The last few years have been golden when it comes to japanese video games. Persona 5, Zelda, Mario, Resident Evil 7, Final Fantasy XV and other non-AAA games have done its fair share to reestablish customer trust in a landscape where it seemed they had lost something. A certain quirk, spark, or creativity had been missing after a few entries on beloved and historical franchises that all seemed to be going downhill ever since the late 2000’s. But how did that happen?
The PS2/Gamecube/Xbox generation had been a goldmine for quirky japanese console titles, even some that were indulgent at times. Gamers praised the “glorious nippon” titles coming out, especially on the PS2, like Shadow of the Colossus, Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, the Devil May Cry series or Final Fantasy X, or even welcomed with open arms straight up weird titles such as Katamari Damacy. Still, that console generation felt as if cut short as PCs started to quickly outpace consoles in terms of raw power. The whole situation was made worse when even Microsoft jumped the gun before anyone else and released the Xbox 360, far more powerful than any other console at the time.
This landscape led to an arms race where AAA expectations changed, and suddenly the best selling console of all time seemed like a toy from a bygone age. Just a year later, the Wii and PS3 both came out (the last one with an outrageous $600 USD price), each trying to reinvent the wheel and keep up with Microsoft’s offering, while trying to catch up with PCs. But, here’s the thing – this was a losing battle, and there is no way a console could ever compare with a high-range PC.
Console prices were bloated, same as AAA production costs, and titles like the Halo series, GTA IV, BioShock and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare quickly became some of the biggest names in the gaming business, while Japanese creators were left wondering how to react to the changing tide, or where to even put out their games. For example, Final Fantasy XIII, unsure of what to do with itself, prioritized its graphical fidelity and reputation for it at the cost of its gameplay and exploration, and took up until 2009 to release to disappointing reviews and fan outcry that it was nothing like the franchise they loved. Resident Evil, another former trend-setter, found itself favoring its action gameplay instead of its atmosphere and ended up releasing RE5 and RE6, the two weakest entries in the main series, critically speaking.
Realizing what a smashing success the Xbox 360 had become, how Steam was growing and shaping expectations of how games should be sold and distributed and how graphic fidelity led the conversation among gamers, Japanese creators read that “americanizing” their games was the way of the future. Suddenly, Silent Hill was more action focused, and even had somewhat of an open world feel to it, despite its tiny map. Devil May Cry bravely attempted to reinvent itself with new characters and even a reboot but felt flat and repetitive. While Fallout 3 became huge, The Last Guardian was nowhere to be seen, and while Portal memes were the rage (and even Lord Gaben dissed the PS3 for its weird architecture), JRPGs and Survival Horror in general dwindled in popularity, as if they were following in the steps of the point and click genre.
What’s even worse, PlayStation consoles (historically the “home” of good rpgs since the 90s) were starting to get ground back from the X360, but all thanks to American games. The generation ended with Uncharted, The Last of Us, Heavy Rain and such as the heavy hitters, while the japanese struggled to create new, exciting properties. The only exceptions were Ni No Kuni, a mix of JRPG, Pokémon and Ghibli Studio sensibilities, and Demon’s Souls, a hardcore fantasy themed ARPG that was uncompromising in its difficulty and would go on to serve as the inspiration for Dark Souls.
Things would go on to change as two things happened. The first, the rise of esports took the more competitive gamers away from yearly releasing franchises. For example, League of Legends or Counter-Strike: GO became the runaway successes, maintained through time, that Call of Duty hoped to be. Overwatch and DOTA 2 would only go to confirm this. Second, and more important, single-player games oriented titles recovered critical favor with games such as The Witcher, the Dark Souls saga (despite its MP component), Skyrim and so on.
PlayStation then released the PS4 with a simpler architecture which made it easier to unify the production of big budget games for Xbox One, PC, and the PS4 itself. Add to that the growing reputation of indies which proved you don’t need AAA graphics to succeed on one hand, and that it was a good idea to still create story-based games that dared to be weird, and the groundwork was laid. Suddenly, the conditions were there again to recreate the magic.
It all probably started with Final Fantasy XV reinventing the wheel and returning some freshness to the franchise, and then came Yakuza 0, which drove fans up the walls with its uniquely japanese take on the open-world genre. Still, they weren’t alone, as the “glorious nippon” titles didn’t stop coming. Resident Evil 7, The Last Guardian (straight out of development hell), NieR: Automata and even the return of Nintendo to its former glory with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey became unlikely hits that renewed the interest in games from across the Pacific Ocean. These games managed to reignite the spark, and now 2018 looks like another great year for japanese titles with Monster Hunter World (already the best selling entry in the saga), Ni No Kuni 2, Yakuza 6, and more upcoming titles like Code Vein (an entirely new franchise), Kingdom Hearts 3, and the promise of the Final Fantasy VII remake and Shenmue 3 among others in the next couple years.
You can also read: How Yakuza 0 Exceeds at Mixing Moods
As of now, the future looks bright for Japanese developers, and while classic franchises are back (rumors are rampant about a new Devil May Cry, and we’re currently awaiting for Kingdom Hearts 3 which seems this time is going to be a reality), long-time creators are willing to jump into new franchises. For example, legendary creator Hideo Kojima seems hard at work with Death Stranding while the Metal Gear fans are starting to look at Square Enix’s Left Alive with interest. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy XV managed to be a pioneer again with its prolonged DLC cycle that just keeps going, while Resident Evil 7 is one of the first truly AAA VR games which put the franchises at the peak of the innovation curve they used to be famous for. There’s plenty to look forward to as japanese developers look to their past through remasters and re-releases, but at the same time regain the courage to be completely different.
The great charm of japanese games in the late 90s and early 00s was to just take a uniquely western concept (Final Fantasy is D&D made in Asia, Resident Evil & Silent Hill were an eastern take on the zombie & horror genres, and Metal Gear was the spy fantasy ala James Bond with a nipon twist). It seems that in looking at the west once again, seeing what inspired creators did with open worlds and indie titles, and doing the back and forth dialog that most benefits the industry, the spark was lit once again. And japanophiles and gamers alike can’t help but toast to that.