Is Japan losing touch with an industry they defined?

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I’m part of a generation of gamers that sometimes feels a little forgotten. Growing up in those early days of gaming we grew accustomed to a market dominated by the Japanese, their games a heady mix of stellar design, instantaneous gameplay and – more often than not – brutal difficulty. Mainstream contemporary game design has, for a long time, focused on more approachable, consumable and – dare I say it – casual design that doesn’t scratch the itch a lot of older gamers have.  Gaming trends have slowly begun circling back to those core values lately, with brave indie titles leading the charge, but these are western studios with western ideologies.

Japan have lost touch with an industry they defined. There are, of course, exceptions – more on those later – but for the most part Japanese developers are struggling to stay relevant in a world transfixed by twitchy shooters, mobile gaming and the action RPG. The last decade has seen Japan struggling to find their place in an market that seems to be outgrowing them – or at least, going in a seriously different direction. Strange then, that in our modern era of international gaming we’ve seen far more Japanese titles translated and brought stateside than we were ever used to previously, though many of these titles fail to resonate with a western audience – or worse still, are simply bad.

In 2012 Fez developer Phil Fish took a lot of online flack for a comment he made at a screening of Indie Game The Movie, where he told a Japanese game developer “your games just suck.” His reputation never really recovered, and he eventually quit game development altogether thanks to incessant online heckling, but was his comment that unwarranted? By 2012, Japanese games had lost a lot of what made them special, and whilst there are some shining exceptions, the majority of Japanese game development had lost that magic we all fell in love with, cross-legged in front of our CRTs. The very same magic, I’m sure, that Phil Fish grew up with. Unfortunately for Fish – and fans clamoring for Fez II – we shot the messenger.

by Dominic Hurr
A younger self, completely absorbed as I fought through Dr. Wily’s Castle. (drawn by Dominic Hurr)

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So when did this happen? When did Japan lose their stranglehold on an entire medium of entertainment? Audiences weren’t heavily invested in Final Fantasy one day and Halo the next. Western development isn’t new, either. Ralph H. Baer, the ‘father of videogames’, Allan Alcorn, developer of Pong (1972) and Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Inc., were all American. For comparison’s sake, Japanese developer Taito released Astro Race, one of the earliest domestically developed video games, in 1973. Japanese development didn’t really gain an independent spirit until games like Space Invaders (1978) and Donkey Kong (1981) launched much later.

It was the video game crash of 1983, when the market became oversaturated with shovelware and the west grew tired with video games, that Japan took the baton and ran with it, swiftly becoming the industry superpower we know today. People like Tomohiro Nishikado, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Shigeru Miyamoto lay the foundations to what would swiftly become one of Japan’s hottest exports: the modern video game. Their titles far outclassed western contemporaries, with a stunning sense of vision and scope that simply wasn’t available elsewhere.

The west soon returned to game development, no doubt spurred on by the excellent achievements Japan had made in their absence. With the west’s return an era of equality and competition began, one we hadn’t know before, or since. Whilst Nintendo made hit after hit for its Nintendo 64, Britain-based Rare Ltd. gave its own brand of adventure and action in titles such as Banjo-Kazooie and Goldeneye. The Sony Playstation, which played host to a golden age of Japanese RPGs, was also where Californian game studio Naughty Dog really took off with their Crash Bandicoot series. It was an exciting time for both developers and consumers. This trend continued into the early 2000s, with Japanese games making up over  50% of the global market. Today, that figure is less than 10%.

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Sega’s final console – the Dreamcast – was one of the last consoles whose library was dominated, for the most part, by Japanese titles. Though it died an early death in 2001, it remains to this day my favourite home console. It was one of the last times I truly felt the magic of Japanese game development in nearly every title on a system. Jet Set Radio blew me away with its art style, Capcom’s Vs. series kept my group of friends entertained night after night, and Shenmue changed my thoughts on what a videogame could be. It was an incredible time to be gaming, so it was heartbreaking when it was over before it had begun.

dreamcastdeadxbawksAt the same time that Sega bowed out of the console race – a tragedy that few saw coming – Microsoft took their place, entering the already crowded scene with their oversized XBOX. It was the first time  in a long time America had been a combatant in the console wars, squaring up to the Japanese in a turf that was now wholly their own.

When everything was Sony vs. Nintendo, nobody thought there was room for another contender. Microsoft, of course, proved to be an incredibly worthwhile competitor, and more than up the challenge. The Japanese, however, had – and continue to have – little interest in Microsoft’s games machines. Microsoft’s latest console, the Xbox One, still hasn’t launched in the land of the rising sun thanks in no small part to the terrible reception its forebears received.

Whilst the original Xbox eventually won the west over with titles like Halo, Fable and Ninja Gaiden,  the east stayed true to their inland loyalties, buying Japanese games for Japanese systems. The Playstation 2 is still the most commercially successful video game console of all time, and for good reason; it was the last bastion of truly excellent Japanese game design, and the massive library of stellar titles kept the PS2 relevant well into its successor’s lifespan, with developers and consumers clinging to it for so long that it actually negatively impacted the Playstation 3’s formative years.

Whilst the Japanese might have liked to see the Xbox, and later, Xbox 360, fail, these systems did not. Buoyed by a new wave of excellent western game development and exclusives that really resonated with audiences stateside, Microsoft was set to succeed. They hadn’t forgotten about Japan though, and MS did a lot to try to win that elusive market over. They bought big titles that would appeal exclusively to Japanese gamers, such as Tales of Vesperia, Star Ocean IV, Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, in the hopes of getting more 360s in Japanese homes.

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 Japan didn’t waver. After years of fighting the war in the east, Microsoft gave up trying to sell the Xbox to the Japanese, and even famously opted out of Tokyo Game Show in 2012. The console all but died over there. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Xbox One, Microsoft’s third console iteration, still hasn’t launched in Japan. (It’s set to hit their shores on September 6th)

losing the faith

keiji2In 2009, Keiji Inafune – one of Japan’s most well respected games developers – memorably declared the Japanese game industry dead, stating that his peers had become creatively bankrupt. He warned his peers that Japan need to think globally if they were going to succeed in the new, international industry they now found themselves in, claiming the east was “at least five years behind” its western competition.

With Japanese audiences rejecting western consoles and, consequently, western-developed games, this mind-set allowed Japanese developers to continue developing titles in an exceedingly introverted manner. Their culture’s rejection of the west fostered a xenophobic attitude towards game design, and allowed the Japanese to develop inside of a bubble. Inafune-san knew that, sooner or later, the bubble would burst. He wasn’t afraid to take his own advice, either, working extensively with western developers for many of his last titles with Capcom. Though these ventures didn’t always succeed, he knew that something had to change.

 In the winter of the following year, Inafune-san left Capcom, ending his twenty three years of employment with the company. It wasn’t the first time the development giant lost some of its visionaries. Clover Studios (formerly Team Viewtiful) , essentially a subsidiary of Capcom, developed a handful of excellent games over the three years they were active: Viewtiful Joe 1 & 2, Ōkami and God Hand. For my money, these are some of the best games developed in the last decade, with Clover being one of my favourite developers of all time, but Capcom weren’t as pleased as I was with the results. In 2006, strained by invasive corporate management, unreasonable sales targets and a reluctance to new IPs, Atsushi Inaba, Shinji Mikami and Hideki Kamiya resigned, and Clover Studios shut its doors for good.

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streetfightercabinetOne of Japan’s biggest developers with a massive catalogue of games, Capcom is currently going through an awkward transition, and serves to highlight the problems faced by most Japanese developers. Capcom are arguably butchering established franchises in a struggle to retain significance in an industry they don’t really recognize any more. They built their reputation on survival horror and fighting games, two genres that went unloved for a long time. The latter is doing better today, championed by Capcom’s own Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Street Fighter series. The fighting game scene has exploded, and this is down to concerted efforts from the likes of Yoshinori Ono – developer of the Street Fighter series and someone who knows the importance of classically inspired but thoroughly modern game design. Elsewhere, however, Capcom have lost their way. Their most important franchises faced with irrelevance, Capcom changed with the times. The slow, tense and terrifying exploration of Resident Evil gave way to a fast paced action series, Devil May Cry, Lost Planet and Dead Rising were exported to western companies to be developed out-of-house, and the beloved Mega Man was left on the bench (Keiji Inafune’s new studio Comcept would later rectify this by crowdfunding a spiritual successor called Mighty No. 9)

These moves mostly made money hand over fist for Capcom. Resident Evil 4, 5 and 6 sold millions of copies each (7m, 6m and 5m respectively) but the fact that the world was reacting positively to these changes was a worrying indicator in itself. Audiences were voting with their wallets that this was exactly what they wanted. Whilst other companies sank whilst sticking to traditional Japanese game design, Capcom were staying afloat by, essentially, selling out. Whilst they’ve managed to pull in new crowds, old fans have been left behind, bemoaning sequels to favourite series they barely recognize anymore. Familiar faces without anything substantial behind the mask. In their attempts to capture a broader audience, Capcom kind of became the zombies they left behind so long ago.

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Capcom aren’t alone in these practices either, though they are one of the most successful. Whilst they are a great example of Japanese game development as a whole, I’d like to briefly touch upon a few more names, titles and developers I fell in love with growing up. As such your mileage with the following paragraphs may vary.

 Square Enix – a studio mainly dedicated to the classic JRPG – have mostly focused on pumping out cheap mobile games for exorbitant prices, re-releasing nostalgia bait and publishing third party titles rather than develop anything new in house. Their biggest series, Final Fantasy, has stagnated, with minimal attempts to evolve. The big steps western RPGs have taken in the last couple of generations only serve to further highlight Japan’s resistance to change. The Japanese RPG has had a radical shift in recent years, from fashionable trendsetter to an industry joke. It’s a pun that is parodied tirelessly too, sometimes even by the Japanese themselves. Marvellous Entertainment’s Half Minute Hero (2009) was not only a commentary on the state of the genre, but a wicked game that proved the Japanese RPG can still be fun and gratifying. Sadly, it’s the exception to the rule.

Suda51 – one of Japan’s most pertinent developers – has begun to spiral as well, with an overreliance on how ‘weird’ Japan is in the hopes that this makes up for sub-par game design. Japan definitely has a flavour, and it’s this distinct difference in culture and values that makes Japanese games so engaging and interesting to a lot of outside audiences, but when it’s misused like this it becomes blunt, crass and unappealing.

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Even Nintendo, those leaders of gaming that we can always rely on, can be ass-backwards from time to time. Their latest console – the Wii U – whilst host to some brilliant games (The Wonderful 101 is still this generations best title to date), is a mess of a machine. Nintendo’s refusal to adhere to industry norms when it comes to what we expect from an online games console is nothing short of infuriating. There’s an awkwardness to their digital distribution and product ownership, whilst simple features like friends lists, online matchmaking and voice support are still struggling to catch up to standards that are nearly a decade old. Their first party games are nearly always instant classics, and constantly showcase that magic I spoke of earlier, but the foundations from the 1980s have gone almost unchanged. Good game design is timeless, evidently, but the formula is beginning to tire for those who have been playing their games for any length of time.

It’s easy for people like me to criticize, but Japan face an unenviable challenge if they wish to stay globally relevant. The industry is asking that they retain that fantastical, universal sense of fun they once effortlessly fostered whilst simultaneously changing a lot of core values within their titles. To do away with ancient mechanics – and the archaic portrayal and objectification of women, amongst other things – whilst maintaining the unique Japanese flavour that enamored so many of us growing up. Essentially, Japan are tasked with broadening their horizons and playing catch up in a way they’ve never had to do before, and it’s an uncomfortable position they may never recover from – not entirely.

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darksoulsDespite all this doom and gloom, Japan are by no means washed up. There’s a wealth of excellent titles coming from Japan that simply couldn’t be made anywhere else. Sega’s Yakuza series, for instance, has an incredible sense of cultural identity as well as being a stellar franchise. From Software is quickly making themselves a household name with their hard-as-nails sword-and-board Souls series. Visual Novels – a species of game the west are only just discovering – are finally coming stateside, with brilliant stories such as Zero Escape and Dagonronpa setting a great example of what the genre can achieve.

Elsewhere, PlatinumGames Inc. have risen from the ashes of the defunct Clover and have been making waves ever since. Founded by Mikami, Inaba and Kamiya and employing a host of ex-Clover members, Platinum got the band back together in a big way. They are, in this reviewers opinion, the best developer on the scene at the moment, consistently putting out hit games featuring classic sensibilities and blistering challenge.

Even the Japanese RPG is going through a resurgence thanks almost entirely to the wonderful efforts of the Persona games. The same team also developed the beautifully weird Catherine, which gets Japanese quirk down to a tee without abusing those cultural tropes.

These are the sweet spots, those shining examples of games with international appeal. Titles that are neither inaccessible to players outside of Japan or homogenized to the point where they no longer have cultural identity. Companies that are trying to reach broader audiences need to be supported, if only because they are attempting to bridge this gap. It’s a gap that has widened as games have become more complex, as the industry has matured, and its a formidable chasm to cross. With any luck – and with the right people at the helm – those franchises that have gone astray will come back better than ever.

Thanks to Sony’s commitment to region free consoles, and a bevy of new studios such as Rising Star and XSeed setting up shop for the sole reason to localize quirky Japanese gems, often more for love of the source material than the profit, we’re getting access to more games from the east than we’ve ever had before.  This is all great news. Being in the UK, I’ve had to watch countless games never make it to PAL regions. Growing up, I never played Earthbound, Xenogears or Chrono Trigger. If it weren’t for my aggressive importing later in life, I would have missed out on Katamari Damacy, Mother 3, Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy Tactics, and much, much more. For the most part, if it comes out anywhere today, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to play it without forking out too mush cash.

Whilst Japanese developers at large try to follow the success stories mentioned above and reclaim their relevance and quality the west is faced with an equally awkward position: trying to welcome back our forefathers of gaming and attune ourselves once more to their unique designs and themes after a generation of western-dominated game design. It’s up to all of us – as developers, critics, consumers, and most importantly, players – to help Japan find their place once again. If we don’t, we risk letting  some of the greatest minds and best loved series stagnate, or worse, die out altogether.

All of this is, of course, not to say western developers have it right either. We have our own problems, hang ups and obsessions. The entire industry is still relatively new and we are still figuring out what we want this videogame business to be about. There’s still a lot of promise just waiting to be discovered with our medium, and people from all over the world are getting things really right, and really wrong. As horribly trite as it sounds, we can learn from each other and make our hobby something more amazing than it already is. Gaming needs to be about good old fashioned rivalries again, not corporate takeovers, hostile buyouts and companies full of great ideas going under before they get a chance to release their masterpiece. Competition breeds excellence; in our attempts to outdo each other we become something altogether better, and isn’t that what we all want?

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