The Red Sun Rises: Japanese developers are getting back on track.

Posted: November 28, 2012 by ryanlecocq in Features

In an older article, I described in detail the challenges the Japanese would face if they wanted to return to the forefront of game development.  I’m glad to report that I’m already seeing signs that the necessary steps are being taken.  Several key market and critical victories have made Japan relevant in game development again.  In this article I’ll list the games that are making the waves and venture my opinions and speculation on what should come next.


Xenoblade Chronicles:  The JRPG is not dead.

‘Nuff said.

It could take pages and pages to list the merits of this game.  Not only is it solidly constructed and well polished, but it’s also one of the first games in ages that felt 100% complete to me.  I think it’s been since Resident Evil 4 have I played a game that felt like it was this completely finished when it shipped.  What a finished product it is too.  Xenoblade features a perfect mix of every type of JRPG gameplay you can imagine.  There’s crafting, a materia-like system, collection quests, a character synergy system with hours of added backstory, the list goes on and on.  Nearly all of it functions perfectly to the point where it seldom gets boring, I might add.  The plot is even good to fantastic at parts.  The voice acting is perfect.  On top of all this, the game just plain feels “legit” from start to finish.  The game engine also has one of the farthest rendering distances I have ever seen.  Although it doesn’t directly borrow from the plots of classic RPGs, it feels like the game belongs right there with the most classic JRPGs.  That’s something I haven’t been able to say about a game for a very long time.


Dark Souls:  The most hardcore game is once again Japanese.

Dragonslaying is knighthood’s highest calling.

Back in the ancient days of the NES, Japanese developers earned credibility in a failing western market by re-envigorating the side-scroller.  While many of these games were like Mario and sold themselves off colorful characters and fun gameplay, others were not.  Megaman 2 and Battletoads are two examples of games that were known almost solely for their difficulty to “beat.”  In a modern market where failure is a setback that requires only shorter and shorter “time-outs” to overcome, you don’t see much of this.  In 2009 Demon’s Souls re-introduced that nut-crushing difficulty and it’s sequel brought it to the mass market.  The huge mountains of used copies of this game at Gamestop vs. the high metacritic rating are a testament to the game’s forbidding challenge.


The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword  :  The Wiimote can work?

Can we have a proper Star Wars game now?

Regardless of the quality of Skyward Sword, it’s another great Zelda game in a series of great games.  What sets it apart from every other Wii game is the fact that somebody finally managed to write a program that makes Wiimote=sword.  Since that’s pretty much the only thing any of us ever wanted from that system, this is a long, long, loooooooooong overdue development.  Although I feel like I’m thanking someone for a birthday present I wanted when I was 7 and just recieved now, thanks Nintendo.


Resident Evil 6:  The scientific method.

Action!  Horror!  Action!  Horror!

Although this game is currently creating great controversy with it’s polarized reviews, I applaud Capcom.  Even though there are parts of this game I don’t like, I recognize that those parts weren’t marketed at me.  We’ve been conditioned by years of every game only having one creative ideal.  Each game is it’s own self-contained product, meant to fill one consumer need.  Think though how many problems come from this.  In the RE series alone, there have been many concepts for past games that got the axe, while a competing concept became the finished game.  How many RE fans are still bemoaning the lost 1.5 and 3.5 concepts?  So Capcom is working on RE6 and once again, everybody wants to make something different.  Some people want an action game.  Some people want to return to the series roots with more zombies and suspense.  One producer is almost insistent that the game take place in China.  So they decided to make them all.  Within this one game is pretty much something for every Resident Evil fan.  Leon’s campaign is very similar to what RE3.5 would have been: a return to suspenseful gameplay, but with modern controls and systems (and zombies).  Chris’ campaign is the love ’em or hate ’em, non-stop action sequences from 5, for about 6 hours straight.  Jake’s campaign is pretty much a greatest hits of all the best gimmicks in RE series history.  There’s a Nemesis that chases you, you do a lot of context-sensitive and character specific actions, it’s got the “action-puzzles” etc.  While many people may complain that every piece of the pie is a different flavor, I think in the end it will prove to be the right choice.  If the game is successful, future games or DLC could continue the approach of splitting the series into different sub-genres to please most fans.


These games were huge steps forward in the areas that Japan was falling behind.  The leaps in game engine design and quality of coding are noteworthy.  The area of improvement most noticeable because it was once so laughably bad is response to consumer criticism.  In the past, well-known Japanese developers pretty much acted like the Catholic church responding to critique of the King James Bible.  The almost total collapse of the Japanese gaming market must have finally gotten through to them, because the games are finally responding to fan desires.  We’re seeing a lot more of the things we’ve always wanted and less filler.  It’s a good thing too, because Nintendo’s American reps must have been getting really tired of saying “Sorry, still no good sword-play, but we have another Mario Party for you.”

In the future, I think Japanese developers still have a long way to go.  These games were all major milestones, but the market is still flooded with lackluster games from other studios.  I can’t say I was impressed with shovelware like Persona4 Arena or the 8 trillion mediocre strategy RPGs recently.  Below are a few areas I think are key for the return to greatness we would all like to see.


Standout Hardware and Game Engine Design.

The PS3 and 3DS are both excellent examples of Japanese devices that use conventional technology in innovative ways to create something original.  In the case of the PS3, it’s the design of the Cell CPU and how the cores are used to handle physics and GPU functions.  This has easily extended the life of the console 3 years and made going against the 360 and PC even possible.  The 3DS is pretty much smartphone guts with a fancy screen.  It doesn’t cost Nintendo much to make and the screen is more innovative than difficult to produce, making Nintendo the clear winner in 3D so far.  Game engines like those seen in Xenoblade Chronicles and Dark Souls are excellent examples of unique innovation.  Both employ a very creative use of the system’s resources to create things like limitless draw distances.  You can also see enemies from about 400x farther away than in Skyrim.  This is the kind of coding we need to see.  Game engines designed to use the hardware differently to balance out the GPU-side, DirectX dominated Western market.


Childhood’s End

It seems to me that a cultural block is limiting the storytelling of Japanese developers.  The older CEOs and studio heads come from a much more politically correct generation and I see this as the source of the “Disney-esque” level of propriety often criticized by Western critics.  You then see games by a studio of younger developers, like Catherine, and all the sudden it’s overflowing with adult content.  I think what’s going on is the younger generations of Japanese want sex and violence as much as Americans, you can see it in their movies and television.  In videogames however, we’re seeing this disconnect where the higher ups are sanitizing the product based on their views of decency.


Why Can’t We Be Friends?

As far as I can tell, the U.S. and Japanese game developers taking turns leap-frogging and scorning each other started with Americans.  When the U.S. market was failing in the early 80’s, we scorned upstarts like Nintendo, Sega and Bandai.  Let me be the first to apologize  and say let’s bury the axe.  Competition is healthy, but let’s face it, cooperation is necessary.  We have 2 Japanese console makers and one American, all made with IBM guts and all using different middlewares.  If that doesn’t sound like  a situation in which we should overcome our differences to try and sort this out, then you are a fool.  More experts in cutting edge hardware and software need to be going back and forth between the U.S. and Japan to lecture at colleges.  This would also link the other countries also active in game design who have somewhat segregated relations with the two gaming giants.

Defying every prediction of market collapse and every critic saying people will “grow out of it,” gaming just keeps being profitable.  The United States and Japan both bank on the industry pretty heavily and the tech sector revenue it creates.  For either of the two gaming superpowers to fail would be a terrible blow to the industry.  So rise.  Rise from your grave.


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