Lost in translation
One of the things we love most about games is their ability to appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds. Back in our youth, we were playing Super Mario Bros. at the same time as people all over the world, sharing the same experience. However, not every design choice is universal--and these days, there are more than a few confusing elements in games that are lost on American gamers. But after spending some time in Japan, they started making a lot more sense to us.
Dont understand some obtuse feature in a game? Perhaps we can clear that up for you
3DS StreetPass doesnt seem all that useful
The problem: Most new 3DS owners are immediately addicted to collecting puzzle pieces and new hats for their Miis via the systems local Wi-Fi feature, so long as they can actually find other people to StreetPass with. Even if you live in a big city like San Francisco or Los Angeles and take public transit, it can be days before your 3DS comes into contact with another one in the wild. Its useful at huge geek events like E3, PAX, or Comic Con, but otherwise youre left with an empty plaza.
Explanation: Something youll notice immediately when you arrive in Tokyo is that its one of the most crowded cities in the world. Whether on the street or on the intricate subway system, people are everywhere, and odds are that at least a few of them are carrying around a 3DS. While exploring the city, wed continually fill up our StreetPass Plaza without even trying. And when we visited the gamer-centric district of Akihabara, we found dozens of 3DS owners camped out in front of a huge electronics store for sole reason to StreetPass. Admittedly, we arent sure how well it fits in rural areas of Japan, but for the more than 13 million people in Tokyo, StreetPass works great.
Nintendo and Sony are slow to understand online
The problem: Over the last decade, online multiplayer has gone from a favorite of hardcore PC gamers to an essential feature in virtually every major console game. And while the trend is starting to change, for the longest time games from Japan either had no online options at all, or the multiplayer that was included was needlessly complex and confusing. Anyone who remembers having to input Friend Codes on their Wii or sign up for multiple accounts to play Metal Gear Online understands this better than anyone.
Explanation: Though Japans internet access is the same (if not better) than in this country, the majority of Japanese gamers dont want the same things out of online gaming. Its likely a societal thing, and the term for the technological mismatch that happened is Galpagos syndrome. It means Japans online culture evolved so differently from the rest of the world that many game makers likely had a hard time understanding the needs of players outside the country. Fortunately, based on games like Resident Evil 6 and Mario Kart 7, that trend seems to be changing.
Many portable games are limited to local multiplayer
The problem: For anyone thats tried to take their handheld games online, youll notice that many major Japanese-developed handheld games limit Wi-Fi play to four local players. For every Mario Kart 7 and Kid Icarus Uprising, there are dozens of great games that sadly limit their use of Wi-Fi to four-player local games. With the huge potential of online gaming, why continually limit gamers to the people they can bring together in one room?
Explanation: Two words: Monster Hunter. Thanks in part to the combination of population density and unique online culture that we mentioned earlier, the millions of people that buy Monster Hunter in Japan clearly prefer playing the game with three of their closest friends in the same room. Even after adding online to the Wii version of the game, publisher Capcom dropped it from 2011s 3DS version. When the best-selling game in Japan gives little attention to online play, its no wonder that most of its competitors are doing the same.
Super short levels in handheld games
The problem: This one isnt necessarily a complaint, but when playing handheld entries in franchises like Mario, its easy to notice that the stages are more compact than on consoles. Compared to the huge, star-hopping exploration of Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 3D Lands stages can usually be completed in a few minutes. It represents a clear choice by the developers to shorten the levels--but why to such a specific length?
Explanation: This one was explained to us by Super Mario 3D Lands director in an interview earlier this year. According to Koichi Hayashida, Our first thought when designing the game was, and this might be a Japan-only consideration, is that you see a lot of people commuting in Japan to school or work. Usually theyre only playing for as long as it takes to go through a couple train stations, so I decided thats how long I wanted it to take to clear a single stage. You certainly dont have restrictions like that on a console game.
The PSP still outsells the Vita
The problem: Anyone that tries to portray the PSP as a total flop in the US are ignoring the millions of systems sold in this country, but they'd be right in saying game sales on the system were virtually nonexistent for years. And yet, while most Americans turned their backs on the portable device, it continues to thrive in Japan. Even to this day, it often outsells the Vita, it has major releases from Square Enix, Sega, and Tecmo (that will likely never come out abroad), and big games are still being made for it almost a year into the Vita's life. Clearly the verdict on Sony's handheld is very different inside Japan than everywhere else.
Explanation: If you guessed Monster Hunter again as the cause, you are correct. Japan's gamers still pick up the PSP to keep leveling up their characters, which has kept the handheld an active, viable platform for other developers. Conversely, since Nintendo seems to have some deal to put future Monster Hunter games on the 3DS only, PSP players currently have little reason to move onto the Vita, no matter how much Sony would like them to. And that trend leads to...
A ton of four-player RPGs coming to PS Vita
The problem: If youre a PS Vita owner, youre likely scouring the calendar for upcoming releases. On that short list of games, youll find titles like Soul Sacrifice, Phantasy Star Online 2, God Eater 2, and Valhalla Knight 3. Additionally, several of these upcoming Vita games from Japanese publishers are also coming to out for the PSP, a system most Americans forgot they owned years ago. Why arent Japans forthcoming Vita games more varied?
Explanation: Once again, the answer is Monster Hunter--or rather, the lack of it, in this instance. As mild as the PSPs success was in the US, it's still beloved in Japan. Now that MH isn't coming to Vita anytime soon, there's a market gap many developers would like to fill. And while Japan gets inundated with Monster Hunter clones, American Vita owners have to look pretty hard to find something from Japan that doesnt fit that ever-growing genre.
Whats the deal with soccer?
The problem: Why do people enjoy watching soccer? We just dont understand.
Explanation: Soccer is boring.
Have more questions?
So that's just some of our insight from our limited exposure to Japanese culture, though if you there's anything else you want to discuss, please bring it up in the comments. We'd especially love to hear from any Japanese natives or people that have spent lots of time there.
Want to know more about the state of Japanese gaming? Be sure to read our editorials "You cant comprehend how much better Japanese arcades are" and "Is there a way to fix Japanese games?"