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Japan vs. The West

By Kob Monney

The title is, perhaps, a touch misleading. It is my clumsy attempt to make a reference to the classic games of Marvel Vs Capcom and SNK Vs Capcom lineage. The relationship between Japan’s gaming industry and the West is perhaps not the kind of antagonistic one the title insinuates. Maybe it once was when gaming was in its infancy and each industry looked upon the other and tried to better the other in a game of one-upmanship. If it ever was like that it most certainly isn’t now. You may have read recently on various gaming sites about the 2010 Tokyo Game Show and seen the comments emanating from leading figures in Japan about the state of the industry, the quality of titles, the state of the economy and the lack of emergent talent coming through. This rhetoric has been building up for well over a year or so, with Kenji Inafune sparking the headlines with his thoughts last year. If you’ve played a few games from Japan over the last two years, you will have, no doubt, seen Japan’s attempt to court western gamers by making their games just a touch friendlier, that little bit more accessible. However, is it a tactic that will find success in the way Japanese developers/publishers hope it will?

The seeds of this change had started when Capcom released Dead Rising on the Xbox 360 in 2006. Along with Lost Planet it was one of their first titles of this generation and it was a moderately successful hit, successful enough to warrant a sequel.  We’re beginning to see this change even more explicitly in Capcom’s catalogue with Lost Planet 2’s 4 player co-op campaign, the upcoming release of Dead Rising 2 and the announcement of the Devil May Cry reboot, (now titled DMC) with Heavenly Sword and Enslaved developers Ninja Theory behind the (apparent) resuscitation of the franchise. Gone is Dante’s appearance some of us grew accustomed to over four or so games and (if you ever watched it) an anime series as well. I can’t honestly blame them for taking this tack, if budgets for games are increasing, production time also lengthening and with a bigger audience to appeal to; it would be financially prudent to appeal to that audience and in doing so generate more sales.

We’ve seen this happening through the dwindling of exclusives, (the original Dead Rising and Mass Effect remain Xbox 360 exclusives but their sequels do not), it is hard to code for one platform and not least have an eye on the other as well. Resident Evil used to be primarily a Playstation franchise (or at least seen as one of the platform’s integral pillars* despite it appearing on Nintendo as regularly if not more) and Resident Evil 5 changed that with a simultaneous launch (important in terms of the last vestige of exclusivity, that of the timed exclusive).

Resident Evil 5 was one of Capcom’s first major attempts at appealing to the West and it ended up with mixed results for those who played it, I include myself in that group of slightly satisfied gamers. It tried to implement co-op as well as what seemed to be a faster, more action paced style in the vein of a 3rd person shooter like Gears of War while still retaining the feel of a Resident Evil. It didn’t quite work because the matching of an intense, action based shooter left some of the gameplay mechanics antiquated in comparison. When a swarm of zombies would descend upon the player, the lack of a run and gun option hampered gameplay. It may have been fine in other Resident Evils to play in such a manner but with zombies seemingly faster, certainly more agile than before, headshots were still attainable but oftentimes the amount of zombies, all of them with increased abilities caused much greater difficulty than it should have done. Your A.I. companion didn’t help matters, at worst standing around doing very little, at best using the most ineffective weapon in its locker to combat enemies with (“cattle prod?! Use the gun woman!”). When the game was played with a second human player as the character Sheva Alomar, the game came alive and benefitted from having two human players at its core making decisions.

Conversely the game’s sales success did not mask the problems. The problem being that Japanese games suffered from un-evolved gameplay, a reticence to embrace the future leaving them rooted somewhere between an anachronistic game design and a more western approach. Despite the promise of a new generation and increased scope, it has been, at least on the Japanese side of things so far, short on new ideas and more reliant on stunning aesthetics. If the critically heralded Bayonetta is seen as the recent pinnacle of 3rd person fighters and Street Fighter IV a refinement of the old formula to its peak then where is the room to manoeuvre?** Old gameplay mechanics can be refined to an inch of their life but when that is achieved, what more? Bayonetta borrows from other games (notably the DMC series) and doesn’t particularly do anything new but if this is the best that Japan can offer and its sales are still somewhat limited by the niche portrayal of the product then perhaps it is time to start again. I wish they would look at it from the perspective of how they could appeal to the West not with a reboot or a cumbersome ‘reimagining’ but how they could take gaming and reach for the stratosphere and not be so content on common ground with their western brethren.

When you think of it so many Japanese games that could have possibly brought something new to the table are left by the wayside when released over here with a poor or more often than not non-existent presence in the market (I’m looking at you Blazblue and Resonance of Fate). Japanese publishers mistake a shortfall in sales for a lack of quality or a lack of western appeal rather than a lack of awareness.*** Using the same gameplay mechanics with a western spin is not enough to mark an upturn in sales; the gameplay itself has not evolved (for example the orange globules that you can almost guarantee to be in a Capcom game boss, something even Dead Space borrowed). You could perhaps ask the same of western games but how many new franchises have been created in the last five years? Comparatively how many risks have they taken with their stories, characters etc? You only need to look at Mass Effect, LittleBigPlanet, Red Dead Redemption, Crackdown, Mirror’s Edge, Left 4 Dead, Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed, Heavy Rain, Limbo, Braid or Audiosurf for some new ideas and some progression within the medium. Is it enough to rebuild/reboot/re-imagine when you’re essentially taking the same (outdated?) practices and adding a HD sheen on top?

One of the major complaints with Final Fantasy XIII was linearity of at least the first 15-25 hours of the experience depending on your skill. The game tried to accommodate players who weren’t familiar with a Japanese RPG by giving them a short leash until Square Enix felt it was time to give the player the reins later on. Bayonetta and Devil May Cry are two of the most ridiculous and over the top games I’ll ever play and much like Resident Evil 5; the games were knowingly B-movie material with some hilarious line readings, stranger boss battles replete with hackneyed storytelling and at times repetitive level design. They’re flawed but they have their own flavour. Through copying western ideals they perhaps miss the point and may even secure their own obsolescence. By becoming more Western in nature they lose some of their lustre, the things that make their games so unique to that region of the world. Will they trade in that uniqueness, those essential Japanese qualities for greater revenue and a broader audience? All signs point towards yes and if they’re not careful Japanese games may become severely homogenised and lose their uniqueness which would be a travesty. I may not enjoy playing some of their more bastard hard games such as Ninja Gaiden but the fact that they’re out there adds to the pool of titles on offer. Would we ever see western games doing the same thing by pandering to a Japanese audience? Probably not considering that the market they appeal to is considerably much bigger with different tastes (if you can search for the installed console base of Japan compared to other regions on the web, it appears to be much smaller than I had anticipated). Having grown up playing Street Fighter II, StarFox, Mario 64 and others I never thought that Japanese developers would need westerners more than we would need them.

Pandering to the West is not the same as appealing to it; however it may seem from afar. Japan needs to win over western gamers (at least those not already enthralled by Japanese games) with triumphant and emergent gameplay, something that takes them out of their current doldrums and reveals yet again what the country is capable of. It’ll be hard, of that I’m in no doubt about and maybe new input technologies such as Kinect and Move will help but Japanese motion controlled games have rarely been much of a success story outside of Nintendo on the Wii platform beyond Japan. At the moment they risk losing what makes Japan and its games so special, the Japan game industry is at a crossroads, let us hope they choose well.

*Along with GTA, Gran Turismo, Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry and Pro Evolution (Winning Eleven) as the mainstays of the early Playstation era.

**The camera in this type of games could still be improved but considering how long this problem has been about, I’m surprised that no-one has really remedied the situation.

***One too many ‘lack ofs’ methinks!

Copyright Kob Monney 2010

Categories: Essays
  1. Cameron
    November 3, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Personally, I do believe the Japanese market, or rather Capcom, is overly appealing to the perceived desires of western audiences. Still, with the current climate for video games and with western developers providing experiences that rival and in some cases surpass that of Japanese, they do indeed need to adapt in order to stay relevant in the gaming industry. Recalling some of your examples and the history, Sony and Nintendo are not the only ones patrolling the halls as it were anymore. Gone are the days in which Final Fantasy was the pinnacle of RPG gaming and currently even a franchise so famous as Mario is having more than a handful of trouble with the devilish charm of a Sackboy. Keeping their distinct Japanese identity while making an appealing display to western audiences will prove to be their greatest feat, and with the financial success of their current developments by appealing to the western audiences, it will be one that they might choose to ignore completely. Here’s hoping they don’t! (Great article by the way!)

    • November 11, 2010 at 12:29 pm

      Thanks for the kind comment Cameron on the article, I too hope that they don’t lose that distinct Japanese feel of their games in their attempt to become more current. The talk from big companies like Square Enix and Capcom suggest otherwise and although I haven’t played Vanquish it appears to be a step in the right direction (allegdedly its only sold about 220,000 worldwide which is disappointing).

      I’ve seen it suggested in some other articles but didn’t have enough space to put it in but some say the Xbox may have had more of an effect on the Japanese industry than anyone would have thought with its emphasis on online gaming, multiplayer and the genres associated with it, mainly 1st/3rd person shooters. Ironic considering the lack of success it’s had in Japan.

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