The Prehistory of Nihon Falcom

Toshihiro Kondo, president of Nihon Falcom, spoke about the history of his company to Japan’s Famitsu magazine a few weeks back. He’s currently heading a company that, after a lull, is going from strength to strength — its latest PSP RPG, The Legend of Heroes: Ao no Kiseki, has sold nearly a quarter million copies in Japan, making it one of the most successful titles for Japan’s oldest RPG company in years.

In the very beginning, though — all the way back in 1981 — Falcom consisted entirely of Masayuki Kato, a computer engineer who became enraptured with the first personal computers that hit stores in the 1970s. “I’m one of the rare people in this industry who came here from a ‘normal’ job,” he told Famitsu this week. “After college I worked for a decade or so as a computer technician at an automaker. I was stationed overseas at Bangkok when I touched an Apple II computer for the first time, and it was just a massive sort of culture shock to me — I thought to myself ‘What have I been doing with myself all this time?’ So I bought one and started messing with it, and compared to the large-scale computers we had at work, it really seemed like they were more suited for entertainment purposes. I had tons of fun playing games on it, typing in the programs they printed in magazines and playing them with my son. He would keep saying to me ‘Dad, can you have it so I have more bullets?’ or ‘Can you make that bad guy stop showing up?’, and in the midst of modifying programs, I learned how to make my own games.”

So Kato negotiated with Apple to become their Japanese distributor, opening up the first Falcom shop in late 1981. As is perhaps befitting for a computer nerd of the early 1980s, the name “Falcom” was inspired by the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, which was simply called “the Falcon” in the Japanese dub of the film. “I thought Han Solo was really cool, and so was his ship,” Kato recalled. “When I was first building up the shop, PCs were still pretty expensive and they weren’t really the sort of thing normal people could get their hands on freely. So I tried to create this space where people could interact with them on their own terms; I put sofas in the shop and gave out free coffee to customers.”

The shift to creating games came a year later, when Falcom started to become home to a variety of enthusiastic young programmers and gamers. Among them was Yoshio Kiba, who later became Falcom’s main programmer all through the glory years of the ’80s and early ’90s. “He was one of the regulars at the store,” Kato said, “and he’d keep dropping hints to me like ‘Boy, it’d sure be fun if I could play with these all day.’ Finally I relented and said ‘Okay, come back Monday.’ That was around 1982, when I started to get serious about game development.”

Falcom’s first major hit was Xanadu in 1985 (above), a primordial action/RPG hybrid that went on to sell over 400,000 copies in Japan, making it the company’s best-selling title to this day. “I really didn’t think it would sell that much at the beginning,” admitted Kato. “It was pretty normal at the time to have just a limited release at the start and then put out more copies if orders kept on coming in, but that title just went on forever. That 400,000 figure was all full-price sales, too — if you figure piracy in, I think pretty much everyone who owned a personal computer back then wound up playing it. And the way the scene was, all the hit titles got ported to every computer you could think of, so once one version started to dwindle in sales, the latest port would come out and sales would pick up all over again.”

Soon after came Ys and Ys II, two action-RPG classics that became available on Virtual Console in 2008. Despite the fact that Ys was originally devised to be an easier, more approachable version of Xanadu, Kato admits that he finds the game a little too hard for him these days. “Even people in the company today told me ‘This is too hard, I can’t finish it,” he said with a laugh. “We were severely limited in memory and disk space back then, so one of the only ways we could add depth to our games was to make them harder. There’s no way you could get away with that if you were making a game today. There wasn’t nearly as much of a selection available at the time, either, so I think gamers made more of an effort to play a single game for as long as possible. They were more willing to stick with games, even if they thought they weren’t very good.”

Check out the interview with current president Kondo to hear about what Falcom’s been up to in more recent times.

The Prehistory of Nihon Falcom