How racy fan service is ruining otherwise great games

Introducing new, obscure Japanese games to some of my friends used to be fun, but it's becoming a battle I’m tired of fighting. Sure, I could detail the great gameplay, slick art, and creative ideas on display in a niche JRPG they’ve never heard of. But I know I’ll also need to explain why the title stars adolescent girls in bikinis and has a massage minigame, and I just don’t have the energy to cover for those regrettable design choices anymore.

This situation came up for me a few times over the past year, like with the release of Dragon’s Crown. I’d been excited for the 2D brawler with deep RPG elements for awhile, mainly because it’s the spiritual successor to Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons games that I really enjoyed in the early ‘90s. But on top of that satisfyingly retro gameplay, Dragon’s Crown had to ruin the fun by making its scantily clad female characters curvaceous to the point of ludicrousness. The same thing happened with Code of Princess. I wanted to like this follow-up to Guardian Heroes--one of my favorite Saturn titles--but Code of Princess stars a heroine who’s basically naked for no reason at all.

And then there are the numerous Japanese RPGs and strategy games that just keep getting more perverted with each new release. Major franchises like Disgaea fell into this trap nearly a decade ago, but lesser known role-playing games sadly use sex appeal to stand out from the crowd in the smaller genre. Obscure titles like Agarest War, Demon Gaze, and Hyperdimension Neptunia appear to be in a race to see who can spoil a good premise with unneeded porn the fastest. Even Nintendo got into the act with some Fire Emblem content that got censored in the US. As someone who has spent hundreds of hours in turn-based battles, it’s all very disheartening.

This trend is a particularly annoying when I see it in a very promising title like Conception II, a game I’m really looking forward to playing despite my issues with some of its content. The dungeon exploration, turn-based combat, and monster collecting take inspiration from classics like Persona and Pokemon, and Conception puts creative new spins on those concepts. But to experience the game in its totality, I have to hit on high school girls whose idle animations take special care to include heaving breasts. It seems like this gross gauntlet I have to endure to play the part I’ll enjoy.

These recent examples show the sad epidemic that’s quickly ruining my ability to root for many quality Japanese releases. The problem is seen across a range of publishers, from niche experts to industry giants alike. This scourge has a name: fan service. Except in this case, fan service doesn't mean a nod to an old character, but more scenes that have one or more of the game’s female characters in some risque or sexualized situation. Nine times out of ten, these overtly sexual vignettes have little impact on the core gameplay, and have been gratuitously included for the sole purpose of titillating young male players. They're there under the assumption that if you like niche genre games from Japan, you probably enjoy the objectification of women too. Judging by their recent work, some game developers seem to believe that the two concepts are inseparable.

Western publishers are hardly innocent of using sex to sell a game, though violence seems to be the preferred fetish these days. In fact, releases like BMX XXX and Leisure Suit Larry seem like relics of a lost age, while Japanese titles like Akiba’s Trip, Senran Kagura, and Deception IV are just a few of the salacious titles coming soon to the US. Are cult Japanese games merely filling the void left by American made sexploitation titles?

I don’t mean to come off as a prude, and if you like drawings of underdressed young ladies (THAT ARE OVER THE AGE OF 18 AND CONSENTING), that’s totally within your rights as a human being. Maybe it’s something that’s simply been lost in translation, a cultural phenomenon that I’m not entirely getting. Still, even if you’re a western gamer that’s into this brand of fan service, doesn’t it all feel a bit too pandering? Don’t you feel a little insulted that no one thinks you’ll play these games unless there's copious amounts of T&A on the box art? I know I do--nevermind how off-putting this tactic might be to any woman that may want to play these games.

I’d like to think widespread indignation over unneeded fan service will get some developers to reverse course, but I don't think it’ll happen without dissatisfaction coming from the fans in Japan. Many of the titles I mentioned are made primarily for their home country, with overseas consumers seen as the secondary market. And while I’ve visited Tokyo enough times to witness game shops selling way too many items that make me similarly uncomfortable, I won’t try to guess at what the average Japanese gamer thinks of these titles. What I do know is that fan service like this is giving Japan’s games a bad reputation in the rest of the world, and I hope the devs start to notice that.

In the meantime, I’ll have to endure enjoying these games in spite of the puerile material--you don’t have to agree with a piece of art 100% to appreciate it. Perhaps I simply need to get over myself and not feel pushed into making excuses for games I didn’t create. But even if I can deal with it, I hope the creators of these games come to realize that if body pillow special editions are chasing off the hardcore folks that love these genres, imagine how many potential fans are driven away with that junk. Is that worth the microscopic metal underwear?

Henry Gilbert

Henry Gilbert is a former GamesRadar+ Editor, having spent seven years at the site helping to navigate our readers through the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation. Henry is now following another passion of his besides video games, working as the producer and podcast cohost of the popular Talking Simpsons and What a Cartoon podcasts.