Two Japanese video game industry icons reflected on the past 30 years at a panel at the Monaco Anime Game International Conferences 2023 (MAGIC 2023) in Monte Carlo.
Creators of beloved series like Final Fantasy and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Koji Igarashi, respectively, discussed the rise to international prominence of Japanese video games, the decline of the industry in the early 2000s, and the subsequent resurgence of the country over the past decade.
He credits the 1986 release of Dragon Quest as a significant creative influence, as claimed by Sakaguchi. Before Yuji Horii’s home run, Sakaguchi didn’t think making RPGs for the NES (or Famicom in Japan) was possible.
Although he had a lot of fun playing The Legend of Zelda when it came out the same year, the game didn’t directly influence him.
“Nintendo and (Shigeru) Miyamoto’s games were on another level,” Sakaguchi said.
“Mario already kind of had a story,” he added. “I think that the story in Zelda was an extension of that. In these games, the story is not the most important component. I wanted to make a game in which the story comes first, which is why Dragon Quest felt closer to what I wanted to achieve.”
“The music and systems are of great importance as well, but it is the scenario and story by Yuji Horii that made Dragon Quest special.”
“At the time, people in the West saw pixel art and three-heads-high characters as something for children.”
As for Igarashi, he found the situation to be just the contrary. When asked about his inspiration for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, he said he looked to The Legend of Zelda.
“At the time, people in the West saw pixel art and three-heads-high characters as something for children,” Sakaguchi said. “It was frustrating that our games were struggling there, as we wanted to find a way to expand our business. That finally happened when we were able to incorporate CG for Final Fantasy VII.”
While Dragon Quest may have introduced the world to role-playing games in Japan, Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy series truly broke the genre internationally. While Sakaguchi enjoyed the success of his NES and SNES games in Japan, he was disappointed when they were ignored in the Western market.
With the original PlayStation and PlayStation 2, Final Fantasy quickly rose to become one of the most recognizable and beloved series in the history of video games. Japanese video games, except Nintendo products, had been gaining popularity until the release of the PlayStation 3.
“I think that one of the main reasons for that is the fact that consoles like the NES and PlayStation were very specific hardware,” suggested Sakaguchi. “This made it easier for Japanese developers to master the hardware, as we could ask Nintendo or Sony directly in Japanese.”
“This is why – I realize it might be impolite to say this – Japanese games were of a higher quality at the time. As a result, Japanese games were regarded as more fun, but when hardware became easier to develop for, things quickly changed.”
“Japanese developers had been developing skills specifically for console games, but in North America and Europe, there was a long history of PC culture,” Igarashi said.
“By the time there was no longer a big difference between developing for console and for PC, Japanese developers could no longer rely on their specialty as console developers, and had to master PC development,” said Igarashi, positing that this was the major reason Japanese games started falling behind.
“This is why – I realize it might be impolite to say this – Japanese games were of a higher quality at the time.”
Sakaguchi added: “Many Western gamers grew up playing Japanese games. When games by Western studios started to improve, they felt new and fresh when compared with the Japanese games those players were more familiar with. I believe that in entertainment, freshness is extremely important.”
Western role-playing games (RPGs) began to gain prominence after Sakaguchi left Square and founded Mistwalker in 2004. The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect all saw enormous fan bases emerge.
At the same time, Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy XIII and Sakaguchi’s own Blue Dragon struggled to maintain their previous levels of popularity. Sakaguchi claims he never saw it as necessary to draw from Western role-playing video games.
“In the West, children often get their own room from a very young age, whilst in Japan the whole family sleeps together in the same room,” said Sakaguchi.”
“I think that such small cultural differences can be felt through the games we make today. Even when Western games became mainstream, I didn’t feel the need to be inspired by them. I believe that cherishing my Japanese cultural background is what attracts people towards my games in the first place.”
Igarashi’s experience is unique in this regard. Scores of new games take direct inspiration from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and the Metroidvania genre he helped pioneer is one of the most popular among independent creators today.
“I would like to start by telling everyone to please leave my field!” Igarashi said, jokingly.
“In all seriousness though, I think that it is only natural for works to be inspired by each other. As for games within the genre, I try to play the good ones. More so than me, the director (of Bloodstained) researches these games to see what they do well and learn from their mistakes at the same time. In that regard, I guess I should call [other Metroidvania developers] our friends. We all learn from each other in the hope of creating better games.”
Not only did Sakaguchi and Igarashi leave a large development business to go out independently, but so did many other great Japanese developers. Many talented Japanese people, such as Hideo Kojima, Yu Suzuki, and Hidetoshi Nagoshi, have opened their studios.
“In my case, (at Konami) I wasn’t able to make the type of game that I knew fans were waiting for anymore,” Igarashi said.
“Mobile games were gaining popularity in Japan,” he recalled. “As a company, I think it was the right decision to shift focus. However, as a result it was no longer possible for me to make the same type of games.”
“That’s when I heard the voice of a devil inside me telling me to quit. I think that to a greater or lesser extent, the direction of companies and what developers wanted to make started to diverge.”
It’s reasonable to say that Japanese creators are again at the forefront of the gaming industry with recent releases like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Metal Gear Solid V, Elden Ring, and Final Fantasy XIV.
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Nonetheless, the atmosphere now differs significantly from the ’80s and ’90s. While Nintendo is firmly rooted in Japan, Sony’s videogame division, SIE, relocated its headquarters from Tokyo to San Mateo, California, in 2016. This shift has disadvantaged Japanese developers, as free engines like Unreal and Unity provide more documentation in English than in Japanese.
“I believe that cherishing my Japanese cultural background is what attracts people towards my games in the first place.”
“Nintendo is a very creative company,” said Sakaguchi. “They want to create games they believe are fun, and Shigeru Miyamoto is still central to that, which in turn is reflected in their marketing.”
“That’s why their headquarters need to remain in Japan. Sony (PlayStation), on the other hand, is a much broader company that does business in many different genres. The biggest market is the West, and with their strength in marketing it is natural for them to make that market central.”
“The way I see it is that Sony is approaching videogames as a more cinematic type of entertainment,” said Igarashi. “Of course, they are aiming at the biggest market, but I think they need to be located where the best cinematic entertainment is made. Nintendo, on the other hand, is closer in spirit to a toy manufacturer.”
Despite being inspired by the commercial success of recent Japanese games like Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring, Igarashi has stated his intention to stick to what he does best.
Sakaguchi has been playing Final Fantasy XIV so much that he hasn’t had time to play other games. Final Fantasy XIV stands out for modern Japanese video games as a significant success. While Western studios have historically dominated the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) market, Final Fantasy XIV has proven it can compete with World of Warcraft, EVE Online, and Everquest.
“As the director (Naoki) Yoshida says himself, FFXIV is like a Final Fantasy theme park,” noted Sakaguchi, explaining the reason he thinks Final Fantasy XIV became such a big success.”
“It seems like an MMORPG on the surface, but in reality it’s a bit different. It’s a game that celebrates 35 years of characters and worlds from Final Fantasy, similar to something like Disneyland. In that regard, you might even call it a new genre.”
By 2022, Sakaguchi’s enthusiasm for Final Fantasy XIV was the subject of an IGN interview. Sakaguchi discussed Chrono Trigger’s history in development at MAGIC 2023.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, by Igarashi, was recently released this year. Reviews were positive; by 2020, it had sold over a million copies. Igarashi is reportedly developing a sequel, but thus far, we have only heard rumors.
The classic role-playing game Fantasian was developed by Sakaguchi’s studio Mistwalker and launched on Apple Arcade in 2021. As he expressed interest in creating a sequel and bringing the original on PC at MAGIC 2023, it seems likely that his plans will be realized.