Read an Excerpt
How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life
By Chris Kohler
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Chris Kohler
All rights reserved.
Super Mario Ration
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Games are popular art, collective, social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture. [They] ... are extensions of social man and of the body politic ...
As extensions of the popular response to the workaday stress, games become faithful models of a culture. They incorporate both the action and the reaction of whole populations in a single dynamic image ... The games of a people reveal a great deal about them.
— Marshall McLuhan,
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
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The preceding quote served as the epigraph to David Sheff s seminal 1993 book Game Over, a riveting, novelesque portrait of the people behind the rise of Nintendo, the worlds largest video game software publisher and, at the time, the dominant force in the video game industry. Ultimately, Game Over was a journalistic chronicle of international business intrigue and courtroom drama, but the choice of quote revealed that Sheff was thinking, too, about the cultural aspects of Nintendo video games — backed up by later admissions that it was his sons love for the games that initially drew him to the topic.
There's only one problem: Sheff was writing about video game culture solely as it pertained to America. And although there is much to say about Japanese video games in American culture, the fact is that the games Sheff was writing about are not products or models of our culture. They are products and models of Japanese culture, the "action and the reaction" of the Japanese population, presented nearly unaltered for our consumption.
And what consumers we are. Video game sales in the US have skyrocketed from a decade ago — 3.2 billion dollars in 1995 to 6.9 billion in 2002, and Japanese-developed games have historically made up a large part of that sum. Many Japanese games, particularly those developed by Kyoto-based Nintendo Co., Ltd., top bestseller lists worldwide. Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. (1985) remains the single best-selling video game of all time, although other Nintendo titles like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and of course the various iterations of Pokémon have been no slouches.
Throughout the brief history of video games, Japanese-developed titles have set the world on fire — Space Invaders in the seventies, Pac-Man in the early eighties, Super Mario Bros. in 1985, Street Fighter II in 1991, Final Fantasy VII in 1997. And even when a non-Japanese game becomes a breakout hit in the US or elsewhere, it is often heavily based on elements pioneered in Japanese software and released for a Japanese-developed hardware system: Tomb Raider on the Sega Saturn in 1995, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on the Sony PlayStation 2 in 2002.
So the question is, why? Why were Japanese video games so popular worldwide, from the earliest days, with little to no modification necessary? After all, the same thing has not been true for, say, Japanese films. And while Japanese animation and comics are quickly attaining mainstream popularity in the Western world, this is a very recent phenomenon. Only a handful of Americans knew about manga in 1980. Meanwhile, the rest of the country had Pac-Man fever. And it was a fever brought on in part by the infectious, manga-style Japanese design sense of that video game.
Why, indeed? Well, to find the answer we should first ask: what separates the first video games from the video games of today? The immediate answer would seem to be that advances in computer processing power over the past four decades have produced video game hardware capable of superior graphics, and that the advent of the compact disc allows for more complex game designs thanks to its high memory storage capacity.
But this is not the entire answer. It is indeed true that the video games of today are far more technologically advanced than the first commercial home video game system. That was called Odyssey, which was released by the television company Magnavox in 1972 and sold for $99.99. Odyssey could, at best, generate a white line running down the blank television screen and three white dots: two "paddles" and one "ball" that bounced between them, a television tennis game. Odyssey played other types of games as well, but all of them featured only a few small, monochrome dots appearing onscreen at once.
Odyssey and later home video games of the time were looked upon as disposable playthings and not permanent additions to one's home television set. This was, in part, because the earliest game systems were what are called dedicated hardware. New games could not be added to the system; only the games built into the hardware could be played. Furthermore, these games were simplistic, repetitive, and, after a short time, boring. This sort of mentality — that video game hardware would quickly become boring to the consumer — started to shift with the availability of programmable hardware, consoles that featured no built-in games but allowed the user to play new ones stored on separate media.
Programmable hardware helped begin the evolution of a video game machine from a simple plaything to a staple of the home entertainment center, the difference between a music box and a phonograph. Programmable systems also made it possible for game designers to create their work and sell software without having to supply the hardware as well.
Michael Katz, formerly of the video game company Sega, remembered this from the days when more and more video game publishers were starting to pop up in Silicon Valley: "There were so many cartridges already available to Atari players from Atari, that we couldn't imagine that any consumer needed more cartridges. Nobody thought that they [consumers] would perceive any kind of difference in the graphics ... and we couldn't conceive of anyone paying $3 to $5 more at retail for cartridges from a company that no one had ever heard of."
Imagine such a comment being applied to another medium: There were so many books available to readers that we couldn't imagine that any reader needed more books. Nobody thought that readers would perceive any kind of difference in the words, and we couldn't conceive of anyone paying $3 to $5 more for books from a company that no one had ever heard of.
Nonsense, right? But this made perfect sense when talking about the video games of the time, because a game was a game was a game. Most every video game being sold was a simple shooting or driving contest and there was little to differentiate, in the mind of the consumer, one cartridge from another. Games in the 1970s and early 1980s had no clear ending, but instead just continued with repetitive action for a few minutes until the player lost his last spaceship or crashed his tiny, monochrome car.
Today, game players spend hours immersed in role-playing games like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, puzzling over plot details, intricacies of the worlds they explore, the powers of their characters, and their relationships.
So it is not, in fact, simply that todays video games are larger and more graphically intricate: it is that the actual content and design — the very makeup of the games — has changed.
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Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called todays video games "virtual play spaces which allow home-bound children ... to extend their reach, to explore, manipulate, and interact with a more diverse range of imaginary places than constitute the often drab, predictable, and overly-familiar spaces of their everyday lives." Jenkins elaborates, showing the various ways that modern-day video game play echoes nineteenth-century boy culture. He writes that nineteenth-century boys would draw on the adventure stories of the day as a template for their own play — reading a book about pirates and then playing as pirates, for example.
Jenkins then noted that todays video games depend heavily on "fantasy role-playing, with different genres of games allowing children to imagine themselves in alternative ... roles or situations." This description is not restricted to the genre known as "role-playing games," which are elaborate story-based strategy games. Even todays simpler, action-oriented games feature specific characters and unique situations. The characters and scenarios in all of these video games are, therefore, serving the same imagination-igniting function as the adventure books.
Thus, perhaps the most important difference between the earliest video games and todays games is the insertion of what could be called cinematic elements. Rather than stick figures or spaceships representing the player, todays games star fully fleshed-out characters with backgrounds, motivation, and perhaps development throughout the story. Games incorporate narrative; they are built around a story line. And most games today include what are referred to as cut scenes or cinematics — sometimes non-interactive, often film-like sequences that set up or advance the story, which is typically a complex, lengthy affair.
Cinematic elements are appealing to game players because they can enhance the game experience. Game designers quickly learned the value of flashy reward screens for a job well done, of giving players concrete goals with set rewards to strive for. If a game has likeable characters, players can become attached to those characters and more deeply involved in the game. And if a game has a storyline, players have a concrete incentive to "beat" the game: they want to complete the story, to bring closure to the narrative.
This revolution came about as a result of Japanese influence on this American pastime: these cinematic game elements that are so common today originated in Japanese video games of the early eighties. In one of the first books ever written on video games, a 1982 volume called Video Invaders, author Steve Bloom wrote that "the Japanese have a 'comical sense,' and are great fans of comic books, sitcoms, and cartoons. Taito Americas president, Jack Mittel, explained: 'They [the Japanese] want more of a story line, more of a Walter Mitty experience that's like a whole movie ...'"
Even the name of Blooms book illustrates the huge impact that Japanese games had on American game culture from the first: the name Bloom chose for his volume, Video Invaders, is a play on the name of a video game developed by the Japanese company Taito, Space Invaders. Bloom goes on to describe the then-new Japanese game Donkey Kong (which would spawn the world-famous Mario series, although Bloom did not know it at the time) as "another bizarre cartoon game, courtesy of Japan."
"Japan," wrote Alex Kerr in his provocative book Dogs And Demons: The Fall Of Modern Japan, "while maintaining a competent standard in many industries, and intellectual or artistic pursuits, does not lead the way in any single field." This is not entirely the case. Though Kerr lays out a well-researched case on the decline of Japanese traditional art, architecture, cinema, and technology, perhaps the Japanese video game is the exception that proves the rule.
These "bizarre cartoon games" were coming from a country and a people in love with cartoons and comics. Frederik L. Schodt, who has written two books and countless articles on Japanese comics, wrote in 1983 that the Japanese consider them to be "an effective ... way of transmitting information, and they use them everywhere ... Aiding in this explosion in the use of cartoons is the fact that so many people learn how to draw them ... For younger generations comics are the common language ... [They] live in an age that emphasizes the image ... [and] naturally have no bias against comics. They are, appropriately, referred to in Japan as the shikaku sedai, the 'visual generation.'"
Not only that, but there were aspects of Japanese design sense that lent themselves specifically to the medium of the video game. Japanese anime characters, heavily influenced by the style of manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka, are cartoonish and unrealistically proportioned, even when the stories they tell are deadly serious. In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud noted that Japanese manga artists prize abstract, iconic characters, and that abstraction in general is key to identification with the characters in a story. In the book, which is presented in comic form, he draws himself, the narrator, in an abstract style for this very purpose of engaging the reader.
"This way of drawing characters," noted J.C. Herz in her book Joystick Nation, "translated easily into early video games, which didn't have the graphic resolution to represent characters with adult proportions. Small, cute characters had fewer pixels per inch and were easier to use, and so video games borrowed, for reasons of expediency, what manga had developed as a matter of convention."
The Japanese believe this style to be mukokuseki, a word that literally means "lacking nationality" but is used mainly to refer to the "erasure of racial or ethnic characteristics and contexts from a cultural product." Indeed, though Japanese anime character designs lack any ethnically Japanese features, the style itself can hardly be said to "lack nationality" when it is a unique creation of Japanese artists, completely different from American or European comic artwork.
More generally, the Japanese have a centuries-old tradition of visual culture. One might go so far as to say that the image, rather than the word, has always been at the forefront of Japanese culture. From the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the "floating world" to the highly stylized visual experiences that comprise the traditional Noh and kabuki theater, from the sexually charged shunga prints that gave way to vivid and chilling gekiga "film books" that were the precursors to modern manga comics, in every era of Japanese history we find that the most popular art forms were visual in nature.
One might even say that haiku — short Japanese poems that present, in as few words as possible, a vivid image of a seasonal nature scene — are visually oriented. Even the Japanese written language is made up of pictographs that come from representational drawings.
The notion of the image grew up differently in the Western world, where picture books, comic books, and chapter books with illustrations are looked down upon as childrens entertainment. A child who reads books without illustrations is said to be reading on an adult level; an adult who avidly reads comic books would be thought strange. But the shikaku sedai (a phrase that now describes even todays middle-aged Japanese) privilege the image as a method of communication and so have a love for comics and animation. "One result" of this outlook, wrote Schodt, "is that many talented young people — who in other times might have become novelists or painters — are becoming professional comic artists." And in the early '80s, as Schodt was writing these words, many of these young people were becoming video game designers.
Their American contemporaries, meanwhile, seemed to have no idea what was going on. In Video Invaders, American game designer Tim Skelly, then of Cinematronics, attacked the Japanese game design philosophy, calling them "horrible copiers" and adding, "most of their games don't cut it here anyway. I foresee them losing a lot of business here in the States." In less than one years time, however, Cinematronics — and many companies like it — would be the ones losing a lot of business, as the video game market dried up in the United States. It was Japanese companies that would revive the US industry.
Excerpted from Power-Up by Chris Kohler. Copyright © 2016 Chris Kohler. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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