I’m sure that the first time you’ve seen boxart of an androgynous teenager brandishing a sword that was also a gun, you must have muttered, “whoa, that’s weird”. That’s because, my dear friend, you just laid eyes on your first Japanese game. The proceeding reaction would determine your future path. You either embraced this strange new world with open arms out of curiosity, or you just kept thinking that it was weird. Us Westerners with our gung-ho attitudes and penchant for the bombastic are somewhat mystified by the stories and methods of the Land of the Rising Sun and that’s simply because it wasn’t necessarily designed with our culture in mind. It was a product specifically designed for Japanese people to consume, but we here in the West wanted a piece of that pie.
What initially started with ports of Final Fantasy and Nintendo’s triumphant invasion of the West back in the NES days, we now have Japanese games making up a decent chunk of our gaming ecosystem. Additionally, the games we’ve received in the modern era have gone through some kind of quality renaissance and end up becoming people’s Game of the Year on a very consistent basis. However, compared to how more traditional Western games function, Japanese games couldn’t be further from them. They have these special characteristics, these little flaws that also define them and very different methods of execution than what we’re used to. Because of that, many people perceive them as strange and outlandish, which is fair considering they’re made in a fundamentally different country.
But just exactly why are they considered “weird”? Well, as someone who is in love with many Japanese titles and has a base understanding of the culture in Japan, I’ve observed quite a lot of quirks and aspects that would contribute to that weirdness factor.
Let’s start off with just restating how important Japan has been for the development of gaming. When the US tried their hand at making an industry back in the early days of gaming, they failed spectacularly. The overwhelming greed and arrogance that companies displayed back in gaming’s larval phase caused the entire system to crumble, or as it’s more commonly referred to, crash. It was when Nintendo, a Japanese company, took up the reins and introduced stellarly designed titles such as Super Mario Bros. where things really started to take off again. They introduced a base quality level to games that was very different to the cobbled together detritus we’ve grown used to by Western developers. They showed everyone how it should be done, in other words.
Nintendo surely wasn’t alone in this venture, Japanese companies such as Konami, Capcom and Square Soft were at the forefront of the gaming renaissance with their various classics such as Contra, Mega Man, Final Fantasy and much more that essentially shaped what gaming would ultimately become. While Western companies were scrambling to fix their terrible PR disasters and digging landfills for their awful games, Japan was thriving.
Japan introduced a level of passion that we thought was lost. Games were designed with the gamer always in mind and how the fun factor can be pushed to its logical limit. We didn’t receive games that were rushed to market, we received carefully crafted experiences that can genuinely stand the test of time. Of course, Japan doesn’t have a clean conscience either as there were a lot of subpar or badly designed games that came from there, but it was the home of what we now perceive as classics with the West playing catch-up.
This level of passion permeated into the subsequent generations and Japanese games grew infinitely more ambitious. They weren’t afraid to implement their culture and really craft games that had their fundamental values and mannerisms inherent in them. Here’s where the weirdness factor comes into play as many of these features get either lost in translation or appear to be completely foreign. They obviously would, because those features were foreign, but if you just had some patience and attempt to understand all these quirks, you’d find something that can honestly not be found in more “traditional” games.
A slice of life mixed with serious issues
In order to illustrate my various points, I will go with the most Japanese game that I can possibly think of that is also quite modern; Yakuza 0. The Yakuza series has always been a bit of a niche experience but has a loyal following due to the games being so good. However, they encompass almost everything that makes Japanese games weird and also wonderful. The game is set in Japan, the characters talk Japanese, everything is related to Japan and you can count on your hands how many times anything Western is mentioned. It’s an All-Japanese game which makes it the perfect example.
Yakuza 0 can be excessively ridiculous. Massively flashy, off the wall and completely insane. Cutscenes leave you gawking or laughing at just how insane they can be, like you’re watching an action movie directed by mad people. However, this is also in a game where a huge subplot involves you becoming a real estate agent. Where you race pocket cars, play a round of pool or go dine at a sushi restaurant. Here’s a big factor that can be found in many Japanese titles; juxtaposition. The massive range you can find between the off the wall and the nearly mundane. Japanese games have the capacity for excessive flashiness. Flurrying moves, intense costumes, excessive preening by heroes and villains alike, but there are many moments of calm recollection or the more gentle sides of existence being displayed.
Ever wonder why in a game such as Final Fantasy XV you can take on giant monsters or mech units and also go for a bit of fishing or some steak at the side of a tent? In a game such as Persona 5 where you rob people’s hearts right out of their psyche, but you can also go watch a movie with your girlfriend? There’s an aspect of juxtaposition that is very observable in many Japanese games and this upsets the balance that Western games have adhered to, which is action or forward momentum at all times. To get pulled out of the pulse-pounding action in order to go play mahjong in a quiet basement feels almost disconcerting. That intentional slowdown caused by this mixture of the over-the-top and the everyday feels wrong in many ways.
You can be excused for thinking of Japanese games as “slow”. Where it takes forever until something juicy happens or the narrative crawls along at a snail’s pace with people yammering on about insignificant tidbits that have nothing to do with what is actually going on. But that’s because you need to have a degree of patience, which flies in the face of our hurried along paradigms in the West. There are entire Japanese games where the sole reason for playing is to read and have some choices to make. Visual novels as they are more commonly called. JRPGs have playtimes of hundreds of hours because they really colour in the backdrop and foreground of the entire experience from top to bottom. For impatient players, this can be a massive turn-off, but for those with the mental fortitude or proclivity to handle this slower type of pacing, you’ll find things that you will never find anywhere else.
In Yakuza 0, while everything is being as flamboyant as possible, there are moments in the various subplots and main narratives where things get extremely real and serious. It’s a massive tonal shift at times when the game suddenly goes from kicking a knife into someone’s chest to waxing poetically about human nature. This is a trend in plenty of Japanese titles. Even with the language barrier inherent in most of them, the displays of morality and capturing the essence of human existence is paramount. Games such as NieR: Automata delve into every philosophical crevice of the human mind and how society functions. Metal Gear Solid tackles controversial politics and even goes into the psychology of language. Persona 5 is a top shelf representation of the scale of morality and the corruption of man.
Deep, philosophical quandaries that are almost too complex to delve into and the West tends to shy away from stories like that due to their almost polarising nature. Western games have become much more ambitious with storytelling and I can give myriad examples, but most stick to the tried-and-true formula of “hero beats villain”. Japanese games also follow that thread, for the most part, but there are so many grey areas and points of contention peppered around that you can’t reliably find in games from the West. This adds to the weirdness as well because we’re certainly not used to having such tough topics thrown into our laps, much less being made a prominent feature of the whole game.
There was a time in 2017 when I played a long stretch of just Japanese games. Those with this same philosophy centric mindset that I outlined. I grew so used to getting my mind blown that returning back to traditional games where I’m a dude with a gun trying to stop a bad guy was much more difficult than I thought, but I can see why people would prefer such a streamlined experience. We’re not used to getting our views challenged and gaining new perspectives, especially in games where the transaction of these ideas is made deliberately difficult. You’ll often struggle to follow along and in the case of many games, I only got the intended revelations long after the credits finished rolling and I could really mull them over in my mind.
Sometimes lost in translation
The next order of weirdness is the language barrier. It’s possibly the most obvious factor in Japanese games that give them their quirks. You have to understand for a second, translating is hard. Especially from a language so deeply rooted in culture and having a plethora of minute features that can throw off an English speaker. I was involved in translation studies a few moons ago and from what I’ve learned, it’s most definitely not just a case of taking a sentence and making it understandable in the target language. You have to account for distinct cultural differences, which are many, how the dialogue between characters flow and how the macro concepts are conveyed to someone who doesn’t understand a lick of Japanese.
In a game like Yakuza 0, it’s relatively easy, since the only audio available is the Japanese. When you listen to the cadence and subtle speech patterns as characters are speaking in their native tongue, you will find it incredibly hard to do a proper English dub and even the subtitles can be a challenge. When done wrong, we end up with “all your base are belong to us” scenarios or characters speaking strangely to the point where it becomes a problem. Even Persona 5, a game I adore with all my being, failed many times in its translation which lessened the impact of the scenarios that were presented. Making a Japanese game understandable to a Western audience is a monumental task and a fair amount of games fail at it, to varying degrees. It can range from being completely nonsensical to just feeling off.
From culture to sex
That’s not even getting started on the culture which takes years upon years to properly grasp. All the small things such as suffixes at the end of names, how they take off shoes when entering a living space, the corporate culture, the mannerisms, how “hooligans” are perceived, the food, the fashion, how elderly and the young are treated, the educational system, the proper etiquette in various situations, the outliers in the society and so, so much more. It’s embedded into Japanese games and it’s much more difficult to convey that to a Western audience than the language. Someone with no exposure to the Japanese culture will feel massively lost and many aspects of it confuddle the best of us.
Things like sexuality are much different than we’re used to. I bet you were waiting for this talking point because Japanese games have the propensity for the sexy and the lewd. Women have galactic sized breasts, unrealistic proportions and way too revealing clothing. This is the kind of stuff you can find all around Japanese media and I’m not going to go into detail how the perverted side of the country rolls because that’s a rabbit hole none of us will come out of unscathed. It’s a more accepted practice to have characters be so sexy and this is definitely not exclusive to women. There’s a reason why every major Final Fantasy man looks either like an Adonis or a J-Pop boyband member. This is a rocky point to explore because this can tie in a lot to gender politics and I don’t feel I’m quite qualified to discuss that. I do feel like Japan needs to tone it down on the exposing stuff and the skimpy outfits since they often don’t represent a character’s personality well unless you’re Bayonetta or early era Dante.
Because of the shift in aesthetics, Japanese characters look a little funky and what some would even call laughable. It’s tough to be fully invested in a character when their skirt looks like a piece of a washcloth or your main character won’t look out of place as a Justin Bieber backup dancer. Western characters are much simpler to digest with even the fantasy settings having reasonably sensible clothes. Even the characters that are sexualised have some degree of sense tied to their proportions and outfits even if they can sometimes be ridiculous. But once again, this is a cultural issue and one that we probably won’t soon change.
Japanese games are also very susceptible to tropes. Starting as an unbecoming child in a small village that ultimately gets destroyed is basically the blueprint for many JRPGs. Characters often have personalities that adhere to a certain formula, where your hero is the strong silent type, the kooky love interest, the best friend character with the wacky antics and, of course, the mentor who teaches you the ways of saving the world. You’ll find characters such as these in nearly every game, even the ones that go in vastly different directions. Many stories also focus on the bonds of characters and it’s a common thing to describe a game as “defeating Satan with the power of friendship” since it happens so often.
Let’s also explore the prevalence of auteurs since I also believe they have a huge effect on Japanese titles. An auteur, if you don’t know, is a single person that is so involved in a project that the project is ultimately tied to that person and not the whole team behind it. We have way too many auteurs in Japan. People like Shinji Mikami, Daisuke Ishiwatari, Yoko Taro, Suda51, Swery65, Hideo Kojima and the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto. These directors do something that is not often present in Western titles which is making their visions the main focal point of their games. We definitely have auteurs in the West such as Tim Schafer and Ken Levine, but not to the magnitude of Japan.
If you play Metal Gear Solid, you think Kojima. If you play Mario, you know Miyamoto had his hand in it. If you’re confused, Yoko Taro, Suda51 or Swery are probably not far away. These directors instil their very minds into their titles and it’s sometimes jarring. Many games are the product of painstaking writing workshops and having an entire room full of storytellers, where these directors have one specific idea and are rolling with it to its conclusion. It makes for a sometimes fractured and very raw experience, in the end. NieR: Automata is in many ways a masterpiece, but you can always feel the eccentricity of Yoko Taro influencing your surroundings and he’s not afraid to really go to a place that is not quite of this world. Often the titles from these creative minds are a lot of people’s favourites since they bring something so different to the table. Even Swery’s games that are patently ridiculous have an unbelievably endearing quality to them.
So where is Japanese gaming at today? The short answer is better than ever, but there are a few pulsating asterisks to that statement. Japanese publishers are sadly adopting the greedy practices of the West and have become shells of what they once were. Konami’s once illustrious name has been tarnished, Capcom is still making decent stuff but they falter way too often and Square Enix has been dabbling a little too close to the sun. However, the games coming out of Japan have been incredible like many of the examples I’ve used in this article. While I have been overly positive about Japanese games, they are most certainly not without sin. You get some truly terrible or mediocre Japanese titles all the time and some just feel mindlessly manufactured. But Nintendo is still here to pick up the slack and let’s also not forget that Sony is still a Japanese company and they have been killing it for a while now.
It’s also interesting to know that what we actually see from Japan is but the tip of the very deep iceberg. Many Japanese games never make their way to the West and we miss out on many hallmark genres such as bullet hell games and visual novels. Japan is as complex as ever and with that complexity comes some weirdness that we Westerners need to decipher. While Japanese games can be strange and make you lift up your eyebrow when a bunch of men spray blood from their nose when a girl in a bikini walks up to them, enduring and embracing that strangeness can lead to some of the most unforgettable experiences of your gaming life.
This article has been extremely long and I’ve barely touched on what fully encompasses Japanese games. We can go into much more detail, use more examples and truly explore what it means to play a game from the East, but what I’ve provided should give a good baseline for how Japanese games tick. If you have been hesitant to jump into a Japanese title in fear of its weirdness, give it a shot. Go buy Persona 5 and just play it all the way through to get an idea of what these games can achieve. Play NieR: Automata for a game that will challenge everything you know and make you think about this world around us. Play Yakuza 0 for an authentic Japanese experience from top to bottom. Play Final Fantasy, the main Metal Gear Solid games, Killer is Dead, Deadly Premonition, Mario Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and all the beloved classics of the past as well. It’s a magical world and we can definitely say one thing for certain:
Japan changed gaming forever.