Monday, July 11, 2016

Profiles in Obscurity: Vic Tokai

Sega, Nintendo, Capcom, Bethesda, Electronic Arts. They're all names that should be instantly familiar to players; towering monuments in the gaming landscape. However, for every major developer, there are at least a dozen more which struggle to find an audience. These blips on the radar tend to fade with time or blink out entirely, the victims of a rapidly changing, fiercely competitive industry. 

It's easy to forget about these companies, but they're never gone from your mind completely. Occasionally you'll think back to one of the games they published and ask yourself, "Who were these guys? Where did they come from, and what the heck happened to them?" I've often wondered this myself, which is why it seems like a really good time to debut a new feature here on Kiblitzing. From time to time, I'll dig into the history of one of these companies and share what I've found here. It's a bit like those "Where Are They Now?" features on the evening news, except this is a bit closer to "Who Are They, Now?"

(image from Giant Bomb)

VIC Tokai seems like a good place to start! This early NES publisher is probably best remembered for introducing Americans to Golgo 13, the sniper of exceptional skill and negligible personality. Seriously, I'm pretty sure this guy communicates exclusively with gun fire and ellipses.

Part Dick Tracy, part James Bond, all boring.
(image from
Anyway. It may not seem that way to Americans, but VIC Tokai has been around a lot longer than the NES. Sega Retro reports that the company started in 1977 as a Japanese cable provider, and started calling itself "VIC Tokai" a year later. (If you were wondering, the "VIC" is short for "Valuable Information and Communication," or the slightly more digestible "Video Information Center.") Its parent company, Tokai, goes back even further, supplying the Japanese with natural gas since the 1950s.

VIC Tokai dipped its toe into the computer market by selling hardware in 1982 and designing business programs a year later. It wasn't until the mid 1980s that the company got involved in the video game business, teaming up with Seibu Lease to create some of its most memorable titles. (As well as some of its least. Heh.) Over time, the two companies cemented a reputation for gleefully quirky and ambitious NES titles like the aforementioned Golgo 13, Kid Kool, and Clash at Demonhead. 

Still weird as hell after all these years.
(image from Giant Bomb)
A few quick notes about the last two games. Kid Kool, a Super Mario Bros-ish side-scrolling platformer with slippery control and springy flagpoles that vaulted the player forward, became a franchise for VIC Tokai, with similar games being released for the Master System (Psycho Fox) and Sega Genesis (Decapattack). However, Clash at Demonhead is more fondly remembered in America for its odd merger of Mega Man's wide eyed, brightly colored art style and Metroid's deep, if sometimes obtuse, gameplay. To this day, the game still gets loving tributes from indie comics and popular gaming forums.

Trouble Shooter for the Sega Genesis (shown above) and its Japanese-exclusive sequel were the last VIC Tokai games with the company's distinct look and feel. After 1993, VIC Tokai stopped creating software in-house and published games for other developers, including Gremlin Interactive and Kronos Digital. It's probably not a coincidence that Kronos' miserable Criticom for the Sega Saturn and Dark Rift for the Nintendo 64 were VIC Tokai's last US releases. At the turn of the century, VIC Tokai abandoned the video game industry and devoted itself fully to cable television and the internet.

Now VIC Tokai is Tokai Communications, one of Japan's leading ISPs. Its partner from the 1980s, Seibu Lease, seems to have slipped through the cracks... information about the company is scarce, suggesting that it may either have been absorbed into Tokai or was shut down in the 1990s. However, the always handy Game Developer Research Institute has an interview with Seibu Lease employee Shouichi Yoshikawa, which sheds some light on who designed VIC Tokai's most memorable games, and where those employees went after leaving the company. 

Yoshikawa himself has retired from game development, but lectures future game designers on the tricks of the trade. So while the VIC Tokai of the 1980s is long gone, there's still hope that one of his students will bring back that style in a faithful homage. Hey, it worked for La Mulana.

(Special thanks to Encyclopedia Gamia, Sega Retro, the GDRI, and Wikipedia for providing valuable information for this article.)

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