Rejecting Japanese, I Really Think So

(Note; This was published on my old blog on Thursday August 4th 2011 – and is being archived for posterity.)

It’s odd that for all the critical and commercial love for Catherine, one criticism has been leveled at it that concerns me.

“It’s awfully Japanese…”

There was a time in the gaming world that Japan was the foremost leader in videogames; a time when Japan pushed the boundries of gaming. They introduced the horror genre to us in the late 80s (there were “horror games” before that, but mostly text-based) with Sweet Home, by Capcom no less – who went on to make Resident Evil. Konami then delivered the superb Silent Hill before Tecmo mastered the genre with Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly – the best horror game ever made. RPGs on the SNES went through the same cycles – before we ended up with a full-out war between the obvious Final Fantasy 6 or the less well known but connoisseurs choice of Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals (gee, wonder which I fall on?). Same with platformers, racing games, fighters…

The Japanese are REALLY GOOD at making games. But the problem is, Japan is no longer their biggest market.

And this means that we in the NTSC and PAL regions are now who are turned to in times of need, who are expected to buy the games. And the sad thing is, most people are either scared of the Japanese mentality towards games, or have some pre-ordained prejudices towards it.

In recent years, the Japanese have been westernising their games with often very little success. Silent Hill has become more action over horror, which has largely killed the franchise stone dead. Resident Evil has always had its tongue firmly in cheek, but Resident Evil 5 was a Hollywood Blockbuster – they threw everything at it but the humour so what you were left with was a lot of action but absolutely no feel. Sonic is probably the biggest victim in all of this – they’ve tried to pitch him as “cool”, but it’s a cool that is so early 90s. It’s just not washing with people. Same with Mario really – whilst Nintendo always make technically amazing games, Mario is much like Pokemon – over exposed, and just a bit childish now.

And yet, when we get games with a distinctly Japanese flavour, we either rebel against them or somehow make a point of saying “I don’t like the Japanese influences.”

Let’s take it down a notch here.

Final Fantasy 7. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Super Mario 64. Soul Calibur. Chrono Trigger. Super Metroid. Shenmue. Super Street Fighter 2. Resident Evil 4. Metal Gear Solid. Final Fantasy X. Super Mario Galaxy. Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Mario Kart. Dragon Quest. The Tales Series. Brain Training. Sudoku.

Have a little look at that list. Any game there you like? Then, my friend, you have played a game with a distinctly Japanese flavour. And there are so many, many more besides – Devil May Cry and its ilk, off the top of my head.

It is in the absence of the Japanese craziness and imagination that it is most notable, and notable that we are at a time when games have taken a very… American approach to their tone. It’s all big muscles, massive over-compensatory penile extensions and often more swearing than is necessary, or violence and vulgarity to the point that it overdoses and becomes obscene, rather than entertaining.

It’s not merely the Japanese though – take a staple of our gaming lives, Lara Croft. In the original Tomb Raider games, she was flirty and had a sense of humour, serious but clearly doing her job because she loved the adventure, not the end result. Once it went American, she became a carpet-munching man-hating action heroine whose only drive was because she watched her mummy “die” and her daddy disappeared, leaving her alone in an upper-class world of privilege, attending boarding school and getting good grades. Holy shit America, I didn’t realise you thought being a British Toff was so painfully agonising! Best not introduce you to The Only Way Is Essex, your brains may not be able to handle the stark change of tone…

But the US seems to be the biggest market. The problem is this – whilst it may be the biggest market, it’s also the market with, ostensibly, the poorest taste… OR SO I THOUGHT.

The sales of Catherine give me hope that quality and charm and humour can be a massive part of gaming today, and not all successful commercial releases need to be American Action Heroes who couldn’t find their penis without the aid of a powerful microscope. And a lot of reviews celebrated the mature, rounded way Catherine approaches the issue of infidelity, sex and the inner turmoil of a man struggling with his own conscience, a man who is a hero in his dreams but a complete wuss in reality. This is what Japan does best – content that has depth, meaning and whilst it often does have that wildly inappropriate moment from time to time, it’s often no more than a big muscley man holding a minigun as if the whirly barrel bit is their cock.

But instead, the biggest problem people have with it is the anime style; the crazy bosses which reflect the greatest fears of most men in that position, the colour and style and sometimes the strange delivery and awkwardly jarring mistranslations.

To me, all of that is a selling point. But whereas many of us do like Japanese games; vocally, more have been lambasting it and calling it “samey” and “old fashioned”.

Sadly a criticism that the Japanese should be levelling at our Western games like Gears of War and Halo, games which are rooted in a very old-fashioned chauvinistic ideology, where women are either objects to be flirted with, sexed up and discarded or evil and there to tempt the hero from the path of justice and righteousness. Games which are mired in guns that in some cases are a hundred years old, or so improbable you may as well be firing dildos out of that cannon. Games which don’t scare – they just shock. Games which aren’t interested in the art of gaming – more interested in looking at themselves in a mirror, vain and conceited and then realising that actually the player has offered to take them to dinner like three days ago.

Which is probably why historically American games and the 360 do very badly in Japan – we have such different tastes and ideas on what is childish and old-fashioned.

The Western audience may not appreciate the Japanese imagination or sensibility, but historically – they’ve been the best selling commercial titles in the West, ever. And no amount of Westernisation is really going to equal that – no matter how hard people try. It’s just not going to happen, despite what people may think about it.

But then, people in glass houses…

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