key influences, during these formative years one series had a particularly profound impact. Created by Technōs Japan of Double Dragon fame, the Kunio-Kun franchise came to be in the late 80s, initially in the arcades then on all manner of consoles.

“One afternoon my mom said ‘somebody came to see you.’ I walked outside and my heart stopped — there were some bad delinquents from our school. ‘Do you have something to play on NES?’ one of them asked. ‘Sure’ — I gave him some cartridge. ‘Here, play this while we play yours.’"

This illicit four-game cartridge contained three other Kunio Kun titles but most importantly, one game called Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari (DNM) — famously localised in the West as the iconic River City Ransom.

“What was so different with DNM? You could live there. It was like an early GTA game. Free roaming, open city, usual daily activities. You also couldn’t die. And you had all the other Nekketsu games as a part of one big universe; so you could live in DNM, then switch to Ike Ike and play some hockey, then go fighting in Nekketsu Kakutō Densetsu (a fighting tournament themed title). I wished there was one big Nekketsu game where you could live and participate in different activities without changing cartridges. I was designing one on paper when I was at university, just for fun — just for ‘what if I could do a game someday.’ And I wrote in the notebook ‘You can smoke by pressing a button.' It was 2002 or 2004.”

However, it was not until 2006 Yeo became acquainted with GameMaker 6.1, the tool he would develop his ideas through over the following 12 years, as well as GameMaker Studio. “I hadn’t learned how to program during my ‘career' but I learned Excel, VBA and SQL so when I discovered GameMaker in 2006 it wasn’t hard to pick it up and make scripts with GML.”

Why the later switch to GameMaker Studio? Because, incredibly, one day the rain came through the window and destroyed Yeo's computer, and the required software licenses along with it.

“I know that sounds funny, but I’m not making it up.”

When asked to recall the specific timeline of TFORI’s development, Yeo admits he can't remember: “it’s really hard to tell.” His earliest projects dabbled in the Kunio Kun world, borrowing character and background sprites that were then churned together with the distinctive fighting mechanics he was developing, as well as non-playable characters he’d programmed. He had wanted to create his own graphics and learned to draw, but after one year it had drained all his energy.

Over time, experimenting through prototypes continued to flesh out aspects of the concept. Early attempts were fun and easy one-week ventures Yeo enjoyed putting together, the time invested deepening with each project. One titled 'Ryuichi no Blues' was formed from working on it every day for 9 months, giving birth to Yeo’s creation of AI characters brawling and the idea of gang-on-gang fighting for example. Each scenario had the same style of ever-evolving gameplay whilst the story was always new. Building off these foundations, work on TFORI’s scenario began in 2014.

Yeo's father

“So when I was doing Ringo I wasn’t really in need of quitting my job. I worked as a team leader at the Moscow IT Government Department. It wasn’t very hard work so I had time to work on the game even during working hours. I walked the city during my lunchtime, never getting close with my colleagues or even trying to be part of the community. After university [Yeo has a Masters degree in chemistry] I decided to be a loner.” Over time, personal introspection revealed to Yeo where his own true passion lay.

“When I was watching some movies like La La Land, Joy or any other dream-related stuff I couldn’t look in their eyes ‘cause they asked me ‘alright you had a dream and you found out what you really love and you’re good at it but have you done everything you could? Did you give it your all? Did you risk anything?’ And I couldn’t say ‘yes’ to any of them. But it’s the life without regrets that gives you a real freedom.”

It took 4 years for Yeo to leave his full time job and focus solely on TFORI — a calculated bet that closely resonated with lessons he’d learned when he was younger. Growing up, many gambling houses and casinos were opening in Moscow and step-by-step he became addicted, with an ensuing loss of control.

Yeo at home

“My mom gave me the money to buy a gold watch as a birthday present for my dad, but with so much cash in my pocket I couldn’t resist testing my luck — which wasn’t there, as I found out! Then I lost the money my uncle gave me to start a new business. My mom found me a job to pay my debts but I took all the money that was in the cash box and gave it to the ‘robots’ [slot machines]. It was very hard to quit it but I did it. One thing that I learned is that you have to risk something if you want to win. You can’t win big if you’re playing with low bets — that enlightenment came to me when I lost really badly.”

Far from the captivating grip of the robots, Yeo’s resolute focus on his craft is plain; not only from the evidence of what he’s produced but in his personal approach to workmanship. Throughout 6 years of development, he never used any project management software or task list tools to manage the thousands of complex puzzle pieces he was pulling into place, aside from a humble TXT file on the odd occasion. This relentless pursuit is a mantra he took from legendary Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa.

“Akira Kurosawa told me — and he learned it from Balzac — that you just have to work every day. When you start climbing the mountain you don’t look up ‘cause it could frighten you, the amount of work you have to do. The mountain is huge. And when you’ve climbed enough you don’t look down, ‘cause you also will be scared - you’ve done so much and if you fall you couldn’t do it again. So you just need to look 10 metres further, just work on something every day, at your own leisure. It takes character, yes, but it’s not that hard if you love what you do. It’s all about discipline.”

Such relentless discipline however can also take its toll. For Yeo, during one particular impasse, another renowned East Asian director provided further lessons from cinema.

An image of Yeo he used to create animation frames

“One day I watched The Matrix Reloaded and some other long movie and I was exhausted. I watched them one after another without rest; I was bored and didn’t expect much when I started the third movie. It was Zhang Yimou’s Hero and it struck me right in the heart. That’s when I realised that the true art would strike you regardless. So it’s been an excuse for me ever since then. When I think that maybe I just got old and am not into playing games or watching movies anymore, I remember that Hero made me alive in a just few seconds.”

That the mesmerising visuals of Yimou’s films strike such a chord with Yeo is apt given his belief that aesthetics matter the most in games, evidenced in TFORI’s stunning artwork. He believes if the gameplay is bearable but the aesthetics are good and there’s a strong emotional impact, “like” elevates to “love” and the game may become a personal favourite. Final Fight is negatively referenced, a title he considers effectively identical to Streets of Rage but where inferior colours, animations and music render it a lesser experience.

Opposing such an aesthetic appreciation however is how arduous the process was for TFORI. After posting a job description online, what followed was 2 months of negative responses — “your concept sucks” / “you’re paying too low” / “you’re an idiot.” Aside from a couple of initial conversations with one or two interested artists and an artist’s bar background, Yeo’s vision still hadn’t transitioned from mind to monitor.

Part of the selection process was asking artists to do a single test background, in addition to looking at their portfolio. In the case of Artem “Wedmak2” Below, the creations within his body of work weren’t quite right, so attention then shifted to the background he’d produced. What Yeo’s eyes fell on was perfect. “When Artem sent me his version of Ringo’s home street I was like ‘no way — does he really want to work with me?’”

Yeo’s high praise for Artem is only equal to his gratitude, recognising how great a risk he took and that great credit for the game eventually being completed and released should go to his collaborator. Initially Artem said he couldn’t create all the backgrounds so agreed to do three. Then another three, then another three, and so on until he’d brought the entire TFORI world to life.

“I might’ve wanted it more sorrowful and depressed but Artem is such a good and pure man that I think it was hard to him to make it dark. So it’s a slightly compromised version of my vision of Ringo’s world."

“I think that you can’t explain your vision to anybody. When I go to a barber I can’t really explain what I need. Even if I have an image he will do it like he sees it and like he can. So you go to a barber and say 'make my hair short' and if you like what he’ll do you can go to this exact barber and have the same haircut every time. But it’s his version of haircut, maybe close to what you asked but still his. The same goes with any artist or musician.”

Whilst Yeo’s tremendous vision gave him extensive scope, there were moments when it simply overwhelmed;  the load too great, the burden too heavy. These are the times when we might reach out to those closest to us, or perhaps hope they’ll reach into our situation and lift us onto steadier ground. During development, seeing her son’s exhaustion, Yeo’s mother had asked if she could try asking his father again for help. The question had been proposed by Yeo before but his father refused, with Photoshop deemed too overwhelming and pixel art too difficult.

At 58 years old, Yeo’s father, Nikolay, is unemployed, primarily due to his age. Age however has not quashed his appetite for physical fitness, being in great shape and even learning acrobatics himself. Greatly adept at learning throughout his life, he possesses a number of self-taught talents, from being a deft pianist and guitarist through to skills in illustration and oil painting. However, such natural flair wouldn’t proceed further than this stage and never came to full fruition.

“I believe that my father is a gifted man in many areas but he’s lacking of a character," says Yeo. "That’s why he’s not pro at any.”

Yeo's father

When his son approached him for help once more, this time Nikolay chose to enter the fray. Yeo would provide still frames from video of himself personally executing almost all of the game’s fighting moves, capitalising on his background in martial arts. This even extended to the various, somewhat less combative, smoking animations. Humbly starting off in Microsoft Paint with no prior experience, Nikolay would trace each frame by hand, pixel by pixel, eventually adapting to the free Graphics Gale editor software alongside Yeo’s tuition. In total, he completed all of the game’s NPC designs and 700 frames of animation for Ringo, the lead character.

Yeo found this closely collaborative process to be its own reward for both of them. “I’m glad that he has something to strive for and be passionate about now… I just love to spend time with him and that’s all.”

The warmth in their relationship can perhaps be traced back to younger years: Yeo recalls the the pair duelling all evening as their favourite characters in bouts of Tekken 2 and Tobal No. 2. This united joy of combat spilled over into martial arts, sowing some of the earliest seeds for TFORI's veritable Japanese locale.

“My love for Japanese culture began with karate, I think. My father was an early Soviet Kyokushin karateka so he taught me some kicks when I was little. He told these stories about Mas Oyama doing these crazy things like fighting with bulls and breaking stones and living alone in the mountains for months. I believed everything my dad was saying so it’s no wonder Japan became a very special and mysterious country in my mind.”

At the time, ninja and kung fu movies were flooding the market. Once, the two headed to the cinema after Yeo’s father asked him if he’d seen the cult martial arts film, Bloodsport, spuriously describing it as a “documentary about an underground fighting tournament taking place in Hong Kong.”

Artwork for TFORI supplied by an artist that didn't turn out to be the right fit

“Oriental culture was everywhere… you couldn’t really escape it. I was fond of everything that was somehow related. I even played Duffy Duck on Sega ‘cause he could do some kicks at one stage.”

Despite such fondness, Yeo wasn’t swayed so far as to supplant the story he wanted to tell. “When I wrote the story and dialogue I didn’t think about them as Japanese at all, I just wrote from my personal experience and sense of style. I didn’t base my characters on any manga, anime or movie, rather I based them on my real life friends… though the characters are archetypal, they have these details that make them real and not just common templates.”

The game’s excellent dialogue and the tale it tells lean closer to literature than 80s pop culture. A fan of the works of Japanese authors Murakami Ryo and Yukio Mishima, Yeo’s highest praise is for wordsmiths closer to home, “I believe that we have the strongest writers in the world and these are Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky.” Having read all their works, he even included the full text of The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina as in-game books that the player can purchase and read if they wish.

What began as young inquisitiveness into Japan eventually came full circle, with TFORI welcomed fondly by the local audience even prior to any translation, receiving early press coverage upon its worldwide Steam release in May 2018. The Japanese localisation was completed in August 2018 and the title found its way to the Nintendo Switch in April this year. “The best part is that Japanese players liked the game and I was honoured to even be at 7th place in their chart, next to the newest port of Final Fantasy VII. That was a really great moment, to sit next to your favourite game of all time.”

Yeo is really appreciative for all the feedback he’s received across the globe; for him, the depth and detail of positive reviews easily negates the odd critical notice. He recalls the first player review he laid eyes on.

“I shivered when I was reading it. I was overwhelmed with emotion. When I read that somebody understood the story the way I meant it, I was almost crying. I was like ‘I was right after all. I did it right.’ And it’s really the feeling I never got from anything else. 'Somebody understood me. I’m not worthless.’”

“Every deep positive review touches and motivates me. It doesn't matter if it comes from a known journalist or a no-name player… positive reviews and players’ reception overall gave me the strength to go further.”

A concept project that eventually led to TFORI

Followers of Yeo on Twitter have begun to see evidence of what in fact these next steps are. Though TFORI’s sales will enable him in time to work on a pet project for a couple of years (JRPG) currently he’s working on another self-developed title, Arrest of a Stone Buddha.

“It’s set in 1970s France, mainly inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville movies and John Woo Hong Kong style gunplay action. Again it’s a very existential and even philosophical work. I believe that players will love the action but will they understand the whole game and will they receive it? I really doubt it, but I love this game very much… it’s a very experimental work, and it's quite short, shorter than Ringo.”

Yeo’s character reveals itself in the very makeup of The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa, the entirety of his passion poured directly into its creation. His approach combines a depth of vision and philosophical perspectives with a love of the arts and an affinity with pop culture. Given his unwavering commitment to his craft, whatever challenges he chooses to take on next will undoubtedly be watched by audiences both East and West.

Ultimately, it will be Yeo asking himself once more: “did I give it my all, did I give everything I could?” With The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa, he can safely answer “yes.”