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.
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.
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.
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.
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 -- 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.
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.
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.
Sucker Punch Productions —