Many turn to indie games for an alternative to what is found on the shelves of the average games store.

If your commercial tastes lean toward import games, Japan’s doujin games (doujin soft) scene is likely to be the focus for any indie engagements. Doujin soft to indie, is very loosely what Manga is to graphic novels.

For newcomers to the doujin world, though, the astounding amount of free titles available (not to mention the complication of commercially sold doujin soft), often coupled with pages of incomprehensible Japanese text, can prove very confusing and ultimately alienating. English language websites like Insert Credit and Canned Dogs help matters to an extent by reporting on big events that occur and pointing people in the direction of particular highlights. This increased English coverage, along with doujin games catering to now-ignored genres, has resulted in growing appreciation beyond the standard niche groups of intensely dedicated followers.

There is so much information, that this brief feature can only hope to be an introduction for the uninitiated. And despite being a huge fan, I am by no means an expert. So, allied with a fluent translator, I tracked down France’s residing doujin expert, Mr. Roni, who is also the head of leading online resource Doujinaroni. He was eager to speak of things, including the perceived East and West dichotomy. “The principle difference is the market and public’s demand. In the West, the indie scene isn’t really followed by the public, whereas in Japan there are many fans of the scene, so the games can be sold and distributed in specialized shops, not only online. Over there, it’s a true alternative to mainstream. Another major difference is, of course, the unique Japanese influence; whether it be in the style or [artistic] form, or in regard to the dynamics of the gameplay.”

But he was also very quick to address the West’s occasionally perverse fanaticism for a Japanese auteur. “In our countries (U.S.A., France, etc.) there is sometimes a ‘mystification’ of the Japanese doujin developers. Sometimes, when I read articles about the doujin scene, I want to say, ‘Hey man, get back to Earth, doujin games are not made by Shaolin monks who live on Mount Fuji!'” I assure him of my wish to remain focused on the facts; the truth is, such creators range from bureaucrats to students mostly working in their free time. Many have wives and kids and don’t even concentrate much on the scene beyond their own creations; like Takase, the one-man-team behind Arm Joe. Some are even professionals in the games industry, such as certain individuals from Capcom who cannot be named. According to Mr. Roni, only a few live a fully “doujin lifestyle” encompassing everything they do.

He also elaborated on the numbers involved in development. “It can be done by one person alone, who is in charge of everything from programming to graphics and music (like Omega with Every Extend, or Kenta Cho). But a Doujin game can also be developed by an enormous team of people, like Melty Blood or Eternal Fighter Zero. For a game like EFZ, there are multiple graphics people, animators… In the end, there’s no point hiding it: [These guys] aren’t there to have fun, they want the pro status. We can’t really [describe them as] amateur developers. They were [amateurs] many years ago, but today, they’re the best on the scene. With Melty Blood, you can clearly see it’s professional work. Neither SNK nor Capcom could have done better.” And with pro status comes greater exposure for doujin games which are commercially sold. The Melty Blood PC CD-ROM will set you back 3000 Yen ($25). Fighting fans regard it as the best of the genre on Windows. It was so popular, an update was ported to the arcades, and there are rumors of an imminent official PS2 port.

The flurry of names and games that Mr. Roni fires off is impressive, though at times tricky to follow, due to this being such a rapidly shifting movement. Everyone has their preferences, and with some titles gaining limited exposure, only occasionally do followers have precisely the same interests. Last year, thanks to the kind assistance of Japanese translator Andrew “Shih Tzu” Davis, I was fortunate enough to speak to three established figures whom I personally regard highly. One was the aforementioned Omega, a university student and self-proclaimed fan of mecha. He’s the mind behind titles like the popular, genre-defying Every Extend, and pastel colored shmup DanDaDan. Both of which are free to download, and highly innovative in what they do. These titles are like a reinvention of older ideas; not surprising when you hear his views. “I don’t like modern styled games so much. These games use so much ‘3-D graphics’ – but they don’t make games any easier to watch. They often have a ‘growth system’ – but that needs memory cards and isn’t easily playable. They also have so many buttons and complex interfaces – but that only makes it more difficult, not more interesting to play! I spend much time making visuals that are easy on the eye, an easy system to understand, and an easy control interface to use. I believe that ‘a nice game is easy to play, but hard to master.'”

Omega raises an interesting point regarding genres for doujin soft. There are flirting/dating games, and also a lot of “ero-ge,” or hentai titles. Otherwise there is heavy emphasis on 2-D fighters, shmups and traditional RPGs; mainly 2-D genres, which are no longer well-represented by mainstream developers. These are also more viable for small teams to develop.

Omega’s words are echoed by industry insider Hikoza, a doujin superstar since his 2003 release of the elegant Warning Forever. “As one who works on modern games for a living, I see a climate that doesn’t deem games sales-worthy without gorgeous graphics, epic stories, and tons of characters, and I think there is too much time and money spent on parts of the game that have nothing to do with the amount of fun. The next generation of consoles [makes] the programming even more complex, with network play increasingly [common]. I’m worried that game developers will be spending too much energy on things aside from making the games fun, and that we’ll wind up with fewer and fewer fun games overall. No matter how many people worldwide you can fight in real-time, no matter how pristinely the characters show up onscreen, a dull game is a dull game, and I wish we would spend more time and energy on just making sure the games are fun.”

Hikoza’s reason for making games outside of work is having control over the entire project and making the games he wants to make. He’s created several titles, but Warning Forever‘s beautiful simplicity proves a point. It contains only a single green wireframe boss which evolves, based on simple algorithms, allowing further appendage growth. People quickly fell in love with its unique aesthetic and masked level of depth. “The fun of making games, for me, is seeing how much playability I can get out of the least amount of data creation. I’ve received countless messages from people throughout the world. I’d assumed that a classical 2-D game wouldn’t find reception outside of Japan, but I was happy to be proved wrong by those who’ve enjoyed it.”

Wanting another opinion on genres, I spoke to Insert Credit’s doujin front man, Chaz. Though he openly proclaims his regular “Doujin Roundup” simply recaps news from Japanese forums and websites. “I just dig through piles of porn adventure games and discussions about porn adventure games, find more suitable material, read as much as I can in Japanese, then update the site.”

And his conclusion after such adventures? “Doujin games are not only an entertaining and fresh take on games, but also a fascinating field of social and cultural study about the interests and concerns of a more and more influential part of the Japanese population. They also present an interesting case of IP management, as most games adapt universes and characters from either professional licenses or other doujin games without permission, yet this recycling fuels new interest in the original IPs and, therefore, isn’t seen as a plague but on the contrary, as [good]. Doujin softs are home to great genres that have been abandoned or marginalized by mainstream companies, such as shooters, fighters, brawlers, the importance of good writing, and 2-D representation … and porn adventure games. As most of these successful doujin titles are not free, they prove a viable economy can exist around niche products that target their audience intelligently, even in the [risk averse] game business.”

The usage of others’ modern IP is quite different to Western indies, but also commendable considering it allows one to play exceedingly high quality fan work, sometimes based on games that aren’t continued. Being a fervent fan of Skygunner on the PS2, I’ve been paying close attention to Gunners Heart. The PC disc retails for 1890 Yen, but a free demo is available. The game is a wonderful 3-D shooter based on Skygunner, with some extremely high production values, and should definitely be investigated.

But commercial doujin soft can prove problematic to acquire when living outside Japan, with only some stores like Himeya making purchases in the U.S.A. easy. Within Japan, according to Mr. Roni, dedicated stores are big business, while development isn’t. “There are chains of doujin shops like White Canvas or Melon Books. It is easy for a Japanese guy to get his game distributed in these. They aren’t very demanding, [with] both good and bad in the shops. [Success can’t be gained through advertising], everyone has the same chances to make a name on the scene. However, it’s only wishful thinking for [someone] to live off his work! The doujin scene is not an El Dorado, [but there have been exceptions]. The average game sells between 100 and 500 maximum. There are no rules or regulations, the game can either succeed or fail. Commercial logic is completely absent. It’s a hard job without pity, and to become known you need luck.”

He elaborates considerably that Melty Blood‘s runaway success is not a common occurrence. Profitability is mainly for the specialty stores, which focus more on doujin Manga than games. While some groups do treat development like a job, they’re paid very little. It’s a path only for the passionate, like Murasame with Gundeadline, who wasn’t concerned about money. Regardless of commercial ambitions, the biggest form of publicity and distribution, apart from the net, is at the regular Comiket convention. According to Roni, though, some, like the hugely popular Kenta Cho, never display their work there.

Despite having to purchase some games, there are still many more free titles released than commercial. This creates a huge archive of games to download. Despite hitting the net at the tail end of 2004, a defining landmark release that people are still strongly enamored with, is Doukutsu Monogatari (aka Cave Story) by Pixel. There has been a translation, tribute sites and a lengthy TIGS interview conducted alongside my own questions.

The influence of Metroid, Castlevania and Megaman are plain to see, while a five year development period ensured faultlessly high production values (doujin soft development lengths vary wildly from a month to half a decade in some cases). The zealous praise it received was unsurprising, two teams even competed to create an English translation patch, and it’s rightly regarded as an example of how great doujin games can be. What is surprising is the humble nature of the game’s origins and its incredibly shy creator. “At the time I started work on Doukutsu Monogatari, I was a student, but now I’m an office worker. My entire life had changed by the time this game was finished. At home, I help with household duties and child care. Any personal software development of mine takes place primarily late at night. I can’t help but feel a thrill when I see little pixel people running around over simple, light backgrounds.”

Pixel makes no pretenses about his creative methods; the haunting melodies were composed by randomly arranging letters until he found a sound he liked. In fact, nothing about the game was pre-planned; it came about through sheer hard work and long hours. He invented things as he went along, leaving plot intricacies to the player’s imagination. Surprisingly, it worked perfectly, showing there’s no recipe for great games. The characters are memorable, the weapons satisfying, and the sense of discovery is simply magical. But above all, everything is uniquely imaginative. Despite the similarity, to other games it never feels hackneyed.

For those who find the world of doujin soft daunting, Doukutsu Monogatari is a great (though old) place to start before plunging deeper into online stores and conventions. While only so much can be covered in one sitting, hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough to explore further. Doujin soft is far removed from both the standard game market and Western indie scene. It has its own visual styling, genres, subculture and even unique form of commercialism. It is another facet in a rapidly diversifying industry, and one that deserves exploration. Just stay away from the hentai.

John Szczepaniak is a South African freelance videogame writer with a preference for retro games. He is also a staff member on the Retro Survival project, which contains articles on retro gaming and is well worth investigating.

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