Popful Mail
Image: Nihon Falcom

We're seated in a meeting room of Kouji Yokota's company, Shade, because he's worked on no fewer than 12 of our favourite games and series, including Telenet's Exile, Falcom's Ys III, Game Arts' Lunar: Eternal Blue, and Quintet's Robotrek. "Three of my employees are also formerly of Falcom; one of them worked on Popful Mail. Let me go fetch him. He should be on a break now," reveals Yokota mid-interview. The three in question are Yukio Takahashi, one of several programmers on Brandish (other developers share this name); Sadao Kobayashi, graphic designer on Lunar: Eternal Blue and Terranigma; and Jun Nagashima, the original creator of Popful Mail.

There was no sales or marketing plan. If the president liked it, then we'd make announcements to the media, saying the company is going to develop this kind of game

"He was hired by Falcom after I joined the company," Yokota adds. "He was making his own game and the design was refined. I think how Popful Mail started was that everyone had a look and said, 'Oh, this is quite well made!' Back then, how projects were launched, it was not like there was a designated planner who came up with a proposal. If someone made something interesting, that would be presented to the president and he'd say, 'Oh, this is interesting, maybe we can form a project.' And that's how projects were started. So it was quite a free environment. There was no sales or marketing plan. If the president liked it, then we'd make announcements to the media, saying the company is going to develop this kind of game."

What a fortuitous surprise! Now suddenly, we're about to meet Nagashima and, given the unexpected nature of this interview, we've not prepared any material – but that's the joy of journalism; you never know when you'll land a scoop. Luckily, we are huge fans of the entire series, so improvising will be easy.

For those who've not played Popful Mail: you take control of three characters, Mail, Tatt, and Gaw, who can be swapped at any time; each character has unique weapons, armour, magic, and movement abilities (Gaw can jump higher and further); you traverse a collection of five overworld zones each with mini-stages (jungle, caves, volcano/ruins, iceberg/pirate ship, and final castle); there's 2D platforming, friendly NPCs, merchants, bosses, light-RPG mechanics, and a hilarious tongue-in-cheek fantasy setting (one villain grows multiple talking heads which he uses as bombs). It truly is a gem of the 16-bit era.

'Series' might be a misnomer, though. The "Popful Mail umbrella" comprises one core game around which there were several reimaginings. The original was for the PC-8801, released most likely in December 1991. Recall how Yokota described the starting of computer game projects back in the day? That trickles into release dates because, unlike the regimented world of console development (where you'd pay Nintendo a licensing and manufacturing fee), we don't have precise dates for computer games. Sometimes a game would be advertised six months before release, only to be put on sale before it was even completed.

"When I was working for Nihon Telenet, I was in the middle of a game, but someone told me they had seen my exact game already being sold in shops!" Yokota elaborates. "I was shocked. It wasn't even finished. But I guess the company had to deliver something. Otherwise, they wouldn't get paid. Ultimately several hundred of these unfinished copies were mixed in with the actual, final release. When users complained about a bug or other problem, we exchanged their copies. Back then, launch dates were somewhat vague. The announced release date would be something like 'the end of August' or 'sometime during September', rather than a specific day. This was the early days, when the games industry was first starting out, it was quite chaotic."

Popful Mail PC-88 Cover
The cover for Popful Mail on PC-88 — Image: Nihon Falcom

What's interesting about the 1991 date is by this time, Japanese developers had already shifted to the more powerful PC-9801 series. The PC-88 series launched in 1981 and was considered antiquated, so this was like cranking out an original game for the C64 a decade after launch, then porting it up to the Amiga and consoles. It was somewhat unorthodox.

In fairness, the PC-88 had many revisions over the years, sharply evolving its capabilities. For absolute precision, it's accurate to say Popful Mail was a game for the PC-8801mkIISR. It was also compatible with the PC-88MC, which came with a CD-ROM drive, though few might realise this. We'll let Joseph Redon of the Japanese Game Preservation Society explain this oddity.

"You could, in theory, play Popful Mail with a CD-quality soundtrack," Redon says. "Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes I & II on PC-88 are MC-friendly, and Falcom released the appropriate CD specifically for them. Unfortunately for Popful Mail, despite compatibility, Falcom did not release a soundtrack CD specifically to use with the PC-88MC. This CD was cancelled, but the option remains if you're using a PC-88MC – you can define which track of the CD is used. There's so much to say about the music for this game. The OPNA soundtrack is a marvel in my opinion, and the composer Mieko Ishikawa deserves more attention. She's almost unknown, despite composing tracks for Ys and Sorcerian as well. People wrongly assume that Yuzo Koshiro did everything at Falcom. Ishikawa-san is still working at Falcom as the strongest person after Kato-san; Ishikawa-san owns 1.44% of Nihon Falcom."

The PC-98 version of Popful Mail followed in May 1992, redrawing all the graphics in double the vertical resolution and increasing the available colours. Some of the music has been modified, along with other cosmetic changes, but structurally it's nearly identical. Then throughout 1994, we saw releases on the three leading 16-bit consoles.

Popful Mail PC-88 CD options
A screen from the PC-88 version, showing the unused option for a CD-quality soundtrack on the PC-88MC variant of the system

The PC Engine CD version (August) is truest to the computer versions; the graphics are downgraded from the PC-98 slightly, but it has voice acting and some exclusive stages not found elsewhere. Think of these as the 'core trilogy' – one of the defining aspects is they use a bump combat system similar to the first Ys, and on PCE, you can attack enemies by jumping on their heads like Mario.

The Sega CD remake (released in April '94) is like the core games on steroids! It mostly follows the same narrative structure and level layouts but is completely rebuilt from scratch – cutscenes are redrawn, in-game characters are larger, scrolling is faster, combat requires button presses and dexterity, and there are new items to equip. It's been overhauled so drastically from the core trilogy that it's actually worth playing both. The SFC version (June '94), meanwhile, is so different from the above, you can almost imagine it as an unnumbered sequel or spin-off. There was also a ton of cool merchandise and OSTs released, plus several drama CDs, as one expects from Nihon Falcom.

Jun Nagashima enters the room from his work break, and, given that professional photographer Nico Datiche is with us, it seems prudent to secure photos before interviewing. "I am afraid I would prefer it if there was no profile photo," asks Nagashima. "I hope you understand. But I hope that my little anecdotes will be of some use." We respect his privacy, it adds an air of mystery, but we're highlighting this because not only is Nagashima a private individual, he's been miscredited and his work misattributed on English websites. In fact, the whole background behind the series' creation is chock full of weirdness, but we'll disentangle that later. How did Nagashima come to join Falcom?

"I learned BASIC on a Hitachi MB-6880 passed down from my uncle," he replies. "People mainly input program code listed in magazines, and I learned to program by porting games. Later I acquired a PC-8801. I was writing programs, in BASIC and assembler, and submitting them to LOGiN magazine. Three of my programs were published as type-in listings and awarded money. I remember joining Falcom as a fresh graduate in 1989; I used my games as a portfolio when applying. I heard that, based on my work, Yoshio Kiya recommended me for an interview with the company president, Masayuki Kato. When I went for an interview, copies of the magazines that published my games were lying on the desk, and Kato-san told me that Kiya-san had recommended me. Ultimately, he told me on the spot I was hired. Back then, Falcom also ran a shop in the company's office building, and new employees were placed there for a month as general managers. I was doing shop work and handling phone calls, and getting impatient wondering when they'd finally let me start making games!"

Jun Nagashima (永嶋純) does have a MobyGames profile, but it's mysteriously lacking anything prior to Ys V: Kefin, Lost City of Sand (1995). Meanwhile, still on MobyGames, Popful Mail for computers and SFC have a Jun Mizushima (水島純) credited on programming and scenario. GameFAQs and other English sites replicate the error. You can see what's happened, right? The surname Nagashima is written 永嶋 - for the first symbol, while the main radical is indeed water, it has extra components which change the meaning and pronunciation. The second symbol, meanwhile, has been conflated with its alternative form. We're not blaming anyone; these things happen when you lack Japanese skill (we cheated and just cross-referenced his business card). Also, MobyGames incorrectly states a Yoshio Kimuro was director on the games, when in fact, it was Yoshio Kiya, creator of Dragon Slayer, Xanadu, and Legacy of the Wizard.

Popful Mail
Image: Nihon Falcom

Time Extension readers will likely know Popful Mail for the American Sega CD release published by Working Designs. The only version to leave Japan, and sadly, it never made it to Europe. If any European readers played it back in the day, it would have been on import. EGM #51 (October 1993) ran a preview comparing it to Falcom's Ys III, which is understandable given that both feature a red-haired protagonist in a 2D platformer with sword-swinging action.

In fact, anyone acquainted with Falcom's portfolio will see similarities to a whole range of games which came before. Combat borrows elements from the entire Ys trilogy; other aspects are taken from the initial Dragon Slayer series (Dragon Slayer, Xanadu, Romancia, Legacy of the Wizard), including perspective, movement style, combat elements, and especially with the computer originals, the general feeling. Gaw's character as a friendly monster, and talking to other monsters also kinda reminds us of Ys II, Xanadu, and Pochi in Legacy of the Wizard. If you're thinking to yourself, Popful Mail sounds like a collection of Falcom's greatest hits, there's a reason for that.

"After being assigned to game development, I was first involved with the development team for Ys III on X68000," begins Nagashima. "At that time, I was working together with Yokota-san, who is now the president of Shade. I don't know the reason why, but after the development of Ys III ended, almost all of the associated staff quit Falcom – many key people, including the Shade president, Yokota-san, left the company." The reasons for Falcom's staff dissatisfaction and mass walkout are well documented. This sudden exodus also left Nagashima mostly to himself.

"I remember being the only person left who had been involved with Ys III. A little while after that, Kiya-san instructed me to try to make a game for the PC-8801. So I was the only one from the team, alone, and he says, 'Since you're capable of programming, why not come up with something?' But I was the only programmer left on the team, and I had no graphics data to work with, so I was really at a loss as to what to do. But he said: just, you know, fiddle around with whatever was already there at Falcom, and come up with something. So I was told to make a game with no planner and no graphics designer to help me. I simply focused on creating a sample prototype by reusing existing assets from games previously by Falcom."

In the most literal sense possible, Popful Mail started out as a recycled mish-mash of pre-existing bits from Falcom's old PC-88 catalogue. But if Nagashima's first Falcom game was Ys III on the massively powerful X68000, why was he downgraded to the PC-88, a computer already on its way out? For this, we asked Yoshio Kiya, the section manager who gave him the order.

"Kato-san disliked new platforms. He wanted everything to be developed on PC-88 exclusively," says Kiya, describing the then-Falcom president. There's an unmistakable tone of dissatisfaction in Kiya's voice as he explains how Kato's attitude led to his own resignation. "Kato-san would say: 'If it's not for the PC-88, then I don't want anything to do with it!' So there were games that would have been developed and released but ended up not getting there because he didn't like the new hardware. Kato-san wouldn't hear about anything not for the PC-88. The reason why I quit is I wanted to work on DOS/V and then on Windows. Computers and technology like that keep evolving, and Kato-san was really scared of these new technologies."

I came up with a prototype which looked like a horizontally scrolling action game. Which in a way looked like Popful Mail, but it wasn't that, not quite. During this time, Kiya-san gave me a lot of advice, and I remember him as being a very generous and caring person

Thus Nagashima had his marching orders, downgrading to the PC-88 and piecing together whatever he could, essentially as a one-man development team. "I came up with a prototype which looked like a horizontally scrolling action game. Which in a way looked like Popful Mail, but it wasn't that, not quite. During this time, Kiya-san gave me a lot of advice, and I remember him as being a very generous and caring person. The sample from this period became the basis for Popful Mail. So Popful Mail was not the result of consciously trying to make a game like that. It just happened to turn out the way it did."

The name too just sort of happened by accident. It's not actually written "Popful" in Japanese; the hiragana phonetically spells "Poppuru". We asked Nagashima what it was supposed to mean. "The Popful name was thought out by somebody who belonged to the PR department. Although we also had a couple of ideas in our team – the codenames were thought up. So the PR person came up with the Popful Mail name, he used hiragana characters for the 'Poppuru' portion, and the Mail portion was written in katakana. <writes it out> But I knew it had to be written in alphabetical characters, so I came up with the English spelling myself. One of the codenames that I still remember is Scarlet Maid. I can't recall the others. I think Scarlet Maid was one of the ideas because the characters were kind of cute. But then, at the same time, there was an opinion that the name was hard to remember."

Scarlet, as in red, because the character of Mail has red hair! Just like Adol from Ys, which Nagashima also worked on. We're describing this visual lineage and the fact Popful Mail re-used assets, and are about to suggest Mail might be a gender-swapped version of Adol, when Nagashima cuts us off, "Yes, I worked on Ys III for the X68000, but I don't think that was an influence on the main character, the red hair. For Popful Mail, when the prototype started moving, a graphics designer was assigned to the project, and this designer came up with this character all of sudden, and then we decided to call the main character Mail. And he also designed two additional characters as well." The extra characters are most likely boy-wizard Tatt and blue-monster Gaw; the credits, however, list two artists, Hiroyuki Imai and Yuichi Shiota, though it's unknown how the work was divided.

When the prototype started moving, a graphics designer was assigned to the project, and this designer came up with this character all of sudden, and then we decided to call the main character Mail

The interesting thing about the credits for the original 1991 game is that there's no level designer or planner credited. Nagashima is the sole programmer; there are two graphics artists, a few musicians, and Yoshio Kiya as the director. We're trying to ascertain who was responsible for the almost intuitive level layouts, the enjoyable bosses, the difficulty curve which is so meticulously balanced, offering a fun challenge but softened by newer equipment and consumables.

If you've played Falcom's older games, you know what we mean -– they're all cleverly designed. Popful Mail being particularly well crafted and landing on the easier side of the scale, especially compared to labyrinthine epics like Legacy of the Wizard. Even with the pumped-up Sega remake, the original intricate framework still shines through. Sega's remake is obviously expanded, with more supplementary items and more complicated bosses, but the progression flow is the same, and many stage layouts are close enough to be recognisable. Credit for this original vision could only go to Nagashima or Kiya. However, it's clear Nagashima is reluctant to accept recognition, given that Kiya was a beloved mentor.

"Kiya-san was a famous person in the game industry back then," explains Nagashima. "To me, he was almost like a god, and I didn't have the courage to just go up and chat with him. It's very presumptuous of me to say it, but I thought Kiya-san was a genius. Reviewing the programs he made was extremely instructive, and I was thankful I joined Falcom. At the time, Kiya-san was Falcom's head of development, and he was effective in his role as a leader. He was someone I could really look up to and admire. When Kiya-san left Falcom, I remember feeling uneasy about Falcom's future."

So we broach the topic with Kiya directly, asking about his role as director on Popful Mail. This interview actually took four months to organise, and on the day, there was quite the delegation. There was the author of this piece, professional photographer Nico Datiche, a language interpreter, Joseph Redon and two colleagues from the Game Preservation Society, Yoshio Kiya himself, plus two of his associates. Nine people in a formal Japanese-styled interview, with all questions pre-scripted in advance. Before answering, Kiya confers with multiple people in the room. After much back and forth, they convince him that his name is listed as director. He chuckles, "If you say so. Then I guess I was the director on Popful Mail!" The room erupts into laughter, and, when it's quietened down, Kiya continues. "I do remember talking to Nagashima-san a lot about the movement in the game and everything, but as far as involvement goes, that's probably about it!"

Popful Mail
Image: Nihon Falcom

This confusion over who was responsible for the game also extends to the PC Engine port and the Sega remake. If you want to experience Nagashima's original computer version, the PCE port is as close as you'll find on consoles, containing the same diminutive 'chibi' characters and physics, which are gone from the Sega and Super Famicom versions. It does, however, contain three exclusive world maps with sub-stages – one map for Mail, Tatt, and Gaw – plus exclusive bosses and fantastic new music.

The weird thing is the credits list Falcom prominently at the top (and on the title screen), plus a few smaller studios for assistance, but if you check the portfolios of key staff, they're all from Human or HuneX (a joint NEC and Human venture). HuneX is only mentioned briefly at the end, alongside NEC, with the copyright assigned to Falcom and NEC. In the same group interview that brought you the Clock Tower and Steel Battalion features, there was a lot of discussion on Human Entertainment's business deals, especially related to outsourcing and outside IP, plus tax evasion and fraud. Popful Mail was never named, but reading the answers of Masatoshi Mitori, one can infer the sort of situation which led to Human's pursuit of PC Engine development and NEC's purse strings.

"Starting from the PC Engine era, Human made many games and for a time made a huge profit," Mitori says. "A small team could make game after game that would sell 800,000 copies, for example. The company was filthy rich. They didn't want to pay the taxes they owed, and this piled up until the tax investigators came visiting. We were making lots of money for Human, but we were being forced to work in poor conditions. There were also problems with rampant nepotism; upper management was lining their pockets with cash and appointing relatives to high-level positions. The reasons for the company's downfall had been there all along. The upper management had been seduced by how easily the company grew in size and profit in the PC Engine era. Ultimately, we developed games for publishers who actually owned the rights, but our team was receiving money that is unheard of in today's industry."

As for the Sega CD remake, the developer is officially credited as Sega-Falcom, a joint venture intended to bring Falcom's computer games to Sega hardware. Several games were announced, including a unique version of Ys IV, but ultimately only Popful Mail came to fruition. It was also initially going to be Sister Sonic, a reskinned spin-off of Sonic the Hedgehog. This plan was scrapped. However, we have no idea who actually worked on the remake, since there are no credits; only the voice actors are listed. The only Sega-Falcom staff from Popful Mail we know of is Kazutaka Yano – we'll get to Yano and Sister Sonic, plus Victor Ireland's references to SIMS, shortly.

Popful Mail CD
Multiple Popful Mail music and 'drama' albums were released in Japan

We bring up the topic of conversions to other hardware and ask Nagashima, in a vague way, how aware he was of other versions, and also of their popularity overseas. "I've heard the Popful Mail games are popular overseas for the first time only after you told me this!" he reveals in surprise. "And, of course, I know about the Super Famicom version because I developed it."

Interestingly the online perception is that the SFC version was outsourced to some other company and wasn't done by Falcom, despite the fact Nagashima is clearly credited both as sole programmer again and co-writer on the scenario. The SFC version is very much his game again, a true Popful Mail title, but sadly it's also kind of awful.

While it shares the same key characters and also key location themes like the jungle and caves, it scraps all of the layouts in favour of fresh designs. The characters are different, too; in all the other versions, Slick needs rescuing from a tree, but on SFC, he actually jumps down and attacks Mail with bombs. There are also new characters, such as Marill, who is Muttonhead's granddaughter and claims to be Tatt's fiancé.

Story differences aside, it's the mechanics which are problematic. There's slowdown; the combat isn't as satisfying as other versions; the scenery is both more repetitive and claustrophobic, with the screen not scrolling ahead enough and there being "area end zones" you need to walk off. There's a strange mechanic where you don't earn gold, but points on a monster hunting card which you redeem for gold – except it doesn't really add anything since shops just convert it for you. We raise these points because it's interesting to compare the games. The original, which also formed the basis for the Sega version, came about seemingly without planning and was fantastic. The SFC version was started a couple of years later with the specific intention of redesigning the original from scratch, and it failed. There's no fan-translation, and likely never will be, and if you skip out the SFC version, you'll be better off.

Popful Mail
Image: Nihon Falcom

Nagashima acknowledges the flaws in his revision of the original. In fact, he also acknowledges the flaws in his second SFC game Ys V, giving the impression that Nintendo's hardware wasn't as easy to harness as NEC's computers. "Popful Mail was our first time developing for the Super Famicom, and we learned a lot from our initial mistakes," he admits.

Unfortunately, I personally feel that the result was of middling quality. I was also still quite young, so I worked deep into the night almost every day... I still regret not making a better game

"For this reason, I was grateful for the chance to develop for the Super Famicom again. While Popful Mail was Falcom's first release on the Super Famicom, for our second release, the president suggested making a Ys sequel. At the time, a draft plot had been prepared, titled 'Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand'. This was how Ys V came about. Around this time, home computer games were also flourishing, so I did my best to present something which couldn't be done on a computer. Unfortunately, I personally feel that the result was of middling quality. I was also still quite young, so I worked deep into the night almost every day. We had an excellent development environment, but honestly, not many people were satisfied with the end product. I still regret not making a better game."

Given how this entire interview came about by accident, much like the series we're discussing, it seems churlish to dwell on the negatives. Wishing to reassure Nagashima of the popularity of his work, we describe at length the legions of Falcom fans outside Japan, especially those who hold Popful Mail close to their hearts. "Thank you very much! I never knew there were many fans outside of Japan! <laughs>"

This allows us to bring up the Sega version, the only version officially released in English, and also the topic of how Popful Mail nearly became Sister Sonic, until the intervention of Japanese fans. "As for Mega CD, there used to be a company called Sega-Falcom in charge of developing that version, so I knew about it. But I was not involved in the development of the Mega CD version myself."

Without any inside information to share, the interview shifts to other topics, and eventually, Nagashima's break ends. Thus leaving us to find an alternative source for information on Sega's version. Which is where Victor Ireland of Working Designs comes in (we'll use his first name, since his surname is a Nation State).

We love Vic here at Time Extension. Yes, we are aware he is a polarising figure, and Working Designs has received a lot of criticism for altering both the difficulty of games and their scripts. In fact, there's been a dedicated effort to undo their work. But here's the thing: in the early 1990s, a lot of great Japanese games were being ignored, and Vic, for a time, was the only one championing and bringing them over. Today, Atlus is praised for its faithful localisations, but back then, it did the same if not worse! Maybe Vic did make Exile II impossible to finish, and maybe his pop-culture jokes have aged poorly, but look through his portfolio and reflect on a decade of output. Without Vic and Working Designs, we would have missed out on some absolute gems, while the bonus materials that came with the games – standard editions of games – elevated them to works of art. We owe Vic and Working Designs a debt of gratitude for setting new precedents.

We email Victor Ireland and, mentioning we're on a short deadline, push him to get answers back as soon as possible. We admit to it being a terrible thing to do. His reply is jovial and quick, "You're a terrible, awful man! That said, and because Popful Mail is one of my personal favourites that we have done, I will do my best to get these questions answered so you can make your deadline. I'm happy to do it. I have a soft spot for that game. Of the almost 40 games Working Designs did, it's easily on my top five."

Popful Mail
If you're an English-speaking fan of Popful Mail, chances are you discovered the game via the Working Designs Sega CD localistion — Image: Working Designs

In that case, we ask if he's played the PC-8801, PC-9801, PC Engine, Super Famicom, or mobile phone versions? "Yes. I've played the PC-98, Super Fami and Turbo Duo versions. Didn't know about the cell phone version until you told me, actually!" says Vic, before revealing that Working Designs had also considered the PC Engine version for localisation. "The Turbo one was contemplated, but the Duo was such a mess in the US, and it was actually inferior to the Mega CD version, so the US got the best version anyway. Generally speaking, I was, or I am, a proponent of PC Engine versions of games over their Mega Drive and Mega CD brethren. However, in the case of Popful Mail, the sprites were hyper-super-deformed and were so small relative to the Mega CD version that it took away from my enjoyment of the game. I believe this was just evidence of a quick and dirty coding job, and it could have been every bit as good or better than the Mega CD version given the time and resources."

Given that Working Designs had access to Popful Mail, we hoped Vic would have inside knowledge on Sister Sonic. This was going to be a remake of Popful Mail, albeit with Sonic-related characters – Mail was to become a female relative of Sonic's, for example. The name showed up as early as November 1992 in Japan's Beep Mega Drive magazine and June 1993 in EGM. However, by August 1993, EGM was saying that, due to a letter-writing campaign by Japanese fans, plans to reimagine Popful Mail were scrapped in favour of keeping it true to the original. This is where things get confusing again – we don't have omnipotent answers; we can only present the facts available.

Firstly, DidYouKnowGaming has a good primer video on Sister Sonic, using that 1992 issue of Beep Mega Drive magazine as a source. They correctly observe that Sega-Falcom director Kazutaka Yano states Sister Sonic was intended also for the Japanese market and not, as some US magazines claimed, solely a localisation reskin. DYKG do a good job pointing out the misinformation in EGM, and attempt to debunk the idea Sister Sonic was planned for localisation. This is only half true, though, since they fail to acknowledge important interview material documented in Diehard GameFan issue 12 (Nov 1993).

EGM #49 (Aug 1993) states that Sister Sonic was placed on the back burner due to Japanese fan complaints. However, according to the November issue of GameFan from that year, in a new interview with Kazutaka Yano on page 160, this backtracking was only in relation to the Japanese release. Japan was to receive Popful Mail on Mega CD while they were still pushing the idea of keeping Sister Sonic, albeit only for America. Below you'll find a scan with the entire Yano interview, but the important quote from him is:

Our plan is to change Popful Mail's character to Sister Sonic and release it for the foreign market. Sega of America has OK'd the use of this character and many consumers are looking forward to playing an entirely new game based on this character. So we decided to consider them as two different concepts.

GameFan Sister Sonic
Image: GameFan

The question then is why they also later scrapped the plan for America? We present the information to Vic and ask if he knows anything about the rumoured Sister Sonic. His answers raise only more questions.

"I believe it is true because that is what I was told by the head of the consumer division at Sega of Japan. We were working on Vay at the time, and the company that developed that title – SIMS, an acronym for the last names of the company partners – was part-owned by him. He was in the building, and we got along quite well, so he decided to show me some games in-progress. Popful Mail had just been rejected as Sister Sonic at that point, according to him. He offered it to us. That deal then led directly to Dragon Force and Iron Storm. The Sega-Falcom partnership that produced Popful Mail was supposed to generate a number of additional titles but imploded shortly after Popful Mail was released for reasons I do not know. It's a shame, because if Mega CD Popful Mail is any measure, they could have done some great things."

Popful Mail had just been rejected as Sister Sonic at that point, according to him. He offered it to us. That deal then led directly to Dragon Force and Iron Storm

SIMS was founded in June 1991 as a joint venture between Sega and Sanritsu; Wikipedia claims it stands for "Soft development Innovation Multi Success", but as pointed out by GDRI, the original president of SIMS was Mamoru Shigeta; there is no evidence online as to the other partners. Vic never mentioned his name, but the gentleman he spoke with was almost certainly Mamoru Shigeta. We were unable to follow up with Vic on this, but given the Sega-Falcom version's lack of credits, and the way Vic described it, we wonder if SIMS had some uncredited involvement. As for the possibilities of what else Sega-Falcom could have achieved, in that same GameFan interview, Yano states they were working on a radically different version of Ys IV. It's a shame they never finished it, because both the SFC and PCE versions were excellent, and a third Sega-styled iteration would have been nice to compare.

Even though Sega-Falcom ultimately left the original game intact, Working Designs made some changes, and we'd be remiss not to discuss these. TCRF goes into great detail on the many changes to enemy stats, item prices, and everything else. There were a lot of numerical changes. Some fans in recent years have claimed the US release to be broken or unplayable – to play devil's advocate, although it is a difficult game, we were able to finish the original back in the day on actual hardware. It involved exploiting the mummies & gold bullion loop for infinite gold, but once you have the best gear and plenty of healing items, it's not that difficult. Still, we had to ask... Vic?

Popful Mail
Image: Nihon Falcom

"Yes. The Japanese one was far too easy, and there was no real challenge or strategy to any of the bosses," he replies. "In Japan, you buy a game and you own it. In the US, especially at the time, return policies were extremely liberal. To leave the game as-was would be to guarantee that a substantial portion of the games would be 'extended rentals' at our expense."

For anyone playing it today, it's simple to apply the 'Un-Working Designs' patch that reverts the stats to the Japanese original while retaining all the lovely English text and voice acting. Having cut our teeth on the Working Designs version, we agree with Vic – it's maybe too easy. Regardless, you now have the choice of either. For anyone determined to use an authentic disc, the Japanese version is playable despite the language barrier, as proven by Time Extension contributor Ashley Day. It's still a good time, as is the PC Engine version in Japanese, but there's a special magic you'll miss out on. For all the complaints Working Designs has received about script changes and inserting inappropriate humour into its games, with Popful Mail, it was a perfect match. More so than any other game Working Designs localised, Popful Mail was meant for comedy.

There were probably 20 actors, two directors, and the sound engineer. I did the writing also. Some people don't know that we re-scored the opening animation and provided all-new music for the title screen

"It was a big project at the time," recalls Vic. "I tried dual directors – me and Dean Williams – but that was a trial in and of itself. There were probably 20 actors, two directors, and the sound engineer. I did the writing also. Some people don't know that we re-scored the opening animation and provided all-new music for the title screen. The initial opening animation score we tried was a disaster. Took a couple of tries to get it right."

Given how well the localisation fits, we ask Vic how close the translation was to the original. "Pretty accurate for the main characters, as I remember," he says, before elaborating on some of the changes. "I do know we changed the name of Blackie to Slick. Blackie didn't fit the character look at all, and Slick tied in with the way he was always trying to be a smooth operator, yet getting into enormous trouble. Mail, Tatt, and Gaw were the same, though Gaw may have been Gau. The minor characters were definitely changed. There was no 'Clabberdeen Clotchsnyffer Leetzelwiffle Poopiewouffen von Venuncio Kraken Lichter Rachetface the 14th, Feudal Lord of Odorburg' in the Japanese version."

Vic says that, but actually, the Japanese version named this character "Lord of Rathenburg, Lietzenberg, Kreutzer, Bertrand von Eric, Lanzern IV", a name that required an entire screen of Japanese text. This is the perfect example of how and why the Working Designs localisation worked so well – the original was a silly name meant to elicit a giggle, but the English version took it to the next level, becoming hilarious and all the better for it. (Your comedic mileage might vary.) This is also why we advocate playing the localisation rather than the Japanese – in the original, you'll just see a wall of text and hear some unintelligible dialogue; maybe you'll gauge that this character is portrayed as ridiculous. But you won't appreciate the comedy like a native speaker. Just watch a few YouTube videos to see what we mean.

"There were so many great lines in that game," adds Vic, clearly as enamoured with the material as the fans. "Some still crack me up. The Nuts Cracker 'I think-a knocked something loose-a in-a my head... boomba, I think-a I'm dead' line was sampled for a song one of the employees in the studio was working on. Oh, and the guy who voiced Slick was Ashley Angel. He did Lunar later, then moved on to the boyband O-Town in the US. I believe he released some solo albums, too."

Shortly before Popful Mail was released, Sega of America was kind enough to announce the discontinuation of the Sega CD straight to the press. We found out about it there. Retailers were loathe to stock Sega CD titles at any depth after that announcement

Speaking of the dub, how well was it received? "Actually, it's one we get the most compliments on," reveals Vic, "...and one of my personal favourites. The tone of the game demanded a Working Designs-style localisation, and we went all out."

Upon release, all this hard work paid off, since reviewers loved the game. EGM scored it 8/8/7/8, describing it as "one of the best Sega CD games". GameFan, despite the interview with Yano and regular heavy preview coverage, seemingly never actually scored it in their Viewpoint reviews section – but they did award it the Best Action/RPG category in the Volume 3 Issue 1 (Jan 1995) awards section. GamePro's strange review system meanwhile scored it 4/5 for the 'fun' category. With such positivity, it must have sold phenomenally well, right? Actually, Vic, how well did it sell?

"Horribly. Shortly before Popful Mail was released, Sega of America was kind enough to announce the discontinuation of the Sega CD straight to the press. We found out about it there. Retailers were loathe to stock Sega CD titles at any depth after that announcement. We sold far less than 20,000 copies, a fraction of what we normally sold on an RPG title. Of course, the upside was that once word got out about how great it was years later, the price has risen steadily on eBay! <laughs> It really is the best of all Popful Mail versions, and one of the best games on the Sega CD."

He's certainly not wrong there, on any account. Popful Mail frequently makes the top 10 and even top 5 lists of the best Sega CD games, and copies have sold recently on eBay for nearly £600. As the only English language version available, and one of the funniest localisations of the era, we ask if we'll ever see it re-released, perhaps on modern platforms? "We own the rights to our voice acting and text for the US version," explains Vic, "but we'd have to re-license the game to release it elsewhere. I'd love to do it, and I think the recognition for the title is there now amongst the hardcore, but it would be a substantial amount of work."

Finally, we ask if there's anything else he'd like to share. Vic doesn't disappoint: "In the scene where you first meet Mumbles, played by John Truitt, pre-Ghaleon nickname, we slipped a fart into the mix when he turns. It's juvenile, yes, but it's something of an ongoing challenge to bury as many farts in games as we – the recording engineer and I – can, yet keep them unnoticed unless you know where to listen. Also, there's a great restaurant in Shibuya around the corner from where we did the final work on Popful Mail in Japan. It's called Katsukichi, meaning Cutlet Kitchen. If you're in Japan, check it out!" To our surprise, nearly 30 years later, the restaurant is seemingly still open, having outlived Working Designs.

Popful Mail is an odd little treasure. It was born amidst a maelstrom of corporate upheaval, patched together from other works, and despite finding a following, it never saw a sequel, instead being reiterated upon repeatedly. Sometimes the reiterations were in the guise of other games. Only one version left Japan, and it's unlikely to see an official release in English again (although it was considered significant enough. to be included in a Dead or Alive 5 Falcom costume pack in 2015). Its main period of existence was from 1991 to 1995, with only brief reappearances on mobile phones and Project EGG.

Popful Mail is many different games, but really it's also just one game that was remade many times.

This article was written using interview material from the Untold History of Japanese Game Developers trilogy, and also the fifth spin-off book. John Szczepaniak has been writing for over 20 years and would like to retire, but an ancient Faustian pact prevents him from doing so.