The seventh generation of video games has not been kind to their once undisputed masters.
After the ruinous times of 1983 and the video game bust, Japan was largely responsible for the resurrection of the whole industry. That is to say, Nintendo was, since I doubt the snow farmers of Hokkaido thought much of selling electronic entertainment to the Americas (and to a lesser extent, the Europes and Australiasia). As most of us would know, Nintendo would dominate the scene until the mid 90s when they were rapidly eclipsed by Sony and their PlayStation. Not forgetting that Sony was also Japanese!
From the rulers of video games in the 80s the Japanese largely maintained this into the 90s. Especially in the console arena the United States was left to being a third party developer. The PC arena was always different, Europe and the USA have dominated here for so long, with the Japanese seemingly adverse to using a mouse.
The mid 90s were a time of almost undisputed Japanese dominance. For a very good reason. Japan had the both the visionaries, experience and took it very seriously. I may sound very dismissive of the ‘west’ here, but for so long the great RPGs, platformers and puzzlers came from Japan, while the west made movie tie ins and sports. John Madden Football 93′ might have been a classic and sold exceptionally well, but it doesn’t hold the same cult status as a Super Metroid. Metroid not being released annually with a roster update and slight modifications every sequel might also help that! Posterity isn’t what the makers of sports games are really after though either.
Chrono Trigger then, came together at a time when all the elements were there. The Super Nintendo was getting a little old, but was well and truly at its best with its capabilities maxed out for Chrono Trigger. Squaresoft, the developers of the game, were able to use the talents of many of legendary figures combining the talents of both Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy) and Yuji Horii (Dragon Quest) creator along with the creator of all spiky haired/bandana wearing heroes, Akira Toriyama (Dragonball Z). Along with those legends, Yasunori Mitsuda was the new member of the team with no game compositions to his name. He ended up working until he passed out, waking from dreams with new song ideas. He lost 2/3 of his work in a hard drive crash, and eventually had to be hospitalized from stomach ulcers (I can’t imagine he’d have eaten very well then either)! Squaresoft stalwart Nobuo Uematsu finished off the soundtrack while Mitsuda recovered. Amazing development tale! Both game and soundtrack are superb, featuring a lovable cast, memorable locations and an excellent battle system. One of the tracks in particular, The Corridors of Time, does not sound at all like it belongs on a 16-bit cartridge game, crisp with complicated arrangements, it does not betray it’s rather humble origins.
So what happened to Japan, after being at the forefront for SO long? I think it is a combining of two things that even today still haunt
them. Consoles have been about a decade behind PCs in the realms of online/remote gaming. Western console developers (Microsoft) naturally were in the best position to do this, and after some delay the Xbox Original got Xbox Live. Sony was slow to adopt an online system, preferring to let developers tackle online gaming on a case by case basis with the PS2. Nintendo almost totally ignored online gaming until well into the Wii years and have not had much success even today. Handheld gaming is a different story, with the DS and its cousins having many excellent online games, but are more limited in their scope. The Wii has sold very well, but as a toy, not a gaming console. Wii fit is a video game when ‘Going to Pilates’ is sold by Activision.
Sega, was years ahead of Sony with their online offerings, however the very limited success of the Dreamcast meant this online gaming future was to be stalled. None of Japan’s consoles have been as online capable until the PS3. Scary stuff!
The other factor is the game design. The majority of contemporary Japanese games feel like retro trips or an art exhibition. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are definitely classics, but they are hardly accessible to the wider western audience. I can’t really fault the Japanese for making excellent high concept games though. No More Heroes is another low selling/high acclaim series that’s biggest attraction is how ‘Japanese’ it is.
Maybe it isn’t Japan’s fault. No one outside of Japan wants to buy Japanese games in case some insufferable Japanesefanboy ^_^ sees and attempts to befriend them. Horrific, I know this first hand.
I’m sure this is a cycle and the Japanese will return in strength . Next week I’ll probably write about how the Russians are making all the good PC games now.
Sounds Crazy, no?
P.S. Spell checker wanted to change Activision to Vivisection.
When they ruled the (gaming) world.
In my preteen (pre internet) days, I would imagine a future where multiplayer games would not need visiting anyone. Taking a joystick over to my friend’s house on a lazy Saturday became such a fixture in my life that it doesn’t feel so long ago. He lived on the other side of a valley, an epic journey of ten minutes. It wasn’t as though I found this short walk difficult or annoying, but the sheer convenience of being able to sit down at your computer, press a few buttons and be playing against a friend was a far in future.
Split screen continues to be a popular method of multiplaying, but back in the day it was pretty much your only option. From ages 10-15, Chooie and I would get into any multiplayer action we could get our hands on. Rarely were these games of the boxed and retail variety, but from the magazine Amiga Power. Over three years he and I collected nearly every issue and with it, their coverdisks. Two games we played really stood out; Extreme Violence and Gravity Force 2.
The first game was simple. The players each controlled a man with a hat and a gun, their goal is to be the first to kill the other player a few times. The usual power ups are available, bigger guns, faster boots, etc. While superficially plain, it had a visceral quality, the desperation of avoiding your opponents huge laser wave, and trying to pop him with your crappy bullet was always intense. Intense until my Chooie’s mother hid it from us for SEVERAL years, ugh.
Gravity Force 2 also came from Amiga Power and was an instant hit with us. Two little spaceships piloted through levels that looked like they were out of Lemmings. You’d try not to crash into the walls, avoid the turrets and shoot your opponent naturally, but where it stood out was the vast array of settings. The type of weapons used, the amount of air resistance and of course the effect of the gravity are just a few of the preferences players had control over. The levels included water which realistically slowed you down and caused your ship to float. Amiga Power also liked this game so much, that they sponsored the game’s creators to make a sequel, Gravity Power. It was a better game in almost every way except it never worked properly on my computer. Bummer!
Limitations in technology (and funds) curtailed my abilities to play any games remotely or system link. Very few games offered system link at the time, and none of my friends were really able to move their computers around for mere entertainment purposes. Remote play was not only beyond my budget, but largely beyond my imagination! How far we’ve come. Just today I sat down switched on my PC and within five minutes I was driving my custom built tank around a battlefield populated by thirty people, drawn from a hundred thousand strangers from around the world. This World of Tanks, made me realise how far we’ve come.
The internet has made finding opponents and allies for multiplayer games easier, but I’ll always miss those walks across the park, clutching my floppy disks and an extra joystick, eager to blast my friend to pieces.
Not all games are created equal. The variance in quality is due to many factors which I will not go into today.
I think the most peculiar factor of game appreciation is your access to it. That is, the less access you have to a game you like, the more special it feels. It’s a pretty simple theory and goes along the lines of the old saying ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill’. Visiting a friend’s house always meant more of a wow factor to any game that was played, especially one with hype behind it. Even as late as 1990 when my friends got their NES system, I was floored by it and wanted a go at Super Mario Bros immediately. The original Legend of Zelda was even more special, as none of my close friends had that.
Visiting my uncle’s vast Amiga games collection was always exciting to the young me. Games I could only play for an hour every month always seemed better than anything I had at home.
Now the dilemma
Most games lost their mystique when I acquired them, however, so you can’t visit the greener grass and it stay so special. I think I realised this when I was young, but you’re hardly going to deny yourself access to a great game just to make it seem more special.
One day I’ll come up with the perfect ratio of access vs denial and make millions.
Oh and Elizabeth Taylor died, just as I was submitting this. I wonder if she liked The Legend of Zelda?
As a young man I often dreamed of being a baseball. However more often than that I found myself in awe of mysterious games and imagining the sugar filled sunlit highlands that playing them would surely unlock. Because when you’re young, you don’t tend to have a lot of money so most of these wonderful looking games are beyond your grasp.
Back in 1992-93, this was certainly the case for me. I had plenty of older copied games for sure, but very few current bought games. As an Amiga 500 owner, keeping this need for current games at least partially satisfied was the wonderful magazine, Amiga Power. The lack of advertising of games, specifically the lack of screenshots and videos was very much an important part of maintaining this ‘mystery’. Monthly publications aside, there was really no other method of obtaining information about a video game, unless a retail outlet was demoing it at the time, (Oh, the many hours I played Aladdin on Mega Drive at Airport West Tandy were joyous indeed.)
It’s hard to say what my most coveted game was at the time, it might even be something I have since forgotten.
I’ll just go with Jetstrike, specifically the CD32 version!
This game was an arcady type flight ‘sim’. Side scrolling, many different aircraft to choose so many explosions and a dark sense of humour.
The only access I had to it was in demo form (from the Amiga Power of course). I probably spent 30-40 hrs playing this demo, never having access to the full game until a few years ago. One of my friends was lucky enough to have an Amiga 1200 (with a perpetually broken disc drive) and I would often try games on that MUCH faster machine. The demo ran faster and was much quicker to load. It was no coincidence that I found myself over there quite often. However hogging other people’s computers will be another story.
I never did own the full game, or get a CD32. However I feel that this limited access I had to new games led me to becoming a completionist with many games. Friends I know often ‘compliment’ me on my achievement addiction, and I’d like to think it extends from my earlier needs of getting the most out of any single game.
Just last week, I opened up one of my old Amiga Powers and laughed a 1993 chuckle.
Image from http://www.commodore-amiga-retro.com
More info on Jetstrike http://www.mobygames.com/game/jetstrike