The linoleum of this dingy Wal-Mart has been polished to a mirror shine, but that doesn’t hide the scratches, the dirt, or the feeling of disgust as I timidly prod the glass case, pointing at the game I want to buy.
The man who is assisting me, wearing a blue vest that barely fits around his illustrious waistline nods his shining, bald head, and jingles some keys.
It’s here I begin to think about my hobby of choice. The one thing I find I am most passionate about is video games and yet, there are still some aspects of this hobby, community, industry—whatever you want to call it—that I still cannot quite comprehend.
In this blog, article, whatever the hell it is, I want to talk about Japanese games.
I’m standing here in this Wal-Mart, with this bespectacled bald, fat employee of the Golden Smile because I had previously spent the last three hours digging through catalogues and tracking down a copy of Demon’s Souls. I was buying it for a friend, you see. I myself am not an avid player of ‘traditional’ Japanese games. In fact, most of the Japanese games I’ve played (and enjoyed) have been provided courtesy of either Capcom or Konami. So I found it strange as Uncle Fester—with his pasty white skin and sausage fingers—clumsily pawed at the case and retrieved what seemed to be the only copy left in this region of Ontario, Canada, that I was actually buying something that, in my opinion, didn’t look in the least bit enjoyable.
“It’s hard as fuck,” is what my friend had said to me. I had inquired about why this would make a game enjoyable. I mean, surely the whole point of playing video games is to enjoy the story, right? To get lost in a beautiful world created for you, the player. To meet interesting characters and to play a bit of fantasy along the way. At least, that was my idea of a good video game. My friend James… well, not so much.
“That’s crap. The point is to beat the challenge. To overcome the obstacle and accomplish something.”
I asked him then what he hoped to accomplish from what I understood to be an incredibly frustrating game.
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know. I like the challenge, isn’t that enough?”
Something didn’t sit quite right with me, however. Looking back on it now, watching as this portly man of six-foot-three inches hobbled over to the checkout counter, I couldn’t help but wonder… just what the hell was so appealing about these games?
Perhaps I should give a little backstory on my own tastes and interests, first.
My name is Baron, I enjoy Action Adventure titles, First Person titles (shooting or otherwise), and, well, everything except for sports and racing. I prefer story-driven experiences, but I won’t balk at the idea of spending my game time with a silly, over the top, and downright ridiculous title as well (whether intentionally so or not). However, the one common trait amongst all the games I’ve played, all the games I’ve enjoyed, have been that they’re primarily developed by a Western developer.
Noticing this now, watching as the portly man rushes my game through the thing-a-ma-bob that scans the item, mashing his large fingers on a keypad to wave off the 17 or over security check, I start thinking about it more.
It’s not that I particularly *dislike* Japanese games, because I can testify to Dead Rising, Street Fighter IV, Earth Defense Force 2017, Metal Gear Solid 4, and a slew of other Japanese-developed games sitting both on my game shelf, and in my Xbox 360’s hard drive.
So what exactly is the problem, then?
Another friend of mine is walking with me down the street, and he’s raving about new details on Final Fantasy XIII. A game I can safely say I have zero interest in playing. He goes on about the battle system, about how unique the playstyle is, about how it’ll probably have one of the most engaging stories he’s ever seen, and I snicker, and I laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
I tell him that Japanese games—the ones I’ve played—are not renowned for their plot and their emotional attachment.
“You like Silent Hill.”
I do, I tell him, and yet I still think the gameplay is fundamentally broken and without merit.
It is at this point, he gives me a puzzled look.
“So why don’t you like them?”
It’s a good question, and one I’ve asked myself a dozen times since. Why don’t I like Japanese games? Why can I not feel the hype for a game like Final Fantasy XIII? Why did I despise Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2? Why is it that I cannot seem to wrap my head around a gameplay style that consists mainly of reading and pressing the A button once or twice?
Perhaps that is unfair, because I distinctly remember Lost Odyssey using the Left or Right Trigger a couple of times.
I think, to be honest, where it started—my severe dislike for what is considered ‘traditionally Japanese’—stems from two seemingly inscrutable gameplay rules.
Rule Number One:
Thou Shalt Make Thine Game with androgynous and rather creepy heroes and heroines.
Rule Number Two:
Thou Shalt Punish Thy Player should they seek to play the game in any way but ours.
Yeah, that seems to fit.
A perfect example of Rule Number One is, well, any “traditionally Japanese” game I’ve ever seen. Be it Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts, perhaps throw in Vagrant Story or whatever the “cool” Japanese game is at the moment. As you can tell, I don’t even rightly know what the trends are to even make a relatively modern comparison.
While I haven’t played these games—and have no desire to—I have to wonder about why they are so popular. They feature what appear to be a large cast of flat-chested women (in and of itself not a bad thing) with spikey hair and big round eyes wielding impossibly large weapons and wearing armour that makes absolutely no sense. Of course, nothing has to be logical, but there is something quite strange in Dante of Devil May Cry fame wearing a red leather trench coat with no shirt and three leather belts around his chest. I didn’t even mention the skin tight leather pants.
Perhaps it is a cultural thing I am missing. Perhaps the Japanese definition of masculinity is not defined by how many muscles they have or how square their jaw is. In fact, as I understand it, the Japanese male ‘ideal’ is a rather slim and lanky individual with a fair, unblemished face and perfect hair. I can understand that, even embrace that. I have no qualms with that aspect, but the fact that these characters often wear attire that leaves their gender rather ambiguous does alarm me to some degree.
The question I guess I am posing for Rule Number One is… why?
Rule Number Two is a different beast entirely, and does play into a game I thoroughly enjoyed up until Disc 3—Lost Odyssey.
My experience with Lost Odyssey was enjoyable, even if a bit disappointing. I thoroughly enjoyed the tomes of “One Thousand Memories” or tears. I can’t remember the title. I also thoroughly enjoyed the story itself, as seemingly cliché as it was. I even enjoyed some of the characters—Jensen for instance, being my personal favourite.
It has always been my thought that when given a party-based RPG, it is up to the player to essentially pick their favourites and bomb along the story. While some of Lost Odyssey’s shortcomings were annoying, they did not break the game for me. When I came across Mack and the other grandchild of Kaim, I didn’t like them. I found them annoying and rather predictable. Not to mention I had much more powerful characters already representing their class and skill to a much more effective degree. I figured, eh, what the hell? Why not just keep my party and bomb along.
That’s where the problem started.
You see, Lost Odyssey—about half way through Disc 3—you run into a monster/boss called the Ice Crystal, or something to that effect. Now, the monster itself wasn’t much of a problem, save for the fact that out of the entire party that was selectable for that battle, only Jensen and the Queen were of any real level to take the thing on.
Not only that, but some of the monsters’ attacks were just downright cheap. It has come to be an expectation of mine that if enemies do not scale to the player’s level, they will often kill you, and then let you go back to an easier area to grind until you could defeat the beast. Not so with Lost Odyssey.
As it turns out, I had spent 35 hours enjoying Lost Odyssey to be stone-walled two thirds into the game. The game itself seemed to mock me as each attempt seemed more futile than the last. It was very simple. A level 30 Mack (and the other one) just could not keep up with the beast. I was doomed. I had backed myself into a corner and it meant playing the entire thing over again, as I had only one save file.
Now I know, I know, ‘stupid Baron’ you cry, ‘you always use more than one save file’… but honestly, I didn’t see the need for it. All obstacles before that point had been eventually overcome, even if it took ten tries to find the right pattern or combination. I expected this Ice monster to be no different, and yet for some reason, the game had literally forced me into a permanent game over.
It’s true. I could not progress any farther. I was completely stuck and with absolutely no other alternative, I eventually tossed my controller onto my bed in disgust, turned the game off, and never played it again.
That’s but one example of how playing the game the way you want to play it is dangerous in a Japanese game. Other examples are Shinobi for the PS2, or any of the ten thousand Ninja Gaiden games—games that repeatedly dog you for not being ‘skilled’ enough.
Does no one else find this rather detrimental?
I’m all for challenge. One of the most challenging final missions I’ve ever played was the final mission to Dead Rising (24 Hour Mode). Those Special Forces guys were just an absolute pain. But through cleverness and perseverance, the day was eventually won, and I had completed the game. It bothers me that I can’t do that with games like Lost Odyssey, because they sniff out ‘errors’ you’ve made and repeatedly punish you for wanting to play the game with characters you like, as opposed to ones they would like to force on you.
At this point, I doubt I will ever finish Lost Odyssey, and that is a shame. I was enjoying myself quite thoroughly and considered it one of the best purchases I made in 2008, until Disc 3.
So the question, I guess, is why people find these games appealing when there is a very real chance that the game itself will try to bone you out of all your progress, unless you obey the game and play it ‘their’ way? Another game that did this was .Hack, a cool, enjoyable JRPG that had a great story but ultimately screwed me out of an ending because I had chosen my companions and they were not the ones the game thought I should have.
Perhaps this is the reason I shook my head and laughed as the portly bald man handed me the Wal-Mart bag with Demon’s Souls contained within. My friend was going to go through hell trying to beat this thing, and I knew that. Hell, he relished it and even gloated about it.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Hell, I’m not sure if I was ever going anywhere with this. I guess I’m just trying to create a dialogue here, to help me understand what is so appealing about these titles. As of right now, I don’t get it.
And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, either. read