What’s Happened to Japanese Gaming?

It really wasn’t that long ago that almost every classic game would come out of Japan. I’m looking at my PS2 collection now and I see Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Katamari Damacy, Okami, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Silent Hill, Street Fighter, Shin Megami Tensei, and so on. Look further back at the PS1 and it was the same, and the Dreamcast was arguably even more weighted towards Japan.

This generation couldn’t have been more different, though. Look at the big new IPs that have been hits, the big games for this Christmas, and even the successful games of generations past that have received next-gen makeovers: almost all Western games.

Lost Planet and Dead Rising hit early on and boded well, but where are their sequels, let alone the second volley from Japan? Devil May Cry 4 and Metal Gear Solid 4 have done well, but DMC4 was still a disappointment by many accounts – including mine – due to its recycled environments and conservative design, and who was it that helped in redesigning many elements of the Metal Gear formula, including its increasingly cumbersome controls? Ryan Payton, its American producer, who has spoken about the Western influence that he fought to bring into the new game. Even the mighty Ninja Gaiden disappointed me on its next-gen debut.

The RPG genre, which has traditionally been dominated by Japan, in very much in transition at the moment as well. Where are the big-budget next-gen JRPGs? With the exception of Lost Odyssey, I’ve found all of them so far to be extremely disappointing; Final Fantasy XIII is at least another year away and Dragon Quest IX is a DS game; the latest MegaTen game, Persona 4, is on the PS2. Meanwhile we have Western devs mixing RPG conventions with their favoured genres, bringing us stuff like Mass Effect. Hell, someone even spilt their RPG in my Call of Duty 4.

As far as my opinion for this phenomenon go, I have to surmise that it’s Japanese┬áconservatism┬ábiting its development community. This generation has been less about the graphical leap – at least for those without HDTVs – than it is the experience that Internet connectivity brings. It was Microsoft, the only Western platform holder, that led the way there, with Sony only now beginning to catch up and Nintendo barely acknowledging that people even want to play online. Looking at how Sony has been retrofitting community features to the PS3, it’s been said that the reason why we still don’t have cross-game invites is because Japanese developers find the idea that the console itself could prompt the player to leave their game for a competitor’s to be rude. Never mind what players want…

LittleBigPlanet and Halo 3, for my money the two games that have done the most for connectivity and content-sharing on consoles, are both from Western developers, and without this kind of stuff games really do feel like their PS2 and Xbox counterparts with shinier graphics. Where’s anything even close to those from a Japanese developer? The implementation of online features in MGS4, for example, was shockingly poor.

This is, of course, just one of the massive changes that this generation has brought. The leading console is from Nintendo for the first time in 14 years and yet it remains unpopular with traditional gamers, Sony is in third place – making those original PS2 ads extremely prescient – and Japanese development is in the doldrums while American and European developers run away with the plaudits.

What on Earth happened?

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