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Is 2012 the year Japanese gaming fights back?

Submitted by on Monday, 20 February 201260 Comments

This is a tough generation for Japanese devs working on PS3 with sales and enthusiasm for their products down well below normal and healthy levels.

The UK PS3 game sales charts for 2011 (compiled by GFK Chart-Track) featured no games in the top 10 from Japan. The list was instead dominated by American, Australian, Canadian and European studios. In addition, Japanese devs barely figured in the top 100 multiplatform charts too, excluding the always prolific Nintendo devs.

Japan produced, as always, some of the more interesting, quirky, creative and bizarre titles of the year; games like Shadows of the Damned, Vanquish, Dark Souls, Yakuza 4, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron and Child of Eden were all interesting, but they were hardly mainstream sensations. Shadows of the Damned and Vanquish – both boasting all-star devs – fared badly, particularly the former.

The best sellers were unsurprisingly the international franchises, PES 2012, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Sonic Generations and Gran Turismo 5 – all which featured in the bottom half of the top 100 multiplatform charts. There weren’t enough of these, though, and Gran Turismo 5 arrived at the tail end of 2010.

Gran Turismo 5 was one of Japan's biggest PS3 hits of the year despite arriving late 2010.

Will the line-up for 2012 fare better? The bonkers Asuara’s Wrath and beautiful Ni no Kuni may excite core gamers, but they are unlikely to reach wider audiences. Neither do we have high hopes for Binary Domain (the latest project from the Yakuza team) or PS3A-favourite Ninja Gaiden. There’s literally no hope for Lollipop Chainsaw, as fun and cheerful as it sounds.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though, because there are some major franchises making a return. Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Soulcalibur, Street Fighter, Tekken and Metal Gear are all expected this year.

Final Fantasy is an especially important franchise for Japan. XIII shifted over 5.5m copies worldwide, and, while enthusiasm for XIII-2 has been muted due to the disappointing quality of its predecessor, it has still managed to top the charts on its first week. It’s hanging in at second place this week.

The Metal Gear Solid HD Collection is also featuring well – second last week and fourth this week. This low-cost production certainly won’t harm Konami’s profits.

The weapon-wielding fighter Soulcalibur V fared less well, despite a big marketing push and a legacy of 12m worldwide sales to date. It only managed fifth spot last week and has fallen out of the top 10 this week, sitting at 11.

That’s a shame, because the game shows a return to form, but it seems that a solid outing and the inclusion of Ezio Auditore — from the immensely popular Assassin’s Creed series — isn’t enough to get people excited.

The fighting genre has been one of the few bright areas for Japan, with a number of titles led by the all-conquering Street Fighter boasting critical success. It should be another strong year with Street Fighter x Tekken and Tekken Tag Tournament 2 both battling with Soulcalibur V for the fighting genre crown; however, while fighting fans are passionate, the market is still relatively small.

Soulcalibur is back on form but sales are sluggish

PES will also return, of course. Konami has made great strides over the last two years and the studio will want to take a significant bite into EA’s FIFA audience this year. EA Sports’ large marketing budget, however, will ensure that this is only going to be a small bite.

We also have a new Metal Gear on the way, even if it’s not what we originally expected. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (as it’s now bizarrely called), was canned after Kojima Productions realised their slice-anything concept caused some brain-melting design issues. However, the project soon got off the ground again when Bayonetta dev Platinum Games expressed interest in finishing it.

Platinum has basically sliced up everything Konami has done, distancing the story from the rest of the canon and adding a strong arcade sensibility. We have serious doubts about Rising now; Platinum is a brilliant developer, who knows how to create compelling sword-wielding gameplay, but it’s never easy to come in halfway through production and fix another studio’s mess — just ask Duke Nukem developer Gearbox Software. Revengeance is looking niche and lacking in that famous Metal Gear polish, but it still has Metal Gear in the name. We would be fools to write it off.

But possibly the biggest concern for Japan is the dark cloud hanging over the development of The Last Guardian. The game has long been expected to be the big one to watch out for this generation, from any developer, but a lack of solid footage has left us concerned about its development.

Even more concerning is the news that Team ICO’s influential director Fumito Ueda is leaving Sony. He’ll be hanging around in a contract position until the game is finished, but that hardly fills us with confidence.  Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida has confirmed that it is still making progress, albeit “slow progress”.

The situation at ICO is symptomatic of Japanese game development this generation. Development cycles have been protracted and many studios have clearly struggled to adapt to rising development costs and the demands of new technology. They have also, crucially, struggled to adapt to changing tastes.

There is a deathly silence surrounding the hotly anticipated The Last Guardian.

Keji Inafune, the former head of global research and development and global head of production at Capcom, famously said at TGS last year: “Everyone’s making awful games – Japan is at least five years behind.”

Possibly the arrival of PS Vita will freshen things. Portable gaming is an area where the nation excels and there are already a number of titles pencilled in for PS Vita, including Everybody’s Golf from Clap Hanz, Gravity Rush from Sony Japan, Lumines from Q Entertainment, Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom from Capcom and (erm) Touch My Katimari by Namco. The exciting Street Fighter x Tekken is also going portable. We could still do with a few big hitters, though. The announcement of a new Monster Hunter would be massive.

We’re still also waiting on Japan’s first compelling online title. This generation has been largely fought online but Japan hasn’t even entered the field yet. Perhaps Final Fantasy XIV, if it finally arrives on PS3 and fixes its many flaws, could help fill the gap.

The recent announcement of Resident Evil 6 has gone a long way to raising the mood for Japanese gaming. The new commercial direction is certainly divisive, but it’ll be a strange day when people stop caring about an upcoming Resident Evil release.  Resident Evil 5, despite the criticisms it received, was the best-selling game of the series, and we expect similar if not better sales this time round.

Capcom has been working on co-op play for a while now, between Lost Planet and Operation Raccoon City, and co-op multiplayer is tipped to play a big part in Resident Evil 6. Maybe this is the best chance yet for Japan to get that online hit.

Resident Evil 6 could be the shot in the arm Japanese gaming needs.

Capcom has supported it so far with a strong viral campaign, TV advertising and outdoor teaser posters. Their head of marketing Stuart Turner has told MCV that it’s only just getting started: “We have big years, we have quiet years – and 2012 is just going to be massive.” Resident Evil 6 could be the title that signals Japan’s return to forefront of PlayStation gaming, the shot in the arm the industry needs.

The line-up is certainly stronger this year, offering encouragement that there is a revival on the way. But is it another false dawn? We have Resident Evil as the great hope, but can it do it alone? What if it flops? Doubts hang over Metal Gear and The Last Guardian, and the fighting genre market isn’t big enough to sustain the Japanese industry forever.

Another bad year won’t see Japan fall off the gaming radar, but when you look around at the hits on the way from other nations – SSX, FIFA, Mass Effect 3, Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us, to name a few – you can’t help but think Japan is flagging badly. The return of the big franchises is a start, at least, but Japan desperately needs a major hit, commercially and critically.