Let's not forget how amazing Japanese game development used to be
By: Jeff Rivera
Once early video game consoles hit the scene, they quickly proved that they could support and generate a fairly large audience. With the earliest Pong-style game consoles, the Atari 2600, and the Intellivision, Western development dominated the early days of home video games, but Japan didn't take long to get into the mix and start taking over.
In 1983, the North American video game market suffered a full on crash. Too many games were released too quickly, and quality releases were few and far between. Developers were going under left and right, and hardware makers were jumping ship. Computer game and arcade game development saved some developers, but it was a bloodbath on the console front. Recovery was slow, and it really wasn't until 1985, when the NES was launched, that hope for a strong turnaround would spring forth.
The Nintendo Entertainment System, and to a lesser extent the Sega Master System, revived the video game industry in North America. Sales of the consoles were beyond anything previously seen, and the games were selling well. And while American developers and publishers were releasing games for the NES, it was really the Japanese that were pushing the best content. Konami, Capcom, Enix, Nintendo, Sega, Hudson Soft, Namco all sold titles that say sales numbered in the millions. The momentum in game development was high in Japan, and it would be decades before the West would regain dominance.
The 8-bit era belonged entirely to Japan as it came to a close, and the next two generations would see more of the same. Japanese games dominated sales charts. It wasn't that these games just sold well, they were actually the best games. Look at just a few of the franchises that grew out of Japan's golden era. This is just a tiny sampling of the big hitters that Japan was rolling out one after the other:
- Super Mario Bros.
- The Legend of Zelda
- Ninja Gaiden
- Sonic the Hedgehog (the good ones)
- Mega Man
- Final Fantasy
- Dragon Quest
- Final Fight
- Street Fighter
- Fire Emblem
Japan was awesome. Japan was making the games with the best graphics, the strongest art, and in most cases the best controls. This ran through the 80s, the 90s, and into the early 2000s when Western games began to take over. Somewhere along the line Japanese developers began to struggle with the transition to the HD and non-linear era. Often relying on many of the old tropes that worked for a couple of decades, Japanese developers were very late to adjust to changing gamer tastes and desires.
The Japanese decline became painfully obvious to me at an E3 show about 7-8 years ago. Nintendo was still doing good stuff, and the old stalwarts Konami and Capcom were still showing occasional flashes of brilliance, but almost all of the most hyped and the most anticipated games were from Western developers. Every year since, it's been more of the same. Japanese developers show flashes here and there, but the main fire burns with the Western developers.
These days you still have strong developers in Japan, such as Platinum Games, Atlus, and Nintendo, but their markets are shrinking. Even with brilliant titles still coming out (Persona, Bayonetta, The Legend of Zelda), Japanese games are continuing to lose ground on the console front with more and more publishers moving resources to mobile. It's easy to forget that Japan once dominated the video game industry, and it was for a very long period of time.
I don't know that Japan will ever regain its former glory on the console front. In the last few years we've seen the biggest development houses struggle more and more. The Japanese gaming industry continues to decline and Western developers keep growing. But whether or not Japan rises again in the industry, let's never forget just how amazing the games coming out of Japan were for so long.