Niche Games: The Japanese Market’s Saving Grace

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November 19, 2012 by Nino Moscardi

The Japanese gaming market has been facing some criticism recently from the international gaming community, and deservedly so to a certain extent. Economically speaking, where Japan once had a firm hold of over fifty percent of the global market in 2002, this once successful industry has declined to about ten percent of the global market in 2010.

That marks a forty percent decrease in just eight years.

It’s also often been criticized for long production times, slow release dates, and lack of third party engines. However, the one thing which has always averted eyes from their commercial failures is the Japanese industry’s history of producing successful cult classic games.

Having lived in Japan for some time now, I’ve grown fairly accustomed to the cultural differences in perception of what the west considers weird, humorous, and interesting (and vice versa). Not everything translates across borders, and it’s easy to think that games fail because of these cultural misunderstandings. Often enough, it’s exactly these situations where niche games become underground hits. I’m almost positive that nobody on either side of the Pacific looks at the most recent Katamari game “Touch My Katamari” — “katamari” translates to “lump,” so the interpret however you please — and plays it straight faced, or even with any notion of what the hell the game is about. And yet these kinds of games are endearing, fun, and though Katamari was a commercial bomb, they’re eternally memorable: the basis for a true cult classic.

Culturally specific games often translate poorly (in more than just dialogue) when they cross borders, but that makes them no less enjoyable or exclusive. You don’t have to be Japanese to understand Way of the Samurai. Some of the humor may be considered oddly placed, even downright weird, but that’s part of what makes the game Japanese just as a game like Grand Theft Auto is considered American. The humor of a game like Grand Theft Auto may be lost on the Japanese audience, but it’s not necessarily the case that Japanese consumers wouldn’t enjoy the game for that particular reason. Likewise, In Japan’s case especially, there are many a light-hearted, zany games that are completely accessible to international audiences precisely because they benefit from this cultural individuality.


That’s not to say that the cult appeal of Japanese games is strictly limited to the weird and zany. Even after the Japanese hold on the international market began to slip, there’s been no shortage of games from almost every genre produced in Japan that have reached legendary status in the underground. Need a fighting game? How about Guilty Gear or Dead or Alive? Platformer? El Shaddai or Okami should suffice. RPG? Here’s a copy of Shadow Hearts and Xenoblade Chronicles. Feeling trigger happy? Killer7 was totally underrated.

For an industry that has taken so much heat in recent years for its reputation, they’ve still been creating great, provocative games that push boundaries and incite reflection, despite whether or not they are commercial successes.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Japanese market produces such cherished underground classics. Perhaps because they embrace the approach — one that many in the international market shy away from — that a game should never take itself too seriously. It shouldn’t be afraid to throw in some humor, even the darkest of games. Hideo Kojima’s style has proven this can be a success on an international level with the Metal Gear franchise. Maybe it’s because many Japanese series have a solid fan base that will continue to support their games regardless of quality.

Japan might not be the economic giant of the gaming world that they once were, but they are certainly still a major player. If not for the commercial success, then for the quality of many underrated games. Gaming may have evolved into business, but the niche games in the Japanese market exemplify the blend between passion and lasting success.

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