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(This blog was originally posted as an editorial at Gamers-Association.com)
It’s no secret that the Japanese video game industry isn’t doing too well. Many Japanese video games have struggled both financially and critically in recent years. Fez Director Phil Fish was the center of controversy last month when he told a Japanese developer that “your games just suck”. While he certainly could have said that in a more polite manner, he’s not the only one who thinks that. Both gamers and developers alike have criticized the Japanese video game industry for its lack of quality products in recent years. Even Japanese developers have acknowledged their problems. Hideo Kojima, the creator of Metal Gear Solid, had this to say on the matter:
“The designers and to-be-designers in the West have the focus, ambition, and ability to make their dream become true. So it is not the Japanese technology or culture that is losing, we are lacking motivation”. Kaz Hirai, the President and CEO of Sony, has said that “if something’s right for Japan, it’s probably not right for the rest of the world”. Also, Keniji Inafune, the former head of Research and Development at Capcom, said that “Japan is at least five years behind (the West)”.
Things aren’t going well for the Japanese video game industry to say the least, but things might not be as bad as they seem. In five of the last eight years, the highest rated game of the year has been Japanese (including this year). While you can always counter statistics with more statistics, I think that specific statistic is important to remember.
Another important thing to remember with the Japanese video game industry is that Japanese gamers tend to have completely different tastes than Western gamers. Monster Hunter is a huge system seller in Japan. It played a large part in the success of the PSP in Japan, and it is playing a large part in the success of the Nintendo 3DS in Japan. The Monster Hunter series sells like hotcakes in Japan, yet Monster Hunter Tri is the only game in the series that has sold over half a million copies in the US. In a similar way, the Dragon Quest series is very popular in Japan, but not very big here in America. While most Dragon Quest games sell well over a million copies in Japan, Dragon Quest VII: Journey of the Cursed King is the only game in the series that has sold over half a million copies in the US. Also, some obscure titles sell extremely well in Japan. A game called Dai-2-Ji Super Robot Taisen Z Saisei-hen was recently the top seller for the week in Japan. (No joke, that’s really the name.) If a game in the US came out with that title, would anyone buy it? In Japan, a few people didn’t just buy it, lots of people bought it! If a Japanese developer is making a game that he wants to be a hit with his home audience, it is almost guaranteed to look completely different from what an American developer might make if he wants a game to succeed in his own country. The difference in the Western market and the Japanese market is a huge part of why most Western gamers feel like Japan isn’t producing as many quality products as it formally did.
The Japanese video game industry has always been an industry filled with both quality and quantity. There has been a huge quantity of quality products released out of Japan nearly every generation. Japanese games usually define a generation. Games like Super Mario Bros, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Resident Evil 4, and Shadow of the Colossus defined their generation with their innovation. Super Mario Bros changed the way people viewed video games; Chrono Trigger changed the way people viewed RPGs; Final Fantasy VII changed the way people viewed video game characters; The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time changed the way people viewed video game exploration; Resident Evil 4 changed the way people viewed survival horror; and Shadow of the Colossus changed the way people viewed video games as an art form. While these games have many things in common, one big thing stands out (besides the fact they’re all Japanese). All of these games changed the way we viewed video games. Whether they changed the way we viewed video games as a whole, or the way we viewed a specific genre, mechanic, or feature, these Japanese games had a major impact on the industry. In the current generation, Japanese games haven’t made as obvious contributions to gaming. However, the contributions are still there. You just have to look.
Super Mario Galaxy is the highest rated game of this generation (According to Gamerankings). Critics and gamers loved it for its innovative platforming. Super Mario Galaxy was the next step in the evolution of the platformer. It’s one of the finest games ever made. Also, it looks great, even though it’s on a rather weak system. Even though it’s just 480p, Super Mario Galaxy amazed players with its great variety of colors. The developers knew that they didn’t have a strong system to work with, so they didn’t force anything. This is a great example of Japanese developers adapting to new obstacles. The developers knew they couldn’t go head to head with games that had HD graphics, so they didn’t. Instead, they gave it colorful environments to complement jaw-dropping platforming. Super Mario Galaxy changed the way we viewed platformers, while proving that Mario was still full of innovation after over twenty years.
Demon’s Souls was developed by From Software and was released in 2009. When it was released, it shocked critics and fans alike with its unforgiving difficulty. To say this game is hard is an understatement. This is probably the hardest game most people will ever play. However, it’s a fun game. When you die, you don’t feel cheated. The game rarely sucker punches you. When you die, it’s always your fault. Enemies have to be killed with careful planning. You can’t just mash a bunch of buttons if you’re going to be successful in Demon’s Souls. Through patience, strategy, and time, players eventually are able to traverse the game’s once difficult dungeons with ease. Demon’s Souls seems very Western at first, but that’s what I love about it. Demon’s Souls is proof that some Japanese developers are willing to forgo tradition for innovation. Demon’s Souls changed the way we view difficulty in games. It’s hard and punishing, but that’s what makes it fun.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was one of this generation’s most anticipated games. Many people wondered if this would be the definitive Zelda game. When it was finally released last year, it impressed many gamers with it’s fantastic motion controls. Most games that use motion controls come off as a gimmick. While some games were better with motion controls, there had not been any games that made gamers feel that motion controls had a place alongside traditional controls. Then Skyward Sword was released. Skyward Sword received near universal acclaim for its impressive use of motion controls. It took Nintendo five years to do it right, but Skyward Sword convinced most gamers that motion controls aren’t a gimmick. They can be good when used in the right situations. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword changed the way people viewed motion controls. While motion controls will always have its critics, most gamers were convinced by Skyward Sword that motion controls have a spot in the industry.
The Japanese video game industry is struggling, but it’s not dying by any means. It’s in a slump, but it will break out of this slump in the upcoming years. There have been some amazing Japanese games released this generation. From Super Mario Galaxy to Metal Gear Solid 4, some Japanese games this generation have had insane quality. There’s just not as high of a quantity of quality games as there used to be. However, there is still a lot of quality products coming from Japan. I think too many people are remembering the failures more than they’re remembering the successes. For example, tons of gamers were disappointed with Final Fantasy XIII and for good reason. Final Fantasy XIII was overly linear, and the story disappointed many fans. However, for nearly every negative, there is a positive. While Final Fantasy XIII was linear and had a disappointing story, Xenoblade: Chronicles has a vast world, with a great story. I think people are getting too caught up in what went wrong to realize what went right.
Even though Japanese development hasn’t been as strong this generation, it’s still been good. People are focusing too much on Japan’s struggles instead of the West’s success. Western game development has never been this good. There have been a plethora of great new IPs introduced this generation by Western developers. From Uncharted to Mass Effect, Western developers have made some downright amazing games this generation. Part of the reason Japanese developers are looking so bad, is because Western developers are looking so good. We need to give less blame to the Japanese developers and more praise to the Western developers. This generation isn’t a tale of Japan’s failures, it’s a tale of the West’s triumphs.