The Soul of Japanese Gaming

日本ゲームの魂

In recent years, it has been argued that Japanese video gaming, as an industry, has faltered and has entered a period of prolonged decline. As a result, numerous Japanese companies are producing “Westernized” video games to compete with North American produced, or inspired, video games. But is this a viable approach?

Some say, no.

Just as in animist beliefs regarding the ancient gods (神, kami), Japanese video games have distinct souls (魂、tamashii) to them, as a manner of speaking. They have a style (風、fuu) and a feel (感じ、kanji) to them that is distinctive.

In the process of excessive Westernizing, that distinctiveness can be lost. This diminishes a game’s value to both (両方、ryouhou) markets; the Japanese have less reason to buy soulless products, and Americans consider the same products to be inferior clones of triple-A titles like Gears of War, Call of Duty, Fallout 3, and so on.

Let us not waste time dwelling on criticism. Instead, let us look at examples of Japanese games with distinct tamashii in them.

Super Mario Brothers Series

No discussion (or monologue) of Japanese video gaming is complete without mentioning Super Mario Brothers. This series might be called the face of Japanese gaming, the original series packaged for free with all Nintendo family entertainment systems.

These games feature cute looks, extensive on-screen action, challenges, clean fun for all ages (well, especially young ages), and require thinking and skill on the part of the player. This is the essence of gaming: you earn your enjoyment.

Hokuto Musou (北斗無双)

Fist of the North Star Meets Dynasty Warriors

Officially titled Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage for U.S. shores, this is a fusion between a classic post-apocalyptic, over the top, bloody and gory martial arts anime and the Dynasty Warriors series, which Koei began as a way to bring its traditional strategy gaming “to life” for action gamers to sink their teeth in while identifying from heroes from classical Chinese literature (loosely based on history). The defining feature of the series is fighting hordes of regular soldiers, slaying them in large numbers, and bringing low the enemy’s generals to break the back of the enemy’s army.

Thus, stylized anime martial arts meets hordes of bad guys to rip apart.

Now, I’m not even a Fist of the North Star fan. However, it is impossible for me to ignore how this takes a basic idea and runs with it: taking identifiable anime heroes – who are certainly capable of slaughtering vast numbers of “regular bad guys” – and putting them in a style of game in which they can go to town on the enemy.

Such games are not played because they get high reviews from professional game reviewers. They are played because players find it to be a mix of role-playing and simple but active fun. Also, “button mashing” involves, in this kind of case, a lot of real-time choices of timing and how to refine one’s approach. It’s a thinking man’s slaughterhouse.

Gundam Vs. Series

The Gundam “Vs.” (Versus) series began as an experiment in well… if you read the description above, you’ll understand: bringing more dynamic action gaming to the Gundam franchise, which has hordes of distinctive characters (with distinct looks/ names/ voice acting) and mecha (giant war machines; from mechanical).

The PSP versions have evolved into a two on two dueling game with up to four players networked together and employing Gundams from old and new series alike, focusing on the most popular (or notorious) machines. While there are other play modes, this is the most true to the idea of portable arcade-style gaming. (And these games are indeed ported from arcade systems.)

In many cases, characters and Gundams that did not really work in the anime they come from, or which were shortchanged by storylines while remaining popular with fans, are reborn in video games. The ability to instantly identify with a known quantity – from modern science fiction rather than ancient Chinese history in this case – makes such gaming distinctive. You already know who these characters and machines are; now go forth and beat on thy opponent.

Zone of the Enders Series

Space colonists are known as “Enders” (at the end of known civilization) in this series. While the first of the two games was known as a mediocre mecha action game with some interesting ideas, the second was a sleeper hit that was considered revolutionary in the field, a shining example of how to implement gameplay of a much faster, yet complex and intricate nature befitting machines smaller and more agile than relatively clunky Gundams could ever manage.

Also, the mecha art itself was highly stylized. Add to that a lot of serious “game” in the game and you had a package that surprised people. Many in the West bought it for no reason other than the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo packaged with it (as both series are brainchilds of Hideo Kojima), but those oriented towards this kind of gaming were pleasantly surprised.

No third sequel has been announced in the intervening years. Kojima, of course, has been busy with Metal Gear Solid 4 and spin-offs and so forth, all worthy in their own right.

Resident Evil Series

(Known as “Biohazard” in Japan.)

Before zombie action games were cool, there was zombie horror survival in the form of the Resident Evil games. From modest early Playstation roots, the game evolved into Wii and PS3/ 360 versions that have truly impressed gamers with iron devotion to the basic concept: surviving is a win, and laying waste to the living dead (making them dead dead?) is a means to an end.

More to the point, there is potential terror lurking behind every door, and actual terror behind many of them, and you don’t know in advance which is which. Suspense, action, violence, and yes, a lot of bloody stuff, is part and parcel of this series.

I actually haven’t played this series, believe it or not. The closest I got was playing a spin-off called Dino Crisis 2, which was a much more action oriented version (with much more fluid motion) than its parallels at the time. Well, Resident Evil got more action-y as time passed, but I have fond memories of fighting dinosaurs with high tech equipment in that game (through well, some temporal (time) anomaly stuff).

Speaking of dinos…

Monster Hunter Series

I’ve mentioned it before, but the Monster Hunter series is a huge hit in Japan, a truly monster franchise, and it has its adherents in the West as well. Here, there’s no time travel; you are a fully fledged citizen of a prehistoric civilization hunting dangerous animals and true monsters through caves, over hills, through jungle, on snowy mountains, and at the edges of vicious-looking volcanoes. Gather, hunt, and construct weapons and armor from your prey.

Just as with a healthy diet, you are what you kill.

Ryu ga Gotoku Series

(Known as the “Yakuza” series in the west. Lit. “As A Dragon”)

As odd as it may sound, this series revolves around a tough as nails, nigh living legend Yakuza – a Japanese gangster, complete with a full back tattoo – with a heart of gold. Originally framed for involvement in the murder of his adopted father, he gets out of prison ten years later to find his city radically changed thanks to, well, modernity. Kiryuu Kazuma becomes involved in mysteries, plots on his life, underworld wars of succession, and helping a nine year old girl who is apparently related to a lost love.

Anyway, that was just the first game. There’s tons of plot in the others and I don’t intend to spoil anything for people who may play. I have played all short of the fourth, and I have been richly rewarded for my dedication to Japanese language and culture in the process.

This series is the closest Japan comes to a Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox game where you can do anything you like. It is not purely so, for the games have very strong plots, but certain points in them allow a great deal of roaming around, the ability to play mini-games, do sidequests, what the Saint’s Row games might call diversions… and one of those diversions is buying expensive gifts for bar hostesses, sweet-talking them and, if done successfully, spending a night at a love hotel.

No, that part isn’t shown explicitly on-screen. But high graphical resolution on the PS3 has not gone to waste. These Japanese girls tend to get very hot, very well dressed…

Anyway, the main gameplay component is beating up on bad guys in brutal street combat.

Put another way, this series is the best thing I can recommend to anyone wanting to imagine themselves a hero in a martial arts movie… with a distinctly Japanese, and Yakuza, edge to it.

One scene from the first game, which I will never forget, involved taking on a Chinese triad (and yes this was in Japan). You invade, for lack of a better word, a Chinese compound, and when you reach the kitchen, a group of five assistants and a Chinese chef holding a cleaver confront you. There are aisles everywhere, hordes of grab-able improvised weapons, plus you can grapple opponents and (provided your “Heat Gauge” is high enough) beat their heads against the counters and other showy, brutal, bone-crunching moves… as if you’re really in a movie!

And that was just the first game! (Albeit, such a classic scene that even the later games cannot exceed it, only shine in their own distinctive ways. It still brings a smile to my eyes just thinking about it.)

Living Japanese Culture

This legacy of gaming should not end here. Like any living organism, a series can get stale or uncreative or fall into ruts that threaten survival. This does not change that specialization, use of natural advantages, and being yourself, are powerful drivers of creativity and distinctiveness, all of which increase a product’s final value to the consumer.

It’s not a matter of doing Western games better than Westerners. (It’s not a good idea to push that. Really it’s not.) It’s a matter of doing Japanese gaming better. This is not an unachievable goal. I understand how accountants and analysts might think they should go in other directions, but ultimately, it’s about never forgetting your roots and building higher. Stand on the shoulders of giants, and reach higher.

That is the soul of Japanese gaming. May it never be lost. May it be re-inspired and rejuvenated with a commitment to making the gamer’s experience a vibrant one that is well worth the effort, and the money.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: jeremiahbourque@gmail.com
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One Response to The Soul of Japanese Gaming

  1. Mr. Objection says:

    The problem isn’t necessarily with Japanese gameplay style its that Japanese storytelling is and has always been obtuse and having circular or non-existent character progression. In a global gaming market its hard to sell a uniquely Japanese and alienating story to what amounts to the majority of the game buying public (non-Japanese). Thus, I’ve noticed that games are now seemingly retaining Japanese gameplay but opting for western written scripts.

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