Tokyo Game Show 2015 presents a Japanese development scene determined to succeed
Going by the sights of Tokyo Game Show 2015, the rumours of Japanese gaming’s demise have been greatly exaggerated
from the vantage point of the V2 Tokyo, a stratospheric nightclub in the Roppongi Hills, the notoriously sleazy district outside looks almost beautiful. A constellation of red and white lights twinkle far below, surrounding the lunging strip-club touts, with their “Hey, how you doing tonight?” opening gambits. There are stars up here in the V2 Tokyo too, nestled between mirrored pillars and tousle-haired waiters in their bow ties and pristine aprons, who carry platters of teetering rum-and-Cokes. The great and the good of the Japanese videogame industry are gathered here tonight before the official opening of the 25th Tokyo Game Show. And while these luminaries may be fewer in number than in years gone by, they seem more determined than ever. Koji Igarashi, once assistant director of Symphony Of The
Night, holds court over a gaggle of younger Japanese developers in one corner. He looks content in his post-Konami life, no doubt buoyed by the recent success of the $5.5 million Kickstarter campaign for his new Castlevania remix, Bloodstained: Ritual Of The
Night. If those newspaper reports detailing the challenging working conditions at Konami are true, who can begrudge his contentment? Meanwhile, 17-Bit founder Jake Kazdal weaves through the crowd, canvassing opinion on whether or not his studio’s latest release,
Galak-Z: The Dimensional, is too difficult. The game will soon arrive on Steam, and the designer, known for Skulls Of The
Shogun and his work on Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Rez, is eager to improve its chances, albeit while preserving his vision.
Papers, Please’s Lucas Pope, also a Tokyoite, discusses his forthcoming Return Of The Obra Dinn, and the difficulty a solo creator has in knowing when to stop tinkering and just get the game out the door. As Tomohisa Kuramitsu, better known by his DJ name Baiyon, sets the drum’n’bass ambiance, Dewi Tanner, a Welshman who once worked alongside PaRappa The
Rapper’s Masaya Matsuura, talks in excited tones about his first few weeks working at Sega in Japan’s capital. He joined the company’s mobile team, he says, to help “make Sega great again”. Even Fumito Ueda, that phantasm of the Japanese development scene, makes a brief appearance, although he spends most of his 20 minutes murmuring intensely into his phone, trying to sort out a problem with The Last Guardian’s stand on the show floor.
That stand is the corner-piece of Sony’s booth, a vast screen that runs from the floor most of the way to the ceiling, onto
OF 1,283 GAMES PRESENT AT THE SHOW, ALMOST HALF OF THEM APPEAR ON SMARTPHONES
which Trico, the bird-dog creature from Ueda’s long-absent game, is projected and with whom attendees can interact by waving their hands. The installation, mirroring the game it promotes, does not have an easy ride of it over the four days, suffering technical difficulties, yet its impact is nevertheless significant. As a piece of work it is ambitious, a characteristic shared by the organizers of this year’s Tokyo Game Show. As
Hideki Okamura, chairman of CESA (the show’s organiser), puts it in the official programme: “We are doing our utmost to ensure that the event promotes further development of the game industry and even the Japanese economy.”
If Japan’s game development scene has declined in recent years, then the fans appear oblivious. The 5am subway train out of Tokyo station en route to Kaihin-Makuhari, the closest platform to the cavernous Makuhari Messe convention centre, is standing room only on the morning of the show’s first public day. A thick line of punters wends in hurried silence through the Chiba streets, still grey in the emerging hum of daybreak. Neither America’s E3 nor Europe’s Gamescom are able to lure quite this many visitors from their beds quite so early. Indeed, this year’s TGS boasts the event’s secondhighest attendance figures since its inauguration in 1996, hosting a quarter of a million visitors across the show’s fourday stint. There are 480 exhibitors (246 of which are foreign), including the 69 independent game makers who together compose the Indie Game Area. Young game designers from Osaka Electro-Communication University show off their projects, and there is an undeniable buzz on the show floor about the future. Japan, everybody seems to be saying, is down but far from out of the race. Nevertheless, the fact that this industry has changed in profound ways during the past decade is also made clear in the official statistics. Of the 1,283 games present at the show, almost half of that number appear on smartphones.
Some of the largest stands are given over to these iOS and Android titles. Granblue Fantasy, the smartphone-based RPG created by ex- Final Fantasy team members (including, notably, series composer Nobuo Uematsu), has a stand that is larger than Capcom and Sega’s combined, with a gigantic airship as its centrepiece. It is surrounded by a few hundred tethered smartphones on which visitors can play the game. Clash Of Clans boasts a similarly extravagant stand, as does World Of
Warships, the most recently released free-to-play PC game
from Wargaming. The latter has been tailored for the Japanese market by including lavish anime cutscenes featuring improbable schoolgirl naval captains.
Console games are a minority, then. Neither Microsoft nor Nintendo have a presence at the show, leaving Sony to do the heavy lifting, with more than 100 PS4 titles on the floor. Most of these are decidedly Japan-focused and there are few major novelties. The strongest games of the show are, in most cases, addenda or spinoffs, such as Bloodborne expansion The Old
Hunters and Metal Gear Online, which combines the stealth strategising of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s main campaign with the fire and fury of squad-based combat.
There are two new playable characters for Street Fighter V (a game that tells its own story of shifting Japanese soil in the fact that it is being developed with Sony’s financial support and will not, for the first time in the series’ storied history, make an appearance in coin-op form). Meanwhile, Square’s Dragon Quest Builders is an adorable thirdpersonviewed tribute to the era-defining
Minecraft, which is itself also present on the show floor, squeezed onto Sony’s Vita. (A Mojang insider makes it clear that Japan is a key priority for the company in the coming months.)
At Sony’s press conference, the company announces Gravity Rush 2, a PS4 sequel to its idiosyncratic Vita title, and also shows off Gravity Rush Remastered, an HD version of the original, plus its DLC, also destined for the console. Elsewhere, Sega’s Toshihiro Nagoshi confirms that Yakuza 6 is in development, although it won’t be seen prior to the release of the HD remake of the series’ first game. And the flamboyantly titled Kingdom Hearts HD II.8, with its mishmash of Roman and Arabic numerals, provides further evidence that director Tetsuya Nomura is a serial tinkerer. This, of course, will not be news to followers of Final Fantasy XV, the long-awaited sequel that hopes to undo the damage rendered by Final Fantasy XIII.
FFXV, which is built upon foundations laid down by Nomura in the unreleased FFXIII Versus, isn’t playable on the show floor, but Square Enix is eager to assure fans that the project is on course for its 2016 release.
New footage shows the introduction of drift-capable Chocobo mounts, and a luxurious fishing minigame. Director Hajime Tabata spends time during the show behind closed doors speaking with fans, taking on their criticisms and feedback. The team, he says, has been taking cues from major open-world successes such as The Witcher III and Metal Gear Solid V, and he even admits to meeting with series founder Hironobu Sakaguchi recently to seek advice. The immense pressure on these costly blockbusters, especially in a post- Metal Gear Solid V world, is clear. Perhaps it’s for this reason that many of Square Enix’s forthcoming titles are focused on the Japanese market, including Gunslinger Stratos, Lord Of Vermilion Arena and Alice Order, plus new iOS/Android entries in the company’s enduring Secret Of Mana and SaGa RPG series.
Capcom’s booth is dominated by its bankable franchises, with Monster Hunter X and its more cartoonish cousin, Monster Hunter Stories, for 3DS, Resident Evil Zero HD Remaster (there is no sign of Resident Evil 7), and a new Ace Attorney game for 3DS, Dai Gyakuten Saiban: Naruhodo Ryunosuke No Boken. The latter of these is promoted via an exhibition stand decked out like a tiered court with handhelds positioned on the jury benches. The company’s only new proposition is Resident Evil spinoff Umbrella Corps, a cut-price three-on-three shooter. Bandai Namco, meanwhile, presents God Eater Resurrection and a gaggle of releases based on the company’s popular Japanese anime licences, including games themed around JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Gundam, Naruto and Dragonball Z.
The indie booth provides less expected curios. PooPride is a scatological racing game that’s already available for Google Play. It was created by Akihiko Koseki, a designer who once worked alongside Satoru Iwata at Intelligent Systems. Shadow Shooter boasts one of the most unusual interfaces yet seen: a fully functioning bow that projects a virtual landscape onto the surrounding walls. When targets pop up, you pull the string back and fire; the harder the draw, the farther the virtual arrow will fly. Forget Me Not: My Organic Garden’s creator, CavyHouse, describes its game as “an avant-garde organicclicking game”. In it, you have to grow and ship human organs, which sprout from special plants. But the most unusual game of TGS 2015 is Racing Musume, in which players race girls dressed up as cars around tracks.
Virtual reality is a major feature on the TGS landscape, which, for the first time, reaches out across all 11 of Makuhari’s halls (even though it could, in truth, be contained in fewer). Sony uses TGS to announce that Project Morpheus’s official name is PlayStation VR, though there is no word on release date or pricing. Sony again has the largest showing in this area with demos of a Koei Musou game (in which players have to defend a castle from familiar waves of largely nonthreatening attackers) and a VR demo version of Final Fantasy XIV.
There are demos, too, intended to show off VR’s potential. One offers players a peaceful stroll through a cherry-blossomflecked Ueno Park in the spring. The other, Joysound VR, puts you in the heels of a J-Pop girl band. During the first half of
YOU HAVE TO GROW AND SHIP HUMAN ORGANS, WHICH SPROUT FROM SPECIAL PLANTS
the demo, the band performs at you from a small stage in a somewhat dingy club. Then players hang out with the girls backstage, before performing alongside the group in front of a cheering crowd of fans. Elsewhere, a domed amphitheatre hosts a version of Shirow Masamune’s classic anime film Ghost In The Shell, which has been re-rendered in 3D, and is broadcast onto the dome’s ceiling, allowing attendees to witness what the virtual reality version will feel like.
As well as Japanese-focused projects and studios, there is a visible presence from a raft of western companies hoping to successfully migrate their services into Japan. Netflix has a screen on the Sony booth (the service launched in Japan earlier in the week), while YouTube Gaming, Twitch and League Of
Legends have all invested in vast stands, some of which are staffed by women sporting QR codes on their faces.
In comparison to the west, the creative middle ground here hasn’t been squeezed so much by the pressure of expensive blockbusters on one side and indies on the other. The King Of Fighters XIV is given a high-profile slot during Sony’s press conference, even if there’s no chance it could ever rival the sales of SNK’s free-to-play Metal Slug Defense, which recently became the company’s most profitable title. Darius Burst: Chronicle Saviors, the latest entry in Pyramid’s aquatic-themed shooter, is also on the show floor, while long-running MMOG Phantasy Star Online 2 is revealed to be heading to PS4 in 2016.
Nintendo remains conspicuous by its absence, especially since the company’s announcement of its collaboration with mobile game goliath DeNA. In recent years the Kyoto-based publisher has become far choosier in terms of the public events it attends, but any show that aims to showcase Japan’s brightest development talent can’t help but feel incomplete or unrepresentative without Nintendo. The atmosphere is further soured by rumours during the show that Konami is set to cease all console game production apart from its profitable Pro Evolution Soccer series, rumours since contradicted by the publisher. Regardless, for some, the supposed move is a reasonable act of adaptation in order to survive. For others, it is merely proof positive that Japan’s relevance in the medium is slipping yet further.
Not so, according to Tak Fujii, a senior producer who left Konami last year due to ill health. “Too often I’ve heard colleagues complaining about a lost era,” he says. “They blame everything but themselves and show no willingness to shift into new markets. They sit around waiting for the good old golden days to come back. It will never happen.” Perhaps not, but at this year’s TGS, many companies showed renewed willingness to adapt to the shifting technological and economic sands. Nevertheless, as the final day ends and a tinny keyboard rendition of Auld Lang Syne pipes through the PA system, signalling to the crowds that it is time to leave, the lyrics seem to sound out as a warning as much as a memorial: don’t let old acquaintance be forgot.
“THEY SIT AROUND WAITING FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS TO COME BACK. IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN”
FROM TOP ReturnOfThe ObraDinn from Lucas Pope; The Last Guardian, not playable at TGS but still able to draw crowds
FROM TOP Kingdom HeartsHDII.8 is a compilation of old and new; Capcom worked with an expert to ensure Rashid’s garb is culturally accurate
Sony is the only major platform holder with TGS presence. Still, 103 PS4 titles are represented at the event this year, compared to just 27 Xbox One games and 23 Wii U titles
TGS takes its cosplay seriously, with a dedicated 90-minute stage show for top-tier performers (drawn from across the globe) taking place on the Saturday