Japanese Games Didn’t Just Suddenly “Get Good”

MoeGamer’s mission statement, which you’ll find over on the right, is “to provide comprehensive, interesting, positive and well-researched coverage of niche-interest and overlooked, underappreciated titles that tend to get a raw deal from the mainstream press”.

This has been my stated goal with the site from its inception in April 2014 — yes, we’re coming up on MoeGamer’s third birthday! — but my strong feelings towards it actually extend further back than that: to my JPgamer column and regular JRPG reviews at USgamer, to the visual novel and JRPG columns I hosted on the now-defunct Games Are Evil… in fact, my love of Japanese games can be traced all the way back to the 16- and 32-bit console eras in particular. (In the 8-bit era I was largely gaming on Atari computers!)

I’m not alone in my love of Japanese games and the feeling that they tend to get rough treatment at the hands of both the mainstream press and an ill-informed public — though to be fair to the latter, one tends to lead to another. Over the last few years in particular, there’s been great growth in “alternative” gaming sites aiming to specifically cater to niches underserved by the mainstream press. Friends of MoeGamer like Operation RainfallDigitally Downloaded and the recently launched j-ga.me/s/ all carry the desire to celebrate underappreciated titles — titles that, in many cases, have strong followings and communities surrounding them that are at best ignored and at worst ostracised and ridiculed the mainstream press — and all go about this task slightly differently.

One thing that brings us all together, though, is the sense of exasperation when a Japanese game that, for some reason, it is “acceptable” to enjoy comes along and even mainstream critics are forced to admit the things that sites like us have been arguing for literally years. And with 2017 being such a strong year for such games already, that has been happening quite a bit lately.

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Persona 5 (Atlus) – PS4

The reason I write at such length about these games is because I want more people to enjoy them.

To be clear, the “exasperation” I mention is not by any means due to an insular feeling that “our games” are suddenly being invaded by the great unwashed normie masses. Quite the contrary, in fact; I won’t speak for the other sites I’ve mentioned any more than I have done already, but in the case of MoeGamer, the reason that I write at such length about these games is because I want more people to enjoy them. More people enjoying them means that there are more people talking about them. More people talking about them means that they sell better. Them selling better means that we get more of them. Everyone wins.

The reason I bring this up today — April 13, 2017, shortly after the Western release of Atlus’ excellent Persona 5 on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 — is because I’ve seen a lot of recent discussion about Japanese games suddenly “getting good”. I’d like to draw attention to one comment in particular by outspoken and well-known Western indie developer Rami Ismail of Vlambeer (Luftrausers, Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing) not because I wish to pick on Ismail in particular, but rather for two reasons: firstly, because he drew attention to some specific games, and secondly, because the attitude he displays on this topic is fairly typical of the current Western “mainstream”, press and public alike.

“So, uh, after FFXV, NieR Automata, Yakuza-0 and Zelda all being exceptional Japanese games, Persona 5 is also really good?” he tweeted. “It’s kind of incredible how fast the Japanese AAA scene went from ‘everything is kind of bad’ to ‘5 magnificent titles in a row no problem’.”

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Nier: Automata (Square Enix, Platinum Games) – PS4, PC

Segregating games into strata of perceived “worth” based primarily on their budgets is not particularly helpful to anyone.

Ismail’s main mistake, as with so many people, is in focusing entirely on “triple-A” output, when such a thing is largely a Western concept. Japanese games have never really been stratified quite as explicitly as Western games are, though this isn’t to say that there aren’t any clear divisions. There’s an obvious divide between the doujin sector — the Japanese equivalent of the indie market — and more commercial titles published by bigger corporations, for example, but when stunning, technically flawless games like Edelweiss’ Astebreed for PC and PS4 are still “indie” games by the traditional definition, it should be clear that the lines are somewhat blurred when we’re looking at Japan’s complete output.

And besides, segregating games into strata of perceived “worth” based primarily on their budgets is not particularly helpful to anyone if you’re looking at titles from an artistic/creative perspective — or even on the basis of subjective “quality”, whatever that might mean to you as an individual.

The fact is, all of the games Ismail mentioned are great, sure, and it’s wonderful that they’re getting attention and people are buying and playing them. But the things that make them good aren’t anything new and exciting if you’ve been paying attention to the broader landscape of Japanese games.

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Astebreed (Edelweiss) – PS4, PC

Mainstream sites such as Vice, Rock, Paper,
Shotgun and Kotaku all host or have hosted columns on sex in games; there’s clearly a perceived appetite for this type of content.

Sites like MoeGamer have been working for years to champion the cause of Japanese titles that exhibit mature storytelling, deep characterisation, interesting mechanics and the willingness to tackle challenging themes. And yet it’s rare for a Japanese game to break through the wall of palpable stigma that surrounds them; there are exceptions, yes — Dark Souls, Danganronpa and the recent titles Ismail mentioned spring immediately to mind — but for the most part, Japanese games are ignored at best, wilfully misunderstood and misrepresented at worst.

Why might this be? The most common answer to this question is the matter of fanservice or sexualised content, but given that a number of mainstream sites such as Vice’s Waypoint, Gamer Network’s Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Gizmodo Media Group’s Kotaku all host or have hosted columns on sex in games, I find that a little difficult to believe, since there’s clearly a perceived appetite for content of this type. That said, it is worth noting that in all the cases listed above, these columns have been written by women and have often steered conspicuously clear of heteronormative sexual content, instead preferring to focus almost exclusively on either queer content (preferably by people of colour) or games that treat sex as a joke rather than a natural part of relationships.

But then although most of the fanservicey Japanese games we get in the West were originally designed with a heterosexual male audience in mind, many of them also often feature inherently progressive themes such as all-female casts who don’t need men to “save” them, homosexual relationships between women (either implied or, in the case of titles like Nights of Azureexplicitly stated and explored) and a general sense that the women depicted in the games are thoroughly empowered rather than exploited. Just look at how wrong Polygon’s Phil Kollar was about the fantastic Dungeon Travelers 2‘s wonderfully depicted central cast. Or indeed how many women and queer people are proud, enthusiastic and active members of the Senran Kagura and Neptunia fandoms.

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Nights of Azure (Koei Tecmo, Gust) – PS4, PC

A number of the games that did manage to break through the stigma barrier still feature fanservice or content that mainstream critics would brand “problematic”.

(It would be disingenuous to suggest that there are no Japanese games out there that depict women purely as sex objects, of course — broadly speaking, these can be regarded as nukige, but even then, your average nukige tends to make more effort with storytelling and characterisation than your average bit of modern Western porn.)

On top of all this, there’s the fact that a number of the games that did manage to break through the stigma barrier still feature fanservice or content that mainstream critics would typically brand with that vastly overused adjective “problematic”.

The Persona games typically feature a “beach episode”-like sequence that sees all the characters in swimsuits, the culmination of the Social Link/Confidant mechanics with various characters often results in implied sexual encounters, and there’s plenty of other morally questionable stuff going on, especially given the supposed age of the central casts.

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Persona 4 (Atlus) – PS2, Vita

I find it hard to believe that it’s really the fanservice angle that puts people off, because, apparently, in certain circumstances, fanservice is just fine.

The Yakuza series features an unabashed, unfiltered look at the seedy side of Japanese nightlife, including strip clubs, hostess bars and sex shops, all of which you can engage with rather than them simply being used as background dressing.

And Danganronpa features — spoiler, I guess, though if you haven’t played this masterpiece yet you only have yourself to blame — a character that is actually a boy dressed up as a girl as well as numerous low-angle, “upskirt” shots of attractive characters such as Junko.

In short, I find it hard to believe that it’s really the fanservice angle that puts people off, because the examples given above demonstrate that, apparently, in certain circumstances, fanservice is just fine, so long as it’s in games that are “approved of” for whatever arbitrary reason they gain that approval. (If those games are not on the “approved” list, however, they are obviously just for horny teenage boys and no-one else.)

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Final Fantasy XV (Square Enix) – PS4, Xbox One

A sense of style and distinctive, solid design is what makes something memorable; in this regard, Persona 5 and Danganronpa are clear winners.

So what else could it be? Perceived technical shortcomings? Perhaps; many Japanese games (with a few exceptions, Final Fantasy XV probably being the most high-profile recent example) have historically lagged behind big-budget Western games in particular, though this gap has narrowed somewhat with the advent of the new console generation — and there are also outliers such as the aforementioned Astebreed.

But then one could argue that it can’t be that, either, since not all of those “accepted” titles we’ve already mentioned are technically impressive. Sure, Final Fantasy XV is on a par with Western triple-A games visually, Yakuza features realistic but stylish graphics and Breath of the Wild features an incredible open world… but at the other end of the spectrum, Persona 5’s PlayStation 3 roots are very apparent even in its PS4 incarnation through the enormous amount of pop-in on background characters and its low-resolution environmental textures, while Danganronpa features low-poly 3D environments with flat 2D characters laid atop them like something out of early ’90s, pre-3D acceleration PC gaming.

Technical accomplishment doesn’t make a good game by itself, anyway. For many people, a sense of style and distinctive, solid design is what makes something memorable rather than attempts at photorealism; in this regard, Persona 5 and Danganronpa are clear winners out of all the above-mentioned games, since they both look and “feel” great despite their “shortcomings”. But if this is true, why isn’t Tsunako’s distinctive and immediately recognisable artwork on the Neptunia series regarded in similarly high esteem? Why aren’t Nan Yaegashi’s character designs for Senran Kagura more widely recognised for their expressiveness and distinctiveness? Why isn’t Dungeon Travelers 2’s clever use of costumes to evoke a sense of monstrousness in otherwise cute characters celebrated for providing a unique spin on standard fantasy dungeon crawling tropes?

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Dungeon Travelers 2 (Atlus, Sting, Aquaplus) – Vita

There are a wide variety of games out there that people are really missing out on because the press misrepresents them as somehow “shameful” or “inferior”.

I don’t have an easy answer for any of these questions because there doesn’t seem to be any real rhyme or reason to which Japanese games get onto that elusive and unwritten “approved” list, while others are condemned. And, as I say, this is very sad indeed, because there are a wide variety of games out there that people are really missing out on because the press misrepresents them as somehow “shameful” or “inferior”. These opinions subsequently filter down to the public, who come to make judgements about these titles based on fallacious information.

As someone who deeply cares about characterisation and storytelling in interactive entertainment in particular, this is always disappointing to see, particularly when you come across games that genuinely do interesting things with their thematic content — games that deserve to find a much wider audience — that just get “rejected” by the mainstream.

Take something like Criminal Girlsfor example — noteworthy on its original release for having all discussion of it banned on popular gaming forum NeoGAF, again based on no real understanding of its actual content — which has the concept of “trust” at its core. Not only is this idea explored through the dialogue between the characters and the overall progression of the narrative, the game makes an effort to reflect the theme through its mechanics, too. At the outset of the game, your party don’t trust you as their leader, so they refuse to follow your instructions; as you progress and develop your relationships with them, they come to trust both you and each other more, consequently proving themselves willing to put in more of an effort, cooperate with one another and work to overcome their respective burdens. It’s a really fascinating treatment and deals with some seriously challenging subject matter in its latter hours.

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Senran Kagura Estival Versus (Marvelous, Xseed) – PS4, Vita, PC

Sex is not just about romance or eroticism; sometimes it’s silly, sometimes it’s messy, sometimes it’s just a bad idea for everyone involved.

Senran Kaguratoo, is noteworthy for its strong characterisation and its exploration of themes such as growing up without parents, dealing with bereavement, learning to accept the person you are, coping with body image issues, living in poverty and all manner of other complex subjects. And it does so by striking an excellent balance between seriousness, drama and good humour; at no point does it become completely po-faced or preachy, yet at the same time it never allows its comedic aspects to descend into complete farce, either. The result is a series of works where you feel like you really get to know the huge cast, and how they feel and behave in both good times and bad.

Things get even more interesting when you look at pure visual novels, Japanese examples of which are routinely completely ignored by the Western press, particularly if they’re sexually explicit. Recent MoeGamer Cover Game Grisaia not only features a sprawling, ambitious narrative about overcoming the “burdens” your earlier life causes you to carry around with you, but also an incredibly sensitive, effective treatment of sexuality as a natural part of relationships — including acknowledgement that sex as a concept is not just about romance or eroticism; sometimes it’s silly, sometimes it’s messy, sometimes it’s just a bad idea for everyone involved and sometimes it will really, really fuck you up.

Or how about other recent Cover Game Ne no Kami, which features a fascinating treatment of Shinto mythology combined with elements of Lovecraftian cosmic horror and Norse legends as well as not one but two heartwarming explorations of same-sex relationships between female characters, and an examination of the theme “disparate worlds colliding” from a variety of different perspectives and scales?

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Ne no Kami (Sekai Project/Denpasoft, Kuro Iroduro Yomiji) – PC/Mac

The real problem that needs to be tackled is not a lack of quality releases from Japanese creators, but rather exactly how and why Western critics have got away with ignoring, disrespecting and outright insulting such a huge, important and fascinating part of the market for so long.

The idea that Japanese games have just suddenly and magically “got good” with the release of Persona 5 and its ilk is demonstrably ridiculous, then, because the concept of what is “good” is applied completely arbitrarily at the behest of a few people who have managed to obtain the positions of “opinion leaders”. The real problem that needs to be tackled is not a lack of quality releases from Japanese creators, but rather exactly how and why Western critics, particularly these opinion leaders, have got away with ignoring, disrespecting and outright insulting such a huge, important and fascinating part of the market for so long.

I’d sincerely like to hope that the quality of the recent Japanese releases that seem to have made it onto the “approved” list will encourage more people — press and public alike — to look a little further afield from their usual comfort zone. But I know that things are unlikely to change, and they’re especially unlikely to change overnight.

Which is why sites like MoeGamer and the friends I mentioned earlier exist, and why we have importance and value. We may not have the reach, the budget or the staff to be able to cover things as exhaustively or as exclusively as the big commercial sites — that said, I don’t see any reviews of titles like Ne no Kami on sites like that — but we make up for that with passion for our craft, and passion for the craft of the creators who create the interactive experiences that we’re fortunate enough to be able to enjoy every day.

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Criminal Girls (Nippon Ichi Software, NIS America) – Vita, PC

Reach out and express your gratitude to those responsible for something you found particularly impactful. Share your experiences with others. And help to dispel this silly generalisation that Japanese games were ever “kind of bad”.

If you’re reading this and you’re not typically part of my audience, I encourage you to stop and take a look around. Read why this site exists in detail. Browse my games list to see all the titles I’ve covered over the last three years. Check out my Cover Game features, which delve into individual titles or series in far greater depth than mainstream sites have the time or inclination to. Take a look at my one-shot articles, which take a more concise look at an individual game. Or explore my Essentials series, which focus on particular niche genres or underappreciated platforms.

Take the time to get to know Japanese gaming a bit better. You might just be surprised at the wonders it has in store for you, particularly if you’ve always been resistant to diving in.

If you’re reading this and you are part of my regular audience, first of all, thank you. And second of all, please continue to show your support — not just to sites like MoeGamer, but more importantly to the creators who are responsible for the entertainment you love and appreciate. Take the time to reach out and express your gratitude to those responsible for something you found particularly impactful. Share your experiences with others. And help to dispel this silly generalisation that Japanese games were ever “kind of bad”.


If you enjoyed this article and want to see more like it, please consider showing your social support with likes, shares and comments, or financial support via my Patreon. Thank you!

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4 thoughts on “Japanese Games Didn’t Just Suddenly “Get Good””

  1. Nihihihi, this is a nice article.

    I “apologize” for not being ultra-savvy about Western games, but I’m having a really hard time remembering WRPGs compared to JRPGs after 27 years on Earth(maybe it’s because I never played any WRPG, ehehehe). People who really think JRPGs just caught up must either be new to gaming, or complete idiots. After being exposed to two year’s worth of pretentious overthinking from “games journalists” working for “credible game sites”, I’m way less forgiving of the latter option. I’d rather get my info from places like yours, NicheGamer and other sites that love games more than being Japan-hating narcissists.

    Like

    1. Thank you kindly! Much appreciated. 🙂

      That’s good advice generally, though. You’re always going to get more well-informed stuff from people who are specialists in their field rather than people trying to be jacks of all trades, masters of none. Which is what mainstream sites are trying to do… badly!

      Like

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