It plays like Mario Kart and it looks like … well, it looks like nothing you’ve probably played before.
“Gensou Skydrift” is a classic kart racing game designed by some of the people who worked on Nintendo’s “Mario Kart Double Dash.” But instead of controlling Nintendo characters driving karts, players control a pair of young magical Japanese women who take turns body surfing one another and casting spells to slow down their opponents.
The odd game is just the latest in an expanding batch of titles curated by a small team of video game aficionados working at Sony Music’s little known game publishing label Unties.
“Sony Music does tons of other publishing in Japan, not just music,” said John Davis, a G&R at Unties. “They do anime, manga, magazines, digital publishing online and in the 90s they actually published a lot of games for the PS One.
“So this is kind of like a resurrection or resurgence of that publishing label under a new name.”
Unties has published five games in the year and a half that it’s been around, starting with the well-received real-time strategy title “Tiny Metal.”
So far a big part of Unties work has been publishing games connected to the Toho Project, a collection of games that share a fictional world created by Jun’ya “ZUN” Ota. The games, many of which were originally shoot-em-up bullet-hell titles, star the same group of protagonists.
“Around three of (our publishes games) have been Toho games,” Davis said. “They’re an underserved market both in Japan for regular consoles and especially in the west where it’s just not available. So it seemed like a really good way to start.
“Of course, there are tons of Japanese indies, but this is kind of a different side of that, that people don’t see. It really stays in Japan most of the time and doesn’t make it to the west. So I think it’s a good way to make a splash and show Japanese devs that we’re serious about bringing their games to the west and also show western fans that we are going to bring content that they’ve never seen before or hadn’t previously had official access to.”
Unties resurgence in 2017 came at a time when a group of folks at Sony Interactive was growing tired of creating games that would only appear on Sony products, Davis said.
“Everyone saw the writing on the wall with the Switch in 2016,” he said. “And 2017 was a great year for the Switch. So they were like, ‘Well, let’s do something more interesting. Let’s do more indie games for all platforms.’ And the head of Sony’s Indie game department basically left and said, ‘All right, I’m going to go over to Sony Music, and do everything here.’ Sony interactive was like, ‘Fine, you know, it’s up to you guys.’”
The timing couldn’t have been better, Unties reformation came at a time when other major platform holders — like Microsoft — were becoming more open to the notion of publishing on competitive systems. It’s also a time when interest in indie games — especially indie games from outside of the west — is on the rise.
“As indie games continue to blossom it seems like there is much more openness and willingness both from a publisher and developer side and from a gamer side to accept games that are more culturally relevant to different cultures,” Davis said.
Developer illucalab’s “Gensou Skydrift” is a prime example of that. The game’s core mechanics — which has you racing around tracks and taking out opponents with abilities — feels very much like “Mario Kart Double Dash,” but the game still has the rough edges and look of a PC-developed indie game. Perhaps its biggest attraction will be that it taps into an esoteric bit of Japanese culture that rarely sees wide release outside of Japan.
Davis himself has quite a history of working with independent developers in Japan, he even helped start the Bit Summit, a Japanese-focused indie festival held each year in Tokyo. That’s all experience he leans on when helping to find the sorts of game Unties will publish.
“I’ve like had my eyes on independent games focused in western Japan for the past four or five years pretty steadily,” he said. “So I kind of try to find games that I think are interesting, but it really varies.”
Davis and a team of fix or six other people spend a lot of time hunting down games that they publish through Unties.
“We sit down and then I’ll bring some games or one of my cohorts will bring some games and we’ll go sit and play them and decide like, ‘OK, is this something that we think is going to work in Japan or is it going to work in the West?’”
The result is decidedly eclectic.
At PAX East earlier this month, Unties line up of upcoming games included a virtual reality rhythm game, a mech action game created by some of the people behind the legendary “Armored Core” franchise, “Gensou Skydrift,” a local multiplayer, “couch” game, and two old-school action games.
Davis has high hopes for “Skydrift” when it hits this summer.
“I hope this crosses over beyond the Toho fans,” he said. “I think the gameplay is tight enough, the drifting feels good, you know, and it’s just so outlandish that perhaps people who aren’t Toho fans will get into this.”
As our conversation wraps up a would-be fan — a man standing off to the side watching “Gensou Skydrift” loop through its demo over and over again with a perplexed half smile on his face, interrupts us with a single question directed at Davis.
Davis laughs and says “It doesn’t matter why man. Just enjoy it.”