Studio profile: Strictly Limited Games

The first thing you need to know about Dennis Mendel is that he’s a big video game collector. Wireframe knows this because, when Mendel chats to us over a video call from his office in Stuttgart, Germany, we can see entire shelves of classic games lined up behind him. “Oh yeah, this is one of three rooms full of games,” he tells us. “Mega Drive, PC Engine, PC-FX, Virtual Boy… it’s the source – or let’s say the inspiration – for many of our products.”

Mendel’s passion for video games – particularly Japanese ones – is worth noting, because it’s what has driven Strictly Limited Games since he co-founded it in 2017. For the past three-and-a-bit years, the firm has specialised in putting out physical releases of both original indie games and updated takes on eighties and nineties classics.

And while Strictly Limited is far from the only company to put out short-run, physical versions of games – there’s also Limited Run Games, and the UK’s Super Rare Games, to name but two – Strictly’s games feel of a piece with one another, since they’re either directly from Japan or created by developers inspired by the country’s output. This means you’ll find the likes of Taito’s Bubble Bobble 4 Friends and Darius Cozmic Revelation sitting alongside Tokyo 42 and Velocity 2X in Strictly Limited’s back catalogue.

“My focus has always been on Japanese video games,” Mendel says. “I mean, the Japanese market brought the games industry back to life after the video game crash (of 1983). I love Japanese video games, and so we got in touch with many Japanese developers and publishers – that’s where we are now. We now have a lot of Japanese titles in our portfolio – some are from independent developers, and some are from more famous companies like Taito or Westone.”

Getting Started

Strictly Limited began life in 2017 as a conversation between Mendel and another avid video game collector, Benedict Braitsch. At the time, Mendel and Braitsch were work colleagues at a digital distribution firm in Stuttgart, when the pair talked about their shared love of physical games – and it was here they first thought of starting a publishing company of their own. They took the idea to their CEO, who liked it enough to give what would soon become Strictly Limited Games the go-ahead. “Benedict and I [began] this project basically like a startup within a company,” Mendel tells us. “It was just the two of us, so we couldn’t do any harm – it wasn’t a big risk. We started with a digital [game], Tokyo 42, from a UK publisher. And then every month we released a new title. At first, it was mostly indie games. And of course, we didn’t have a name at that time – we were completely new.”

Strictly Limited’s first release was SMAC Games’ gorgeous isometric shooter, Tokyo 42. It established the distinctly Japanese vibe Strictly would soon become known for.

Strictly Limited’s first direct contact with the Japanese games industry came about thanks to Mendel’s lingering affection for Umihara Kawase – a series of action platformers that began on the SNES in the early nineties, and whose cult following has grown steadily since. “This was our first title where we reached out to a Japanese developer with a game that I really loved,” Mendel explains. “I played it on Super Famicom, and then I had it on the PlayStation and PSP.”

Licensing issues meant that the original Umihara Kawase was firmly out of Strictly Limited’s reach, but after negotiations with developer Studio Saizensen, they were able to secure a deal to publish a physical version of the multiplayer spin-off, Umihara Kawase BaZooKa!. “[Toshinobu] Kondō-san – the CEO of Studio Saizensen and the creator of Umihara – he was so super-helpful,” Mendel recalls. “For us, one important point is that you speak Japanese… I think it’s so important to understand your partner in that specific territory. We explained that we would love to bring out Umihara in the west as a physical limited release. So he helped us a lot with creating those new masters that needed to be submitted, just to get this physical release out.”

Taito returned to its eighties back catalogue in 2019 with the surprisingly great Bubble Bobble 4 Friends.

With the release of Umihara Kawase BaZooKa! under its belt, Strictly Limited began reaching out to other Japanese companies, which eventually led to a pivotal meeting with Taito at the Tokyo Game Show. “It was around that time where [Taito] announced officially that they were going back to the home console business,” Mendel recalls. “And fortunately, they accepted our meeting invite. We talked about their great heritage, and about the titles they have, and how important it is to bring these titles to a western audience after that long sleep, shall we say.”

It was this meeting with Taito that led to the western releases of The Ninja Saviors: Return Of The Warriors, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, and Darius Cozmic Collection, while a similar deal with Japanese developer Westone led to Strictly Limited’s physical release of Wonder Boy Returns. What these releases all have in common is a lavish array of extras, including translated versions of the Japanese versions’ art books that provide a behind-the-scenes look at how the games were conceived. For Mendel, these extras are more than just pretty-looking filler – they’re a means of giving fans a perspective on game development that’s often overlooked. “When we saw the Japanese version [of the Bubble Bobble art book], we said, ‘We need to translate this and bring it to a western audience’. Because this is so important for understanding these titles – a lot of people don’t know how games get started. It’s another thing the industry hasn’t done that often so far, which is a pity. I mean, we have a few stars, like Kojima and Miyamoto, but beyond that, it’s just a black hole – the games are the stars, but nobody knows who created them.”

An early game from Digital Illusions, Ultracore (originally called Hardcore) might have vanished into oblivion without Strictly Limited Games’ efforts.

Like Clockwork

More recently, Strictly Limited has also begun reviving games once thought lost to time, beginning with Ultracore, a 2D action game developed for the Amiga and Sega Mega Drive by Digital Illusions (later better known as EA DICE), and continuing with Clockwork Aquario – an arcade action-adventure from Wonder Boy designer Ryuichi Nishizawa at Westone. Both were cancelled before release in the early 1990s, and left languishing in digital hell until Strictly Limited stepped in. Clockwork Aquario, in particular, acquired an almost mythical status among devotees of Japanese game history; after a couple of field tests in arcades, it was cancelled, and other than one or two pictures in magazines, little evidence of its existence remained. “I knew that it was tested in some arcades,” Mendel says. “They put an arcade machine in a video game centre, and tried to find out how people reacted to it. But it was bad timing, just like with Ultracore, because 3D games came up, and people were more attracted by [those] or fighting games. So [Aquario] got cancelled, even though it was a beautiful game with great gameplay.”

Having retrieved the original source code from Westone’s archives, the difficult process of finishing the game then began. “I was actually surprised that it wasn’t as finished as I’d hoped,” remembers Mendel. “But maybe this was because the source code was lying around for so many years – maybe it got corrupted somehow, because it was missing quite a few graphics… At that point, it was a big risk, because you put a lot of effort into something and you didn’t know how it [would] turn out. So we got the source code, and we put a lot of effort into getting it to run. And then after a few weeks, when I got the first working video of the game, I was completely flushed – I think I really had to cry. It was a big moment for me, because it’s a game that we were hoping would be great.”

With the help of its original developers at Westone, cancelled arcade action game Clockwork Aquario is finally getting a release this year.

For Mendel, preserving games like Ultracore and Clockwork Aquario is important work: he draws parallels between video games – a medium in its relative infancy – and cinema in the early 20th century, where hundreds of movies were lost due to a lack of preservation.
“It’s important that we’re not just another publisher, copying what others do, but going [the] extra mile and doing something different,” he says. “And one of the things we wanted to do was give something back to the community by seeking out titles like Hardcore or Aquario… we used the money that we earned to back some history. And it’s a bit selfish as well – I’d love to be able to say this is only about the history of games and game preservation, but of course, it’s also about me, because I love these games, and I want them back.”

The growth of Strictly Limited has more recently led to the founding of ININ Games – a separate, retail arm of the company devoted to putting out wider releases. As Strictly Limited’s name implies, its original aim was to publish short print runs of niche games; by setting up ININ, Mendel says, they’re able to push games to a wider audience – an example he cites is Turrican, a nineties series that was a hit in Europe, but less successful in the United States and Japan. “[We’re trying] to reach out to a broader audience with our sister company, ININ,” he says. “Because, for example, if you want a sequel to Turrican, we first need to spread the word about the history of Turrican and the quality of those earlier games. And if we’re successful in that, then we can talk about a sequel.”

Although available in more conventional retail boxes, Strictly Limited’s games also commonly come as lavish collector’s editions, like Darius Cozmic Collection.

The future of physical

As Mendel notes, the industry’s gradual move towards digital-only releases might imply that the days of physical games in boxes are drawing to a close, but he says that while console manufacturers have released driveless systems like the PSP Go or Xbox Series S, it’s the hardware capable of playing physical media that frequently sell outs more quickly. Besides, Mendel argues, owning physical games is very different from a digital game on a hard drive, which is essentially a licence that could theoretically be withdrawn at any time.

“OutRun vanished from Steam and other stores; After Burner vanished [too],” Mendel points out. “It’s logical, because [Sega] couldn’t get the licences for these cars and airplanes forever. But these games are so great. I bought them for my Xbox 360, but if my hard disk dies, or if Microsoft shuts down Xbox Live, then that’s it. This is really a terrible thing, and so many people aren’t aware of it yet… [But with physical games], you have those titles on your shelf. You can give them to friends. They make a nice present. A download code is completely different. Having these games in your digital library is super-convenient, but you don’t really have the same attachment to them.”

Here, Mendel motions to the colourful array of game boxes lined up behind him. “When I look at my shelf, taking out these packages, looking at the manual [and] the design, I get the impression that this is something important, something of worth,” he says, enthusiastically. “Whereas those downloads – it’s just an icon, nothing else.”

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