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The demolition of Japan’s videogame history

In the eastern region of Kyoto, Japan, there lies an area named Higashiyama, filled with shrines, temples, and the Kyoto National Museum. It was here in Higashiyama that Nintendo built an office complex with buildings adjacent to one another that the company’s greatest designers worked in. Almost everything videogame-related that Nintendo developed before the year 2000 came from the complex known as 60 Kamitakamatsu-chofrom the original Game & Watch and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), to Donkey Kong (1981), Super Mario Bros. (1985), The Legend of Zelda (1986), and Metroid (1986). But while these games can still be played the buildings they were created in are now gone.

At one point in time there were approximately five buildings at 60 Kamitakamatsu-cho, including Nintendo’s headquarters and its iconic Research Center. The construction and exact dates of establishment for each of these buildings remains a mystery. What is known, however, is that in the past 15 years, two of these five buildings have been demolished. This absence coincides with recent concerns related to videogame preservation. As more buildings are torn down, we are urged to question the historical value of the physical birthplaces of iconic videogames.

The discussion among those in the game preservation community, including the IGDA, concerns whether game companies should begin preserving their physical legacy in the form of museums and archives on company property. Japanese corporations including Casio, Mitsubishi, NEC, Panasonic, Seiko, Sharp, Sony, TDK, and Toshiba all have corporate museums and archives open to the general public. They are regularly visited by tourists, educators, students, and prospective job applicants. Many of these same companies have manufactured countless integrated circuits, display screens, and other components for videogame hardware over the years.

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Nintendo’s 60 Kamitakamatsu-cho office complex as seen in the mid-1990s (left) and what the complex looks like today after two prominent buildings were demolished at the complex. What remains is the former Kyoto Research Center Building, now home to Mario Club. Courtesy: NHK and Justin Doub (Twitter @JustinDoub)

By establishing a museum or archive, a videogame company moves towards acknowledging the value of its legacy, making it both publicly observable and ensuring its ongoing protection through a continuous cataloguing of production material. Keeping all of this in a single location deemed permanent and secure adds to the seriousness of the commitment. Yet the unsettling prospect remains: Where does every single element from a finished videogame go once production and publishing is finished? The fear is that it remains scattered throughout departments and development staff workstations, unorganized and vulnerable. Making use of company real-estate to establish a place to organize, store, and even display these elements is the simple but often overlooked solution to a medium’s disappearing history.

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Due to confidentiality, we don’t know the full extent of the work that went on in the buildings at 60 Kamitakamatsu-cho. When the time comes to tell the stories behind Nintendo’s earliest games, it is often pieced together from various sources, that is if it can be pieced together at all. All that’s currently left are fading memories from former and current staff as well as some archived media, both of which are often difficult to track down. And so, the limited history of Nintendo’s 60 Kamitakamatsu-cho complex is the result of bringing together various tourist photographs, Google Map images, and news media snapshots and video. All this first-hand evidence is vital to establishing the true history of these buildings. For instance, Nintendo’s official history on its corporate website says it merged all its playing card manufacturing facilities to this location in 1952, and then moved its headquarters to the complex in 1959. However, a stone plaque hanging down the street from the guarded entrance gate to the complex in Higashiyama tells a different storyit commemorates its establishment as 1954. Unfortunately, such historical clarity isn’t always possible. Nintendo’s headquarters once sat at the left of the entrance gate, and on the far-left was what is assumed to be a manufacturing facility, with Nintendo’s kanji logo displayed in blue on white signage. Both of these buildings are believed to have been built sometime in the 1970s. At the center of this complex was Nintendo’s three-story Kyoto Research Center, built in the late 1980s. Then there are two smaller buildings that stand at the back of the complex, but their history and current usage remain a mystery.

Where does every element from a videogame go once production and publishing is finished?

Nintendo ended up outgrowing this area, and in 2000 moved its headquarters to its present location: 11-1 Hokotate-cho in the Minami-ku ward of Kyoto. Within a few years (the exact date is unknown) the former Nintendo headquarters building at 60 Kamitakamatsu-cho was demolished and a green patch of land replaced it. Intelligent Systems, a Kyoto developer that has close relations with Nintendo, would move into Nintendo’s Kyoto Research Center at 60 Kamitakamatsu-cho in 2002. It was here that Intelligent Systems developed Fire Emblem, Paper Mario, and WarioWare as well as development tools for the Nintendo DS and 3DS handhelds. In 2013, Intelligent Systems moved out and transferred its entire operations into its own building, an eight-minute walk from Nintendo’s current headquarters. At around this time, Nintendo began constructing a new development center in the same area of its headquarters. The Nintendo Development Center, a seven-floor eco-friendly structure complete with rooftop solar panels and a rainwater recycling system, opened in June 2014 with reported construction costs of 19 billion yen ($186.3 million USD).

One year later in 2015 another one of Nintendo’s larger buildings at 60 Kamitakamatsu-cho would be quietly demolished. The three-story rectangular building iconically displaying Nintendo’s blue kanji logo to surrounding neighborhoods was gone. What remains is the former three-floor Kyoto Development Center. On occasion, it has been mistaken as Nintendo’s headquarters by the media. The Kyoto Development Center is now home to the Nintendo subsidiary Mario Club, which focuses on game debugging services for the company. Nintendo Co., Ltd. and Nintendo of America declined to comment on the history and future of the 60 Kamitakamatsu-cho complex in Kyoto.

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Nintendo has certainly never ignored its past, and in fact has chronicled much of its history in former Iwata Asks website interviews with senior Nintendo staff. Nintendo New York (previously known as Nintendo World) and Pokémon Centers in Japan serve as both company stores and showrooms for new games. Nintendo New York in particular has exhibited items from Nintendo’s legacy, from game design documents to its vast line of handhelds. However, this has not stopped tourists in Japan from trekking to its various office buildings in Kyoto to pay tribute. While some may see these buildings as basic offices with fluorescent lighting and a maze of workstations, fans see them as attractions to visit and pay tribute. They pose for photos with character merchandise outside company entrance gates to share on social media, some hope to catch a glimpse of some kind of game development (or game developer personality), while others ask security guards at the gate if they can enter and take pictures at a better angle, only to have their request turned down.

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Left: A young Shigeru Miyamoto works at his desk at the 60 Kamitakamatsu-cho complex in the mid-1980s. Right: Masayuki Uemura, the designer of the Nintendo Entertainment System (left) and game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (right) in the mid-1980s. Courtesy: NHK

Having traveled across Hyrule as part of the quest in The Legend of Zelda, it seems these fans have been inspired to go on a similar pilgrimage to Kyoto, to the origin of their enthusiasm. Instead of talking to townspeople they talk to train station attendants and ask for directions that lead them to the white block towers of Nintendo’s buildings in the city. Along with that same sense of adventure, game players seek a connection with companies like Nintendo to display appreciation, gratitude, and take in the same physical environment that hosted and informed the games they play, hoping to be inspired in some way. However, there may not be anything left to visit or view, the kicker being that the absence of a museum or archive means their arrival probably wasn’t ever considered. Just as Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California has plaques hanging on each of its soundstages listing the motion pictures and TV shows filmed there, game development offices hold a somewhat similar allure, albeit without the official recognition.

The big difference between film and game companies is that the latter don’t need soundstages and backlots to produce games, they just need technology, efficiency, as well as secrecy to stay ahead of competitors. It’s upholding these tenets that encouraged many Japanese videogame companies to recently sell off old real estate and bring their operations under a single roof, with all the modernizations they required. Notably, this is a contrast to the structure they adopted during the 80s and 90s, which saw some Japanese game developers, handling both consumer and coin-op game production, opting to spread out operations across different buildings. Some operational structures even had game development, sales, marketing, and distribution spread across different cities for various reasons. The shake-up to this system has been caused by big, often unexpected changes across many Japanese game makers in recent years. Several small studios have been hit by bankruptcy that led to their closure. And larger development houses and publishers have seen a dramatic shift in operationsnot just Nintendo. Many have sold off property in other areas of Japan in order to focus their efforts in Tokyo and Osaka.

Fans have been inspired to go on a similar pilgrimage to Kyoto, to the origin of their enthusiasm

The obvious reason for this shift would be to raise cash to acquire new real estate. It also serves to keep up-to-date with Japanese building standards in a country vulnerable to earthquakes. But there’s more to it. In the transition to digital, retail disc assembly isn’t required to as large an extent as it once was, eliminating the need for warehouse space to store inventory. Coin-op game development is not what it once used to be, either. Factories and plants utilized to build game cabinets in the downsized coin-op market can be closed with the logistical work outsourced entirely. Some would argue that certain buildings destined for demolition are relics from decades-past, eyesores from the interior to exterior, and do not reflect an industry that’s all about moving forward. This may be why numerous game companies are not holding on to old real-estate. But in doing so they deny any possibility of turning these properties into corporate archive or museum facilities. Those on the other side of the debate see this as a depressing state of affairs given that a part of both a company’s and videogaming’s legacy practically vanishes as a result.

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Taito, Konami, and Sega are Japanese game companies that share one thing in common: very early in their business operations they were selling jukeboxes in Japan in addition to videogames. Sega also manufactured slot and pinball machines in Japan in its infancy.  Namco once produced mechanical rocking-horse rides with Disney characters on them in the late 1960s, and also distributed Atari arcade games in Japan starting in the mid-70s. The entire inventory of all amusement and consumer gaming items manufactured by these four companies combined over the past several decades is enormous.

What doesn’t end up stored in warehouses is sold off to buyers, or discovered by collectors. And what isn’t discovered is left outside for trash collectors to pick up and toss into a landfill. Anything that breaks and is considered irreparable is trashed by arcade operators or distributors that may deem the work a waste of time, effort, and money. The entertainment these games provide is considered short-term by them, and each year countless replacements for this entertainment are presented to the marketplacethat is their protocol. No such protocol exists among the gaming industry for cataloging game assets and it’s an issue rarely discussed at industry events, if at all.  

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The former headquarters of Bandai Namco Games since May 2007, the company has since sold and moved off the property. The building will be demolished for a residential complex. Courtesy: Google Maps

When videogame development buildings are demolished, the mystery remains about what is deemed important to keep and what is thrown out in the trash and who is put in charge of making these decisions. From design documents, marketing materials, artwork, source code, music files, ROMs, circuit boards, spare components, contracts, legal documentsthe responsibility and work that would go into organizing all of this is extensive and comes at a cost. It’s unclear if game companies can afford warehouse space, security, and personnel on staff to keep archived games catalogued and in working order. If these can be considered worthwhile operating costs is currently in question. Certain pieces of Taito, Konami, and Sega real-estate owned for decades by each of these game companies in Japan has already been sold off, some of these buildings that once sat on these properties have been demolished. What’s clear is that the opportunity to turn these properties into an archive or museum vanishes with the buildings themselves.

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Last year, Konami sold off the downtown Sapporo nine-floor high-risewhich was once the long-time headquarters of its Hudson Soft subsidiarytaking with it the famous Hudson Soft bee mascot that once sat atop its entrance awning. The legacy that Hudson Soft built, which included such titles as Bomberman (1983), Adventure Island (1986), Bonk’s Adventure (1989), and Bloody Roar (1997) disappeared from the snowy island of Sapporo where the company originally began in 1973. Konami would however make headlines in 2013 by purchasing an old hotel and theater complex in the Ginza district of Tokyo for a reported 17.8 billion Yen ($222.5 million USD), demolishing it to make way for a new complex tentatively named “Konami Creative Center Ginza.” In statements made to the press, Konami said it intends to use the facility for the production of new content and “intends for it to be a hub for production of its content and for communication between the Konami Group and its customers.” Konami declined to comment on its completion date nor elaborate on what type of production (videogames or casino gaming) it would be used for. The building is currently under construction.

What doesn’t end up stored in warehouses is sold off to buyers, or discovered by collectors

In 2013 Sega sold off its five-story headquarters annex across the street from Sega Haneda Buildings 1&2, still sitting on land that Sega established itself on over five decades ago in Tokyo’s Ota-ku ward. The building maintained a towering neon sign of the Sega logo for decades and was sold off and demolished to make way for a new apartment building. That same year, Sega also sold off Sega Building 3, a complex once home to its internal development teams AM2, Hitmaker, Sega Rosso, Amusement Vision, and WOW Entertainment. The building, once the headquarters of AKAI (before Sega acquired it in 1996), was just a 10-minute walk from Sega’s Haneda Building 1&2. It was demolished and will reportedly make way for a furniture superstore. Sega’s Haneda 1 and 2 buildings are still in use and are now occupied by Sega Games (its mobile, PC and home console game division) and Sega Interactive (its coin-op amusement division).

BANDAI NAMCO Games moved into a new 13-story high-rise building this year in the Minato ward of Tokyo, leaving its famous trapezoid-shaped eight-floor office that it once occupied in Shinagawa since May 2007it will be demolished for a 19-story apartment building. Their Shinagawa building lobby once prominently displayed their legacy of arcade cabinets ranging from Pac-Man (1980), Xevious (1982), and Tekken (1997). In the process of bringing operations into a single complex, four of Namco’s Ota-ku Tokyo branch offices originally built in the 1980s were sold off, and some were demolished. One of these buildings was nicknamed “Xevious” because the profits from its Nintendo Famicom release helped fund its construction. Its most recent Ota-ku office departure took place in September 2014 when Namco moved out of its Yaguchi office that was once prominently featured on the Japanese cover of “We Love Katamari.” Namco’s Yaguchi office was built in 1985 and previously served as Namco’s long-time headquarters.

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Namco’s former headquarters building, established in 1985, was vacated by BANDAI NAMCO recently. It made a prominent appearance on the Japanese cover of “We Love Katamari.” Courtesy: Moby Games and Google Maps

It hasn’t all been about expansion, some Japanese game companies have, in fact, opened their doors to welcome game players into shops on company property (similar to Nintendo New York), even lending company buildings and games to museums and exhibits. While they are not specifically corporate museums or archives, they are a step in the right direction, moving towards opening up to the public to a certain degree.

Square Enix sold off its Hatsudai Building last year, which was formerly the headquarters of ENIX itself (built in 1996), before its merger with Square. The Hatsudai Building once famously housed a Square Enix Character Goods Shop open to the public on its first floor. Square Enix moved into the Shinjuku Eastside Square with subsidiary Taito Corporation in 2012 occupying several floors. Square Enix also opened an all new character goods, shop, café, and bar area named ARTNIA on the ground floor of Shinjuku Eastside Square complete with souvenirs and limited-edition items. The company calls ARTNIA “an area that serves as a bridge between our goods and our customers.”

Videogames have solidified themselves as part in the lives of players

Taito Corporation closed its Ebina Development Center and factory in 2014, the site was originally established in 1979 within Kanagawa Prefecture in the midst of the Space Invaders (1978) craze. It was here that cabinets for countless coin-operated games from Darius (1986) to Chase H.Q. (1988) were manufactured, it also served as development offices for numerous games. Another Taito building where consumer and coin-op development occurred for many years in Yokohama, known as the Taito Central Research and Development Laboratory, was also demolished in 2014. The building was reportedly unoccupied for a number of years before the demolition occurred. Taito does provide help to the game museum sector in Japan. Taito currently lends its warehouse and former development office in Saitama prefecture, known as the Taito Kumagai Building, to a game museum that showcases arcade cabinets on a regular basis.

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Videogames have solidified themselves as part in the lives of players and are passed on to new generations. However, they still struggle to be taken seriously by governments, educators, and those that would dismiss them as harmful, unhealthy, and a waste of time. Walking into a corporate museum to experience the personal storytelling of the design, artistry, and engineering that goes into game design could educate these critics on the value of videogames while further engaging those that already enjoy them.

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The former headquarters of Enix absorbed by the Square Enix merger (left), the building was recently sold off to another company. Square Enix now partially occupies a new building complete with a company store called ARTNIA on the ground floor. Courtesy: Google Maps

Much of the game development work produced in these demolished buildings continues to be a mystery to game audiences in and outside Japan. Some can often take the end product that’s developed and the effort that went into it for granted. On occasion, during interviews, game designers and programmers will tell stories of the places they worked in, the camaraderie they shared with co-workers, and the numerous challenges, both personal and technical, they faced during development. These game development operations were places where countless game designers, programmers, and engineers worked endless hours creating games that went on to be played for years and still are today. They are a part of our culture, bringing people together, and some have an inspirational meaning to individuals.  What future generations of game players and creators can learn from them is invaluable.

Whether or not the game industry is open to putting their interactive legacies on display to a personal audience of game players, aspiring game designers and visiting tourists is now in question. Time will tell if game industry real-estate can be turned into museums or archives and if the game industry, game players, and the general public are ready to support it.

Header image: The Sega Annex Building, an office that had been a part of Sega for decades with its enormous signage, was recently demolished for a residential building. Courtesy of Twitter user: @t_arai2012