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The State Of Japanese Gaming -- The Rise And Fall Of A Virtual Empire

Danielle_Riendeau

Posted October 1, 2012 - By Danielle Riendeau









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Super Mario All-Stars

When I was growing up, the Japanese game industry was the game industry. There were fantastic games coming from American and European companies, but the brands we all knew and loved, the brands that were synonymous with “video games” were distinctly Japanese. If you were an American kid in the late 80s through the early 90s, and you played games on a console, you didn’t play “video games” so much as you hung out and “played Nintendo” or “played Sega”.

It wasn’t just the publishers and the console manufacturers. Indeed, most of the truly beloved console games from that era were Japanese – Mario, Street Fighter, Final Fantasy, Zelda, Sonic, Dragon Quest, Metroid, Phantasy Star, Mega Man, and so on – the most popular games in the world were disproportionately coming from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Not long after that particularly gleeful era, Sony got into the business, and all three major consoles were published by Japanese game companies. The PlayStation brand ruled the late 90s and early ‘aughts, and series like Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, and Metal Gear Solid topped the charts (as well as the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere). Even with increased prominence of American and Western European studios and publishers, the console world was still dominated by Japanese companies.

Somewhere along the line, that started to change. Sega’s Saturn and beloved Dreamcast failed, and the company once known as the bastion of hardcore and wildly creative games is now an ailing publisher. Sony has started to fall under its own weight, with a poorly performing handheld and slipping grasp on the home console market.

Western publishers, such as Activision, EA, and 2K – and new console giant Microsoft - have grown exponentially, favoring western-developed games (the meteoric rise of the FPS may have something to do with it). Of the Japanese companies that once ruled the roost, only Nintendo is entirely healthy – and even they have reason to be worried, thanks to the wildly segmented handheld market, thanks largely to smartphones and the pricing structures of mobile games inundating the once-relatively quiet market.

The State Of Japanese Gaming -- The Rise And Fall Of A Virtual Empire

Insulation Nation

Like every other big game-producing nation, Japan is far from immune to the “sequelitis” that’s affected AAA development, thanks largely to skyrocketing costs. For every bright new, innovative RPG like The World Ends with You, brutally hardcore stroke of brilliance like Dark Souls, or inventive oddballer like Child of Eden, there are dozens of half-hearted late-cycle Final Fantasy titles, Dynasty Warriors ports, or unfortunate Sonic the Hedgehog vehicles (note: Colors and Generations were quite good).

The problem, however, is that while developers in other countries are actively trying to sell their wares to players all over the world in order to stay competitive, Japanese developers have tended to stay the course and stick close to their comfort zone. In other words, Japanese devs are largely just trying to make games for Japanese players.

Mega Man creator Keijii Inafune put the problem bluntly in a Gamespot interview about the state of Japanese gaming last spring:

“There are a lot of specific problems, but a good example would be that this is GDC. It's the Game Developers Conference. Out of the Japanese creators, how many of the major ones are here at the show? It's very limited, and that itself states that Japan is not taking global business seriously. They should be here at the show, giving sessions and mingling with the rest of the world more, intentionally. But I don't see that, and that's one of the biggest problems...that Japan is not looking at the global perspective. We all know for sure that we have to go global, but the actions are not there.”

The outspoken Capcom head of R&D has also tried correct the problem, by introducing new franchises to Capcom’s stable, such as Lost Planet and Dead Rising, games that have indisputable mass appeal.

Ni no Kuni Is Coming To North America In Early 2012

Looking Ahead

Despite the total lack of Shadow of the Colossus and Ico creator Fumito Ueda’s gorgeous-looking The Last Guardian, Tokyo Game Show this year was energetic and well-attended, with plenty of promising looking games. EX Trooper, Lost Planet 3, Soul Sacrifice, Project X Zone, Metal Gear Rising: Vengeance, and Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch all have the ability to play well with larger audiences.

Of course, there’s a little company called Nintendo that’s about to fire the first shots in the next-gen hardware war, with the Wii U this November. If any company has embraced the whole “make games for global audiences” ethos, it’s the big N, which will be looking for a repeat performance in its new console, and no doubt a whole new generation of its beloved, acclaimed franchises (Mario, Zelda, etc.), all of which will probably sell like crazy and appeal to gamers of every imaginable demographic.

From Software and Capcom are among the third party publishers that have made the most noise (and many of the most interesting games) about appealing to audiences beyond Japan, and we can expect them to keep leading the charge for hardcore gamers of every stripe.

Meanwhile, social and mobile game giant (in Japan) Gree is looking to expand its horizons – not just across the Pacific, but all over the world, including some developing nations, where folks may not be able to plunk down cash for a console and expensive games – but they will be interested in playing games on their phones.

So don’t worry, fans of Japanese games. The market evolving rapidly, and the movers and shakers across the Pacific are starting to catch up. Keep your eyes open, your handhelds warm, and your love of good gameplay alive, because the next few years are sure to be very interesting.

Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit web ninja in San Francisco. You should

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