The Story Behind the All-Woman Team Who Invented the Otome Genre

Nearly 25 years ago, Ruby Party released the first romance-focused game targeted towards women.

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Mar 1 2018, 9:00pm

All images and photographs courtesy Koei-Tecmo

In 1994, a brand new type of game aimed at teenage girls, titled Angelique, was released for Super Famicom. Developed by the newly-formed team at Koei (now Koei Tecmo) known as Ruby Party, Angelique had players assume the role of a young high school girl who is selected to compete for the role of the future queen of the universe. Nine handsome male guardians who serve the current queen are sent to lend their powers to the protagonist. Enlisting aid from a guardian raises their affection level, while also helping the protagonist win the contest to populate her land with the most people. It’s up to players to decide whether to pursue a relationship with one of the men, or fulfill her celestial duty and become queen.

This game, marketed towards young women as a “romantic SLG” (romance simulation game), was the first of what we know refer to as “otome games.” Now, the genre is flourishing, with dozens of titles released in Japan for dedicated video game consoles every year, and countless more on mobile phones.

The “otome” of otome games comes from the Japanese word for “young girl” or “maiden,” referring to the intended audience for the genre. Consequently, Virgo in Japanese is the “otome sign” (otome-za), highlighting the virginal, pure connotations of the word and the genre’s initial emphasis on pure love as often depicted in shojo (girls’) manga at the time. Today, otome games are generally narrative-focused games aimed at women that allow players to pursue romantic relationships with multiple male characters.

Otome games can span thematic genres from samurai drama to sci-fi, and sometimes include RPG or simulation game elements. However, despite the fact that they have gradually gained popularity outside of Japan with titles such as Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom and Amnesia: Memories, there is little information in English about the ground-breaking development team that started it all.

Keiko and Yōichi Erikawa. Courtesy of Koei-Tecmo

Ruby Party was founded in 1990 at the suggestion of Keiko Erikawa, who helped found Koei alongside her husband, Yōichi Erikawa (pen name Kō Shibusawa), in 1978, and served as executive director of the company until 2002. After the release of Nobunaga’s Ambition in 1983, Koei only had one woman on its development team. Keiko Erikawa decided that there needed to be more opportunities for women in game development, and more games aimed at women.

Thus, in order to create a different game from a woman's perspective, Koei began recruiting women to helm a new team. However, in a Famitsu interview for the 20th anniversary of Angelique, Keiko Erikawa describes that due to the fact that few women at the time studied programming, they ended up hiring many women from humanities backgrounds. “It took a long time to get our female staff used to making games,” she said “None of the women we hired had any experience making games.” As a result, it took over 10 years after Koei started its push to hire more women before Angelique was released.

Though the story and characters were established early on, Keiko Erikawa reflects that “… It just wasn’t becoming a game. If you looked at it as a game, it just wasn’t fun at all (laugh).” It was her husband, Yōichi Erikawa, who brought his experience making games to Angelique to give it the hook it needed. Players would assume the role of a girl in a competition, gaining assistance from the guardians to populate their continent and potentially fall in love. Thus, the “romance simulation game” was born.

Angelique Retour, a 2015 remake of the original.

Even though Angelique was praised when it came out for being a new type of game for women, it wasn’t an instant hit. Koei had to find a way to introduce girls to this new type of game. Keiko Erikawa discusses that because of this, Angelique was envisioned as a “media mix” (similar to the western concept of “transmedia”) property from the beginning. Media mixes have historically been particularly prevalent in Japanese media, where a manga series is likely not just manga, but also adapted into anime, audio dramas, video games, licensed merchandise, and more.

Unfortunately, because the original Super Famicom release of Angelique didn’t support voice acting, the world and its characters couldn’t fully be conveyed through the game. Thus, tie-in drama CDs, manga, and events with voice actors filled in the gaps by adding more stories and voices to the characters. This served to draw in new players and better immerse existing fans in the world of Angelique, while also offsetting the lower sales of the game itself.

Angelique’s ties to manga run much deeper. To get girls who may have never played a video game interested in their title, Ruby Party used popular shojo manga aesthetics and tropes to appeal to their existing interests. The shojo manga influence was so strong, in fact, that the character designer, Kairi Yura, was instructed to make Angelique’s protagonist like Candy from the hit 1970s shojo manga Candy Candy. Thus, the game’s protagonist and namesake would be a cute girl with blonde hair and wear red, western clothing. Of course, her room would be pink. The guardians were inspired by Greek mythology, another recurring theme in shojo manga, and were brought to life by Kairi Yura’s ethereal illustrations.

Over the years, Ruby Party developed even more games under the Neo Romance label, which is used to indicate Koei Tecmo’s women-oriented titles. However, Ruby Party is so synonymous with the Neo Romance line that the names are often used interchangeably in promotional material. The most popular Neo Romance franchises include Harukanaru Toki no Naka de, a fantasy otome game series that includes RPG elements, and Kiniro no Corda, a otome game series that takes place at a music academy.

Mei Erikawa. Courtesy of Koei-Tecmo

Neo Romance is a relatively straightforward name, but what’s the story behind Ruby Party? Keiko Erikawa’s daughter and current executive director for Ruby Party, Mei Erikawa, said that the various meanings of “ruby” are important to the reason behind the team’s name. Known as the queen of gems, it symbolizes “passion,” and “pure” love; a perfect metaphor of the type of games they wanted to create. “Party” refers to a group of companions, such as a party in an RPG, indicating how the team itself is a party made up of ruby-like women. A fitting name for a team that would pave the way for an entirely new genre of games for fellow rubies!

While Koei Tecmo has yet to release any Ruby Party games in English, many of the tie-in anime and manga have been localized. In a 2017 statement to new Koei Tecmo recruits, Mei Erikawa said they are looking at developing new media mixes and properties for Asian countries. Does this suggest the possibility of English Ruby Party games in the future? An English version of Angelique Retour, the 2015 remake of Angelique for the PS Vita, would be the perfect opportunity to introduce the influential series to English-speaking otome game fans.

Keiko Erikawa says that Angelique and other Neo Romance games have inspired a new generation of women to enter science and engineering fields and apply for positions at Koei Tecmo. While the Ruby Party team does not exclusively employ women, it represents an early initiative to have women be more active in both the conceptual and development stages of video games.

In the 1980s, when corporate work environments were even less open to women, especially in Japan, Keiko Erikawa dedicated herself to introducing new voices into the game industry. Hopefully Koei Tecmo makes Ruby Party’s influential work available to international audiences now that otome games have developed a dedicated audience outside of Japan.

“There were some who who said, ‘The market is small. If you make games for women, they won’t sell,’” Keiko Erikawa reminisced. “But I thought, ‘The market is there.’ I’m glad I stuck to my conviction.

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