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Thursday, July 7, 2022

Isometrics Presents: An All-Too Brief History of WARP

Warp Month

To mark a year after the tragic passing of legendary anarchic game developer Kenji Eno, Isometrics looks back at his amazing life and the works of his company, WARP Inc.

A Tribute to Kenji Eno

Welcome, friends, adversaries and other persons interested in the twisted tangential literary world of video games, to a special Isometric tribute to a particular figure in the gaming world that came up from nothing to turn the gaming world upside down, causing revolutions and ripples in game design that are still felt to this day. This man is Kenji Eno, and to celebrate his fascinating life and works, February will for Isometrics be dedicated to Eno, and the three games that came to define his legacy. Three unique, polarising, intensely flawed masterpieces known as the Laura Trilogy. We will cover them in detail in subsequent weeks, but this week, we must cover the man behind these games, Kenji Eno and the story of WARP Inc.

“I have no interest in my own past — like, what I did in the past, what sold, how much, and so on. And the same goes for other people; I have no interest in what other people did in the past.”

-Kenji Eno, in an absolutely fantastic interview for EGM, archived in full here

5th May 1970 - 20th February 2013. Rest in Peace.
5th May 1970 – 20th February 2013. Rest in Peace.

Born on 5th May 1970, Eno basically grew up along with the industry itself, reaching adolescence right when the gaming industry boomed, proving  that it was no passing fad and was in fact here to stay ( it was thus somewhat karmic that he would end up leaving school at 17 and end up as a game designer for Interlink, purely by virtue of his imagination, musical talent and sheer bullshitting skill that became the hallmark of his later work).He was a man renowned for his luck- seriously, the dude picked up one magazine with job ads and got three jobs in a day! This is especially lucky, given the close proximity to the Japanese stock market crash of 1989.

Outside of the story of him getting in to the industry, most of his early work is riddled with the same kinds of licensed work and thankless ports that most game designers who start at the bottom toil on. Of these, the main one of note was a strange Famicom port of the Sega mainstay Altered Beast, with more music and significantly less “Rise From Your Grave!” to it.

Complete with Cheetahman quality Boxart!
Complete with Cheetahman quality Boxart!

Someone with the ambition of Eno clearly wasn’t going to stick to making Ultraman RPGs and so in 1990 scraped together enough money to start his own company, EIM (Standing for “Entertainment, Imagination and Magnificence.” Nothing less from Kenji here). He was still stuck making licensed games but at least at this point he was working making games for companies such as Taito (on Panic Restaurant, a sweet action platformer, one of the rare Eno games that saw a western release) and Sunsoft (on a game that was meant to be a Superman adaptation but ended up being boringly easy. Because Superman). He finally got his own money for these licensed efforts but was no happier, and on the cusp of a nervous breakdown shut down EIM’s doors in 1993.

He ended up working for an automotive magazine and for pretty much everyone the story would end here, and I’d be about three hundred words and a point short of a full Isometrics article. However, the gaming bug refused to die in Eno and a chance business trip to San Francisco’s Macworld 1994 event as well as “Be-In” (two of the hubs of the 1990’s counterculture in computing) sparked the fire once again In 1994 WARP was born, and the rest is surprisingly obscure history…

I want to say that WARP had an immediate impact right from the start and that I’d cover every game in the West but there is one elephant in the room before I do. The first game they released, as well as the second Eno game to cross the ocean was a bizarre puzzle game by the name of Trip’d. I would cover it in detail, but unlike the Laura trilogy, the game itself is mostly just a puzzle game clearly inspired by Puyo Puyo. It is worth a look though, partly for the fantastic and absolutely barking mad soundtrack but also for the instruction manual, designed by Eno and without any sense at all. It is sheer absurdist genius, even if the game is a bit too normal to take advantage of that.

Say what you want about D's gameplay now, but man is that composition sound!
Say what you want about D’s gameplay now, but man is that composition sound!

After Trip’d though, he crafted the fascinating D, a game that will get a full article next week. One little titbit, though, is the amazing trick he managed to cheat the censors right in the middle of gaming’s biggest moral panic in the States. The game was deliberately submitted late, which generated not only a fine but also meant that Eno had to take the master discs personally to be manufactured by 3DO themselves. Then while on the plane he swapped the clean version of the master that had been submitted to censors with a far more gory and intensely controversial version, which makes D possibly the goriest T rated game ever made. 1995 was full of games in the US attempting to push the controversy envelope, but D’s trickery and strange enigmatic marketing had an immediate impact:

“So after D’s success, I was able to move to a decent, normal place, and I was able to afford kids. I finally had enough money to raise kids; that’s how success changed me.”

– Kenji Eno

D sold over a million units in Japan and got surprisingly high review scores given the somewhat black reputation D and other FMV games have now. It was a sleeper hit, especially to Sony, who either neglected or deliberately withheld production orders from D, only producing 28,000 of the 100,000 orders. The way Eno took his revenge is something to behold, especially in what was a PR dominated era of gaming.

The other concession that needs to be made having done more research into WARP’s Japanese fare is that Eno, to a lot of western fans of his work,  was typecast as a unique horror designer, when in fact he actually designed a lot of surreal comedy work. His sense of humour could charitably be described as “odd”. From the madness of Trip’d, the weird self-reflexive parody of Short WARP (with a condom extra, probably one of the strangest extras to come with a video game) and the sheer baffling concepts of “Totsugeki Karakuri Megadasu!!”, there was anarchic glee festooning from every pore. And that’s before we get to Oyaji Hunter Mahjong (a parody of perverted arcade games where the goal is to beat middle aged perverts of mahjong to protect young ladies from their slimy ways). It’s the kind of game most people simply throw their hands up and describe as “Japanese craziness”. Oddly enough the art designer and animator was Ichiro Itano, who became famous for being an animator on Gundam.

Box Art used to prove that yes, this game actually exists...
Box Art used to prove that yes, this game actually exists…

That was the other odd midas-like element of Eno’s success; he had the unbelievably good fortune when making his small development teams to find talent that would go on to be massive successes elsewhere. Outside of Itano, there was also Takeshi Nozue (a CG director who would go on to great success with the Final Fantasy series, co-directing the feature film Advent Children with longtime designer Tetsuya Nomura)  and fascinatingly enough Fumito Ueda (who went on to design Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, two other spellbinding and utterly atmospheric games). Eno never claimed  for their later successes to his credit, but it was amazing that he had such an eye for talent.

 

There was also the human element to Eno as well. After seeing blind children struggling and trying to play video games, he was moved to create Real Sound, Kaze no Regret, a video game without any visuals. The game relied on subtle audio quirks and evocative music and dialogue, which basically made the game untranslatable. He also managed to donate a thousand Sega Saturns and copies of this game to blind children through a rather interesting deal with Sega.

The only alternative to this is a blank screen, and I am being dead serious here.
The only alternative to this is a blank screen, and I am  dead serious.

 

After the farcical production of the Playstation version of D, Eno got his revenge at a press conference in 1996, where after a preview of his latest horror work, Enemy Zero, the Sony logo at the end morphed and shifted into a logo for the Sega Saturn, in what is both the most elaborate and most successful flipping of the proverbial in the history of video gaming, short of stomping over a beloved mascot… which he also allegedly did.

Enemy Zero was a fascinating game, probably most notable for having Bafta winning and multi-platinum selling minimalist composer Michael Nyman crafting the music. And a master of atmospheric gaming meeting a master of atmospheric music did indeed create a really eccentric, flawed masterpiece, before you ask.

An Interactive movie you say? More on that later...
An Interactive movie you say? More on that later…

WARP’s final game, D2, suffered a very troubled production, in part due to the fact that the original console it was designed for, the M2, was cancelled before its release. The game was redesigned completely for the Dreamcast and suffered a troubled, delayed production, which may explain some of the odder design choices for the most elaborate, ambitious and divisive game of Eno’s tempestuous career. After D2 failed to sell nearly as many units as it perhaps deserved, Eno quit the industry and moved into advertising.

“People have their individual values, but, instant gratification, quick and easy accessibility, things you can use to kill time in an instant… These sorts of things are what are winning now. I don’t really like these kinds of games, but everyone makes their own choices, for better or worse.”

– Kenji Eno, in the last interview he ever conducted for Kotaku, available here

With this, WARP became SuperWARP and moved into advertising, online services and pretty much everything that wasn’t gaming, in his tradition of never staying on the beaten path too long. He did eventually get the development bug and with fyto (From Yellow To Orange), he designed his last game, Kimi to Boku to Rittai (You, Me and the Cubes), for Nintendo’s Wiiware system. He had plans to release other games, such as a sequel to Real Sound, before his untimely death on the 20th February last year. He was 42.

Kenji_Eno_with_a_fan

I trust people who say what’s on their mind. Because it’s harder to state your opinion in the face of complaints and opposition.” – Kenji Eno.

Eno, though always a fringe figure will always have his legacy live on in gaming. Partly through his gift for atmosphere and his indelible touch with unique soundtracks and introspective psychological themes. Partly through the figures who have passed through his life, figures who have gone on to soaring heights and further revolution in an industry he loved. Partly through his sense of anarchy, which went on to cause a boon in Japanese independent gaming and a revolution in the way we look at, play and market games.

Most importantly for me, he will live on in the spark of imagination, the spark of anarchy, the spark of revolution he inspired in the people who played his games.

Thank you for reading and enjoy WARP Month.

Any thoughts about the article? Leave them in the comments section below, or on the Facebook, Twitter and Google+ pages for Geek Pride, as well as his own personal Twitter @HuggyDave..

David Rose
David Rosehttp://clinkening.blogspot.com
An upstart young literary critic, reviewer, novelist, lyricist, metal vocalist and master of hugs, with a particular tone mixing academic critique with bouncy childish glee.

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