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Event Wrap-Up: Tokyo Game Show 2004

October 4, 2004

In the sweltering humidity of an unusually late summer, the Tokyo Game Show was held to record attendance. Some 160,000 people packed their gift-bag laden and/or costumed bodies into the Makuhari Messe Convention Center from September 24th to 26th, 2004 to absorb the latest and greatest from the Japanese electronic entertainment industry.

But this time around, the feeling at TGS was much more 'greatest' than it was 'latest'. It's the end of a hardware cycle, and a fierce new competition is brewing, so this time is traditionally reserved for console introspection - sequels, remakes, ports and the like. In other words, this is not the time to venture out boldly, brandishing new IP. Instead, it's a time for the tried and true. Somewhat surprising, though, was that beyond the sequels and ports, there was a decidedly old-school aesthetic to a lot of the games on display.

As many have written over the past few months, the Japanese games industry is trying to come out of a 5-year slump, with sales cresting at $7 billion in 1997, according to the Consumer Entertainment Suppliers Association trade organization, and then sliding all the way down to $5 billion in 2002. It's bounced back only a few points in the last year, and one really gets the feeling that any Japanese resurgence is being attempted by the game industry getting back to their roots, and figuring out what they do well.

Nobuya Nakazato, creative lead on Konami's PlayStation 2 action title Shin Contra (and previously associated with Contra: Hard Corps, Contra III and Contra: Shattered Soldier), summed up his feelings about the current state of the industry: "I myself really liked the games from the Famicom [NES] days, because they focused on gameplay over graphics. Graphically intensive games are still selling well on the market now, but in 10 years time, will you still be able to say that those were the best games? The game market is going to be in trouble, unless we look towards the long term and reorient ourselves towards what makes games fun to play."

Inside the Tokyo Game Show

It was easy to feel a similar sentiment in most of the larger Tokyo Game Show booths this year, and nowhere was this reorientation more obvious than in the Microsoft booth. Microsoft has traditionally had a very tough time of it in Japan. It can't seem to get a good market foothold, partially because of the design of the console, but largely because of a lack of native, uniquely Japanese titles being put on the market. Never a company to give up on a potentially lucrative investment, Microsoft has taken a very out-of-character approach this year. An entire wall of the booth was devoted to Japanese-created 2D fighters, shooters, puzzle games and 'hardcore gamer' titles, from companies such as SNK, Sega Sammy, Capcom, and others. The deliberate placement and juxtaposition of these titles made a clear statement that Microsoft is willing to appeal to the hardcore aesthetic. While it could be argued that these are simply somewhat lower-budget games, picked up by a publisher looking keenly for Japan-specific content, the fact remains that the Xbox is attempting to broaden its market to include the hardcore 'base' gamers - the people that purchase games even during an economic or trend-based slump.

Naturally, the biggest draw at Microsoft's booth was the first playable demo of Halo 2. Sweaty American journalists mingled with aloof Japanese press, along with any normal citizen willing to pay the exorbitant cost of being allowed to enter the show one day early, waiting upwards of three hours for a five-minute play, and no-one came away disappointed. The game is as stand-out as it appeared to be at the last E3 - well-realized environments with increased environmental and vehicular interactivity, capped with more impressive weapons and enemies.

Extending this title's draw over the entire show, it follows logically that most of the big A-list titles of the show were sequels. Sony's new PSP handheld, for instance, relies very heavily on ports and sequels to establish name recognition and product confidence, though all of the games on hand were still looking somewhat finished. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the 35 playable PSP titles were recognizable and existing brands.

However, bucking this over-riding trend to some degree, Sony managed to be a little daring in terms of IP for its higher profile titles, choosing to showcase Genji, an action game from ex-Capcom hotshot and Street Fighter II creator Yoshiki Okamoto, and Wanda to Kyozou; a 'boutique' product from Fumito Ueda of ICO fame. In this, Sony is clearly showing the benefit of being at the top of the gaming heap - to fund what others might consider experimentation or riskier titles. Ueda made it clear what this greater freedom would mean to him: "Some day I want something that I have created to make a large group of people feel something. That would be interesting."

Nintendo is also bordering on daring with the sort of titles it is bringing to its DS handheld, with a number of new IPs, or, safer still, existing IPs with totally new design documents. Yet by traversing the show floor, you wouldn't be able to tell this - the Kyoto-based company was a conspicuous no-show again this year. Nintendo traditionally eschews TGS, but used to run Spaceworld, a dedicated show of its own. Without even a standalone Nintendo show this year, the interested observer had to look to specific third-party booths for Nintendo DS software information, but, crazily, the DS hardware itself could not even be shown.

Therefore, an irreverent Sonic Team showed movies of people playing their new DS 'girlfriend maintenance simulator' (I Would Die for You) with the actual hardware blurred out by a mosaic effect, in an intentional reference to Japanese pornography, most of which is similarly censored. Sonic Team director Yuji Naka commented: "Nintendo said we can't show it! Nintendo is officially announcing the DS on October 7th, so we blurred it." He added, regarding the DS: "It's a very interesting piece of hardware…with the touch panel you can point, or rub, or draw things, so there's a lot of room for entertainment there." According to Naka, I Would Die For You is reportedly "...kind of, how shall I say, naughty? Erotic, maybe? So of course, girls love it!"

Square Enix, quickly becoming the king of the multi-million-dollar remake, showed a wide array of nostalgic offerings. Each of their games (and new CG movie) is based on existing IP, relying on graphical and aural updates to carry them through. Though it may sound a bit counterintuitive, there is actually a bit of innovation going on there, especially with their remake of the original Romancing SaGa. The watercolor RPG technique has been used by many 2D games before, but this marks the first real attempt at using this style in a 3D world. But of course, graphical updates only take you so far, if you don't significantly alter the gameplay.

The company also showed that mobile phone gaming is not going away any time soon, with its new entry Final Fantasy VII: Before Crisis. It's a multiplayer RPG, though not quite an MMO, which Square is really banking on to take it into the mobile arena. Currently there are no current plans to release the game outside of Japan, due to network restrictions. But Square Enix is hoping that the 4 million user installed base for the Series 900 phone (a phone that's cross-advertised by characters in their Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children DVD) will be enough to make the game a success.

Cell phone games, as opposed to the rest of the Japanese game industry, have been steadily increasing in profitability. In spite of this, there has yet to be a huge Japan-wide hit in the genre. But with big-name recognition, use of the camera for preparation of magic spells, and that addictive online environment, it goes without saying that Square Enix is hoping Before Crisis is the one.

Throngs of show-goers waiting in line to sample the latest and greatest from Japanese developers.

Sega Sammy, the next great branding hybrid, was similarly introspective. Under Sammy's leadership, the Sega brand is releasing scads of sequels (Shining Force, Phantasy Star, Sakura Taisen), remakes of older games (Virtua Fighter 2, Shining Force once again) - even to the point of releasing a new Dreamcast game under the Sega brand label. It seems that Sega was told by the Sammy higher-ups to go back to its roots, and go back they did! On the Sammy-er side of things, 2D fighters (Guilty Gear Isuka, The Rumble Fish), military strategy, and other niche titles ruled the roost. Sammy seems rather content to allow both the Sammy and Sega brands to maintain a unique feel, giving most of the publishing credit to the Sega side.

Another member of the retro-conscious tribe was Taito, who has been steadily increasing its console presence over the last several years in a rather unique way. Taito owns D3 Publisher, maker of the most popular budget games series in Japan, with titles such as The Giant Beautiful Woman, The Girls Swordfight, or The Splatter Action. These games use simple, often traditional gameplay mechanics with flashy graphics (either lots of blood or lots of cleavage), and they seem to sell very well for their price point.

On the flip side, it seems that Taito games themselves are sporting an even deeper retro aesthetic. For example, Taito has just announced new arcade hardware named the Type-X. It's based on a stripped-down Windows XP architecture, and the board itself looks quite a bit like a PC. With this, the company has brought several game companies, primarily makers of 2D shooters and fighters, back from obscurity and into the limelight. Some of these companies, such as Seibu Kaihatsu, makers of the classic Raiden 2D- shooter series, were assumed deceased prior to the games announced for the Type-X. Many of the games Taito displayed at the Tokyo Game Show were early home ports of these soon-to-be-released arcade titles. This is a very unusual approach, but one which has worked for Taito so far, and further exemplifies the company's commitment to moderate-budget niche titles.

SNK Playmore is a company that has always dealt primarily with the niche area, and this TGS showed the company trying to branch out, albeit in limited doses. With 3D versions of some of its long-standing series either in the works or on the shelves (Metal Slug 3D, King Of Fighters: Maximum Impact), and online play promised for all of its future PlayStation 2 fighters, SNK is really working toward the future. But even still, the remakes, rehashes and sequels took up the majority of the booth. It wasn't a bad thing, per se, but very in keeping with the play-it-safe trends of the current Japanese game industry.

Elsewhere, Konami is no stranger to the sequel trend, given their penchant for the old school, but there were still several new pieces of IP from high-profile development teams. The biggest of these may have been Rumble Roses, the female-centric, extremely cleavage-friendly wrestling game. The risqué action was featured prominently in the company's display, with a looping movie cleverly angled to face the line waiting for the more modest Square-Enix game demos. Konami followed this with the announcement of a new, intriguing-looking rhythmic action title, OZ, from the makers of Castlevania and Suikoden.

Another company trying to buck the sequel trend was Bandai. True, most of their titles are based on licensed animated works, but their PSP lineup was quite new, with the in-development title (Lumines) from Tetsuya Mizuguchi of Rez fame, a new-to-console Falcom property, and a few other ambitious titles.

But over the entire Tokyo Game Show, the message came across clearly. As is increasingly the case worldwide, only the companies at the top of the heap, those companies that are not losing money, can afford to innovate with new IP, or even with new gameplay. But if there's a more positive message lurking beneath the surface, it's that innovation comes in waves with new hardware. The next wave of home console platforms from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo will undoubtedly see more new IP, unique properties and risky ventures right off the bat. These forthcoming machines are successors to established, successful pieces of hardware.

But on the handheld side of things, Sony's PSP and Nintendo's DS are both untried in the market. On the one hand, Sony is attempting something new with its handheld through the screen size and control scheme, the new proprietary media, and movies playing straight out of the box. On the other, the DS is clearly offering something new with the two screens and touch-pad based gameplay - this is also, by default, a bit more risky.

But with the launch of new handheld hardware like this, we may be seeing a contrasting effect from the launch of new console hardware. For the DS and PSP (excepting Nintendo's own DS game development, perhaps), companies are understandably guarded, choosing mostly to release games with recognizable titles, testing the waters. It's curious that the end of the current home console era and the beginning of the new portable era would mirror each other so closely in terms of content types.

As for a Western perspective on all these complex changes, Jason Della Rocca of the IGDA put forth his own ideas for improvements to the Japanese industry, in the industry-based CEDEC conference held during the show. His suggestions? Broaden into western markets, and learn what insights Western developers have to offer. Pay more attention to game academics. And most importantly - share ideas with each other. The Japanese game industry is notoriously secretive, even to the point of losing code rather than storing it where it could potentially be found by others. A paradigm shift is needed if the medium is to retain its viability as the epitome of modern entertainment in Japan.

In the meantime, as Konami's Nakazato mentioned, it's the 'hardcore' players that will keep the Japanese game industry afloat, should the mainstream turn to other forms of entertainment. So the success of this current round of game releases will be very telling. But of course, no-one but the consumers and their hard-earned yen can tell us the real results of this retro trending in the long-term. And if there was one phrase that summed up this quandary and epitomized this year's Tokyo Game Show? "Here's to a bright future, with an eye on the past."


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