From the plane window, Tokyo yawns gray and endless. At this altitude, it all seems still, like a diorama. Despite the serenity of this quiet scene, I can’t shake this twinge of panic that haunts me every time I get on a plane.
It’s been some time since I was last in Japan. One day I’d like to visit without any interviews, no all-nighters spent hammering out a first draft, counting the difference between JST and PST on my fingers like a nervous tic. Among Tokyo’s millions, I hope to find one man. A man who doesn’t know I exist, but whose work and the questions it leaves unanswered have shaped the course of my life indelibly. I need to ask him how he made something that shouldn’t be possible.
The only problem is that Yusei Takeda disappeared twenty-three years ago.
His former colleagues in the video game industry recall a feverish, perpetually sweating husk who mumbled over a waterfall of code. One day he was working on his second game, and the next, he had vanished. The industry moves quickly, however, and soon, it had left the memory of him and his unfinished game behind.
For years I’ve chased that forgotten piece of vaporware and the forgotten man who toiled away at it, peeling back the enshrouding myths and watching the layers of half truths and rumors unfold before me.
In a way, I owe my career to Yusei Takeda. It was a story about his first game that I pitched to Draw Distance, the publication I’d always dreamed of working for, that secured my place on the writing staff and made my byline synonymous with video game esoterica.
In the late eighties, Yusei Takeda somehow convinced his bosses to let him spearhead his own project, despite having only worked in a support capacity on a few Famicom games. He refused to work with others and tackled every aspect of it solo. After exceeding its budget and missing numerous deadlines, Takeda’s first game, HARD DETECTIVE, was released without much fanfare in 1992. It was a commercial failure that quickly faded into obscurity.
The game would have been forgotten entirely if not for a group of hardcore fans that extol its supposed technical innovations. HARD DETECTIVE puts players in the role of a gruff police detective and tasks them with solving a crime. They are free to explore Tokyo, gather evidence, and interrogate witnesses and suspects until they make an arrest. It was a format that had been done before, and in many cases, better, by other titles.
The reason people still talk about HARD DETECTIVE is that no two copies are alike. If you were to find a sealed one and throw it in your NES, you would experience a brand new adventure unlike any other that’s been played before. A different crime with different clues, characters and dialogue.
Because it sold so poorly, it took time for this feature to come to light, and players were baffled. Initially, they thought that each cartridge had a unique board inside with a bespoke adventure coded onto it, but that would have required Takeda to write and program hundreds of games’ worth of content in just a few years. Even for someone who slept as little as he was rumored to, it was impossible. I managed to get in touch with a former manufacturing coordinator for the game’s publisher, who confirmed that only one board was ever printed. From a hardware perspective, each copy is identical.
While no one knows how it truly works, the most logical explanation is that it uses an advanced form of procedural generation, much more advanced than any game prior or since. Procedural generation is tricky. It feels generic because all the elements need to fit together no matter how they’re arranged. HARD DETECTIVE feels handcrafted—every detail placed with intent. But that can’t be. The number of complex, cohesive scenarios I’ve cataloged from players and secondhand copies of my own is, frankly, unbelievable.
Enthusiasts have attempted to tear down HARD DETECTIVE cartridges to reverse engineer the software. Masaru Yoshida, a programmer who has performed many teardowns on used copies from online auctions and flea markets, told me he was unable to find any code that would allow the game to randomize itself at all. The tools for procedural generation, even a rudimentary version, are not present. His theory is that there must be some kind of poison pill that deletes the tools after they run the first time, allowing the game to generate a random adventure, then lock itself in that state permanently. He hopes that one day he will find a “virgin” copy, one with these theoretical randomization tools intact. With only seven hundred ever produced, it’s unlikely he will.
That’s how the story ends, with the central mystery of HARD DETECTIVE firmly intact.
However, there’s another side that didn’t make it to print. Cut from the original piece was a lengthy dive into the community of devotees that emerged on internet message boards years after the game’s release. These forums were vortexes of speculation, urban legend, and conspiratorial whispers. I would know; as a young teenager, I was responsible for some of that chatter, tying up the phone line late at night perpetuating wild hypotheses. The cut material specifically involved users who reported uncanny similarities to their own lives and felt that the game had a kind of predictive or omniscient quality.
For instance, one post described a case regarding a string of arsons. The central puzzle involved linking together the businesses that had been targeted and arresting a struggling restaurateur who was striking back at his rivals. The poster had forgotten about the game until they moved to Tokyo almost a decade later and a number of popular restaurants in Taito City burned down. The widow of a local izakaya owner eventually came forward and told police that her husband had admitted to the arsons on his deathbed.
Another post came from a player who had picked up a sealed copy at a discount game store in Akihabara in the mid-aughts. Their game comprised a chilling case which tasked players with catching “the cell phone killer,” a serial murderer who blackmailed his victims into killing themselves over the phone. The incident that triggered the investigation was the death of an office worker who threw himself from a building. The day after the poster had caught the killer and completed the game, he arrived to a commotion at work. His colleagues were gathered on the sidewalk, shouting up to a man on the roof, begging him to come down. He held a bulky cell phone to his ear the entire time, even as he stepped over the ledge into the open air.
These posts were unverifiable and could very well have been complete fabrications. The board was long defunct, its users anonymous and untraceable. The only connection to a real event was a newspaper story about the izakaya arsonist, dated before the forum post. The only story I could substantiate was my own, and I didn’t dare tell anyone at Draw Distance about it.
My mother and father met on one of his many business trips to Tokyo. Eventually, they married and settled in San Francisco, where I grew up. My mom taught me Japanese, I think because she wanted someone to speak it with, which to a kid growing up in the nineties meant that I didn’t have to wait months or years for games to be localized before I could play them. Dad would always bring me back something from the game shops when he went on a trip.
When I was ten years old, my parents flew to Japan together. Dad had a few days of meetings, and Mom was going to visit her brother in Niigata. They took off on a Friday night, leaving my grandmother to look after me, and I loaded up HARD DETECTIVE for the first time.
The game opened on a runway. A pensive 8-bit tune played as the screen scrolled up to reveal the titular detective and a blue-clad patrolman observing the smoking wreck of a jetliner. Tiny EMTs and firefighters moved in from either side. A text box opened. A portrait of the patrolman wearing a haunted expression occupied the left portion as he explained that there were no survivors from the plane itself, and that many more were injured from the impact into the terminal. It was clear that the plane had been sabotaged to crash on takeoff.
I played almost nonstop for a week. I interviewed suspects, followed clues to the stooge who had been hired to tamper with the flight, and finally arrested the son of the airline CEO who sought to force his father’s retirement through a massive tragedy.
After the credits rolled, I went downstairs to find my grandmother leaning over the phone on our kitchen counter. Her voice was low. She barked sharp whispers into the receiver. Her eyes were glassy and red, and her face was twisted into an expression I’d never seen before.
My uncle was on the other end of the line. He explained in halting English that my parents’ plane had crashed on takeoff, that he had just identified the bodies. The authorities didn’t know much, as everyone onboard had been killed, but they expected a malfunction had caused it.
My heart races as we descend into Haneda airport. Blood pounds in my temples, and I inhale deep and slow through my nose, trying to hide my panic from the passenger next to me. Wheels meet tarmac, and the whole cabin rattles as the brakes engage. It’s not until I disembark that I can catch my breath.
It’s ten in the morning, which means it’s six in the evening back home. I pass the baggage claim and duck into a bathroom to wash my face. Everyone’s got their own rituals and superstitions around jet lag, and mine always begins with cold water in the airport bathroom and something salty from the vending machine.
I’ve worked out a system for these quick trips. I pack only the clothes I need in a backpack, then fight my circadian rhythm with caffeine, performing little rites along the way to stave off the fatigue until I land back home and crash for a solid twelve to fourteen hours. If I can manage to stay up, it usually works.
I grab some chips on the way out of the concourse and eat them on the train, thumbing through the jots and scribbles in my notebook. The final note reads:
SAE NOGUCHI 12PM
Her address is written beneath in kanji.
Takeda’s sister is the only family he has left. After the HARD DETECTIVE story ran, a former colleague of his emailed me to say he enjoyed the piece. I spoke to him at length about his time working alongside Takeda. He told me about the one time they’d gone out drinking together; something had clearly gotten under Takeda’s skin. Four bars later, he mentioned that his sister was getting married to an asshole. Toru Noguchi, a real estate developer. He was considering skipping the wedding, because he couldn’t stand being related to that scumbag.
Toru Noguchi is still in the real estate game. His wife was a little surprised that I was able to find their home number and that I was calling about Yusei. When I mentioned that I’d like to interview her brother, she became curt, defensive almost, and said that I should come to see her first.
Sae Noguchi’s house is a grand, sprawling estate, all glass and concrete and clean lines. I arrive a little before noon and ring the doorbell. When Sae answers the door, she doesn’t seem pleased to see me but invites me in anyway. I wonder if her invitation was meant to deter me from probing further.
We sit on opposite pure white couches in her living room. The southern wall is all glass, and the tall, square ceilings and lofted second floor give me the impression of being in a museum atrium. I thank her for having me, and she returns a slight nod. The house is perfectly silent. Toru is nowhere to be seen.
“I read your articles,” she says.
“What did you think?”
“The people Yusei worked for remember him more fondly now that he’s no longer their problem. No one called him a ‘genius’ before he left the industry.”
“My hope was that people would appreciate his work as much as I do.”
“And do they?”
“They’re certainly curious about it. They want to know what happened to him and the game he was working on when he disappeared.”
“He’s still working on it.”
I sit up straight and flip back over my notes, trying not to let the surprise show on my face.
“Still working on it?” I say. “It’s been over twenty years.”
“It’s everything to him.”
“But how? How does he get by?”
“My husband and I support him. Or rather, I support him and my husband pays for it because he wants me to be happy. Toru set him up in the basement of one of his commercial properties for free, and we’ve been paying his bills.”
“Here? In Tokyo?”
“I talked to so many of his former contacts. How is it that no one’s seen him?”
“He’s always been a recluse. He hardly goes out, and when he does, he wears a face mask so that no one recognizes him. He doesn’t have the faintest shred of social intelligence, but every bit of energy you or I put into fitting in or carrying on polite conversations like this one, he channels into his work. That first game nearly killed him, you know.”
“I’ve heard it was very hard on him.”
“He lost three teeth. He had to be hospitalized from the stress. His bosses were always hounding him about missing deadlines and exceeding budget. They couldn’t understand that art doesn’t adhere to any timetables or accounting sheets. He’s better when he can just create in peace.”
“And he’s been developing Project Analogue the whole time?”
“I believe that’s what the studio was calling it, yes. Before he left and took it with him.”
I sink back into the couch. I’d imagined that Yusei Takeda ran away to work as a farmhand or construction laborer—something so far removed that he could forget about the industry that never gave him the credit he deserved.
“So why did you want to meet with me?” I ask.
“I’m worried about Yu-chan,” Sae says. Something comes over her, a desperate look that I’m not ready for. “I gave him your article to read and it seemed to lift him up a little bit. He said he would show you his new game.”
“But he’s in a fragile state right now. I needed to see you for myself to be sure you were genuine. That you wouldn’t just make things worse for him.”
“I don’t want to cause him any distress, I promise you.”
Sae stretches one long arm over the back of the sofa and looks out the window for a moment as the sun falls over her face.
“I understand that the game is just about finished. Toru went to check in on him yesterday on his way to the train station. He’s in Nagoya for a few days. He said that my brother looked to be at peace for once, that Yu-chan was going to let him play the latest build before he left.”
“That’s a good sign, right? They didn’t always get along.”
“You really have been speaking to Yu-chan’s old colleagues, haven’t you?”
I shuffle on the couch and grip my notebook tighter, searching for something to say.
“It’s no secret,” Sae says, her face softening. “Just a bit odd to have a stranger know so much about your family without ever having met them. Why don’t you hand me your notebook? I’ll give you his address.”
I leave Sae Noguchi’s house and step onto the sidewalk. Yusei Takeda’s address stares back at me from my notebook, stark and admonishing, like an omen. So many years spent hunting this collection of swooping characters. It almost looks too mundane written in Sae’s casual hand. The reality of it all is settling in, and I’m not sure I like the feeling. With each step toward the train station, there is a darkness closing around me. I had hoped that I’d find him in the countryside, middle-aged and smiling, with a suntan and rough palms from working outside. In my imagination, he would recall the secret of how HARD DETECTIVE had worked, the simple explanation that no one had been able to figure out, with a shrug. In my imagination, he was happy.
It’s late afternoon by the time I reach Takeda’s building. The sun hides behind skyscrapers and paints the heavy steel door in a reddish haze. Blank, flat walls stretch the length of the dingy alleyway and despite the streets on either side being congested with foot and automobile traffic, it is nearly silent. Now is the critical period in my jet lag ritual. Everything feels far away. Unreal. I have been awake for eighteen hours, but the adrenaline keeps me going. My heart has pounded nonstop since I got off the train.
I knock on the door. No response. No sound from inside. I wait and knock again, louder this time. When no one answers, I consider that maybe I was never meant to find him. His absence is a warning that this final stone should remain unturned. I turn the knob. It’s unlocked. The door swings open.
Immediately I am overwhelmed by a putrid smell. My hand flies to my face and presses tight over my nose and mouth. For a moment, I stand with the door open, throat dry, breathing in the stale air through my mouth. I can almost taste the rotten sweetness. I call out hello in English before I remember where I am and repeat myself in Japanese. The scant light of the alleyway bleeds inside, barely illuminating a patch of concrete floor littered with clothing and food wrappers. I reach around the corner, feeling along the wall until I find the light switch and hit it. The whole of the basement apartment leaps out of the darkness in severe, hospital-like fluorescence. Books and trash are scattered around the disheveled bed, packaging from PC components, dirty dishes, and sheaves of paper scribbled with notes mark a trail across the windowless room toward what looks like a kitchen. To my right is an enormous rack server abutted by a desk that runs the length of the apartment. Notebooks and loose discs gather around its center like offerings at a wayside shrine, where a strange desktop computer and Playstation software development kit sit on either side of a CRT television. The smell has dissipated somewhat in the long minutes I’ve stood on the threshold. Takeda doesn’t seem to be home.
I step inside, tiptoeing over the refuse and clutter, and call his name. I make my way toward the kitchen area, the only place in the room that I can’t see fully, as it is separated by an open doorway that leads further back than the rest of the apartment. The smell grows stronger, and I pull the collar of my shirt up over my nose. The kitchen is filthy. Along one wall of the arm’s-width space is a small sink and countertop, which houses a mini-fridge beneath and a microwave and rice cooker on top. On the opposite wall is a door. Something has leaked out from underneath it.
A reddish brown liquid, now dried and softly reflecting the fluorescent tubes above, forms a tight semicircle just in front of the door. My hands shake violently. I reach for the knob, pulse pounding in my ears. I yank the door open and am sent reeling by the stench. I only see it for a split second before I slam the door shut again and collapse against the counter. The image is burned into me. Head slumped against the toilet, his skin grayish blue, mouth agape, eyes staring into the ceiling, Takeda sits in a pool of dried blood. His arms rest in his lap. His wrists and legs are stained a deep black-red. I can’t hold it any longer. I vomit into the sink and stumble toward the door. I need to call Sae and tell her about her brother.
Phone in hand, I’m about to dial her number when I catch a glimpse of Takeda’s desk again. The PC and development kit are both on, and the CRT’s standby light is red. After I make this call, the apartment will be swarming with police. I’ll likely be held and questioned before I’m allowed to fly back home. The cops will take everything in his apartment, and I’ll never see what Takeda has been working on for twenty years. I lock my phone and slide it back into my pocket.
The hardware is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. A custom build, the components are unbranded, oddly-shaped forms that jut out from the case at sharp angles, and I can’t identify any of them as recognizable computer parts. Hard drives, unlabeled discs, and controllers are piled around the monitor. A thick braid of cables runs from the PC to the rack server.
I wake the PC and am greeted by a command prompt window with a long and, to my eyes, unintelligible command already typed out. The cursor blinks like a beating heart. I hesitate for a moment, thinking about Takeda in the bathroom behind me and Sae in her concrete and glass mansion, then hit the Enter key. Characters fill the black box faster than I can register, and the CRT blinks on. The familiar high-frequency whine of a flyback transformer fills the air as the image gradually fades into full brightness.
On screen is a text box. It asks: “What is your name?” A virtual keyboard opens up and I use the Playstation controller to enter my name. Another question follows. “What is your date of birth?” And another. “What is your blood type?” A loading screen appears. It takes a long time to fill the progress bar, and I can hear the rack servers hum as their cooling fans kick on. When it’s finished, an unornamented logo flashes for a few brief seconds, PROJECT ANALOGUE, then fades to black.
A character appears. The camera hovers behind him as he leans over the sink in a public bathroom. Despite the jagged, low-poly graphics, I recognize him. It’s not just that he’s wearing my gray sweatshirt, my black jeans, the backpack I’ve had since my first overseas flight, it’s that he even stands the same way I do. I spin the camera around. The face is blurry and hard to make out, but there is an exaggerated scar across the chin, an emphasized version of the same one I have from falling off a skateboard as a kid.
A text box opens.
I’ve got to get a snack if I want to stay ahead of this jet lag…
The game gives me control. In the bottom right corner, a digital clock reads 10:21 hrs. I leave the bathroom and enter into a stunningly faithful rendering of Haneda Airport. Walking through the concourse, I come upon a vending machine and press X to interact with it. A counter of my current cash on hand appears in the bottom left and deducts 220 yen.
Potato chips – Calbee added to inventory.
I walk to the train. Once on board, I open my inventory and use the chips. Arranged in a neat grid are several clothing items and a notebook. When I select the notebook and use it, a magnified overlay of the first page slides up and covers most of the screen. My story notes are there, written in English. Arrows at the bottom right and left let me move forward and back through the pages with a page flip animation and rustling sound effect. They’re all here. Everything I’ve jotted down about Takeda, phone numbers, contacts, flight times. At the end of the written notes, a few lines on an otherwise blank page:
SAE NOGUCHI 12 PM
Her address is written beneath in kanji.
The train stops and the scene changes. I’m standing outside that enormous geometric house, the clock in the bottom right reading 12:10 hrs. What follows is my meeting with Sae earlier in the afternoon, the camera pulled back to show us on opposite couches at either edge of the frame, blue text boxes popping in and out to render our dialogue verbatim beneath the pixelated character models.
When it’s over, I’m back on the sidewalk, and the notebook interface slides up again to reveal the address of the building I am in right now. I want to stop playing, but I can’t. I want to throw down the controller and run for the door, but instead I move my avatar toward the train and board it and get off at the stop two blocks from here and walk to the alleyway and step up to the door. The PRESS X TO OPEN prompt appears on screen.
Like the other environments I have explored thus far, this basement apartment is rendered in frighteningly accurate detail, especially for what the outdated, jaggy polygons can achieve. Even the shape of Takeda’s bloodstain from beneath the door is the same. Its deep crimson color carves a beacon into the CRT and though I know exactly what I will find, I can’t stop myself from opening the virtual door and viewing the horror once again. A still image of Takeda’s body flashes on screen and my avatar reacts the same way I did, stumbling backward and heaving pixelated green and orange into the sink.
I know what comes next. Seeing myself from this perspective, I can sense a terrible fate awaiting him. I haven’t felt it until now, but the very sight of this character fills me with a deep and consuming dread. My avatar pulls out his phone. Maybe I can save him. Maybe I can stop him. I start to dial Sae’s number on the virtual keypad that arises, but before I can hit SEND, the interface disappears and is replaced with a text box.
After I make this call, the apartment will be swarming with police. I’ll likely be held and questioned before I’m allowed to fly back home. The cops will take everything in his apartment, and I’ll never see what Takeda has been working on for twenty years…
I open the inventory and try to select the phone. A harsh sound plays and nothing happens. I press the button over and over and am met with the same rebuking tone each time. When I close the inventory, my avatar is standing at Takeda’s desk. I can’t help myself. I press X to interact with it.
The screen goes black for a moment. When it returns, my avatar is sitting against the far wall, as far away from the development kit as possible, cradling his head in his jagged hands. I open the inventory screen and select the notebook. Illegible scrawls cover the pages and grow sharper and more violent toward the end. The interface closes automatically and my avatar stands up. The whole environment tilts and the control scheme reverses unpredictably as I move toward the door and step out of the apartment.
A screen of pure white approximates the dazzling sun and the alleyway resolves around me. The clock in the bottom right corner of the screen now reads 10:11 hrs. I’ve been inside all night. A text box opens.
I can’t stay here… I’ve got to get to the airport.
I walk to the end of the alleyway and the scene changes again. I’m in Haneda Airport. A brief exchange occurs with the ticketing agent. I’ve missed my flight home, but they find one in the evening and ask if I want to exchange. The cursor flips back and forth between YES and NO rapidly and then disappears. My avatar nods slowly to the attendant. The old ticket leaves my inventory. There is a new one in its place.
Terminal 3. With the sterile fluorescent bulbs above in perfect rows, my avatar stands on an abstract wave-patterned carpet in front of a gate. It’s hard to explain how, but he looks ill. As I move past the rows of seating, other travelers turn their heads to stare briefly before looking away. I find an empty seat and follow the on-screen prompt, PRESS X TO SIT DOWN. My avatar’s head slumps and the screen goes black once again.
It is nighttime when the scene resumes. The woman at the gate is calling out rows. My row is boarding. I maneuver to the gate, where the attendant stops me and asks for the boarding pass. My inventory opens and a boarding pass slides up the screen, hangs for a moment, then recedes. She thanks me and allows me to proceed.
The scene cuts to a wide shot of the tarmac. A 747 taxis onto the runway, guided by pinpoints of lights on either side. The sound effect of the engines spinning up is distorted and low quality, and the camera stays static, watching as the plane gathers speed for takeoff. Just as the wheels lift off the ground, something goes wrong. The body twists at an odd angle and lurches over, dragging the left wing into the ground in a shower of sparks. It tears off, and the fuselage continues scraping down the runway at speed until it careens into the barrier at the end, the horrid shriek of steel giving way to silence and calm.
Christopher A. Walker is a writer living in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife and their cat, Greg. He works in marketing during the day.