Video games—currently, this has become a prevalent form of media that is accessible in different forms. From home consoles, arcade machines, and even mobile phones, most people all over the world now have access to this wonderful invention for entertainment. However, the present industry would not be as strong as it is now without the influence of Japan. Even up to this point, Japanese gaming companies such as Nintendo, Square Enix, Sony, and Bandai-Namco are still revolutionizing the trade with the games and consoles that they are producing. With this much importance in the industry, it could only mean that the country had its deep roots in the landscape. Let us look at the contributions and the evolution of Japanese gaming culture, and how it made a breakthrough in the West.
The 80s Arcade Golden Age
While Atari in North America was dropping in sales during the Game Crash of 1983, Japan was churning out the classic titles that we know even today. With the creation of the arcade titles like Space Invaders (1978), Pac-Man (1980), and Donkey Kong (1981), Japan started the Golden Age of Arcade Games. Because of the popularity of these games, North America and Europe started importing them to quench the demand for video games in their respective region.
Soon after, Nintendo, in 1983, started to reignite its initial concept of a home console for gaming in the form of the the 8-bit console, Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom, for short), which was known to the Western market as Nintendo Entertainment System. This console, in tandem with the arcade exportation, revived the gaming industry in the West, and placed Japan in the global market, as titles like Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy (1987) gave diversity to the games available in the market.
Lastly, near the end of the decade, Sega, being driven by the will to compete, created the Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis in the West) in 1988. It was the first 16-bit home console, and was able to become a more successful console in the North American and European markets than in Japan. Its main competitor, Nintendo’s Super Famicom (Super Nintendo Entertainment System), also a 16-bit console, was released during the next year, and was the one that dominated the local market.
The Early 90s and the Development of 3D Graphics
Not long after the success of home consoles in the previous decade, the 90s marked the transition from sprite-based graphics, to full-fledged 3D graphics. This demanded an upgrade from the low bitrate consoles of yesterday, to the beloved 32-bit and 64-bit consoles of the time. The two mega consoles of the time were the Sony Playstation, and Nintendo’s Nintendo 64. In conjunction with the development of these consoles came the further diversity of game genres that provided gamers worldwide the choice of which game can pander to their taste, increasing gameplay complexity to take advantage of this increasingly technological engines. The release of Street Fighter II for the arcade, Nintendo Super Famicom, and Sega Mega Drive was the initial spark that ignited the boom of the fighting game genre. The titles Final Fantasy and all its 6 installments gave rise to the role-playing game genre, with the subsequent title Final Fantasy VII in 1997 being the highest grossing game in the franchise with its revolutionary graphics and story-telling, and gameplay. Lastly, we also have Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, two of the greatest franchises of Nintendo, that improved the genre of platformer and adventure games to what it is today.
In addition to the home console improvements of this era, Nintendo also gave birth to the market where it thrives significantly even until today—handheld gaming. In 1989, the Nintendo Game Boy was released in Japan, and was welcomed by most gamers who deem it convenient to be able to play their games while being away from home. The console had its own line of Super Mario games, as well as Megaman games; but one of the Nintendo originals whose main franchise was deemed exclusive to the Nintendo handheld market was Pokemon.
The Late 90s: Age of Story Complexity
Continuing the development initiated during the early 90s, game developers were now able to put more content into their games. Role-playing games and adventure games gained longer and more in-depth plots that came with the titles, most notably in the previously-mentioned Final Fantasy VII. With three discs to encapsulate a single game, it is most expected that depth of content would be expansive, with mini-games and subquests being a staple for the genre. The new expansion of content also gave birth to memorable game soundtracks and graphic designs, as well as creation of additional game genres, like the sophistication of the stealth game genre through the release of the Metal Gear Solid for the Sony Playstation—a sequel to the original Metal Gear for the Nintendo consoles. This age was also the precedent of the next era, with the release of the first console of the Sixth generation: the Sega Dreamcast, which was hailed as the console that was ahead of its time in terms of processing power and graphics rendering.
The handheld console also took a significant improvement in the field with the release of the Gameboy Color, as well as Sega Game Gear—both boasting the capability to now render color for their games. The notable title signifying this improvement was the release of Pokemon Gold and Silver, being able to integrate color to the game, and improve on the basic gameplay premises of the previous instalments by adding the day and night cycle, as well as the reintegration of the map of the previous Pokemon Red and Green (Blue in releases outside Japan).
The Early 2000s: The Rise of DVD Technology
One technological advancement describes this era of Japanese gaming technology—DVD. With this new media to store games, developers became capable of adding more than just gameplay complexity and high bitrate music—voice became available as well. The most notable console of this time is the highest grossing console of all time—the Playstation 2. Titles that are notable during this era were the following: Kingdom Hearts, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Virtua Fighter 4, and Dragon Quest VII: Eden no Senshitachi. With the success of the Playstation 2, Nintendo also released its Nintendo Gamecube, which is the first Nintendo console to make use of an optical disc for its games. Noteworthy for this title is the first Pokemon game for a home console, the Pokemon Coliseum, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Super Smash Bros Melee, which is still one of the popular fighting games from Nintendo to date.
In this age, however, the Western industries were already starting to get back up its feet, and was ready to restart the production of consoles. The mark of North America at this stage was the production of the first console of Microsoft—Xbox. This will then become the biggest contributor to the lying low of Japanese gaming companies in producing their traditional style of gaming, and the beginning of Westernization of games that became prevalent in the succeeding consoles.