The Year in Japanese Games

Daniel Robson on the highs and lows of 2011

Professor Layton

It all looked so rosy a year ago. Looking ahead at what 2011 had in store, it seemed certain to be a vintage year for Japanese games. It turned out to be a year we’d never forget.

Back in January, the media was gooey for the impending release of the 3DS, Nintendo’s latest claim on your pockets. The Japanese public got to try the new handheld at that month’s Nintendo World event, and it looked invincible. The 3DS was released to some fanfare at the end of February, but sales were not as strong as expected – and then, just two weeks later, disaster struck.

11th March’s record-breaking earthquake and deadly tsunami claimed many casualties, including around 20,000 lives and three nuclear reactors. It also affected every industry in Japan, including games. 3DS sales dropped immediately, partly because several launch-window games were postponed and partly because, well, it seems a bit wrong to buy a games console when so many people are suffering and need help, right? In August, just six months after launch, Nintendo was forced to drop its handheld’s price by a whopping 40%.

Many other games were postponed or cancelled after the tsunami, the most frustrating being the PS3 earthquake survival sim Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories, which was reportedly ready to ship but was canned permanently by its jittery developer, Irem. Ouch.

Still, the industry did pull together to raise money for those hundreds of thousands of people afflicted by the disaster, with a portion of profits from games such as Yakuza: Of The End, El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron and iPhone versions of Street Fighter IV and Sonic The Hedgehog donated to the cause. An auction campaign called Play For Japan, meanwhile, saw industry bigwigs donating ultra-rare items (including a SNES Mario Kart cartridge signed by Shigeru Miyamoto and a full-size Blood Berry Beam Katana from No More Heroes) to raise extra cash for the victims.

But there was more trouble in 2011. Sony was the target of a major cyber-attack, with personal details of around 10 million PSN users hacked, forcing the service offline for several weeks. Sony did recover, mind you, and its Welcome Back package (including free games for all members) helped regain its customers’ loyalty.

The Last Guardian

Xbox 360 continued to be broadly ignored in Japan; the multiplatform Mega Man Legends 3 was dropped, much to the dismay of the series’ hardcore fans; and no sign was seen of Sony’s The Last Guardian, which missed its Q4 release date and was conspicuous by its absence at Tokyo Game Show in September. When I spoke to director Fumito Ueda at a press event in January, he seemed unhappy with how the game’s production was progressing. Indeed, this month it surfaced that he has left Sony, though he is expected to complete the game as a freelancer. Hopefully it’ll surface in 2012.

It wasn’t all bad news. Also in January, Sony announced its new handheld as NGP (thankfully later changed to Vita) and the media went nuts – it certainly is a sexy piece of kit. Preorders mostly sold out in October, for a successful release last week.

Nintendo had a hardware announcement of its own: The Wii U was unveiled at June’s E3 trade show, and while its touchscreen controller baffled the general public, those journalists who got their hands on it seemed impressed. Other Nintendo megatons included the announcement that Monster Hunter (currently Japan’s favourite game) would be coming to 3DS, while Super Mario 3D Land sold a ludicrous 341,904 copies in its first week of release in November.

Other big or significant Japanese games included The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle, Mario Kart 7, Dark Souls, Yakuza: of ihe End, Final Fantasy XIII-2, Catherine, Shadows of the Damned, Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy, and Child of Eden – which ironically became Kinect’s killer app in the West, despite no one in Japan giving a toss about Kinect. But while the charts were dominated by home-grown games, a few Western titles did sneak in, most notably PES 2012, Uncharted 3 (whose TV ads featured Harrison Ford!), Infamous 2 and LA Noire.

As for 2012, Fukuoka developer Level5 looks set to clean up, with new Professor Layton and Inazuma Eleven titles, a brand new property called Youkai Watch, and Studio Ghibli tie-up Ni no Kuni getting a Western release on PS3. I’m also looking forward to Ninja Gaiden 3, Binary Domain, Lollipop Chainsaw, Dead or Alive 5, Asura’s Wrath, Gravity Rush on Vita, and Kinect titles Steel Battalion, Diabolical Pitch and Project Draco.

A vintage year ahead for Japanese games? I don’t want to jinx it. But barring major natural disasters and another malicious hacking scandal, 2012 could turn out pretty fine.

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