Once upon a time, we were all waiting for the release of Gran Turismo with bated breath, everyone was playing Mario Bros, Street Fighter ruled the world and grown men wept at the sight of the latest Metal Gear Solid trailer. Japan was the source of all that was great about the game industry. Recently, Japanese gaming giants including Hideo Kojima and Keiji Inafune have expressed their dismay at the current state of the industry in the land of the rising sun. This has caused many to wonder if Japan is dead and buried as a gaming force to be reckoned with.
"Japan is over. We're done. Our game industry is finished." This came from Inafune, head of research and development at Capcom and creator of Mega Man, when asked his opinion on last month's Tokyo Game Show. Earlier this year an interview with Kojima revealed his concerns about the future of game development in Japan.
Yoichi Wada, Square Enix CEO has also stated that the Japanese industry needs new talent to raise it out of its current slump. As chairman of Japan's trade body, CESA, Wada also intends to encourage an international focus, with greater exchange of talent and ideas across different countries and industries. Underlining this, Square Enix recently acquired Eidos, the British developer and publisher responsible for Tomb Raider, Hitman and more recently Batman Arkham Asylum. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new period of collaboration.
There's no denying that Japan isn't producing the big hits of yester year. Gran Turismo sold the PlayStation in droves, while Sega, Konami and Capcom churned out hit after hit. Innovation came in the form of rhythm action games like Parappa the Rappa, Dance Dance Revolution and Beat Mania. A few years on and the West has taken the bemani game and created the monster successes that are Guitar Hero and Rock Band – where are you now Konami?
Konami is a good example of a Japanese publisher whose star has faded. Once it flew the flag for Japanese dominance, now that flag is a bit tattered and some might say it's trading on former glory. Pro Evolution Soccer could do no wrong and was the footie fan's game of choice. Sure, FIFA had the licenses, but it didn't have the gameplay, the lightness of touch on the pitch and didn't convey the beautiful game the way PES did. Sadly, Konami's dropped the ball big time (if you'll excuse the pun) with FIFA now wearing the football crown.
Silent Hill isn't quite what it used to be, but then neither is Capcom's Resident Evil. And even Metal Gear Solid doesn't seem to be the cause of the teary-eyed excitement it did in the days of PlayStation and PS2.
Today, Konami is hastily trying to rejuvenate the Castlevania series using MercurySteam, a Spanish developer. Of course Kojima Productions is involved too, but it is more than significant that the Japanese publisher is putting its trust in a European team with one of its key titles. This isn't something that would have happened 10 years ago. Maybe this collaboration between Europe and Japan could be Konami's masterstroke. And maybe it's more significant that Kojima is at the forefront of this new move. Konami, along with Square Enix, could be leading the way in ensuring the future success of the Japanese games industry.
Japan has been caught napping, while the likes of World of Warcraft have blown the industry wide open. Microsoft entered the console market and with that came Halo, which brought the FPS to console gamers and opened the floodgates for titles such as Gears of War, Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. With no experience to speak of in the PC market, the FPS was an unknown quantity and Japanese developers didn't feel part of the party.
Rockstar then delivered Grand Theft Auto and the trend for a western aesthetic began. Japanese mythology and cherry blossom petals took a back seat in favor of gangster rappers, big American cars and rock music.
Of course, we mustn't forget that the Nintendo Wii is firmly ahead of the game in the current generation of consoles. Once again Nintendo, counted as dead in the water after the demise of the GameCube, has shown the industry how it's done with the success of Brain Training and Nintendogs on the DS, while Wii Fit continues to sell to a whole new market of gamers.
While it's true that the Japanese market is going through a serious slump, my hopes remain high for a renaissance. Nobody could have foretold the success of the Wii and the impact it would have on the industry. Japan has always been a central force within the industry and I for one am excited about the new era of collaboration between Japanese producers and western developers.
Only in Japan:
*Would a console developer eschew the traditional game controller in favor of a remote control-style wand (Wii – Nintendo)
*Would you get a game about raising a strange tadpole pet through various stages of evolution by talking to it (Sea Man – Vivariam/Jellyfish/Sega)
*Would developers opt for cartoon styling at a time when realism was all (Jet Grind Radio – Smilebit/Sega)
*And would a game be reduced to it's most basic elements – a boy, a girl and a castle (Ico – Team ICO/SCE).
I for one am yearning for an industry that offers more than a beefcake with a big gun, and I'm thinking Japan will probably be the one to answer my prayers. The sun may have set in Japan for now, but remember, the sun also rises.
Most played: Champions Online
Most wanted: Brutal Legend