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MGT Report: 2000 and Onward in Japan by Simon Carless

Simon Carless is back with a list of the best-selling games in Japan during the whole of 2000, thanks to some recently released sales figures. This installment of the MGT Report will compare and contrast these figures to American games and sell-through for the same period. Check out which titles made it big in the East, why those titles did or didn't sell similarly well in the West, and finish up with a quick lowdown on how the 2001 Japanese sales and trends are panning out.

Simon Carless, Blogger

April 25, 2001

12 Min Read

Firstly, apologies for the length of time since the last MGT Report—a very busy work schedule has prevented the timely filing of my regular Japanese news analyses.

In this column, we'll go through the best-selling games in Japan during the whole of 2000, thanks to some recently released sales figures, and compare and contrast to the American games and sell-through for the same period. We'll check out which titles made it big in the East, why those titles did or didn't sell similarly well in the West, and, indeed, whether those games were even released outside Japan. After which, we'll stop for tea, and finish up with a quick lowdown on how the 2001 Japanese sales and trends are panning out. It's not a full apology for over six months of neglecting you, the devoted reader, but hey, it's a start.

As promised, here is the Japanese Top 10 for the whole of 2000 over all videogame formats:

  1. Dragon Quest VII - Enix (Playstation) - 3,784,682

  2. Final Fantasy IX - Square (Playstation) - 2,659,222

  3. Pocket Monster Gold/Silver - Nintendo (Game Boy) - 1,907,349

  4. Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters IV - Konami (Game Boy) - 1,669,308

  5. Pocket Monster Crystal - Nintendo (Game Boy) - 1,065,804

  6. Mario Tennis 64 - Nintendo (N64) - 738,745

  7. Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters III - Konami (Game Boy) - 718,429

  8. Super Robot Taisen Alpha - Banpresto (Playstation) - 714,789

  9. Kirby Star 64 - Nintendo (N64) - 703,986

  10. Mario Party 3 - Nintendo (N64) - 615,507

So, here's some interesting stats. Of the 10 best-selling games in Japan last year, six have yet to be released outside Asia. Five of the titles are first-party Nintendo releases. Four of the titles are either Pokemon or Pokemon-style collection-based RPGs for handhelds: the Pokemon (known in Japan by their untruncated name "Pocket Monsters") and Duel Monsters series. Only three of the titles come on disc (the three Playstation titles). Two of the games include our very favorite dungaree-clad Italian plumber. And just one of the titles is an obscure-outside-Japan strategy battle game which is a mech-fan's wet dream—step forward, Super Robot Taisen Alpha. Ahem. (We skipped the partridges. And the pear tree.)

All in all, this makes for pretty interesting reading, and probably unlike anything commentators would have guessed two or three years ago. For one thing, the Sega Dreamcast, tipped by some to unseat the Playstation or Nintendo 64, doesn't even graze the Top 10 in 2000, its lack of quality titles over multiple developers/genres and big-name marketing muscle for sell-through showing (its top-selling game was Biohazard: Code Veronica, coming in 18th with just over 400,000 units sold). And as all of you know by now, the Dreamcast and Sega as a hardware name finally fizzled to a stop early in 2001.

The worldwide continuation of the Pokemon phenomenon has also surprised many. Sure, it's not at the stage it was at a year or two back, but 3 million Game Boy sales of the new Pocket Monster titles during 2000 in Japan isn't to be sniffed at. And the related crazes from companies who've jumped on that bandwagon, such as Digimon from Bandai, and (very well represented in the Top 10) Duel Monsters from Konami, continue to rage strong.

It's also interesting how Nintendo is keeping its consoles (N64 and Game Boy, but especially N64, since the Game Boy has no real competition) going far into their old age in Japan, with very high quality first-party games, mopping up the high-selling releases late into a system's life. How do they do that? Because they're the only people with the money and cajones to do high-budget games on the N64 this late on (not to mention not having to pay a cartridge license fee to themselves!). One might even think it was a monopolistic ploy on the part of Nintendo. But to be fair, it's a tribute to the enduring nature of their mascot characters and the quality of their games that their titles sell through so well, though the lack of competition helps.

Also worth noting: if you have an epic RPG series in Japan (that means you, Enix and Square!), you will ship countless millions of units. Enix's Dragon Quest VII partially achieved its unheard-of total of almost 4 million sales through slipping about two years and thus accruing massive preorders from eager Japanese gamers desperate for a Playstation version of their favorite series (if there had been regular Dragon Quest releases on the PSX, as in Final Fantasy VII/VIII/IX, you might not see quite such a massive number there). But that's not to take away from its significant achievement, made all the more surprising here since Dragon Quest, known as Dragon Warrior outside Japan, is really rather obscure in the U.S. and Europe, at least to the mainstream gamer.

The Final Fantasy series is, of course, known to everyone, but 2.7 million copies seems a great deal compared to the possible US or European sellthrough on that title—RPGs of that stature are truly national phenomena in Japan in much more of a cross-media way than in the U.S. or Europe, with collectibles and related merchandise filling stores in a way only Pokemon (with the massive help of a hit TV series) has done outside Japan. Perhaps the forthcoming Final Fantasy movie will help accomplish that in the U.S./Europe? Because of the thematic discontinuity between individual segments of the FF series, I suspect not, even if the movie is a blockbuster (which it may well be).

In other notes, the biggest Playstation 2 title on the list for 2000 (bearing in mind the PS2 launched relatively late in the year) was Ridge Racer V, which was just relegated into 11th place with about 610,000 units sold. As we'll see when looking forward to 2001, the market is already approaching the place where a PS2 title can start to sell a serious amount of units in Japan, something the U.S. and Europe can look forward to when we, um, actually get a decent and regular supply of the hardware.

US Sales

So, to compare and contrast, here's the Top 10 videogames for 2000 in the U.S.:

  1. Pokemon Stadium - Nintendo (N64) - 1,701,820

  2. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 - Activision (Playstation) - 1,553,269

  3. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater - Activision (Playstation) - 1,300,029

  4. Zelda: Majora's Mask - Nintendo (N64) - 1,206,489

  5. Gran Turismo 2 - Sony (Playstation) - 1,115,469

  6. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater - Activision (N64) - 1,007,806

  7. Madden NFL 2001 - Electronic Arts (Playstation) - 990,914

  8. Final Fantasy IX - Square/EA (Playstation) - 987,354

  9. WWF Smackdown - THQ (Playstation) - 976,143

  10. Perfect Dark - Nintendo (N64) - 940,963

Obviously, this column is about the Japanese market, so I won't do a full and overcomplicated analysis of this chart. But, from a comparison, as you can see, there's only one common title that appears on both charts (Final Fantasy IX), showing the gigantic difference between the two markets. (This U.S. chart excludes Game Boy titles, though, but one would expect to see some Pokemon Game Boy titles up there somewhere, but only those.)

Also, the sales for U.S. games are much closer together in terms of units shipped -- there's no one title selling over 1,750,000 in the U.S., but the 10th title on the chart sold 940,000, compared to the 10th title shipping 615,000 on the Japanese chart, showing much more a gap between the blockbuster multi-million-seller games and the near-blockbusters in Japan. I wonder why?

Also worth noting, though I've remarked upon it before -- sports games can be big in Japan, especially when they're localized for the Japanese market (super-deformed baseball titles, or soccer with J-League teams). But sports in Japan is not half as mainstream as in the U.S., where the conventional sports market (American football) now blends with the borderline-sport market (wrestling!) and the extreme-sport market (Meester Hawk!) to make sports a vital genre for American publishers, if a very difficult one to break into. Thus we get the five sports games in the U.S. chart, compared to just the one (Mario Tennis, a pretty cutesy one at that) in the Japanese chart.

There's an interesting comparison of the relative success of the Dreamcast in the U.S. here, too, since five DC titles sold more copies in the States in 2000 than the biggest-selling Japanese DC game (Biohazard: Code Veronica), which sold 400,000-ish. These were, for the record, NFL 2K1 (900,000-ish), Crazy Taxi (745,000), NBA 2K1 (500,000), Shen Mue (460,000), and Resident Evil: Code Veronica itself (440,000). It's another excellent example of how sports games take center stage in the U.S. compared to Japan, but also shows clearly that the Americans (and Europeans) took to the DC much more easily than the Japanese.

Other than that, it's interesting to see three Nintendo-produced N64 carts in the Top 10 of both the Japanese and U.S. charts, but completely different titles. In the U.S., Zelda: Majora's Mask, Pokemon Stadium (which sold up a storm in 1999 in Japan), and the Western-developed and Western-aimed Perfect Dark did the business, whereas in Japan, it was the aforementioned Mario Tennis, Mario Party 3, and Kirby 64, the latter two of which are definitely tailored much more to the Japanese market than to the American. Thus, Nintendo continues to do amazingly well with both strength and depth in titles designed for both Western and Eastern markets.

Looking into 2001…

So, we look into 2001 in Japan. The main definite trend is that new platforms are starting to assert themselves, ahead of doing so in the West, because of their earlier launch dates.

The Playstation 2 is coming through and starting to sell a startlingly high amount of software units—Onimusha for PS2 has now sold almost 900,000 in Japan alone, and the PS2 version of Biohazard: Code Veronica sold almost 200,000 in its first week alone to stand near the top of the Dengeki console charts. The installed base of the PS2 has risen to such a point that you can now realistically release a "blockbuster" game and expect it to sell a million copies in Japan alone, something you could never do with the Dreamcast. And it's only going to increase from here on out.

Additionally, the Game Boy Advance has just launched, of course, and the very initial sales of those (over 50,000 in the first week of a bunch of titles, even taking into account low supply, and a princely 220,000 for Super Mario Advance) indicate that, with no significant handheld competition, it should grow to dominate in a very similar way to the Game Boy and Game Boy Color.

And looking further ahead, how about the Xbox? That might seem to be the great impenetrable. All I know is that Microsoft will have an uphill struggle, because they'll need to earn the long-term trust of Japanese developers, publishers, and consumers on their own turf, and with previous Western console failures in Japan (that'd be, umm, all of them then) expectations are low. But with major Japanese publishers jumping aboard, or rather being casually tugged halfway on, anything's possible. And ultimately, the sales will tell the story better than a thousand pages of guesswork.


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About the Author(s)

Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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