The country may be recovering, but its gaming culture needs a boost
Japan’s new seismic reality shook me awake only a couple of hours after I arrived in Tokyo last night. No, 4.7 on the Richter scale isn’t huge by any stretch, but it’s more than enough to remind a person that even though we’re in anticipation of a week of big gaming events—capped by the centerpiece of Tokyo Game Show—this is still a country recovering from one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. I’ve been to Japan several times before, but this feels like a very important trip. I want to discover, with my own eyes and ears, how the country’s recovering from the earthquake—and whether I can spot any signs of life in its seemingly dormant gaming industry.
At first glance, though, nothing really seems amiss in Tokyo. In fact, if someone told you the city suffered a devastating earthquake only
six months ago, you wouldn’t believe them—which says a lot about the unparalleled Japanese infrastructure, engineering, and simple desire to persevere with dignity. Though California’s certainly well-prepared to deal with earthquakes, I doubt San Francisco or Los Angeles would be so seemingly unscathed just six months after an event of similar magnitude. Of course, the Great Tohoku quake epicenter was 230 miles away to the northeast in Sendai—equivalent to, say, a Fresno epicenter if we’re talking about an LA earthquake—but it was strong enough to cause liquefaction at nearby Tokyo Disneyland and tsunami waves as high as 14 feet in some parts of the greater Tokyo area.
A trip to Akihabara, though, revealed some subtle clues as to the current state of the country. I’ve been to Japan’s gaming mecca a few times before, but never has it felt as quiet as it did today—and perhaps most conspicuous by their absence were the usual throngs of foreign visitors. That’s not to say there weren’t any, but not even close to as many as I’d seen in my trips in the past. And sure, Japan’s retro shops were as Japan-centric as ever, highlighting the greatness of the F
amicom, Super Famicom, and PlayStation—as well as not-so-greatness like the Virtual Boy and Game Gear. But it’s Akihabara’s contemporary shops that proved concerning, with store displays highlighting foreign games like Deus Ex and L.A. Noire—and Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, for crying out loud—nearly as much as some native titles.
But store displays and crowd sizes on the streets of Akihabara are one thing. For me, Tokyo Game Show will be the real litmus test. Gaming is still one of Japan’s biggest and most important exports, and they really nee to stay competitive for the sake of the industry. Not that I’m necessarily anti-Western—far from it—but I think the industry’s healthier when all regions and all consoles are pushing each other toward excellence. I don’t think Dragon Quest’s online foray will do the job. And Monster Hunter‘s tied too closely to Japan’s portable culture. World of Warcraft is too much of an online monster—Western giants can’t even come close to slaying it—so I don’t think it’s realistic to think Japanese efforts will make much of a dent. But I do think Japan has the creativity and ingenuity to once again make an impact—it’s a matter of finding the platform and game types that makes the most sense when it comes to hitting it big worldwide.
It’s not impossible. In fact, it’s easy to forget that Nintendo was fighting two major elements when it first tried to crack the North American market. Yes, we all know about the Great Crash of ’83. But Nintendo was also dealing with a palpable anti-Japanese sentiment in the mid-to-late ’8os; don’t forget that the Japanese were riding an incredible economic high at the time and allegedly “stealing away” many American jobs. In fact, my dad at first refused to buy a Nintendo, as he said that “all the profit goes to Japan,” and he wouldn’t play a role in weakening the American economy. He eventually relented (thanks, Dad—I wouldn’t be writing this from Tokyo if you hadn’t!), as did millions of other parents across the U.S. and Canada. Japan has never been more sympathetic in the eyes of the West. Every gamer and developer desperately wants the country to succeed these days, and it doesn’t lack for creative minds or beloved franchises. They’ve shown they can look a 9.0 earthquake in the eye, take its hardest punch with everything they’ve got, and get up off the mat. In comparison, rebuilding their gaming culture shouldn’t look quite so intimidating.