For a country that was the epicenter of video games (and, in many ways, still is), Japan never quite latched onto the MMORPG genre the way that Korea, China, and the west did. Compared to other regions, Japan only produced a handful of significant titles. Granted, one of those was Final Fantasy XIV, which has a few admirers, but it’s not like the country was stumbling over its feet in a rush to jump onto this online RPG bandwagon.
Because of this, I feel that the Japanese MMOs that were created, especially the ones from the 1990s, are particularly fascinating. One of these that I came across the other day is yet another title that probably none of us knew about, yet did make an honest attempt at bringing online gaming to the country. Today we’ll be looking at Dark Eyes, an MMO that could’ve been something more if SEGA had only had more faith in it.
The studio behind Dark Eyes, Nextech, was founded back in 1992. It was the kind of developer that would take contracts to make games that other companies owned. Eventually, Nextech was acquired by SEGA in 1997 and worked on titles such as Dino Crisis, Resident Evil Code: Veronica, and the Time Crisis series.
However, Nextech did kick off its own franchise right before the turn of the century. The studio developed, published, and launched its own MMORPG in Japan called Dark Eyes. The MMO went live on February 24, 1999 for the PC, netting at least three thousand players on a server according to PlayerOne magazine.
What we actually know of Dark Eyes is extremely limited and in danger of being completely lost to the long corridors of history. From the few screenshots that still exist, we know that it was an isometric fantasy title in the vein of Lineage or Ultima Online. Players could venture out into the world on foot or horseback, fighting while keeping their three resource bars — HP, MP, and SP — as full as possible.
I’ve always felt that the sprite MMOs from the ’90s have aged so much better than their 3D counterparts, and I have no doubt that in another universe, Dark Eyes would still retain a fan base to this day.
However, two factors conspired against Dark Eyes at the very time when it could’ve exploded onto the scene. The first is that SEGA never showed an interest in porting the game to other regions, even as the MMO industry was exploding in popularity at the time. The second is that the game’s best shot at superstardom was inexplicably shot down.
During the year of Dark Eyes’ release, SEGA announced that it would be bringing the title over to its newly launched Dreamcast console. With the Dreamcast’s built-in modem, there was at least a possibility for MMOs to exist (and, in fact, did with Phantasy Star Online).
Unfortunately, this never happened. Whether it was because SEGA got cold feet with the concept or because of the Dreamcast’s legendarily quick fall from grace (SEGA discontinued the console in the spring of 2001), we’ll never know. Either way, the end result was that Dark Eyes didn’t get to expand and apparently petered out on the Japanese scene.
Nextech didn’t quite give up on Dark Eyes as a potential franchise. While the studio didn’t come out with any more MMOs, it did spin Dark Eyes off into at least two more titles (Millennium 2000 and BattleGate) which came out in the early 2000s.
It’s certainly frustrating that the only public records of Dark Eyes are passing mentions of an MMO without giving us much in the way of game details, development history, or community stories. But perhaps it’s enough to know of its existence — and to be tantalized by those two great words, “what if?”