Picture of Simon Parkin

Simon Parkin


Simon Parkin is an award-winning writer and journalist from England, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The Guardian and a variety of other publications.

FeatureFinishing Final Fantasy

Inside the team working to complete the most troubled Final Fantasy game ever made.

Editor's note: Hello! This piece originally ran in early November, but it seemed entirely appropriate to republish it this morning, now that a truly monumental piece of game development is finally reaching its conclusion. Enjoy!

Three weeks before Watch Dogs 2's release, hackers co-opted millions of connected devices around the world - principally security cameras, but also other web-connected domestic devices - and combined their power in an attack that took great swathes of the internet offline. For most of us, the attack, by perpetrators whose identity remains unknown, was both a short-lived inconvenience (Netflix, Twitter, Reddit, Spotify and even the UK government's website were successfully brought down) and a sobering reminder of the risks of installing wifi in a kettle. The game's development team, by contrast, must have been giddy with satisfaction. The news story precisely mimics the plot of the game in which you play as a member of an elite Bay Area-situated team of hacktivists known as DedSec, a name that echoes real world groups such as GhostSec and LulzSec, who plan to takedown a prying corporation ("Like Big Brother and Little Brother all rolled up into one") by using the internet of things.

Radiant Silvergun, that masterpiece of design and engineering, is surely the most famous Japanese shoot 'em up from the genre's golden age. But it's Battle Garegga that, for many, holds the era's crown. Released in arcades in 1996 it's by far the plainer-looking creation, a muted palette of World War II gunmetal greys and khakis foreshadowing the next decade of militaristic video game colour schemes. Unlike its peers and rivals, which have your fidgety aircraft feinting and swerving through a brightly coloured hail of enemy bullets, Battle Garegga's designers make you navigate a shifting maze of realistic looking artillery fire. The grey and silver bullets blend infuriatingly with the tops of trees and froth seas over which they zip. No boss fights with sprinting deities here, either. Just a corridor extending up the screen and beyond, filled with battalions of crotchety tanks, kamikaze biplanes, and the odd spindly air fortress.

Two amnesiacs, apparently orphaned, on a journey to dethrone tyrants, reconcile kingdoms and suffer the niggling indignity of random battles. World of Final Fantasy, a game that heralds the beginning of a year of 30th Anniversary celebrations for Square Enix's flagship series, trembles with nostalgic resonance. Billed as a return to Final Fantasy's formative style (just as the company readies itself for reactions to the 15th and least conventional game in the series to date), the game revives Koichi Ishii's line-dancing, turn-based battles, as well as the careers of numerous heroes, brought out of retirement for the Disney-esque parade.

Listen carefully and you'll soon notice how existence is filled with rhythmic flourishes. There's the plip-plipping of raindrops on a tin roof, the wobble and throb of a lorry engine idling in traffic, and the wash of timpani whenever a wave hurls itself onto pebbles, fatally. There are the seasons - four beats of the bar that comprise each year. There's the ticking of the clock, holding down an unwavering 60bpm till the end of time, or, at least, of batteries. Rhythm Paradise is a series that seeks to capture these joyous rhythmic oddities in microgames. It's an approach that has served Nintendo's designers well. Rock Band, Guitar Hero and all the other rock-posturing others clutter under-stair cupboards and garages. This series, in which you play, not as Kurt Cobain or Paul McCartney but as a microscopic amoeba, swimming with friends in elegant unison, or as an English interpreter for a Martian octopus, marches on, fortissimo.

'The air trembles. A breath of change passes.' As it ever has down here in the Unterzee, the subterranean archipelago where London wound up after the ground gave way, where islands jostle for position as you live the gloomy lives of a succession of sea captains. This time, however, change runs fathoms deep. Depending on the state in which you left your ship and fortune in Failbetter's masterpiece, the journey toward owning your first submergible vessel may be long and onerous. After all, the Admiralty doesn't sanction this arcane contraption. Most shipbuilders will shrug or recoil if presented with an order for one.

Minecraft has a way of tapping into the deepest parts of us: the primordial instinct to survive the night and, once through it, to spend the day in creative endeavour. Through its stubby vision we learn to wrangle the land, refining elements and building first a cave, then a castle, then a computer. Dragon Quest Builders takes up the elemental themes, just as it takes up Minecraft's world-conquering template before attempting to refine it into something new.

Everyone remembers their first visit to Super Potato. Squished in a higgledy side-street, a plushie's throw from Akihabara station in eastern Tokyo, you climb a cramped staircase, past a parade of blue-tac'ed posters, into a cosy, glittering Aladdin's den of video games past. The shelves are as packed as the real estate outside. Towers of Famicoms, MegaDrives, PC Engines sway in the corner, while amongst the orderly phalanxes of game spines, desirable specimens sit, turned outwards, attracting customers with colourful plumes of artwork. In glass cabinets, the prohibitively expensive, or the prohibited from sale: Super Famicom review cartridges; an early Neo Geo system, sold exclusively to Japanese hotels; a Radiant Silvergun, the 1998 air - air from a time when its developer, Treasure, was still a going concern - still shrink-wrapped inside. One of Miyamoto's fingers is probably back there somewhere, propped up against the expensive plastic, wrapped in muslin, brought out on nationals holidays, or Zelda's birthday.

If Minecraft's greatest trick is the way in which it leaves players to do as they please within its verdant, destructible playpen, then it's one hasn't travelled the world with equal success. "In Japan, people like to be told how to play their games," explains Noriyoshi Fujimoto, one of the creators of Dragon Quest Builders, a game that attempts to splice §Minecraft's giddying freedom with the kind of quest-based adventuring for which Japan's beloved RPG series is known. For Fujimoto, Minecraft's guidance-free approach, which leaves players free to build a tower to the stars, dig a tunnel to the Earth's core, or chase sheep all day, goes some way to explain why its gargantuan and enduring success hasn't been replicated in Japan. "Minecraft is just finally starting to become popular with primary schoolchildren here," he says, sitting in a stretched sofa at Square Enix's Tokyo office, a plushie Slime (Dragon Quest's googly-eyed merengue blob mascot) perched on his lap. "But it's clear that it just isn't going to have the same breakout appeal that it's enjoyed overseas."

FeatureRez Infinite: VR's first and best?

Mizuguchi's masterpiece assumes its final, perfect form.

Tetsuya Mizuguchi sits in a swivel chair under a lamp in the middle of a dark, empty room inside an office complex by Aoyama Park in Tokyo. A totem of projectors beams footage from the director's masterwork, Rez, on three of the four walls around him while a polished Sony VR headset warms his feet. Miz, as his friends know the director, has always shown a talent for theatrics. Years earlier, while promoting Child of Eden, another game that splices music, light, and play using emerging technology, he stood before an audience at BAFTA's headquarters in London and conducted the Kinect camera like he was playing the Royal Philharmonic. A day before we meet, he appeared on stage at the sweltering Tokyo Game Show dressed in a jet-black onesie, performing the game that has, in recent months, brought him out of his retreat into academia. Squint and it could have been a member of Daft Punk grinning beneath the helmet.

FeatureTime crisis: Is this the end of the light gun?

As CRT TVs die out, time is slipping away for gaming's lost genre.

For some years I've felt jittery at the absence of a cathode ray tube television in my home, as if I've forgotten to install some crucial appliance, which, worse still, is no longer manufactured. Sure, you're able to plug a Super Nintendo or MegaDrive into a plasma or LCD screen, those size-zero supermodels of the TV world that so cruelly and so swiftly ended the CRT's hundred-year reign at the beginning of this century. But, when forced to perform in high definition, the old consoles pale and shudder. Playing through an HD TV is like gazing at the past through the opposite of rose-tinted spectacles; the games are stretched and smudged, ghosted by modernity. When it comes to remaking vintage games, conscientious developers often attempt to fake the CRT aesthetic, adding scan-lines or screen curves. But, as I recently discovered, you can't fake majesty.

Mother Russia Bleeds review

Soviet reunion.

In 1992's Streets of Rage 2 Eddie Hunter, better known to his friends as 'Skate', wore a yellow vest and red rollerblades. In a pinch he could roll into a tight little ball and, like a bowling ball striking a huddle of ninepins, send a crowd of bruisers wheeling through the air. Skate referred to his signature move as the 'Dynamite Headbutt.' Classic Skate.

Frame the rivalries between Japanese fighting game series as a pugilistic tournament and, for the past few years, Capcom's Street Fighter has held its title unchallenged. The field wasn't always so uncontested. Throughout the 1990s SNK's King of Fighters ably faced Street Fighter, pitting its forte - technical intricacy - against that of the latter - an iconic cast. It was a rivalry worthy of myth: both games were originated by the same man, Takashi Nishiyama, who, having designed the original Street Fighter at Capcom, left (under a dark cloud, some say) to run SNK's development division. In a final, fanciful twist Nishiyama went on to found Dimps, the company responsible for Street Fighter's triumphant return in 2008.

FeatureRobin Hunicke's extraordinary journey

From Spielberg's postman to discovering Katamari, Journey's lead designer's wild voyage of discovery.

For one summer in the mid-2000s, a not insignificant portion of the game designer Robin Hunicke's day involved placing a Nintendo Wii disc into an envelope and posting it to Stephen Spielberg's boat. Spielberg was on holiday at the time, taking a break with his family from sweltering Los Angeles and production work on the film adaptation of Herge's TinTin. There was no time to break from Hunicke's game BoomBlox, however, whose deadline was approaching. Besides, Spielberg's original idea for the game - a kind of anti-Jenga involving knocking down towers of blocks - came about because he wanted a non-violent game to play with his children. He was happy to receive builds through the mail while on holiday, where his kids could pitch in with the feedback.

Tokyo RPG Factory's first game offers an elegant counterbalance to Final Fantasy 15. The teams behind each, steered by directors who first fell in love with the Japanese RPG as children, have laboured side-by-side behind acres of perpendicular glass in Square-Enix's new Shinjuku offices. But while Hajime Tabata and his battalion of developers hope to redefine the genre in the forthcoming Final Fantasy, Atsushi Hashimoto and his tiny squad (reportedly just ten in-house staff, supported by a few dozen contractors) want only to recapture the spirit and ambiance of the Super Nintendo and PlayStation RPGs of their childhood. One game is a forward-facing epic, and the other a wistful sketch. In this regard I Am Setsuna is a triumph, dispensing with the bulk and baggage of today's overblown specimens in favour of a simple fable told with clarity and care.

When Star Ocean debuted on the Super Famicom 20 years ago the RPG, an American import that Japan made its own with pinch of Shintoism and a dollop of anime, was poised to change video games. The previous year Chrono Trigger had brought together Final Fantasy's Hironobu Sakaguchi and Dragon Quest's Yuji Horii, a muscular collaboration that squared each respective team's talents to deliver a masterpiece.

The nine are, it turns out, extraordinary bastards. Each one of these robots-gone-rogue is taller, quicker and better equipped than Beck, the meek and mannerly rescue bot tasked with saving humanity from his furious relatives. Take Pyro, a mechanical monkey that sets himself on fire before dashing toward you in search of a deadly embrace. Manage to evade his murderous advances while nicking away at his health bar with your pea-shooter pistol and, midway through the fight, he transforms into an even more powerful form. Now, if he manages to grab you, you will die in a single, inescapable squeeze, regardless of how well you've managed to protect your own health bar up to that point. It's leg-poundingly unfair, and establishes the pattern for each of the nine fights that run along this game's crotchety spine.

The Guilty Gear series is driven by the unmistakeable hunger of the underdog. When series creator Daisuke Ishiwatari was a university student he obsessed over how he could design a fighting game to compete with the genre's heavyweights, Capcom's Street Fighter and SNK's King of Fighters. His solution was twofold: a thematic lunge away from martial arts into the fantasy excess of the anime tradition, and a doubling down on graphical fidelity.

FeatureOn the road with Hideo Kojima

What's Kojima learnt from his world studio tour? “You to have to get the kitchen right…”

Since Hideo Kojima's contract with Konami ended on December 16th, the director has embraced freedom with the unmistakeable gusto of the recent divorcee. His Twitter feed is a flick-book of selfies with Hollywood actors and directors in exotic locales, interspersed with photographs of plates of expensively arranged food. After 25 years cooped up at Konami, with all of its corporate strictures and sign-offs, Kojima is relishing liberty.

Lumo is steeped in the nerdish romance of the British 1980s video game development scene. For those who lived through those days, this wistful isometric puzzler, an ode to John Ritman's 1987 game Head Over Heels, is a reminder of mornings spent in the computer room at school, when kids competed for a seat at a BBC Micro.

Few video games have been as well served by their box art as the Commodore Amiga's Shadow of the Beast. Roger Dean's airbrushed panorama is both prehistoric and futuristic. It shows a thicket of rangy trees, each one blasted with red leaves, while, in the middle distance, two gleaming Jurassic contraptions pass one another, oblivious of us onlookers. The game's title, rendered in a scythe-like font, completes the alien, prog-rock aesthetic (Dean also drew covers for albums by Yes and Asia).

One day in early 2014 Sam Barlow placed a scrap of paper on the kitchen table at his home on the South Coast of England. A few weeks earlier he had left a lucrative job as game director at Climax Studios. The games that he had made during his decade spent at the studio had won awards and yet, no amount of accolades had managed to shrug the nagging frustration that Barlow felt about storytelling in the medium. Where were the stories about domestic-scale drama? Where were the stories about characters who aren't 'aspirational' in some fantastical way, or stories about supposedly less marketable genders and races? Where, for that matter, was that most valuable tool in any fiction writer's pocket: subtext?

Game designers learn about this power early into their careers. The virtual gun remains the most useful tool in the designer's box; nothing is better suited to giving players the ability to affect objects both near and far, or with such delicious kickback of cause and effect. Click. Bang. Thud. Virtual guns make us feel powerful, both instantaneously and in illicit ways.

Harassment, hoaxes, mob justice, public shaming, doxing, citizen journalism, disinformation, snuff, celebrity breakdowns, racist chat-bots, joke plagiarism and an endless stream of delectable cat gifs. The effects of the rise of social media on humanity are myriad, varied and - let's give them the benefit of the doubt - unforeseen by the creators of these ubiquitous platforms. What a time for Nintendo to launch its own variant, when the company's American office is embroiled in a publicity storm that is playing out, principally, on Twitter.

To understand rally and, by association, Dirt Rally, a British video game that conjures all of the long-form drama and complexity of the sport with unmatched brilliance, you must first disavow yourself of the notion that it's simply a case of reaching the finish line first. That's like saying a war is won merely by defeating the enemy -- a technical truth, but one that implies nothing of the tapestry of skirmishes, manoeuvres and machinations that comprise a final victory. No, to truly understand Dirt Rally, you must understand that this is a challenge broken into ten thousand discrete, interrelated trials, the stakes of which build into a glorious crescendo.

FeatureMeet the tester who changed Street Fighter

How Ryuichi Shigeno came to be Street Fighter 5's battle director.

Ryuichi 'Woshige' Shigeno had been waiting for more than a decade to fight Ken-ichi 'Ogawazato' Ogawa on a tournament stage when he heard that he'd drawn, as he puts it today, the "match of his dreams." When he was 13-years-old, Shigeno played in his first Japanese national video game competition. Since then, he'd risen to become one of the world's top-ranked players of Guilty Gear, Arc System Works' hyperactive, heavy metal-spruced fighting game series. This was to be, nevertheless, a challenging match-up. Ogawa, a part-time chef from Tokyo, is the world number one. As each player sat down to fight for a spot in the finals at EVO 2015, the largest fighting game tournament in the world, held that year at a Paris-themed hotel, complete with miniature Eiffel Tower, in glittering Las Vegas, more than a hundred thousand people logged on to watch the fight.

On 4th April 2013, Adam Orth, a creative director at Microsoft Game Studios, walked through the front door of his home in Seattle and turned off his mobile phone. It was, he recalls, an "entirely ordinary day". Orth was, at the time, researching uses for the second generation of the Kinect camera, which Microsoft planned, when the time came, to sell with every Xbox One unit. One experiment, for example, facilitated live polling during a Presidential debate. The camera would distinguish between multiple individuals as they watched the TV in a room and, from hand gestures, could poll reactions and collate the results across Xbox Live.

Bezier, despite the French title, lifted from the Renault employee Pierre Bézier, who in the 1960s helped teach computers how to draw curves, is a quintessentially British sort of video game. It fits snugly within the tradition of eccentric psychedelic shooters - Jeff Minter's Space Giraffe, Rob Fearon's Death Ray Manta, Bizarre Creations' Geometry Wars - and combines the unusual bedfellows of austere science fiction storytelling with twin stick shooting. Eight years in the making, the game, intended to be the first in a series of nine projects by its creator, Philip Bak, is a glorious carnival of neon particle effects, subtle tips of the hat to arcade classics and enthralling, if riotous, game design.

FeatureGame jam at the top of the world

Fjords and nausea: aboard the first cruise ship for game-makers.

Outside, the snow is packed in glass sheets, peppered in places with stones that offer a shoe some hope of holding its grip. Here in Tromsø, the most northerly city on planet Earth (so long as you define 'city' as a place with more than 20,000 inhabitants; those people who live farther north than this tend to be loners) every season is a different shade of winter. The ice holds. Inside too - although here in the chicly Norwegian open office complex known as Flow, it has the welcome benefit of being laced with vodka. It's quarter past nine in the evening and around a hundred programmers, artists and designers, attendees of the inaugural Splash game jam, stand around sipping alcoholic slushies and eating pizza.