Modern Japanese Games

I wrote this a couple of years ago and made some slight amendments, I think it’s still a bit relevant today. It was written in response to the Phil Fish statement during GDC that Japanese Games "Suck".


Phil Fish gave a talk at the 2011 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, discussing a movie he featured in (Indie Game: The Movie) and his then new game Fez. During the final Q&A session at his GDC talk, a Japanese developer expressed his thoughts on the effect of classic Japanese games on modern western games, and asked Phil Fish what he thought of modern Japanese games. Phil Fish replied, “Your games just suck” and explained to the Japanese developer why he felt that modern Japanese games were not good enough (Develop-Online, 2012). This controversial statement brought up debates and discussions on the quality of Japanese games. Both consumers and developers from different parts of the world joined in on the debate through forums and in press statements and compared the quality of Japanese games against Western games. This opinion on Japanese games has prevailed in the years following.

This article looks into both sides of the argument to assess which side of the argument is correct, or if there even is a correct side of it. Looking at the history, the historic perceived quality, and even cultural factors, it will try to build some kind of conclusion upon the topic.

Japanese Game Industry Milestones

As many industry people and game enthusiasts will know, over 100 years ago, a company emerged in Japan specialising in manufacturing playing cards. This company, now called Nintendo is now one of the largest video game hardware and software manufacturers in the world. In 1966, Japan saw the first international, commercially successful game, a mechanical arcade game called Periscope, by Sega. The game was extremely popular in Japan and prompted Western countries to start importing the arcade game; the success followed into Europe and North America. It was the first Japanese game to be exported to the west, marking an important milestone in Japanese game exports (Kent, 2003). In 1977, Nintendo released its first video game system for home use; the Color TV Game. It sparked the beginning of Japans dominance in the dedicated portable gaming market.

Japans market share up until 1983 had been largely overshadowed by the Western giants, Atari and Magnavox. Though 1983 marked the video game market crash (Kent, 2003). Western establishments downsized their profile in the gaming industry.  With the Japanese industry almost unaffected by the crash, it triggered the beginning of an eighteen year reign as the most dominant force in the industry. With the advent of the Sega Master System and Nintendo Entertainment System in the 1980s, gaming became more of a norm in society. The games industry saw four console generations until the west eventually caught up technologically. Microsoft’s Xbox was released in 2001 (Kent, 2001). This 18 year spell of dominance from the Japanese games industry meant that many Japanese franchises established themselves, globally; this includes the Sonic, Mario, Megaman, Final Fantasy and Metal Gear franchises. All of this success has placed Japan on the map as one of the prominent nations for video game development.

What does the history tell us?

What the history of the Japanese games industry depicts, is a powerhouse of game development. It shows that the industry in Japan has put out an image of high quality games and technology that break barriers. This could be one of the main reasons for it to be seen as having a decline in quality.

Japanese video games built up a reputation as being an exporter of high quality games and whilst this may still be true to some, the momentum of quality may not be enough for others. Part of the problem could be to do with Japan sticking to a formula. Keiji Inafune argues that the Japanese industry is very “closed-minded”; he states “We rarely see new creations from Japan. So we stick to our memories and we ship an [sic] HD version” (Gamasutra, 2012.) He also explains that this is causing Western consumers to lose interest in Japanese games (The Escapist, 2012). This attitude of developers can be seen with many older games. The Metal Gear Solid HD Collection and The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection are two fairly recent HD adapted games of older titles. Other trends that follow a similar line of thought are the numerous sequels and iterations in franchises. Pokémon being one, has sold over 186 million units worldwide and has over 27 games many of which follow a very strict formula making them almost identical to each other (Haywald, 2009). Similarly, the Final Fantasy franchise has a total of 28 games. Most of these are easily distinguishable, but the games follow a similar set of stories, themes, characters and styles. Whilst this is the case, most of these games are generally regarded in high esteem. With the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection gaining an 81% score (Metacritc, 2014), and similarly, The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection getting 92% score (Metacritic, 2014). Of the Pokémon games, 17 of them receive a score of 80% and above (Metacritic, 2014).

Japanese Game Ratings VS Western Game Ratings

In 2002, it was estimated that Japan itself held 50% of the total market. In 2010 it was estimated that the figure had fallen to 10% (Cieslak, 2010). To back this up, statistically, it would seem that Japanese games have seen a steady decline in popularity after the release of the PlayStation 2 in 2000. 

Figures in this chart have been acquired from Game rankings (  The lines represent the number of Japanese and non-Japanese games in the top ten, based upon average review scores (note: these reviews are all from non-Japanese sites/magazines) for each Sony PlayStation console generation.

Whilst this could be the case, it could be that an influx of Western games at the time pushed away the Japanese competition. Regardless of this, Japanese games on dedicated handheld gaming devices have declined at a much slower rate.

Figures in this chart have been acquired from Game rankings (  The lines represent the number of Japanese and non-Japanese games in the top ten for each of the main dedicated handheld platforms, based upon average review scores (note: these reviews are all from non-Japanese sites/magazines.) All versions of the DS (Lite, DSI) and PlayStation Portable (Slim, Go) are included in these figures.

Figures in this chart have been acquired from Game rankings (  The lines represent the number of Japanese and non-Japanese games in the top ten for each of the main dedicated handheld platforms, based upon average review scores (note: these reviews are all from non-Japanese sites/magazines.) All versions of the DS (Lite, DSI) and PlayStation Portable (Slim, Go) are included in these figures.

Localisation, Adapting, and Japanese Culture

Ryan Winterhalter (2011) says, “Japanese games are now by and large made to appeal almost exclusively to Japanese gamers.” He continues to express that “the possible reasons range from the social and economic, to the practical and mundane. “ This is evident through the sales of Japanese games. Japanese games in general do very well in Japan. Examples of this include the new Final Fantasy games. It also includes the plethora of Japanese games that do not enter the Western market. Most of these games sell into the millions in Japan. It would seem that the West is being alienated, that the Japanese industry does not cater for the typical Western taste. Whilst this may not seem fair for Western consumers, it would seem unfair to expect Japanese developers to place their interests in the West over the interests of their native consumers. Western developers place their focus on Western markets and only a few games have been adapted to appeal to a Japanese audience. Many of the Naughty Dog games are adapted for the Japanese audience. This includes graphical, narrative, gameplay and audial alterations. Examples of this are Jak II and Crash Bandicoot. Both games were visually and narratively adapted for the Japanese audience and have both seen great success in Japan (Gavin, 2011). Brian Ashcraft explains, “[Video Game] Localization isn't about simply translating words, it's about translating experiences.” He further explains localisation of Japanese games to English means localising the cultural differences and the wildly different structure of Japanese to English (Kotaku, 2010). Conversely, Simon Carless states “Most of the time when a Western game comes to Japan, it gets a half-assed localization with the minimal amount of Japanese necessary for gamers to get by” (Gamasutra, 2004). Whilst Japanese game quality in the West is the focus, this comparison partly shows that the localisation of Japanese games is seen as important. This could possibly make the process time consuming, financially costly and therefore, unappealing.

Part of the reason why Japanese games do not take well with a Western audience and why Western games are not appealing to a Japanese audience, could be due to cultural differences. Cuthbert explains, “The [Western video game] themes tend to be much grittier and more realistic, whereas the themes of Japanese games are more abstract and anime-like” (Gamasutra, 2007). Similarly, Winterhalter says that the tastes in Japan are “diverging” from the west. He expands on this and pinpoints cultural issues and the source, one of which he mentions is a phenomena called “moe” (pronounced “mo-eh”) (Winterhalter, 2012).

Moe is defined by Ken Kitabayashi as “the sense of being strongly attracted to one’s ideals”. He states that it is used to express approval of Japanese pop idols, anime characters, “stylishness” of hardware and video games (Kitabayashi, 2004). Another issue culturally, is peer pressure and work pressure. Possibly one misconception in the West is that Japan is a more socially accepting culture around games. Whilst this is the case with regards to children through to young adults, many working Japanese are frowned upon for having a vested interest in video games. It is expected that an adult will take pleasure in more mature hobbies, such as golf or gardening (Winterhalter, 2010). This means the main demographic for games in Japan is children and youths and can be seen by the amount of watershed games released in Japan. Part of this issue is possibly also linked to another social phenomenon called “tatemae”.

Tatemae, (pronounced ta-te-ma-eh) is defined by Ishii et al. (2011), as “a cultural concern by which the Japanese feel forced to act according to what they feel the community expects from them”. In essence, one must keep behaviours and opinions in line with what is expected by Japanese society. With the taboo that goes with adults playing video games, tatemae must play a role in their decision to play or not.

These cultural aspects could all have an effect on the games that Japanese studios place focus on, making them unappealing to mature audiences in the West. This may also tie into the fact that the average gamer age has been increasing over the years (Flew, 2005). A study carried out in Australia states that the average gamer age went from 24 in 2005 to 32 in 2011 (Wilcox, 2011). The average age of a gamer today is 37, globally (Warman, 2011). This shift in the age of gamers may also depict a shift in tastes, away from the Japanese moe style games and on to more mature, realistic content. Although, with Japan still maintaining interest in moe games, it makes it difficult for Japanese developers to change. Whilst this is the case, tatemae itself is not a recent Japanese cultural trait and so it may not harness any affect over the recent decline in Japanese games.


In conclusion, the Japanese industry has seen great success over the past decades. Most notably, it has shaped and formed the global games industry through its technology, persistence and innovation. It would seem however, that there are areas of concern with regards to its current global presence. There are many who believe that current Japanese video games are of low quality and data also suggests that this could be true. There are a number of possible reasons for this dip in perceived quality. It is firstly notable that Japan has largely been designing games strictly for a Japanese audience. This, in part is due to a niche Japanese market interested in “moe” games. Many Japanese developers focus their games to fit this moe style, a style which is not appealing to a typical Western audience. There is also the possibility that other cultural aspects in Japan have affected the sales in the West. Tatemae and the taboo of Japanese adults playing games may mean that Japanese developers focus their efforts on the youth in Japan, making the games even more unappealing to the ever aging Western gaming market. It is also notable that the cost and risk involved in localizing and distributing games in the West could have a bearing on this. It would seem, therefore that the largest contributing factors concluded are cultural differences between Japan and the West with Japan also failing to cater for the larger, Western market. Conversely, it is notable that the difficulty in doing so, and the risk and expense involved for developers to manufacture games suited to both cultures, or tailoring games to fit the other culture is high. Also, on a more personal note, it seems a bit ridiculous to expect a nation to make games with another nation, and their cultures the sole focus.

Until Japanese developers switch their focus, (and some have already) or until cultures come closer together, it is not expected that games from Japan will have the same effect as they once did on the global marketplace. 


I wrote this a couple of years ago in response to the Phil Fish comment on Japanese Games. I've made some slight amendments, and I think it’s still a quite relevant today - It could benefit from some more content, such as the ageing population in Japan, and I do beleive there may be some angles I'm missing, but I think it explores the topic from a wide array of points.


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Carter, J. (2012) Mega Man Creator Shakes Fist At Japanese Game Industry. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 24 Apr 2012].

Cieslak , M. (2011) Is the Japanese gaming industry in crisis?. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 24 Apr 2012].

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