Japanese games have always been huge for me. In fact, they would have been major for anyone who grew up on console gamers in the 80s and 90s, whether or not you knew that jumping around as an Italian plumber in Super Mario Bros, adventuring in forests and dungeons in The Legend Of Zelda, or beating up goons in Streets Of Rage originated in Japan.
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Despite a decline in the previous decade, we’re in the middle of a renaissance for Japanese games, not just for the industry or publishers, but also for the kind of Japanese games that you used to only find tucked in the import pages of a games magazine.
The genre I hold most dearly in my heart is the JRPG, the Japanese role-playing game. You can also hear how important it is to Japanese people if you watched the Parade of Nations during the Tokyo Olympics’ opening ceremony to see athletes marching to video game music predominantly from beloved JRPG series like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Tales of, Kingdom Hearts, Saga, Nier, and more.
In recent years, Western developers have also been inspired to provide their own spin on the genre, such as the excellent Undertale by Toby Fox, while this year has seen the release of Final Fantasy-esque Edge Of Eternity and Cris Tales, which magpies elements from Chrono Trigger, Paper Mario, and Persona.
I’d stop short of saying that these are JRPGs, although some might argue that it is more about the style and conventions more than the country of origin. After all, there’s always been a cultural exchange of ideas, from how early JRPGs ripped off Western-developed RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima, while some of the most popular JRPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy borrow heavily from Western fantasy and mythology – the latter reached the point where you were road-tripping through an alternate Americana in Final Fantasy XV.
It’s perhaps why, as an unapologetic JRPG stan, I find myself gravitating towards games that actually place Japanese culture at the fore. But perhaps my favourite example of this is when developers set the game on their own turf.
Yakuza, Persona and The World Ends With You aren’t just some of the best games in the genre, they’re also set in contemporary Tokyo, streets like the iconic Scramble Crossing in Shibuya or the seedy bustle of Shinjuku’s red light district recognisable from the real thing.
For us in the West, these make for a very enticing slice of virtual tourism, which made the road-tripping structure in Persona 5 Strikers a notable highlight. The ability to touch down on a virtual representation is all the more important in the time of Covid when international travel is still out of the question for me.
This is despite the fact that Japanese studios operate on far smaller budgets than Western studios. You’re never going to get a 1:1 representation of a whole city like Manhattan in The Division. While occasionally encompassing other cities, the Yakuza series is largely located in Kamurocho, based on the red light district of Kabukicho in Shinjuku, just a fraction of the size of the open worlds you’d find in a Ubisoft game. In Persona 5, beyond just a handful of explorable hubs, a lot of places you hang out are literally just a postcard snapshot in the background.
With NEO: The World Ends With You making the switch from its 2D handheld origins to 3D on console, you might have also expected the freedom to fully traverse Shibuya in all its glory, though again this also relies on fixed camera angles and a city divided into occasionally gated areas.
It might be easy to dream of the possibilities a Western AAA studio could do – just imagine the next instalment of Assassin’s Creed or Watch Dogs in Japan. I suppose you’d have to look at Sucker Punch’s Ghost Of Tsushima as an example, which despite all its commercial success and plaudits, I find a cultural pastiche at best.
Instead, I marvel at what Japanese developers can achieve within their limitations. Yakuza’s Kamurocho is so densely packed with things to observe – just admire the different ways restaurants are set up, from sushi bars to beef bowl counters to the humble ramen diner – and with so much drama and zaniness erupting on any given moment, it’s much more fascinating and memorable walking by these same few blocks than the largest open worlds where you just switch off and zero in on the waypoints.
NEO’s lack of a free-look camera is also a stylistic choice, instead framing the key buildings that it wants you to see, like the bright yellow Tower Records store or the sign at the top of the trendy and pedestrianised Takeshita Street in Harajuku.
It’s also how these games manage to capture the seemingly ordinary things like drinks vending machines, the toy capsule machines, or the sight of cheap fried food at the front of a convenience store counter. This mundanity grounds these places with a handmade authenticity that’s more meaningful than the latest photogrammetry.
We might think of it as virtual tourism, but it’s also important to remember that for Japanese developers and the primary Japanese audience these games have been made for, it’s basically a slice of home. Fun fact: the sleepy neighbourhood of Sangenjaya in Persona 5 is based on Yongenjaya, an area just around the corner from developer Atlus’s offices in the district of Setagaya.
I’m almost loath to use the word tourism, not least because it risks trivialising how we engage with these places or contributing to the way Japanese culture can be fetishised by Western audiences. There’s also the irony that just a decade ago, a game set in Japan would have been considered too “foreign” for an international market that they were either never localised or Westernised within every inch of their fibre.
Instead, the more time you spend in these games, getting to know the people within these spaces, each with their own story to share, regardless how incidental, it ends up feeling like a second home. You’re less of a tourist, more a digital citizen. In these thoroughly modern JRPGs, you’re role-playing a Japanese life.
Alan Wen is a news writer and contributor to NME.