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Considering Japan... Exclusive
Considering Japan...
October 9, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

October 9, 2012 | By Christian Nutt
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    47 comments
More: Console/PC, Design, Exclusive



There's been a lot of ink spilled -- particularly recently, with a Tokyo Game Show that was universally viewed as pretty dismal -- about the fate of Japan as a powerhouse of console game development. Even Yoshiki Okamoto, the producer of Street Fighter II, has fallen so far that he now thinks things are hopeless.

Over the course of this console generation, Western games have been ascendent, and Japanese games have fallen from grace. It's not just that they don't dominate the charts like they once did. Issues with audiences, technology, and competition have caused the country -- which was the uncontested king of console game development from the 1980s until the early 2000s -- to fall far in the eyes of players, the media, and the industry itself.

A lot of people, many prominent, have taken to suggesting that Japanese games can't cut it because the Japanese industry is creatively bankrupt. I would think that argument would refute itself, but it won't, because people are looking in the wrong places.

No, Japan's real weakness has been a lack of adaptation. This is neither a sin nor a surprise. Few Japanese studios were equipped with the knowledge, skills, or technology to anticipate the turn things would take this generation.

It doesn't help that Japan is being compared to the output of the entire Western world, and not simply the output of one country, either. When you're fighting for your life against the U.S., Canada, France, and the U.K. -- just to name the biggest countries in console game development -- you're going to pale in comparison, in a fair fight.

It didn't used to be a fair fight. The ground also shifted this generation, and not just technologically. The industry was bifurcated for a very long time, with many of the most proficient Western developers staying locked out of console development. This generation, the streams crossed, and developers with a rich history of PC development hit the ground running with games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and BioShock. Meanwhile, studios like Naughty Dog and Quantic Dream dramatically upped the quality of their output, eclipsing Japan from another direction.

Suddenly, many gamers were being presented with fresh ideas and choices they never knew they had. These games were more culturally congruent with their tastes. And, ultimately, their tastes began to change. Meanwhile, new audiences embraced new forms.

What these discussions don't take into account, so much, is whether the quality of the country's game development even remains. It's an accepted fact that these days are gone; major missteps like Final Fantasy XIII, Ninja Gaiden 3, and, most recently, Resident Evil 6 have tarred Japanese developers as misguided and simply incapable of competing on a global stage.

If these are your three examples, it's hard to argue. Each is an example of a franchise that once stood at the apex of the industry. Each is inadequate in significant ways.

These, however, aren't the only examples of games coming out of Japan. They're simply examples of Japanese developers trying -- and failing, in one way or another -- to compete in the increasingly competitive and bloated triple-A space. That mentality is what torpedoed them.

Let's face reality: the Japanese industry has painted itself into a corner as regards the West. Technology remains a problem for many development studios, and for smaller studios, the question is even worse -- this is a significant factor in the success of the PSP, and now the 3DS over the Vita. Many Japanese developers still don't have current-gen development sussed out.

It's also a human resources question: few big independents existed at the turn of the generation, and the prestigious ones were tiny. Those independent studios that had the personnel to scale up to current-gen sized teams were pure work-for-hire operations that lacked a remit to pursue a creative vision.

There's also the problem that, at current domestic Japanese sales levels, current-gen games with competitive production values have to go global, because Japanese audiences alone won't be profitable. And then the mobile market is exploding...

Maybe it just wasn't meant to be.

I'm actually of the opinion that the Japanese industry just isn't suited to compete on this new footing. That doesn't mean it's impossible for some developers to come up with games that can, but it's not a natural fit.

Obviously.

But here's a very important point that I think gets overlooked in all of the discussions of why Japan is failing. Its best games this generation -- the best-selling, the most critically acclaimed, and the hidden gems -- have all stood proudly with anything that's been developed in the West. A few helpings of extremely high-profile kusoge do not mean that all that talent was wiped away.

Have you been paying attention?

I mean really paying attention. I have. The truth of the matter is that I grew up on Japanese console games, and they're still what I like best. And while I've come to embrace plenty of games I never expected to love over the last six years, I also have kept my eyes on the East.

So I thought I'd share some examples of what's really going on in Japan. I'm even going so far to skip out on including any games developed by Nintendo's internal studios, because the disclaimer "except for Nintendo!" is usually attached to any discussion of how Japanese developers are creative and commercial failures. That should make this hard, right? Not really.

In fact, rather than write about why the following games are great (which is actually pretty easy) I'll play devil's advocate and turn some arguments around.

Better yet, this list contains only games that launched outside of Japan, so you can easily see if I'm right for yourself.

Bayonetta

I recently got in a discussion with a longtime friend and fellow journalist about our wildly divergent taste. I told him that Platinum Games' Bayonetta is one of the best games of the generation; he told me it was "too weird" for him.

Since when is that a good argument? And since when is weird bad? The game has personality. In an industry that seems to be trying to iron out the personalities in its games, this is a bad thing?

"Too weird" is dismissive. It's a strange, satirical game that blends reverence for Sega's history with campy cutscenes, but it's also without question the best melee combat game of the generation -- deep and flexible, varied and challenging, and continually flexing design muscles to challenge the player.

Alexander Hutchinson, creative director of Assassin's Creed III, recently said that Bayonetta gets a free pass on its story despite being "literally gibberish" due to the "subtle racism" of game journalists.

I find this odd, because of what it implies about someone who's a creative yet unwilling to engage with creativity. It's also amusing to me, because -- as he works on a series with prominent melee combat -- you might hope he'd notice it's the best game of the generation, gibberish or not. But, hey, it's cool, bro.

Dark Souls

I've seen people say that Dark Souls, one of the best-designed games of the generation, essentially "doesn't count" because it's "so Western."

There is really and truly nothing about Dark Souls' game design where you can't point to antecedents in Japanese games. Period.

Though I couldn't prove these games were direct influences, you can certainly see glimmers of its design in two PlayStation games, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Vagrant Story, which also drew from their own rich heritages. Dark Souls' approach to world design is Super Metroid in 3D; its combat and enemy design is also drastically different from Western games you might compare it to -- for example, Skyrim -- and its focus on tactical, skill-based action, not grinding stats.

I think what throws people off is the dark medieval fantasy, but Japan has its own tradition of appropriation of this aesthetic in literature, animation, and games -- and though it helped the game find success in the West, it doesn't make it any more of a Western game.

The Last Story

In the beginning of the generation, it was common to say that Japanese developers should learn from the West -- but more recently it's metamorphosed into a sort of smug "they can't." After Ninja Gaiden III went down in flames thanks, in part, to its attempts to crib ideas from Western titles, Team Ninja's Kosuke Hayashi surmised that they shouldn't even try.

Well, it's okay to try, based on this evidence. Maybe it's how developers Marvelous AQL went about it -- rather than slavishly copy the West, says development lead Takuya Matsumoto, the team had its own ideas about how to, for example, speed up the game's storytelling, and he checked them against what pioneering work was being done on games like Uncharted when he traveled to E3 each year.

The result is a game with a cast of characters that you will grow to love as you fight beside them, not in the cutscenes. That's a surprising feat for a genre that's been lambasted for stilted storytelling for so long.

This is a game that didn't lose its soul but didn't fall out of step either, and in my opinion would have sold a hell of a lot of copies and resulted in a lot of good press if, instead of being the last notable Wii exclusive, was released on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. If the Final Fantasy logo was on the box, it would have been lauded as the one thing Square Enix got right this generation.

Kid Icarus: Uprising

Another argument is that classic Japanese game design is tired, inflexible, and just not fun anymore. I think that Project Sora's Kid Icarus easily demolishes that one. The game isn't 100 percent ignorant of Western design concepts -- it blends its arcade-style shooting with the Western concept of third-person shooting in a really compelling way -- but it squarely rests on tried-and-true gameplay mechanics and the expertise of its lead developer, Masahiro Sakurai, the creator of the Super Smash Bros. series.

It's a blend of arcade shooting and ground-based melee -- something like Panzer Dragoon meets Devil May Cry. But within that context it's still fresh and inventive -- bringing in those shooter influences, constantly twisting and turning its story, completely unafraid to completely turn on a dime and do something different just because it would be cool. And it has great online play, too. This one is overlooked, I guess, because it's on the 3DS, which is not a cool platform. But portables are where Japanese developers really shine.

Tokyo Jungle

This is the flipside of the "Japan has to learn from the West" argument. Tokyo Jungle has proven to be a cult hit on the strength of its gameplay and its theme -- despite its poor technical chops, despite its strange concept, and despite gameplay that is clearly is anything but focus-grouped or trend-chasing. It's just a creative team, Crispy's, doing what it wants to do and getting success for that -- nice enough for a developer from any country, but widely considered to be impossible for Japanese developers in 2012.

Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance

Japanese games? Nobody buys those anymore! Except Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance for the Nintendo 3DS, which was the second best-selling SKU of August 2012 in the U.S. People do, in fact, like what Japanese games do, it turns out -- when the games are right.

Yes, Kingdom Hearts does have a story that's incredibly difficult to take seriously no matter how much anime you've watched or how much you love Disney, but the game -- as a game -- is extremely well-made, and, yes, extremely Japanese. It's centered around fast, flowing action and raising pets, which have been centerpieces of Japanese game design since the 1990s.

While you weren't paying attention, the series' team, Square Enix Osaka, has taken a franchise notorious for its shallowness and pushed it steadily toward a unique gameplay style that stands out -- if you care to look.

Inazuma Eleven

Inazuma Eleven -- which is popular in Europe and Japan, though has not been released in North America -- is a really interesting franchise to talk about. It blends RPGs and sports games, creating a soccer RPG series that captures the sport but offers strategy. That puts paid to the complaint that Japanese developers don't try new ideas.

It also shows the strength of original IP, as Level 5 was able to build the franchise as an independent studio over the course of four DS and 3DS releases, the second of which shipped in Europe this summer.

It also shows the power of catering to what kids like with original properties, not just movie tie-in games, which the West seems to have forgotten how to do -- which is a rarely-discussed part of why console developers are losing them to Angry Birds. Inazuma Eleven became a cartoon, instead of the other way around. When's the last time a Western kids' game did that?

Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm

How many licensed games look better than the properties they're based on? CyberConnect 2's Naruto games for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 aren't just that -- they're some of the very best looking games of the generation, with incredible attention to detail and absolutely beautiful character animations. The amount of polish and skill this series showcases is genuinely remarkable -- and it's not a surprise that the developer has splashed out into CG movies, given its visual flair. You may not watch Naruto -- neither do I -- but take a look at this.


Oh, and I'll just leave this here.

Xenoblade Chronicles

The Japanese RPG genre is viewed as one of the most staid and boring in the industry. If there's a perception that it's moving in a direction, that direction is down. While, as a fan, I can point out plenty of examples of rich and rewarding games from the last 20 years, Persona 3 and 4 are the only two that seem to have broken through lately.

Like The Last Story, Xenoblade Chronicles came out way too late in the generation for most people to be interested in it. I can't tell you how many people either told me "Standard definition? No thanks!" or "I don't even have a Wii anymore" when I recommended it.

That's a shame, because it's an effortless refutation of a lot of criticisms of the genre, yet still embraces everything that's good about it -- the epic yet personal sweep of its story, the idiosyncratic and varied cast of characters, the character growth and strategic battles.

It has a strong linear narrative, but it's based around player freedom; it has a wild and expansive world, but it's easy to navigate -- despite the fact that most entries in the genre have steadily shrunk it as development costs have risen.

Half-Minute Hero

There's also a meme -- which is perpetuated by forehead-slappers like Resident Evil 6 -- that Japanese developers are just plain clueless. They have no idea how ridiculous the games they make are, surely?

Well, Marvelous AQL's Half-Minute Hero -- which incidentally just hit Steam -- answers that. It cleverly skewers the JRPG genre while still being of it; in other words, it celebrates what it's satirizing, and it's clever about it while being purely enjoyable, turning a slow-paced genre into a frenetic arcade game. It's almost too good, really.

Kirby's Epic Yarn

I really don't have enough nice things to say about this game. It's one of my absolute favorites of the generation. Yet I suspect Kirby's Epic Yarn, out of all games on this list, probably has the worst ratio of game quality to number of readers who've played it. It's arguably the best 2D platformer of the generation, and inarguably the most beautiful.

The game's commitment to its concept -- a world of fabric, thread, yarn -- is total. The game is both so consistently visually inventive, and so constant in its attention to detail, that it's remarkable for that reason alone. But it also so often twists and turns its gameplay to match perfectly with its world of fabric, yarn, patches, and stitches that it's really worth examining more closely from a design standpoint, too. It's imaginative in its simplicity and unquestionably proves that easy games can be fun, simple games can be satisfying, and designs that look shallow can hide depth when crafted by skilled hands.

This is not an exhaustive list: games like the Professor Layton series and 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors prove that the country can re-energize tired genres like the graphical adventure, while the Etrian Odyssey series isn't just good -- it's so good that it singlehandedly reinvigorated the long-dead genre of the first-person dungeon crawler.

Little King's Story is an overlooked strategy gem with a winning personality that's just been remade for the Vita, Persona 4 Arena is gorgeous and offers new twists in the fighting genre, and Retro Game Challenge, a collection of faux 8-bit games wrapped in a meta-narrative is simply so good it defies any explanation I can dream up.

So What Then?

In a way, I think Platinum Games' Atsushi Inaba, producer of games like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Okami, put it best in a recent conversation with Edge. "I don't like it when people lump Japanese games developers all together into one group. Frankly, I think it's a joke. What do these people know?"

"There are tons of terrible Western developers, just like there's tons of terrible Japanese developers. To lump studios together in great masses misses the point."

That's essentially my point; while it's clear that major developers like Square Enix and Capcom have lost the plot, it's also not true that this is broadly applicable to the entire Japanese game development industry. In fact, even those companies are still making great games -- just not in their marquee franchises. Triple-A bloat and unpreparedness has crushed them.

The transition to this generation of consoles was tough for everyone but more so for the Japanese, who, mostly having developed for the PlayStation 2, didn't understand PC architecture, had work processes which didn't scale, and used to be able to rely on domestic sales to cover the cost of console games before Japanese audiences shrank and budgets swelled. And Capcom aside, they sure as hell didn't expect anything from the Xbox 360. The country's industry was, indeed, caught with its pants down.

It's sad to see great franchises like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy struggling. And it's also dispiriting that, unlike in the West, where independent studios strove to make names for themselves, the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture and its industry discouraged, if not outright crushed, this behavior. But still and all, the good games are out there. I didn't have to stop at 11. I could have listed many, many more -- each good in its own way.


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Comments


Luis Guimaraes
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Ultimate Ninja Storm is probably the best fighting game I've ever played. The amount of strategies and spatial play deep into the game is amazing to dig into and improve your play in many ways.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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They're also visually entertaining as hell.

Martin Pichlmair
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Every time someone tells me that the Japanese games industry is doomed, I utter the words "Dark Souls" and happily walk off. Thank you for this detailed article. Good stuff.

Cary Chichester
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Great article, definitely agree with the points made and would probably also add Catherine to the list of notable titles.

I believe you made an error however when you stated that the Assassin's Creed director labeled Bayonetta as apparently having the worst narrative. The exact quote according to the link you provided is: "Yeah. Just think about how many Japanese games are released where their stories are literally gibberish. Literally gibberish. There's no way you could write it with a straight face, and the journalists say 'oh it is brilliant'.Then Gears of War comes out and apparently it's the worst written narrative in a game ever. I'll take Gears of War over Bayonetta any time."

Christian Nutt
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Ahh, you're right. Thanks for that. It was late when I was putting the quote in -- I'll update the piece to reflect that.

Ian Uniacke
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That full quote is pretty telling of modern literature. Gears Of Wars narrative consists primarily of "UG! GET KEY! SMASH MONSTER NOW!" The modern state of anti intellectualism has truly devolved to the point that anything that tries a complex narrative (or what would have simply been called narrative in the past) is dismissed as weird and gibberish. At least we have games like Bayonetta in video games, it's worse in cinema where everything that's made is fart jokes and mindless action extravaganzas.

Kevin Oke
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Some great points and examples of recent quality Japanese games. I grew up mainly on Japanese games as well, got heavily into importing in high school etc.

I think this perceived gulf in quality/innovation is exacerbated by the fact that console FPS games exploded in popularity in the West over the lifetime of the PS3 and 360 - a genre that isn't nearly as popular in Japan, and one that Japanese developers aren't very experienced with. So best seller lists in the West show a lot of western FPSs taking up slots that would have gone to Japanese games in the past.

You can point to a lack of innovation, tired character designs and archetypes (stern look at Final Fantasy), heavy handed dialog, and tedious exposition, to some extent for sure. But for every game that is guilty of any of these, there are ones pushing the medium as Christian points out. It's definitely frustrating to me that the big Japanese series like MGS, Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy etc don't innovate as much as they could/should (see my blog post from yesterday), as those games are highly influential, and like it or not, will always be seen as highly representative of the current state of Japanese development. But then you have name franchises like Persona that are innovating and pushing their respective genre.

Perhaps this is a natural schism - different cultures, western console games finding their voice?

And yes, Persona 3 is fantastic, playing through it on the PSP right now. An extremely fresh take on JPRGs.

Joe Wreschnig
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I don't want to say Persona 3 is a bad game, but "fresh" it's not - it's six years old, and mechanically it's Persona 2 with some of the more distinctive elements actually *removed* and replaced with dating-sim-lite. I played the heck out of P3 but even within its SMT contemporaries I'd say Devil Summoner is a lot more inventive. (And I think P4 was a step backwards in everything but visual design and ~maybe~ "raw" script/translation quality.)

Kevin Oke
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Well considering the relative lack of innovation in JPRGs since the original release of P3, I'd still say it's a breath of fresh air to those playing it for the first time (which says a lot).

Also a game can be fresh/innovative simply by stripping away features, even a new sub-genre created (auto runners). It's that focused experience in P3 that I like so much. I can sit down and play it for 15 minutes, and in that time get some meaningful rewards for that time - deepen a relationship, advance the story, get further up Tartarus etc. Not many RPGs (Western or Japanese) are built like that. It's very well suited to a second life on the PSP.

Loved the rumour system in Persona 2 BTW, very cool stuff.

Adam Bishop
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I'm baffled by the idea that the Metal Gear Solid series needs to be more innovative. The 3rd and 4th MGS games in particular pack a huge amount of gameplay ideas and styles in. MGS4 has sections lasting 20-30 minutes that explore gameplay that other series would spin off into entire new games if they could even be that creative to begin with. The storytelling in the MGS games may not be everyone's cup of tea, but they continue to be among the most creative and clever titles on the market from a gameplay standpoint.

Joe Wreschnig
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"the relative lack of innovation in JPRGs since the original release of P3"

I think the point of this article is that this sentiment is totally wrong. Please reread the article and note that half the games listed are JRPGs published years after Persona 3.

There's been all sorts of amazing JRPGs with refinements of old systems and radically new systems since 2006. None of them are getting mindshare because there's a self-reinforcing attitude of "Japanese games aren't doing anything interesting, so I don't need to play the new ones, so I don't know anything interesting Japanese games are doing."

Alan Saud
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I think Japanese industry is doomed because i can't find a game similar to Snatcher, Cyber Doll, Policenuts or illusion city. Also, They need to make a high quality super robot games.

Christopher Braithwaite
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I don't understand the hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth at Japan not dominating console videogame development the way it did in the past. Every week or so there's some apologist making the case for Japanese games. If Japanese developers make great games, they make great games. If they don't, they don't. I don't see the lack of Japanese games that compete with Western games as some great loss that needs to be rectified or as an answer to the deluge of shooting games. We'd just have a deluge of something else equally inane. What's the big deal?

Christian Nutt
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Honestly you sound like you're relatively in agreement with me; Japan is not going to, by and large, compete commercially with triple-A console games.

And it's not a bad thing. Great games are getting made: that's the point of this. Not that it's some great loss, but that there's good work done that doesn't get recognized because it doesn't fall into a narrow niche.

Joe Wreschnig
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What I'm seeing in Japan right now is ridiculously biased resource allocation towards the games that "can't keep up" but no one actually wants, like RE6. That, FF13, and so on have enormously bloated teams, at least as large as the biggest Western teams and usually working for much longer periods.

At the other end, the studios are terribly understaffed even compared to the normal ridiculous understaffing/overcrunching in Japanese studios. From is "Western-sized" at 200 employees, but they were doing Dark Souls and Armored Core V and Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor and an Another Century's Episode all at the same time. On the other end of the spectrum, I've heard Gust had *zero* on-staff programmers for a period of time during/following development of Atelier Meruru.

And then you have major mid-tier developer/publishers like NIS turning unprofitable, or the big MMV/AQL shakeup that killed Cavia and Artoon in the process. Half-Minute Hero was great, but did any of the developers survive the MMV -> Marvelous AQL restructuring?

So I think this is part of what colors the perception, both from the inside and the outside. When you count the quality games things look okay, but when you count where the money even in the mid-sized studios it's a disaster. The question is how do you fix that?

Joe Wreschnig
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Oh, also

"When's the last time a Western kids' game [got turned into a cartoon]?"

Viva Pinata, actually. (I guess you could question "kids' game" - I'm convinced the main reason it didn't do well is that no one realized it's actually an incredibly difficult sim/management game.)

I will be amazed if Skylanders is not a cartoon by next year. Actually I'm amazed it's not already a cartoon.

Christian Nutt
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That's a good point re: Viva Pinata. That was a big attempt to create a new original kids IP. Went down like a lead balloon, though.

Skylanders probably does have a future in cartoons if Activision wants it. Decent game, too.

Kevin Oke
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" To say Animes are Cartoons is like saysing Comics are Funnys and Batman is a Funny.:

Getting off-topic here, but...Have you seen the amount of dreck anime that gets pumped out? For every Cowboy Bebop or Death Note etc there are half a dozen soulless 24 minute long toy commercials with terrible, minimalistic animation and hackneyed stories and characters. Putting anime on a pedestal because of an idealized perception or nostalgia is just as bad as crapping over the entirety of the current wave of Japanese games because of where certain series have gone, divergence from Western trends etc.

brandon sheffield
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Christian K - I'd argue Western cartoons cater to "not just kids" as much as anime does nowadays. A lot of anime is skewing toward preteens (and adult children) these days, and in the west you've got venture bros, adventure time, the boondocks, american dad, family guy, ugly americans, archer, south park, bob's burgers, et cetera.

granted many of those are comedy oriented, primarily, but I think christian nutt's comparison was fair there.

Raymond Ortgiesen
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"It's sad to see great franchises like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy struggling. And it's also dispiriting that, unlike in the West, where independent studios strove to make names for themselves, the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture and its industry discouraged, if not outright crushed, this behavior."

Letting your best known series universally fail while simultaneously discouraging independent development seems like abject failure by anyone's standards. Sure, you can point to a handful of decent games coming out but that sidesteps the point that even you admit to.

Would you want to work in an environment that "crushed" independents and watched your flagship franchises burn?

That would probably be pretty discouraging to any developer. Kirby's Epic Yarn is great and all but let's not pretend that it makes up for the fact that Capcom ALONE has let several excellent franchises go straight into the toilet.

Christian Nutt
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Dunno -- would I want to write game journalism in an industry where IGN is the most successful outlet? Apparently.

Capcom is a very interesting and in many cases utterly dispiriting example. On one hand, it adapted very well to this generation, technologically, but on the other hand... mistake after mistake. And that includes much of its western development too.

Mark Desmarais
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What?

Raymond Ortgiesen
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I'm not sure what the relevant comparison between IGN and Capcom is.

I know you are trying to give examples of games to dispel the common narrative these days that "Japanese games suck." Obviously, anyone with half a brain saying that knows that not 100% of every single Japanese game in the last 8 years sucks.

But again, if your development environment is systematically discouraging independent development that is a sign of failure. If your development environment is systematically failing to adapt the vast majority of it's past franchises to current gamers that is a sign of failure. If veterans are dropping out of that development environment with some serious critiques to levy back at it that is also a serious sign of failure.

Good Japanese games have been released in the last 8 years. That is indisputable fact. To suggest that because those games exist then none of the prior criticisms I've mentioned are serious red flags is confusing to me.

Christian Nutt
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"Would you want to work in an environment that 'crushed' independents and watched your flagship franchises burn?"

That was what my IGN joke was about. In other words: yes, for some people, it'd be dispiriting to see the mainstream sector of the industry doing badly. For others, it'd be motivating.

I was never arguing the red flags don't exist -- nowhere in this piece, and nowhere in my comments. The reason I am not telling you "oh, yes, you're right" is because I thought that this was clear.

Again, this is not an article about the Japanese industry's challenges. They're very real and significant. I simply don't know the future. See Brandon Sheffield's comment and my response below.

Raymond Ortgiesen
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"However, this editorial is primarily an attempt to counter the pervasive belief that "Japanese games suck now" or "the country hasn't put out a good game this generation" or whatever. When a narrative takes hold, it becomes something people don't even consider. I thought I'd give them something to chew on."

"And of course, though I say people should look past RE6, FF13, and NG3 (though I still maintain it's an underrated game) there is a broad level on which that is not possible, particularly from an industry perspective. Those go beyond warning signs to blaring klaxons that something fundamental is deeply wrong."

I guess I don't know what your article is about then. You are both saying that the narrative is bullshit and people who blindly accept it needed something to chew on. You are also saying the narrative is very real and serious.

I guess it's cool to point out some Japanese games others may not have heard of, but that's all you are doing. You aren't dispelling any of the narrative, for me anyway, by saying that Bayonetta or Dark Souls is good.

Joe Wreschnig
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@Raymond,

The narrative (which is "Japan's industry is doing poorly because it's creatively bankrupt and not making any good games") is wrong. The factual state of affairs is still "Japan's industry is doing poorly". The incorrectly-reasoned cause makes it even harder to fix. Christian's article fights that narrative and hopefully lets us start getting to the real root of the issues.

Raymond Ortgiesen
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I guess my problem is that very specifically worded narrative seems a bit of a straw man. Who is saying the Japanese industry is creatively bankrupt and therefor making bad games? If anything, I hear more complaints about Western developers having that problem.

Christian says "Again, this is not an article about the Japanese industry's challenges."

It's a list of good Japanese games from recent years. While maybe this does something to counter the narrative you have constructed it does nothing to "let us start getting to the real root of the issues." which is exactly what I'm trying to point out (crushed indies, vets dropping out, etc).

Joe Wreschnig
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I don't think it's a very straw position. For example just above this discussion Kevin Oke above offhandedly talks about "the relative lack of innovation in JPRGs since the original release of P3" as if everyone just agrees. But Christian's article itself lists two JRPGs, one JRPG/arcade hybrid, one JRPG/sports hybrid (and one Japanese RPG that doesn't fit nicely into "JRPG", which itself is kind of begging the question - if it doesn't fit in the box it's not a JRPG, but if it does fit in the box, then it doesn't have enough innovation). And Christian's list is not exhaustive - I would add Trails in the Sky, Solatorobo, heck, even Dragon Quest IX for its multiplayer / postgame.

But I have a hard time getting people to try these games, even hugely genre-divergent games like Half-Minute Hero. Everyone's first reaction is, "oh, a JRPG, I loved FF6 but nothing's changed so I'll pass."

Lyon Medina
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"I recently got in a discussion with a longtime friend and fellow journalist about our wildly divergent taste. I told him that Platinum Games' Bayonetta is one of the best games of the generation; he told me it was "too weird" for him."

I loved that game and just the fact that it was weird was what made it good. I feel we need more games like that because games don't always need to be serious grim situations back to back. Throw some really well written comedy and I will gladly pay the price of admission.

brandon sheffield
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But would you deny that Japanese game companies are making it harder for games like Bayonetta to happen? Without money from Nintendo, where would Bayonetta be now? Without money from Sony, would Tokyo Jungle happen? How much longer will Sony have money to give?

It's certainly a comparison to the past that people are feeling. Yes, Japanese companies can make good games sometimes, but they used to make fantastic games a much higher percentage of the time. It is difficult to compare a small country like Japan even to the output of just one country like the U.S. or Canada. But I do think it's natural to look at a reviews spiraling down the toilet for Japanese games and realize something is happening with company culture that's not allowing or inspiring innovation, attention to detail, or technical excellence.

It's no secret that Japanese game companies on the whole have struggled with tech, which is a big deal in the triple-a space, which is by and large what we're discussing here. On the smaller scale, companies have not really picked up digital downloads, aside from mobile and social, but much of the money there has been made through gambling, though that's changing a bit.

Indies don't really exist, aside from the rather stilted doujin scene, and self-publishing is practically an impossibility aside from the rare iOS self-published game, or making discs and taking them down to Messe Sanoh.

The path forward is relatively obscured for me, when I look at Japan. It's sort of a "crash before rebuilding" situation as I see it, whereas in the U.S. I see many options if one leg of the table fails.

Having worked with a number of Japanese companies over the years, I see an incredible resistance to change in the larger company sense, and an incredible bullheadedness about that change being impossible even if they want it, on the individual level. The strong desire to change, yet the inability to do anything about it is evident in Inafune's work for example. He has long complained about the way Japanese companies are structured, and then he set up his company the same way, because that's how it's done.

You can find counter examples and good games, of course. It's not like the country is creatively bankrupt or people have stopped being talented. But the structure of companies there is alarmingly bad, and keeps talented people from doing good work more often than not. If it weren't so, we would be seeing a lot more amazing games coming out of Japan, like we did up until the shift to 360/ps3, and that really is when it happened.

I do see why you're saying we should not give up on Japanese games, but I feel like you're coming at this from the reviews point of view rather than the company sustainability point of view. Nintendo, GREE, and DENA are the only game companies of note pulling respectable profits right now (Konami too, if you count their year of gambling social games) - can we count on those three companies to save the rest of the game companies in the region, if they're unwilling to adapt and innovate?

Joe Wreschnig
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I see two ways forward to avoid a crash. I think both are unlikely, but one is "this is nearly wish-fulfillment" unlikely and the other is merely as unlikely as, say, Square-Enix buying Eidos.

The first is that the doujin scene develops quickly into something with international distribution and commercial viability. This is already happening (Carpe Fulgar, Rockin' Android, Nicalis, and now EnjoyUp and Playism) but not nearly fast enough, and it seems like it's always driven from the western side. The talent is there in the doujin scene but the interest in distribution and marketing, as you say, doesn't extend outside your circle's booth. So logistically this is possible, but culturally it doesn't seem likely any time soon.

The other option, and the one I think is more likely, is that Japan is the first country to make good on the threat of switching to a film studio model for game production. Organizations like TOSE mean the raw industrial infrastructure is in place, which it isn't in the US. And you already see some of this. If you trace the careers of the people who came out of Love-de-Lic, you see a lot of few-person consulting and/or one-game production companies. And on the high-end Nintendo did this with Kid Icarus. In this future the role of e.g. Capcom or Namco-Bandai or even Nintendo change greatly, but I don't think you get a crash.

Christian Nutt
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Well, as you well know (and I assume this comment is more for the benefit of the audience) I completely recognize the deficiencies of the Japanese industry, which are significant.

And of course, though I say people should look past RE6, FF13, and NG3 (though I still maintain it's an underrated game) there is a broad level on which that is not possible, particularly from an industry perspective. Those go beyond warning signs to blaring klaxons that something fundamental is deeply wrong.

However, this editorial is primarily an attempt to counter the pervasive belief that "Japanese games suck now" or "the country hasn't put out a good game this generation" or whatever. When a narrative takes hold, it becomes something people don't even consider. I thought I'd give them something to chew on.

brandon sheffield
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the film studio model in japan is also having a very hard time... I know this from personal experience. I can't say too much, but yeah, it's unfortunately worse off than the traditional model right now, because it relies on a very successful native game market.

brandon sheffield
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Christian - yeah, I presumed. And several of my favorite games of this generation are from japan (nier, bulletwitch, deadly premonition), but even those games are pretty deeply flawed. interesting that the vast majority of the A level or indie games I enjoy are out of the West, whereas almost all the B level games I like are from Japan.

I really want to see all regions of game development succeed, and I hope some cultural shifts will occur to make it happen.

Christian Nutt
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I'm never really going to like shooters -- it just won't happen in this life. It is not an activity I really enjoy. So it's as much that as any latent weeaboo-ism that keeps me on the path I am on. It makes for an interesting perspective, I guess, when you don't really enjoy the activity that primarily comprises the majority of Big Deal games.

Joe Wreschnig
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@brandon,

That's depressing to hear. Most of my favorite games come from arrangements like that, and in the interviews I read (admittedly, not many lately) the developers are usually neutral-to-upbeat about it.

Michael Ruud
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@ Brandon

While a lot of cultural factors have proved to be the catalyst, this isn't something that is wholly isolated to just one nation. I personally have seen just as many, if not more of the problems the Japanese games industry is facing while working for American game studios. (San Francisco is a terse microcosm of these problems, as start-ups rise and fall by the day.) With increased stakes, studios have become more and more adverse to perceived risk taking without taking into consideration that it is the very behavior they shun is what paves the road to success. Rather than trying to achieve momentum, they have become complacent in maintaining the status quo and lost sight of what is truly important. When you merely tread water, you are going to get swept up against the indiscriminate currents of time and change. I believe that the medium has swelled to such a size that this is ultimately the natural evolution for the vast majority of those working within the current era of developers and publishers. At the company level: most cannot think for themselves and are content in following the leader. At the individual level: most have become paralyzed and mitigated by arbitrary circumstances.

Ozzie Smith
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I wish you mentioned Vanquish. It's weird because cover-based shooters are such a western genre, but Vanquish is EASILY my favorite shooter of this generation. It introduced some really neat mechanics that tackled the worst parts of the genre (slow-pacing and the "whack-a-mole" effect that always sets in) and wrapped them in some excellent level design. The game gives you some incredible powers but they all have draw-backs that make it interesting: rocket-slide around really fast but sacrifice some HP temporarily. Shoot at enemies that are behind cover by vaulting over your own cover and shoot at them in the air, but you now give up your own cover. There are just tons of small mechanics like these that make me love the game so much. When you combine them with tons of totally different enemy types and some fantastic boss fights (seriously how many shooters actually have boss fights that are fun?), you get a shooter that I still think minute-by-minute is more fun than any other shooter made this generation.

Admittedly the pacing is a little weird and it's easy to get exhausted playing it after a while because there is virtually no down-time, but any extra mechanics to put in between the shooting would have just detracted from the game IMO. I really hope Platinum gets to make a sequel one day.

Christian Nutt
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There are plenty of examples of great games I didn't mention. Keep 'em coming!

Muir Freeland
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This might be tangential, but I still can't wrap my brain around the amount of resources Capcom threw into making RE6 this massive, sprawling monstrosity. Since budgetary issues are at the core of so many of Japan's problems since the start of this console generation, wouldn't making tighter, smaller, focused products that do a lot with a little -- like Dark Souls, for example -- be the obvious solution?

Benjamin Quintero
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Muir, Capcom is in a special place. I'd argue that they may be suffering from the same effects that all Japanese companies are suffering, but they also had a great run of Street Fighter recently. That, and some other smaller successes in their games have given them a little more to play with. I also get the feeling that they were betting the farm on RE6, giving it the "money is no object" kind of support you might find from a big Western game.

We won't really know if that will pay out for them or not, but clearly this was an attempt to broaden the reach of Resident Evil. I haven't played it so I can't judge, but the fact that (as an RE fan) I am on the fence about buying it probably speaks pretty loudly as well.

Christian Nutt
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I'd argue that Capcom isn't suffering from the same effects most Japanese companies are:

- they have big-time core gaming domestic franchises that sell well enough to justify high development expenditures (Monster Hunter)

- they've launched multiple new current-gen IP that's doing well globally (to greater or lesser extents: Dead Rising, Dragon's Dogma, arguably Lost Planet)

- they have a broad base of existing IP that still works (Street Fighter, Devil May Cry, and Resident Evil, which can outlive issues with 6)

- they have a solid technological base for current-gen development and have had it since before the launch of the PS3

Of course, on the other hand, they're also struggling with transitioning production processes to current-gen standards, issues with creativity, audience issues, and hit-and-miss collaborations with external third party developers. So it goes.

Jeremie Sinic
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Thank you for mentioning Bayonetta, its sequel being the only game that might tempt me to get a WiiU.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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"I've seen people say that Dark Souls, one of the best-designed games of the generation, essentially "doesn't count" because it's "so Western."

-_- because Western games are so known for elegant control schemes and labyrinthine stat systems and difficulties. Some people are morons. It's a Western Medieval Fantasy, but viewed through a Japanese lens. Beyond that, it has every hallmark of a Japanese game, and none of a North American one.

Joe Wreschnig
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"Western games are so known for elegant control schemes and labyrinthine stat systems and difficulties."

At one point, yes, Western RPGs were known for exactly that (except "elegant control schemes" which I don't think DSouls has either). DSouls is a spiritual successor to King's Field which is in turn very obviously inspired by Wizardry/Dungeon Master. Japan took the Wizardry ball and ran in it with a few directions, but they all hew much closer to western design.

Fawzi Mesmar
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With the current buzz about RE6, it's easy to forget how Capcom single handedly revived the fighting Genre with Street Fighter 4 and it's updates, which is in my opinion one of best street fighters to date and is very successful commercially as well.

Also would like to mention amazing Japanese games that were 'themed' to appeal to the western audience and were so much better than their counterparts it's ridiculous. Yes, I'm talking about Vanquish.

As for weird games, once you play a Suda51 game, weird is good.

Makoto Goto
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This article is right. Most Japanese game developers need to effort to break old bad habit and create new one for making innovative awesome games. We are struggling it. I believe that we can do it some day.


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