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20 years of Level-5

From Layton to Ni No Kuni, a tour of one of Japan's greats with Akihiro Hino.

Back in 2000, the then 32-year-old Akihiro Hino sat down to play Dragon Quest 7 - the latest instalment in a series he, and indeed much of Japan, held dear. It was Dragon Quest that inspired Hino to go into the video games industry, after all. When playing the third entry over a decade earlier, he was smitten, fascinated with how so much was done with so little; how the animation and artwork, so simple in its execution, conspired to make something so touching and moving. It was like, Hino said, being hit over the head.

Now, though, Hino was coming at Dragon Quest from a different perspective. He'd been working on Dark Cloud, the first game from his fledgling studio Level-5, and emboldened by his experience he had some ideas of his own. He wanted to let the developers know what he'd do different, and how he'd go about handling the beloved video game series. So he called the producer, and rattled off his feedback. And the producer said, why don't you have a go yourself?

And that's how Level-5 found itself in charge of Japan's most popular video game series, and found itself charged with ushering Dragon Quest into 3D. Akihiro Hino has, you suspect, a knack for making things happen. It's something he's done throughout twenty often remarkable years of Level-5.

Dark Cloud remains a fan favourite, and Level-5 seems keen to return to the universe at some point in the future.

And it all began back in Fukuoka, when Hino used to play with an Apple 2 in his youth. At primary school he read an article on Sir-Tech's Wizardry series, and he was fascinated by the possibilities they suggested.

"Back then, in Japan people were people just playing Space Invaders," he says. "Things with very simple gameplay where you just hit whatever comes up. But in Wizardry there'd be a treasure box that popped up and all these different instructions about how to unlock this treasure box - as a kid, I thought that the games from America were so much more advanced than the ones we were playing in Japan, and I got really into it, reading articles about it again and again."

The fascination led him directly to the industry after graduating, finding his first job at SystemSoft, a developer known for its hex-based military strategy games and where Hino would first work on the Daisenryaku series. "When I joined SystemSoft, they assigned me as a producer," says Hino. "But my intention was always to be a programmer, not a producer. I wanted to create the game, rather than tell people how to create it. So I left after four months..."

Hino's next post would last a little longer, a stint at Riverhillsoft where he worked on the survival horror Overblood games amongst others helping him cut his teeth in the world of games development. "But, you know, the offer there was as a programmer. But I ended up as a producer there..."

His tenure lasted the best part of a decade, but the studio that would define Hino was still to come. "[Riverhillsoft] was a big company and it had to be profitable, but I was made to create a lot of sequels and reboots. I wanted to do something creative, something new - and I thought in order to do so I would have to be independent."

Enter Level-5, founded in October 1998 and starting with just 11 employees. And why the name? It's simple. "The five stands for five stars," explains Hino. "I always want to create five-star software where the quality matters more than anything."

That quality's been evident from the off. Level-5's first game remains one of its most cherished, the action RPG/city building hybrid Dark Cloud which released in 2000 for the PlayStation 2. It was originally intended as a launch title for the console - in Japan it'd miss the launch by some nine months - it was indicative of the relationship between Level-5 and Sony. Indeed, it was a relationship that might have been even stronger.

"When I was originally thinking of leaving Riverhillsoft I got in touch with Sony and told them what my ambition was - to create this new game - and asked for their support," says Hino. "Sony told me that if I built my own studio and positioned it as a satellite of Sony, they'd give me the support. So originally Level-5 was intentioned to be a satellite, a subsidiary of Sony, but it didn't quite turn out that way."

Maybe it was for the best, for after a Dark Cloud sequel Level-5 found itself working on Dragon Quest 8 - via that wonderful piece of opportunism. "It wasn't quite that simple, obviously," Hino clarifies. "The producer had played Dark Cloud and was a fan of Level-5, but it was all initiated by me reaching out and giving feedback."

Dragon Quest 8 was something of a watershed moment for the long-running RPG series. Of course it ushered the world, so beautifully imagined by Yuji Horii and artist Akira Toriyama, into 3D. It also, for perhaps the first time, found a sizeable audience outside of Japan. For many in the west, Dragon Quest 8 was their introduction to the series. In Hino's mind, the two go hand-in-hand.

Dragon Quest 8 was a lavish production - its follow-up, the DS' Dragon Quest 9, was just as ambitious despite the more diminutive hardware.

"Up to Dragon Quest 7 it was requisite that it was done in a 2D setting," he says. "But I insisted that it has to be in 3D, so it could be a global standard." In its own way, Dragon Quest 8 set a new standard for the series too - and you can see strong echoes of it in the latest instalment, Dragon Quest 11, which launched in the west to critical acclaim earlier this year.

"Dragon Quest 11, it's kind of the perfection of Dragon Quest," says Hino. "Story-wise, system-wise and the visuals - the graphics, it's always given people the impression that it's not the most advanced technology being used, but that's been improved. With the combination of the technology, the story, the systems - all those elements are at their best. It's the best quality Dragon Quest, in that form, that I've played."

Hino had a director credit on Dragon Quest 8, as well as its DS successor - and indeed, while he's now more often taking on a producer role, a sizeable amount of Level-5's output has Hino's fingerprints over it. "I personally like wearing many hats!" says Hino of juggling the roles of CEO, president along those of writer, producer and director. "That's what I'm still doing right now. Out of all those roles, I think that only I can start any new initiative - I want to be the self-starter, initiate projects and then gather support and find teams. I force myself to think about new projects, and that's what I see my main role."

Level-5's most high profile series, and one it can entirely call its own, is every inch a Hino joint. As a child, Hino was besotted with a book of brain exercises by Akira Tago, and when he saw the popularity of Brain Training on the Nintendo DS - a phenomenon that spectacularly broadened the audience for video games in Japan and elsewhere - he sensed an opportunity. "Everyone in Japan, no matter if they're a core gamer or not, was playing the DS, and was playing Brain Training. So I wanted to create a game for those light users, and create a game like Brain Training."

Layton, who may not be the central star of the series anymore but whose appeal hasn't dimmed in the slightest.

Who better to help achieve that than Tago himself? Hino got in touch with Tago - who at the time had just entered his eighties - and set to work. "When we were to create a gamified version of that book, I realised that the rights to make a game out of it were trademarked by another company - we couldn't make a game out of it, and Tago only had the publishing rights. So I proposed that we just take one of the modes in the book, where they solve puzzles along this storyline. So we took that portion of the book, and then I proposed the Layton storyline."

Tago provided some of the puzzles himself, becoming part of the development team for Layton. "Tago-san is a professional in puzzle creation," Hino says of what the team learned from Tago. "It's a very different approach to puzzle creation - so the team at Level-5, we got a lot out of his knowledge of puzzle creation. We literally sat together and created puzzles together - it was a very fruitful exercise."

In Layton, though, the puzzles are only part of the appeal. The other part, of course, is none other than Layton himself. "I thought about what's an existing setting that's got a close link to mystery-solving - and of course I thought of Sherlock Holmes," says Hino. "If the setting was in the UK, or London, people could easily resonate with that and the mystery-solving. In order to create the interactions like Holmes and Watson, we created Professor Layton and Luke, which is a very similar kind of relationship. It's interesting to take on those puzzles and mysteries from an adult perspective, and a child's perspective."

Professor Layton went on to be a success. Indeed, it went on to be a huge success, with nine games since the series' inception in 2007. "That success meant a lot to us," says Hino. "It was our first original IP, and it gave us a confidence that our artwork, our video game, it could have an impact not just in Japan but also globally. It gave us confidence to create the next game series."

It also laid the groundwork for a new approach at Level-5 as its properties reached beyond video games. Professor Layton saw tie-in manga as well as anime starting with 2009's Eternal Diva - a path followed by Inazuma Eleven, and then most lucratively with Yo-Kai Watch, which remains a phenomenon in Japan even if that success has never quite been replicated overseas.

"After the success of Layton, which was created at teens and above, I wanted to make a game targeted at kids," says Hino. "Back then the most successful IP was Pokémon, where they'd created not just the game but also the TV series and so on. To do something similar, to reach kids without them having to pay 50 bucks in one go, we realised we needed a cheaper way to reach out to children, which was the animes and mangas. And in order to do that properly you need to do everything in one go - that's the strategy we've taken with it. You want to give people the feeling that they're in the same world whatever platform they're on."

That relationship with the world of anime has gone both ways with Level-5, of course, and one of Hino's most astounding acts of persuasion came with none other than Studio Ghibli. The studio famously swore off any video game adaptations (some did make it through before the clampdown - though I've heard that Hayao Miyazaki was so appalled upon seeing an MSX take upon his manga and subsequent movie Nausicaa that he swore to never allow something similar to happen again). It's something the studio stuck to, throughout its successes and its rise in popularity in the west. Hino, though, managed to change all that.

Ni No Kuni started on DS before the massively enhanced PS3 version which found its way to the west.

"Back then, Studio Ghibli was never up for working with a video game company," he says. "But I really wanted to play a game that carried on that world - I had a common friend with the producer, Toshio Suzuki, at Studio Ghibli, so I asked them to set up a meeting. And then I started convincing Suzuki-san to make a game!"

Was it really that simple?

"It wasn't as difficult as you'd imagine. I was proposing a title - it was different to Ni No Kuni, it was something else - and Studio Ghibli said they wanted to revisit that title and then I re-proposed several other games. Once they bought into Ni No Kuni, they bought into everything else, including the storyline and everything else. It was only when we still hadn't decided on the project that we had - I wouldn't say conflict - but we had some convincing necessary from our side."

The results were simply magical. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, which marked the first appearance for the games in the west, was one of the best RPGs in an age - a characterful, beautifully composed adventure that managed to perfectly distill the charm, wonder and emotional maturity that has made Studio Ghibli's works so beloved. It's perhaps Level-5's most assured work, and led to a sequel that wasn't quite as magical which launched earlier this year. Maybe the sparkle had been dulled a little by the diminished involvement of Studio Ghibli itself - a situation that came about as the studio had itself wound down production for a short while.

Level-5's story doesn't end there, of course. There's been a marked push towards mobile - unsurprisingly, given its prominence in Japan and elsewhere - with Yokai Watch, Inazuma Eleven and Fantasy Life all bound for handsets this year, while the success of the Switch means more games will be coming that way in the near future soon. For Hino, someone who's been brilliantly persuasive throughout his career, is there anyone left he'd love to work with?

"There's a lot!" he says. "Recently we were creating the TV series around Layton, with his daughter solving mysteries in London. While doing that, I realised that I find writing mystery scenarios really exciting. There's a lot more to do in that genre. I'd love to invite mystery writers to create game scenarios - not just Layton, but any other game - and try to create this new mystery genre that combines with these other scenarios."

And what of the next 20 years of Level-5? "In 20 years time I imagine us being an entertainment company more so than just a video game company - like Disney, a company with a worldwide presence across different fields of entertainment, be that movies, TV, comics. We'll always be centred around video games, of course - but all the IPs we create, I'd love to see that spread across all the entertainment fields."

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