Can Japanese Games Tell Us About the ‘Real’ Japan?

 

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I’ve never been hardcore into Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs), a sub-genre with a large Western following, and I was never obsessed with Final Fantasy – arguably one of Japan’s most successful franchises to receive mainstream acclaim among Western critics and gamers. Rather, my own interest in Japanese games centers on the hack-n-slash, survival horror, and fighting genres. Among my Japanese gaming obsessions were/are Tekken, SoulCalibur, Resident Evil, and Dynasty/Samurai Warriors.

Some might speculate that Resident Evil is a popular and successful franchise outside Japan because its narrative is largely based around Caucasian, North American heroes. Even the diverse casts in Tekken and SoulCalibur are not easily recognized as Japanese in origin which makes these games relatively easy to market in Western regions. Even though these games were created by predominately Japanese development teams there’s not much that’s actually about Japanese culture within these games. Yet other games have inspired my fascination with Japanese history and culture, such as Koei-Tecmo’s Samurai Warriors, which may be true for other gamers who have played similarly contextualized games like Shogun: Total War.

Samurai Warriors features a cast of – you’ll never have guessed it – samurai, daimyo, and ninja warriors set during the Sengoku Jidai period of feudal Japan (c. 1467 – c. 1603). It was an easy series for me to get into seeing as I was already a massive fan of Koei’s other hack-n-slash series Dynasty Warriors (both games are developed by the same studio, Omega-Force, the difference being DW is set during a turbulent period of ancient China). Samurai Warriors, although featuring over-the-top gameplay and impossible one-warrior-against-a-hundred scenarios, more or less stuck to the essential elements of the historical timeline that it represented. Now, that’s not to say that the key players aren’t fantastically embellished nor that plenty of creative liberties aren’t taken. Perhaps most notably, the historical figures adhere to aesthetics found in Japanese anime more so than from the actual historical paintings that document their prestige.

Handsome and anachronistically fashionable bishounen archetypes stand in for fierce, heavily-armored samurai and Oda Nobunaga’s “demon king” moniker is taken more literately in these games. Still, if video games can serve as a gateway for learning about other historical eras, SW did it for me. I purchased books on ninja and samurai and read the fictionalized biography of underdog-to-unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Taiko. In my 11th grade Spanish class, we had to do a report of a famous/notable person and I chose to discuss Oda Nobunaga, the ruthless warlord who nearly unified Japan before he was betrayed by his vassal, Akechi Mitsuhide. These figures are well known in Japan – but to most Americans? Our mandatory history classes in public schools focus almost exclusively on US and European history. The exposure to new forms of history through games and memorable characters was a breath of fresh air, especially since most of the American-made games that I played at the time tended to re-tell the World Wars, ad nausea [Well… at least, Call of Duty used to do that].

When I visited Japan for two weeks in June, I took it upon myself to witness would I could of that history first hand. After all, even though it was gameplay and the overly dramatic characterizations that initially attracted me to the history in Samurai Warriors, it was the actual events and historical figures that left a lasting impression. At Okunoin cemetery at Koyasan, for instance, I was able to pay my respects at mausoleums and tombstones to many of the fallen warriors and rulers I was initially exposed to in the game series. There was a sense of wonder and nostalgia as I walked through that cemetery, realizing I may not have made the long pilgrimage via train and tram to arrive at that place had I not played a video game.

The same sense of awe saturated my thoughts my first night in Japan, when I skipped Tokyo via bullet train and stayed in Odawara. Most people use Odawara as a stepping-stone to a Mt. Fuji excursion but I stayed for Odawara Castle, a historic site of Hideyoshi’s conquest in Japan – and, you guessed it, featured in the video game. Beautiful Himeji Castle was also part of my trip for similar reasons and while in Kyoto, I tracked down a small, relatively unimpressive temple complex for the sole reason that it was the modern-day location of Honno-ji Temple, the site of Oda Nobunaga’s betrayal and death.

Perhaps at best video games are a gateway to other eras, other cultures, but I think they’re a particularly potent gateway. Having played my first Samurai Warriors game over ten years ago (the first one released in 2004 when I was 14!), the history has made a lasting impression that influenced my Japan travel itinerary at the age of 26. And while Japanese games might reveal only a mediated representation and understanding of a ‘real’ Japan, visiting and reflecting at these historical sites certainly brought me closer to understanding the authentic thing.

Click on the Images for the Full Photo Albums

Honno-ji Temple
Honno-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle

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Turning Japanese: The “Character Empire” that Infiltrated Video Games

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I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for games – not only were video games an important pastime and hobby of mine as a young teen, but the most memorable games inspired my creativity. Some of my first stabs at non-fiction writing were essentially bad video game fanfiction (thankfully, not quite this bad). I taught myself to sew so I could cosplay as some of my favorite video game characters. I’ve even had friendships with people half-way across the globe that I wouldn’t otherwise had met if it wasn’t for a mutual love of certain video game franchises and characters.

Now, many of these things, such as cosplay, bad fanfic, and online friendships, were similarly inspired by a love of Star Wars and Harry Potter during those formative teenage years. But only video games have the privilege of drawing me towards Japanese culture and history more broadly. Anyone who’s played console and PC games for a number of years has likely played a video game created predominately by a Japanese team. Japan is a dominate force in the AAA commercial video game industry; for instance, popular Japanese games, such as titles in the Pokémon and the Legend of Zelda series, typically sell as well in the West as they do in the domestic market.

In any case, the large appeal and success of Japan’s games abroad, I think, rests not solely on the gameplay but the characters available in gameplay. In Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination anthropologist Anne Allison wrote that Japan is a “character empire” with icons such as Hello Kitty and Pikachu being recognized as ambassadors of their respective brands abroad. The importance of character branding in games is unsurprising given its wider prevalence in Japanese media culture, including anime and manga. Indeed, many early video game studios in Japan sought talented artists and writers from the extant anime and manga trades.

marioWith creatives from Japan’s comic book and animation industries bringing character design and complex storylines into digital games, Japanese video games may have been some of the first in the industry to emphasize plot, writing, and characterization. Japan’s video games include some of the most memorable characters that represent the industry at large, going as far back as the likes of Nintendo’s Mario who originated in 1981. Since the introduction of Nintendo’s cute and unforgettable icons, Japan’s video games have arguably set a high bar for character design and pushed the market in new directions. As recently with the release of Nintendo’s and Niantic’s Pokémon GO, the success of first-party console developers in the mobile games market has been attributed to the gaming public’s affinity for recognizable characters from popular franchises.

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The popularity of branded characters in Japanese games is evident in the likes of Gundam, Final Fantasy, and Capcom theme cafes located in Tokyo. My love of Japanese franchise Resident Evil (Biohazard in Japan) was documented quite recently in my review of the Capcom Café, which I visited in cosplay of Jill Valentine on two separate occasions to sample the literal ‘Jill Sandwich’ and merchandise offerings. The café circulates different Capcom games as themes reflected in new food items and merchandise that center on particular franchise’s characters. There’s no denying the popularity of Resident Evil’s playable characters, such as Jill, Chris, and Leon, who also star in spin-off CGI films, comic books, and even made appearances in the Paul W. Anderson film franchise. These characters and others adorn merchandise ranging from keychains to coffee mugs and t-shirts to hand towels. In a very Japanese fashion, the Capcom Café embraces the success of its game characters.

The appeal of branded characters in Japan extends the likes of Akihabara and the shopping malls. When I took a trip to the more remote World Heritage Site, Koyasan, I couldn’t escape character sightings. I spotted a Sengoku Basara cardboard cutout at Koyasan’s train station, apparently promoting some kind of themed train ticket, specifically targeting fans of the series.

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Japanese games have historically been successful with branding their games with popular, likeable characters. Consider Mario, who has practically been a household name since the 1980s and the array of merchandise available from that franchise alone. What Japan has arguably offered to the world of game design is an emphasis on memorable and unique characters, the likes of which Western games have imitated, perhaps most recently in Blizzard’s cast of inspirational Overwatch characters. The concept artwork for the game seems inspired by the Japanese anime aesthetic.

Indeed, Katherine Cross at Gamastura writes that the explosive fandom surrounding the cast of Overwatch and Pokémon GO  is attributed to the simplicity of the character design.  She writes, “there’s a lesson to be found in Overwatch and Pokémon Go: it takes shockingly little effort to create characters that people can get very deeply invested in.” I agree with the overall sentiment that characters grounded in simple narratives, when imaginatively designed and implemented, can be just as successful as more complex characterizations found in narrative-heavy roleplaying games. But I think there’s a caveat. The popular team leaders created for Pokémon GO already belong to an insanely popular Japanese media franchise with an established and strong fan base. And it seems Blizzard’s stylized Overwatch may have sought reception from a similar demographic of gamers that easily recognize Japanese influence in games.

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Yoshimitsu (Soul Calibur III) and Zhange He (Dynasty Warriors 7) are two of my favorite game characters originating from Japanese franchises.

Undeniably, some of my favorite video game characters are Japanese in origin. They’re unique, memorable, and… just plain playful. I’ll never forget pummeling a swarm of Chinese peons with flamboyant Zhang He in Dynasty Warriors; trolling my opponents with Soul Cailbur’s (sometimes pink) cyborg-ninja Yoshimitsu; and fighting back the zombie hordes with the somehow campy yet (mostly) grounded cast of Resident Evil.

Are some of your favorite video game characters Japanese in creative origin? Do you think that Japanese character design sets a standard in the industry? I’d like to hear about your favorites!

Originally posted to Destructoid Community Blog.

I’ll have the Jill Sandwich, Please: An Experience & Review of the Capcom Café

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I recently returned from an amazing fifteen-day adventure in Japan. I visited video game bars and ramen stalls in the scrawling cityscapes; feudal castles, holy shrines and peaceful temples amidst the urban landscapes; and historic cemeteries and memorials to fallen warlords among the cool and serene mountainsides.

As a longtime gamer and fan of Japanese media, especially of Capcom’s Resident Evil (RE), my trip to Tokyo was exciting with the prospect of visiting the electronics district, Akihabara, alone. When I heard about the creation of the Capcom Café about 6 months ago I was interested but not quite sold on a visit. You see, the café circulates different themes that center on Capcom games and when it was first launched the theme was Monster Hunter – a game I’ve not played and actually know very little about. However, when the RE theme was set from March to the end of June of this year, I scheduled it for my itinerary without a second thought. I mean, how many other times would I be in Japan and have the chance to dine on themed food and drinks from a favorite video game series?

But why not visit the more famous and popular Capcom Bar in Shinjuku? Well, for one, there’s the issue of needing a reservation in advance to attend the Capcom Bar which was problematic for my rather hectic schedule. Additionally, the Capcom Bar focuses on all Capcom games broadly, and the appeal to the café’s RE theme during the 20thanniversary of the franchise was just too good to pass up. It may help to back up my fanaticism with some data: I am probably one of the few people who purchased the Collector’s Edition of RE5 – so yeah, I’m that kind of shameless RE fan who loves the series to pieces, even when it’s been less than stellar in recent years (with the exception of RE: Revelations 2, in my humble opinion).

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Anyway, my first visit to the café occurred on June 8th around 5 PM which was my second day in Japan and Tokyo. Additionally, I returned for a second visit on June 19th, a couple days before I left the country, because a new item was added to the menu just after my initial visit – more on this later.

First, the café itself is relatively easy to find – if not a convenient location within Tokyo – as long as you do your transportation research.  The café is located at Aeon Mall, just off of the Koshigaya Laketown stop on the metro’s Musashino line, which is nearly an hour from Tokyo’s central station. From my accommodation in Ekoda it took me about an hour to arrive at the Aeon Mall with transfers at two subway stations. It’s not the quickest commute, especially around evening rush hour, so keep that in mind if you plan a visit yourself. Once at the mall, I stopped immediately at an information desk and asked for the Capcom Café and was quickly pointed to the third floor.

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My first impression was that of merchandise… overpriced merch, everywhere. For reference, these acrylic keychains are priced at 1,000 yen – that’s close to $10.00 USD, with tax. Impressively, Ada was completely sold out (looks like we know the #1 Resi waifu in Japan!). Needless to say, I passed up on the adorable keychains, and instead purchased a slightly more practical mug, since I love coffee and tea. Even that was about $13.00 USD and it only comes in black and white coloring. Still, the character images are cute and I like that it references the 20thAnniversary of RE, so I think it makes for a good souvenir. There were many more items on display, including zombie cookies, character-shaped candy, pens, notebooks, tote bags, badges, t-shirts and hoodies… even small backpacks and T-Virus perfume! But I didn’t buy those at a high price, strangah. Also available was plenty of merch from other franchises such as Mega Man, Monster Hunter, and Sengoku Basara.

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Aside from being bombarded with game merchandise, the atmosphere was eccentric and fun. A game console was available with RE: 0 remastered edition, a TV showcased cut scenes and game trailers in the dinning area, and a large mural depicted chibi RE characters in the Spencer Mansion. Aside from the spectacle, however, the shop and café was rather quiet and devoid of customers. This came with costs and benefits – I had looked forward to mingling with other Capcom/RE fans but at the same time I probably received the best service the café had to offer. I made small talk with my waiter about RE and other games and my food arrived promptly.

I’ll admit I ordered the cheapest item on the menu but mostly for practical reasons since I already had dinner plans later in the evening. The Raccoon City Set features four RE-themed sweets with a drink for about $9.00 USD which is actually a good deal among the café options since the fancy drinks alone cost about $6-7.00 USD. For the drink I ordered the “Jill Valentine” which tasted fruity and included a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. The dish delightfully featured RE characters as their cutest food forms imaginable. It included more ice cream, dollops of chocolate and vanilla cream served with a Jill cookie and marshmallow-like poof with an adorable rendering of Nemesis. Particularly (4 itchy) tasty was a stawbarry cream cake – see what I did there? – with a mini-flag reading “Welcome to Raccoon City.” Overall, the Jill drink was probably the tastiest of the items but everything was sweet and enjoyable. For ordering a fancy drink, you receive a coaster with an adorable chibi character (I got Leon) but you will not receive the coaster if you only ask for water. The paper placemat is also yours to keep but it’s not particularly thick or durable. I was able to preserve mine by rolling it up and I plan to eventually frame it because it’s so gosh darn cute.

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When my food arrived I wanted to have a very memorable and unique photo-op. For Halloween last year I put together a Jill Valentine cosplay – I had decided to pack the essential components along and wear them at the café – and that’s exactly what I did. The employees were very responsive to me when I explained in broken Japanese that I brought along “kosupure” and a girl employee was excited to take my picture for me. Needless to say, this portion of the experience was half my reason for going!

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I left the café with my pockets a little lighter, my curiosity satiated, and several very memorable pictures. I was content with my visit but towards the end of my itinerary – the day before I returned to Tokyo prior to flying back home – I discovered a revelation on the Capcom Café’s Twitter account… A day after my initial visit an official “Jill Sandwich” was added to the menu! [Watch the linked video if you’re unaware of the self-referential game humor]. It was not even listed in the café offerings the day prior. I was definitely a little heartbroken, but with a day and half left in Tokyo, I decided to make the pilgrimage one last time on a Sunday evening around 7:30 PM.

Once more, I was the sole diner, which was slightly disappointing. A few people lingered around the merchandise while others played RE: 0 and a couple looked at the menu on display, but when I sat down at a table I was the only one in the dining area. However, the staff were very friendly and made a sincere effort to talk with me as I didn’t have any companions. I was actually informed that the Jill Sandwich was very popular and, in fact, the waiter claimed he had 20 people order it in a single day. This may have indeed been an exaggeration, or perhaps the café is far more popular around lunch time. From my experiences the café seems to be relatively dead in the evenings – which makes sense as most of the food is suitable for smaller meals and snacking.cap-cafe-8

For those who are curious the Jill Sandwich costs a little over $6.00 USD and is a typical egg salad sandwich that is topped with a slice of ham and tomato. It includes a very small side of potato wedges (serving sizes in Japan, from what I saw, are much smaller on average than we have in ‘Merica). In short, it’s a relatively plain, but yummy, sandwich. The wooden tray that it was served on was decorated with a cocoa powdered effigy of Jill which I nearly smudged the second it was handed to me. The chef was even kind enough to doodle an image of anime Jill on the receipt, which I thanked her for and kept as a keepsake. And of course, I just had to pose with the Jill Sandwich because it’s so meta.

Overall, I enjoyed my two trips to the Capcom Café – but I’ve very likely had my fill if I ever return to Tokyo again (which I plan to do, one day). I can suggest this excursion to diehard Capcom fans, especially so to fans of the games that are presented as the current café theme. FYI – the theme just changed to Sengoku Basara. But for everyone else, because the location is not particularly quick to get to if you’re staying somewhere in central Tokyo, you’d probably be better off checking out the Capcom Bar in Shinjuku if you’d like to have a similar experience – especially if you want to play games while you eat/drink, as this is not an option at the Capcom Café. Moreover, the bar might be a more social place to interact with other diners/players while you wait for your food in the presence of said video games.

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Although I can only recommend this café to the big Capcom fans out there, I will say that I enjoyed my visits very much and commend the staff for taking the time to talk with me and take photos – I am certainly glad to have these memories!

Originally posted to personal Destructoid Community Blog.

Male ‘Nudity’ Plays Against Logic in New Final Fantasy Game

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Mevius Final Fantasy’s hero gets a wardrobe change.

I normally don’t follow mobile gaming news – but this caught my attention. The latest promotional video for Mevius Final Fantasy (or Mobius, I’ve seen it translated as both) revealed a wardrobe change for the game’s protagonist, Wal. According to Rocket News 24, Mevius Final Fantasy producer Yoshinori Kitase explained that Wal’s new, more conservative attire was requested by fans of the series:

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Wal’s original… shirt-thing.

Kitase explains that they’ve since decided to slap a little more fabric over Wal’s hairless canvas of lean muscle mass. “After we released the screenshots in December, we looked at the various reactions we were getting online, and in the end, showing this much skin…”

“It’s kind of sexy…” offers Asuna, the sole female presenter, before adding “A little too sexy.”

Kitase says many people shared Asuna’s sentiment about the revealing peek the developers had given the public back in December. “For this game, we’re moving forward during development and letting it evolve while taking into consideration users’ opinions, so I asked the character designer to make a change.”

Kuja proudly displays what his momma gave him.

 

The image at the top shows the outcome. Essentially, fabric is now slapped over the rib-cage area of his torso and he no longer looks like he’s wearing an awkward apron… I can’t help but question this decision, though, when I consider other character’s clothing in the series. The Final Fantasy series has never shied from showcasing proactively dressed characters. Final Fantasy IX’s Kuja is sans cloth in the abdominal region and sports a cod piece, to boot. Even serious characters like XIII’s Lightning received the ‘cat girl’ treatment for one of her multitude of costumes in Lightning Returns. Clearly, Wal was not the first ‘flesh-baring’ character featured in the games.

What I wonder is where the criticism of Wal’s original costume was coming from… male or female fans? Kuja’s attire shows that revealing costumes for male characters in Final Fantasy is not without precedent – but, Kuja is FFIX’s villain. He is not the hero of the story and his identity is not assumed by or forced upon the player… a male player, perhaps? Needless to say, I don’t think that Wal’s costume would have received the same criticism if he was actually a she. After all, Square-Enix didn’t shy from this presentation:

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… but Wal is ‘too sexy?’

Interestingly, Mevius project leader Naoki Hamaguchi and managing producer Hiroki Okayama expressed a different opinion from Kitase. They expressed:

“But I want that naked outfit,” and “He looks like a model…You can see the body line of his lower back and hips… If enough people say they like those hiplines, then we might bring the original costume back.”

Personally, I’d wish they’d stuck to their guns. It’s not that playing a chiseled Wal entices me as a gamer – but I think if it’s the original vision that was conceived for the character, why deviate from it?

Source: “Too sexy!” New Final Fantasy’s hunky male lead has his revealing costume toned down