Thursday, August 1, 2013

Lost in Transistion

Quite a few games made in Japan never leave the shores of their homeland.  In some cases it's because the game has explicit content (such as excessive amounts of gore or eroge).  Other times it's because the game is from a genre not considered economically viable outside Japan (visual novels, dating sims, etc.).  Oddly enough titles which are especially bizarre tend to get exported overseas simply for the novelty factor.  Although it is important to note that these kinds of games are not well known even in their country of origin.

Regardless, every once and a while a Japanese game will get lost in the shuffle, slip through the cracks, or simply not receive the recognition it deserves.  Just to be clear I'm talking about quality games which for some reason or another have never gone overseas despite having merits worthy of a wider audience.  Off the top of my head there are three recent titles which come to mind.

Boku no Natsuyasumi, or "My Summer Vacation," is a self classified nostalgia adventure game.  The premise is you play an elementary school boy who leaves the big city for the first time to spend the month of August with relatives living in the countryside.  The in-game backgrounds are pre-rendered idyllic landscapes reminiscent of rural Japan in the 1970s and 80s.  Characters are polygonal, which gives the gameplay a superficial resemblance to early survival horror titles like Resident Evil or Alone in the Dark.  There are no monsters, aliens, ghosts or any other threat in Boku no Natsumi though.  Rather, you spend your time doing things such as fishing, swimming, catching bugs and exploring forest covered mountains.  It's very much a recreated slice of a little boy's life.  It might sound lackadaisical to some, but that's kind of the point.  There's no score at the end, no online leader boards, no statistics to compare against, and even mini games such as rhino beetle sumo (the original Pokemon) are more diversion than competition.  How you choose to interact with other characters can affect the way the story unfolds, but it's all refreshingly low key and understated.  So far there are four entries in the series (on PSX, PS2, PS3 and PSP respectively) with a fifth currently being developed (probably for PS4 or PS Vita).  Despite selling well in Japan, there aren't any plans to make it available internationally.

You didn't think I'd make a list like this without throwing in at least one horror title, did you?  Ao Oni, commonly translated as "Blue Demon," is basically a free Japanese indie game developed using RPG Maker XP.  While the game looks similar to a 8 or early 16-bit JRPG, it's really a superficial facade for what is a puzzle adventure title with strong horror elements.  The setup follows the classic slasher flick format of four teenagers in an old abandoned house, but instead of them being the victims of a vengeful ghost, mask-wearing maniac or the Slender Man, they are stalked by an ogre.  You might think his face looks more silly than disturbing at first glance, but trust me, when the teeth come out you'll reconsider initial impressions.  Ao Oni has gone through several revisions since it's initial release, each making enhancements to the story and scares.  This might sound strange, but there is something to be said about horror themed games with simple graphics.  Something about your brain having to fill in the blanks really opens you up to experiencing fear.  If it sounds interesting, by all means hunt it down on the net.  I think there might even be a fan translated version available for PC...but don't quote me on that.

Guran Naitsu Hisutori, literately the Japanese pronunciation of "Grand Knights History," is a PSP fantasy strategy RPG by Vanillaware.  Immediately, anyone viewing gameplay footage will be struck by the beautiful had drawn artwork and painstakingly detailed animation.  There are even some nice little stylistic touches like battlefields having a noticeably spherical curvature to them.  Lavish production values aside, the player is given control over a team of up to four characters each of which can be either male or female as well as one of three different classes; knight, archer, or mage.  Basic tactical considerations are built on a rock-scissors-paper mechanic.  That said there's a lot of other factors that come into play such as character stats, equipment, formation and so on.  There are three different kingdoms the player can ally with too which gives the world an open ended feel.  Grand Knights History also boasts a significant online component.  So, why is it this game never got exported?  Well...I'm not sure what curse hangs over the heads of the development team, but it seams like every game to come out by them is at the very end of their target platform's lifespan.  It happened to Princess Crown on the Sega Saturn, and again for Muramasa: Demon Blade on PS2.  It also looks like the same will befall Dragon's Crown for the PS3.  Essentially, Grand Knights History suffered a similar fate with PSP stepping out to make room for PS Vita.  Personally, I hope one day they will release a Vanillaware complete collection on PSN.  For now though this game is beyond the grasp of all but the most dedicated and determined fans.

Those are my three picks for this blog post, but there are many more overlooked titles; The grand dad of survival horror Sweet Home for the NES, The modern day JRPG Mother (A.K.A. Earthbound) for the SNES, Shining Force sequels for the Sega Dreamcast, not to mention most of Namco's extensive library of games.  All this and more have been denied a wider distribution.  It's a little depressing when you think about it, but at least with the help of the internet people can find out about these buried treasures if they're willing to do a little digging around.        

No comments:

Post a Comment