Yoshiro Kimura is a game designer of several decades' experience, and in that time his career has been attended by two constants. The first is that the games he has directed, without exception, are original and unusual in style. The second is that, barring perhaps only No More Heroes (on which he was producer), they have not been commercially successful. Kimura is one of those designers that proves originality, hard work and quality do not always add up to success.
But then, perhaps such a notion as 'success' could use some interrogation. From Kimura's early days the games speak for themselves. At developer Love-de-Lic he co-designed L.O.L.: Lack of Love, a bizarre and semi-brilliant evolution-style game built around eating and excreting (it was apparently inspired by James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis). Love and the lack of it is a major theme and perhaps the major theme of Kimura's work: shortly after this he directed Chulip, a game about a young boy moving to a small town and pursuing the girl of his dreams, in which you gradually make friends with various people around the town then kiss them.
In the Wii's amazing Little King's Story, you play and grow old as a monarch over the game's length, both leading and responding to your people as you try to be a 'good' ruler. This world is full of other kings, too, and their societies reflect certain cultural values. There's a place where everyone thinks being tall is best, and so are constantly trying to scramble higher and literally scale the hierarchy. Some of them send you letters calling you a jerk. And permeating everything is a sombre and unforgiving attitude about your decisions. I'd never played another game before where, after losing a soldier in battle, I returned to a town filled with black-clad mourners and an invitation to the funeral service.
This may all sound a bit weighty. What is special about Kimura's games (and the above is just a small selection) is the balance between these themes of connection, friendship, love, and a completely off-the-wall sense of humour, and penchant for the absurd.
Much has changed in the games industry over the last ten years. One of those things is that many of the places Kimura once worked, such as Marvellous and Grasshopper Manufacture, are now either publicly listed (as in the former case) or have been acquired by larger parents (in the latter case GungHo). Others, like Love-di-Lic and Kimura's own Punchline, have long-since closed their doors. So what's a guy to do?
Kimura's answer was to go indie, alongside longtime collaborators Kurashima Kazayuki, Hirofumi Tanaguchi, and Keiichi Sugiyama (you can read more and see their impressive softographies here, as well as read Kimura's diary). Their studio, Onion Games, mixes an offbeat online presence with what at first was a big focus on mobile. You can see why that made sense, not least in terms of scale, but it does mean that the studio's most ambitious game, Dandy Dungeon, was released on mobile in January 2017. Today it releases on Switch in a re-jigged form, and Nintendo's console has finally made this into the game it always should have been.
Dandy Dungeon is a game that takes place entirely within the bedroom of Yamada, a 36 year-old programmer who's a failure at life and, during the game's opening, is made unemployed by the evil Empire Games. Yamada decides that this sucks, and he's going to channel this suck into a sweet video game. As soon as a pretty girl called Maria moves in next door, inspiration strikes Yamada and, as he wonders about whether he's being creepy, he falls in love and puts 'her' in the game.
From this origin, Yamada begins to 'build' his game, a dungeon-crawler. Or that's what it is at first. As Yamada adds elements to the game, the player then 'debugs' the game, which is where the core mechanic lies. You move through dungeons of various floors, and on each floor draw a line from the start to the finish that should take in every square and defeat every enemy. This sounds simple I know, but what Onion Games manages to wring out of this single idea is magnificent.
The gimmick of Yamada creating the game as you're playing it is framed by an incredible supporting cast. The bedroom is a little like a theatre stage: people constantly walk in and out, offering advice or barking threats, and after pretty much every debug there's someone coming along to chip in. Yamada has friends such as 'the best programmer in the world', who occasionally wafts in with two levitating laptops and adds an amazing feature to the game. There's Yasu, who's a little gossip but he's your little gossip, who'll turn up after you've beaten certain bosses and boast about how he saw them drowning their sorrows in a bar.
Then there's Maria's fiance, who turns up every so often, barges in, stubs out a cigarette on your apartment wall, then delivers a meaty right hook. The chairman of Empire Games has three children who act as bosses, and they'll turn up and do dreadful things to Yamada like whipping him healthy or making him into a man.
By this point you should have some idea of whether this unusual structure and humour is for you. What makes Dandy Dungeon on Switch especially notable is that, frankly, this always felt like one of the best mobile games I'd ever played: but one where it was ruined by the free-to-play business model.
Dandy Dungeon always had a glaring contradiction at its heart. In some respects this is a game that sells authenticity. It is a game for gamers by a director who wonders where the magic has gone. You could see Empire Games, the main antagonists, as a fairly straightforward jibe at companies like Tencent.
The contradiction is that Dandy Dungeon was all-in when it came to microtransactions. Kimura might hate the big corporate publishers, but at the same time his autobiographical takedown of the industry's attitude to creativity came with an energy meter, premium currency, and an excessive amount of grind.
The Switch version leaves free-to-play behind entirely. It's out today and the price is the price. There's no longer an energy meter. My first transaction on the mobile game was buying a set of ducks which removed this restriction: the ducks are no longer needed on Switch, which is slightly sad as their quacky song was great.
Other elements are re-jigged. Mamazon, who was the corpulent and smiley face of Kimura's rapacious online store, doesn't pop up until the end of the game now, where she'll offer a range of overpriced items to enhance your endgame experience. It's a shame her character isn't more prominent; not only is she a delight to see but has one of the best themes I've ever heard ("Savings ev-er-ay day! Mamazon! Mamazon! Mamazon dot mom!")
Dandy Dungeon's hungriest element was always rice balls, which could be bought as a premium currency and used to either revive Yamada within dungeons or roll the dice with 'Hungry Questers.' The latter are great fun but basically a gacha minigame that rewards rare loot: various famished 'questers' request a rice ball from Yamada and, if you hand one over, they'll rinse through their particular dungeon in a brief animation and hand over all of the loot. Not only this but, over time, they'll level up and the chances of high-level loot increase.
The Hungry Questers... it would be untrue to say that using them was essential in the original game, at first at least. But what I found was that Dandy Dungeon on mobile started to really throttle my progress near the end, and over the course of the game's life the hungry questers' loot was what I spent the most money on.
Money money money. I want to make one thing clear which is that I spent a decent amount of money on Dandy Dungeon on mobile. Around £50 on the game in my first week just because I love Kimura's games. I bought the ducks within the first ten minutes.
The problem with F2P games, of course, is that the demand doesn't stop. The fact you've put in £50 means you might be good for another £50 or even more, and the way Dandy Dungeon escalates is no exception to this. The end of the game really did pinch players (I'm not talking about the endgame, which should be a ridiculous challenge, but actually just finishing the story), and Kimura's games are often pretty tough anyway.
I haven't quite finished the campaign on Switch yet but I'm near the end, and my progress this time around has been so much smoother. Yes I obviously know what I'm doing, because I played it so much on mobile. But that also means I can feel how much less friction there is now, appreciate things like the plentiful upgrade materials, the (relative) glut of gold, and really luxuriate in this incredible miniature world. The Hungry Questers now venture forth because of the coin I gain from dungeons, rather than an IAP, and the difference is everything.
I don't blame Onion Games for releasing Dandy Dungeon on mobile, or for bowing to the market and going the F2P route. I enjoyed the game first time around. But I'm so happy that Kimura's vision is, finally, freed of that business model's particular cage.
Dandy Dungeon is, on the surface level, merely a great dungeon-crawler with a very funny script. But as you spend more time with Yamada, and Yasu, and all the rest of the crew, you'll come to see there's something else here. Sometimes they discuss concepts like the idea of love, or loss, or what it means to be a failure and by whose lights. Sometimes you'll see Yamada slouch in front of his PC; the shoulders sagging as the combined weight of it all seems too much.
After every debug, Yamada ends up on his bed (either performing an imaginary air-kiss with Maria or KO-ed and horizontal). From here he'll jump to his PC and resume work. And he does literally jump. Yamada is designed to look like Mario, gaming's most famous everyman, and in this one instant embodies him completely: one fist is raised, the pose is the same, and even the sound effect seems mostly identical.
It's a little tribute to a game that everyone loves, sure. But I always felt there was something difficult to articulate about this animation: the first 'heave' of the day, in a sense, getting up and getting to work. Who knows how many times Kimura lay in bed, wondering if he really was a failure, before forcing himself up. And how far we've come from a video game character like Mario, personality-free and defined entirely by action, to the brave Yamada, a deadbeat coder in his mid-thirties who, as his enemies delight in pointing out, isn't even married.
There aren't many games that deliver aesthetics and personality quite like this. Yamada is a reflection of his creators as well as the industry itself. His game, as you'll hopefully discover, is quite brilliant. And unlike so many other digital avatars, this diminutive fellow has something special: a heart.