The second half of the 80s and entirety of the 90s were a golden age for Japanese games. From the moment Super Mario Bros. revived the American console industry, Japanese games absolutely dominated consoles. While there were some exceptions, the vast, vast majority of good console games came from Japan during the third, fourth, and fifth generations. Even the most prominent exceptions were made by western developers that were working with Japanese companies: Naughty Dog, Insomniac, and of course Rare. Things started to change in the sixth generation, games like Halo, Grand Theft Auto 3, and the rising Tony Hawk series were critical and commercial successes, something very few western console games had achieved before that point. Japanese games were probably still bigger or at least equal at that point, but it definitely wasn’t the absurd level of domination they previously held. This was, of course, a good thing: there’s no reason for one country to dominate the way Japan did at one point.
In the seventh and eighth generations, however, things started to become unbalanced in the other direction. Several Japanese companies went into slumps at the same time, while western mega-publishers increased their dominance. This led to an attitude in the 2010s that Japan was becoming irrelevant to the gaming industry. I was not happy about this, but it would be fair to ask why when I was fine with how things were in the 90s. Well, I have a few reasons. For one, there was a fair amount of nationalistic gloating, treating this as “revenge” and calling the Japanese gaming industry a failure for not being able to match the combined output of two continents. There’s also the fact that the fading Japanese companies had made so many great games in the past, and losing something is a lot more painful than never having it to begin with. And while this may be too subjective and in the moment to use as a reason, I would much rather have 90s Capcom, Konami, and Squaresoft as the dominant publishers instead of companies like EA, Ubisoft, and Activision. I’m not saying we need to go back to Japanese dominance, but all game producing regions making great games is the optimal situation and always will be. I just want Japanese games to make a comeback for their own sake.
That seems to be what’s happening. After many years of turmoil, Japanese-developed games are making a substantial comeback in 2017, in both the released and upcoming categories. This year we’ve already seen Resident Evil 7, Yakuza 0, Gravity Rush 2, Nier Automata, Nioh, and Persona 5; quality releases that have mostly seen a good deal of commercial success and attention from the gaming community. Looking ahead, we have Sonic Forces, Tekken 7, Tokyo Xanadu, Ys VIII, and Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite as some promising 2017 releases. Compared to the past few years, this is a huge upturn in quality Japanese games.
Going beyond a simple games list, many of these games represent once mighty Japanese publishers and developers showing signs of recovering from their slumps. Capcom finally made a Resident Evil that was well received, Team Ninja made their first well liked game in who knows how long with Nioh, Sega has two promising Sonic games coming out this year (although one is technically by western developers) – there are decades that would kill for that amount – and Square Enix has brought an underrated series into mainstream success while giving Platinum a chance to shine simultaneously with Nier: Automata. Series that never had a huge western presence, such as Persona, Ys, Yakuza, and the aforementioned Nier/Drakengard also seem to be getting more attention than they previously did, which is great for the Japanese gaming industry. The light of dawn may be starting to break through the cynicism that has clouded the concept of Japanese games in recent years.
There are two major Japanese publishers I consciously avoided mentioning up until this point. One of them is a hugely conspicuous absence considering who is writing this article. Why have I waited until now to say anything about Nintendo? Because I like building things up before playing my strongest card. Nintendo is in their own league among developers, and I’m don’t mean because they’re my favorite, their situation as the primary developer for their systems puts them in a very different position than the third parties I’ve covered. Nintendo has always been prominent as a software publisher, even during the Wii U days their games sold millions with absurdly high attach rates that annihilated the best selling games of other systems with a low userbase. However, Nintendo’s health is often measured by their console’s sales, and that has certainly not been going well in recent years.
Then it was like someone simply flipped a Switch. Seeing what happened when they tried to copy their competitors with the Wii U, the Nintendo Switch is showing all indications that it recaptured the lightning bottled by the original Wii. With the system selling out every shipment it makes almost instantly (and this is in March and April) and a non-pack in game managing to attain an unprecedented over 100% attach rate in at least one region, we have plenty of reason to believe that Nintendo’s console division is back on track. And they’re definitely contributing to Japanese games making a resurgence in 2017. This year we have or are scheduled to get The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, ARMS, Splatoon 2, Xenoblade 2, Fire Emblem Warriors and the game that means so much to me it was my most anticipated game of 2017 based on a six second “tech demo”, Super Mario Odyssey. Breath of the Wild, the only one released so far, is one of the highest rated games of all time and would single handedly make this a better year for Japanese game reception than some of the last few. Nintendo is back, and they’re ready to lead the charge in the Japanese game resurgence.
And what was that other company I avoided mentioning? Well, it’s one that’s pretty easy to ignore, if the bitterness doesn’t get you, at least. Konami, tormentor of employees, bane of Kojima, the Japanese EA. No other Japanese publisher fell as far as Konami, but even with them, there is a glimmer of light this year. Super Bomberman R is one of the more prominent Switch launch games that isn’t Zelda, and has been selling amazingly well for such a niche game. Konami has publicly announced plans to revive more dormant franchises, as opposed to fleeing video games to make pachinko machines. The slightest bit of hope for Konami is a miraculous step forward at this point.
So, with the games released and announced in 2017, I think it’s safe to say that the sun is rising again for Japanese games. Again, I’m not asking for western console games to go back to their dark age. While I generally prefer Japanese design philosophy, western developers (many of whom grew up with games from Japan’s golden age) are perfectly capable of using it, and both sides can learn things from the other’s games. Gamers benefit from as many developers as possible making great games, no matter what region they’re from. With E3 fast approaching, we will hopefully soon have even more games to look forward to from Japanese developers and proof that the revival trend will continue in 2018 and beyond.