Magical mystery tumor

It’s interesting to see how people are trying to psychoanalyze me based on the “favorite games of 2007” I’ve been recapping. But while I have been trying to broaden my horizons and capture the best games on every system, from both America and Japan, the preponderance of American-made games on the list doesn’t indicate some major seismic shift in my tastes. Besides, what preponderance? So far it’s a 50-50 split, with mostly Japanese games on the “almost but not quite” list. Ah, the joy of overreaction.

No, it has more to do with the fact that Japan has pretty much given up. A few months ago I wrote a retro feature for EGM chronicling average scores for major console titles over the years, and it was interesting to see the way American titles slowly began to creep in and eventually dominate the lists. The big sea change happened around 2003 or so. Japan’s output last year was pretty frickin’ sad — aside from a small handful of genuinely notable games, most of the best eastern games were remakes and rereleases of classic titles — particularly Dracula X Chronicles and Final Fantasy Tactics — or were barely upgraded sequels — Pokémon comes to mind — or were designed for people who have never touched a video game before. And 2008 is looking even drearier.

In other words, I still love Japanese games. They just don’t love me anymore.

19 thoughts on “Magical mystery tumor

  1. Yeah, I noticed this around the time GTA 3 came out. One of the problems is, half of the really good games these days are first person shooters. Another, Japan cannot make a GTA- style huge environments (Assasins Creed, CrackDown, does Shadow of the Colossus count?). They just don’t have the number of young developers needed to consistently make large scale games that we do. I mean, how big is Japan compared to the US? We have development in California, Washington , New York, Texas, etc, and a much larger pool to draw talent from.

    Up until the PS2, I pretty much exclusively played japanese games on the consoles, with some exceptions like Smash TV and Mortal Kombat. Now, the only Japanese game I bought this year is Super Mario Galaxy, and some used GBA games. Maybe part of the problem is that the PS3 is so hard to develop for, so it is taking Japans small teams too long to get up to speed, while the americans have had a year longer to work with the easier Xbox360 (FPS ahoy!). Oh yeah, a lot of the best/biggest XBox 360 games get to share development cost with the PC (Orange Box, Bioshock, Modern Combat, UT3), offsetting costs somewhat. Japan’s PC market is dating sims and fan made fighting games as far as I know.

  2. I wonder how this relates to the whole doom and gloom about Japanese gaming dying.
    Is this sequelitis symptomatic of a decline or a cause?
    Total copout: my guess is it’s both, to an extent.

    Where did everyone go? Actually, are there really fewer people playing hardcore games in Japan or is this the same thing PC gamers have been hearing for over a decade?

  3. They’re all buying cell phone games.

    The current Japanese shakeout probably has a lot to do with the rising cost of development. The smaller market means it’s much harder to justify a big budget on something that isn’t a guaranteed international hit. And even those big budget games seem to be having trouble coming out on time (MGS4, FFXIII and cousins).

    Dark times lay ahead.

  4. Stupid guess, but I suppose it could have to do with more reputable PC developers, a Western-centric lot, hitting it big on the consoles progressively as time goes by.

  5. It’s probably worth remembering that in Japan there isn’t a real next-gen market yet. Would the West’s console games be where they are today without the 360? Because that’s essentially where Japan is at the moment.

  6. Looks like we’ll be stuck getting the bulk of our Japanese games on the DS in the future. Better than a cell phone (at least I assume, even though I’ve never used a phone half as good as a Japanese one), but I’d rather have more big-screen stuff available too.

  7. That’s a shame. Japanese games tend to be much more surreal. I’m already tired of the gritty realistic environments. Make with the cute America!

  8. I thinks its the technology of the times finally catching up with the ambition of the western designers thats launched them way of Japan. Before, with limited technology (how much you can have going on with physics, believable presentation, tons of stuff), western games were boring Spawn clones (especially on console) with cheesy looking K-Mart school folder art styles, whereas the East kinda revelled in the low fi with menu based games, sidescrollers, whatever else, its art style working great with what tech they had at hand. But now all those games/styles just seem outdated (or at least not contemporary) and stuck in the Playstation days as the majority of people move on to the new stuff.

    You could also point to a lot the PC standard ways of making games, which has been ahead of the curve for a lot of people, becoming popular on console.

  9. Western developers making with the cute: Little Big Planet. (British, not American, but still.)

    Yeah, I was skeptical of the thesis, but I looked at my recently-bought games list, and all the Japanese-developed stuff is on the DS. The few things I’ve actually bought for PS3 are western, and it may stay that way until I succumb to FFXIII. Well, except maybe Soul Calibur or Tekken, which are arguably also sequels in decline. Hrm. Maybe Keita Takahashi will come through with something new and awesome if/when that Nobi Nobi Boy demo actually becomes a game. We’ll see.

  10. Yeah, I think Cartmas414 hit it on the head. Consoles can finally get equivalent ports of PC games, so we see all of these North American PC developers now getting games out of Xbox and PS3. As well, I’d say that there has been a change in consumer’s tastes: take 10, 15 years ago for example. Platforming cartoon games were the shit. Now, it’s a genre that is near dead, Mario Galaxy being the one real exception in the trend. Instead, shooters have replaced them largely, a genre that is classically American created.

    Then you have to look at Japanese developers who are still in the game. That new Square RPG (I forget what it’s called) is using an American-created engine and is largely being aimed towards the American audience. On Capcom’s side, Japanese personnel are building Street Fighter IV, but if I’m not mistaken, it’s being developed by Capcom’s US division (and I may be mistaken there, but I thought I had heard that).

    It is sad, because I love the Japanese games. The only consoles I’ve ever owned were Nintendo ones, but lately I’ve been getting into PC gaming (largely with the release of Orange Box) and am looking into getting a 360. The times, they are a changing.

    Still though, there is lots of good Japanese games coming out on the DS. Maybe what someone above said is correct; the Japanese are simply building games with smaller budgets, so they are appearing on your DSes or your mobile phones.

  11. Current console games are only “equivalent” to PC games because pretty much all recent mainstream PC games have been dumbed down to console levels. It’s not because console games have finally become as good as PC games were 10 years ago.

  12. Yes, nothing says “quality” quite like the need for a control reference card so you can simply play a game.

  13. Don’t fret, DIguana. You could always get Supreme Commander or something if you want to tie your fingers into pretzels. “Less obtuse” does not equal “dumbed down.” I have 10 fingers — I don’t need 30 commands to keep them occupied while I’m playing.

    The real issue with PC games, I think, is that there are only a few genres that see a lot of releases these days; there are only so many variations on RTS/FPS/RPG/4x control schemes to go around, and casual games have no need for complex controls.

  14. I used to like japanese games because they were able to make better use of the NES’s limited colors, and the games controlled better. Oddly, the Japanese game I am looking forward to is No More Heros, with a GTA-ish open city (not really). Killer 7 had bad controls, who knows if the next Suda51 game will fair better. No More Heros also uses black for any degree of shading, like many american NES games. oh how the times have changed. PS. I know the game will not be that good. I just feel the need to buy weird, mediocre Japanese games with bad controls and pretty graphics (Rival Schools 2, Jet Set Radio).

  15. Was it just me, or did anyone else find this whole discussion depressing? :(

    And is there linkage to said EGM article?

  16. I keep believing that Japanese game companies are preparing to become CG animation studios and dominate the movie/TV markets the way they dominated video games in the 80s. For the past 10 years Japanese games have advanced more in storytelling and aesthetics than gameplay, so if they drop the gameplay, they’ll be movie studios that are far more market savvy and tech savvy than Japan’s anime companies.

  17. Yeah, it does seem and feel like Japan is tiring out. It’s like they don’t know how to make interesting games on consoles anymore, witnessed by the likes of Final Fantasy XII and Castlevania: Curse of Darkness, while the handheld companions of those games were fantastic (though Portrait less so). The Japanese companies seem to be noticing it too, trusting Western talent with properties like Contra, Silent Hill and Bioware’s Sonic Chronicles, though still focusing on handhelds. Could it be long before we see a Zelda RPG by a Western developer? The Wii seems to have been designed to combat this high-tech old-feel apathy, but the Japanese developers are still afraid to embrace it and Japanese Wii owners have been uninterested in most of its third party selection. If the games don’t sell, there won’t be much confidence in making substantial investments on games for the platform.

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