Million Onion Hotel is not a normal mobile game

With credits including Romancing SaGa and Shadows of the Damned to his name, Japanese developer Yoshiro Kimura may not strike you as the kind of guy to go indie.

When Yoshiro Kimura attended the Independent Games Festival at the Game Developers Conference in 2012, he found himself spontaneously crying a lot.

Beholding games like Spelunky and Fez, the self-described “Japanese videogame designer and traveller” experienced the same flurry of emotions that had overcome him during his visits to more than 30 countries. "When I feel the greatness of nature, it's the same,” he tells me. “The most important thing is diversity. Diversity between us, between animals – I love diversity. IGF had diversity, which makes me cry."

Kimura began his career working on the Japan-exclusive RPG series Romancing SaGa at Square, later producing No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned and Little King's Story – the latter of which he also directed. But by 2012 he was seriously contemplating quitting the industry, and if it weren't for that tear-jerking array of indie delights, he might well have made good on the idea.

“I didn't know this culture really, but their expression told me that you can make games and be free,” says Kimura of his IGF experience. “I felt that I could make my own game. It was a very free atmosphere."

Independent game development presented an enticing prospect for Yoshiro Kimura, who at 12 years old was already developing games to show off to his friends. "When I was at Square, I wanted to do the same,” he recalls. “I was working so hard for Romancing SaGa 2 and 3, and I loved it. I don't have any regrets. But at that moment, I felt frustration also. I felt like I could not make any impression here."

That desire to create something independently never abandoned Kimura, who in this “lonely” period of struggling to get his voice heard in a big company began to channel his ideas into one-man theatre productions. On stage, he would portray multiple characters – when explaining this, he affects an exaggeratedly high-pitched voice before switching to a gruff one. His motivation was simple: “I was just writing a story for myself and the people who came to the theatre."

The man charged with creating the posters for Kimura's plays was Kazuyuki Kurashima, and the pair would later reprise their working relationship on Moon: Remix RPG Adventure and Little King's Story. It's little surprise, then, that Kimura turned once again to Kurashima when returning emboldened from GDC 2012, with the aim of establishing an indie games studio. The musician Hirofumi Taniguchi was also enlisted, and the name Oniongames chosen as a teasing reference to Kimura's tearfulness.

Merely beginning to play with development tools like Unity helped Kimura “recover a lot" from his malaise, but things didn't move quickly for Oniongames. “It was really slow, and after IGF I couldn't make the games I wanted, but I did gather my friends together again,” he enthuses.

"In that moment, 2012, I was very interested in mobile games. I could have made a console game again, but I didn't have much money or many people. I was thinking, how can I make small games with a small team?"

One idea that emerged at the prototype stage was for a whack-a-mole style game, which used the Oniongames logo – a cute pixel onion with eyes – as the primary target. That simple concept formed a solid basis for Kimura, and it didn't take long for him to flesh things out.

"Suddenly I thought: whack-a-mole, but I can add strange new rules, and a story, and then I'll be able to show my strange world again," he says. Specifically, this world revolves around a doctor and his mysterious hotel, and a magical onion soup that sends guests on intergalactic journeys. “This idea rush came to me in only one hour, and I started to draw and draw," Kimura adds.

But while the ideas flowed readily, the game that became Million Onion Hotel – despite being among the selected games at Indiecade 2014 – didn't launch until October 31st this year. And in the years since Oniongames began work on the project, Kimura identifies major shifts in the mobile games market that are now giving the studio headaches.

One of the many cards in the game, translation provided by everyone's favorite game critic Tim Rogers. One of the many cards in the game, translation provided by game critic and developer Tim Rogers.

"Million Onion Hotel has a contradiction: this is a pure videogame, but the people who love videogames want to play on PC, Switch or PS4,” he argues. “I want to make these people play on mobile."

"Four years ago, it was possible. People were feeling the possibility that maybe smartphones can be a platform for proper videogames. But now, I feel that people think of smartphone games as casual – almost everyone thinks like this."

Fighting this perception has been difficult for Kimura, who says that getting press attention for Million Onion Hotel has been an uphill battle of the kind he's never experienced before. "This is not Clash of Clans or something,” he states. “I want to hear the opinions of core game players, who love Nintendo; who love Sonic. I'm really interested in what they will say."

As someone who broadly fits into that category, I have nothing but good things to say about Million Onion Hotel. It's a lovely example of what can be achieved with a little layering atop a basic concept, with the addition of enemies that require multiple taps, move around, or split into several smaller targets, all combining perfectly with a combo-based scoring system to make this more than just a reflex test.

Elevating it further is the bizarre story that is sandwiched in brief vignettes between this frantic action, new scenes unlocking story cards that provide more background on the hotel's oddball residents. These cards feature some spectacular writing, as translated by game developer and critic Tim Rogers. One boss is described as a “Domestic onion robot intended to grow crops in wasteland regions,” while the card for the Space Cow features the following sage advice: “If you are troubled think about cows.”

Best of all, however, is that Kimura has found a way to get his unfiltered ideas in front of an audience, just as he was working towards as a 12-year-old hobbyist or an experimental stage performer. When I ask whether developing Million Onion Hotel evoked these same feelings, he immediately brightens. "I must say yes,” he enthuses. “It was like childhood: just between me and the player."

Million Onion Hotel is available now for iOS and Android devices.