Shinya Nishigaki got his start in the Japanese video game industry by working as a promotion consultant for what was then known as the Daiko Advertising Agency, now called Asatsu-DK. He joined the agency at age 22 after graduating with a degree in economics from Aoyama Gakuin University. While working with different video game clients, Nishigaki began to acquaint himself with an industry that was exploding. At age 26 he quit advertising and joined Enix to work in their business development department. There, Nishigaki worked on the English localization of Dragon Quest 2 and 3.
Nishigaki then moved to Climax Entertainment where he gained experience on three action RPG titles. In 1992, Nishigaki was a scenario writer on Land Stalker, which was released internationally on the Sega Genesis selling 400,000 copies. He then helped on the production of Lady Stalker three years later selling 150,000 copies (released only in Japan on the Nintendo Super Famicom). In August of 1996 Nishigaki would produce Dark Savior for the Sega Saturn.
Talk of Sega's 128-bit next-gen console was surfacing and Nishigaki had a desire to create games with more cinematic qualities. This desire was warranted by his love and avid interest of cinema. Born in 1962 to mother Keiko and father Masao, Nishigaki grew up in Osaka. Masao was an advertising executive at Toho Studios and would allow his son to accompany him to movie premieres and showings. It was here that Nishigaki immersed himself in European and American films, all of which he could watch for free.
At that time, Climax Entertainment's CEO Ken Naito only wanted to concentrate on racing titles and RPG's. Nishigaki took his cinematic video game ambitions and left Climax Entertainment to form a sister company in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, fifteen minutes away from the offices of his former employer. Nishigaki's new company, Climax Graphics, would open in December of 1996. Both Climax Graphics and Climax Entertainment would keep in close connection with one another by sharing technical, design and programming know-how. It was here that two Sega Dreamcast games, Blue Stinger and Illbleed would be created.
While residing in Japan during the winter of 2003, I tracked down Nishigaki through a series of forwarded emails and finally reached him. Throughout our email exchange I discovered a lot of things had happened to Nishigaki in the course of six years when Blue Stinger and Illbleed was produced, one of which was the unfortunate closure of his company in the winter of 2002. In one email Nishigaki expressed that the closure of his company brought on a lot of emotional turmoil - it hit him hard. Yet he persevered, moved on, and was hired as a producer for Tokyo-based game developer Cavia.
I was eager to know what had happened to his company and what kind of new projects he was producing. I also wanted to express to him the magnitude of just how much game players outside Japan admired his work on the Sega Dreamcast. After a few emails we agreed to meet for an interview in late December of 2003 at the lobby of the Crowne Metropolitan Hotel in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district.
Nishigaki arrived at the posh hotel and apologized for being late. I brought my tape recorder along and I suggested we walk up to the second floor of the lobby to get away from the commotion of hotel guests and the loud chatter of a nearby coffee shop. To my surprise, he presented me with a gift that I treasure to this day: A toy figure of Eriko Christy, one of the main characters from Illbleed, his final Sega Dreamcast game.
"This is the last one made," he said with a smile.
The majority of my questions that day were about Illbleed and what happened after it was released, but we also talked about Blue Stinger, a launch title for the Sega Dreamcast.
Pre-production of Blue Stinger began in September of 1996 at Climax Graphics. Masaki Segawa, a former freelance CG designer from Climax Entertainment (who had worked with Nishigaki on the Dark Savior CG movie) joined the company to help shape the action-horror storyline of Blue Stinger. Segawa also used his skills as a manga artist and designed the main characters for the game. Segawa is now famously known as the creator of the “Basilisk” manga which would go on to be adapted into a 24-episode anime TV series.
A startup staff of eighteen people was hired at Climax Graphics, and pre-development work began. The real production finally got into full-gear in December of 1997.
The story of Blue Stinger takes place on an island off Mexico near the Yucatan Peninsula that emerged during an earthquake in the year 2000. The island holds the actual impact crater of the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Mexican and American officials call the new area Dinosaur Island, and a large biotech firm known as Kimra Corporation takes over the island to conduct classified research for the next seventeen years.
Eliot Ballade, aged 28, is a member of the ESER (Emergency Sea Evacuation Rescue) team who is vacationing off the island on a boat, preparing the vessel for a Christmas party. Suddenly a small meteor falls from the sky. It crashes into the island, hitting the center of the original impact crater that creates a mysterious outward energy dome. The impact knocks Eliot off the boat rendering him unconscious in the water. Eliot awakens and finds himself on the shore of Dinosaur Island where he beings an investigative journey that will have him up against horrifying monsters and mutated killer lab workers from Kimra Corporation.
What made Blue Stinger unique were its enormous 3-D environments, which amount up to about 230 different locations. Along the way Eliot can select from 22 different weapons, conveniently sold in vending machines placed throughout various locations. To give each location a futuristic look, and to show how much Kimra was in charge of the island economy, enormous neon billboards were designed advertising different products and services (Kimra's power-up drink Hassy Cola being one of them). This look was created by the texture designers at Climax Graphic who took inspiration from such movies as Black Rain and Blade Runner. The special texture team created over 200 billboards and posters on Macs, and utilized the Dreamcast's 640 x 480 screen resolution for final detail.
This look is showcased in the shopping plaza area complete with a decorated Christmas theme. Elliot must brutally axe wandering mutated Kimra lab workers in the shopping plaza, while a joyous holiday muzak piece plays from composer Toshihiko Sahashi – all inspired by the humorous elements in the film Die Hard. Sahashi was one of the top graduates from Tokyo Music University and Nishigaki wanted him to prepare a Hollywood style movie score for Blue Stinger. This was Sahashi's first composition for a video game, and Kouji Haishima would assist in conducting an assembled 50-piece orchestra for the opening and closing CG scenes. Toshihiko Sahashi would later go on to score the music for the Big O and Gundam Seed anime TV series.
Meanwhile the 18 member staff of Climax Graphics put in 24-hour days to fully bring the Blue Stinger world to life that would have normally required a staff of 50. Through the two-year development period the staff only took five or six days off.
Blue Stinger finished production in March of 1999, Sega maintained copyright and intellectual ownership of the game, and an agreement was made to have Activision publish the game outside Japan. Activision would demand a drastic change from the Japanese version, a change that would bring negative reactions from both players and the gaming press.
Activision wanted the camera angle closely following the character behind in every direction. This was a drastic change from Nishigaki's approach for the Japanese version, in which the camera followed character action from a distance using a wide-angle view to showcase the background design of each environment. Climax Graphics changed the angle to what Activision would call the "Follow Cam". This change seriously damaged the likeability of Blue Stinger abroad and drew criticism from many players of its English localization.
"Change!" Nishigaki said, sticking out his finger and playfully imitating Activision in our interview, calling it the "gero camera" (gero being the Japanese sound of vomiting).
"First, Blue Stinger, the Japanese version, had a high and low camera. I was in the movie club for many years, so camera work to me is like trial and error. Activision was adamant that we change it."
Nishigaki promised to send me a Japanese copy of Blue Stinger so I could see the difference for myself. He told me of his time in the movie club at Aoyama Gakuin University, where he directed a short film titled "Limitless Game". Nishigaki and the entire staff of Climax Graphics loved movies, and it truly inspired their game development.
The horrid English lip-synching of the game did not help matters either, and all of it appeared to be a rush-job. It's interesting to note that the Japanese release also featured the same English dialogue with Japanese subtitles, attempting to create an inspired Hollywood movie influence for the game. At one point during our conversation about Blue Stinger, Nishigaki laughed and mentioned the voice actor of Eliot was paid a small sum of only $100 for his work.
"He did a good job though", Nishigaki commented.
Blue Stinger was released in Japan shortly after the Dreamcast hardware launch on March 25th, 1999. Activision released it in North America on September 31st, 1999 (ten days before Sega of America would put the Sega Dreamcast hardware on store shelves) while a European release came a month later. Blue Stinger went on to sell over half a million copies worldwide, putting Climax Graphics on the map. Sega Dreamcast owners and the gaming press were eager to know what their next project was.
"In Japanese domestic sales, Blue Stinger sales were low, but in America it was a big hit. Sega called me and said let's make "Blue Stinger 2". I thought it was impossible, because I was already developing Illbleed," said Nishigaki.
Nishigaki dived into pre-production of Illbleed, presenting the story in a B-movie style that had never been done before in a video game.
"My thinking method is to have an ending approach. I wanted to do an American thriller and suspense movie title. For three months I thought about the ending boss itself, and how complex it was going to be. I was thinking about this idea for a long time, I wanted it to have a logical structure, and comedy", he continues, "When, where, who, why and how, this is my logical structure base. After three months I finished the layout and basic concept of the game, from the maps, the mini-movies, purpose and trying to mix in American B-movies."
Nishigaki does not use elaborate computer programs to design storyboards in pre-production, but instead used a more traditional approach.
"I don't use storyboards," he says, "I will use just an old-fashioned pencil and paper most of the time".
Illbleed's story takes place in an elaborate movie theatre theme park operated by famous horror movie producer Michael Reynolds. The theme park contains six separate movie theaters, which are their own playable stages. Players will navigate their character not through theatre aisles or concession stands, but by being placed within the actual movie plot. The player can navigate one of four teenage characters, Eriko Christy, Kevin Kertsman, Randy Fairbanks, or Michele Waters. Once again, Blue Stinger character designer Masaki Segawa was brought in to give each character an anime style look.
Each separate B-movie within the games was titled in a stereotypical manner, such as: The Home Run of Death, Revenge of the Queen Worm, Woodpuppets, Killer Department Store, Killerman, and Toy Hunter. If the player is successful at getting through all six movie stages and the final boss they are awarded with $100 million dollars. A cautious disclaimer in the English-language Illbleed game booklet states: The prize money is in the game. It is not actually paid.
Illbleed is unlike any survival-horror game in existence. Players can detect when danger is ahead by using a four-sense monitor at the top of the screen: Sight, Hearing, Smell and Sixth Sense. To avoid getting attacked, emotionally shocked, or trapped, the player must pay attention to the sensor wave at the top of the screen. Once the sensor wave begins spiking, the player must put on the "Horror Monitor" it locates at the beginning of each stage to detect "Shock Events" and locate items. The player also has to constantly monitor their characters pulse, adrenaline (to operate the horror monitor), physical strength and bleeding rate.
Nishigaki said that the top screen sensor was one of the most challenging aspects to create in the game, but thanks to Climax Graphics programmer Kazuaki Yokozawa they overcame the design obstacle.
"The main programmer, Yokozawa, he's a genius. Yokozawa used to be a salary man, his hobby was programming. A friend of mine recommended him, I was very lucky, he sent me his work on disk and I thought he was a genius," Nishigaki said.
All the previous issues that hampered Blue Stinger were eliminated in Illbleed. Nishigaki and the team at Climax Graphics had learned from their mistakes. Yokozawa designed a complete new engine for the game, and four different selectable camera angles were added. Even the bad English lip-synching was gone because Climax Graphics decided to eliminate the characters mouths altogether during cinema dialogue scenes.
Yukimori Kikuchi, the former sound data creator of Blue Stinger, composed the music to Illbleed. It took Kikuchi a whole year to devise, write and compose the music for all the stages and numerous locations. Nishigaki loved his compositions, admired Kikuchi's hard work and wanted to use his talent in future games.
Keen players could spot tributes to Blue Stinger throughout Illbleed. Blue Stinger's famous power-up drink Hassy Cola had even returned as a power-up item, and the name Kimra Industries could be seen on stage billboards.
Nishigaki even poked fun at Sega mascot Sonic, by creating a parody character named Zodick that would appear as a final boss in Toy Hunter. Sega was apparently not so excited about Zodick.
"Sonic is almost like Felix The Cat. Sega did not like Zodick, maybe Mr. Naka hates me!" remarked a chuckling Nishigaki
Yet Nishigaki's trademark remained throughout the game, and they consisted of his tripped-out, over-the-top, enormous environments that players could lose themselves in.
"Environments were created by imagination, and imagination only. So, my imagination are like big-budget movies," Nishigaki said.
Production on Illbleed took a year and a half. At its peak Climax Graphics had 23 employees in its Shinjuku, Tokyo office. A preview of Illbleed was showcased at the Tokyo Game Show in late 2000. It was already assumed that Sega would publish the title on its own outside of Japan since Blue Stinger had previously been so successful. Yet Illbleed was met with many other interested industry players at TGS, one of whom was Ken Gratz of Jaleco USA. Nishigaki also had offers from five other different publishers.
Suddenly in a matter of months, a series of shake-ups occurred that would lead Illbleed down a path of publishing doom.
In the summer of 2000, Sega of America announced its intentions to drop Illbleed from its official first party release lineup. It cited that it had enough first-party titles to market, and wanted to allow a third party publisher handle the North American release, according to IGN. Jaleco USA swooped in and took up publishing rights on the title and took over localization. However, their parent company Jaleco Limited was financially struggling, and was eventually bought out for a whopping $189 million that same summer by Hong Kong based telecommunications empire PCCW.
Then came the sucker-punch.
On January 21st, 2001 Sega announced that it was discontinuing the Sega Dreamcast console. This announcement came two months before the release of Illbleed in Japan.
Climax Graphics then changed its company name to Crazy Games in February of 2001 to establish itself as a more independent developer away from its affiliation with Climax Entertainment. Illbleed was branded with a whole new developer name and logo, perhaps making it difficult to recognize that the game was from Climax Graphics, the same team that brought Blue Stinger to market.
Illbleed was brought to Japanese store shelves on March 29th, 2001, the same month that assembly-line production of the Sega Dreamcast console ended.
Meanwhile, the former founder and chairman of Jaleco, Yoshiaki Kanazawa, decided to establish AIA, Amusement Interface Associate, an entirely new company. Kanazawa recruited Ellen Fuog and Ken Gratz from Jaleco USA to officially operate the North American subsidiary, AIA USA. Fuog and Gratz brought Illbleed with them, which was already nearing completion on its English localization at that point. On April 1st, 2001 AIA USA officially began operations in an office based in Wilmette, Illinois with $100,000 in operating capital. Twenty-five days later the new start-up publisher would release Illbleed in North America. Illbleed was released to the Chinese speaking market in October of that same year, but unfortunately the game would never see a release in Europe. In the end, international sales of Illbleed totaled 50,000 copies, a paltry number compared to Blue Stinger, which sold ten times as many copies.
"They were disappointed. AIA and I were angry that Sega had ended the Dreamcast," Nishigaki explained, "To me, even though the Dreamcast market had shrunk to a small size, Illbleed was still a success from my perspective".
The mediocre magazine reviews of Illbleed did not help matters either. The game was initially labeled and anticipated as a survival horror title, but its B-movie comedy element made the game seriously misunderstood.
"Illbleed requires a high degree of intelligence to play, there are many mysteries and horror (old and new). I attempted to mix the early visions of all the famous directors: Cameron, Spielberg, Lucas, Miyazaki, and Kurosawa. It was just an entire mix of entertainment that many people couldn't understand. To me, the negative reviews of the game did not affect me at all. I just looked toward the future and have a vision," Nishigaki said.
During the remainder of 2001 and 2002, Crazy Games helped co-develop a gun-shooting arcade game with Sega in-house studio Hitmaker titled "Maze of Kings". Sega was undergoing its own well-publicized restructuring, and tried its best to support Nishigaki and his company with this co-development assignment. In the end, it wasn't enough.
In December of 2002 Crazy Games, formerly Climax Graphics, closed the doors of its Shinjuku offices. Nishigaki and his entire development staff moved to Tokyo-based game developer Cavia at the recommendation of Hisao Oguchi, then president of Hitmaker, who respected Nishigaki's work. Oguchi recommended Nishigaki and his employees to Cavia president Hayao Nakayama. Nakayama previously served as Sega's president, and in an ironic turn of events, Oguchi would later go on to be promoted president of Sega himself.
During the interview I asked Nishigaki what he was working on at Cavia, he could only say that he was working on a domestic Japanese project, but he had another big project in the making. I pressed to find out more about his domestic project. He promised to invite me down to the Cavia development office to play test what he was working on when it was ready.
Throughout the interview, which seemed to go on for hours, Nishigaki never asked for a break. I offered to get him something to drink but he politely refused, he seemed delighted with the attention, and was not even concerned with the time.
Towards the end of the interview, we talked about his life and interests. He talked about his daily schedule at Cavia, how he liked going to the onsen (hot spring), spending time with his wife, reading books, investment banking, and watching movies. I wanted to know what inspired his work so I asked him about movies. He liked Hayao Miyazaki's older movies, Kurosawa films, Star Wars, but surprisingly he was not much a fan of horror movies. Yet, he recommended My Bloody Valentine and Prom Night as good B-movies from the 1980's.
Nishigaki could never find time to play other video games due to his schedule, and said he'd rather play his own games. He told me that he used to be an avid player of Dungeons & Dragons, but when it came to games he was a fan of Dragon Quest, the Resident Evil games, as well as Kemco's adventure games including "Déjà vu". He told me how much he wanted to try out Hitman. When I asked him about the possibility of producing an online game he said he had no interest in creating one.
He and I exchanged business cards, shook hands and said our goodbyes, with promises to meet again in a few months so I could play his domestic project, and maybe hear more of his next big game to what he affectionately said, "It's a Nishigaki-genre type of game, it's a Crazy Game". We parted and I exited the lobby out into the crisp chill of the Tokyo air.
Three and a half months passed. After not hearing anything from Nishigaki, I decided to email him. No reply back. I assumed he was busy. A few weeks later I tried to call him on his cell phone but was met with a pre-recorded message. Something was peculiar, maybe he changed his number, I thought.
While on a break at my day job as an assistant language teacher in a junior high school in Chiba prefecture, I decided to call his office. I got a hold of the receptionist.
"May I speak to Shinya Nishigaki please?"
There was a pause on the other end.
"Hold on one moment please." The female receptionist said. I was put on hold, a male voice answered the phone.
It was not Shinya. I had been transferred to the vice-president of Cavia.
"May I speak to Shinya Nishigaki please?" I repeated.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Nishigaki is no longer with the company," he said in awkward English.
I brought on a polite series of questions asking his whereabouts. Then he said it.
"He's dead. His heart stopped," he said.
It was true. I was then given a phone number for a member of Nishigaki's family who spoke fluent English, and confirmed he had suffered a heart attack at his home in Saitama on February 14th, 2004. It occurred only a month and a half after our interview. He was 42 years old.
No one outside Japan had heard of his death even though several months had passed. I ended up writing his obituary for Gamespot, and in the process of gathering comments, had to break the news of his death to some in the industry who had worked with him.
I never had the chance to truly say goodbye to Shinya Nishigaki. Even though I had only met him once, I felt like I'd lost a friend, and perhaps even a mentor who would give me an inside look at just what makes the Japanese video game industry tick.
I remembered how during our interview, Nishigaki exposed me to the downside of the game business. He was very honest with his opinions, but polite and did not hold back. During parts of our interview, there were times that he cupped his hand over my tape recorder microphone or asked me to stop it all together. I got an earful.
Nishigaki hated how much money had to play a factor in game development. Going from a hit game to one that would go on to fail in sales due to the end of its hardware, and then the eventual closure of his company was something he did not anticipate. Nishigaki cared about games plain and simple, and the energy it took to make one that was entertaining. The fact that he turned down Sega for a sequel to Blue Stinger proved he didn't want to milk franchises. He went forward with his own original ideas in an industry gasping for air in a sea of sequels.
He was even ecstatic and had a smile ear-to-ear when I told him about an unauthorized sequel to Illbleed that an internet fan group was trying to develop. He truly respected this kind of creative energy.
Before Nishigaki's death there was hopeful news that both Blue Stinger and Illbleed would be ported to the original Xbox by way of Tokyo-based developer Coolnet Entertainment. Coolnet had struck a deal with Sega in December of 2002 to port the games to Microsoft's new gaming console.
After Nishigaki’s passing I tried my best to encourage the president of Coolnet Entertainment to releases the games. I would board the train for a two-hour trip to Tokyo from my apartment on several occasions to sit and discuss my ideas for publishing it abroad. It was volunteer work over coffee and green tea that had me presenting the names of numerous publishers overseas that the company could partner with. I was even more hopeful to hear that the Xbox port of Illbleed was 90% complete.
“What’s your incentive in this?” I was asked in a meeting by the president and his partner.
“Well, I just want to see his games released” I replied.
An understanding was established that I wanted to help preserve the work of Nishigaki. I even suggested that Blue Stinger and Illbleed could be brought to the Xbox 360.
“But that would require a new contract with Sega” I was told. I was also told that in order for the games to be released on the original Xbox, the version for Japan would have to be released first, and a North American release would come after. The original Xbox was not exactly flying off Japanese store shelves and the Xbox 360 launch was just around the corner.
I did all I could. Nishigaki's games were at the mercy and timing of one console and then another, a lesson that I would never forget. Coolnet was moving in a different direction and onto different products. In the end there was nothing I could do but hold on to my own Sega Dreamcast copies of Shinya’s games and move on. The Xbox versions of his games would be cancelled and AIA USA would shut down its Illinois-based publishing office in late 2004.
Nishigaki and I had discussed Coolnet’s plans in our meeting before he passed away. He was focused on his new project, but was hopeful the Xbox versions could generate new fans of his work. Years later his games have gotten a cult following on YouTube via playthrough videos. I like to think Nishigaki did gain new fans thanks to various online forums and of course, YouTube.
Former staff members of Crazy Games would stay with Cavia to work on various projects, including programmer Kazuaki Yokozawa who word work as lead programmer on such titles as Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles and its follow-up Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles. A handful of other former Crazy Games staff at Cavia would be credited on such games including WinBack 2: Project Poseidon and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Cavia would be absorbed into AQ Interactive in July 2010 and almost a year later would be merged with Marvelous Entertainment. It’s unknown how many former Crazy Games staff have stayed with the company (or the game industry as a whole) since these mergers.
In an untimely manner, a man who deserved much more acclaim and admiration was gone. Blue Stinger and Illbleed brought a new presentation of action, horror, and a mix of humor to Sega's underrated console.
It’s been over a decade since we lost you Nishigaki-san, we really miss you and your “Crazy Games”.
In Memory of Shinya Nishigaki
An Industry Remembers Shinya Nishigaki
The following comments were gathered in 2004 after Nishigaki’s passing but were not published. They are presented here for the first time.
Ken Gratz, Video Game Industry Consultant (Former Director of Product Development – AIA USA)
I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. Not only was he one of the kindest, most creative people I have ever met, he had honest passion for everything he did. It seemed like he always had an infectious smile on his face. Was he genuinely happy at the time, or did he have another brilliant and innovative idea for a game? He will be missed. My deepest respect goes out to his family and colleagues.
Ellen Fuog, Owner detn8games (Former President – AIA USA)
Above and beyond Mr. Nishigaki's most apparent talents, I vividly recall his enthusiasm and dedication. His kindness and consideration was extended to all he met, and his perpetual smile was only outweighed by the warm twinkle in his eyes. Surely the world would be a more peaceful and congenial planet for all its occupants if everyone would follow Mr. Nishigaki's example.
Masaki Segawa (Blue Stinger & Illbleed Character Designer)
Mr. Nishigaki whom I knew was a pleasant man. A gentle man, and a stubborn man. A man who would sometimes say something unexpected. An honest man who tried hard to realize a dream. I liked him. When Climax Graphics disappeared, I felt a strong loneliness.
The former staff of Climax Graphics / Crazy Games
President & CEO
Producer, Scenario, Dialogue, Story (Blue Stinger & Illbleed)
Creature & Background Design (Illbleed)
Producer (The Maze of the Kings)
Ayumu Kojima &nbs