An Interview with Kurt Kalata: The Ten Year Quest for the Definitive Book of JRPGs
This interview with Kurt was held when his book A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games was published by Bitmap Books. It was included in German in an article about the book for games culture magazine GAIN. It is now exclusively available in English here on Language at Play. If you are looking for the German interview or article, click this hyperlink.
Kurt Kalata is a video game historian who lives in New Jersey, USA. He runs Hardcore Gaming 101 and has published dozens of books about retro games.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your gaming history? When did you start playing JRPGs, what made them your favourite genre (if they indeed are)? Where does your fascination stem from?
I’ve been playing games since as long as I can remember. I’ve been writing about them since I was 15 years old in high school in 1997 or so when I started a fan web page on Geocities called The Castlevania Dungeon. Working on that eventually led to the creation of Hardcore Gaming 101 in 2004, which I’ve been doing ever since.
For my first JRPG, I can’t remember if it was Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy, but I was about ten years old at the time. For Dragon Warrior, I think we had rented it, and borrowed it from my babysitter’s son, then we eventually got a free copy from the Nintendo Power subscription bonus. Even though I played it all the way through, to be honest, I didn’t really like it very much. Even at the time, it felt a little old when it came to the graphics and the interface. In retrospect, I wonder if they’d localized a newer game, like Dragon Quest/Warrior III, if it would’ve been more popular in the USA.
On the other hand, I loved Final Fantasy. Nintendo Power put out a strategy guide and I studied every corner of it until I finally got the game for Christmas later that year, after which I played through it a few times.
Since I got a Genesis after that, there weren’t too many other RPGs out at the time. I did play Phantasy Star II, and Lunar for the Sega CD, and a few other games like Secret of Mana on my friends’ SNES. But it wasn’t until we got a cheap SNES later on that I got back into them, when one of my friends lent me Final Fantasy III (VI) and Chrono Trigger. Later that year, I got a PlayStation for Final Fantasy VII, which really got me into them – I think that’s a pretty common experience, given how popular it was. I loved how ridiculous the story was, and it served as an introduction to the long-form storytelling found in Japanese media.
It was also a great time to get into the genre, since Final Fantasy VII opened the floodgates for many other JRPGs to be localized into English. For old people like me, the PS1/PS2 era was the golden age for the genre, at least as far as how many games were available to play.
Do you have an absolute favourite JRPG game or series yourself?
If you’d asked me a decade ago, I’d say Final Fantasy – even though the series is pretty contentious, I enjoyed almost all of them, at least up until the thirteenth entry. By that point, I think it began to lose its way, and nowadays, it’s more surprising than anything when a single player Final Fantasy ends up being pretty good.
Nowadays, I’d say the franchise I’m looking forward to most is Shin Megami Tensei. I think Atlus has struggled with the series in trying to balance it with Persona, but I’m still pretty interested in seeing where they’re going with it.
How long have you worked on the Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games in total?
From the point where I started work on it to the point where it went to print, maybe 20 months. But it sorta originated as a JRPG article I did for Gamasutra back in 2008, so with that and all of the other JRPGs I’d played and written about over the years, the foundation for the book was being built for well over a decade.
In 2020, you published the Hardcore Gaming 101 Unofficial Guide to SMT & Persona, a much more in-depth anthology on the different entries of the Megaten series. Has it influenced how you included the SMT entries in the Guide, or even the structure of the book as a whole?
The SMT/Persona book was in the works for a long time, like at least seven years or so. I kept getting pulled into other projects, and Atlus kept releasing new games or re-releasing old ones, so it was a struggle to keep up. Eventually with the help of some freelancers, I was able to pull most of it together, but the big sticking point was with some of the more obscure games – SMT NINE (for the OG Xbox), Giten Megami Tensei (for PCs) and DemiKids/Devil Children (for portable platforms). I couldn’t find anyone that could write about these, info in English is sparse, and there isn’t a whole lot even in Japanese. Plus these games aren’t particularly good, so it was a struggle just to devote time to play them!
For the JRPG book, since I had a deadline to meet, it forced me to push forward to get through these. So I ended up writing something short for the JRPG book, and something a bit longer for the SMT book. So ultimately the JRPG book is one of the big things that made the SMT book come together.
How did your cooperation with Bitmap Books and its head publisher Sam Dyer start? Did they approach you because of your work at Hardcore Gaming 101?
The JRPG book started because I was mad at how my day job was treating me – they laid off a bunch of people, took away our bonuses, and put us on a several month-long mandatory overtime project – so I began working on the JRPG book in earnest in hopes that I could get some writing work to get me away from it. I had planned to pitch it to Sam at Bitmap, but at some point I posted on my Facebook about how pissed off I was and was looking for other work, and Sam approached me then. Since I was already working on the book by this point, I had something to show off almost immediately.
Unfortunately since I live in the USA, our health insurance is tied to employment, and it’s very expensive to get on its own, so I’ve still had to stick with my job for now, particularly due to the pandemic.
What was the hardest part of working on the JRPG book? Were there any roadblocks you can tell us about?
The biggest issue was (again) the pandemic. Lockdowns began in the USA at the end of March 2020 and the deadline was at the end of July. So in some ways, it helped – I’m the sort of person who deals with stress by burying themselves in their work, and this was basically my therapy. And since we couldn’t really leave the house, it allowed for a lot of time to get things done. But there was a lot of mental anxiety due to the state of everything, so it was still rough.
Plus, with the first draft, there was something like 370,000 words, which of course needed to be edited, a process which was exasperating just due to the scale, and took a number of months. There’s some writer meme out there that’s like, for the planning/writing process, it’s all “hell yeah this rules” and then when it comes to editing, it’s all “argh this sucks!”
Is there anything – a game, a studio, a designer, a weird fanfilm or tidbit – that isn’t included in the book, but that you would have loved to somehow include?
There were a few minor games that I had to cut for space, but in retrospect, it could’ve used a section on Koei. They were featured due to their early works in the genre on the PC, but their later games went off in different directions, in ways that straddled the line of what you could call a JRPG. Things like Uncharted Waters. Broadly speaking, there are a lot of games like this, so when time/space began to become an issue, these are the ones that end up getting cut. But I think these could’ve used a page or two since they are still pretty interesting takes on the genre.
The other one was a timing issue. I always felt that Yakuza was “basically a JRPG” so I put in a section for it. The newest one at that point, however, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, took the series from “basically a JRPG” to “definitely a JRPG”. However, it wasn’t released in English until after the deadline. There is a paragraph about it at the end of the Yakuza series piece (it was classified as an action-RPG) but something that went into more detail about it, now that I’ve played it, would’ve been nice.
Do you want to shout out some of the people working with you, be they artists, authors or something else?
Steph Sybydlo did an absolutely brilliant job on the cover. I had discovered her work on Twitter a few years prior, and mentally bookmarked her as someone to approach in case an RPG project came up, so she was my first pick.
On the writing side, Robert Fenner helped a lot with some more obscure games, and together with Word on the Wind (a regular on the HG101 Top 47,858 Games of All Time podcast) created an excellent feature on the SaGa games. While I’m a big Falcom fan, I never really got into the Legend of Heroes games, so James Galizio did a great job with those. Justin Guillou hosts a Xeno-themed podcast so he was a natural choice for those, and helped put me in contact with other writers to flesh out some of the lesser known games. And Carrie Wood is the only Golden Sun cosplayer I know, so she was a natural choice for that section (and a few others).