For the past four decades, famous Japanese game companies such as Nintendo, Sega, Namco, Capcom, Konami, and SNK have all played a significant role in establishing and evolving the industry in just about every genre you can think of. They gave us Mario, Sonic, Pac-Man, Street Fighter, Metal Gear, and King of Fighters. While we know the companies that made these games, who are the masterminds of the Japanese video game industry that have made tremendous contributions to the point that the industry wouldn’t live without them? Read today’s top 10 to find out!
10. Keiji Inafune
Kicking off this list is a man who initially made his name in Capcom, Keiji Inafune. Prior to breaking out with Mega Man, or Rockman in Japan, he helped work on the first Street Fighter game as a graphics designer. Just like Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo (spoiler alert: he made the list!), Inafune’s background is in the art as opposed to technology. As an illustrator, he helped co-design Mega Man and many of his enemies.
He officially took over the Mega Man series from the third game when the original director left. He had his break out of designing when he had the chance to design Zero for the Mega Man X installments. In addition to helping pave way for the X series, he also created some of the franchise’s other spin-offs such as the 3D Legends and the RPG Battle Network. Overall, what made Mega Man very distinctive in its time was that while most platform games were predetermined with its levels, Mega Man gave players the option to choose whatever level they liked based on the boss. Once you beat that boss, you can take their abilities.
In addition, he helped develop Dead Rising and Onimusha. In comparison to Resident Evil, which takes more from J-Horror, Dead Rising takes inspiration from George Romero’s zombie movies and presents more of a comedic flavor with its melee combat system. Onimusha is intended to be a medieval Japan version of Resident Evil. And most recently, he tried to attempt another 2D classic platform game through Mighty No. 9 but was met with low reception, which Inafune has since accepted responsibility for.
9. Takashi Nishiyama
If there is any man that can be considered the father of the modern 2D fighter, it certainly is without a doubt, Takashi Nishiyama, the creator of Street Fighter. As a matter of fact, Ryu, the main character of Street Fighter happens to be named after Nishiyama. The kanji of Takashi’s (隆) name can also be read as Ryu, so he was given that name in tribute. Between the releases of Street Fighter and Street Fighter II, he would join SNK and ironically create Fatal Fury as his personal successor to the original Street Fighter.
In addition, he played roles in creating other SNK fighters such as Samurai Shodown and Art of Fighting, and this would lead into making SNK’s flagship fighting series, The King of Fighters, which would become a big hit in Japan and South Korea to the point that it rival Street Fighter over there. So without Nishiyama, fighting games would not have fireballs or crazy supers. Beyond fighting games, Nishiyama served as a staff member to Metal Slug, a side-scrolling shooter as well as Ghost Pilots, an over the head viewpoint vertical side-scroller.
8. Tokuro Fujiwara
In addition to Nishiyama and Inafune, we have Tokuro Fujiwara, who is also a big name in Capcom. While he also made his contributions to the Mega Man series, if there are any other franchises that can be best associated with him, they would certainly be Ghouls 'n Goblins and Resident Evil. In fact, Resident Evil was intended to be a remake of an older game of Fujiwara’s, Sweet Home for the Famicom. While Resident Evil focuses on strategy and action, Sweet Home was presented as an RPG. While the projected evolved to what it is now as Resident Evil, it still shares many qualities with Sweet Home such as the door opening animation, limited inventory, and multiple endings. In essence, he is the father of survival horror.
In addition to paving way for survival horror, he also served as a producer for some other Nintendo classics based on Disney Afternoon cartoons such as DuckTales, Chip ‘N Dale Rescue Rangers, and Darkwing Duck. Last, we can also credit him for another Capcom beat ‘em up, Captain Commando.
7. Toru Iwatani
As he was portrayed in the Adam Sandler movie Pixels, Toru Iwatani is the father of Pac-Man. In fact, Pac-Man is the first video game ever released by Namco. Since a majority of arcade games were mostly space shooters throughout the 1970s, Iwatani wanted to make something different to bring in new audiences, especially young ladies. Iwatani and his team made a game that revolved around eating and the character was designed after a pizza.
His name was initially going to be Paku-Man (and Puck-Man for the English version), with pakupaku representing the sound for eating in Japanese, and that it was also a world play for puck, the shape of Pac-Man. However, the Western division suggested changing the spelling to what it is now because people could vandalize the cabinet, and replace the P with an F.
Many game journalists consider Pac-Man to be the first ever gaming mascot and paved way for using characters in games. As strange as it sounds, Pac-Man is also essentially credited for the stealth genre since he has to avoid the ghosts. The game offered various designs in terms of its levels and this paved the way for games to have various levels in them. All of this is all thanks to Iwatani and his team. While he is referred to as Professor Iwatani in Pixels, if there is a reason why he has that title, it is because he now happens to be a university professor who teaches game design.
6. Hironobu Sakaguchi
If any man can be The Godfather of Square’s RPGs, it would certainly have to be Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy series. After dropping out of college, he joined Square in the middle of the 1980s. For a while, the games he released turned out to be flops. His closest thing to a hit was Rad Racer (or Highway Star in Japan), which was infamously portrayed in the power glove scene in the 1989 film, The Wizard. As shared in the History of Final Fantasy, Square was on the brink of bankruptcy and Sakaguchi was considering going back to college.
As a last hurrah, he made Final Fantasy (originally titled Fighting Fantasy) under the assumption it was going to be his and Square’s last game, and for other copyright-related issues on why they couldn’t use the initial name. Plus, Sakaguchi wanted to make an RPG and after the success of Dragon Quest, Square gave him the green light. As things turned out, it would become an international phenomenon and Sakaguchi and Square were back in business. After that, the rest is history in regards to Final Fantasy.
In addition to Final Fantasy, he also worked on other classic cult hits such as Front Mission, Chrono Trigger, Tobal, and Parasite Eve. Since leaving Square, he continues to contribute to RPGs with Lost Odyssey, Terra Battle, and Blue Dragon. He has even collaborated with Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama on a select number of his projects such as Chrono Trigger, Tobal No. 1, and Blue Dragon. Unlike some other developers who were instantly successful, Sakaguchi is a great example of showing that sometimes, success comes when you least expect it as long as you keep on trying.
5. Masahiro Sakurai
At the age of nineteen, Masahiro Sakurai made his mark in the video game world by debuting with another Nintendo icon, Kirby’s Dream Land for the Game Boy. Despite Kirby’s popular design as a pink round creature, it was just a dummy character during development until a better design was agreed upon. Eventually, Sakurai and the rest of the team became fond of him to the point that they made it his official design. However, his established ability to take powers away from enemies by inhaling them wasn’t introduced until his NES debut.
The NES game and this power were introduced as a reaction to how players thought the Game Boy game was too short and easy. By taking various abilities, players can explore different ways of beating enemies and the game thus creating quality replay value. It pushed the NES hardware at the time by having rotating towers as you guide Kirby through a circular staircase. From there, Kirby would be a hit franchise and Sakurai would also personally voice the villain, King Dedede, in some select installments.
In addition to Kirby, Sakurai (along with Nintendo president Satoru Iwata) is also responsible for Nintendo’s crossover fighting game hit, Super Smash Brothers. As strange as it sounds, Smash Bros wasn’t initially intended to be a Nintendo crossover game but more of an original fighting game. It was originally titled Dragon King: The Fighting Game, but during development, Sakurai thought it would be a good idea to use Nintendo characters to spice things up.
The game started as a passion project with a limited budget, and with little to no advertising upon release in Japan, it became an instant hit. After meeting overwhelming success in Japan, it would get a worldwide release and the rest is history. While the inaugural N64 game exclusively had Nintendo original characters, future installments would gradually include characters from franchises of other companies such as Snake from Metal Gear, Sonic the Hedgehog, Pac-Man, and Mega Man.
4. Yu Suzuki
If there is one man to thank for arcades and 3D gaming, it would be Yu Suzuki. In fact, his foray into gaming was all simply incidental. After studying computer science while in university, he felt that working on video games would give him the opportunities for him to use his education. As stated in our top ten games by Yu Suzuki, what makes him significant are his ideas of making games is not as something you play, but your experience.
When making a motorcycle game like Hang-On, he made a cabinet that represents a racing motorcycle. Not only is it for the show, but for enjoying the game. When a player gets on the bike, they use the right-hand handle as the throttle, and if they want to steer left or right, they do that by leaning the bike in that direction like they’re riding on a real bike. When he made After Burner, he made the cabinet represent the cockpit of a fighter jet with a joystick that represents a real-life jet flight stick. Then with G-LOC, he stepped it up by having some versions use the 360 cockpits. So if the plane goes left, right, or upside down, then so would the player in the cabinet to simulate actual movement.
In addition to these unique games he made for the arcade, he was a pioneer of 3D gaming. Though he didn’t make the first 3D racer, he improved and established the standard through Virtua Racing. However, he made the first 3D fighter through the Virtua Fighter series, which would, in turn, pave way for Tekken, Dead or Alive, and Soul Calibur.
Last, he is celebrated for making the Dreamcast cult classic, Shenmue, which is considered the first modern open world game. The first two games made players feel like they were in suburban Japan, urbanized Hong Kong or the deep countryside of Mainland China as they walk around, visit the restaurants and cafes, interact with the people, and play novelty mini-games that you can do there such as play at an arcade or do some simple gambling. The game even inspired a portion of its fans to visit the real-life locations noticing numerous similarities between reality and what is portrayed in the game.
3. Hideo Kojima
If you played Metal Gear Solid V, this man’s name is EVERYWHERE in the credits to let you know that he is the master behind the series. Through the Metal Gear franchise, he paved way for the modern tactical stealth game. As a matter of fact, he incidentally made it a stealth game since Konami gave him the Metal Gear project with the intention of being an action game for the MSX2. Due to the hardware limitations of the MSX2, he and Konami’s initial vision was impossible. He got around it by making a stealth game after taking influence from a favorite movie of his, The Great Escape.
Speaking of movies, most of Kojima’s inspirations come from them. He spent a significant amount of his youth watching movies and he originally wanted to be a director. As a college student, he enjoyed playing Famicom and felt that developing video games would be more rewarding. As time went on with technology, he could kill two birds with one stone by giving his games, most notably Metal Gear Solid, a cinematic presentation. In addition to Metal Gear, he has some other notable games that have acquired a cult following.
He made a couple of Visual Novel style games such as Snatcher and Policenauts, which strongly reflect Kojima’s motivations for story driven games. Snatcher is a cyberpunk game that takes numerous influences from anime and Hollywood from the 1980s such as Blade Runner, Terminator, Akira, and Bubblegum Crisis. In fact, the Metal Gear MKII device Snake uses in Metal Gear Solid 4 comes from this very game. As for Policenauts, it is an outer space adventure that takes a mix of Momotaro, a classic Japanese fairytale, and from a medical movie known as Coma, which features Rip Torn, Michael Douglas, and Tom Selleck in their youths. In the first MGS, you can see a poster for Policenauts in Otacon’s lab and the Meryl from MGS is inspired by the Meryl from that game.
2. Shigeru Miyamoto
In addition to Toru Iwatani, Miyamoto is another pioneer of modern gaming. He created Mario, Zelda, and served as a co-creator of Pokemon. In case you didn’t know, the default name for the blue version (or green in Japan) of Pokemon in the Japanese release happens to be Shigeru, which is meant to pay tribute to him. While some other developers such as Yu Suzuki and Gunpei Yokoi had backgrounds in technology, Miyamoto studied art and he wanted to bring that into video games. In fact, prior to joining Nintendo, he wanted to be a manga artist.
As strange as this sounds, Miyamoto has admitted in numerous interviews that he personally doesn’t play video games and he prefers enjoying the outdoors. In addition to his background in art, his love for the outdoors happens to influence all of his creations. His childhood explorations around Kyoto have significantly contributed to his game ideas. As a child, he wondered where the pipes in his hometown lead to and that would pave way for the pipes in Mario. Him wandering into caves would also influence the Legend of Zelda series.
While Miyamoto is personally not a gamer, his outside perspective does provide benefits. His core philosophy of game development is if he as a non-gamer can enjoy his games, so can other people whether they play games or not. After Super Mario Bros on the original NES became a success, it forever changed the face of video games and without Miyamoto’s creations, the industry, as we know it wouldn’t exist.
1. Gunpei Yokoi
While games these days are developed in software, we at Honey's feel it’s also important to acknowledge those who have contributed to the hardware side of things, and that would be Gunpei Yokoi. Twenty years prior to Nintendo’s international breakout as a video game company, Yokoi was in charge of maintaining the machines that produced Hanafuda cards, a traditional Japanese card game that made Nintendo famous in Japan from its start in 1889.
On his spare time, he enjoyed making toys as a hobby and then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi noticed one with an extending arm during a visit to the factory. Impressed by the design, he ordered it to be mass-produced as the Ultra Hand, and it would further contribute to Nintendo’s pre-video game success as a toy company. During a train ride in the mid-1970s, Yokoi noticed a businessman playing games on an LCD calculator and it gave him an idea to make Nintendo’s first home video game, the Game & Watch. He would later become a senpai to Shigeru Miyamoto when he developed Donkey Kong by teaching him about game design.
Before talking about his greatest contribution, his second greatest probably has to be the invention of the d-pad. When porting some of the original arcade games to the Game & Watch, which could open and close, he came up with the d-pad as an alternative and its design would later be transferred to the Famicom/NES controller. As an extension, ALL game controllers today have them and it’s all thanks to him. As a good majority of older millennial and younger gen-x gamers know, his greatest contribution to the industry is the Game Boy.
In addition to the Game Boy, he also created some products like ROB for the NES and the Virtual Boy, which was only a passion project for him. In order to keep customers happy after the N64 faced some numerous delays, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy. Shortly after the Virtua Boy’s failure, he left Nintendo under the suspicions he was fired, but many insiders say he left on his own terms and Nintendo took responsibility for the failure. Though he, unfortunately, passed away in a tragic highway accident twenty years ago, the WonderSwan—another handheld gaming device he created for Bandai—hit the market in 1999 in Japan. While it never became an international hit, it managed to find a niche audience and was recently featured in 2016’s Kamen Rider Ex-Aid action series.
In addition to our top ten, we would like to make some honorable mentions to Katsuhiro Harada, Tomonobu Itagaki, Shinji Mikami, and Yuji Naka. The Japanese game industry has contributed not only during the post-1983 Atari crash but also even before and during it. Without the Japanese, gaming wouldn’t be where they are today. And in case you were wondering, yes, we are conducting a Top 10 Western Game Creators list, so stay tuned!
So who are some top Japanese developers that we may have missed that should be acknowledged? If you have an idea of who is the best to come from the Land of the Rising Sun, please leave a comment!