Sunday, March 18, 2012

In defense of the Japanese gaming industry

It's a sad state of affairs when an article warrants a title like this.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by controversial statements by everyone from Fez's Phil Fish to Megaman creator Keiji Inafune to Metal Gear's Hideo Kojima, the Japanese industry is rapidly becoming an easy target for ridicule and extensive criticism; as if it wasn't enough of one already.

Phil Fish

"your games just suck"

Keiji Inafune:

"Before you can win again, you must first acknowledge your loss. And then be prepared to start over again. For many years Japan was the winning team. Thanks to those victories we became big-headed. As someone who spent many years at a major company I was able to see that first hand. But I am ashamed to admit it but whenever I travel overseas I feel as if Japanese games are becoming a blast from the past. They have become great memories and little more.

"But there is a limit to how much business you can do trading on past glories. We rarely see new creations from Japan. So we stick to our memories and we ship an HD version. I feel that’s the upper limit that we are showing to users today. It's not what they want.

"In Japan I believe that we still have some of the power to create brands. But what we don't have are the people who will pour in a huge amount of effort. What we have is the result of us having relied heavily on brands in the past, neglecting efforts to create something new."

Inafune's been one of the most vocal critics of the Japanese industry, starting with his comments at Tokyo Game Show:
"Personally when I looked around [at] all the different games at the TGS floor I said ‘Man, Japan is over. We're done. Our game industry is finished."

Hideo Kojima:

"A lot of creators are just focused on Japan and the Japanese market and aren't really aware of what people around the world want.

"The Japanese games industry has fallen to a point where Japanese movies were at as well - these small indie movies set within Japan with a Japanese story done on a low budget. Because the scale is so small we can't get the budget to make it succeed on a global level.

"In contrast to that, most Western studios approach things from more of a Hollywood standpoint where they're looking at making their games a very global success and looking at how they can sell them in various markets.

"From the very beginning they have those goals and are able to get the proper budget and commit the proper technology to it."

So from the indie scene to Japan, the consensus ranges from 'the industry is finished' and 'over-reliance on classic brands' to 'they lack technological skill' to 'their games just suck'.

Are Japanese developers as ignorant and incapable of creating good games as these guys make it seem? Yes, anyone could easily reference tripe like Idea Factory's shamelessly pandering RPG titles or the ever-present moé visual-novel/dating sim, but that's the equivalent of using games like Duke Nukem Forever and X-Blades as an example of what the western market can produce.

Maybe I've been playing games in an entirely alternate universe than them, but here's a few titles from the past couple years which I think showcase that Japanese ingenuity and creativity is alive and well.


The game so nice, I bought it twice. Catherine was developed by Atlus's staff using an elaborate reworking of the Gamebryo engine to get started with their first HD project. Since its successful launch both in Japan and the states, they've since begun work on Persona 5; which will no longer use Gamebryo as a foundation, but a brand new engine developed from their experiences on Catherine.

A modern-day trip through a man's attempt to survive his waking and unconscious nightmares. Catherine focuses on a slacker by the name of Vincent, torn between two women, sheep, blocks, and liquor. Love the game's block-pushing gameplay or hate it, there is nothing quite like it on the market, a standard set by Atlus titles in general.

Shadows of the Damned
(staring Garcia F!cking Hotspur)

When it comes to developers not afraid to push boundaries and try new things, whether for better or for worse, Grasshopper Manufacture are pretty much the defining example.

Suda 51, the lunatic behind such quirky projects as Killer7 and No More Heroes, united with Shinji Mikama, Akira Yamaoka, and a global team ranging from an Italian director to western Q&A, to devise a Resident Evil 4-like that delivers insanity and hellish gunfighting in spades.

Garcia's trip is full of intentionally cheesy dialogue, rampant offensive humor and visuals, and copious amounts of demons getting their heads blown off. There's also a charming talking skull by the name of Johnson(apologies to Murray) who is equal times a witty companion and a variable source of demon-disembowling weaponry.

Dark Souls

I'd hope From Software's spiritual successor to Demon's Souls doesn't require introduction, but just in case.

Demon's Souls, itself a spiritual successor to From's long-running King's Field franchise, brought the dark fantasy genre and unforgiving difficulty back to the RPG. Not only is the game extremely minimalist in assisting the player and storytelling, but the online components further add to the experience by encouraging jolly co-operation with unknown faces, as well as the ever-present threat of being invaded by another player deadset on separating you from your soul(s).

Dark Souls builds on this further by creating a gigantic open-world experience, where the player is capable of going anywhere they please, at any time, without need for selecting areas from a hub as in Demon's Souls. The end result is a game with immense opportunity for customization, and if the player reads into the subtle dialogue and world enough, one of the more engrossing plots and assortments of characters the industry has to offer.

The 'Yakuza' Franchise

One of Japan's most popular gaming franchises, thanks in no small part in its similarities to Shenmue.

All the Yakuza games, from the PS2 to the PSP to the PS3, transpire in the vast city of Kamurocho. Take in some Karaoke, visit hostess bars, and beat the ever-loving hell out of thugs who think they're better than you with anything you can get your hands on.

Just another day in the life of a Yakuza.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade

Vanillaware are considered the quintessential masters of gorgeous 2D graphics, and with good reason.

Their intense Wii hack'n'slash title boasts wonderful music(thanks to Hitoshi Sakimoto's Baslscape team), a blood-soaked journey through ancient Japan, and some of the most beautiful 2D graphics to ever grace a console.

Persona 4: The Ultimate in Midnight Arena

I'd be lax in my duties if I didn't show Arc System Works some love. Still one of the most prolific 2d fighting game developers, having started with Guilty Gear and continuing with BlazBlue, Atlus decided to task ArcSys with creating a fighting game based on the immensely popular Persona franchise.

The end result looks to be another fast-paced example of why 2D has nowhere to go but up, even in the modern-day industry.

(from 'BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger')

Ys: The Oath in Felghana

Last and definitely not least, Falcom. As with most Japanese devs, Falcom are especially fond of the PSP. With a large install base and similarity to PC development tools, Falcom continue to support the PSP with open arms, and it received some of the best games from their long-running Ys series as a result.

While debatable whether or not Oath in Felghana(a reimagining of the third game in the series) is the pinnacle of what the franchise has to offer, it's certainly among the best, and doesn't lack for fast-paced combat, visual appeal, or amazing music.

I really could go on for ages with examples of what the Japanese industry is capable of. There are still a multitude of talented and creative individuals hard at work, developing titles that continue to keep the gaming industry and originality thriving.

For both western and eastern devs alike to constantly put them down at every opportunity is a saddening state of affairs, one that hopefully this gen and forthcoming ones will put a swift end to.

I've left out a plethora of noteworthy titles, of course, but I encourage anyone in the comments section to share examples of what they think continues to help Japanese gaming stand out from the pack.

In brief, some other solid Japanese games I've played this generation(though not without their flaws in several cases):

-Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3, Square-Enix)
-Hard Corps: Uprising (PSN, Arc System Works)
-The 3rd Birthday (PSP, Square-Enix)
-Corpse Party (PSP, Team GrisGris/5pb)
-Rhythm Heaven Fever (Wii, Nintendo)
-Nier (PS3, Cavia)
-Bayonetta (PS3, Platinum Games)

And one particular title which I've heard nothing but glowing praise for:

-Vanquish (PS3/360, Platinum Games)


  1. Internet, heed this man's wise words.

    If you put aside any gleeful schadenfreude, avoid band-wagon jumping, and actually look at the games released since the start of this generations, Japan has produced more fantastic games than most of us will have free time to actually play.

    For personal amusement I casually started writing a list of every decent, notable or in some way interesting Japanese developed game from this generation, which I shared with CJ because I knew he was working on this, and the list contained close to 100 titles. Not all of them will be everyone's cup of tea, but the sheer quantity of good stuff - which wasn't even researched, it was stream of conciousness typing - convinces me.

    The obnoxious whinnying which comes from the naysayers regarding the state of Japan's creativity, needs to stop. To these people I ask: what exactly do you want? How many more games must be released before you admit that, hey, they're still producing good stuff?

    Japan's best stuff doesn't and never will reach the sales figures of the latest Call of Duty, but would we want them to? Would we want that unique creative spark to be snuffed out or altered, as Inafune seems to suggest it should be, simply to compete with a creatively bankrupt slice of market? No it shouldn't.

    Countless people have said it before but: The best games made in Japan were games made by Japanese people for Japanese people. When they were unconscious of their affect on the wider world.

    In my mind the people who criticise the output of Japan are those who will never be satisfied, and their negativity isn't reflective of the actual situation, but some other underlying cause.

    In summary I'd like to say:
    Where's Valkyria Chronicles on that list, CJ? Best game of this generation. :P

    1. So was Solatorobo on that list of yours, Sketcz? I know how much you hate it...

  2. Anyone who thinks that Japanese games are dead clearly hasn't taken a look at the DS library. Off the top of my head there's...

    -the Ace Attorney games
    -The World Ends With You
    -both Devil Survivor games
    -Kirby: Canvas Curse
    -Trauma Center

    The list goes on. True, you won't find as many Japanese games as a big-budget console release, but in some cases you don't need one. There's been a trade of all that in exchange for what we gamers want most: creativity, ingenuity, and a buttload of fun (and in many cases, tear-inducing gameplay).

    So yeah. As you said, I wouldn't count Japan out just yet.

  3. @Anon:
    Yes, the list contained many games I don't like. It was more about games that anyone/everyone enjoys, rather than my own personal list - so plenty that I don't like, and games I haven't actually played, such as Mario Galaxy 2.

    Having said that, CJ did criticise my inclusion of Operation Darkness (360), which I'm rather vicariously fond of. Camera angles aside, I think it's pretty neat. :-(

    1. (I should really pick a general username if I'm going to be posting here. I'm the Anon from before, but I figure you know that via IP.)

      I disagree with CJ's criticisms. Operation Darkness was an excellent take on the historical fiction genre, and that's something we see very rarely in the video game medium. While it was a rather difficult and at times frustrating SRPG, (and the music was pretty lackluster) I feel that it definitely would belong on such a list of decent, notable, or at least interesting.

      Besides, it has HERBERT WEST. (...or East, if we're going with the western release) How many games have The Re-Animator as a protagonist?

  4. No Bayonetta love?

    TBH Phil Fish seems like an arrogant twat that's gotten a recently inflated ego, which is only going to get worse when he releases his game which looks to borrow heavily from Super Paper Mario.

    1. Read the last paragraph. :P I love Bayonetta.

      Also, never played Valkyria Chronicles, but I'm well aware of how loved it is.

  5. There are exactly two things that are "wrong" with the Japanese gaming industry:

    1. Your taste in games (if you're on the side that Japanese games suck).

    2. The ridiculous ideal of the home-console 60-bucks million-seller as the epitome of "proper" video game design.

  6. Great article. I think that while Japan's "relevance" in the industry has dwindled, their creativity certainly hasn't. I also think that while Japanese devs like Inafune and Kojima have the right to critique their own contemporaries, a no-name "indie" developer (and I use that term loosely here) like Fish should worry about building up a catalog of games and experience before trash talking any other part of the industry.

    Also, what's probably even more heinous about this controversy is that "indie developers" like Braid's Jonathon Blow have backed Fish up on his miserable excuse of an argument. Blow's gone as far to have an interview with Gamespot to explain his outlook on the situation. Oh, and no, he doesn't particularly say anything insightful, or even intelligent. Just.... take a look if you can:

  7. Agreeing about Inafune and Kojima having a right to talk about it. As directors/producers, they're also looking at sales rather than solely on quality, figuring out why their games aren't as popular overseas.

  8. Great post, and agree with every word. You've touched upon a handful of favorite games this generation but of course it's only scraping the surface. There's a ton of amazing titles coming out of Japan right now.

  9. I think it's humorous how whenever someone like Inafune and Kojima run one of these rants, they always offer themselves as examples of the right direction. Real humble.

    Anyway, as I see it, this perception comes as a result of a few changes in the business. First of all, the West have really stepped up their game, particularly on consoles. So while Japanese developers might be making as many great titles as ever, the percentage of great titles overall of Japanese origin is smaller than it used to be.

    Additionally, thanks to the runaway popularity of handhelds and the slowing sales of home consoles, many Japanese developers have moved their efforts to the portables. Western hardcore gamers are more likely to ignore these platforms.

    So, I don't think the Japanese games industry has slid into some kind of creative crash and burn, so much as it faces increased competition and has shifted focus to less visible (in the West) platforms. Dollars and cents-wise, the Japanese games industry seems to be in better shape than the Western games industry, so there's that, too.

  10. Inafune and Kojima are mostly talking about the big companies and their politics. Inafune had to work extremely hard to get the really good games he produced out the door even going to lengths of lying to the upper management.
    Then there's the waste of money from big name companies not using engines like the unreal engine rather deving their own like ff13 and you got a lot of issues on the inside of things. American and euro game companies tend to make more money because not only do they cater to other markets but they tend to find new ways of developing.

    Also the term the japanese gaming scene is dead isn't just about games being bad, its about games selling poorly like Yakuza and Shadows of the damned in your list.

    1. I definitely agree Japan was a bit too slow to licensing/re-using existing engines, but part of the reason why is that those engines had poor or non-existent documentation in Japanese. Even today, Gamebryo and UE3 are pretty much the only engines with Japanese documentation worth a damn.

      As far as sales go, it's kind of interesting. Inafune and possibly Kojima would say that games like Vanquish and Binary Domain would be wiser choices for garnering overall sales than Bayonetta and Yakuza, but reality doesn't bear that out. In the case of Bayonetta, it was an exponentially bigger seller than Vanquish, and while the North American results aren't in for Binary Domain, it would have to hit pretty big to make up for the significantly lower Japanese sales compared to Yakuza.

      Shadows of the Damned doesn't really tell us much at all, though. It's a love letter to grindhouse films (which is to say it's obviously designed to appeal to the Western market), and sold about as well as Suda51's stuff ever has (bar NMH1 which I firmly believe was just in the right place at the right time). It's hard to judge any sort of trend from its performance.

  11. "Yes, anyone could easily reference tripe like Idea Factory's shamelessly pandering RPG titles or the ever-present moé visual-novel/dating sim, but that's the equivalent of using games like Duke Nukem Forever and X-Blades as an example of what the western market can produce."

    So yeah, agreeing with the whole post, but just wanted to say that I did/do enjoy all of these as well. I don't tend to compare games though, if I have a fun time through it, that's enough for me to like it (although I will say I don't have much interest in going though X-Blades again for some time, it was fun just to maul through enemies).

    On a side note, I'm very much not enjoying this "everything-has-to-look-like-real-life" shift a lot of things are getting... completely horrified with how Blades of Time looks, and even Dead or Alive 5 is making me question whether or not I want to bother when it looks very little-to-nothing (depending on the character) like the previous games... HD doesn't have to and shouldn't mean Real Life, I'd much prefer more stylized characters...

    Also, very much enjoyed playing though Neptunia mk2, have gone through it 8 times so far, looking forward to Tuesday when Falcom and Cave launch as well.

  12. In fairness, I've demoed Fez and it was delightful. It really succeeds in combining the Cave Story aesthetic with gameplay ideas from Super Paper Mario. Where were those two games from again? I feel like we were just talking about it.

    So yeah, Phil Fish is a hipster douchebag and was clearly talking out of his ass there at GDC. You can judge him as a person, but his game is actually pretty decent.

    1. I'll consider his word on anything only once he releases a game on time (or even at all).

  13. "Yes, anyone could easily reference tripe like Idea Factory's shamelessly pandering RPG titles or the ever-present moé visual-novel/dating sim, but that's the equivalent of using games like Duke Nukem Forever and X-Blades as an example of what the western market can produce."

    Missed that before. Just want to say that X-Blades is not really a "Western" game.

    1. X-Blades was developed in Russia, so, almost?

  14. Phil Fish is a talentless hack whose (yet-to-be-released) game is only known because he's part of the indie circlejerk. Fez is nothing more than typical indie thrash with bad graphic designs that would've been considered laughable during the NES days. Until Fish manages produce something that is up to the same caliber as Kojima Productions or Platinum Games, he is in no position to criticize the Japanese gaming industry.

  15. I think it's funny that people complain about Japanese franchises being run into the ground, when it seems like rehashes are more likely to go badly when they are outsourced to non-Japanese companies. Meanwhile, there have been tons of great remakes and sequels made closer to home like Mega Man 9 (and 10!), KOF XIII, all 5 of the new Mario games, Street Fighter IV, Pac-Man CE, Sonic Generations, the Ys and Legend of Heroes sequels, Dragon Quest IX, Fuurai no Shiren, etc.

    1. Contra 4 and Shinobi 3D says "hi."

  16. I'm not sure if anyone still even visits this older blog entry, but here's an excellent article in Kotaku proclaiming a similar sentiment:

    Japan is still making fantastic JRPGs.