It’s a long running stereotype: Japanese gamers like role-playing games (RPGs), and Western gamers prefer first-person shooters (FPS). That doesn’t mean hardcore FPS players don’t exist in Japan. They do.
FPS games differ greatly from RPG games. In an FPS, action is gun-based and unfolds from a first-person point-of-view. The setting is often military, though it can also be sci-fi. In role-playing games, the focus is on “leveling-up” characters and action is often based around intricate battle systems. The setting is usually fantasy or sci-fi. FPS games have a lot in common with, say, a round of paintball, while RPGs are derived from tabletop board games.
There are many reasons why role-playing games are more popular than FPS games in Japan. One major reason is that Japan has a long, proud history of role-playing games, such as the “Dragon Quest” or the “Final Fantasy” games. The country’s past RPG successes continue to perpetuate the cycle. Another reason is that FPS games were born and bred on the PC in America during the 1990s — a time when Japan was completely enraptured with RPGs on home consoles. Since RPGs were so popular at that time in Japan, domestic video-game-makers never really put any effort into developing their own FPS titles. Why bother? RPGs were what people wanted, so that was what they gave them.
Western games were dismissively passed off as youge (Western games). They were too violent. They were for gun-loving Americans. Japanese gamer after Japanese gamer said “these games are not for us.” As a result, the popularity of FPS games never quite spread through the country. Japanese gamers were too busy with the latest “Dragon Quest” or “Final Fantasy” to give a toss about shooters like “Doom” or “Quake.” Besides, FPS games were violent and fetishized guns. They were about as Japanese as a Hummer.
Yet, just as there are Japanese car-owners keen to buy impractical American SUVs, there are Japanese gamers who adore competitive shooting games. The genre has even found support in an unlikely place: Japan’s most revered RPG maker, Square Enix, began acquiring the Japanese publishing rights to Western FPS games like 2009’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2″ after the game’s American publisher, Activision, closed down its Japanese branch. The gritty, bloody shooter was vastly different from the crisp and clean fantasy RPGs that made Square Enix famous. At the 2009 Tokyo Game Show, it was jarring to see “Call of Duty,” with all its macho gun porn, right next to the latest “Final Fantasy,” with all its beautiful male and female characters.
In a 2009 interview with Japanese TV, Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada said that the term youge had a “discriminatory meaning” in Japan, but he hoped that Japanese gamers would play “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2″ at least once to see how incorrect that label was. Wada’s attitude was incredibly progressive — especially for an exec at a company accused of remaking the same game over and over and over again. Smart, too, because these games post mind-blowing sales figures in the West. Square Enix must be hoping that eventually they will do the same in Japan.
When “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2″ was released in Japan in 2009, it didn’t break any domestic sales records, but it did get nearly perfect review scores in Japan’s most famous game magazine, Famitsu, despite the fact that players were furious at the shoddy localization. The game was dubbed into Japanese, and players felt that it made the game feel cheap. “Call of Duty” has always been unabashedly American, and Japanese players wanted to hear the original English voice track. The sentiment echoed the feelings Western gamers have long had about the localization of Japanese role-playing games, which was, for a long time, quite awful. When it was time to release “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3″ in Japan in 2011, Square Enix offered two versions of the game: one dubbed and the other subtitled. Japanese fans were elated.
Last month, Square Enix announced that “Call of Duty: Elite,” a special paid online service, would not be coming to Japan, much to the disappoint of the country’s hardcore fans. The reason was that the two versions of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3″ — subbed and dubbed — made it a logistical nightmare for rolling out a unified online platform in Japan. But chin up FPS fans: There’s a new “Call of Duty” game in the pipeline. And while it’s bound to be overshadowed by the summer release of Square Enix’s new “Dragon Quest” game, “Dragon Quest X,” it should make a dedicated group of Japanese gamers very, very happy.
Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.