NOTE: This is an editorial piece by Timothy MacKenzie. The comments and views expressed therein do not necessarily represent Project COE as a whole.
Chances are, in one popular media site or another, you’ve read a statement that either implies or outright proclaims Japanese game development is irrelevant. During this generation, there has been a growing sentiment among gamers (particularly those in the United States), that Japanese game designers no longer “understand” what it means to create a quality game or that the torch has officially been passed to Western game developers. The glory days of Japanese gaming on the Super NES and PlayStation have given rise to a swath of popular Western IPs like Uncharted, God of War, and Call of Duty. There is truth to that. Mainstream gaming appeal in the West is undeniably strong, thanks to a flurry of excellent content, new IPs, new risks, and new strategies. However, I do find fault with saying another country’s contributions are entirely irrelevant.
I’m here to tell you that to dismiss Japanese game developers is not only misguided, it’s just plain silly. I’ll give you full disclosure here: I’m a huge gaming nerd. I’m also a fanatic for Japanese gaming, animation, and culture. Yet I still take issue with the pervading sentiment that Japanese gaming is doomed–I’ll tackle each point, one at a time.
“Japanese companies just don’t matter anymore!”
This claim is false. There is simply no other way to approach it. While gamers can choose to spin this statement, and chances are some media analysts and journalists have chosen to embrace this mantra, the fact remains that two out of the three major current hardware manufacturers are of Japanese origin. Sony and Nintendo are not exactly bit players in the video game market either. This would be a different case if Microsoft was utterly dominating the market share, but that’s far from the truth. The fact remains that it was the Wii that “won” this generation and Sony’s performance is far from shabby. When “Nintendo” and “Sony” remain has viable terms in the gaming zeitgeist and characters like Mario remain a huge part of gamer culture, I take issue with the notion that Japanese gaming no longer has any importance.
Critics of Japanese game companies will obviously point to the lagging sales of the Nintendo Wii (and the slow start of the 3DS, which has resulted in a loss for Nintendo) as a sign of a decline in hardware relevancy. However, the 3DS has performed far better than other noteworthy failure, the Virtual Boy. It has also performed better in the first eight months of its life than the Nintendo DS did in its entire first year. In the case of the 3DS though, sales have surged dramatically since the drop and it is far more probable that the system will have a healthy, profitable lifespan once even more respectable software begins to hit the system. This is already evident thanks to the appearance of Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7.
Sales of the Nintendo Wii have been lagging, and thus critics have pointed to a drastic decline in Nintendo’s stock. Remember that the Wii launched back in 2006. The system was never intended to last for a 10-year life cycle. Besides, the fact that the system is finally slowing down in sales after about 5 years probably has less to do with Nintendo being in big trouble, and more to do with the fact the Wii has reached a saturation point. It has sold exceptionally well during its lifetime, so wouldn’t it stand to reason that at some point, the market will just not need anymore of said product because everyone already has one? Even with the lagging starting performance of Sony’s Vita machine, we still have to accept that the game public has a strong interest in these game consoles. Many of the problems we attribute aren’t because Microsoft is “crushing” the competition or because there isn’t any room for Japanese games or consoles…it’s a fundamental shift in our views on platforms in general. I think it just goes to show the strength of these game platforms that they’ve managed to hold such strong appeal for so long, staving off attention even from the burgeoning smart phone market. The shift we are seeing in attention is not representative of a decline in quality from Japan-there are still excellent titles produced there. It’s a shift caused by a number of other trends.
“Japanese games suck. Western games are better.”
This is another claim that gamers tend to make, but critics can be guilty of too. Making a base generalization or semantic all-ness statement is something that everyone is guilty of, but it’s still fair to point out that this generalization is simply false.
Throughout the history of video gaming, Japanese-developed games have had a huge impact on both the progress of the industry and the development of video games in popular culture. Japanese companies like Nintendo have such an amazing amount of “soft power” that it’s impossible to ignore. Nintendo products have disseminated around the world and have become staples of popular culture. Super Mario can be seen on t-shirts, candy, belts, and more. Poke’mon is a massive worldwide phenomenon. The Legend of Zelda also commands a huge fanbase and its influence has extended far beyond the sphere of video gaming alone.
Super Mario Bros. defined side-scrollers for generations to come. Super Mario Bros. 3 further improved on the formula and is considered one of the best platformer games of all-time. Super Mario World re-introduced the series for the Super NES and garners as much love as its predecessors. Super Mario 64 helped usher in 3D platformers with its impressive controls, immersive gameplay and colorful visuals. SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog was one of the most popular game characters of the 90s, and was at one point considered more well-known to US audiences than Mickey Mouse. Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2, and 3 are frequently cited in best games of all time lists.
Metroid introduced an innovative and interesting spin on 2D adventure games. Super Metroid brilliantly refined Nintendo’s formula from the Metroid series and is sometimes referred to as one of the best games of all time on game media lists. The Legend of Zelda defined adventure games for generations to come. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past further developed the series and introduced many of the series conventions. IGN recently named it the best Super NES game of all time. Ocarina of Time has broad acclaim and has consistently received perfect ratings. Skyward Sword is in a similar position.
Dragon Warrior streamlined the Dungeon-and-Dragons style role-playing game format and is considered the “grandfather” of the Japanese RPG genre. Final Fantasy brought forward more conventions that defined RPGs for years to come, like with its job class system. Final Fantasy II/IV was an amazing step forward in character progression and narrative storytelling video games. Final Fantasy III/VI went one further, and VII is almost single-handedly responsible for the explosion of JRPGs in the PlayStation generation. There are almost too many other noteworthy JRPG franchises to name: Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Vagrant Story, Parasite Eve, Tales, Earthbound/Mother, Suikoden, etc.
Street Fighter II was not only responsible for the popularity of arcades and the fighting game genre in the 90s (sparking competitors such as Mortal Kombat and King of Fighters), the series has also commanded a huge following in the tournament scene. Street Fighter III: Third Strike defined competitive tournament play and Street Fighter IV re-introduced the fighting game genre to mainstream popularity. The vast majority of fighting game series: Tekken, Virtua Fighter, Dead or Alive, Soul Calibur, Guilty Gear, King of Fighters, BlazBlue, etc, are all the creations of Japanese companies.
There are literally hundreds more that could be named. Metal Gear Solid practically invented the stealth action genre. ICO and Shadow of the Colossus command a great deal of critical acclaim. Okami was a fore-runner for Game of the Year in 2006. Cave Story is a major indie-game success story. To ignore these games and their relevance is insulting. Granted, there are many poorly executed or just plain bad Japanese-developed games, sure. But there are plenty of awful Western games too.
“Well, Japanese games USED to be good. There aren’t any good ones anymore.”
This is another unsubstantiated claim. It can easily be disproven by casually throwing out names of critically well-received games: Super Mario Galaxy, Valkyria Chronicles, Professor Layton, Phoenix Wright, Bayonetta, etc. There are many great Japanese games across multiple platforms and various genres. There are still many talented and respectable Japanese developers that still take prominent roles in game design. Let’s not forget that many great Japanese games have come out in 2011, including: Catherine, Shadows of the Damned, El Shaddai, Ghost Trick, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time 3D, Super Mario 3D Land, Pokemon Black/White, Ys Chronicles, Dragon Quest VI Realms of Revelation, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, King of Fighters XIII, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, Okamiden, Arcana Heart 3, Sonic Generations, Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten, Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, etc.
There is, however, a noticeable trend that is most likely responsible for the generalization that Japanese gaming doesn’t have a large presence on current generation platforms. The PlayStation 2, Nintendo DS, and PlayStation Portable were, and still are to some degree, popular platforms. This was and is especially true in Japan, where those platforms excelled even beyond their insane success in the United States. As of January 31st, 2011, the PlayStation 2 has sold 150 million units worldwide according to 1up’s reporting. Because of the popularity of these platforms in Japan, Japanese companies chose to spend more time and resources on development for them. Some gamers may question why Japanese software companies didn’t jump ship as quickly into the HD market.
Pretend that it is the year 2005. The Xbox 360 has launched and the PlayStation 3 is on the horizon. You are an executive in a Japanese company. Do you stick with the incredibly popular PlayStation 2, which represents a huge market share and has a large fanbase? Or do you gamble on a brand new system, from a company that is unpopular in your country, which has very little market penetration? The third option is to wait and develop a game for the PlayStation 3. However, game development costs significantly more on the PS3 than the PS2, and again, PS2 has the legacy behind it.
Handheld systems also have a huge following, especially in Japan. They are easy to develop for and do not require as large an investment as an HD console game. Japanese companies did not shy away from HD consoles because they are afraid of competition or because the developers lack ability; such a claim is silly. It was a conscious choice.
We also need to consider that mainstream appeal and popularity are not always synonymous with quality.
“Japanese-developed games are too simple and linear. Western games have more depth and complexity.”
Supporters of this claim tend to point to Western-developed role-playing games versus their Japanese counterparts. It is plain to see that games like Fallout 3, Mass Effect, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion do offer more depth and customization than, say, Final Fantasy X, Baten Kaitos, or Tales of Symphonia (all of which are great games). The main problem isn’t necessarily that a game is more or less linear than another. The problem is that we’re projecting a negative context onto one end of the spectrum and glorifying the other side. My argument in return is that customization, or lack thereof, is not an immediate indicator of quality. A simple game can be great. A complex can be bad. It depends on how the game elements work and if the game manages to make the player feel satisfied. There has to be a sense of autonomy (being able to play without feelings of restriction, within reason), viable rewards for any risks taken (i.e. challenge and satisfaction), and a sense of mastery (feelings of accomplishment).
BioWare’s Mass Effect series is noteworthy because it allows players to choose uniquely tailored responses in dialog, customize the lead character’s gender, appearance, and behavior, and so on. This innovation is far from new though. Even JRPGs have used this feature to some degree, an example being the fame system and dialog trees in Skies of Arcadia. These features are meant to evoke a sense of immersion, or a feeling that the player is actually “there,” in the shoes of the main character. This does not, however, automatically make the game “better” or “worse.” It depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. If the inclusion of dialog trees immediately means a “better fantasy game,” then by that logic, a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book would be better than Lord of the Rings. See? Contextualization is key to discourse. I can just as easily dismiss Mass Effect by framing it as a bunch of sidequests all loosely connected to an end goal with some morality choices tacked on. Sounds a lot less impressive when framed in a negative context, huh?
Japanese development company ATLUS has proven that they can provide an excellent spin on the RPG genre with the Persona series. Persona 3 and 4 both combine elements of character building and player preference-fueled customization options with typical Japanese role-playing game conventions. The player takes the role of the main character and can shape the game experience around his or her preferences: this takes the form of joining clubs, interacting with characters, forming and refining relationships, and managing activities. The battle system and general “style” of the game embrace the developer’s heritage, resulting in both satisfaction and familiarity (turn-based menu-driven battle system). It’s not these elements on their own that establishes the game as “good” or “bad,” but how they work together to engage the player. This can be seen as a hybrid approach between both the typical JRPG and the typical Western design approach.
However, there still is nothing “wrong” with having predefined characters and responses, as long as they are engaging and easy to like. Chrono Trigger has resonated deeply with fans because of excellent character design and character development. Fans are easily able to identify characters by their unique mannerisms and behavior. For example, who will you remember more vividly: Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII or your custom avatar from Oblivion? Western-role playing games tend to feature “blank slate” characters, where the player is encouraged to explore the game world and assume the role of the protagonist. In Japanese role playing games, the general trend is to put the player in the role of a fly on the wall. Perhaps the best example of this is Baten Kaitos, where the player assumes this role almost literally. Rather than actually play as the main character, the player is a subtle guide, who never physically manifests in the game world.
The prominent trend in Western-developed role-playing games is to give the player a heightened sense of immersion, evoking the sensation that “you” are the hero or anti-hero. Again, look at Fable, Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, and Fallout. I am in no way asserting that these are bad games. Far from it. They are fantastic. However, gamers should recognize that the degree of customization is a conscious design choice. Valkyria Chronicles has a set of pre-defined characters and a script that the player is unable to meddle with. The lead character, Welkin Gunther, has a set base of values that do not change regardless of what the player desires. This does not make the game any worse than the aforementioned titles though. It just makes it a different kind of experience.
I’m not implying that all JRPGs are immediately exempt from criticism because of the differences in design philosophy either. There are some Japanese-developed games that just missed the mark for whatever reason, whether it’s shoddy dialog (Star Ocean: The Last Hope) or somewhat poor execution (Resonance of Fate). Few other genres have attracted so much venom during this console generation, especially in reaction to the disappointing HD debut of the Final Fantasy series. However, it’s more than fair to point out that genre, as a whole, still has a lot of potential and should not be dismissed so casually. Xenoblade Chronicles, which was released in Japan and the UK and is gearing up for releasing in the US, has garnered massive critical acclaim. Other JRPGs from this generation, including Eternal Sonata, Tales of Vesperia, and Lost Odyssey, have also received positive praise.
Another common complaint is how gameplay concepts are implemented. Namely, Western developers opt for real-time combat, while many prominent Japanese role-playing games still have turn-based battle systems. Many gamers consider this element a “flaw,” but the truth isn’t so simple. Utilizing a turn-based system is a conscious design choice, which is not good or bad by itself. It depends on how well the game utilizes the system and if it manages to be enjoyable. Are Dragon Quest VIII and Lost Odyssey great games? Absolutely. The turn-based system is not a flaw for people who enjoy that classic style of play. It is clearly an issue that can be interpreted as a matter of preference.
“The Japanese don’t know how to make the industry move forward anymore. Western developers are far more innovative and artistic.”
I would never downplay the success of the developers behind innovative games like Portal 2, LA Noire, or Heavy Rain. They are great game experiences. Go play them. Enjoy.
I will, however, dispute the claim that Japanese developers “don’t know how” to make the industry move forward. That’s nonsense. They’ve done so many times in the past and demonstrate the ability to do so still. Entire genres owe much thanks to Japanese-developed games. Take a look at the action genre. Games like Dead Space and Gears of War owe a large debt of gratitude to Shinji Mikami and the rest of the development team behind Resident Evil 4, due to the over-the-shoulder 3rd person camera angle and impressive action gameplay. I would go so far as to say that without Resident Evil 4, Gears of War and Dead Space probably wouldn’t exist; at least not in the form we know them today. Critics may argue that games like Gears are more inspired from the Unreal games, but compare the gameplay between those games. Even in one of the only 3rd person shooter games in the series, Unreal Championship 2, the perspective, controls, and gameplay are significantly different.
Games like ICO and Shadows of the Colossus have garnered special attention for their unorthodox and artistic approach. Catherine transcends genres. Japanese developers have even been willing to explore genres rarely touched by Western developers. A great example of this is the “Visual Novel/Adventure” genre, which focuses on lengthy dialog sequences. The Nintendo DS has enjoyed a number of excellent visual novel/adventure games, such as Phoenix Wright, Time Hollow, 999, Hotel Dusk, and Professor Layton. All of these games have enjoyable stories, which range from family friendly (Layton) to mature (999), yet incorporate vastly differently progression and puzzle solving mechanics (finding lies in testimony in Phoenix Wright versus playing the detective in Hotel Dusk).
We know that Japanese developers have done quite a bit for the industry. But we’re not looking at another major flaw in the argument. The above claim insinuates that a game is only “valid” if it does something new, which is ridiculous. Games don’t need to constantly innovate or change boundaries, in the same way that film or literature can re-use common themes and motifs to make something enjoyable throughout the years. Super Mario made platformers fun in the mid 80s. What’s wrong with improving on the formula and re-introducing it for future generations? Super Mario Galaxy 2 didn’t have to dramatically change what is possible in video games for it to be regarded as one of the best games of 2010. Cave Story, the indie smash-hit, was largely inspired from Metroid and Mega Man, but is fun and worthwhile. It’s arguably the most recognizable indie game ever created.
Catherine is also an excellent step forward for game design. It’s probably one of the few mainstream console games I can point to that is specifically geared towards adults. Opponents of this claim will immediately cite the game’s marketing and then decree “it’s just selling sex to teens!” That is far from the truth. Catherine is actually an excellent game and has one of the best pieces of narrative in a video game. Lead character Vincent begins the game as a sort of thirty-something man-child. He slinks through life while avoiding responsibility. Once his girlfriend reveals to him that she is pregnant and wants to get married, his life spirals into chaos. At night, he’s plagued by terrible nightmares—which is where the game’s “puzzle” element comes in. Climbing the daunting towers of boxes isn’t there just to make Catherine into a tangible “game.” It’s there for a specific design purpose. It is a direct metaphor for tackling the hurdles in adult life. Vincent’s journey is all about taking responsibility and making a choice. The choices are ultimately up to the player, but the point is that the journey is all about having the courage to face responsibility. That’s a far more noteworthy story than a game that revolves around shooting bad guys in the face.
“Why don’t Japanese companies listen to US audiences?”
This is an interesting question to answer. There are many Japanese game companies, several of which have a diverse portfolio of titles. Capcom, Konami, Square-Enix, SEGA, and Namco Bandai have delivered vastly different gaming experiences over the years.
However, it is not quite true that they do not “listen” to gamers in the US at all. We can see that these companies have made large strides in Western territories, at least in some capacity. Capcom, for example, communicates frequently with fans via the company blog, Facebook, and twitter. Company representatives also interact frequently with fans at gaming events, tournaments, and more. Several of their games are directly in response to the condition of the Western market and some are made with a very specific “Western development” mindset. Dead Rising and Lost Planet especially exemplify this, along with the upcoming Dragon’s Dogma.
However, in the cases where the company “ignores” the US, the decision is not always unfounded. For example, Western gamers have given Square-Enix a lot of criticism over the announcements of Final Fantasy X HD. We wanted a Final Fantasy VII remake! Come on, Square-Enix, isn’t that obvious?
Well, let’s slow things down for a second, shall we? Remember how popular that these games are in Square-Enix’s native Japan. What exactly is wrong with developing a game with the motive of pursuing your own market and supporting the industry location that you belong to? It would be like criticizing BioWare for not making the games that Asian fans want most. It just so happens in this case that there are many fans worldwide who like Square-Enix’s games.
I’m in no way trying to give Japanese companies a “pass” for any mistakes made. Several companies have made moves I disagree with. For example, I’m personally annoyed with how Capcom has handled the Mega Man franchise and especially dissatisfied with how the cancellation announcement was delivered. I’m also angered by how Capcom has withheld content for Street Fighter X Tekken and is charging consumers to unlock content that is already on the disk. I’m annoyed with how Square-Enix is just sitting on a mountain of excellent IPs and developer talent but continually just plays it safe. However, Western game companies aren’t exactly totally immune to mistakes. Remember the horse armor DLC for Oblivion? How about the completely useless weapon skins for the Gears of War games? How about the total glitch-fests that are Dead Island and The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim? Or Duke Nukem Forever, which is now an eternal joke in the game industry? How about Western developers completely saturating the market in yearly sequels and needless amounts of shooters?
Here’s the bottom line: The truth is that the “future” of gaming will not be handled by one particular region. Gaming is a global phenomenon. We can all deliver great content that can drive the industry forward…that includes Japan. While the Japanese game industry doesn’t have the same economic might it had in the late 80s and early 90s, it still has a definite presence. Besides, not having a total command on the market doesn’t immediately translate into “completely irrelevant.”
What do you say? Do you have fond memories of Japanese developed games? Are there any upcoming games that you are excited for, like Gravity Rush, Resident Evil 6, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch or Xenoblade Chronicles? Do you think Japanese gaming is doomed?