If you were to glance your eyes over a list of games you’ve played so far this year, it’s highly likely that you’d recognise a theme: the majority of them were made in Japan.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Resident Evil VII, NieR: Automata – the list goes on. For the longest time, there was a common perception and silent agreement present within certain circles of the gaming industry that Eastern developers were somewhat falling behind in terms of the quality of their output. Now at the beginning of 2017 however, Japanese developers seem to be on a quality-crushing rampage, releasing games that tower well above Western releases in this already exceptional first quarter of the year.
I’m of the mind that the simple reason for this sudden surge in Japanese game quality is nothing other than creatives working in the territory choosing to embrace rather than replicate.
Read more: Why Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is a Love Letter to Horror
For many, including myself, 2009’s Final Fantasy XIII was in many ways the straw that broke the camel’s back; the final dagger plunged into the heart of many a fan’s beloved JRPG series. Thankfully the days of loading up a Japanese game, walking forward five seconds into an overworld, and mindlessly triggering story points on a lacklustre linear path seem gone for the most part, now being replaced by a sense of freedom served up alongside a plethora of eastern eccentricities only Japan as a development community could produce.
The best example of this changing of the tide is undeniably best found when prying open the hood of Resident Evil VII, which rather fantastically saved a dilapidated franchise from the literal horrors of franchise fatigue and the game graveyard. While Resident Evil 4 was lauded for its at-the-time unique over-the-shoulder perspective and impending atmosphere, up until VII’s release the series had suffered an identity crisis most likely brought on by Capcom’s loss of godfather of gore Shinji Mikami.
Whereas Resident Evil 5 and 6 reeked of an Eastern developed game masquerading as an American action shooter, this year’s Resident Evil VII very much wears its heart on its sleeve by placing all things quirky and outright bonkers firmly at the forefront. Arms are lopped off then miraculously shoved back on, Redneck family members attempt to kill you by way of windshield painting, and it’s all bloody, brilliant, and evocative of a game fully accepting of its wacky sensibilities. We, as fans, wouldn’t have it any other way, and it paid of tenfold with a slew of 9 and 10 review scores.
Contrary to the reworked template of Resident Evil VII is a certain other Japanese game which has had many uttering its name in the same sentence as “the greatest game this generation”. I am of course, referring to this year’s present jewel in the crown: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Again, the game serves as an example for what Eastern developers can achieve when unrestrained from the need to replicate the likes of Skyrim. If ever there was a game which could be seen to have creative juices and innovative threads running through it, it’s this one.
Although a far cry from the confined and claustrophobic corridors of Resident Evil VII, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is yet another illustration of a familiar franchise returning to its roots yet fully re-writing the rule book.
Could it be that Japanese publishers are seeing the value in bowing down to the demands of the more devout sub-section of their fanbases? After all, the fact that NieR: Automata, a follow-up to a cult-classic action role-playing game that failed to move units exists at all is a minor miracle, but one that’s very much paid off for Square Enix. Despite being in the hands of the hit-or-miss studio otherwise known as Platinum Games, Automata acts as more proof that the ability to resonate with players is more likely when innovating rather than imitating – and the result is a critical hit.
Regardless of whether or not my theory about Japanese developers and publishers finally deciding to give their metaphorical arse a ruddy good kicking in the pioneering department is true or not, one thing’s for certain: 2017 is the year (so far) where Japanese games are not only the best they’ve ever been, but are going on to trounce their Western competition.
We’re living in a world where a game called NieR provides a better all-round experience than the ginormous Mass Effect behemoth, and I for one hope it continues. Thankfully with Persona 5 so close on the horizon and Nintendo’s Super Mario Odyssey set to blow our socks off later this year, it’s likely that the Japanese video game renaissance won’t slow down any time soon.
Unrestrained creativity breeding success? Who’d have thought!