by Forrest Walker
It’s 2014 and Japanese video games are irrelevant. That’s the current byline, at least, and it seems to be increasingly true in a global sense. Consoles are dying in Japan, developers are going under, and even the once-mighty Capcom has scaled back to just a few retreads a year. Japanese publishers now fund western development houses, and Japanese developers are starting to worry that the hubbub about lack of innovation in Japan might just be true. It’s a strange time for the Japanese game industry, but not as strange as the trailers and announcements coming from the Far East this E3. What’s happening in Japan right now, and how much does it matter?
The biggest splash made by a Japanese trailer was probably a look into the new Zelda game for Wii U, a trailer consisting mostly of Eiji Aonuma of Nintendo sitting in a white room and talking about Legend of Zelda. More business proposal than trailer, this video sparked a thousand articles. The reason? The rock that is Nintendo changed the formula. Aonuma outlined the difficulty of making the world of Zelda feel open, expansive and free, something that Nintendo has struggled with since the onset of 3D graphics in Ocarina of Time. Now, that’s changed.
Whether hardware upgrades or simply in-house ethos is the primary factor, Link has jumped on board a train that’s been rolling through America for a decade: the sandbox. Zelda is now an open world, a place where a boy and his horse can run to the furthest mountain, meet bizarre creatures, and choose to do the water temple first…or last. Japan is tired of being left in the dust.
Hideo Kojima and Konami, on the other hand, are throwing their franchise into the dust face-first. Adding onto a previous trailer, E3 gave us a real look at the gameplay of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. After a brutal, cinematic look at the often-agonizing world of Metal Gear, Punished Snake rides into the hills of Afghanistan to sneak and snipe his way toward his goals. After a long, strange decade of games since Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Kojima has returned not only to the protagonist of that game, but to the fundamentals of what made it an aficionado’s choice. Phantom Pain seems to have it all: bizarre enemies; intricate faces; a confusing, dark story; meticulous historical detail; and infinite ways to confuse and murder your enemies.
In leaping into an open world sandbox, much like Zelda, another Japanese developer is taking something uniquely western in game design and using it to emphasize what’s unique about their franchise. In this case, the myriad of combat options in Metal Gear align with a vast possibility of transportation and destination. If you love the cinematic, intense world of Kojima, this game has the most exciting trailer of the season.
Of course, no talk about Japanese auteurs would be complete without bringing up the Andy Warhol of the video game universe. Goichi Suda, aka Suda51, and his Grasshopper Manufacture are at it again. Every year he releases another oddball entry into the world of pulp video games, a subsection of gaming he’s more or less invented himself. They’re not all good games, and they’re not all fun games, but they’re always bizarre, interesting, and worthy of critical analysis…despite usually appearing to be a vapid murder simulator.
Suda51’s Let It Die premiered at this E3, and the trailer featured more live action than gameplay footage. By all appearances, Suda51 is biting Bethesda’s Fallout style and is making some kind of a western RPG in which you try to murder each other brutally. It’s dark, gritty, and probably going right for the throat of western gaming culture, something Grasshopper Manufacture has seemingly declared a loving war on. For the other two examples, going western is a new, risky move. For Grasshopper, doing something they’ve never done before is just Thursday.
The new Battlefield, the new Halo game(s), Mass Effect 4, these are all bigger news in America. How relevant is Japan now? Not very, and that’s why these trailers are so important. Japan has been sliding for a decade, and the climb back up is long and treacherous. Nintendo and Konami have been reluctant to start that climb, but are finally, barely starting. Could this mark a change in the industry? An ascent of Japan? I don’t know and neither does anyone else, but at least Japan is willing to give it a shot, and that’s big news.
Forrest Walker is a native Texan who was raised on a steady diet of Sega consoles and Japanese RPGs. If he could only get good at an online game, he’d be all set.