What Could Have Been: Gainax’s Brief Stint as Video Game Consultants

Even within less enthusiastic corners of the fandom, inhabited by those who don’t routinely discuss favorite key animators or share clips of killer sakuga sequences, the origins of Gainax are well known. Its reputation looms large in the popular imagination. The studio’s iconoclastic origin story and the meteoric rise of Hideaki Anno, its star creator, have become the stuff of legend. But there are still pockets of Gainax history that remain largely unexplored.

One blind spot is Gainax’s role as a video game developer. Of course, fans are generally familiar with the overabundance of licensed Evangelion games, and some might even know the story behind the Princess Maker series and its runaway success. But less discussed—and arguably more interesting—was a brief period of time in the early ‘90s when a handful of Gainax employees became de facto video game consultants.

Humble Beginnings

Corporate interests and market concerns dictate so much in the Japanese animation industry. Projects generally come together only after investors are courted, demographics are tested, and sponsors are secured. It’s the definition of a “top-down” process. So much creative potential rests on the whims of executives who aren’t artists. In this respect, as has been extensively documented and enthusiastically dramatized, the creation of Gainax was unique.

The founders of Gainax were fans first, businessmen second. It should come as no surprise then that financial hardship marked the first decade of the studio’s existence, as it periodically tipped toward insolvency. Their inaugural production—a feature film, no less—while a critical darling, was a commercial disaster. Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise only recouped half of its ¥800 million budget, much to the dismay of Bandai, the corporate sponsor that “paid all the production expenses.”

Originally, Gainax was established as a temporary studio to oversee the production of Royal Space Force. The team had spent the better part of two-and-half years pouring their hearts (and checkbooks) into a film that performed dismally at the box office. Providentially, however, the nationwide trend of surging VHS rentals and sales gave them a second lease on life. Despite earlier losses, Bandai was desirous of tapping into this lucrative market, so they approached Gainax about funding yet another project, provided it met their sales goals. But there was a catch.

Takami Akai’s Princess Maker

Bandai made sure to lock up the merchandising rights for Aim for the Top! Gunbuster. And while the first volume “enjoyed immediate sales,” allowing them to produce four subsequent episodes, this was far from a windfall for Gainax. Due to contractual obligations, Bandai and Victor Music Industries, the two principal investors on the project, benefited the most financially. Gainax would make the same mistake a year later when they inked a deal with Toho to finance Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, a 39-episode television series that aired on NHK. As Marc Hairston explains, “it was Toho, not Gainax, who had most of the rights and reaped all the merchandising profits from the show and the toys.” Fortunately, the fledgling studio was quietly diversifying its portfolio.

In the winter of 1989, Yasuhiro Takeda1, one of the founders of Gainax, sustained a knee injury on a ski trip. While recovering in Kichijoji Hospital he was visited by Takami Akai, one of the studio’s most talented illustrators (he was assistant director of Royal Space Force and designer for the Daicon opening animation shorts), who took the opportunity to pitch him on a business proposition. “He suggested,” Tekeda recalls, “we make our own PC game.” Akai believed Gainax was uniquely positioned to “score it big in the gaming industry.” Little did either realize at the time, but the decision to pursue this pet project arguably saved the company.

True to his word, Akai followed through. Approximately eight months later Cybernetic Hi-School, an erotic quiz game, hit store shelves. Since it was developed internally, production costs were minimal, which netted them a tidy profit. In fact, it sold so well that a sequel, Highway Buster, was fast-tracked into development, releasing before the end of the year. A third installment soon followed, this time Gunbuster-themed, along with the similarly styled Super Battle Skin Panic, in 1990. As their shared content suggests, Gainax’s initial foray into gaming targeted a distinctly adult demographic.

A Changing Industry

By the ‘90s the Japanese game industry was going through some growing pains. The eroge genre, which prospered during the personal computer boom of the previous decade2, was in flux. While by no means a passing fad, interest for these explicitly sexual games waned as the economy weakened and creative output stagnated3. “The PC game market,” Takeda claimed, “was in need of a hit.” One that Akai would deliver.

Now confident in his abilities as a game developer, Takami Akai set out to complete his most ambitious project yet: Princess Maker. An early example of a “raising sim,” the game’s various loops revolve around child-rearing. As we put it in the very first Zimmerit article, “Players were tasked with raising a young daughter, and not just developing stats and skills, but choosing her attire as well.” Unlike many of their previous games, Princess Maker was geared toward a more general audience. Its warm aesthetic and surprisingly addicting gameplay garnered attention from fans and critics alike. It was a smash hit.

Takeda remembers that Princess Maker was a “major source of income for Gainax.” These were uncertain times for the company. Multiple projects died on the vine4, a source of frustration for all involved. And Nadia, while attracting an enthusiastic fanbase, drove the studio “well into the red.” This financial precariousness was only made worse by the recession, which continued to deepen as the decade wore on. Without the considerable revenue generated by Princess Maker, Gainax would have likely gone bankrupt by 19935.

Internally, the studio was beginning to fracture under these pressures. Toshio Okada, the president of Gainax, believed they should “pull out of anime altogether” and instead focus on gaming and other less costly ventures. His suggestion was met with strong disapproval, even from Akai, who argued that their work in animation built up their credibility to open those doors in the first place. Defeated, Okada relented. But all the while their games continued to sell at a steady pace.

Fortunately, they invested this money wisely. Acknowledging the strength of their gaming division, Gainax hired a multitude of “programmers and graphic artists.” Furthermore, as Akai noted, their reputation as a competent game developer was growing. They were making contacts in the industry, which would kick off the studio’s next (and less documented) phase as a game maker.

Alisia Dragoon

Phase II

Around that time Game Arts, now known for the Lunar and Grandia RPG franchises, approached Gainax about porting their popular action game Firehawk to the Mega Drive. While that conversion never came about, it did plant the seeds for future collaborations that would open a host of new opportunities for Gainax.

At that time Game Arts, not unlike the Japanese game industry writ large, was transitioning from personal computers to dedicated consoles. After the release of Harakiri for the PC-88 in 1990, all its in-development projects were being programmed for the Mega Drive or Mega-CD. One such project, dreamed up by Satoshi Uesaka, a programmer, and Yuzo Sunaga, a scenarist, was Alisia Dragoon6.

While the pair had many grand ideas for the game, they only had a “basic story” sketched out. Uesaka and Sunaga knew they wanted to go with an anime aesthetic, popular at the time, but lacked the experience to pull it off. They needed guidance, so they approached Gainax.

Officially, Gainax was brought on the project as consultants. Game Arts wanted a finger on the fandom’s pulse, and Gainax, given its grassroots origins, was uniquely qualified to provide that information. Furthermore, while the company had experience with complex narratives (see: Faria: A World of Mystery and Danger!7), they wanted a more veteran writer to tackle Alisia’s scenario.

While Akai and Okada8 were tangentially involved in the project (probably more in the “let’s-all-get-sake-after-work-to-seal-the-deal” way), they were too busy to dedicate significant—really, any—time to it. Enter: Yoshimi Kanda.

While not one of its founding members, Kanda had been with Gainax since the beginning. He worked on Royal Space Force as a studio manager, ensuring the office was well-stocked with supplies and equipment. On Gunbuster he oversaw advertising, which most likely meant he wrote and approved copy for all the promotional materials (magazine advertisements, store posters, fliers, etc.). A diligent employee with a knack for writing, the higher-ups came to soon recognize Kanda’s potential.

In the early ‘90s, Kanda was given the opportunity to flex his creative muscles. Working closely with Okada, he directed the live-action segments of Otaku no Video (which he also produced). However, this remains his only directorial credit—he’s a writer at heart. He dreamed of becoming “a magazine editor,” a wish that briefly came true with Cyber Comix9 And while it was short-lived, the experience, along with his interest in games (he did some work on Cybernetic Hi-School), positioned him as the perfect candidate for Gainax’s new gaming initiative.

Overall, the partnership between Gainax and Game Arts was fruitful. Kanda “helped out with game design” and assisted on a conceptual level. The game shipped without major delays and received positive reviews from critics. But this wasn’t a one-time deal for Gainax; in fact, this was now becoming a pillar of the studio’s business strategy. Over the next few years, the studio would consult with multiple developers and help shepherd their games to completion.

Xardion, a 1992 Super Famicom game, was arguably the most ambitious project that resulted from this endeavor. Jorudan, an arcade developer with ten-plus years of experience, was transitioning to the home console market and, like Game Arts, needed help. So, they reached out.

Developed concurrently with Alisia Dragoon, Xardion was much more in Gainax’s wheelhouse. Appropriately, it was a mecha side-scroller that featured three playable characters in a story spanning time and space. Kanda was again chosen to lend his expertise; however, this time he played a more formative role, responsible for drafting the original concept and penning the story. This most likely accounts for Xardion feeling like a lost OVA from the ‘80s. It has that touch.

To achieve this, Gainax tapped into a diverse pool of experienced talent. Moriki Yasuhiro and Hajime Katoki, two illustrators who were then still early in their career (but who are now industry veterans), provided the mechanical designs. Yasuhiro’s baroque style is on full display with the titular mecha, a striking and ostentatious design that emblazoned all the promotional material. In addition, Gainax brought on Kohei Tanaka, of Gunbuster and Patlabor fame, to compose the music. Clearly, all parties involved had high hopes for Xardion.

Sparing no expense, Gainax leveraged further resources to launch a promotional blitz before and after release. They produced three commercials, with approximately 20 seconds of original animation, that were broadcast on Japanese television. Two months after Xardion hit store shelves, the record label FUTURELAND released an arranged album of Tanaka’s OST, giving those chiptunes some added oomph. And finally, Sonozaku Tohru, who previously wrote a Gunbuster short story, was commissioned to pen a prequel novel10 that takes place 8,000 years before the events of the game.

Despite the obvious love that went into the project, Xardion was not a success. While sales data remains a mystery, Jorudan never followed up with a sequel, which is telling considering the amount of work that went into pre-production. Furthermore, there are a glut of cartridges in Japanese second-hand markets, which suggests a high production run that likely exceeded demand. And while there are certainly fans of the game11, critics were not particularly taken with it12.

Undeterred, Gainax continued to forge partnerships with other game makers. They worked with Pandora Box to develop Ryuuki Heidan Danzarb, a sci-fi RPG featuring giant dragon mecha, which came out in 1993. The next year Gainax produced Götzendiener, a PC Engine game with an isometric perspective, developed by Studio Alex13, that puts players in control of a captive princess who must escape from a castle. Unfortunately, both games failed to meet sales expectations and received lukewarm critical attention.

But by the end of 1994 Gainax was on the cusp of monumental change. They were then deep in production of Neon Genesis Evangelion [1995], a genre-bending show that would reshape the media landscape and jettison the studio to superstardom. From then on, Gainax would focus exclusively on the Evangelion or Princess Maker brands, inaugurating the third and final phase of their history as a game developer.

Due to the colossal success of Evangelion, there was little desire internally to continue with these partnerships. Okada, an early proponent of gaming, had left Gainax in 1992. Akai departed roughly two years later to start his own video game company14. Little is known about Kanda, whose credits at Gainax dry up around this time. But whatever was the case, these departures effectively shut the door on this collaborative period of the studio’s history.

Which is a shame. Games like Alisia Dragoon and Xardion are windows into other worlds, alternate universes where Gainax partnered with other developers to create dynamic and new experiences. Imagine an Otaku no Video-stylized PlayStation game, a la Pioneer LDC’s Lain, that explores the frenetic and fragmentary nature of the fandom. Or a shoot ’em up co-developed with Treasure based on the incomplete Aoki Uru storyboards. Or—best not to dwell.

We’ll never know.

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  1. I cite extensively from Yasuhiro Takeda’s Notenki Memoirs: Studio Gainax and the Men Who Created Evangelion, easily the most in-depth resource on Gainax available in English. Takeda was one of the founding members of the studio and his memoirs chronicle its creation all the way up to its status at the dawn of the new millennium.
  2. Wes Fenlon wrote an excellent article on Japanese game preservation for PC Gamer that looks back on how frenetic and lucrative the high-end PC market was during the Bubble Economy.
  3. As more and more players migrated to consoles (or left the hobby altogether), the eroge player base decreased dramatically. That’s not to say less erotic games were made during the ’90s (in fact, arguably the opposite is true), but sales took a hit as the PC market shrunk. Furthermore, companies like Square Soft, Nihon Falcom, and Enix, who had dabbled in the genre, left when they began to achieve more mainstream success.
  4. Out of all these projects, Olympia, a galaxy-spanning sci-fi epic, and Aoki Uru, the sequel to Royal Space Force, are the most high-profile failures. Interestingly, the conceptional work that was completed for Aoki Uru (“Blue Uru“) was incorporated into a couple of multimedia products, such as a Microsoft Flight sim add-on and a CD-ROM of art assets.
  5. Collum May’s four-part history details Gainax’s various trials and tribulations. It’s an exceptional piece that I recommend you read. Especially, part three documents the dire years of the early ’90s.
  6. The developer interview translated by Shmuplations was an invaluable resource in writing this article. Not only do I recommend you check it out, but consider donating to their Patreon. They have in their possession an interview with the creators of Xardion that could, if translated, shed so much light on this era of Gainax history.
  7. In many respects, Faria [1989] was a prototype for the epic RPGs that Game Arts would make in the ’90s. Takeshi Miyaji and Yoshito Asari, two individuals who worked on the Grandia and Lunar games, oversaw its development. Tellingly, they did not work on Alisia, which perhaps indicates why Game Arts approached Gainax for assistance.
  8. Both Akai and Okada (as well as Takeda) were thanked in the credits of Alisia, which suggests they had a role in the partnership.
  9. General Products’ foray into publishing leveraged Gainax’s relationship with Bandai into a chunky, tankoubon-sized manga magazine that debuted in 1989 and prominently featured Gundam stories. Unfortunately, a lack of experience and mismanagement and regularly missed deadlines soon meant that Cyber Comix was handed off to a new editorial company by Bandai.
  10. I first discovered this on Theldeon’s Gunbuster site, an excellent resource that houses their translation of the Gunbuster novel duology (as well as other projects).
  11. A small but dedicated fandom persists to this day. Three “fan artbooks” have been released, collecting some really striking pieces.
  12. Xardion received a 21/40 in Famitsu.
  13. As Todd Ciolek points out in an Anime News Network article, there was a connection between Studio Alex (best known for their work on the Lunar franchise) and Gainax. The former was founded by Kazunari Tomi and writer Keisuke Shigematsu, both of whom worked on Silent Möbius, one of Gainax’s more ambitious and better-remembered games.
  14. Akai founded Ninelives in 1994. It appears that he took the rights to Princess Maker with him. In some respects, Ninelives continued this consultancy work. It functioned more in an advisory capacity, working with other companies while managing its own properties. Akai returned to Gainax roughly a decade later.