PC in Ja­pan

Go­ing un­der­ground.

PCPOWERPLAY - - Contents -

It’s

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

NEC 9801

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

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