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January 28, 2016

Are Japanese Games Just Plain Better?

(Alternate post title: Time to Throw a Molotov Cocktail at a Gas Station Covered in Dry Grass and Fireworks)

This should be a given, but I’m going to ask that anyone who’s stumbled upon this post should hold off on leaving a comment until AFTER they’ve finished reading the post in full.  Okay?  Okay.  In exchange, I’m going to undercut the post, the title, and myself by giving a straight answer: nooooooooooooooooo.  The land of the rising sun has released plenty of terrible games in the past, and it’ll always have the potential to do so.  By the same token, the west will always be able to put out some of the best titles the world’s ever known -- especially with the rise of indie gaming.  It’s not a black-and-white case, and it never will be.  A good game is a good game, no matter where it’s from.

So why the post?  Why the incendiary title?  Well, I’ve been thinking (as I always do); I’ve been thinking about the games I play, and the industry as a whole.  On top of that, I’ve taken note of my preferences -- and since I try to think critically about why games work (or don’t), I’ve been trying to figure out why I have the opinions and preferences that I do.  Contrary to popular belief, there’s a reason behind my actions.  They’re not always good actions -- and popular opinions even less often -- but I think I may have figured something out.


I’m pretty sure that there are records of me saying something along the lines of “there isn’t a single game that justifies the presence of the PS4” for well over a year.  (That goes for the Xbone as well, by extension.)  That’s a highly subjective claim, of course, but throughout 2014 and even into 2015, there wasn’t much to prove me wrong.  Infamous: Second Son was the first major PS4 release I played, but I walked away from it disappointed and haven’t touched it since I completed it.  It had its moments, sure, but it’s hard to remember the fun when I’m more likely to remember the anemic content, the weak story, and the gameplay that wears thin well before the final hours.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I would name it as one of the better PS4 games I played that year.

Incidentally, Watch Dogs would not only become the worst PS4 game I played that year, but one of the worst games I’ve ever played -- a miserable experience that signaled video games were content to stroke the nadir, artistically and mechanically, if all they needed to succeed were empty promises and marketing hype.  Dragon Age: Inquisition couldn’t hold my interest thanks to an onslaught of sidequests that could have masked a good plot -- but not a depressingly-bland combat system.  I don’t even want to talk about Destiny -- or the other shooters I played to enjoy either the console or the genre.


I’ve wondered openly if the jump to these new consoles meant that developers adopted a new philosophy: “the same, but less”.  It felt as if (and sometimes still feels like) entire companies lost their skills in the generation leap, in the same way Samus would lose her equipment and power at the start of a new MetroidSecond Son suffered from it, but it’s hardly the only one.  Mortal Kombat X is a good-enough fighter, but its story mode is a step down -- especially since I think Injustice’s was actually really entertaining.  Batman: Arkham Knight may have more breadth, but less depth; the rogues’ gallery has been turned into a bunch of manchildren crying for Batman’s attention, and the world itself has been warped so that the Dark Knight has to lug his poorly-controlling tank up a building instead of use the Batplane he’s got on speed dial.  I still don’t want to talk about Destiny, but I also don’t want to talk about Assassin’s Creed: Unity.  Not a lot of people do, I’d wager.

But I’m not about to ride the doom and gloom train to its last stop.  Yes, I think that the PS4 got off to a terrible start, and it’s still not as reliable as I would have hoped from a console that’s probably sold at least a good thirty million units; that said, it’s got some good games out there now.  Metal Gear Solid V may be at the center of several controversies, but the final product is still incredibly satisfying.  Dragon Quest Heroes has no right to be as fun as it is, though it’s probably cheating because of the sheer level of charm that’s bursting from every pixel.  I haven’t played a lot of Bloodborne, but I’ve played enough of it to want to claim it’s my GOTY.  And The Witcher 3 is pretty much what I wanted from Dragon Age: Inquisition and more -- to the point where the former makes the latter embarrassingly redundant.

Notice a trend here?  You should.  One of those four games is not like the others.


Now, does that mean my satisfaction with (and overall quality of) the PS4 is directly related to how many Japanese games are on the console?  No, of course not.  But it doesn’t hurt to have them.  We can agree on that at least, can’t we?

I’m not saying that to assert that one is better than the other.  I’m saying that based on two principles.  First off, the game industry wouldn’t be where it is today if not for the proliferation of Japanese games.  Some of the most iconic characters ever came from the east, and some of them are either holding it down at this very moment (like plenty of Nintendo’s guys) or are kept alive by the memories and fondness held by devoted fans (like plenty of Sega’s guys).  What they represent can’t be ignored, and shouldn’t be ignored just because the west has long since superseded the east in terms of output.

But the more important point is what Japanese games can reliably bring to the table (in the best-case scenario): something different.  In a world where plenty of games have to beat off cries of homogenization with a stick, the best of the best Japanese games can break down whatever walls they want to deliver something with character and style -- and with no shortage of energy or sincerity, no less.  I’ve vouched for the endless possibilities of art before, but that’s because again and again and again, I’ve seen what can be done.  I’ve seen teams of devs from thousands of miles away turn an idea born from a whim into something incredible. 

And here’s one of them.


I’ve talked at length about how Pikmin 3 is damn amazing, so I’ll avoid rambling on again.  With that said, I have to stress how miraculous it feels, knowing that we ever got it at all.  I’m under the assumption that it didn’t sell as well as Nintendo hoped (a consequence of being on the Wii U, no doubt), but it’s still an appreciable effort and a show of what video games can be.  It’s an adventure!  It’s a struggle for survival!  It’s an expedition to uncover the mysteries of an alien planet!  It’s a nightmarish struggle against nightmare creatures!  It’s a peaceful, meditative romp through nature!  It’s overflowing with charm and charisma!  I could go on, but I’m trying not to ramble, and I’m getting pretty close to it.

For me, that last point is part of what makes me love Japanese games (when they’re done right): charm and charisma.  There’s no wrong way to have them, but there has to be a certain spark and essence that brings the elements of a game together -- and as a result, elevates them to a higher degree.  Like I said, I dig Bloodborne because it’s able to make me have thoughts and emotions I never would have thought possible in a game (fear well among them).  For a more conventional example, I started playing Tales of Zestiria semi-recently; as with virtually every Tales game, there’s no underestimating the sheer amount of magnetism packed into its cast, its gameplay, its story, its world, and the package as a whole. 


I’m not going to say that games from the west aren’t capable of having charisma, because that’s blatantly untrue.  (I don’t care for Borderlands, but I respect that it tickles the fancy of others.)  But in the modern-day console space -- especially when big budgets are on the table -- western games at large sure don’t act like they have charisma, or even care about having it.  I have issues with most of the games I called out earlier because even though they should be advances of the craft, most of them play like the creators had as much passion making the game as they would cutting their nails. 

Whether it’s annual releases that are stuck in a rut, titles that play it safe by sticking to well-worn conventions (zombies, for one), or games pining to be epic and cinematic and taken super-duper seriously, there are a lot of problems I have on a personal level with a number of western games.  That’s been true for a while, and it won’t stop being true for a while -- not until there’s enough of a shake-up across the board.

Pared down to basics, eastern games consistently give me a reason to be excited.  The visuals, the gameplay, the music -- there’s a lot to love, because “a lot” in this case taps directly into the infinite possibilities of the medium.  Well, in the best-case scenario.  In the worst-case…


I’ve heard the argument that a guy like David Cage needs others -- editors, for example -- to keep him under control, because otherwise we get stuff like Beyond: Two Souls.  The same applies to the worst of the eastern fare; when it’s bad, it’s a train wreck on top of a thirty-car pileup on top of a landfill.  And I’m not just talking about Final Fantasy, either (though let’s face it, those games are major offenders).

Japanese games can ask for a lot out of players -- namely, commitment and sympathy.  Gameplay-wise or story-wise, it’s not uncommon for Japanese games to demand time and energy to enjoy, play, or even understand what’s going on.  In terms of gameplay?  Think about it.  Fighting games demand hours of learning characters, systems, and fundamentals before you can properly play a match.  Action games are on the same axis, but with a default difficulty level that not everyone is willing (or able) to tackle.  RPGs are so different from one another that the concepts and lessons in one might as well be gibberish in another.  There’s so much that can be a turn-off -- so many barriers that get in the way of enjoying the game…which by definition they exist to provide.

Some games just don’t lend themselves to a casual experience, and as a result can be alienating instead of inviting.  And then there’s some of the really esoteric stuff that -- to the layman -- might as well be human repellent. 


Well.  Let's see how this one turns out.

But it’s the story-based commitment that can be a deal-breaker.  I look to the Tales games as sterling examples, but even in the best-case scenario they’ll illustrate a big issue: how much can you care about a fictional world?  How much can you care about fictional characters?  How much can you care about fictional problems?  I ask this, because the assumption going in is that you’ll care about everything, and with 100% devotion, even if there’s no reason to. 

Obviously, I care about the journey of Sorey and his pals in Zestiria, and want to see it through to the end.  But having replayed Abyss a couple of years ago, there were times when Luke soured me on his adventure -- partly because the game’s third act pretty much tanked his character development and made him into the quintessential whiny teen.  Emil from Dawn of the New World is just plain bad; he’s a wimpy character whose entire motivation revolves around his hatred of the apparently-murderous lead from the previous game -- who, for the record, is so obviously not the villain that I’m embarrassed the devs tried to convince us otherwise.

Stories shouldn’t be afraid to ask for empathy from the audience, and when done well, it can create a stronger bond than just “Little Jimmy Xbox needs to piss away an afternoon.”  But that empathy has to be earned, and not abused.  Any game (Japanese or otherwise) that asks us to connect with characters that have terrible personalities, act like idiots from minute one, take part in go-nowhere plots, and try furiously to tug at the heartstrings might as well be spawned from the deepest regions of hell.  And also, they can piss off.


I can’t stress enough that this post isn’t about one type of game or the other being better.  I’ll admit that I think Japanese games have a valuable quality that gets tapped more regularly than western counterparts -- that willingness to explore the wild frontier of creativity -- but it’s not as if one is innately destined to succeed.  Both types have their problems.  Every game has its problems.  The commonality of those problems may vary based on the region, but there’s plenty to love.  There always has been, and there always will be. 

I love video games.  And going forward, I want the best for them; I want people to be able to have as much fun as I’ve had, and will have.  What’s it going to take to advance the medium?  Sure, new technology will help, but I think it’s been proven by now that the best hardware or the most money dumped in aren’t enough.  It takes a mindset, a vision, an idea -- and if that can be learned by observing and appreciating the works of others, then so be it.  Let’s learn from contemporaries, from cultures, from the past, from the present, and even from ourselves.  Break the walls down, as a certain wrestler might advocate.


So where do you stand on the subject?  Do you think games from the east are better?  Western games, maybe?  Does one have advantages over the other?  By all means, weigh in here.  I only ask one thing: keep it civil.  The last thing we need is another wildfire.

The internet can burn, right?  I’d assume it can.  It exists, after all.  Why wouldn’t it be flammable? 

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