Within the video game industry, there are few creators who have left as much of an impact as SEGA’s own Toshihiro Nagoshi. He’s the architect behind some of the last several decades most creative hits, including arcade-staple Daytona USA, Super Monkey Ball, Yakuza, and most recently, Judgment. We had the unique opportunity to sit down with the man himself, just days before the release of Judgment in Japan, to ask him a few questions about his extensive history with SEGA, as well as his life outside of the job.
Conducting the interview was Sekai of EXILE and FANTASTICS, a multi-talented performer who also doubles as a massive video game fanatic and overall otaku. Building on top of this, SEKAI has long been a fan of Toshihiro Nagoshi’s works. Going into the interview, we prepped Sekai with a handful of questions that he mixed in with his own, ultimately bringing us a unique blend of domestic and globalized questions that we hope delivers an in-depth look at the worlds view on Nagoshi.
With a focus on Toshihiro Nagoshi’s early days at SEGA, as well as his work on the Yakuza series, the first part of our interview can be read below:
Sekai: It’s a pleasure to meet you
Nagoshi: It’s a pleasure to meet you too
Sekai: I’m actually quite a fan of the Yakuza series, I’ve played each and every one of them.
Nagoshi: Thank you
Sekai: I’d like to ask you a few questions about the Yakuza series from a global perspective.
Sekai: When you began working on the Yakuza series, your target audience was adult males. Can you tell me a little about this?
Nagoshi: To be specific, it was actually adult Japanese males. I wasn’t really thinking about overseas audiences, nor was I thinking about younger and female audiences. Around that time there were a few Japanese games that proved popular internationally, but the genre of these games was mainly limited to fantasy, military, and sports.
There was a huge market for those genres, so I understand why everyone targeted them, but too much of the same thing is boring. There was always a lot of requests from different countries for business, but when it came to our own creativity, we have our own things we want to do and say. I knew that if we listened to everyone, we would make no-one happy. I tried to tell myself that it was all part of being a creative at first, but one day I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.
If I’m being honest, a lot of my motivation was fueled by anger and came from going against the market. I knew that we could make a game that didn’t follow the market’s norms, I knew we’d find fans of what we were doing along the way. Because of all this, I wanted to force myself into a situation where I couldn’t turn back. That’s when I decided not to target the three aforementioned groups. If I look back now, it was definitely reckless.
Sekai: It’s crazy, I actually still remember when the original Yakuza game was coming out while I was in Junior High School. I remember seeing the commercial for it and thinking that this was something totally new that I had never played before.
Nagoshi: I’m glad.
Sekai: Right now in Western countries there’s actually quite a large female fanbase for the Yakuza series. Was this something you expected?
Nagoshi: Well I mean, the game wasn’t even expected to sell in Western countries in the first place, so it’s still strange that it even got popular. In the Western market, those genres I mentioned earlier aren’t exactly performing as well. So when this game ended up releasing, it was something I thought to be quite unique. People started to say “Oh, what’s this?”, and it began spreading through word of mouth.
When it comes to the female fans part of the question, this actually isn’t unique to the West. I still think it’s odd that we have that following but it was in a way a good thing that we didn’t try to cater to a female audience. I think that because we tried to ignore both younger and female audiences we inherently captivated their interest in the contents of the game. I can’t really speak for the female fans of the series, but these days guys are a total pushover. So maybe it’s because of this that those fans feel so attracted to the main character of the game. I can’t say for certain, but it has to be something like that.
But even though there are more female fans now, it’s not a fact that myself or the staff can worry about. If we start to worry about the female fans, it changes the identity of what we’ve worked on and we risk isolating the current fans.
Sekai: I see
Nagoshi: We want the Yakuza boom to continue growing, but we also want to respect the fans who have been there since the beginning. If we try and shift our formula to fit a new audience, Yakuza won’t be the game we set out to make. It’s hard to adapt and stay truthful at the same time, but all this is a good kind of stress to have. Every character is the kind of man that every boy
wants to be, and I can’t blame the female fans if they fall in love. It’s not just the characters, but all of the dialogue is just so cool.
We actually have a hard time deciding the character dialogue. Kiryu doesn’t talk much, and because his sentences are so short,
we have to put a lot of thought into those few words he does speak. It’s not uncommon for us to change the scripts right before recording the lines.
Sekai: It’s a little off-track, but do a lot of these changes happen because Kiryu’s voice actor Takaya Kuroda has something he wants to say instead?
Nagoshi: Sometimes he’ll give me advice like “We should do it like this”, and he’ll deliver it in a really good voice. Surprisingly it’ll fit quite well sometimes; I think it’s quite similar to making music. You have the original intention, but more often than not it’ll change while actually finishing or performing it on-site. I think making a video game is a lot like this.
Sekai: We encounter this situation a whole lot. When we’re on tour, things will often get changed on the fly. This especially happens when performing with EXILE.
Nagoshi: I think it’s a good thing.
Sekai: It feels like everyone is constantly trying to better each other, so I think it’s a very good thing.
Over the years, it’s not only been the style of games that you make that has changed, but also your overall look and style too. Can you tell me about the changes in your own image from back when you worked on Daytona USA, all the way to your most recent title Judgment?
Nagoshi: Change in my own image? I’ve actually talked about this to a few different outlets, but never really spoke in detail. Honestly speaking though, I’m just dressing up and doing what I’m interested in. I went to an art university and was learning about film. I didn’t
have money, so even though I was interested in fashion I couldn’t afford anything. It was after I started working that I started saving, but I was far too busy to even use my money.
I was involved with a girl who was a big influence early on. While I had this simple girlfriend, I myself was a simple person. My first marriage didn’t go so well, and we ended up getting divorced, but that wife was born in the US and her favorite music was hard rock. She enjoyed my long hair and kept telling me not to cut it, so I listened to her. That’s how things were. I couldn’t just let my hair grow out though, so I had to also adapt the clothes I wore to match that look. When I went on to have my next girlfriend, I again tried to change my style to match her personality. It’s kind of surprising, but I really don’t have a particular policy about my style.
Sekai: That’s actually really interesting.
Nagoshi: If anyone were to look at me now though, they could probably imagine the kind of woman I’m with.
Sekai: I’m sure they could.
Nagoshi: At the risk of my wife yelling at me, I’m not going to say too much though.
Sekai: So you joined SEGA in 1989. Before that, as you mentioned, you went to Tokyo Zokei University and studied film. Do you make much use of what you’ve learned about films when making video games?
Nagoshi: I was actually really lucky. I had no money, and at that time, the video camera still wasn’t available commercially. We were forced to use 8mm film which I honestly don’t think can even be processed anywhere these days. We all had our part-time jobs, and we were saving enough money to make a movie ourselves.
I wanted to make a movie, but 30 years ago the Japanese film industry was in a slump, and as a result, there were no job openings. I was really interested in video games, and I figured if I wasn’t working a job I was interested in, I wouldn’t be able to hold that job for long. So I decided to apply for a job interview at a video game company. I saw SEGA as this monolith company and really wasn’t expecting to be hired. I honestly went to the interview just for the memory of doing so. I still don’t know why, but for some reason, they hired me on the spot.
More so than anything else, I was relieved I didn’t have to worry about being able to afford food anymore. I’m not really sure how to express it, but I didn’t have any computer skills. It really didn’t take long for me to feel like I had come to the wrong place. But when I said I was lucky before, it’s because during the time I began working, 2D was on its way out, and the industry was switching to 3D. When the transition to 3D took place, video games began to need both lighting and camera work. But even though this change had taken place, nobody had actually studied the techniques needed to work in a 3D space.
I knew the basics, so I gave them advice along the lines of “If you do that, viewers won’t know where they’re looking from. You should do this instead.” They would say “You know a whole lot about this!”, and internal jobs began coming my way. It was easy to apply my knowledge after that change to 3D, but before that, I was really banking on getting a job offer from a film production company. Before the change, I was constantly thinking about when I should quit. I really didn’t fit in. But as a result of technological innovation, I was given a space where I could utilize my skills. I couldn’t help but be thankful. You really don’t know what can happen to you.
Sekai: Was there a game that presented itself as the opportunity to transition from 2D to 3D?
Nagoshi: First, we had Virtua Racing, the title before Virtua Fighter. It’s a racing game, but it utilized a technique called “flat polygon” where there was nothing on the surface. There was nothing but colored boards, and in order to see freely from any angle with the camera, we had to draw each section one-by-one like cel animation. Eventually we started to be able to see freely by turning a knob. It was innovative, but nobody really understood how to do it. Because nobody had the skills to really pull it off, the company wasn’t ready to utilize it.
Fortunately, however, I had the skills to do it. People were quick to point out that I was good at it too. I felt like an actual lifesaver. When I look back on it now, it really did all work out in the end.
With a clear passion for his work and the drive to back it, Toshihiro Nagoshi proves time and time again that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. In the second part of our interview series, we hone in on Nagoshi’s current life at SEGA, as well as the defining works that have shaped his career. We also go in-depth on the city of Kamurocho, the very world that players will find themselves traversing when Judgment comes out in the West on PlayStation 4.