Regardless of their true origins, videogames began in Japan. It is the progenitor country, the birthplace of Mario, Sonic and Snake, iconic characters in the virtual pantheon. It’s responsible for revolutionising not only the technology but the genre, influencing an entire generation of developers from across the globe.
But in recent years, a chasm in quality has spread between East and West. Whereas in the 90s, Japan produced consistently excellent and pioneering titles, the 21st Century has seen the West assume their mantle, driving the medium forward. It’s obvious Japan is behind when Kojima Productions, developers of the revolutionary Metal Gear series, hired a Western to help shape Metal Gear Solid 4 into a more modern form.
To be perfectly honest, an article debating the difference in quality between Eastern and Western games is entirely subjective. I myself consider games from my native hemisphere to be of superior quality.
However, I began my videogame love-affair on a Sega Mega Drive, playing Sonic until the console suffered an untimely death, and my favourite game since is Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Both the console and the games are from Japan, so my opinion on this subject is hardly biased.
What I believe to be the problem is Japan’s reluctance to stray away from established conventions, regardless of how outdated they may be. Western gaming is by no means perfect, and often lacks the personal touch of Japanese development, but there’s an emphasis on modern quality. For instance, Gears of War’s pioneering cover-system is now prevalent in the shooter genre, such is fans’ demand.
The Capcom Factor
It would be unfair to label all Japanese developers as stubborn or myopic. Capcom, for example, have invested millions of dollars into their cross-platform engine, and their games, whilst inherently Japanese, show the glint of Western influence. Resident Evil was once the premiere Survival-Horror game; whereas now it is more or less a shooter, and Lost Planet owes a fair amount of respect to Halo.
Capcom’s efforts extend to their outsourcing model. Instead of hiring a plethora of Westerners with intimate knowledge of the industry and its trends, Capcom opted to partner with American and European developers to produce contemporary titles under the Capcom label. Bionic Commando and Dark Void are the result of this collaboration.
As I mentioned before, whether you consider either East or Western gaming to be better is entirely your decision. Final Fantasy, for example, defies much of my article, as it hasn’t significantly evolved since jumping generations, and yet its popularity remains unquestioned.
It’s improved the mechanics, the visuals, and the stories have at least approached coherence, but the basic set-up, of wandering barren, static environments, stumbling upon enemies and engaging in turn-based combat, is relatively unchanged.
But this doesn’t seem to bother the masses. Final Fantasy is a juggernaut title. It steamrolls the competition, especially in Japan, and remains a popular title in America and Europe. It’s an iterative series, building upon each title, and this seems to appease at least a million or so customers who arrive on release-date. And more importantly, it’s nostalgic. There’s a reason these games became popular, as once upon a time, they offered an experience unlike any other.
At GDC 2009, Hideo Kojima, an industry auteur, revealed a new game, Metal Gear Rising, a title he claimed would focus on Western ideals and attempt to reinvigorate the series. If one of Japan’s most famed developers is admitting Japanese games require a Western focus, a change is bound to occur.
Already, signs are obvious. Tecmo, developers of the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden series, is hard at work on a dark, gritty shooter, Quantum Theory, overflowing with steroid-infused characters and rocket-spewing weaponry. Tri-Ace, responsible for the Star Ocean games, is developing a new RPG set in a post-industrial universe, End of Eternity, replete with grey and brown metallic colour-palette. If the East is truly to understand Western design, it must see further than aesthetic trends.
I confess to some slight hypocrisy, as I am a huge fan of a number of uniquely Japanese games. I loved what Nintendo did with Mario Galaxy, and I can barely suppress my excitement for the next Zelda game. The Japanese videogame market is in danger, but it remains a hotbed for creativity and inspiration.