The Rising Sun grows dimmer as games continue to grow up

29 Apr

Video games were just better when I was young. I thought it was nostalgia, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that they really were better. I grew up with a PlayStation, and then graduated to the PlayStation 2; both consoles were rich with games that shaped who I was. Particularly role playing games. The earlier Squaresoft games inspired me, challenged me, twisted my emotions around. I loved the vibrant worlds they took me to, the characters I met, the stories, and the feelings they all left me with.

I felt my pulse pound in my ears as Nibelheim went up in flames.

I wanted to follow Squall Leonhart to the end of time.

I could run to the edges of the world with the melody of Crossing Those Hills thrumming through me.

I winced and bawled when Yuna fell through the fading body of her love, desperate to embrace him.

More than anything else, I ached for Sora, Kairi, and Riku, the best of friends, to all be together again.

Maybe I was a wimpy kid, but I was reduced to tears, happy and sad, innumerable times. And not just by Square, mind you. That happens to me less often now. Is that because I grew up, or because fewer games have the power to tug at heartstrings? I think it’s a combination of the two.

(I love this track, seriously.)

I don’t know exactly when the shift happened. Through high school, little things marked its progression. Squaresoft vanished, and then there was Square Enix. Microsoft decided to make a console. Halo got popular. I didn’t realize how much games were changing. I didn’t think the culture could change so drastically.

Jamin Warren, founder of Kill Screen, came to Columbia College Chicago as a visiting artist. When I listened to his presentation, he said one thing in particular that really stuck out. People no longer ask if you’re a gamer. They ask you what kinds of games you play.

It makes me equal parts happy and sad to see gaming embraced by mainstream culture. Actually, no. I lied. It mostly makes me sad. I could go on for pages about this, but here’s the point I want to address: Japanese role playing games, which used to be the crown jewel of gaming, have fallen to niche status because of this. They don’t rack up the sales numbers that Mario, Call of Duty, and Elder Scrolls do, for example. No current-gen console boasts an extensive JRPG library like the PS2’s. Games like that no longer appeal to the largest gaming demographic, and there is little done to bring them into the spotlight.

We do have our Western RPGs from Bethesda and Bioware, and they are absolutely fantastic. But Japanese games have a certain flavor, color, quirk, and charm, and I miss having a surplus of good ones around. There aren’t many these days, so there’s not much to bring into the spotlight in the first place. This isn’t just an observation from outside the country. Keiji Inafune, one of Mega Man’s parents, discussed this issue at Game Developer’s Conference (accompanied by several doodles).

Japanese games are "a blast from the past"

“‘The Beatles were great… but the four Beatles will never get together and make another album,’ said Inafune when he was talking about how Japanese games were considered by some to be a blast from the past. ‘We stick to our memories.'”

Granted, I feel like a similar issue is present in Western culture. Call of Duty and Battlefield make my nose wrinkle. What’s important is having lots of guns, shooting up people in online sessions, and increasing your rank. That’s why people buy those games. It’s never for the offline experience. The quick single player campaigns have little story or purpose. You put on your headset, you get online, and you do this. These games make insane amounts of money, even though players are basically buying the same thing again and again.

It frustrates me when those types of players complain about the games coming out of Japan. “OMG, ANOTHER Zelda?” “Why would you buy Pokemon? It’s just the same thing over and over again.” “JRPGs all have the same outdated formulas and character tropes.” Stuff like that. I hear it a lot. Guys, really? Come on. Look at gaming as a whole, and you’ll see that there is an abuse of formula everywhere. (Although, I’d argue that Nintendo’s reuse of their titles is way more fresh and innovative than any of these shoot-all-the-things-forever games.) Formulas and older models of gaming can be nice, though, and definitely make use of nostalgia. Maybe I just have Japanese tastes.

But I digress. The video game industry is changing, and Japan is struggling to keep up. Regardless of that, there’s some really cool, quality stuff coming out of there. Xenoblade Chronicles was released in North American territories at the beginning of this month. The Last Story will be released in NA in June.

These games completely destroy the typical complaints about JRPGs. They’ve breathed life back into the genre and have been met with critical acclaim. The unfortunate thing is that we almost didn’t GET these two great games outside of Japan. Without the efforts of Operation Rainfall, one of the first fan campaigns to actually succeed, we probably wouldn’t have. Even the pedigree of these titles (Xenoblade by Monolith Soft, The Last Story by Mistwalker) wasn’t enough to ensure their release. They’re dangerously niche.

All we can do is try our best to let developers and publishers know what we want. We can’t control the industry, but if we’re loud enough we can help guide it in the right direction.

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