Feature Article

What's It Like to Make the Most Distinctive Japanese RPG of All Time?

Hour of Oddities

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness caught most RPG fans by surprise in 2003. Its irreverent, cartoon-like veneer masked a deep and difficult tactical RPG, and while developer Nippon Ichi Software previously failed to win over western audiences with similar offerings--La Pucelle Tactics and Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, both on PlayStation--Disgaea became a surprise hit.

In fact, its success was so unexpected, and publisher Atlus' initial manufacturing run of the game so small, that increased demand due to word of mouth caused prices in the secondhand market to skyrocket months after its initial release. Realizing this, Atlus printed more copies, getting the game into more people's hands, thus kickstarting the future for the series.

When we spoke with Sohei Niikawa--the President of NIS, Executive Producer, and writer of every Disgaea game--he reflected on the series' past with enthusiasm. Disgaea's anything-goes spirit isn't an accident; it's Niikawa's way of differentiating NIS from its contemporaries.

GameSpot: If you can recall, what was the RPG market like back in 2003, and why do you think Disgaea captured the people's attention?

Sohei Niikawa: We had no idea what was going to sell, so we tried to include everything in the game that we thought was fun. We accepted the fact that the title might be our last project, so we didn't hold anything back and packed it with everything we could. The concept of "grinding," which has now become the idea that goes hand-in-hand with the Disgaea series, was not premeditated. It was simply a result of doing everything we could have done at the time. The initial order [for copies] was low, but through word of mouth after the release, sales grew past 100,000 units in Japan, as well as in North America. Even now, we don't always know what's going to sell well, but we stick to the basic concept of "never holding anything back and giving it your all."

"We accepted the fact that the title might be our last project."

What has been your personal highlight while working on the series?

The highpoint was the fact that I got to meet fans from all over the world. For example, so many fans always gather to meet me every year at the Los Angeles Anime Expo. I feel so fortunate to be able to feel this connection with people from around the world through gaming. I'd like to express my gratitude to all the fans, press, and retailers. Thank you very much, everyone.

What are the defining elements of a Disgaea game? And how has that definition changed, if at all?

It's about nonchalantly doing something completely ridiculous, but, at the same time, being completely serious about doing it. Like leveling to 9,999 or dealing 1 billion damage; it's about having the spirit to do something so stupid and ridiculous that other companies wouldn’t. The level of ridiculousness has become worse over the course of the series. But, in a good way, of course.

What's more important: making a game that pleases existing fans, or altering a pre-existing idea to capture a new audience?

I think the greatest importance is to take care of the current fans. However, rather than providing the same things to our current fans each time, we need to provide them with new surprises and experiences. When we are able to do that, fans will become bigger fans and “leaders” who will bring in new fans.

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How have new staff members influenced Disgaea over the years?

Within our staff, there are people who have played the Disgaea series when they were in school. The things that these former fans bring to the table--what they felt was fun or what could have been improved--are a great contributing factor to improving the series. As long as we keep the same "Disgaea spirit" alive, we will always welcome new staff to the team.

How has the evolution of technology influenced Disgaea over the years?

It's not something people pay a lot of attention to normally, but having a frequently long loading time during lengthy gameplay sessions is a very critical issue. Thanks to the advancement in technology, it's become easier to provide a pleasant environment to the players in that regard. Also, the pixelated character art in Disgaea 1 through 3 has been improved to high-res animation from Disgaea 4 and on. I believe seeing the characters, drawn by character designer Mr. Takehito Harada, move around is an improvement that our fans really enjoyed.

When do you think Disgaea become a global franchise?

"It's about nonchalantly doing something completely ridiculous, but, at the same time, being completely serious about doing it."

When Disgaea 1 was released in North America, we were so worried. The title was originally developed to market toward the hardcore Japanese game and anime fans, so we didn't think it was going to be accepted overseas.

However, once it was released, it was highly reviewed by Western gamers; even the story and characters, which we were most worried about. That's when I realized, "There are so many people like us outside of Japan!" Ever since then, we've been able to release our products outside of Japan with confidence.

What's been the most popular game in the series to date, and to what do you attribute that success?

Even after more than 10 years have passed, the popularity of Disgaea 1 is still deeply rooted. Lately, there are some who say that they like Disgaea 4 the most, or Disgaea 5 the most. The reason behind this is probably the characters’ personalities. Because of the fact that this series is a type of game you play for many hours, we believe how much players fall in love and become attached to them are extremely important factors.

Looking back, what, if anything, would you have done differently?

I can't tell you that. I'm going to keep it on the backburner until we start developing the sixth one.

Where is Disgaea headed in the future?

It doesn't pertain only to Disgaea, but any serialized titles should grow and evolve with the fans. Once the fifth installment is released worldwide, we'll listen to what our fans and customers have to say, and then start brainstorming the next title. I'm hoping that we can provide something fresh and surprising to our fans.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com


Peter Brown

Peter is Managing Editor at GameSpot, and when he's not covering the latest games, he's desperately trying to recapture his youth by playing the classics that made him happy as a kid.
Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance

Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance

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Avatar image for ArchoNils2

So far Disgaea 5 is my fav. game this gen. It adds so many new things to its already complex mechanics that it is totally exiting even after I plated several past titles already. A must-have for anyone linking JRPGs :) Can't wait with what "completely ridiculous" stuff theey come up next

Avatar image for ArchoNils2

Disgaea 1 is my fav game of all time and Disgaea my fav. series of all time. I love NIS for delivering what I want. After D2 I was scared they get way to causual, but now with 5 they got it, best gameplay ever ... I just they managed to deliver a story like Disgaea 1 again...

Avatar image for IPwnNooBs666

Great read, the Disgaea series has a very special place in my heart and I'm glad that it has a respectable devout following . Kudos to you and your wonderful staff, Niikawa-san.

Avatar image for flashn00b

Is it inappropriate for me to be bitter about how NIS thought that an unrelated pixel art dungeon crawler was a good litmus test to see if Disgaea would sell on Steam? Because they're the reason why the desire for Japanese games on Steam and the need to defend a bad port is the same thing.

Avatar image for Ovirew

I'll never forget the day a friend and classmate of mine introduced me to Disgaea. He picked the game up on a whim when it came out, and I got a copy shortly after I got my PS2 on Christmas Day of 2003. I ended up liking the game a lot more than I expected to - to this day it's still probably up there in my list of favorite games.

I put a lot of hours into Disgaea, I can't remember how much. I know I must have restarted my save file about 20 times, because of my ocd. I still never actually managed to complete the original game, and purchased it 3 or 4 different times for different systems. I wouldn't mind going back and actually playing through it one day.

Still the original title is probably my favorite in the series. I didn't really get into 2, when I downloaded it a few years ago. I played through 3 and that is the only one I've completed the main story on so far. It was fun, but I really enjoyed the Vita version best - there's just something about not being tied down to a TV to play a video game.

I think Nippon-Ichi makes some good games, and they're certainly experienced at making some decent strategy RPGs. I still tend to favor some of Intelligent Systems' work, though.

Avatar image for Ripper_TV

Can somebody explain why do they still use 16-bit quality sprites on PS4? That's the only thing I was curious about, about this series.

Avatar image for Burin077

@Ripper_TV: It's both to keep the game's unique charm, as well as the focus on the original artwork for the game.

I believe at one point NIS was asked about adapting more 3D elements to the game, to which they essentially replied that it would take away from the game's intended depiction.

Avatar image for Ripper_TV

@Burin077: Not talking about 3D, of course 3D would ruin any 2D game. Talking about higher definition sprites.

"It's both to keep the game's unique charm, as well as the focus on the original artwork for the game."

Sounds like they're covering their laziness alright.

Avatar image for tandukbadak

"I think the greatest importance is to take care of the current fans. However, rather than providing the same things to our current fans each time, we need to provide them with new surprises and experiences. When we are able to do that, fans will become bigger fans and “leaders” who will bring in new fans."

This dude is awesome, dood!

Avatar image for EdensFall

To the writer, please remember to do your research. La Pucelle Tactics was a PS2 game, not a Playstation title.

Avatar image for natezowa100

First article I've seen on GameSpot that makes me actually buy a game

Avatar image for jenovaschilld

Holy shit that was a fine article and read, i was surprised to see it on gamespot to tell the truth, keep it up.

Love Disgaea and all its quirky humor - though the story telling is not as strong as say Final fantasy tactics, vandal hearts 2, Wild arms XF, front mission, Valkyrie profile or my favorite story Kartia (be sure to play each protagonist story line one chapter, then the other, back and forth) - disgaea , the chess like rules on acid is still fun even after all these years.

Avatar image for hystavito

@jenovaschilld: :) to your first sentence

Avatar image for Thanatos2k

I like Disgaea, but they've been making the same game for what? 8 times now?

They seriously need to make some fundamental changes to their formula. I'm not buying a new game every couple years to restart the grinding again.

Avatar image for Ovirew

@Thanatos2k: I mean, look at the sequel to pretty much any game, and usually they are fundamentally the same. FPS games, platforming games, RPGs... I mean usually the sequels are similar to the predecessors. I don't look at it like "starting over again", as much as I do getting more new content.

I can agree with you that it would be nice to see Disgaea do something different. When I played 2 and 3 I was surprised by how much the gameplay seemed similar to the first game. I think it was still different enough, and there were new kinds of characters and new abilities that weren't in previous games. I think the resolution improvement in 4 helps the games look a lot better. Still, I always wondered what the series would look like if it had some Square-Enix-quality graphics.

Avatar image for Thanatos2k

@Ovirew: The thing is, there's a reason a lot of games are trilogies - it's because after 3 games the formula if unchanged becomes stale. Disgaea has been running the same formula for 8+ games now. It's stale.

Avatar image for Cyberjin

@Thanatos2k: You know what they say "if it's not broke, don't need fix it"
disgaea series do change a little with every game though, but people who doesn't play the games won't notice that, of course. Sometimes changing the formula can be bittersweet, just look at the Final Fantasy Series.

Avatar image for Thanatos2k

@Cyberjin: I've played 7 of them now. The formula changes are really of no relevance or change the game substantively. Hell, Phantom Brave was the real trailblazer by having speed effect turns, but that innovation was quickly quashed.

Avatar image for xOmniCloudx

@Thanatos2k: Look at Pokemon. If people buy it even with minimal changes then they're not going to bother changing anything majorly.

Avatar image for Thanatos2k

@xOmniCloudx: Pokemon allowed you to transfer stuff from your old games to the new ones (or at least they used to). Plus each game had new stuff to collect.

In each Disgaea game you start the level 9999 grind completely new. It's exhausting. And there's not really anything new to do.

Avatar image for RSM-HQ

Best GameSpot article in years!!

Avatar image for Darth_Tyrranus

@RSM-HQ: It is shocking to see Gamespot actually do journalism for once and conduct their own interview.

Avatar image for guydude3412

I wish it would choose to something other than playstation consoles though.

Avatar image for RSM-HQ

@guydude3412: The original game is on the Nintendo DS and can be played on 3DS as well.

Avatar image for guydude3412

@RSM-HQ: Really? Sweet! Now I just need to find a copy. Thank you!

Avatar image for RSM-HQ

@guydude3412: Not a problem ^_^

Avatar image for Barighm

@RSM-HQ: The original game, yes, but there are others. The SEQUEL to that original game is still very limited.

Avatar image for RSM-HQ

@Barighm: . . . I'm not understanding the purpose of your reply. Every other Disgaea game is PlayStation exclusive.

Avatar image for shinrae5

I couldn't play the series after 4. It was just too much grind again and again and again. Although the series has a charm that is very unique to it, so to those who haven't played multiple entries, I highly suggest you at least try the series out.

Avatar image for edant79

@shinrae5:The addictive grindy game play is the only reason I play these games.

I unfortunately have to skip the story, because the cheesiness conflicts with my manly 18 inch penis.

Avatar image for camelotcrusade

I love Disgaea wish it was cross-platform. I missed the last couple because I didn't get a PS3 or PS4.

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Avatar image for xOmniCloudx

@saturatedbutter: I'm not White. This complicates things now...

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