Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Working Designs, Catalogued

One must be even-handed when discussing Working Designs. One may say that the small software house, co-founded and led by Victor Ireland, did great things by publishing semi-obscure Japanese games and localizing them carefully at a time when few U.S. companies did either. However, you must also mention the risqué, modern-day humor crammed into Working Designs translations. You might also mention that Ireland would berate game reviewers if they complained that Baywatch jokes didn’t fit in a medieval-fantasy RPG. You must present the good and bad of Working Designs, using phrases like “controversial” and “love it or hate it” to give readers an objective measure.

Well, screw all that. I liked Working Designs. I liked the humorous dialogue changes. I liked the way they made pushover Japanese games harder and therefore more interesting for North America, though it’s a shame about Exile II. I liked Popful Mail, Thunder Force V, and Elemental Gearbolt just as well as the more popular Working Designs staples of Dragon Force and the Lunar games. And I liked watching the arguments between Ireland and everyone from GameFan magazine editors to Sega bigwigs. Right or wrong, Working Designs was damned entertaining. Atlus, Xseed, and other contemporary publishers of Japanese RPGs may be more professional, but they’re just not as marvelously dramatic.

Working Designs didn’t survive to see this age, but the company struck a 1990s vein of Japanese-RPG fans that other publishers ignored entirely. If those fans weren’t a significant force in the industry, they were at least devoted. They bought games, strategy guides, and, most importantly, all sorts of merchandise based on the games they liked. Working Designs figured this out early.


If you picked up a Working Designs game for the Sega CD or Sega Saturn, you probably found one of these brochures inside that needlessly oversized jewel case. It shills wares with a downright precious candor, inviting kids everywhere to cover their rooms and concern their parents with posters and pins and mousepads. Game companies of the 1990s sometimes offered a token t-shirt or two with their products, but that simply wasn’t good enough for Working Designs. Their games were important, and they deserved to be all over walls and backpacks.

Well, some of their games deserved this. It’s hard to imagine many fans caring about Shining Wisdom, a middleweight Saturn action-RPG, so much that they’d want a poster or a hat. The same goes for RayStorm, Iron Storm and other games that didn’t have particularly distinct designs. The Vay poster is an interesting sight, though. Free of anime-eyed characters, it could pass for some prog-metal band’s album cover.


The second page offers some mousepads, showing a shrewder grasp of Working Designs fandom. Lunar and Dragon Force get several mats each, less popular games are limited to single pieces, and Iron Storm is nowhere to be seen. Nothing against Iron Storm; it’s a good game from the Daisenryaku series, and I believe it did well on the Saturn. I just can’t see its fans spilling over into mousepad purchases. Maybe Victor Ireland will comment here and correct me.

There are a few strange omissions from this Working Designs cargo cult. For one thing, Popful Mail didn’t get any posters or mousepads, even though it’s a charming game with memorable character art. Rights issues with Sega and Falcom were perhaps at play. Also absent are any soundtracks. RPG fans ate those up in the 1990s, and Square exploited that with Final Fantasy III and Secret of Mana CDs. Working Designs didn’t.


The remainder of the catalog features every Working Designs release up to the start of the company’s PlayStation days and the launch of the SPAZ shooter label, freakish logo and all. Even the games that are sold out remain on the list, perhaps to inspire readers to rush down to their local Software ETC. and grab that lingering copy of Vay. And that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, as Working Designs releases became collectible and, in some cases, expensive in the years to come. Let’s just say that sixty-three bucks is a good price for Dragon Force.


The last page of this pamphlet features watches, an order form, and a quaint reminder of an age when people still bought things by mail. It’s also where my secret is revealed: as much as I liked Working Designs, I never really bought anything from this catalog. I considered a Lunar 2 mousepad or a Popful Mail pin, but I didn’t go through the trouble of making out a check to Working Designs.

I’m sure that plenty of fans did, as this was a publisher that cultivated a special sort of follower. Former Working Designs employee Zach Meston described some of them in a forum post:

“At the end of the 1999 E3, I walked around a corner of the Working Designs booth to find a man standing in front of the door to one of the meeting rooms. The previous day, a fanboy had literally fallen to his knees and kissed Victor Ireland's feet as Victor came out of a meeting room, so I thought this might be another fanboy waiting to pay his obsessive respects. Then I noticed the door to the room was open. I approached the man and said ‘Excuse me,’ at which point he immediately turned and speed-walked away. Figuring my halitosis had once again saved the day, I turned to close the door—and saw a second fanboy inside the room, literally peeling a Lunar poster off the wall.”

Upon moving to the PlayStation, Working Designs stopped including merchandise pamphlets with games, preferring instead to bundle loot with the games themselves. The Lunar reissues and Arc the Lad shipped with everything from cloth maps to character standees, and the giant punching Ghaleon puppet stands as one of the strangest and best pre-order items ever. It’s a trend that lasted well beyond Working Designs’ collapse in 2005. Today, hardcore Japanese games from Aksys, NIS America, Atlus, and even Konami are shipped with pillowcases, trading cards, and what one publisher trumpets as a “Super 3-D Boobie Mousemat.” That’s one place Working Designs never went.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lost Anime: t.A.T.u. Paragate

Remember t.A.T.u., the Russian pop duo that bolstered their standard-issue songs with feigned lesbian overtones? Well, they officially broke up this past March. Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova’s act ran out of steam a good five years before that, of course, and it'll survive only as long as department store music stations keep “All the Things She Said” in rotation. However, t.A.T.u. was big back in 2003, with both international hits and tabloid controversies.

And what else was big back in 2003? Anime.


The short-lived t.A.T.u. Paragate was always something of a mystery. It was an anime film starring the stage personae that Katina and Volkova projected, but the details were vague, referring to some paranormal gate that the two characters entered. Even the official website's story section had a “coming soon” label until it all abruptly closed in 2005, revealing little else about Paragate.

The swift demise of the film was likely due to Katina and Volkova cutting ties with their manager, Ivan Shapovalov. As the architect behind much of t.A.T.u.’s image, Shapovalov was the driving force behind Paragate, and he’s even credited with the screenplay. Without him, the movie died quickly. Shapovalov never answered my e-mails, so I’ll assume that’s the whole story.


But why should anyone care about t.A.T.u. Paragate, a hollow vanity project based on an equally hollow pop act? There’s one reason: Shinichiro Watanabe, director of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. Some see him as the best thing about the anime industry, and he excels at mixing music and animation. He signed on to direct Paragate’s opening, and even a t.A.T.u. song could be amazing in Watanabe's hands.

It’s not clear if that opening animation was ever completed, or if any other parts of Paragate came together. It was in the planning stages for nearly a year, reportedly overseen by directors Norio Kashima and Susumu Kudo (who, coincidentally, ended up in charge of his own Mardock Scramble anime years after Gonzo canceled theirs). No footage of it can be found today. Searching for Paragate remnants is strange at any rate, as it’s hard to tell where the official material ends and the fan art begins. Perhaps that explains why t.A.T.u. Paragate was no major loss. At the most, it’d have a nice opening.