PC in Japan
been a long time coming, but Japanese developers are finally starting to truly embrace the PC as a platform. It seems like just yesterday when PC fans were desperately petitioning Bandai Namco Games and From Software to release the megahit Dark Souls on PC, begging the bewildered developers to put the game on a platform that seemed tailor-made for it. Flash forward to now, and most Bandai Namco releases are getting day-and-date simultaneous PC releases, including very distinctly Japanese-flavoured games like the Tales series and Ni no Kuni II.
Bandai Namco’s not the only one joining the party, either. We’ve seen a host of major Japanese developers and publishers step up their PC publishing game. Sega, Capcom, and Koei-Tecmo have been committing to more PC releases of their major console hits. Fan favourites like Platinum Games and SNK are bringing both their past libraries and upcoming titles to Steam and other services. More nicheoriented publishers and developers like XSEED and Arc System Works are pushing out some superb under-the-radar JRPGs, action, and fighting games, and several small companies have sprung up to help localise and distribute Japan’s indie game output abroad. We’re even seeing a huge surge in popularity for distinctly Japanese game formats like visual novels on Steam.
For a while, however, it seemed like Japan simply wasn’t interested in the global PC gaming market at all. You might have heard that it’s because Japan never had much of a PC gaming culture – but, in fact, that’s quite a mistaken assumption.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Long before the Famicom was making waves in Japan, companies like NEC, Sharp, and Fujitsu were making proprietary computer systems for the country’s increasingly affluent, technology-infatuated population. These PCs were quite different from the popular computers that were common in North America, Europe, and Australia at the time, using specialised software and hardware that could handle a detailed display of Japanese characters onscreen. These computers were based on their own operating systems and were generally produced by a single manufacturer, though some (licensed) clones did make it to market
These early computer systems, like the Sharp X1 and the NEC PC-8800 series, seem incredibly clunky and obsolete nowadays: their capability to display colour was limited, and many couldn’t handle things like scrolling sprites or moving backgrounds. They did, however, provide an early development platform for companies like Koei (now Koei-Tecmo), pre-merger Square and Enix, and Hudson Soft to create some of their very first software offerings.
When the Famicom started to make its mark on Japan’s game market, many of these publishers turned their focus to the platform with more mass appeal. PCs were more expensive and difficult to operate compared to the plug-and-play nature of the various TV game systems hitting the market. But the market for games on these PCs never died: when one publisher turned their focus to home consoles, a new group of fresh-faced programmers would form a small company and essentially take their place. Free of Nintendo’s oppressive licensing fees, these independent and boutique publishers began supporting Japan’s PCs with unbridled enthusiasm.
As the ‘80s shifted into the ‘90s, the power of these PCs increased dramatically. Computers like the Fujitsu FM Towns and the Sharp X68000 were just as powerful – or more so – than the hardware driving Japan’s hottest arcade games at the time. (In fact, it’s said that many arcade and console games of this era were designed on the X68000.) This allowed these systems to host practically arcade-perfect ports of numerous titles, often with extras and enhancements, courtesy of licensors and publishers like Dempa and Ving. The clear winner of this bunch, however, was NEC’s PC-98 series, which was the most successful propriety PC platform in the whole of Japan. For a long time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, NEC held about 60% of the PC market in the country.
Besides the raw power these systems provided, there was another point of appeal: unlike home consoles, there was no restriction on game content. This meant that the developers could include sexual and violent themes in games if they wanted. As a result, the Japanese PC market became a haven for adult-oriented software. Developers
large and small quickly learned that the promise of some pixel nudity could drive a few extra sales, casually tossing in adult-oriented images and plots into games that otherwise didn’t really need them. It wasn’t until a media furore in the early ‘90s that a ratings body, the Ethics Organisation of Computer Software, was self-instituted by the industry to rate and regulate PC games with sexual content.
Even though there were many games that were just thinly veiled excuses for pornography (and many games with pornography added in haphazardly to sell copies), this freedom of content did result in developers experimenting with telling mature, interesting stories with beautifully illustrated visuals and music in games like Yu-No: The Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of this World and Eve Burst Error. Still, the proliferation of erotic content on Japanese PCs at the time created a perception that Japanese PC games were entirely pornographic in nature – an international stereotype that persists today.
BEGINNING OF THE END
So why did these PCs – and the Japanese PC gaming culture – decline so much? Well, in the mid ‘90s, a variant of DOS, called DOS/V, was released that could support Japanese character output – meaning that IBM PC clones could now become widely usable in Japan. In addition, the release of Windows 95 and 98 introduced an easy-to-use, engaging GUI that won over PC users both old and new. This, combined with an explosion of content on the internet that people were clamouring to access, lead to a rapid decline in popularity of expensive, proprietary systems, replaced with the modular IBM/PC compatible format we know and love. (Companies like NEC and Fujitsu are still making PCs today, but they’re all based on the IBM/PC architecture.)
At the same time, a 3D graphics wave was hitting the game industry, with the Sony PlayStation proving to be a phenomenal success in Japan and abroad. These systems not only had stunning 2D graphics on par with what Japan’s PCs could produce, but also delivered amazing polygon-based 3D visuals that left them in the dust. While NEC did make a 3D video card for the PC-98, the ease of 3D development on the PlayStation and the ability to do high-quality 2D games on the Sega Saturn had developers turning to those systems in droves. The adult game companies stuck around on PC, as they didn’t have anywhere else to go, but very few others did. While a surge in MMO popularity in the early ‘00s spurred some PC development in Japan again, Korean and Western games soon came to dominate that sector, leaving the PC platform to be neglected by most major Japanese publishers.
BURNING INDIE SPIRITS
But while major publishers were focusing on the console market, independent developers were beginning to embrace the PC. Homebrew, indie, and “doujin” development always had a lively presence on the native Japanese computer systems, and when the Windows PCs began to take over, a lot of small-scale developers migrated as well.
Eventually, some of these games – and the developers who made them – became quite popular. 2004’s Cave Story, by Daisuke Amaya was one of the early international hits. A 2D action- and exploration-packed adventure with a strong challenge and a surprisingly poignant story, it earned a lot of attention overseas first through a widely
distributed fan translation before it was picked up for publishing across numerous platforms. Another PC-centric developer to hit it big around this time was ZUN. For years, ZUN had produced a series of games called the “Touhou Project” on the PC-98 when he wasn’t working his day job as a programmer at arcade and console developer Taito. When the PC-98’s popularity waned, he shifted Touhou Project development to Windows PCs while embracing the increased popularity of “bullet hell” style arcade shooters. The Touhou gameplay and characters caught on among the small fan audience at conventions he originally sold the games at, and before long, Touhou was an otaku phenomenon, inspiring comics, fanfiction, music, and crafts based on the world ZUN’s games had established. It’s not a stretch to say that doujin and indie game development helped bolster the PC’s popularity as a gaming platform in Japan – though many of these games still weren’t mainstream successes in the same way console games from big publishers were: You often had to buy them either from the creators directly at conventions, through specialty retailers, or through restrictive download services, which limited their reach quite a bit. Meanwhile, dramatic shifts in the market were afoot.
A NEW ERA
At the end of the 2000s, things had changed significantly for games in Japan. The domestic Japanese console market had shrunk in favour of phones and portable consoles, development team size and budgets were starting to balloon, and outreach to audiences beyond Japan was starting to become more important than ever to achieve success. Even considering this, however, it’s taken a long time for many major Japanese companies to fully embrace PC development – even with numerous smaller developers finding their audience on the platform.
Nowadays, several companies and conventions like Bitsummit exist to help Japanese publishers and developers, large and small, get their games noticed, localised, and published in the West. One such company is Carpe Fulgur, who released the critical and commercial success Recettear on Steam as one of the first localised “doujin” games on that platform. Currently, they’re working with indie developer CAVYHOUSE to create The Midnight Sanctuary, a VR-enabled adventure game.
“Following the success of Recettear, there was certainly a spike of interest [in publishing abroad],” says Andrew Dice, the company’s founder. “We were approached by some devs who wanted to make the overseas jump, and it was definitely easier to pitch a Steam release once we’d proven a game could sell on the platform. It’s a bit of an old saying - nobody wants to be the first to go in, but everybody wants to be the second.”
Indeed, one of the big things pushing more Japanese developers of all sizes to embrace the PC is Steam. With its global reach and popularity, getting onto the platform is a major step, and selling games digitally rather than on physical media means a healthier profit overall. But before a Japanese developer or publisher can understand the success Steam can bring, they often have to see it for themselves.
“Companies like Capcom took the leap and put out polished PC versions of titles, and they were received really well,” says Nayan Ramachandran of localisation and publishing company DANGEN Entertainment. “I’d love to see that happen more. It seems to be becoming the norm with more Japanese titles, and I’d love to see that get bigger, if only for the benefit of the western audience... [For a long time], Steam just wasn’t a known thing among major publishers. Seriously, some publishers had never even heard of Steam! They also simply didn’t know that their beloved franchises would find fans on the PC platform. PC is a very different beast in Japan. It’s mostly the home of visual novels, porn games, and tiny indie titles. High spec PC gaming wasn’t as big a thing in Japan.”
Andrew Dice also points to this inherent market difference “Even today, [PC versions of major Japanese game releases] remain a
Cave Story, created by Daisuke Amaya, is an icon of Japanese indie PC development
Even Hideo Kojima experimented with PC games in the ‘90s with Policenauts and Snatcher
Yu-No: The Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of this World (top) and Eve Burst Error are indicative of Japan’s early ‘90s PC visual novels
Fujitsu FM Towns Sharp X68000
Recettear was a big Steam hit for Carpe Fulgur
Bullet hell shooters are a staple of doujin development
The popularity of doujin games is reflected in the availability of vinyl toys