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​Henk Rogers: The Dutch Godfather of Japanese RPGs

The Black Onyx is the most important JRPG that you never heard about.

Tell the first thing that comes to your shokushu goukan-filled mind when I say "Japanese RPG." If you were into silent Japanese dudes with long, pointy hair for most of your adolescence, your answer should swing somewhere around Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, or even Xenogears, given you're that "I like my games like I like my psychological traumas" kind of person. But none of those games would have been the same if it weren't for a Dutch guy named Henk Rogers and a little game called The Black Onyx back in 1984.

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Yes, Dutch. One of the grandfathers of Japanese RPGs is not of Japanese descent at all. Rogers was born in Amsterdam, but then moved to New York City when he was a kid, where he got into computer programming. He ended up studying computer science at the University of Hawaii, which somehow also got Rogers studying RPGs like crazy. The 70s and 80s saw a boiling community of RPG tables in the West Coast, so it really shouldn't surprise anyone that RPGs were also the favorite pastime of medieval fantasy loving twenty-something students living in sunny Hawaii.

According to Rogers, he only went to Japan after he decided to chase a girl—who later became his wife, actually. His father was a badass black-belt Go player, so conveniently Henk's family was already living in the country. He soon started a family and being that he was in one of the cradles of video game culture, he made out to develop some fine games and a name for himself.

In an interview with Gamastutra, Rogers explained that, during a trip to Tokyo's Akihabara district, which is known for electronics retailers, he noticed that the NEC PC-8801 was the latest word among gaming enthusiasts. That meant the platform was going to get popular sooner or later, but he'd also realized that there was nothing like the cool computer RPGs he used to play back in the West among the titles for the PC-8801.

While most 21st century kids would settle for a bummed tweet complaining about his favorite games, Rogers thought that that was a no-no and he saw an opportunity. He decided he was going to show Japan how to roll a good old Western role-playing session in a game.

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Given the hardware limitations of the NEC computer, the Dutch developer had cut down on a lot of the content and designs he originally planned to put in the game. He had to shape what was once an epic RPG into an introductory game of role-play. Nonetheless, The Black Onyx was finally released in 1984 for the PC-8801, and it smashed all records of the then small game industry in Japan at that time, selling 150,000 copies, projecting Henk Rogers and his recently found Bullet-Proof Software label to the stardom of video game history.

The game summed up all the standards of Japanese RPGs, introducing elements like level progression, turn-based combat, and confusing text-based stores in which it takes hours to figure out how to buy a potion.

The game features mini-figures, armor, and swords, but mostly there is a lot of text. The game is basically split screen: A window on the right of the screen is used to explore levels via a first-person point of view of a 3D simulated experience of a bad acid trip in a fantasy kingdom. The game is heavily influenced by the Wizardry series, but Rogers says he stuck with the basics of RPGs because he saw the future of this kind of game.

Henk was right. Japanese RPGs, although past their glory days of the 90s, are one of the most important staples of gaming culture. Players today get to enjoy a much richer and more varied experience than The Black Onyx originally offered, but it opened the gates. The game was ported to a number of other platforms—it was the swan song of the Sega SG-1000—is definitely the basis for JRPGs' DNA.

Rogers went on to because a prominent gaming businessman. If helping to give birth to a whole genre of Japanese games is not enough, the developer is actually more known for famously negotiating the rights for the Tetris franchise with the Soviet Union, guaranteeing the success of the colossal puzzle game in consoles and, most importantly, on the Game Boy.