This is an interview with RockmanCosmo on the subject of i-mode, a Japanese online service for mobile phones. And because we’re always on top of things, this interview was conducted literally on the day i-mode downloads were being shut down. Whoops!
Note: I have added links where relevant, but have not otherwise altered the text of this interview.
glmdgrielson: So, first off, outside of i-Mode, could you tell me a bit about yourself?
RockmanCosmo: I’m a very big Mega Man fan. I also run two scanlation projects that aim to scanlate the entirety of the Rockman DASH Daibouken Guide and Rockman DASH manhua. Both have never been translated into English before, and the Daibouken Guide especially has untranslated developer scribbles that will help give everyone greater insight into its development.
g: Interesting. So tell me, how did you get involved with i-Mode?
R: Last December, I was browsing Twitter and I came upon a video of someone playing Rockman.EXE Phantom of Network on a flip phone. Being a Mega Man fan, I knew about the Rockman feature phone games and how rare they were. I researched the phone model and contacted Protodude, who runs Rockman Corner, the most prominent Rockman blog on the internet. The phone was a BREW phone and ran on EZweb. Protodude invited me to a group chat, where I continued to do research on EZweb documentation. A member of the group knew somebody who had the EXE games on a similar feature phone. It turned out the EXE games were actually on an i-mode phone, and we were able to raise money to rent the phone indefinitely and have it shipped to a member of our team. Once we got the phone and started to get the EXE games off of it, I looked for people online who had expertise with feature phone extraction. I came upon a community called >Kahvibreak, and I found some very knowledgable people in its Discord server. That is when I truly discovered the hidden world of feature phone preservation and i-mode.
Even then, I was still mostly focused on the Rockman preservation projects. It was only in June 2021 that I learned about the i-mode website shutdown deadline. As months passed with no awareness being raised by gaming preservation organizations, I decided to write an open letter to them in September. I saw that all feature phone/i-mode projects were suffering from the lack of expertise, which was a result of this sect of preservation being largely overlooked by mainstream public.
For reference, Rockman.EXE is the Japanese name for the Mega Man Battle Network series, which consist of RPGs about cyber security and cyberspace.
g: And that’s how you found out about Hit Save!, I presume?
R: I had known about Hit Save before, but I was never involved with them. Someone told me that my open letter was posted in there, and that’s when I joined the server to contribute to further discussion.
g: And that’s where I found you to do this interview. So what happened next?
R: You referring to what happened after I released the open letter?
g: That and when you joined Hit Save for further discussion, yes.
R: OK. Before I answer that, I’d like to make a minor correction – I wrote the open letter in October, not September. Sorry for the incorrect month!
I contacted the Video Game History Foundation (VGHF), Game Preservation Society (GPS), and other prominent gaming preservation individuals at the end of October. Unfortunately, not many of them were responsive.
Most of the individuals left me on read, and the GPS initially ignored me. However, the VGHF got back to me, said that they wanted to put something out on social media, and asked me for resources that they could cite. I answered them promptly, but they didn’t get back to me for a week. I sent a follow up email, still nothing. They responded to my second follow up email (two weeks later), saying that their PSA should come out “soon”. I emailed them a third time two weeks later, they finally put out a PSA on Twitter.
With the i-mode website shutting down at the end of the month, the folks at Rockman Corner wanted to spread awareness for an important preservation project they're working on. DoCoMo's multimedia phone service, i-mode, hosted video games from dozens of well-known franchises. https://t.co/HpYlDqTjUd
— Video Game History Foundation (@GameHistoryOrg) November 17, 2021
The GPS surprisingly reached out to me after its president saw my open letter in the Hit Save! server. I was able to speak to the GPS president and helped him kickstart a GPS effort to save as many games as possible before the deadline. Via a successful fundraiser, they were able to save 500+ games before the website shut down today.
Overall, my open letter reached more people than I would have ever imagined. I think it was successful in raising awareness among gamers and preservation organizations.
g: Today as in November 30th, 2021? …I picked a heck of a time to interview. So how did the archival go? Any idea how complete it is?
R: As I had said, the GPS was able to download 500+ games. They’re being stored on SD cards, IIRC. There were around 200 storefronts still active before the shutdown, and I don’t know how many games were in each store. One thing’s for sure – what was on the store at the time of the shutdown is a small percentage of what there used to be. Publishers like Capcom and Taito already shut down their i-mode stores, so those games are left to linger on hardware.
And yeah, you picked a fitting day for an interview 😆
g: Gonna be quite awkward when I publish it though. Either way, any interesting finds you want to share from the archiving, if there are any?
R: The GPS will likely be giving out a list of games they’ve archived, so look out for that. They’ve downloaded all the Sega store games, so that’s pretty cool.
As for the Rockman.EXE project, we’ve got a progress report:
These two Rockman Corner articles are relevant, too.
Any kind of progress in these projects are “interesting finds”, since nobody’s gotten this far before. In a sense, we’re pioneers in a heavily undocumented ecosystem.
g: We’ve hit the point where it stops being archival and starts being archaeology. I suppose now is a good time to ask, just what was i-mode?
R: Prior to the advent of the iPhone, feature phones were incredibly popular in Japan. Major mobile providers like DoCoMo and au created dedicated mobile internet services to connect users to an assortment of utilities. The most prominent feature phone service at the time was DoCoMo’s i-mode service. Launched in 1999, i-mode was the world’s first true multimedia phone service. You could connect to the service to access a bunch of utilities, from weather to news to email. I-mode (and its competitors) also had proprietary storefronts to purchase and download video games. Each publisher would have its own game storefront on the i-mode website, which could only be accessed through i-mode compatible phones.
g: An interesting piece of information that I should have asked for at the start of this interview. Whoops. Anything else you’d like to add?
R: If there’s a takeaway from the massive loss of i-mode games, it’s this: it is important to raise awareness as soon as possible. What happened with i-mode in the past month is a result of not enough awareness being raised beforehand. For example, the GPS said in a letter to a Kahvibreak member earlier this year that i-mode wasn’t an emergency. After I spoke with the GPS president, he realized how urgent the situation was and regretted not taking action earlier. There are probably other niche sects of video games that I’m not aware of who need more awareness. Raising awareness to the general public helps small groups like ours find people with specific technical knowledge. Organizations and smaller groups should work together to spread the word; the organizations don’t have to take their own action – all I want is for them to spread the word to people who wouldn’t have known otherwise.
That’s a bit of a spiel, but I hope I was able to get my point across!
g: That’s fine, and I’m glad I was able to have this talk with you.
R: Same. Thanks for doing this! I’m glad that more people will get to learn about i-mode preservation and the lessons we can learn from it.
For those interested in more, the specific bird that you can use to yell at our interview subject is @RockmanCosmo.
It has since been revealed to me that the GPS got 876 games. Out of 3000. Eep.
– glmdgrielson, irritated about having to type an entire Google Docs link in all of its incomprehensible glory.