As a child of the 90s with a brother who was a child of the 80s, this writer was introduced to the world of gaming by way of Nintendo, Sega, and Squaresoft (now known as Square Enix). In an age where today’s children are busy moping around with a game of Cut the Rope on their parents’ (or their own, if they are spoiled enough) smartphones or recently discovering profanity in a game of Call of Duty, it seems that Japan’s dominance of the gaming market is a bygone era.
Of course, video games existed long before Nintendo did; there was the Atari 2600, and the Magnavox Odyssey before that. Yet, when Nintendo released its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), video games matured, becoming less of an experimental proof of concept and more of an acceptable medium.
Not only was the system revolutionary, it introduced the industry’s equivalent of Mickey Mouse, Mario. The company would continue introducing profound innovations, such as the Game Boy and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) before finding its monopoly on gaming under threat by Sega, who introduced its own mascot, Sonic.
Squaresoft turned out games such as Final Fantasy IV, Chrono Trigger, and Children of Mana. Each of them had a deep, engaging story to tell, and immersive, expansive worlds in which that story was told. The player was not a random mook who just so happened to wield a sword and know a few spells by hand; he/she was Cecil Harvey, a knight who increasingly questions his loyalty to an oppressive king; Crono, a villager-turned-time-traveller determined to save the world from a primordial force; or Terra Branford, a magically gifted being formerly enslaved by an empire.
Meanwhile, games from Western developers were popular, but only among niche circles. There was Zork, a text-based adventure game which was free form, with the player assuming the role of an ‘adventurer’ in a house. The game does not give much more exposition, relying on the player himself to create his own story as he plays. Similar things could be said about the first Elder Scrolls, where the player character was given a vague background before being sent off to fight an equally vague evil force.
Yet, as of the past two decades, Western games started becoming more sophisticated, while most Japanese developers continued with an ‘if it ain’t broke’ mentality. The decade saw the Sega pulling out of the hardware front, becoming a third-party developer and eventually a third-party publisher. To this day, Sony is falling on hard times, forecast to lose £753 million this year, in spite of enjoying success with the Blu-Ray format and the PlayStation 4. Square Enix’s latest releases have not seen groundbreaking reception since the days of Final Fantasy VII, with Final Fantasy XIII criticised for its linearity and Final Fantasy XIV being a flop until its reboot.
Games such as Mass Effect have taken the deep rich storylines that are often the mainstay of Japanese games, but have also brought an equally rich gaming experience to the table. Japanese games, on the other hand, have more or less retained their formulaic style of play. Role playing games such as Skies of Arcadia and Eternal Sonata still retain a turn-based battle system akin to Final Fantasy. Platformers grade players based on performance from S to E. Bullet hell games are, well, bullet hell.
There seems to be a cultural divide; of course, Japanese developers are more concerned about what Japanese gamers want. It makes sense to market one’s product domestically before marketing it globally. The Metroid Prime games received critical acclaim in the west, the first Prime racking up perfect 10 scores in gaming news outlets such as Electronic Gaming Monthly and Nintendo Power. Famitsu, a Japanese gaming magazine known for giving perfect scores 22 times since its first issue in 1986, gave Metroid Prime a 33/40.
Nintendo seemed to listen and allowed Tecmo to work on the next Metroid, titled Other M. The game attempted to win back the Japanese fans that the Prime games seemed to alienate. It featured a story that tried to appeal to Japanese sensibilities, giving Samus Aran a deep backstory and a personality. However, that backstory and personality was not well received in the West, with complaints that Nintendo made Samus too weak, driving her into damsel-in-distress territory, and the execution of the narrative was deemed too clumsy, such as Samus telling the player what is happening as it happens (e.g.: after a friend calls her ‘Lady,’ Samus then tells the player that the friend calls her ‘Lady’).
Metroid: Other M is but one of many examples. There is a story of a Japanese game developer bringing in a copy of Bioshock to the office to play. While the younger, more junior members of the team were impressed, a high ranking producer dropped the controller after about thirty seconds into the game, deriding the game as cheap.
Of course, there are exceptions. Before E3 2009, Hideo Kojima has made no secret that he wanted to collaborate with Western developers, culminating with his work on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow with Spanish studio Mercury Steam. The game went on to receive moderately positive reviews.
Is the gaming community divided by cultural norms and expectations, or is tradition the only thing that is holding Japanese developers from embracing the new advances and strides that their counterparts from the rest of the world have made? Only time will tell.