It’s hot. Though this summer, Japanese gamers have been piling into arcades across the country not only to take refuge from the heat, but to also check out one of the most interesting games released this year — and it may surprise you to hear that it’s a shooter.
There’s a notion that Japanese gamers don’t like shooting games — especially online, networked shooting games. While role-playing games (RPGs) such as “Dragon Quest” and “Final Fantasy” are more popular, the belief that Japanese gamers have some sort of allergy to shooters, however, is false. Just look at “Gunslinger Stratos.”
This is a networked shooting game in which players use pistol-shaped light-gun controllers to riddle each other with virtual bullets. The game is linked to other “Gunslinger Stratos” machines in arcades across the country and players can face off in teams of four-on-four.
But this isn’t your typical shooting game.
“‘Gunslinger Stratos’ is really unlike other shooters,” a 24-year-old Osaka player who goes by the moniker “Te-Kumo” told The Japan Times recently. Instead of merely playing with a single gun, “Gunslinger Stratos” gives players two pistols. Those weapons can then be connected via built-in magnets: Connecting them side-by-side (Side Style) creates an in-game machine gun or shotgun, and connecting them one on top of the other (Tandem Style) makes a power weapon, such as a rocket launcher. The guns also have analog thumbsticks that move the onscreen character and buttons to make them jump and fly.
Te-Kumo, who with his gamer friends at a north Osaka game center, said he plays “Gunslinger Stratos” daily after work, spending about ¥7,000 each week (the game is ¥200 for two plays). “I like the way the game plays,” said Te-Kumo, “and I dig the way it looks.”
In the West, shooting games — notably first-person games such as “Call of Duty” and “Halo” — have been incredibly popular on home consoles and PCs. The stereotype is that Japanese gamers don’t like shooting games, but the country has a long, rich tradition of shooting games — especially first-person ones — in its arcades. During the 1990s, a slew of light-gun based shooting games appeared in Japanese arcades: Titles such as “Virtua Cop,” “Time Crisis” and “The House of the Dead” were extremely popular with gamers, both hardcore and casual. So maybe it’s just that many Japanese gamers don’t like Western shooting games.
The difference is more than aesthetic. Looks, however, do play a key role. Western shooters are designed by Westerners for a largely Western audience. The visual cues are very different from the influences and iconography found throughout Japanese anime. It could be the realistic war settings or the big burly American characters that make a stark contrast against the fantasy worlds and the leaner, stylish Japanese characters. But that’s not the only difference. Western shooters, especially online shooters, have baggage, and there’s the whole shooting-game culture to contend with, such as the mouthy players talking trash into your headset or the talented players who will snipe you the moment you set foot in an online multiplayer match.
“Gunslinger Stratos” seems to be doing everything imaginable to appeal to Japanese gamers — whether that’s the slick, 60-inch display, the beautiful graphics, the awesome light-guns, or the cool anime-style characters. It’s not chat-based, meaning there’s no headset that shy players must talk into. “Gunslinger Stratos” is a third-person shooting game, giving players a from-behind view as their character jumps and flies about, unloading lead (and lasers!). The characters then face off at highly detailed digital renderings of locations across Japan, such as Osaka’s Namba or Tokyo’s Shibuya districts. The locales are much more familiar to Japanese players than, say, the war-torn stages in “Call of Duty.” In “Gunslinger Stratos,” players even get to blow up those famed Japanese landmarks as the buildings, the structures, and the cars are fully destructible, turning the landscape into a mass of rubble, fire, and chaos.
And what characters! “Gunslinger Stratos” has a stable of cute, anime-inspired characters to choose from: from 15-year-old Jonathan Sizemore, who pilots a deadly mecha, to Olga Janetine, a pink body-suit wearing freelance spy who’s also a master sniper and demolitions expert. The characters seem to be working off anime and manga archetypes, such the inevitable schoolgirl character as well as a deadly 15-year-old contract killer who is both a body-guard and … a “maid.” When you grow up on a steady diet of Japanese pop culture, these are easier to relate to than hard-nosed commandos. If the game seems like a manga or an anime, that’s no accident. It’s from a concept by Gen Urobuchi, a manga and anime writer perhaps best known for the 2011 magical girl anime “Puella Magi Madoka Magica.”
The in-game personalities were created by some of Japan’s most famous female game-character designers, such as Mari Shimazaki — who designed Bayonetta, a witch decked out in a body suit made of hair, in the game by the same name — and Arco Wada, known for her stylized moe (ineffably cute) art and character designs. “Gunslinger Stratos” also features creations by the well-known weapons and mecha designer Shigeto Koyama, a Jack-of-all-trades who’s done work on “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” as well as mecha designs for TV anime “Star Driver.” The game’s director is Shinichiro Obata, who’s worked on a whole host of arcade games — such as “Street Fighter III” and a “Marvel vs. Capcom 2″ game — while the studio that made “Gunslinger Stratos” has an impressive resume of big-name arcade games, such as a handful of “Gundam VS” titles. Square Enix, the game’s publisher, and ByKing, the game’s developer, smartly did everything imaginable to find creative types who could help make this shooter appeal to Japanese gamers. To promote the game, Square Enix even roped in some of Japan’s most famous pro gamers, such as “Street Fighter” pro player Diago Umehara, to talk up “Gunslinger Stratos” and give it arcade cred.
Yet, it’s the Square Enix name that stands out. Here is a company that built its reputation by releasing very Japanese games — which featured characters designed to appeal to Japanese players and playing styles that Japanese players had grown accustomed to. When you think of Square Enix, images of handsome young “Final Fantasy” heroes and heroines with long swords and fancy outfits in role-playing games come to mind. In “Gunslinger Stratos,” there are young heroes — all the characters seem to be in their teens or early 20s — and they wear fancy outfits. But, the combat is totally different. It’s non-stop action and destruction. It really doesn’t look like a traditional Square Enix game, yet it’s one of the most interesting titles the company has put out this year.
What makes “Gunslinger Stratos” so interesting aren’t the ins and outs of who made it or even what it looks like (though seeing the game run on a 60-inch display is fantastic eye candy). Rather, play-wise, it delivers. The game doesn’t get by on its flashy looks alone. It’s exactly the kind of experience you want from an arcade game: you face-off against other players, and even play cooperatively with the players next to you. All of that in a truly enjoyable game.
The reason why shooting games aren’t as popular in Japan is because so many of them were not developed with Japanese players in mind and don’t cater to the country’s tastes. They speak a different language, literally and visually. Japanese gamers who like military settings can easily get into Western shooters, but those who do not could find a wall between themselves and the game. Even the sci-fi setting of something like “Halo” still carries that military vibe. For many Japanese players, these games just don’t offer the same kind of escapism that being a 15-year-old controlling a giant mecha or a lethal teenage schoolgirl do. “Gunslinger Stratos” is about as realistic as the digital bullets whizzing by. And that’s the point.
Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.