The Making Of: The Black Onyx

Henk Rogers arrived in Japan in 1976, young, jobless and hot on the tail of a girl. Within eight years he’d have written, designed and coded his first videogame, sold Japan a genre that would go on to dominate its videogame industry creating billions of dollars of worldwide revenue, and, naturally, made the girl his wife. In 12 years, he would discover a game called Tetris at a Las Vegas game show, and would travel to Russia with Nintendo to secure the exclusive rights to market it on consoles. For a man whose only experience of coding was working on mainframe computers as a student and whose only brush with gaming was in pencil-and-paper roleplaying, starting out was no mean feat.

“I was an avid gamer as a student at the University of Hawaii in the 1970s,” he explains. “I’d joke that my minor was in Dungeons & Dragons. We had a gamer’s club called ARRGH (Alternative Recreational Realities Group of Hawaii) where we’d play with our own unique rule-set, and I think it was here that I caught the game design bug. Personal computer software publishing became a viable business in Japan in 1982. I noticed shops selling computer games on cassette tape popping up here and there, so I decided I wanted to make a game, went down to Akihabara and scoured the shops to try to work out what might be involved.”

Rogers eventually settled on the NEC-8801 for his development platform, a PC set-up that cost him $10,000. With the hardware in place it was time to decide what kind of game he wanted to create.

“I made a conscious decision to develop a game type that existed in the US but not Japan. There were no RPGs – computer or paper – to speak of in the country at the time, so I decided to take a chance and do one. I didn’t speak or read Japanese back then, so it was a total reverse engineer of titles I had enjoyed back home.”

The game was designed, drawn, and coded by Rogers alone over an intense nine-month period in 1983. Rogers struggled to squeeze his vision into the 64K his machine afforded him, a constraint that meant only 20 percent of his original ideas made it into the final production. Originally designed to offer three job classes to players, in the end the game had to be stripped back to just one: warriors. Sequel The Fire Crystal offered players the chance to play as mages, while the third game in the trilogy, the unreleased Moonstone, was created for monks.

“I divided the development job between the only languages available for the machine: BASIC and assembler,” he explains. “The game had two main technical elements: movement and everything else. Movement was a fake 3D like Wizardry written in Z80 assembler while the graphic editor, map editor and everything else was coded in BASIC.

“The 20K of graphics space was split evenly between monsters and humans, opting for variation instead of animation: 30 monsters, 28 human bodies and 50 human heads. I also built a name generator, which gave each character you meet in the game a name in addition to their individual appearance. The plan was that your character was going to be your avatar and you could move it from game to game, friends’ games and sequels, on a cassette tape. It was all quite innovative stuff.”

But getting the game into Japanese hands was far from simple. “Halfway through development I pitched Black Onyx to a publishing company and made a verbal agreement with the president for a distribution deal,” explains Rogers. “We agreed to split the profit after subtracting marketing and manufacturing costs. After three months of work I could see the light at the end of the development tunnel and told them I wanted to formalize the agreement. But the paperwork they tried to get me to sign bore no resemblance to the original verbal agreement. I pulled out of the deal, leaving me without a publisher.

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