The creators of Final Fantasy and Castlevania discuss the rise, decline, and revival of Japanese video games

During a panel at the Monaco Anime Game International Conferences 2023 (MAGIC 2023), two legends of the Japanese video game industry looked back at the 30 years of history they helped shape. Final Fantasy author Hironobu Sakaguchi and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Koji Igarashi offer their opinions on how Japanese video games became a global phenomenon, how things went wrong in the early 2000s, and how Japan has bounced back over the past decade.

Sakaguchi said that the launch of Dragon Quest in 1986 inspired him a lot. Prior to Yuji Horii’s homegrown hit, Sakaguchi believed that developing RPGs for the NES (or Famicom in Japan) would not be possible. The Legend of Zelda, released the same year, was a game he enjoyed a lot as a gamer, but it didn’t directly inspire him.

“Nintendo and (Shigiru) Miyamoto’s games were on another level,” said Sakaguchi.

“Mario kind of has a story,” he added. “I think the story in Zelda was an extension of that. In these games, the story isn’t the most important element. I personally wanted to make a game where the story comes first, which is why Dragon Quest felt closer to what I wanted to achieve.” The music and systems have Great importance too, but it’s the scenario and story written by Yuji Horii that make Dragon Quest special.”

“At that time, people in the West saw pixel art and figures with three heads raised as something for children.”

For Igarashi, it was just the opposite. He has previously mentioned that he was influenced by The Legend of Zelda when creating Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

“In my games, movement is the most important element,” said Igarashi. “I think action games can be compared to boot camp training, where you have to jump in and dodge at the exact right moment. Without a goal, it just becomes penance, which is why we need a story to keep the player motivated. In that respect, the story is certainly important, but it is Don’t come first.”

If Dragon Quest made RPGs popular in Japan, it was Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy series that made Japanese RPGs popular all over the world. Sakaguchi says that while he was happy to see his games gain popularity on the NES and SNES in Japan, he was frustrated to see the games not being picked up in the Western market.

“At that time, people in the West saw pixel art and figures with three raised heads as something for children,” said Sakaguchi. “It was frustrating that our games were struggling there, as we wanted to find a way to expand our business. It finally happened when we were able to incorporate CG into Final Fantasy VII.”

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Final Fantasy has become one of the most iconic and popular series on the original PlayStation and PlayStation 2. However, by the time the PlayStation 3 appeared, Japanese games had begun to fade into the background, with the exception of Nintendo.

“I think one of the main reasons for that was the fact that consoles like the NES and PlayStation were very specific devices,” Sakaguchi suggested. This made it easier for Japanese developers to master the hardware, since we could ask Nintendo or Sony directly in Japanese. This is why—I realize it might be impolite to say this—Japanese games were of higher quality at the time. As a result, they were considered Japanese games are more fun, but as hardware development became easier, things changed quickly.”

“Japanese developers were developing skills specific to console games, but in North America and Europe, there was a long history of computer culture,” said Igarashi.

“At a time when there was no longer much difference between development for console and PC, Japanese developers could no longer rely on their specialization as console developers, and they had to master PC development,” Igarashi said, explaining that this is the main reason why Japanese games began to lag behind. .

“This is why – I realize it may be impolite to say this – Japanese games were of a higher quality at the time.”

Sakaguchi added, “Many Western gamers grew up playing Japanese games. When Western studios’ games started to get better, they felt fresh and modern when compared to the Japanese games that those gamers were more familiar with. I think freshness is extremely important in entertainment.”

After Sakaguchi left Square and set up his own studio, Mistwalker, in 2004, Western RPGs began to overshadow their Japanese counterparts. Series like The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect have gained massive followings, while Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy XIII and Sakaguchi’s own Blue Dragon have failed to capture mainstream audiences the way they once did. However, Sakaguchi says he never felt it necessary to draw inspiration from Western RPGs.

“In the West, children often get their own room from a young age, while in Japan the whole family sleeps together in the same room,” said Sakaguchi. “I think those small cultural differences can be felt through the games we make today. Even when Western games became mainstream, I didn’t feel the need to be inspired by them. I think it’s the pride in my Japanese cultural background that draws people towards my games in the first place.”

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For Igarashi, things are a little different. Today, the Metroidvania genre he helped create is one of the most popular among indie developers, and there are dozens of recent games directly inspired by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

“I’d like to start by telling everyone to please leave my field!” Igarashi said jokingly.

“But in all seriousness, I think it’s only natural for businesses to be inspired by each other. For games within this genre, I try to play good games. More than me, the director of[Bloodstained]digs into these games to see what they do well and learn from their mistakes at the same time.” In this regard, I think I should call [other Metroidvania developers] our friends. We are all learning from each other in hopes of creating better games.”

Sakaguchi and Igarashi aren’t the only legendary Japanese developers to leave a major development company to become independent. Hideo Kojima, Yu Suzuki, and Hidetoshi Nagoshi are just a few examples of the many Japanese talents who have established their own studios.

“In my case, (at Konami) I couldn’t make the kind of game I knew fans were waiting for anymore,” Igarashi said.

“Mobile games are gaining popularity in Japan,” he recalls. “As a company, I think it was the right decision to shift the focus. However, as a result, I could no longer make the same kind of games. That’s when I heard the voice of a demon inside me telling me to quit. I think the corporate direction and what the developers wanted to make diverged even further. or less “.

With titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Metal Gear Solid V, Elden Ring, and Final Fantasy XIV, it’s safe to say that Japanese developers are at the forefront of the gaming industry today once again. However, the climate is fundamentally different from the eighties and nineties. Free engines such as Unreal and Unity offer more documentation in English than Japanese, which puts Japanese developers at a disadvantage; And while Nintendo is still a very Japanese company, SIE (Sony’s video game division) moved its headquarters from Tokyo, Japan to San Mateo, California in 2016.

“I think it’s pride in my Japanese cultural background that draws people to my games in the first place.”

“Nintendo is a very creative company,” said Sakaguchi. “They want to create games that they think are fun, and Shigeru Miyamoto remains central to that, which in turn is reflected in their marketing. That’s why they have to stay based in Japan. Sony (PlayStation) on the other hand is a much broader company with many Of various kinds. The biggest market is the West, and with their marketing power, it is only natural that they centralize this market.”

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“The way I see it is that Sony treats video games as a kind of cinematic entertainment,” said Igarashi. “Of course, they are targeting the largest market, but I think they need to be located where the best movie entertainment is being made. Nintendo, on the other hand, is closer in spirit to a game manufacturer.”

Igarashi said that while he admires the success of recent Japanese titles such as Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring, he wants to stay focused on the type of game he does best.

Sakaguchi had been playing so much Final Fantasy XIV that he had no time to play such titles. Final Fantasy XIV is one of the most noteworthy successes among modern Japanese video game fans. The MMORPG genre has always been an area largely dominated by Western developers, but FFXIV has held its own alongside titles like World Of Warcraft, EVE Online, and Everquest.

“As director (Naoki) Yoshida himself says, FFXIV is like a Final Fantasy amusement park,” Sakaguchi noted, explaining why he thinks Final Fantasy XIV was a huge success. “It looks like an MMORPG on the surface, but it’s actually a bit different. It’s a game that celebrates 35 years of characters and worlds from Final Fantasy, akin to something like Disneyland. In that respect, you could even call it a new genre.”

IGN interviewed Sakaguchi about his love for Final Fantasy XIV in 2022. In Magic 2023, Sakaguchi also looked into developing Chrono Trigger.

Igarashi Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was released in 2019. It was well received by critics and sales exceeded 1 million units in 2020. Igarashi is currently working on a sequel, although details are still sparse. Sakaguchi’s studio Mistwalker is launching the classic RPG Fantasian on Apple Arcade in 2021. As it said at MAGIC 2023, He hopes to make a sequel and bring the original to PC.

Esra Karrab is an editor at IGN Japan. He believes that 2023 will be another big year for Japanese video games.

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