Big Picture Mode
Industry issues given the widescreen treatment
Nathan Brown on the renewed brilliance of Japanese games
The child barrels over, as the child does, and after I bark a warning he stops just in time, like he sometimes does. “Daddy’s working,” I say, and it does the trick. The greatest advantage this profession has given me, apart from the enormous salary and the beautiful women, is the unique ability to stop my kid from messing with all my lovely toys. All I need is just four magic words. ‘This is Daddy’s work’. Beautiful.
A couple of weeks back, however, the technique failed me. The kid hurtled over while I was playing something for review; I uttered the magic words but, rather than wander off, this time he stuck around to watch. “Daddyyyyy,” he half-whined, in the way he does. “What are those people saying?” They were speaking Japanese; the distinct otherness of the sounds, of the people that were saying it, and the place in which they were saying it, evidently drew him in.
Yet suddenly, Japanese no longer feels so strange. Indeed, over the past few months it has become the rule, rather than the exception. So far in 2017, I have played only one game developed outside Japan, and it was rubbish. Yet the others? Resi 7, Yakuza 0, Nioh, Breath Of The Wild, Nier Automata,
Persona 5 – and it’s still only March, for heaven’s sake. Everyone’s talking about this being the most rollicking opening few months of any year in videogame history – and for once, they actually have a point. What’s been somewhat overlooked in all that, I think, is the role Japan has played in it.
Part of that, admittedly, is timing, a series of happy coincidences combining to give the impression that Japan is producing quality games at a rate we haven’t seen since the ’90s. Yakuza 0 is ancient, only brought west after the suits finally bowed to the wishes of the series’ small, but devout, fanbase. Breath
Of The Wild was held back to launch alongside Switch. Persona 5 came out in Japan in December, since it’s a big hitter over there – and clearly many of these games were deliberately kept out of Q4, since Japanese marketing budgets can’t compete with their western peers (with the occasional, Final
Fantasy XV- style exception). Nioh, Nier, and the like would have struggled to stand out in the busiest three months of the year; from January onwards, though, we’re all a little more prepared to experiment.
Yet circumstances be damned. The result of this clustering together of Japan-made quality is a sensation I haven’t known in 20 years, taking me back to the days when the startup idents of Capcom and Konami were everywhere, and a hallmark of real quality. Now, as then, I see a renewed sense of self- confidence among Japanese studios. The past ten years have been rough: the loss of global market share to the west, an inability to keep pace with spiralling budgets, and a native population turning away from traditional consoles towards mobile and free-to-play.
Some studios started making games they thought the west would like, secondguessing their instincts in order to cater to a market they didn’t truly understand; others turned inwards, making isolationist games that stood no chance of success overseas. Yet the first few months of 2017 have produced a raft of brilliant, sure-footed games made in a nation that finally seems to understand what it has to do in order to succeed. It’s the same thing it always did: whatever the hell it felt like, prioritising canny design, immaculate feel, and a hearty glug of silly, gleeful playfulness. Even Nioh, with its demons, its fountains of claret and its endless, brutal deaths, hides impossibly cute, dancing kodama in its darkest corners, then has them cheer you on from checkpoints.
Nioh’s been compared to Dark Souls, obviously, but it takes me back further, to the bonkers high camp of the similarly punishing
God Hand, or to the litany of brutal sidescrollers that emerged in the ’90s. Yakuza is held up as a sort of Japanese GTA, but to me it is Streets Of Rage spliced with Shenmue and the carnival level in The Legend Of The
Mystical Ninja. On it goes. Could there be a lesson for the industry at large here? Probably not. I’m not suggesting the key to success is to rip up the market research and follow your gut – at least not to such extremes. Not every game is going to benefit from a Yakuza- style minigame loosely modelled on an FPS where you try to convince a girl in a bikini to go out with you. After all, my job demands that, sometimes, I need to play a game when the kid’s around. I’m not sure either of us are ready for me to try to explain something like that.
So far in 2017, I have played only one game developed outside Japan, and it was rubbish