How Japanese Video Games Redefined and Shaped the Global Gaming Industry for Years to Come
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Shortly after the upcoming of video games during the 1950s, one country was able to become almost synonymous with the term video games: Japan. As video games are a relatively new, young media, Japan had a lasting impact on the entire gaming sphere and the country is still shaping it with new inventions and trends brought up by its own developers and publishers. This one-of-a-kind status, that Japan enjoys amongst nerds and video game-enthusiasts, is thanks to the countless creative people, studios and publishers behind the scenes, who shaped our childhood and adult life. They sat new standards when it comes to creativity in videogame development and were and are still setting new trends in every decade.
Throughout all the economic ups and downs of Japan post World War 2, the economic sector of technology stood out next to all the other ones. While Japan’s automobile industry was on a constant rise, with manufacturers like Honda, Nissan and Toyota getting more and more popular all around the world, Japanese tech companies like Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba or Fujitsu were able to produce high-quality, yet affordable products. This technological prowess and knowledge, as well as a rising fascination for all things artificial and digital, made Japan predestined to be the motherland of these new, virtual worlds, we explore and love today.
When talking about videogame history, there is no way in getting around two of the biggest players in the industry. These heavyweights were the warring parties in the first ever console war, back when Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox didn’t even exist. On one side of the ring there was SEGA, a company that made a name for itself by revolutionizing arcades and creating some of the most influential arcade machines in the 1960s. On the other side, there was Nintendo, that was trying its hardest to bring the joy of video games into Japanese family homes, by making video game consoles more and more accessible.
This console-competition started way back in 1983, when SEGA’s SG-1000 and Nintendo’s Famicom first entered the markets. While Nintendo was able to dominate the market for handheld consoles by releasing the Game Boy in 1989, SEGA was able to put pressure on Nintendo’s frontrunner position when it came to home-consoles. The 1988 release of the SEGA Mega Drive, was SEGA’s first try to establish themselves beyond the borders of Japan. And while the Mega Drive maybe was not as successful in Japan, it was a big hit in the States, eventually beating out Nintendo thanks to 16-bit technology.
Due to the broadly anticipated release of Nintendo’s SNES in 1990 in Japan and 1991/1992 in North America and Europe, it seems as if the winner is decided. And even though SEGA’s Saturn console was sold in big quantities in Japan, the emergence of Sony’s PlayStation in 1994 and the overwhelming success it had overseas made SEGA come out as the loser in what was now a three-way-battle. Today, this competition could be regarded a huge blessing for the video game industry itself. Not only was technology advancing rapidly, but the video games themselves where too.
This is mainly thanks to the man who became the most important video game designers ever, Shigeru Miyamoto. Unlike many other videogame producers, who were learned programmers, Miyamoto studied industrial design and transferred his design knowledge into his games. Suddenly video games didn’t need elaborate instructions, the player was able to get a hang of
what to do just by looking at the screen and this easily accessible knowledge is still shaping our modern day video game behavior. Ever since the revolutionary design of the Super Mario games, game design became an integral part of every videogame production.
Miyamoto’s rise to fame was the stepping stone for many other videogame designers to come. Yet there was a producer who stood out against the rest of all other. Responsible for games like Snatcher, Policenauts and the Metal Gear Solid series, Hideo Kojima became one of the most famous people coming out of the video game scene. Alongside his former studio Konami, Kojima was able to shape video games in such a revolutionary way, when they released Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation in 1998. Not only did the relatively new 3D-Grafics leave a lasting impression, but the gameplay and storytelling did even more so.
Shortly after its release, Metal Gear Solid was already critically acclaimed all around the globe. The narrative, the cutscenes, the gameplay, left fans and critics in awe. The tactical espionage action, or the reliance on stealth, the gameplay centered around was something completely new at the time, giving birth to an entire genre. Other than that, the cinematic feel Metal Gear Solid gave off was also something few other games have tried and executed in such a well- rounded manner before. The densely packed story, filled with plot-twists and cliffhangers, made a lot of people watch, even from outside the videogame industry, as MGS wasn’t just there for pure entertainment, but also to tell an intricate narration. Even today Kojima is considered one of the most important videogame producer of the entire world. His influence goes beyond the borders of videogames and even made famed actors like Mads Mikkelsen or Norman Reedus star in his newest game, Death Stranding.
Besides the stealth game genre, countless other types of video games were either invented by Japanese producers, or the genre was heavily influenced by them. One type of genre is almost distinctively Japanese: the Fighting Games. The original love for Fighting Games is thanks to the Arcade culture that was omnipotent in the 1970s and 80s. While Arcade machines and Arcades slowly but surely got replaced by home consoles as the way video games were played by the people, the Fighting Games themselves where as prevalent as before.
The first ever game that was considered a Fighting Game, was an arcade classic called Karate Champ. Made by Technos Japan and originally released in 1984, it is often considered the predecessor of all Fighting Games to come, as it featured the one on one combat, that is still the essence of most modern Fighting Games. Other than Karate Champ, there are two other Japanese produced Fighting Game classics, that are known to a wide array of people. They’re deemed essential in the genre. They are, of course, Capcom’s Street Fighter series and the Tekken series, developed by Namco. Street Fighter II marked the first big success of Capcom’s series, as it implemented the complicated special move system into the game. The game was an immediate hit, which is why multiple other Games, like Fatal Fury, tried to grasp a glimpse of SFII’s hype. The 1995 release Tekken on the other hand, set new standards when it comes to creating Fighting games with 3D graphics. It was sold countless of times both in Japan, as well as in the US and Europe, thanks to the widespread, well-received performance of the PS2. The costumes and moves of the fighters participating in the King of the Iron Fist Tournament aged so well, it is still loved by nerds and streetwear enthusiast around the globe. Even today, Tekken and Street Fighter are part of the Fighting Game pantheon, and knowledge about these games goes beyond gaming boundaries.
Next to Fighting Games, there is another genre of video games that was so greatly influenced by different Japanese entertainment cultures, it birthed a subgenre to the roleplaying games, or RPG. While classic western RPGs are often set in a medievalesque, high fantasy setting, such as the Elder Scrolls series or Blizzard’s Diablo, the Japanese equivalent, the JRPG, draws inspiration from a much broader source. Bringing Japanese manga and anime esthetics
into the mix, JRPGs can be fantasy inspired, like the Mana series, or sometimes even draw their ideas from science-fiction.
A perfect example for the latter is one of the most renowned JRPG series to ever be created. And it is of course none other than Square Enix’ long running and beloved Final Fantasy franchise. Back in 1987, when the Final Fantasy game hit the shelves, developer Square took inspiration from Enix’ Dragon Quest series, another highly successful JRPG staple. Just like its blueprint, FF was a huge hit in Japan and when the game was brought to the US in 1990, it managed to even top the 400.000 sales it accomplished in its home country. After Square and Enix merged in 2003, both studios made a combined effort to bring publish and develop the best JRPGs out there. Today both FF and DQ are considered milestones in the RPG genre, as they defined it in both looks and feel. Final Fantasy’s tremendous success saved Square from bankruptcy and turned it into a multi-media outlet, even leading to an 3D-animated movie in 2001. Many developers follow Square Enix’ steps when it comes to JRPGs. Good examples for this are the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series or the Tales games.
Through this article, it may seem as if all of Japan’s video game power moves where a thing of the past, back when the media was still in its kids shoes and considered very niche, but don’t be mistaken. There are new inventions and trends set by Japanese video games and video game developers up to this day. One of the best examples for this is about a Japanese development team, who, by the looks of it, took it really personally, when fans and critics were complaining about modern video games being too easy. And so From Software decided to release Demon Souls in 2009 and another trend was set.
Of course there were other games out there that had set their difficulty bar to the max, but the overwhelming popularity the Souls games amassed over the last decade speaks for itself. The relentless, unforgiving gameplay, that required utmost concentration and a lot of trial and error, grounded players all over the world in terms of their video game skills. From Software’s games became synonymous with the idea of a game that is hard to beat. It even created the term Souls-like, abbreviated from the Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls titles, that describe a certain new trend in gaming, where the games are notoriously hard to beat, often embedded within a dark and moody story.
In the past, as well as in the present, the Japanese video game industry made waves all around the globe. In many ways they did not only become a part of mainstream pop culture when video game became more and more popular, they influenced said mainstream in many ways, shapes or forms. It is hard to imagine what genres like the horror genre would look like today, if groundbreaking games like Silent Hill or Resident Evil wouldn’t exist. These game didn’t only bring forth Survival-Horror, they also had a huge impact on horror movies and other parts of fictional horror media. In some cases, franchises, that started out with video games, may have broadened their output to massive extend and turned into a global phenomenon. The best example for this might be the Pokémon franchise. Starting as a video game series, Pokémon grew so rapid in every part of the world, Nintendo chose to extended it and decided to make it a part of everyday kids live in the 90s and 2000s. Nowadays it is one of the biggest multimedia franchises to ever exist, and with their trading card game going through a massive hype yet again, it is hard to see Pokémon losing out on popularity in the foreseeable future. It is also to be said that, of course this article does not include every milestone Japanese video games set for the gaming industry, just because there are so many, that they are almost easy to overlook.
As of today, video games are more relevant than ever and so are video games from Japan. The times, where video games weren’t part of the mainstream are long over and more and more people from all around the globe start to pick up the controller, boot up the PC and start playing. Thanks to Japan’s rich history regarding video games, fans and nerds everywhere will always keep an eye out eastward, to see what Japan’s gaming industry comes up with next.
With new territories like virtual reality being on the rise and the entire gaming culture being in an everlasting state of transformation, it is almost guaranteed that Japan will set new video game trends in the future, just like it did in the past.
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