It seems like a lot of people these days are talking about this apparent slump in the Japanese gaming industry. In Japan, handhelds are absolutely killing it but they seem to be having a hard time tapping into hardcore gamers around the globe. The rest of the world just doesn’t seem to care about handheld gaming as much as Japan. I don’t know if it’s because of competition from Apple, the casual/childish aspect of many handheld games, or the draw of HD gaming consoles but there seems to be a lot of things keeping us from buying handhelds.
I’ve never been able to attach myself to handheld gaming. I don’t know about anyone else but I’ve always wondered who has all this time to play games when they aren’t at home. It seems like if you’re out and about then you’re focused on doing other things than staring at a gaming handheld.
Handhelds aside, it’s really interesting to look at what Japanese third-party developers are up to these days. Japanese developers are really struggling to find out the winning formula in the west, but so far they haven’t even come close to figuring it out. Capcom seems to be trying the hardest these days and they shocked several people when they handed off the next Devil May Cry game to Ninja Theory (the makers of Heavenly Sword). The DMC series has always been as anime as anime can get, but it always seemed to me like really self-aware anime. DMC understood that it was dumb and handled that with quick, ridiculous cutscenes followed by long segments of very challenging gameplay. It only took one look at the screen to say, “Oh, yeah…that’s Devil May Cry.”
Ninja Theory has now shown some recent pictures and a trailer of their new DMC game and honestly I don’t think it’s going to create the western appeal that Capcom is hoping for. The new Dante is an angsty emo-looking guy and I’m kind of surprised that someone at Ninja Theory actually thinks that’s what people want.
Of course, one must wonder if DMC needed to be changed at all. It may not have been the biggest cash-grab series in the world but I was always under the impression that it sold well enough. If the fans are to be asked, it definitely didn’t need to be changed. I understand that there was a serious fan backlash on the Internet after the reveal of this new version of Dante. It’s almost as if the quest for westernization is a double-edged sword for Japan: if they keep making the same game over and over then they fail to adapt to changing tastes, but if they change things too drastically then they risk alienating core fans of their franchises.
So what’s the problem? To use Capcom again, the problem is that the Japanese developers are looking to western studios for advice. There’s a new rumor about that Capcom has tasked Slant Six (makers of PSP SOCOM games) with a new Resident Evil game. Don’t get me wrong, Resident Evil is a franchise that needs drastic changes to stay afloat (RE5 was a step backward, especially after experiencing Dead Space), but Capcom needs to figure out for themselves what Resident Evil needs.
Capcom needs to take a step back and some time out, analyze what makes a good Resident Evil game, and start thinking about ways to make it a new and fresh experience. I’m sure there are plenty of people working over there who have clever ideas of what might make the franchise exciting again. Then again, I’m not one who knows anything about the work environment in Japan; it might be difficult for new ideas to be accepted and fleshed out. I’m absolutely certain that asking western developers to make your game for you isn’t the answer, though.
Konami and Metal Gear Solid 4 suffered in the same sense. They attempted to make the game acceptable for western shooter players, but in the process they lost something that made MGS so unique. In breaking up the game between several design ideas, they ended up bringing it down across the board. I could also mention Sega, but I’m honestly not even sure what’s going on over there. The Sega offices must be staffed by people who are absolutely crazy. Valkyria Chronicles was a great strategy RPG on a console where RPGs are currently uncommon, but for some reason both sequels have been relegated to the PSP. Do people outside of Japan even buy PSP games?
New, viable ideas are happening over there, though. Demon’s Souls was a massive triumph and I’m amazed that it was so successful. The game was outstanding and rewarding in ways that few games lately have been (read my review here). On the opposite side of the spectrum, Persona 4 (from a few years back) didn’t exactly deviate from the standards of the Persona franchise, but it was still an amazing game.
Good things are coming out of Japan, and I really think the ideas are out there to revive many classic Japanese franchises. I just don’t think looking to the west is the best way to do that. Japanese developers need to just step back a moment and take the time to think about what works and doesn’t work for their games.