This series of Top 10 lists focuses on several of the companies that have had the most significant impact on the video game industry through their development of many of the most influential and revolutionary video games ever created. More than just an overview of the companies, however, the goal of this list series is to be something of a step back into the shaping of the industry. This series will attempt to take us back through the evolution of the industry, as seen through the eyes of the companies that made that evolution happen. Console design is important, but at the end of the day, the video game industry is an industry of just that: games. The industry is driven by the companies that design the best games.

A few bits of housekeeping before I get started: first of all, game development is an inherently muddled process, and oftentimes it is difficult to draw lines around who developed which game. At times, this may lead to disagreement over who the developer of a particular game truly is; however, with how quickly the industry changes and the speed with which companies are bought, sold, and changed, there is never truly a black and white to what constitutes one developer's library. Secondly, there will be a lot of differentiation in the sizes of the libraries described in these lists. As such, in certain lists, I will refrain from including more than one game from one franchise and instead use one game as a stand-in for the series as a whole; in other lists, multiple games from the same franchise may be listed. Lastly, while I have a list of companies I plan to look at eventually, I am always looking for suggestions on what company to cover next; if you would like to make a suggestion, you can drop by the Top 10 List discussion board, contact me through my contributor profile, or visit either of my websites that cross-post these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com.

This week, I’ll be talking about Konami.

Like many modern great video game companies, Konami got its start far away from the game development industry. Started in 1969 as a jukebox company in Japan, it only took a few years for the company to transition to manufacturing arcade cabinets rather than jukeboxes. From there, the company took off relatively quickly, moving from developing their first arcade game in 1978 to developing their first computer games only for years later. Konami survived the video game crash of the early 1980s due in large part to its focus on its Japanese market; when Nintendo saved the industry, Konami was ready and waiting to develop for Nintendo's new Famicom system, later released in the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was on this console that the company made a name for itself, releasing such now-famous titles as Metal Gear, Contra, Gradius, and Castlevania. That was only the beginning for Konami, though, as the company would go on to develop dozens and dozens of other hit games over the next couple of decades. Of all the game development companies active today, perhaps none have developed as many hit games as Konami, and indeed, Konami is the largest company I will be discussing in this list series as other companies — such as Nintendo, Sega, and Vivendi — are better analyzed through their individual subsidiaries' game libraries. Due to Konami's size, I will be restricting items on this list to one game per series.

Released in 1993 for the Sega Genesis, Rocket Night Adventures is potentially the only game on this list you may not have heard of. Coming at a time when platformer games were the video game industry's bread and butter, Rocket Night Adventures is often glossed over by more famous platformers of the time such as Contra, Metroid, and basically any game with "Mario" or "Sonic" in the title. Despite this, the game remains one of the more underrated platformers to come out of the early 16-bit generation. Designed by the same developers responsible for Konami's own Contra series, Rocket Night Adventures features several innovations that had not yet become dominant in the video game industry. The plot of the game, for one, was more complicated and fleshed-out than those supplied with most other platformer games of the day, featuring a thorough cast of multiple characters, a rich and robust back story, and a sufficiently motivating plot that also justifies the game's tour through various scenic locales.

Despite failing to reach the same level of recognition as many other Konami franchises (as you will notice from the veritable pantheon of gaming's greatest hits in the remainder of this list), Rocket Night Adventures still represents some of the Konami's now-famous game design prowess. The game drew from the expertise of Konami's in-house designers while also pushing the envelope of what was considered standard for the platformer genre. One might even say that the fact that such an innovative and unique game could have been so glossed-over is itself a tribute to the level of game design the Konami has made its standard.

The rhythm genre can largely be traced back to an explosion of games in the genre occurring around the late 1990s; that fact is somewhat common knowledge, but what is less known is that Konami and its BeatMania game are largely responsible for this trend in the first place. Although BeatMania was not the very first rhythm game, it was the first one of its kind to gain notable traction in the industry. Considering the relative youth of the genre at the time of the game's release, the game also featured surprisingly complex controls, giving the player not only buttons to press in proper sequence, but also a turntable to manipulate in response to the prompts on the screen. Other common modern conventions for the rhythm genre were conceived here as well, such as the notion of audience approval determining whether or not the player can continue with a given song.

Initially released in arcades, BeatMania would soon spawn at-home releases for several consoles, including the PlayStation, Game Boy, Wonderswan, and the PlayStation 2, continuing in some iterations even to this day, with the most recent arcade game slated to release later this year in Japan. Perhaps the most notable impact of BeatMania, however, was its influence on another one of Konami's games released the next year. It was that game that not only revolutionized the rhythm genre, but also in many ways revolutionized gaming as a whole; but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Some might consider sports games a dime a dozen; EA's tendency to re-release slight rehashes of the same basic underlying game year after year have turned much of the video game culture against these games. Sports games are viewed by many as nothing but a frat boy's weekend diversion. While that might be true to a certain extent with EA's franchises, the same criticism can certainly not be applied to Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer series. Whereas some other sports series tend to stagnate relatively quickly, Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer remains one of the most innovative and continually-improved franchises around despite sticking to the same arduous release schedule as other sports-themed series.

Arguably the most impressive element of Pro Evolution Soccer is the incredible realism that is included in the game; in many ways, it is unfair to call the game a "game" in the first place, as "simulation" would be a much more accurate moniker. The game series makes an active effort to give the player control over even the most minute little features of a true soccer game, with controls for every kind of fake, turn, pass, twist, and shot available for use. As such, Pro Evolution Soccer has an enormously steeper learning curve than its competitor franchise, EA’s FIFA series; however, true soccer fans (and, moreover, true fans of soccer video games) will swear by the increased realism offered by the far higher-quality Konami franchise. With such continuous improvement generation after generation, there is no doubt that Pro Evolution Soccer 12 will only be the franchise’s best game until the next release comes out.

Konami had already proven its prowess with the platformer genre in the now-famous release of Contra; in 1991, they showed their ability to branch out into the visually-similar side-scrolling beat ‘em up genre with the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Released at the height of the golden age of the genre, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles helped Konami show how prowess with platformers could translate into a unique twist on the beat ‘em up genre. Although the genre had been around for nearly a decade by the time of the game's release, the release of the game helped solidify the genre as one of the major players in the industry and showed that platformers were not the only major franchise they could sell on the newly-invigorated console market.

Released a few years later, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time quickly became arguably the best game (or at least, the most popular game) in the series. Featuring improved graphics, up to four playable characters, a surprisingly good soundtrack, and several gameplay and graphical innovations, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time has become something of a cult favorite. To this day, the game remains popularly considered the best in the franchise as well as one of the most popular beat ‘em up games of all time, selling more arcade units at the time than any other game in Konami’s already-rich arcade history. Although the remake in 2009 fell short, the game is still available for play on multiple virtual console systems.

Earlier in this list, I referenced the fact that one of BeatMania’s biggest contributions to the video game industry was the influence and impact it had on a later Konami release; that later release is Dance Dance Revolution. Whereas BeatMania revolutionized and basically single-handedly popularized the rhythm genre, Dance Dance Revolution, to a certain extent, revolutionized the entire video game industry. Although it was not the first a game to feature physical movement as part of the control mechanism, it was the first one to reach such substantial popularity while doing so as well as the first to popularize it for at-home consoles in addition to just arcades. The impact that Dance Dance Revolution has had on the video game industry is well-documented, highlighted by the incorporation of such arcade consoles in school systems across the United States as a fun way to get children to be more physically active.

Dance Dance Revolution had another significant impact on the video game industry as well, however; it is hard to argue that the game was not the earliest predecessor of the best-selling console of the seventh generation, the Nintendo Wii. Dance Dance Revolution started the trend towards involving physical motion as a control mechanism in the game, and it is that idea that was the bedrock and foundation of the Nintendo Wii's entire development and marketing scheme. Although motion gaming still has its drawbacks and vocal critics, there is no way to discount the impact that this trend has had on gaming development and sales.

Released in 1998 as the sequel to 1995’s Suikoden, Suikoden II remains one of the most enigmatic releases not only in Konami's rich history, but also in video game history as a whole. Rarely has a game received so much critical praise and acclaim while simultaneously being something of a commercial flop. Many fans of the series regard Suikoden II as the strongest game in the somewhat popular franchise. However, poor sales upon its initial release (arguably due to the impact of Final Fantasy VII in changing the expectations in the RPG genre) prevented the game from receiving a more significant release print. The rarity of the game combined with the critical praise and acclaim it has received combine to make Suikoden II a prized collector’s piece, especially in unopened mint condition.

Aside from the historical and collectors’ significance of the game, Suikoden II represented a strong and interesting RPG on its own right. Had the game and franchise had more influence over the genre, we might go into RPGs with significantly different expectations. The series was famous for featuring an enormous number of playable characters compared to other RPGs at the time, in addition to several other innovations that could have significantly changed the course of the RPG genre. The plot as well contained the potential to rival any other RPG of the day, and there remains an interesting case study to be had in why Final Fantasy was the most notable RPG series to come out of the 1990s rather than Suikoden.

When it wasn't busy helping popularize the platformer and beat ‘em up genres, Konami took a crack at the run-and-done genre with its now-famous 1987 release Contra. Like many of Konami's games, Contra was initially developed as an arcade game before later being ported to the NES and various other popular consoles of the day. Contra quickly became very famous and popular for two primary reasons. First of all, and perhaps most memorably, Contra remains to this day an example of how much more challenging and difficult gaming was during these early console years; defeating Contra was itself a legitimate achievement rather than simply something to be completed. More importantly, however, Contra was one of the first games to feature multiplayer cooperative play: two players could team up at once to make their way through the levels and conquer the enemies, a feature that had not been seen in many games prior.

Contra was not solely famous in its day; the game has remained famous for these two major innovations even to the present day. It is still rated by many as one of the most difficult games to beat, as well as one of the best multiplayer games of all time. The legacy it left helped market several sequels all the way through the modern console generation, and the game has achieved arguably more real-world penetration into pop culture than most other games from its generation.

With Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Konami took a pretty big risk. Developed for the PlayStation, gamers had become accustomed to 3D graphics in their games as traditionally-2D franchises like Final Fantasy had recently demonstrated the incredible ability of the new PlayStation console. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, on the other hand, opted instead to innovate in a different direction, one that while arguably equally significant, was far more difficult for players to actually immediately notice. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night retained the 2D platformer structure of the previous games in its franchise, but innovated instead by creating a much more open world layout, incentivizing exploration and backtracking as well as adding in some new RPG elements.

Thanks at least in part to the more limited graphical advancements made in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the game did not attain the type of sales they Konami had desired upon its initial release; however, as time went on, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night began to be regarded as more and more of a sleeper hit. As new Castlevania games were released and it became more and more apparent how the quality of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had influenced the direction of the franchise as a whole, the true depth of the game's innovation began to become apparent. Since then, the reception has warmed to a fever level from its early lukewarm greeting as the game has actually begun to receive attention as one of the greatest games of all time.

In video gaming, there are two categories of great games. The first category, where Castlevania: Symphony of the Night fits in, are those games that take established gameplay ideas, modify them in new, innovative, and influential ways, and create a great game at the same time. On the other hand, there are great games that actually transcend video gaming; these are games that are not just a great diversion, but rather become works of art in and of themselves. Konami is responsible for at least two such games, the two top games on this list.

Silent Hill 2 is one of those games. To this day, the game remains the quintessential example of how gameplay, graphics, audio, design, and every other element of production can combine to create an immersive environment; and in the case of Silent Hill 2, that immersive environment is structured in every possible way to be as terrifying, unnerving, and visceral as possible. The game represents one of those interesting rare examples where a genre has failed to improve over time; the survival horror genre in general has grown towards a shooter offshoot characterized only by horrific and grotesque enemies. Silent Hill 2, on the other hand, was a true horror experience. The artistic magnitude of the game is nearly unmatched in video game history, and to this day the game represents an experience unlike any other game. No game before or since Silent Hill 2 has managed to give the player the type of unsettling experience of this PlayStation 2 game.

In the pantheon of video gaming’s greatest hits, a few games and franchises stand as unquestionable members; Konami's all-time greatest game is one that spawned one of these franchises as well as remaining one of the greatest games of all time in its own right. When Metal Gear Solid was released in 1998, it was unlike anything the gaming industry had ever seen before. It represented one of the most amazing developments to the shooter genre since its conception in the days of Doom and Wolfenstein. Whereas RPGs has been developing and enhancing video game plots for a few years, it was Metal Gear Solid that was most responsible for showing that a shooter could be driven via a memorable plot as well; in the process, the series creator, Hideo Kojima, created one of the most memorable video game plots of all time.

The plot was only one of numerous areas in which Metal Gear Solid revolutionized the genre, however. The series' stealth focus demonstrated the full extent of the new 3D capabilities of the next generation of consoles. The camera design on its own is one of the most relevant game developments of that generation, introducing camera tricks and gimmicks that went far beyond the simplistic implementation from other transitional franchises. Metal Gear Solid, quite simply, demonstrated the complete capabilities of video gaming at that stage in history and is arguably one of the first games to demonstrate the ability of gaming to compete favorably with other major forms of media. Perhaps the biggest compliment to the game is the fact that people generally regard it as the beginning of the franchise; even though it had 2D predecessors, it is so viewed as the cornerstone of the franchise that it is not regarded as transitional in the same way as Final Fantasy's and The Legend of Zelda’s first 3D installments.

Honorable Mentions: Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, Track & Field, Elebits, The Simpsons Arcade Game, Gradius, Frogger.

Today, although Konami is not the sexiest name in video gaming, it remains poised to be a major player in the industry for many years to come. The company has largely been able to transcend the ups and downs of the industry over the past several years, consistently churning out high-quality releases while remaining somewhat under the radar as far as major developers go. Part of the reason Konami is able to withstand market fluctuations is that its size enables it to partner with other media and franchises to become the go-to company for television and movie tie-in games. This year alone has seen new installments of their bedrock franchises (a new Silent Hill game and a new Pro Evolution Soccer game), as well as new game franchises spawned by ties with other media (such as Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock). With numerous anticipated releases still to come – including a new Metal Gear game – Konami is well-positioned to add to its incredible library in the coming years.

If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!

List by DDJGames (08/08/2012)

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