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History Lesson: The birth of Konami

By Matthew Castle on Saturday 18th May 2013 at 11:00 AM UTC

Picture if you will Mrs Daphne Jones, a casual gambler living in the suburbs of Toronto.

Day in, day out she sits before a Sgt. Fritter slot machine, watching cherries go whizzing by. She wants to stop, but she can't. And not because she's an addict, but because the machine is a cruel subliminal message-laden gambler trap manufactured by Konami.

Okay. So Mrs Jones? We made her up. But the trickster of a slot machine? Only too real. A crummy moment for Konami - it denied it, of course - but accusations of subliminal jackpot messages inside its Ontario-based fruit machines may be missing the point. Could gamblers simply have been victim to the same Konami love that we've wallowed in all these years?

As seems to be the theme with these weekly paddles in the history-pond, Konami didn't start out with games in mind. Founded in 1969 as a jukebox rental and repair service by Kagemasa Kozuki, it wasn't until 1973 that Yoshinobu Nakama, Hiro Matsuda, and Shokichi Ishihara would turn up to lend the first letters of their surnames to the name Konami.

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As a happy coincidence, the name Konami doesn't just represent the surnames of its founders. 'Konami' is also Japanese for 'little waves', but expanding on that seems counter-productive when dissecting a billionaire industry-shaker like Konami. The number 573 - 'ko-nana-mittsu' - also appears in many of its games' high score tables.

1978 saw Konami's first US arcade release, a Tetris-like entry brilliantly called Block Game, followed up by a title brimming with positive outlook, The End. More important is '80s Scramble, a terrain-dodging horizontal shooter that would later morph into Gradius.

Fellow Konami 'legend' Frogger got run into the tarmac of gaming history in 1981. It was almost called Highway Crossing Frog until distributors Sega complained that the title didn't capture the true essence of the game. Yep.

As barked from an oddly-written arcade flyer in 1981: "Latest facility using electronic technology, incessant research and unexpected creation. This is our spirit. KONAMI." Living up to the electronic technology bit, it released the Bubble System arcade system board in 1985. Heralded at the time as a potential replacement for
the floppy disc, this would have allowed for interchangeable games - a la the Neo-Geo - but was known to go techno-crazy around electromagnetic fields. Not great in an arcade environment.

The path to 1985 was littered with early classics. Pig-mummy action in Pooyan, much-loved shooters Time Pilot and Gyruss (the latter created by Capcom's Street Fighter honcho Yoshiki Okamoto) and finger-hater Track And Field were all big hits, transferring well to the Atari 2600, MSX and Famicom.

Konami's first US NES title was seminal shooter Gradius. The Vic Viper's first outing also introduced the famous Konami cheat code. While porting the game to home consoles, developer Kazuhisa Hashimoto found the game so difficult that he built in a power-up code. Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start. Since Gradius, this simple chain has appeared in over 70 Konami games, and not always to your benefit.

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The original Castlevania, released on the NES in 1986

Enter it in Gradius 3 and your ship will explode. One Legend Of The Mystical Ninja character tells you: "If you press up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, it will do nothing." If you try entering the code in Hudson's TurboGrafx-16 shooter Ordyne, an angry message - "I AM NOT KONAMI" - pops up to put you in your place. The trick is often referred to as the Contra Code, as many find that game impossible without the 27 extra lives the code offers.

The next few years defined the Konami we still see today. 1986 saw the release of Castlevania, followed two years later by Contra. The Japanese version of Contra was graphically superior thanks to Konami's use of its VRC2 chip within the cartridge - a graphics-boosting modifying chip not allowed in US NES games.

A sign of Konami's late '80s success was the forming of Ultra Games to get around further limiting Nintendo of America policy: a strict third-party five-games-a-year limit. That Ultra could flourish on Konami overspill (when some third-parties couldn't even release five decent games a year) is a sign of real developmental smarts.

Success spilt into the arcade world. Its 1988 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade machine set a new precedent for four player beat-'em-ups.

Appearing in 98% of US arcades, TMNT's popularity led to a similar spate of machines, including titles based on Bucky O'Hare, Asterix, the X-Men and The Simpsons. The latter two are now available on XBLA and PSN.

Today Konami continues to have success with its established series and their dedicated fanbases. The Castlevania franchise has recently had a successful reboot, while Pro Evolution Soccer seems to be recovering from a difficult few years and is promising big things for next-gen footy.

It would take so many more pages to do the full Konami catalogue justice - Metal Gear, Contra, Snatcher, the massive Bemani division, Cowboys Of Moo Mesa; these are important games. And most importantly, they won us over without using subliminal YOU LOVE CVG messaging.

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