Over the last ten years, the narrative that Japanese games are now irrelevant, that they don’t matter, has become increasingly prevalent. In the wake of the PS2 era, the Japanese market contracted tremendously, and we were left with smoldering ruins. After the PS2, Japanese developers, who have traditionally supported one system en masse, had three equally appealing (or unappealing) options- the Xbox 360, which was easy to develop for, but which had no cachet in Japan whatsoever; the PS3, which should have logically succeeded the PS2, but which was insanely difficult and expensive to make games for, and was failing in the market (at least at first); and the Wii, which was easy and cheap to develop for, and selling a lot, but which didn’t have a audience that would purchase most serious, high end console games.
This, combined with the harsh realities of the transition to HD, meant that Japanese developers struggled to put out games on these consoles at all, and when they did, they were often lacking- franchises that had once blazed the trail, like Final Fantasy, were struggling to get games out, and when they did, they were complete misfires- games that had spent so much time in just transitioning to HD, that not enough development time or resources had been left to dedicate to the actual game part of the equation.
This led a lot of these console games to fail in the market, in the west, and in Japan- and in turn, it led to lower that expected sales of all consoles in Japan (barring the Wii, which was nevertheless plagued by an inability to actually sell software outside of Nintendo’s own fare). En masse, most Japanese developers fled to supporting first handhelds (the DS and PSP), and then smartphones. For years, if we wanted quality Japanese games, we either had to buy a DS or a PSP- a quality Japanese console game (outside of Nintendo or Kojima fare) was simply no longer an option.
"After the PS2, Japanese developers, who have traditionally supported one system en masse, had three equally appealing (or unappealing) options."
Western developers had handled the transition to HD far better- they were, of course, used to multiplatform game development, as well as development for high end machines, thanks to years of experience with PC gaming (neither of these factors stood true for Japan). And so, as they struggled less with the transition to HD (though even there, we saw the bottom fall out of the mid tier market, and we saw multiple studios going bankrupt and shutting down) they could focus more on the nuances of their game design. And so, while Japanese companies were giving us Final Fantasy 13, western companies gave us Mass Effect 2. While Japanese companies gave us Lost Planet 2, western companies gave us Uncharted 2. While Japanese companies thought Resident Evil 6 would be a good game to put out, or struggled to put out The Last Guardian, western companies in turn gave us The Last of Us or The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. As a lifelong fan of Japanese games, it hurts to admit this- but for the longest time, this was true. Japanese developers were falling behind their western counterparts, and the Japanese console (and later on, handheld) market was contracting catastrophically. It seemed as though common wisdom may actually be right- Japan would be more and more irrelevant as time went on.
Except now we know that wasn’t true. We had signs of the brilliance Japanese developers can exhibit every now and then over the last few years- Dark Souls is one of the most vaunted games of all time, and many developers, including western ones, openly take inspiration from it. It came from a Japanese developer. Nintendo’s games continued to remain largely high quality (though they became safe, and almost sterile). But by and large, Japanese games had fallen behind.
That all changed this year- this entire year so far has been a tour de force of the brilliance that Japanese developers can and still do exhibit. Late 2016 and 2017 so far has been one of the best, greatest, most memorable years for video games in recent memory (and we’re not even four months in yet!)- and that owes itself almost entirely to Japanese developers and their output.
"This entire year so far has been a tour de force of the brilliance that Japanese developers can and still do exhibit. Late 2016 and 2017 so far has been one of the best, greatest, most memorable years for video games in recent memory (and we’re not even four months in yet!)- and that owes itself almost entirely to Japanese developers and their output."
This year, we have received Yakuza 0, Gravity Rush 2, Tales of Berseria, Resident Evil 7, Nioh, NieR Automata, Kingdom Hearts 2.8 HD, Persona 5, Toukiden 2, Super Bomberman R, and of course, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. All of these games have been exceptionally well received- there are at least five Game of the Year contenders in that list already, and Zelda may even be a Game of the Generation contender (it is currently the third highest rated game of all time on Metacritic). These have all come from Japanese developers, over a period of little over 90 days- that’s almost one game every week 0n average ever since the year started. Meanwhile, western developers have turned out For Honor, Ghost Recon Wildlands, Halo Wars 2, Mass Effect Andromeda, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Now, don’t get us wrong- those are all good games (and Horizon in and off itself is one of the best games of the generation so far, and another Game of the Year contender)- but they are dwarfed in quality and quantity by the output from Japanese developers this year so far.
The most amazing thing is, this doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon, either- multiple great Japanese games are planned over the coming months and years, including Death Stranding, Tekken 7, Marvel vs Capcom Infinite, Dragon Quest 11, Kingdom Hearts 3, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Shenmue 3, Shin Megami Tensei V, Gran Turismo Sport, Ace Combat 7, Ni no Kuni 2, and all of Nintendo’s lineup, which includes Super Mario Odyssey, Splatoon 2, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and Fire Emblem, among other things. Some of the most exciting upcoming console games are all Japanese- meanwhile, western developers appear to have lost a lot of cachet and mindshare over the last few months.
All of this has resulted in the Japanese market being buoyed again. The Nintendo 3DS is now the third highest selling handheld of all time in Japan, the PS4 is now outpacing the PS3, selling a steady 40,000 units a week, and the Nintendo Switch has consistently remained sold out since launch. The Japanese market, which many had written of for dead, has returned triumphantly in the wake of the resurgence of Japanese developers, whom many had similarly written off as irrelevant.
"The PS4 gets every Japanese game made (alongside every western game being made), giving it a thorough lead over the Xbox, and even the Switch gets Japanese games where Xbox doesn’t."
The interesting thing about all this – and the part that I am sure many of you were waiting for after reading the headline – is that while Sony and Nintendo are reaping all the benefits from this (the PS4 is the de facto game platform for all Japanese game releases now- in fact, of all the games mentioned above, all except for the Nintendo ones (and Shin Megami Tensei) are PS4 games, with most of them also being PS4 exclusive; meanwhile, every notable Japanese developer and publisher has also pledged full support for the Switch), the Xbox is being left out of the party entirely. Of all the Japanese games that I mentioned above, only one – Resident Evil 7 – is out on the Xbox as well, and of the upcoming ones, only four are hitting Xbox. Meanwhile the PS4 gets every Japanese game made (alongside every western game being made), giving it a thorough lead over the Xbox, and even the Switch gets Japanese games where Xbox doesn’t- meaning the Xbox loses the edge it has over the Switch thanks to western games.
The result of all this? The Xbox is the only system unable to play exciting looking upcoming games like Dragon Quest 11 and many other Japanese games.
"Japan is resurgent, and it is delivering some of the best games of the generation so far. By choosing to sit out on this party, Microsoft is only hurting itself."
The worst part is, it doesn’t have to be that way. The original Xbox and Xbox 360 had some great Japanese games on them- and the Xbox 360 even managed to make some headway into the Japanese market in its early years. It is on the Xbox One that things appear this bleak, however- most major Japanese games skip the Xbox One entirely, most western games forego an Xbox One launch in Japan, and in Japan, the Xbox One is selling literally less than 500 units a month.
The Japanese gaming market is back, you see, and so are Japanese game developers- no matter how much someone might want to tell you that Japan is irrelevant, the truth is that it is not. It is resurgent, and it is delivering some of the best games of the generation so far. By choosing to sit out on this party, Microsoft is only hurting itself.
The good news is that there is hope on that front yet- while D4, ReCore, and Scalebound may not necessarily have panned out, Xbox head Phil Spencer has intimated multiple times that he is looking to change things as far as Japanese support for the system goes. He has been meeting Japanese developers over the last few months, and he has indicated that he’s getting positive responses- this is a great sign. Hopefully, we can see it all bear out some time soon. This E3 Microsoft needs to present a wide range of games, if it wants the upcoming Xbox Scorpio to be appealing- and Japan must be a substantial part of that line-up.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.