It feels like just yesterday that I was sat in my living room watching my brother play Sonic 3 and Knuckles on the Mega Drive as a wide-eyed child. The tropical colors of Angel Island and mood-lifting music were simply mesmerizing. What made Sega's console truly amazing to me, though, was that this machine had been created in a place that was literally on the other side of the world; it was mysterious. That sense of wonder obviously diminished as I got older — not just because the enigma of foreign technology had been lifted but also because in the 18 years since that day, the rest of the world has had time to catch up.
Slow changes over time are always less noticeable and more acceptable than sudden ones. Perhaps it's for this reason that gamers and the industry as a whole have only recently started to publicize the disheartening news that Japan, arguably the spiritual home of interactive entertainment, is losing ground to their Western counterparts. It's a worrying thought, to be sure, but the question on my mind (as I’m sure it is on many others') is, "Why?"
The emergence of Western studios, like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, and Microsoft's entry into the console market in 2002 with the Xbox have contributed massively to popularizing gaming culture outside of Japan. But this is just one system of a trio that has defined this generation of console wars — both Nintendo and Sony are two of the biggest entertainment giants in gaming, not to mention the world, so attributing the Western manufacture of hardware to the receding Japanese market would be a shortsighted stance to take.
Japanese companies like Capcom and Square Enix have increasingly begun to cater to Western audiences to stay competitive, going so far as to lease out licenses like the upcoming DMC: Devil May Cry. The leasing out of established works may be a sign of Japan's lack of confidence when it comes to grabbing the attention of Western audiences. One could also argue that outsourcing development duties detracts from everything that makes a foreign production unique in the first place.
Of course, i'm in no way trying to devalue the efforts of studios that do take on treasured franchises from the Land of the Rising Sun, and I have no doubt that developer Ninja Theory will make Dante's upcoming adventure an eventful one. However, it seems that Japanese studios are also attempting to westernize titles that are developed in-house in an attempt to appeal to a mass audience.
Dragon's Dogma is the most recent example that comes to mind. Capcom's take on the open-world role-playing game certainly wasn't a bad game by any means; in fact, I enjoyed it immensely despite its flaws. Its environments and art style may have been generic fantasy fare, but the combat — as expected of a Capcom game — is fluid and frenetic even by action game standards.
But there's a reason that Dogma has been compared to developer Bethesda's Skyrim since it's release: Both titles are RPGs inspired by Western medieval mythology, and Dogma is inevitably going to be seen as an Eastern interpretation of the goliath that is the Elder Scrolls series.
Dogma may have been reasonably well-received by players and critics alike, but deeply identifiable Japanese games are still arguably the most successful and critically acclaimed to have come from overseas. It feels strangely ironic that their industry is trying to move away from its roots.
Both Bayonetta and Dark Souls feature some of the most fantastically designed environments I have ever experienced. They may both be inspired by European architecture, but the gothic nature of the castles and cathedrals in Souls' Undead Burg, for example, just drag you into its atmosphere of dread.
If there is one thing that Japanese developers can be lauded for, though, it's difficulty. Forgive my conjuring out of thin air phrases to describe my meaning, but true difficulty is a different entity to artificial difficulty. The Ninja Gaiden and Souls' series are renowned for their difficulty not because they are too hard but because they feature the type of hardships that can be overcome with skill and planning and by learning how the mechanics themselves combine into such a fluid system.
It would be a shame to see Japan lose its digital identity by catering to Western audiences, but it is a fact that gaming is no longer something the West has adopted into its own culture. I just hope that Japan can find a suitable alternative to falling sales that allows its developers to continue creating unique, standout titles that don’t drown in the sea of shooter and sandbox experiences that now dominate the shelves.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!