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 I take a look at Idea Factory’s Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom—and Japan’s love for a diverse range of gaming genres that helps birth titles such as this.
As somebody who has long been interested in the various aspects of Japan’s entertainment industry, one of the points I’ve always found fascinating is the country’s love for niche targeting. Here in America, we tend to look at things like movies, music, or videogames by genre, and often use that as the determination for who a particular new product will be most appealing to. Sure, we do at times get more focused—say the latest “chick flick” or a game that’s “for the kids”—but even if a new project is specifically focused on a narrow age range, gender, or ethnic make-up, those plans typically aren’t openly expressed.
In contract, Japan at times seems to almost have an obsession in doing just that. Take, for example, Japan’s massive manga market. In Western comics, publishers typically stay away from drawing hard demographic lines. The latest adventures of Superman or Spider-Man are to be enjoyed by everyone, and when a series does in fact aim itself to a certain segment of readers, the goal isn’t to turn away other potential consumers by telling them they aren’t the proper type of reader. Manga creators, on the other hand, are often not only more than happy to tell you who their intended audience is, but careful to create stories and characters tailored to appeal to that group. Look at a few of manga’s basic demographic categories: you’ve got shounen manga (young boys 10-18) shoujo manga (young girls of the same age range), seinen manga (“young men’s” titles appealing to those 20 and older), and josei manga (the “ladies’ comics” counterbalance to seinen titles). Then, of course, manga further breaks itself down by some surprisingly specific genres, with everything from “magical girl” to “boy’s love”.
It brings up a very interesting question: Have those efforts to precisely target Japanese comics to particular groups of people—sometimes to the point of being outrageously niche—been the catalyst for manga becoming as popular as it is for so many different types of Japanese consumers, or has that careful separation of manga’s constant releases come about as an attempt to satisfy a marketplace that naturally became diverse in readership?
No matter the answer to that question, we can also see a similar approach to marketing in Japan’s equally interesting videogames industry. Get past major releases like Mario, Monster Hunter, and Pokemon, and you’ll find a smaller, more focused group of lesser-known publishers working hard to satisfy the niche markets they’ve carved out for themselves.
A perfect example of this is Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, the latest chapter of Idea Factory’s Hakuoki series that Aksys Games is currently prepping for its English debut. Hakuoki could be classified in a number of ways—as an adventure game, a dating sim, or a visual novel—but another category it belongs to is that of the “otome game”. Otome games—literally “Maiden games” when translated from Japanese—are a decidedly Japanese genre which targets female players, where the main character herself is always female and one of her objectives is the pursuit of love.
Set in Edo-era Japan, Hakuoki follows a young woman named Chizuru Yukimura. Chizuru has set out in search of her father, and that search leads her to the bustling city of Kyoto. There she finds her fate intertwined with the Shinsengumi, a legendary special police force of samurai brought together to help calm outbreaks of violence in Kyoto during the late shogunate period. As it seem the Shinsengumi themselves are also searching for her father, Chizuru decides to join forces with them—and soon finds herself no only being protected by some of the Shinsengumi’s members, but also falling in love with them.
The fate of Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom will be of interest to many, as this is the first time an otome game has seen official release in North America. The game targets a segment of the population that very rarely gets serious attention on our shores, but the gamble Aksys is taking on the title of course raises the question: While the fanbase may be there to support such niche releases in Hakuoki’s home territory of Japan, does a similar fanbase even exist here in the West?
While Aksys is no doubt hoping the answer to that question is a positive one, what may be bigger than the eventual success of Hakuoki is that game releases like these are even being tried in the first place. It wasn’t so long ago that most Western publishers believes that Japanese RPGs simply didn’t have what it took to find real success outside of Japan—a “fact” that Final Fantasy VII soundly disproved. Of course, at the end of the day, the tale of Cloud Strife was still an RPG—a genre easily understood no matter your race or nationality. Can the same be said for a sub-type of gaming that specifically targets a segment of the population often assumed to have little to no interest in such hobbies?
And why the importance in crafting games that specifically target particular demographics of the gaming popular in the first place? It isn’t just a case of giving an audience what they want—it can also be a powerful way to tell a certain segment of the population that they’re welcome in a hobby that they might not always feel they belong to. Some may see titles like Hakuoki as the “chick flicks” of the gaming world, but in reality, they’re offerings that help show that the medium can be more than just a hangout for boys.
“As an otome game, Hakuoki helps give women a place in the industry that is all too often not afforded them,” says Ben Bateman, the game’s lead editor at Aksys Games. “This isn’t to say that Hakuoki is a girls-only club. Nor is it saying that women have no interest in more ‘traditional’ games, or that the only way to interest women in video games is to make games about dating. The point here is two-fold: The protagonist is a woman, and she is not presented as a sex object for men to fawn over.”
Some may be tempted to look at a game like Hakuoki and make the easy joke: men want fast-action games where you kill people, women want games where you spent the entire time just talking to them. That’s one of the uplifting parts of the Japanese gaming industry however—that so many developers and publishers do have faith in games that let us explore what we can do beyond just shooting a gun. Games like Hakuoki have their own deep, engrossing levels of drama, it’s just that that drama is created in entirely different ways—instead of from end-of-the-world scenarios, or death-defying battles with hordes of aliens, or princesses to be rescued by an “everyman” hero who must rise up to become more than he’s ever been. Chizuru’s journey isn’t across fantastic landscapes or strange aliens worlds, but the treacherous minefield we call falling in love. Hakuoki doesn’t ask you to meet a cast of characters and then take them out one-by-one; it asks you to find out who they actually are.
“I think part of the appeal of games like Hakuoki and 999 (9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, a visual novel / adventure title also published by Aksys Games) is character,” Bateman explains. “More action-oriented games usually rely on initial impressions and calls to established character archetypes we’re already familiar with: Although Gears of War does examine Marcus’s history some, the moment you see his scarred and grizzled mug, you know all you need to know. The more lengthy, word-heavy nature of Hakuoki and 999, however, allows a player to understand its characters on a deeper level, and examine their personalities on a deeper level.”
Japan’s love for experimentation in gaming genres beyond those already firmly established isn’t just limited to character-driven stories about mushy stuff like kissing and holding hands. Long before people in North America were buying plastic guitars or virtual drum sets for Guitar Hero and Rock Band, Konami was paving the way for those efforts with arcade projects like Guitar Freaks and Drum Mania. Japan’s love for music-based entertainment goes far beyond replica instruments, however: The genre has long been a staple of the Japanese gaming scene, and even today arcades from Hokkaido to Okinawa have entire floors dedicated to the latest and greatest rhythm-infused projects. It’s also a genre that continues to push forward with new concepts and technology. Take, for example, JUBEAT—a Konami-produced arcade machine where the entire game is played via the cabinet’s 4×4 grid of 16 buttons, each of which contains its own full-color LCD screen that communicates when button presses should occur via stylish graphics.
This push for innovation hasn’t just been limited to high-end arcade hardware, as evident by releases such as Vib-Ribbon on the original PlayStation. The game’s Japanese production house—NanaOn-Sha—had already established a pattern for creating music-based games that tried new things with their previous two releases, Parappa the Rapper and UmJammer Lammy. For Vib-Ribbon, designer Masaya Matsuura presented a strange world of white vector graphics presented on a stark black background. As Vibri—the game’s main character—walked along a set of five seemingly random stages, obstacles would appear in time with the music, requiring the player to hit one of four buttons (or combinations of buttons) in order to traverse the obstacle. The catch was, the stages were generated, and Vib-Ribbon players could swap in own music CD, where the game (still loaded in the PlayStation’s RAM) would generate all new stages based on any particular track of audio.
Though experiences even as unusual as Vib-Ribbon can usually be understood—at least on some level—by consumers in the West, games such as Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom will no doubt continue to be a tougher experience to explain. And yet, as different as the two games are terms of what they try to bring to the player, they both share the honor of being examples of the wide diversity that Japan’s videogames market continues to display. With so many of us now constantly fixated on the latest triple-A blockbuster million-dollar project, we should try to remember the lesson that Japan learned long ago: Good things sometimes come in small (and far more niche) packages.