Tuesday, October 16, 2012

SDF Japan: Do You Remember Japanese Games?

Recently I had the opportunity to contribute to 1up.com's newest community feature about Japanese games.  My contribution was selected for inclusion in the article, which is totally awesome.  However, the version that appears in the article is edited slightly from what I submitted and the version I submitted is less than half the length of the first response I wrote, and that version seemed incredibly truncated for such a huge topic.  So I thought, hey, why not expand it?  And here it is.

Japanese games.

There is so much I could say about them, so rather than write a book length post, I think I'll break this up into several posts.  To start with, it should be known that the majority of my early gaming memories (as I'm sure is the case for most gamer's of a certain age) are tied to Japanese games.

One of my earliest memories is playing Super Mario Bros. with my brother.  That first Goomba killed me.  But when you landed on him he got flattened.  Wonderful!  This mushroom thing came out of that one block and then you could break the other blocks - and little pieces went flying off.  Those little details delighted me, then and now.  You could go down a pipe, and you could throw fireballs and you could pick up stars and I remember being shown where the hidden block was with the 1up, how I could use the little hill in the background to find the right spot.  Then you're underground, there's more secrets all around.  Then you're going over tree tops and the turtles are suddenly flying.  Incredible!  Kid me was enthralled by this stuff.  You go into a castle and there are spinning fireballs and lava and other fire balls are flying in from off screen - why?  Because a giant monster on a bridge is spitting them at you and you must jump over him or run under him to chop that bridge up and drop him into that lava!  All of this was such a big deal for me.  I know I'm not alone.

My parents were (are) divorced and I lived with my mom.  We had an NES, but it technically belonged to my brother and I wasn't really supposed to use it by myself because it was thought that I might break it.  I wanted a system of my own that I could use at any time without having to seek permission or supervision.  Anyway, my dad had bought an old run down house to fix up Bob Vila style.  I was too young to help or be in any way interested in that.  So, in order to keep me entertained for the long hours that he would spend working on that, he bought me a game system.  And that system was the Super Nintendo.  It came with Super Mario World.  I'd seen the ads, I knew you could ride a dinosaur and he could eat things, and you could get a cape and fly (like the tail from Mario 3, but better) and that just seemed amazing.  He took me to the video store as well and we rented a few more games.  One of them I was unable to identify for years and years - I remembered it vaguely but could never describe it well enough for anyone else to be able to identify it.  But I finally figured it out - it was Smart Ball.  I can't remember what the other game I rented was, so it must have been pretty bad.  But boy, Super Mario World.  That was a revelation.

And that year, for my birthday, my mom bought me a Genesis.  :)

It came with Sonic 2, and he could go around loops.  Of course I knew about that, the ads went out of their way to show off the speed and loops (why can't he be like that nice boy, Mario?), but to see it in my living room made me so happy.

It was a ritual for me to go to the video store every Friday and rent a game.  For the most part I only got new games on my birthday or at Christmas, so most of the games I played I played as rentals.  I remember renting Gunstar Heroes.  I was blown away by it.  I bought it years later and am proud to have it in my collection.  I rented Shining Force (didn't understand it at the time, but it stayed with me.  Now I love it).  I rented all the Mega Man games many times.  I liked that I could choose which level I wanted to play and if I kept my passwords I could pick up where I left off.

The first Castlevania game that I have clear memories of playing was actually Bloodlines, on the Sega Genesis.  I'm not sure how the NES ones escaped me (but then, I was a little kid at the time), but Bloodlines I loved.  Funny story - I rented the game many times and one time I forgot to return the manual.  I kept it of course - it would have been unthinkable to throw it away, even though it was wrinkled and had no cover.  Years later the video store closed and when they were liquidating all their games I went to check it out.  You know what's coming... Bloodlines was there!  I bought it and took it home, the very same game I'd rented a dozen times, and was actually able to slip that manual back into the box!  For some reason thinking about that makes me feel really good.

And you know what?  Even back then I wasn't so obsessed with the new technology as to be unable to appreciate the older games.  I still played plenty of NES games - it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do - and that attitude never changed for me.

Teacher's didn't understand games.  In second grade I was asked to write a paper about an activity I enjoyed doing with my parents.  I wrote about playing games with my mom.  At one point, quite innocuously, I wrote that it was funny to me when she died.  My teacher did not understand what I was talking about and took it to mean that I was disturbed.  I know this because she expressed these feelings to my grandparents (and they later told me about it when I was older).  Later, for a creative writing assignment, I wrote a story about Sonic destroying  Dr. Robotnik.  He blew up in his robot.  My teacher warned my parents that I should not be playing games, they were obviously affecting me.

I was lucky because my parents never took that seriously.  My mom has told me that she was never concerned about letting me play as many games as I wanted because of Ender's Game.  She read that book and decided that in a war of the future knowledge/skill with computers and games would help me avoid the front lines.  It sounds a bit odd now, but then again, she wasn't really wrong was she?  I could totally pilot a UAV - I'd be perfect for that!

All of my friends, when I was young, I became friends with over video games.  This was the conversation: I play games - oh, you play games?  Okay, we're best friends now.  If you're my age or older, you know how it was, but if you're very much younger you probably don't as games have only gotten more and more mainstream.  Back then we were a brotherhood by necessity.

Anyway, friends would come over to my house or I would go over to their house and we would play games all night long.

I have this one really clear memory of having a friend over to spend the night and we played Mario Kart 64 Battle Mode for hours.  We drove in circles around that sky scraper stage over and over, trying to outsmart one another and cut across the level at just the right spot.  We were so evenly matched - so careful not to put ourselves in danger of being hit by shells and such - that a single match could last for half and hour.

Another time this same friend and I played through Mega Man 7.  I remember it was stormy and we were so excited to play the game but his parents made us wait because they didn't want the TV to be fried by a lightning strike (does that ever actually happen?).  We finally got to play, and we took turns trading off lives  and in one of the stages I think Bass says "Damn" and we were both like "Oh my gosh, did he just cuss!?"  Definitely the first time I'd ever seen that in a game.  I don't know, we must have been about 7 or 8.

God, there are so many games that deserve mentioning, I could go on and on and on.

It wasn't long after that the Playstation came out and my dad got me one.  I remember that process, more or less.  Did I ask for a new system?  I don't remember, but it was somehow determined that I would be getting one and I went with my dad to a store that later became a Fry's but at the time was called, like, UltimateComputer or something?  We were in the market for one of the fancy new 3D systems and my choices were a Saturn a Playstation or a 3DO.  I think there was one other option, actually... maybe an Atari Jaguar?  Somehow I settled on the Playstation, which was totally lucky.  I remember the guy at the store giving us advice - I think he steered us away from the 3DO and Jaguar.  The Saturn was Sega, and that was awesome, but I had a strange feeling that Sega belonged at home with my mom - to get the new Sega system at my dad's house felt like a betrayal.  Beyond that, the games on the Saturn weren't that impressive at that time.  The Playstation had one game on it that really impressed me - Tomb Raider.  So I went with that.

So Tomb Raider's not Japanese, and neither is Gex, which is another early PSX game that I fell in love with.  But the PSX was incredibly important for me as far as my love of Japanese games.  It was with the PSX that I began to think of my favorite games as distinctly "Japanese" - I liked Tomb Raider, sure, but I LOVED Metal Gear Solid, Tenchu, and when I played Final Fantasy VII, I found myself drawn in to the deep world of JRPGs.  FFVII, FFVIII, FFIX, Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Grandia, Lunar 1, Lunar 2, Wild Arms, I even picked up the collections of FFIV, V, VI and Chrono Trigger.  I got Brave Fencer Musashi, Bushido Blade, Einhander.  Symphony of the Night, Silhouette Mirage, Klonoa, and of course I've already told you all about Alundra.   :)  Wow, do you realize how many of those games are Squaresoft games?  For a few years there they were just knocking it out of the park.

And I still loved my Genesis and SNES.  I bought the old used games from GameStop all the time, fleshing out my collection and picking up great classics that I'd missed.

I also got into anime around that time.  First my brother showed me Akira, then Toonami launched and there was Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon (don't laugh!) and - best of all - Robotech.  From there I was hooked.  Right after that, I got into Evangelion.  I bought all the VHS tapes - they released one tape a month, I think.  2 episodes.  $20.  That means the entire series cost $260.  On VHS.  Now you can get an entire series in a box set on DVD for $60, and people still complain.  Is a modern anime not worth even 25% of Evangelion?  Oh wait, that's actually pretty plausible - bad comparison - NEVER MIND, MOVING ON.

At that time there were magazines like GameFAN, where the pages were these super dense colorful layouts and they had import sections and crazy photos of Japan; these multi-floor arcades and these neon-drenched streets lined with game and anime shops.  It seemed so amazingly cool.  I've heard a lot of not too nice stories about GameFAN - allegations of unethical; even downright illegal behavior on the part of Dave Halverson.  Plus Halverson has a tendency to be, shall we say, hyperbolic, and that has earned him some harsh critics.  I don't know anything about all that - all I can say is, I loved GameFAN back in the day, I still look over those old issues from time to time, and I would happily pay money to buy more magazines like that today, if there were any (well, actually, there is a new version of GameFAN which I pick up from time to time, but it seems to be published irregularly).

It was all mixing together - the games I loved, anime and Japanese culture itself - it was all the same thing.  I felt like I needed to learn Japanese and I even bought some books and tried to teach myself (a non starter).  I remember PSM's mascot was Banzai Chibi Chan (I still love that character), which goes to show that for a while there that super Japanese-centric culture was the main culture of gaming.

A sample GameFAN spread - gorgeous!

PSM used to run these little comics with Banzai Chibi Chan.

Looked at steeped in Japanese culture they are!  You'd never see this now.

A Club Sega arcade in Tokyo.

When the N64 came out, naturally I got all the great Japanese games on it.  One game that has a special significance to me is Mystical Ninja Staring Goemon.  The game opens with a Japanese them song - just like the animes I loved.  So I was favorably disposed from the start.  Then later you get a giant robot which also has a theme song.  Greatest game ever, case closed.  Okay maybe not, but seriously Goemon on N64 is in my top ten for the system for sure.

Another game that's really similar to me  is Mega Man Legends.  It also has a charming village, and a delightful cast of characters.  At first I wasn't too into it, but over time it just grew on me more and more.  There's all kinds of wonderful details - things that are not explained, not telegraphed - things that you could only find by trying to interact with the entire world.  The first street is a shopping area.  There's a can on the ground.  You can kick it.  If you kick it behind the counter of the bakery you get a little reward.  In the next area, you can ride on the cars to travel faster.  When I got the Jet Skates I was officially on board.  Japanese games used to be like that - so packed with cool details.  Of course, Western games had lots of secrets too - like Doom had bunches of secret rooms.  But the can easter egg in MML is cooler because it's consistent with the world -it's not just a false wall that's "secret" because of it's arbitrary location.

Japanese games used to be full of interesting design choices.  Take Brave Fencer Musashi, which I mentioned above.  My relationship with that game is sort of like Mega Man Legends.   I played the intro area, and I liked it but I wasn't too terribly impressed.  Then I got to the charming village and that was cool, but still it seemed a bit bland, plus some of the design choices annoyed me, like Musashi getting sleepy and needing rest and shops closing on certain days.  But the game just got more and more crazy.  I grew to really like the episodic structure, where the game is divided into chapters and certain characters change their behavior as you progress from one chapter to the next.  There's a whole section in which the village gets invaded by vampires.  Eventually even the things that annoyed me at first became good points - of course he gets sleepy!  That's genius!  And every shop is closed one day a week - that's obvious!  What a great design choice.  Here's something that can actually happen to you in Brave Fencer Musashi:  You've found the entrance to the next dungeon.  But you're too tired to go in right now so you head back to the castle where you can sleep for the night.  Then next morning you're ready to go, but hold on, you're low on healing items better stock up.  Oh snap, the shop is closed today.  Well you'll have to tool around town and maybe level up on regular enemies for today (of course, you could also go straight back to bed and sleep until the next day).  In such a cartoonish game that's an interesting (and entertaining) layer of realism.  Even Skyrim doesn't do that, 13 years later.

Have Japanese games gone off a cliff?  I don't think it's that bad, but something does seem to have gone awry.  I'm hardly Phil Fish, but I can't deny that many contemporary Japanese games are missing something.  The warning signs were there in the PS2 era - Square fell off, Konami refused to follow up Symphony of the Night with a 2D sequel and wasted every one's time with a bunch a junk, Metal Gear 2 let everyone down (to be fair, Metal Gear 3 restored the faith), RPGs in general dropped sharply in quality (in my opinion at least), and many of the best Japanese games, like Okami, were commercial failures (well, that's nothing new I guess).

It's not just that many of the most prominent Japanese games were slightly off, it's that Western games were getting much better, making the Japanese games look even worse by comparison.  While there were excellent Western games on PS1, like the aforementioned Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, and Spyro, I wouldn't say they were the best games on the system.  That changed on PS2 - Western devs gave us Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, Sly Cooper, and GTA (not my favorite type of game, but it was incredible when it came out).  In the current generation, Western games have continued to improve, while the average Japanese devs have struggled to maintain their existing quality.

And yet, still, most of the best games are Japanese.  A lot of people would disagree (it's down to different tastes I suppose) but give me Bayonetta or God of War any day.  No More Heroes, Sin and Punish: Star Successor, Little King Story, Xenoblade, The Last Story, 3D Dot Game Heroes, Demon/Dark Souls, Metal Gear 4 (mixed reception on that one I guess), and that's without even getting into the DS or PSP.  Even shooters, which we think of as a Western specialty, the Japanese occasionally nail.  I prefer Vanquish to Gears of War.  Notice too that I didn't mention any of Nintendo's first party titles - let's just say they delivered the goods, yet again.

In my opinion, the best RPGs, the best action/adventure games, the best melee action games, the best shooters (in a sense) and the best... weird things still come from Japan.  But they have some serious competition now and Japanese developers do not dominate the way they used to.

Still, we'll always have our memories.  And with the Wii-U coming out in just over a month, let us hope that we will continue to enjoy great Japanese games for years and years to come!

Well, I'm off to play some SNES.  Until next time Paisanos!

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