The Japanese Gaming Renaissance

Video games for much of their infancy were closely associated with the Japanese giants that developed incredible experiences. During much of my childhood the country of Japan and the constant stream of incredible games coming from it went hand in hand. 

Not a day went by when I wouldn’t be enraptured in Mario’s latest game, or the next epic adventure from Squaresoft. These were the experiences I lived for when I was young, but around the 2000’s there was a distinct change in the gaming landscape.

Emerging from the PC market, western developers started gaining a strong foothold in the minds of gamers. There was Blizzard with their strong lineup of Starcraft, Warcraft and Diablo and the emergence of Valve with Half-Life and the mods that surfaced. 

During this same period of time a new genre became incredibly popular among gamers, the first-person shooter (FPS). In the early days of FPS, gamers were treated to legendary games such as Rare’s Goldeneye 007 and Bungie Solfware’s Halo which took a market that made its home on PC and brought them to TV screens so groups of friends could battle it out.

Two games can be looked at as the final push of western developers being the dominant force in video games. First is Halo by Bungie Software; the burgeoning FPS genre continued to gain momentum throughout the early to mid-2000’s. 

Once Halo took the stage it was clear that they had found a way to seamlessly create modern first person shooters and began to build the online scene that surrounded FPS. 

Halo was a phenomenon, LAN parties sprang up all across college campuses and basements around the country.  And many developers followed in Halo’s footsteps including giants like Call of Duty published by Activision which has been a tour de force for nearly 10 years.

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Credit: Bethesda Game Studios

The other game that cemented western developers in the forefront of development was Bethesda Softworks and their Elder Scrolls series.

 The first game to come to consoles, Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was an eye opening experience for many gamers. A vast open world that held so many secrets and had no critical path that you had to follow, it stirred a sense of adventure in many people (myself included). Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion took that same formula and prettied it up and made some of its mechanics a little easier to understand and use; yet still remained as open as the previous game.
With the sudden emergence of western developers, the relevance and dominance of Japanese developers slowed down considerably. Suddenly the story switched from what is happening in Japan to the burgeoning market in the US and Europe.

A big reason for that switch comes from different tastes in Japan.

 More and more Japanese gamers were going mobile and starting to leave traditional home consoles in the dust. 

The Nintendo 3DS and Playstation Vita found great success within Japan. Mobile increasingly gained popularity with the advent of Apple’s iPhone in Japan as well. 

It was clear that Japanese priorities were for gaming on the go and that conflicted with the types of experiences that the western audience wanted.  The Nintendo Switch is also a byproduct of Nintendo trying to appeal to both markets by making a home console that can be taken on the go.

These Japanese developers did not disappear though. They continued to make games that found major success within a niche market, but had trouble finding success in the mainstream. 

There were always outliers that continued to find an audience, Nintendo franchises have always been a mainstay in the US. 

Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 5 made a huge splash as Hideo Kojima (the director of Metal Gear Solid) adopted a more western framework to complement his more Japanese style. A more recent example is the Dark Souls series from From Software who showcases the major success that the Japanese formula can have.

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One of my childhood heroes – Credit: Konami

The beginning of 2017 has been strong for Japanese developers, which shows that while they may have been down but they are not out. 

Going back to the tail end of 2016 you have Square Enix’s long awaited Final Fantasy XV. A game that, while not perfect, took a franchise that has struggled to find it’s relevance it used to have and regain that following. 

Transforming the old active time battle system that Final Fantasy had become so well known for and becoming an action centric RPG. Final Fantasy XV found itself at the center of attention despite being a Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) at a time when that was becoming increasingly rare.

You then find yourself at the beginning of 2017, Sony kicked things off with Gravity Rush 2; a sequel to the very fun Gravity Rush for the Playstation Vita. 

Gravity Rush stars Kat and her gravity defying powers to fall in whatever direction she needs to fight evil. While not a super blockbuster, this is the first strong game of 2017 and kept my interest the entire way through with a heartfelt and fun adventure through space and time.

 Quickly on the heels of Gravity Rush was Capcom’s latest entry in the Resident Evil franchise with Resident Evil 7

Borrowing from the formula of the original Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2, the survival horror elements reentered the spotlight. Dropping the fast paced action and instead giving you a first person perspective upped the horror.

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Face paced gravity defying combat – Credit: Sony Japan Studio

Ni-Oh by Team Ninja followed Resident Evil shortly thereafter with a fresh take on the Dark Souls formula. Playing with the actual history of a European samurai by the name of William Adams, you fight your way through the real conflict between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari

Of course it’s not a Dark Souls type game without loads of supernatural elements and demons to battle, Ni-Oh borrows from Japanese folklore pitting you against various oni (Japanese demons) with the help of Japanese spirits called Kodama.

A game which I have spoke about at length on this site, NieR, saw it’s release early 2017. If you want a break down of why this game is so good please go check out my article showcasing why this game was so good.   

Another game which really needs no introduction if you have a passing interest in video games is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Released alongside the Nintendo Switch on May 3rd, Breath of the Wild is a game that took a legendary concept and completely flipped the script. The results were incredible and is one of the most open and personal games I’ve ever played. The old adage of “You see that mountain over there? You can go to it” takes on new meaning in a game that lets you climb and explore every inch of a post-apocalyptic Hyrule.

brent zelda

Finally at the end of the deluge of incredible Japanese releases is Persona 5 By Atlus (a franchise I absolutely adore). Persona gives us the story of a Japanese school kid living a normal life during the day and saving the world by evening. The mostly by the book entry into the franchise polishes it’s immaculate style to a sheen. 

Watching the game in motion is wonderful as that sense of style and artistry are present in every menu option and every victory pose. A game that I’ve sunk easily 60 hours into and still want to go back and learn more.
Japanese games have had a strong presence over the beginning of 2017 and can continue to carve out a larger audience. 

One of the strengths of video games are the stories and ideas that are brought to life all over the world.

 For too long the mindset was around what was happening in the United States and what companies in North America were working on. 

Like 80’s hair and acid wash jeans, it’s time for Japanese developers to make a comeback.

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