The Japanese gaming industry has taken a bit of a beating lately in the press, with many eager to write off its efforts in exchange for heaping praise upon the growing power of Western game development. Yes, it’s true—in some ways, what was once little more than a hobby that many in Japan worked long and hard to foster has now become a gargantuan beast of multi-million dollar entertainment that the country isn’t always prepared to tame.
And yet, reports of the death of Japanese videogaming have been greatly exaggerated. In so many ways, Japanese developers are still paving roads into territories their counterparts in the West still dare to tread. Japanese games are still alive, and as fresh as ever—it’s just that many times their softer-spoken voices are being drowned out by the screams of space marines, the roar of high-caliber weapons, and the symphony of Hollywood-style explosions coming from the titles that now dominate the shelves of your local retailer.
So, all this week, I’ll be giving examples of the ways in which Japanese game developers are still crafting some of the best experiences around, told each day through a different Japanese-produced title that’s either hit our shores recently, or which will be doing so in the near future.
Today’s pick is the upcoming Vanillaware side-scrolling action game Dragon’s Crown—a title which shows off the beautiful 2D visuals that Japan continues to excel at.
One of the biggest champions for keeping the tradition of lush hand-drawn visual in gaming alive is George Kamitani. Even if you don’t recognize his name, you’re sure to know some of the games he’s been a big part of. After having worked at Capcom on the development of games such as Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, Kamitani called upon his love for fantasy settings and rich character design once again when he helped craft the Sega Saturn release Princess Crown for Atlus. Even for its time, Princess Crown stood out thanks to its unique visuals and incredibly detailed sprites. Kamitani’s art style was unforgettable the moment you saw it—and it was a style that would later go on to be the cornerstone of a number of future releases.
While doing work for Square Enix in 2002, Kamitani re-united with some of his former teammates from Atlus who had worked with him on Princess Crown, and the group went on to form a studio titled Puraguru. That name wouldn’t last long—two years later, the company renamed itself Vanillaware. Vanillaware’s goal was simple—be a company dedicated to continuing to support the idea of games with finely-crafted 2D graphics in a time when so many other companies were switching over to rendering everything in 3D.
That trademark art style that George Kamitani had originally displayed in Princess Crown would now be allowed to fully bloom under Vanillaware, and the company’s first release came with 2007’s Odin Sphere. (Though another of the company’s projects—GrimGrimoire—was released first, it had actually started development after Odin Sphere was complete.) I still remember being at E3 when Atlus USA showed off a first glimpse of Odin Sphere behind closed doors, and seeing the game for the first time honestly left me in awe. While games crafted from hand-drawn sprites still existed in the era of the PlayStation 2, what Vanillaware was creating felt to me like a return to a level of dedication that hadn’t been seen in years. I had witnessed the transition from the 16-bit era—where beyond a few exceptions every game still existed in a two-dimensional world—to the 32-bit era, where the rise of the polygon had completely changed the landscape of gaming. Standing there at E3, watching the video clips of Odin Sphere unfolding before me, it felt like I had stepped into a world where polygons had never come to exist, and instead I was seeing where the future would have gone if powerful new hardware had still fully dedicated itself instead to sprites.
It feels only proper, then, that Vanillaware’s upcoming release Dragon’s Crown should fill me with a similar sense of wonderment. In the generational switch that brought us the PlayStation, Saturn, and N64, developers wondered if there was still a place in this world for games based around hand-drawn sprites. In the most recent advancements of platforms—the one to take us from standard-definition games to ones making full use of our beautiful new HDTVs—the question seems less if such games still have a place, but if companies can even afford to make them anymore. The companies who look to keep the art of art alive in gaming are often the smaller, more niche development houses and publishers—for them, the vast amount of effort that must now go into crafting assets proper for high-definition can often simply be too much for the company to bear.
This was a concern many had for Vanillaware’s efforts. As beautiful as games such as Muramasa: The Demon Blade or their recent PSP release Grand Knights History (to see release in North America next year courtesy of XSEED) may be, would such games even be possible on hardware like the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360? Those fears were squashed at E3 2011, when Ignition Entertainment revealed Dragon’s Crown, their next joint project with Vanillaware.
The history of Dragon’s Crown is interesting. The game was originally conceived by Kamitani over thirteen years ago, existing in his mind as a follow-up he wanted to create for Sega’s newest hardware—the Dreamcast—after the development of Princess Crown. Dragon’s Crown would serve as Kamitani taking the experience he had working on Tower of Doom, and advancing gameplay to the next obvious level.
As somebody who loves games from the player/consumer side, it isn’t hard to be thankful to some degree that Kamitani didn’t get to see that vision through to completion until now. As a Dreamcast title, Dragon’s Crown no doubt would have been as enjoyable as it was beautiful. Now, however, we get to see the project fully realized thanks to the many opportunities our current hardware selections offer. Even if your gaming visuals of choice lean more towards the side of realism games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 present, it’s hard not to still appreciate what a game like Dragon’s Crown brings to the table. This is Kamitani’s artwork the way it’s always meant to be seen—and it’s gorgeous. The characters look like they’ve come to life right off of the pages of Kamitani’s canvas, and even when doing nothing but standing idle they still display an immense level richly animated and crafted elements.
What is most important about any game we play is just that—our experience playing it. No matter how lovingly developed any of its other parts are, a game must first draw us into it and provide something that we actively want to spend more time with. And yet, elements such as visuals are important—they are one of the factors that help us connect with a game and understand what it is presenting us. Dragon’s Crown goes back to some of the earliest means of presenting players with those visual cues—flat objects presented on top (or behind) other flat objects—but it does so with an artistic beauty that can be more expressive and emotional than even the best high-end 3D graphics engines.
Vanillaware isn’t the only company out there who is still determined to keep 2D gaming alive. Not so long ago, when you thought about the masters of graphical detail and prowess, SNK was a name that quickly came to mind. In the era of sprites, their work often sat unmatched—to a point where the company even created its own console, the Neo Geo, in order to properly bring their high-end 2D experiences home to consumers.
Times have changed, however, and hardware has advanced. SNK Playmore’s bread and butter—their beloved fighting franchises like The King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, and Fatal Fury—once were high water marks of craftsmanship in 2D artistry. Now, those same games look old and dated when displayed on today’s higher-resolution displays. It’s even gotten to the point where their long-time rival Capcom—the company who used to sit beside SNK in terms of status as a legendary creator of 2D brawlers—has long abandoned the craft for the polygon’s promise of cheaper and easier game development.
The men and women of SNK Playmore, however, have decided that they’re going to continue the tradition of making 2D fighters even if it kills them—and unfortunately, it just might. The company made its first big steps into the HD era with The King of Fighters XII, the new flagship title that would serve as a rebirth of sorts not only for the series, but also SNK itself. The road to that rebirth, however, has been rocky, as public reaction to KoFXII was mixed. While many praised the company for the effort they had put into the game—and the promise it offered—KoFXII also felt like a rushed, incomplete game that had been put out simply because SNK Playmore needed to release something after all the time they had spent working on the game. (And according to many reports, that was indeed the case.) One of the biggest problems with bringing SNK’s approach to sprite development into the world of higher-resolution visuals is just how long it takes to create those visuals—even when keeping in mind that the sprite graphics for KoFXII aren’t even fully HD. Remaking the game’s assets takes 16~17 months—and that’s just for one character. The final King of Fighters release of the SD era—The King of Fighters XI—featured 47 different characters. Even with considering the 10 artists SNK Playmore had in-house for the creation of The King of Fighters XII, it would still take the company over six years to get back to that kind of level. Fighting game fans can be notoriously fickle—even as SNK’s most loyal followers loved seeing the series finally being remade in HD, many soon found the game missing some of their most beloved roster choices.
SNK Playmore’s dedication to continuing the art style that made them famous could now also be their downfall—but it could also be their salvation. While The King of Fighters XII was both a commercial and critical disappointment, the company’s follow-up—The King of Fighters XII—has made up for many of its predecessor’s shortcomings. This time, the game has been thoroughly fleshed out, with all of the modes, options, and polish players were expected from KoFXII. The previously-paltry roster of 20 character choices has been beefed up to over 30—which includes the return of much-demanded staples like Mai Shiranui and K’.
Beyond additional character, expanded modes, or improved online, possibly the strongest feature of The King of Fighters XIII is also the one that has caused SNK Playmore the most headaches: The game’s visuals. As much as they may cost the company financially and in terms of man power, they also stand as one of the game’s top selling points. In a world where so many video games are starting to look the same, and graphics engines struggle to squeeze the last remaining bits of extra oomph from the available hardware choices, The King of Fighters XIII looks strikingly unique and beautiful. For some of us, it’s a return to a world that has now become all too forgotten; for others, it’s a window into a world of gaming graphics that defies what they’ve been taught via the West’s love for hyper-realism.
Games like Dragon’s Crown and The King of Fighters XIII tell us this: not only can 2D still survive in 2011, but it can also continue to bring us experiences unlike anything we’ve seen before. What once seemed like an outdated technique for game development whose days were number now shines with the promise of a future that’s bright—a dream kept alive thanks to the work of dedicated Japanese game developers who never stopped believing.