Games as National Culture: An Interview With Chris Kohler (Part Two)

On Friday, I ran the first part of a two part interview with Chris Kohler, author of Power Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life and now the editor of Wired’s games blog Game|Life. I hope by now I have convinced you that this book is worth a read. Kohler has been very generous with his time and his thoughts responding to my question in the midst of an explosion of new stories about the launch of the new platforms and their impact on game culture. And his answers have been consistently illuminating about the relationship between the Japanese games industry and the American marketplace. Without further fanfare, let’s get into the conversation:

You quote game designer Keiichi Yano as saying “video games were the big can opener” which allowed other Japanese cultural materials to enter the American market. Explain. What connection do you see between the popularity of Japanese games and the growth of anime and manga in the American market? Why do you think Americans were receptive to Japanese games at a time when they seemed closed to other Japanese media content?

People love that quote. Yano-san is almost as good as coming up with awesome soundbites as he is at designing addictive games.

Let’s look at the availability of Japanese cultural materials in the US in the early eighties. It wasn’t much. Frederick Schodt had just published his book Manga! Manga!, detailing the immensity of the comics culture in Japan at the time, but if you read that book it only serves to illustrate just how little impact Japanese comics were at that point making on the American comic market — Schodt actually had to translate and print some examples of manga at the back of his book just so his readers could actually experience what he was talking about.

In 1984, Hayao Miyazaki’s first original feature film Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind hit it big at the Japanese box office, and Akira Toriyama, already known for his comedy manga Dr. Slump, started the first Dragon Ball series. Both of these men would eventually become internationally celebrated, but at the time that it was actually created, their work was completely unknown outside Japan. Of course, some hardcore comics fans followed the Japanese scene, but it wasn’t mainstream. Same with film; the deeply involved fans knew of Kurosawa et al, but that was where it ended.

But by 1984, there were Japanese cultural products that had made huge inroads into worldwide markets. Space Invaders. Pac-Man. Donkey Kong. Many of the most popular, biggest-grossing arcade games of the “golden age” were from Japanese designers. This is not to say that there were not plenty of great American arcade games at the time as well. Indeed, had the video game industry gone entirely smoothly for America it is probable that things would have developed quite differently.

But what actually happened was that the bottom fell out of the American game market in 1984. Atari, under new management, scrapped all of its video game products. Most smaller game developers went out of business altogether. Retailers stopped buying games because they’d been so badly burned when the bubble burst. And that was that.

Until a year later, when Nintendo decided that the game console they were currently selling by the truckload in Japan, called Famicom, could succeed in the US if they pushed hard enough. Long story short, buoyed by games like Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros., it did. Suddenly, there was a huge demand for video games again in the US — and practically no American game development houses ready to provide content. In came Nintendo’s Japanese licensees like Konami, Capcom, and Namco, all ready to start selling their games in the US.

Thanks to the better visuals of the NES, Japanese games were beginning to look and sound (and read, in the case of story-based games) more like manga and anime. Some were even based directly off of anime and manga, even if the connection couldn’t have been made clear to the US audience (a Dragon Ball game was released for the NES, called Dragon Power, long before the show hit US airwaves). And sometimes the games had a very strong resemblance to anime — look at the detailed cinematic scenes in games like Ninja Gaiden.

Even when the games themselves didn’t reflect it, millions of American kids were being exposed to Japanese cartoon styles through the peripheral material such as instruction manuals, Nintendo Power magazine, and strategy guides, most of which used the original Japanese artwork and story translations throughout. Sometimes they actually printed manga in the magazine, too, which no doubt was the first exposure to the form for literally millions of American kids.

So when manga and anime did start making their way to the US in translation beginning around the early nineties, the Nintendo generation found something familiar about the style and the stories.


Cultural critic Koichi Iwabuchi uses the term, “de-odorization” to describe the ways that distinctly Japanese qualities get filtered out as cultural goods enter the western market. Yet, in recent years, the Japanese quality of these games has been foregrounded by marketing and actively embraced by gamers. What factors have contributed to these changes?

When Power-Up was published I couldn’t help feel like my timing was incredibly awful. When I started work on the thesis that would become the book, Japanese games were still unquestionably the best in the world. By the time it was published the situation was very different — Western development houses had finally gotten their acts together, on the whole, and were producing games of unimpeachable quality. Games that were selling very strongly here in the US.

But two years later, in the fullness of time, it seems to me that… well, that my timing was still bad, but for a different reason. Because as you note we’re now seeing “Japaneseness” being used to sell games. And not only games: publishers of manga don’t really need to go through great lengths anymore to “Americanize” their products, in part because US retailers are becoming more “Japanized,” willing and able to stock thousands of novel-sized paperback anthologies of manga, and pack their shelves to bursting with DVD box sets.

Manga readers have gotten used to reading from right to left, in the Japanese fashion, so there’s not even a need to “flip” the artwork anymore. In fact, in most cases they don’t even retouch the sound effects; they leave them in Japanese. What’s going on here is that the consumers are so much more educated about the product and specific in what they want that the publishers no longer have to tweak the product and push it to the mainstream.

Similarly, it’s no longer a surprise that there are innovative, quirky, funny games coming from Japan. In fact, there are so many gamers that expect this now that labeling your game as a quirky funny Japanese title can be an excellent marketing tactic. There’s an audience out there looking for the next Japanese cult hit (a “cult” in name only at this point, comprised as it is of millions of vocal, active, obsessed fans with lots of disposable income).

Just recently, Nippon Ichi Software, a Japanese publisher of role-playing and strategy games that are drenched in manga-styled characters and outrageous, off-the-wall stories, opened an American branch. Their business plan hinges entirely on selling the “Japaneseness” of their products, and they’re doing quite well at it.

At one time, the most distinctly Japanese games never made it into the American market. What can you tell us about the criteria which shape the import of Japanese games into the west? What game genres still remain outside our market?

As I mentioned earlier, these criteria are constantly changing. Generally, things are moving in a more expansive direction. At one time, role-playing games in general were considered to be almost completely unsuitable for the US market. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that some of them had sold more copies in the US than in Japan.

I can certainly name plenty of genres that would not currently be considered suitable for the US market. But these days, you’d probably be able to find an exception for every single case. Probably the most notorious genre would be what are usually referred to here as “dating games”. In Japan the fans would call them ren’ai or “romance” games while detractors would label them “gal-get games.” They’re predominantly two-dimensional games where you have your pick of a selection of women and attempt to say and do the right things to fall in love with one of them.

Mostly, these are for men, but there are also some for women — some of which feature female protagonists, and some of which are gay male romance stories. They range from innocent high school puppy love stories to the explicitly pornographic.

But if you know where to look, you can find these games in English at places like jlist.com. So it wouldn’t be entirely correct to say that these games simply aren’t available. It’s true that they are only available for personal computers, and not for standalone TV game consoles like PlayStation 2, but I wouldn’t bet money that they won’t eventually be.

In fact, it is tough to put my finger on any one genre that has made zero penetration in the US. There are plenty of games in Japan that simulate horse racing. Not the experience of being a jockey. I mean the experience of betting on horse racing. And yet, Sega has one of those machines available to US arcade owners (although I’m not sure how many are biting).

Games based on pachinko machines are big sellers in Japan. Mostly this is because pachinko is essentially the closest thing the country has to legalized gambling, but because it’s a game of skill, you can in fact learn to beat the machines. So these games — and the elaborate, lifesized controllers that go along with them — are invaluable, because they teach you to play the game without risking any money.

So maybe that’s the one genre that absolutely, one hundred percent wouldn’t fly here. (And now that I’ve said that, expect a pachinko game to be released for Nintendo DS within a year.)

I have to ask you about Katamari Damacy, a game which came out after the completion of your book. Does it represent another landmark in the history of the western world’s relationship to Japanese games? What other recent Japanese games would command attention in an updated edition of your book?

Yes, I think that Katamari Damacy was a real wake-the-hell-up point for the American game industry. Especially for Namco (now Bandai Namco), the publisher. Here’s my personal Katamari story. A friend of mine, a voracious import gamer, had gotten the game after its Japanese release and was so astounded by it that I was convinced to get it myself. I was in love.

So along comes the 2004 Electronics Entertainment Expo, and Namco’s booth. At that point, although they were in part playing to their strengths as a Japanese publisher with games like Taiko Drum Master and the anime-styled RPG Tales of Symphonia, they were also attempting to expand out with titles developed in the US, aimed at mainstream American audiences. Most prominently, these included the shooter Dead to Rights II (terrible) and the urban racing game Street Racing Syndicate (garbage).

Meanwhile, at the back corner of their booth, hidden, unannounced, untranslated, unpromoted except for a black-and-white sign that looked as if someone had made it using a word processor earlier that morning, was Katamari Damacy. And boy howdy if there wasn’t a huge line stretching out away from the tiny cluster of demo machines.

So when I went back into the conference room to discuss what I’d just seen with Namco’s media relations representatives, I said, “To be honest, the best thing you guys have right now is Katamari Damacy.” And they got this look of half-disbelief on their faces, and said, “Yeah… we… we think that one’s going to do really well,” but in a tone of voice that suggested that they were only just coming to grips with this realization. The game shipped that fall, with a bare minimum of marketing dollars, and sold out instantly. I think as a series Katamari has sold more units internationally than domestically.

What other games would merit inclusion in a revised Power-Up? Certainly I would tell the story of Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents, for the reasons described earlier and also as a lesson in making your game hardware region-free. One of the main reasons that Ouendan took off like it did in foreign markets is because any Nintendo DS system can play any game, regardless of the country in which it was released. This has not historically been the case with game systems, which are usually locked to the region in which they are sold.

In fact, I think it was a huge mistake by Nintendo to make the new Wii system region-locked. They say that they did it because television standards differ between Europe and the US, but that doesn’t explain why the US and Japan — both on NTSC standard — aren’t considered to be one “region” under that logic.

This is a mistake on their part because Wii, much like DS, will no doubt play host to a variety of unique, original, innovative Japanese games. And the best way to tell whether these games would work in the US is to allow American import game players, who are usually very vocal and influential opinion-makers, easy access to the games.

On that note, I’d probably also use a new version of the book to complain about even more ways that video games are still treated as a second-class medium — even by the very publishers of those games! Any fan of Kurosawa would be absolutely disgusted if Criterion’s re-release of Seven Samurai were only issued with an English audio track. Luckily, Criterion would never think of doing such a thing. Why, then, does Final Fantasy XII not get the same respect?

If it’s the case that there’s just not enough room on the DVD to hold both language tracks, then there’s not much to be done about that. But PlayStation 3′s Blu-Ray discs will hold up to 50 gigabytes of data; more than enough for dual language options on anything and everything that comes from Japan. So if Final Fantasy XIII is released without the original language track, gamers can raise a very legitimate complaint.

What do you see as the most important lessons the American games industry learned from its Japanese competitors? What did Japanese game companies learn from their American counterparts?

We’re back to my awful timing. When I started researching the book the thought pattern among people serious about game design was that Japanese games were simply better made, on the whole, than Western ones. Certainly, the editors of the popular and authoritative magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly were on my side. In their January 2002 issue they voted for their top 100 games of all time. 93 of the games on that list were made in Japan.

But now the tide has changed. If EGM’s editors were to do another Top 100 list, it would be very different. What American developers learned, on the whole, was the value of taking their time. Well, actually it wasn’t the developers who learned it so much as game publishers. Miyamoto’s personal genius meant a lot, but it’s just as important that he was given what would have been considered a luxurious amount of time to create his games. Meanwhile, American publishers seemed on the whole to be concerned with securing a hot product license, then getting the game out the door on as short a schedule as humanly possible.

I think at this point everyone sees the benefit of giving developers the time and money that they need to really polish up a game and make it as good as it can be. Sadly, it still doesn’t happen in all cases. And American publishers still seem amazingly risk-averse; if a game proposal doesn’t involve something immediately marketable they don’t want to hear about it, in most cases. So although America is getting much better at making quality games that Americans love, Japan is still the innovation leader.

Which is funny, as it’s the reverse of what has historically been true about America and Japan in terms of technology; typically it’s generalized that American pioneering spirit fosters invention whereas Japan’s diligent work ethic and obsession with miniaturization leads them to be particularly skilled at improving the designs of existing things (see: radio, television, video game hardware). Whereas with video games it is sometimes the other way around. One of this holiday season’s biggest games in the US is Guitar Hero. Gameplay-wise, it’s nearly identical to a Japanese game called Guitar Freaks, but with a few refinements that make it more fun.

Who deserves more praise: the innovators, or the ones who put on the polish that made it more palatable? It’s a question we’ll continue to wrestle with as this amazing medium continues to develop.

Comments

  1. Philip B. says:

    I think the greatest Trojan horse into America for Japanese children’s culture was Hasbro/Marvel’s Transformers, followed by the Go Lion/Dairugger amalgam Voltron (I don’t think “Robotech” was ever as popular among American kids because it had something resembling a storyline). Maybe that’s just my take, but I always knew there was something weird about those shows, while Mario always seemed normal to me, parakoops and all. By the 16-bit era, when the various “anime” aesthetics could be played out (because, as Prof Condry might say, there’s no such monolithic thing as “the Japanese aethetic”), those cartoons and toys were firmly established. Sure, Street Fighter II paved the way for Dragon Ball Z, but, I mean, Transformers was big enough to be spoofed by Mel Brooks!

    Then there are all the shows Nick used to import (TWO koala cartoons), the weird Speed Racer/MTV phenomenon, the almost out of the blue ascent of Sailor Moon…All of this happened without video games.

    Video games like PokeMon and FFVII (FMV!) are certainly important for how we got to our current point, but they’re not the “can opener.”