Are Japanese games making a resurgence or is Jem Alexander just imagining it? It’s been a tough decade for the region, but it feels like many developers are returning to form.
Every game I have played this year so far has been developed in Japan. Isn't that great? I'm still working through my 2016 backlog, so that includes Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian, but chances are if you’ve bought a high profile game in 2017, that too was created by a Japanese developer.
In just the first month of the year we’ve seen the release of Gravity Rush 2, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8, Resident Evil VII, Tales of Berseria and Yakuza 0. 15 year old Jem would be bouncing off the walls in excitement; 29 year old Jem feels pretty good about it too, but also world-weary and get off my lawn, etc.
Japanese games are what cemented my love of the medium, so it’s fascinating to see not only a renewed interest across the industry, but to feel a reinvigorated desire for them personally. I’ve always loved JRPGs. Your Final Fantasys, Kingdom Hearts and Arc The Lads. Japanese horror like Resi and Silent Hill, too. There was a cancelled PSP horror RPG by Level-5, Ushiro, which was promised to marry the two genres and... *sigh*
I could spend this whole article reminiscing, but don't worry I'm about to make a point: Japanese games died, and I can remember practically the moment it happened. Around 2006, when the Xbox 360 and the PS3 were the new hotness, Japanese studios were suddenly asked to go bigger and prettier. Suddenly devs familiar with making excellent standard-def PS2 games were told to live up to someone else’s HD promise. High-def gaming had arrived. 720p or over only, please.
Seemingly en masse, the entire Japanese games industry floundered. Meanwhile, the West boomed. Call of Duty 4 happened in a very big way, and USA and EU devs were suddenly stealing Japan’s crown. Then came the infamous Final Fantasy XIII interviews in which producer Yoshinori Kitase would tell the world that “HD towns are too hard to make”.
Japanese games are what cemented my love of the medium
Final Fantasy is actually the perfect yardstick by which to measure the demise of Japanese games. Final Fantasy XIII, Versus XIII and Agito XIII were all announced in 2006. They would eventually release in the West in 2010, 2015 and 2016 respectively. That’s a decade of late games which, especially in the case of XIII and its sequels, disappointed fans who had grown up on the likes of V, VII and X.
During this period it was easy to fall out of love with Japanese titles. They were few and far between, and often disappointing. Microsoft had a habit of paying for exclusive JRPGs in a desperate (and ultimately futile) attempt to crack the Japanese market, leaving PlayStation fans out in the cold. Sales tumbled and it became increasingly hard to justify the cost of development, without attempting to cater directly to the western market. But for many, that’s not what we want - we want unabashedly Japanese games that demonstrate their unique culture.
Recently it feels like Square Enix, along with the rest of the Japanese games industry, is getting its mojo back. More importantly, it feels like appetite for these games in the West is on the rise. Resident Evil VII is a great return to form for the series, people are very excited about Persona 5 and Yakuza 0 is sold out everywhere at time of writing. FFXV was flawed, certainly, but it felt great to really enjoy playing a Final Fantasy game again after almost 15 years.
Sure, you can see the giant chunks of unfinished gameplay and story that the developers had to rip from the game’s flesh to get it out to the waiting public in time, but it feels like the release of this game allows Square Enix to wipe away ten years of expectation and start anew. It represents a new era of Japanese games on current gen home consoles.
And there’s the rub. Since the release of the Xbox 360, strong Japanese games (yes, I know the Souls series exists, but I only have a page here - don’t @ me!) had been relegated to weaker hardware and handhelds. One of the biggest boons for Japanese games in the coming years could well be the Switch, which is already boasting a Japanophile- centric line-up. Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Shin Megami Tensei, multiple Dragon Quests and Fire Emblem. Even without all that, between Persona 5, Ni No Kuni 2, Nier: Automata and that Final Fantasy VII remake, not since the PS2 have we had so much Nihon to look forward to.