Whatever happened to the Japanese video game rebels?

I don’t know if it’s Trump, the return of Twin Peaks or just the democratisation of cute animal videos thanks to phone cameras and YouTube, but compared to the rest of the world, Japan doesn’t seem so crazy these days. Time was that we in the West were transfixed with whatever the latest insane transmission from the East was: hilariously cruel prank shows, another hyper-violent Takashi Miike film or, for a brief shining period during the early-noughties, a spate of wildly inventive (and invariably quite cheaply made) video games. The likes of God Hand, Katamari Damacy and Earth Defense Force felt of a piece with that reality show competition where tried to cry the most (in volume of tears) within a strict time period, or the career of Beat Takeshi, as viewed through the prism of an entirely different culture on the other side of the world.

Most of the talent involved in this brief renaissance of innovative and bonkers titles are still working in the games industry. Shinji Mikami had built up enough goodwill (and gross profit) from his work on the Resident Evil series that Capcom allowed him to go off and form Studio 9, later rebranded as Clover Studio, a subsidiary development team including colleagues Atsushi Inaba and Hideki Kamiya. It was they who produced the likes of Viewtiful Joe, a visually dazzling side-scrolling tokusatsu beat-em-up, and God Hand, a widely-misunderstood masterpiece where you fight a gorilla wearing a luchador  outfit. Goichi Suda and Grasshopper Manufacture were another shining beacon of exported lunacy, between Michigan: Report from Hell and Killer 7. Keita Takahashi, the eccentric creator of Katamari Damacy, was able to leverage the surprise success of that game into a career at Namco with an unprecedented amount of creative control, developing Katamari sequels and Noby Noby Boy.

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Where are all of those talented, singular voices now, though? For the most part they have been absorbed entirely into their parent companies, and with it, the more mainstream video game culture. The developers and publishers with whom they held previously fruitful collaborative relationships have since gone to seed. More or les. Much of Clover Studio went on to form PlatinumGames (originally named Seeds, to make the parentage all the more overt), with the goal of creating original IP. However, most of its success has been in licensed titles and farmed-out sequels; their most recent attempt at a big-scale triple-A title, Scalebound, was cancelled a fair ways into development. Grasshopper are doing okay, although the brief enthusiasm for their free-to-play Souls-a-like Let It Die itself perished fairly quickly after its release, and they too find the most attention for licensed games and updated ports of old releases. Others have left their home country entirely, as Takahashi joined the Vancouver-based Tiny Speck to work on Glitch, and Mikami formed Tango Gameworks, who were bought out by and are thus subject to the whims of ZeniMax Media, the parent company of Bethesda.

God Hand, if you have never had the pleasure of playing it, is a treat. A 3D beat-’em-up which has an Earthbound-esque approach to satirising kitsch American and Japanese pop culture alike, beneath the Power Rangers parodies and archetypal characters was an incredibly complex combo system which allowed for an eye-watering variety of fighting styles (were it not produced with a much smaller team, with a much smaller budget and smaller release, it might have given the Ninja Gaiden reboot a run for its money). Basically everything Grasshopper made during that period, meanwhile is worth a punt. Michigan: Report from Hell reveled in its cheesy B-movie vibe as you, controlling a first-person view from behind a news camera, watched as a succession of bimbo anchors was brought down by polygonal horrors. Killer7, meanwhile, an inscrutable and off-beat delight, its cel-shaded graphics looking as fresh now as they did in 2005. Even recent titles like No More Heroes and Lollipop Chainsaw are self-aware trashy delights, albeit ones with visuals and controls nowhere near as tight as their big-budget peers. And I don’t need to sell you on the sensory delights of the Katamari series at this point. So what happened?

These strange and wonderful exports from Japan — the movies, the anime and manga, the TV shows and the games — all formed part of the dichotomous view the West has of the country. On the one hand: tradition, a society built around seemingly-impenetrable rituals of politeness, salarymen expected to work unconscionable hours, women staying at home and looking after the studiously-studying kids. On the other: Ichi the Killer, host clubs and maid cafes and soapland, vending machines full of used schoolgirl’s underwear, Legend of the Overfiend. Somewhere within that dichotomy is the answer as to how these daring, experimental, creative games disappeared to. Perhaps the best example of the seismic shift in Japanese game development is not one of these creators, but one who holds a similar auteur status (whether deserved or not) among fans, and who is both endlessly inventive and certifiably nuts: Hideo Kojima.

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Konami is an extreme example, but the widely-reported and widely-decried conditions under which the final (proper) Metal Gear Solid game were developed bear repeating. Kojima, who had at that point shepherded five internationally-successful and celebrated titles of the stealth series across numerous platforms (not to mention the likes of Snatcher, Zone of the Enders and Policenauts), seemed suddenly not to be trusted. Working with his own internal development team within Konami perhaps shielded him at a time, but after the various financial crises at the turn of the 21st century, shareholders and executives began to micromanage. Kojima was removed as director of the project rather late in the game, a move which many fans attribute to the “unfinished” nature of the game’s story.

The quiet removal of the series director and public face — followed by his similarly hushed-up departure from Konami altogether, along with the cancellation of his Silent Hills reboot and the removal of its brilliant demo, P.T., from the Playstation store — proved to be the beginning of a PR shitstorm for the company. Reports followed of staff at the company having their work closely monitored, bathroom and lunch breaks being kept to a minimum with harsh penalties if the higher-ups felt time was being “wasted”, work was monitored through the installation of privacy law-breaking surveillance cameras throughout their offices, and staff even lost email privileges.

All of this culminated in the company announcing a huge change in approach, moving forward. Rather than continuing to develop console games on the scale of The Phantom Pain, they would be abandoning creation of new properties and instead exploit existing copyrights in the form of crappy sequels, mobile games and — worst of the worst — pachinko games (if you wanna have your heartbroken, check out the remastered Snake Eater cinematics which have been screened only in Japanese arcades, and which will likely never see the light of day as full-blown HD remasters of those classic games). Konami’s closing of ranks and change of focus is an extreme example, but one which feels symptomatic of the changes happening within Japanese game development: one which has a financial basis, in a world where the global market becomes all the more finicky day-by-day, and where taking risks is a sure-way to complete disaster. The main victim within such austerity conditions is creativity.

These days, the sorts of “crazy” Japanese games which makes headlines in the UK and US do so for all the wrong reasons. Usually it’s because they’re of the raunchy sort whose fanbase invariably kick off when localisation teams remove the ability to romance members of your family, up the age of scantily-clad NPCs from one that’s less legally and ethically troubling, and in some cases entirely excise the ability to dress female characters in barely-there costumes (with Akiba’s Trip a notable exception, since if you take out the ability to remove women’s clothing you don’t have a game). In fact one of the recent, genuinely odd and inventive games to come out of Japan, Platinum’s Nier: Automata, received far more column inches for the achievement gained for trying to look up the main character’s dress than it did for the philosophically-inclined themes, its use of replayability as a core game mechanic, and its constant switching up of control schemes and design as players had to contend with traditional third-person action, hacking sequences framed as bullet hell levels and a climax modelled after Capcom’s 19XX series of vertically scrolling shoot ’em ups.

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When the work of Clover Studio failed to match the commercial performance of Capcom’s existing series, like Street Fighter and Resident Evil, the team was folded back into internal R&D, at which point a number of staff jumped ship and formed Platinum. Many, however, stayed, to work on the increasingly disappointing Resi series after the masterful fourth entry (admittedly improved by the recent Resident Evil 7, a major change in design for the franchise but one mandated by the popularity of first person horror games of the sort PewDiePie and countless other YouTubers made a career screeching in terror at) and the tepidly-received Street Fighter V. Namco has continued to exploit the Katamari name through console sequels and mobile spin-offs, all done without the involvement of Takahashi or his original team, and featuring only an ounce of their original invention, innovation or personality. Mikami, whose career is an inspiring example of always moving forward and never resting on your laurels, found himself in the position of basically remaking the original Resident Evil in the form of The Evil Within; interviews at the time of the game’s release suggested a reticence at returning to the survival horror genre he helped found and which had been thoroughly ploughed in the decades since, with the implication being that he wanted to continue developing new types of games, but this was the only thing he could get funded. Mikami’s most recent credit, since the 2014 release of The Evil Within, is as a voice actor for the Japanese-language release of Bethesda’s Fallout 4.

Goichi Suda and Grasshopper Manufacture are doing okay, although Killer is Dead didn’t acquire the fan following (or the sales) that its spiritual predecessor Killer7 did and, following the mixed review for Let It Die, appear to be focussing their attentions once more on their back catalogue — and enhanced port of 2.5D bullet hell shooter Sine Mora is due out this year — than the next Shadows of the Damned or Shining Soul. I don’t want this to be an entirely dour article, however; an extended obituary for a sort of gonzo Japanese gamemaking which has all but disappeared in the past few years. Grasshopper are one of the contributors to Level-5’s  Guild Nintendo 3Ds anthology games. Guild 01 and Guild 02, released together on cart in Japan but as two separate titles on the virtual store worldwide, group together eight distinct, short games by a variety of developers — including Suda, Seaman’s Yoot Saito, Mega Man progenitor Keiji Inafune and Final Fantasy Tactics writer/director Yasumi Matsuno — across a variety of genres. They’re a mixed bag, as any anthology-based media tends to be, but it provides a space for some really interesting experiments. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any further entries in the Guild series, with Level-5 returning to the richer pastures of Professor Layton and Yo-Kai Watch.

One game in particular continues to fly the freak flag recognisable from the sort of offbeat Japanese titles from this period, and should be supported for it. Yakuza is the very definition of a cult classic, having developed a following over the course of over ten years and fourteen games (counting spin-offs, remakes and remasters). The first few entries, for the Playstation 2 and 3, were translated for North American and European release, but at a certain point it feels like Sega lost faith in the series and its popularity overseas; the mainline games were released as digital downloads, and the spin-offs — which transpose the action to feudal Kyoto — remain largely unreleased outside Japan. But this year we’ll see the release of both Yakuza Kiwami, a fully-realised remake of the original game, in English-speaking territories, and prequel Yakuza 0 hit shelves in January, with proper sequel Yakuza 6 earmarked for an early 2018 release.

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Presided over by Sega’s chief creative officer Toshihiro Nagoshi, veteran of Virtua Racing and Super Monkey Ball, the Yakuza series is an idiosyncratic, melodramatic gangster narrative whose main story missions are bolstered by a dizzying array of minigames and additional systems including, but by no means limited to, rhythm action sequences, UFO catchers, a variety of casino, arcade (including pachinko!) and card games, golf, fishing, even working as a premium phoneline operator. They might sound familiar to Western audiences au fait with the overstuffed open environments of Grand Theft Auto, but in fact the closest comparison to Yakuza’s wonderfully-realised wacky world is forklift truck racing simulator Shenmue, a series Nagoshi previously worked on as a producer and which is receiving a sequel thanks to crowdfunding through Kickstarter.

In these two examples, we see how we might see another Golden Age of this sort of Japanese games development, which throws caution with the wind and which places “pleasing shareholders” way, way below “creativity” in its list of priorities. Nagoshi is part of the corporate hierarchy of SEGA at this point, his original Yakuza team folded in the traditional development structure the same way that Clover Studio and Kojima Productions eventually were; but he has retained a degree of autonomy, affecting change from within. Level-5, meanwhile, managed to funnel profits from their mega-successful handheld franchises into smaller, more experimental titles, something which has sustained Grasshopper for a number of years now, too.

This article has, admittedly, been written with rose-tinted shades at the very least balanced on the end of my nose, if not blinkering my view entirely. There was plenty of garbage produced during this period, trash which was nonetheless localised, translated and released outside of Japan when the voraciousness of gamers for new titles seemed to be never ending. I enjoy the objective crumminess of the Earth Defence Force games with the same ironic, kitsch charm as I do an Ed Wood film; the Grasshopper games are similarly like watching a better-made but nonetheless B-movie, or reading a pulp novel; the work of Clover Studio was often akin to the giddy guilty pleasure of Saturday morning cartoons, shonen manga or Power Rangers re-runs; the Kamatari series has a modern, if far less artistically inspiring, equivalent in many casual and mobile games.

There’s also a chance that economic factors are not the major (or at least not the only) one considered when clamping down on this period of rampant, unfettered creativity. Maybe they didn’t make enough money, but also, perhaps the creators behind them simply weren’t fulfilled by their experiments. Maybe the lack of public or critical interest was enough to put them off from continuing down the road of making low-budget, radical titles. Even Mikami has suggested as much, saying in a retrospective interview with Edge that “I’ve released a lot of titles before and I feel that, perhaps specifically with regard to God Hand, I was given too much freedom to make that game just as I liked. It didn’t sell too well,” comparing its audience unfavourably to his hopes for the then to-be-released Vanquish, which he said would be “something a little more mass market that will appeal to a wide audience.” Working as part of such small teams, with little in the way of positive reinforcement by the wider public or critics, could have been enough to curb their more experimental turns before the sales figures came in.

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It’s tempting to suggest this design philosophy was abandoned and deemed a failed experiment thanks to the low sales and middling reviews of some of the output. But surely that’s how culture works generally, and video games in particular (even more now, when every man and his dog can throw something together in Unity with pre-built assets and throw it up for sale on Steam). The majority of the product is shitty, but its amongst that miasma that you find the real gems.

Such a scattershot approach to success is clearly not considered financially, creatively or artistically viable to the games industry at large, which results in releases which may be more consistent, but whose cautious middle of the road-ness makes for a similarly “meh” play experience at times. I’d take another few hours having my low-res characters guided by the skateboarding, inexplicably Latino Uncle Death through some uninspiring urban wreckage than another uninspired and uninspiring Monster Hunter, Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed any day.

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About Tom

Tom is a freelance culture writer. His work has appeared on Comic Book Resources, About.com and WhatCulture.

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