Funeral for a friend: What happens when a game dies

Sayonara, Yamada-kun

Epic Games made headlines recently when the company announced the groundbreaking Infinity Blade series of smartphone games would be pulled from the App Store. The news rightly triggered the usual alarm bells and concerned editorials about the preservation of video games as a whole. How can we continue to record gaming history when meaningful, popular works can simply vanish at the whims of a corporation?

But Epic Games isn't going anywhere. Infinity Blade, as a property, could easily resurface in another medium at some point in the future. So I wanted to take a minute and write about another game that met its end this week, one that far fewer people ever played: Dandy Dungeon.

Dandy Dungeon was the creation of Onion Games, which is to say it was a creation of one Yoshiro Kimura, a veteran game designer who launched Onion Games as a means to create smaller, independent projects. You may have heard of some of Kimura's past work like Moon or Little King's Story, games he made working with teams of professionals for major publishers in the 90s and 2000s. Under the banner of Onion Games, Kimura was initially making games by himself.

I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Kimura back in 2013 at the very first BitSummit in Kyoto, Japan, at the time a private event aimed solely at connecting Japanese indie creators with the media. When I spoke to Kimura, he didn't have a game to show, only sketches of a "naked policeman" character, but he spoke to me about his hopes and goals in a way I found moving. That naked policeman character would evolve into Yamada-kun, a 36-year-old video game designer who spends his days working for a big corporation and his nights coding his own game at home (in his underwear). Yuusha Yamada-kun ("Brave Mr. Yamada") would debut on Japanese smartphones in 2016. Once it was localized into English (by Kotaku's Tim Rogers, for the record) it was retitled Dandy Dungeon and it was released overseas in 2017.

As mobile games go, Dandy Dungeon was a free-to-download app molded in the image of video games past: pixel graphics, a soundtrack of mostly chiptunes, and tons of dungeon crawling. The modern - and meta - twist of the game was that the RPG you play is the RPG that Mr. Yamada is making by himself in the game. All the characters are based on people Mr. Yamada knows: the bosses of the dungeon resemble his cruel bosses at his day job, and Yamada himself is the hero of his digital creation.

Dandy Dungeon had a limited number of levels but each one was procedurally generated with a certain degree of random enemies, treasures, and even special rarities which seldomly appeared. Revisiting dungeons was key to gathering resources in order to power up Yamada's gear. The game, which required a constant Internet connection, also used Twitter as a means to share special dungeons with other players online, in addition to event dungeons which would appear to all players for a limited time. Each journey into a dungeon cost Yamada "energy" which meant players could only complete so many levels in a single sitting. In-app purchases from "Mamazon," a happy lady eager to support Mr. Yamada's work, could refill or even eliminate the energy bar entirely.

Despite announcing the end of the "service," Dandy Dungeon remains on digital storefronts in a diminished capacity. All in-app purchases are gone and "some dungeons related to seasons and events are no longer available." Thankfully, the always-online function has been disabled, but the website warns the final update is "limited in 2018," implying that the game will likely vanish after New Year's Eve. Even if the game remains "live" as of this writing, the living, breathing version that encouraged players to log in daily and seek special rewards is done. What remains of Dandy Dungeon is playable, yes, but it's more of a Dandy Dungeon-shaped tombstone than the actual game itself.

We here at Retronauts make it our business to talk about old games. Jeremy's ongoing video series (plural) use footage of past games to give viewers a small glimpse of what a game was like thanks to recordings he makes of original hardware and software - physical goods he either buys or borrows from collectors. We're already seeing the challenges of cataloging digitally distributed video games that are no longer for sale with the closure of the Wii Shopping Channel and Xbox LIVE Indie Games, but those problems are tenfold for mobile games that disappear from their platform's storefront.

Finding an old game console isn't a challenge: a global grey market of used goods survives on people seeking games from decades past, and console and game can be purchased separately. But in ten years, how many smartphones will have access to Dandy Dungeon? If it's been pulled from the store, it can only be downloaded by accounts with a history of purchasing it, but will it even be compatible with future mobile operating systems, to say nothing of physical hardware?

Dandy Dungeon was always going to be a finite product: a small game made by a small team that required constant updates and thrived on keeping players feeling like they were surfing the information superhighway couldn't last forever. But to come and go in less than three years is far too temporary for this medium. Yoshiro Kimura's corporate work should not outlive his more recent passion projects. Preservation cannot be tied to commercial viability or else future game historians will have nothing but still images and "you had to be there" talking heads as sources for their retrospectives for an entire generation of creative output.

For now, at least, Dandy Dungeon exists in a form you can play, and I recommend it. I'd also recommend other Onion Games creations like Million Onion Hotel and Black Bird. After all, Yamada-kun may be gone, but Kimura is still among us and I can't wait to see what he makes next - if for no other reason than to secure my guest spot on iOS Works (coming in 2031).