Culture

2018 was a busy year for gamers in Japan, with established franchises and open world epics reigning supreme

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Many gamers began 2018 by teaming up with a garishly outfitted cat and rushing into battle against a big, angry monster. Some of those same people will usher out the year by punching Nintendo icon Mario in his famously mustachioed face.

It was a good year to be a gamer.

There were blockbusters, solid indie projects and things in between, giving fans a wealth of options. It was, in many ways, a year of reintroductions, with developers going under the hood of established franchises rather than settling for a new coat of paint.

The Japanese side of the industry got things going, spicing up January with Capcom’s “Monster Hunter: World.”

The “Monster Hunter” series — an action role-playing game franchise centered on your Hunter and their Palico (the series’ race of small, anthropomorphic cats) as they hunt monsters — has been around since 2004 and is one of Japan’s most beloved franchises. Though it hasn’t had the same success in the West.

The developers tweaked the experience this time around, smoothing out some complex edges, to try to attract a wider audience. It worked. Gamers outside Japan seemed to finally see what the fuss was about and by March the game was the best-selling Capcom title ever. For those out of the loop, that would be the Capcom of “Street Fighter” and “Resident Evil” (“Biohazard” in Japan) fame.

In November, Nintendo’s “Pokemon” series made its debut on the Nintendo Switch with its “Pokemon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!” and “Pokemon: Let’s Go, Eevee!” games, which can work in concert with the “Pokemon GO” mobile title. Players can also use a new round controller shaped like one of the series’ Poke Balls to really get into the spirit.

November was also when “Tetris Effect” fell neatly into the space PlayStation 4 owners had in their libraries. The announcement that Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the mind behind classic musical rail-shooter “Rez,” would be involved in a reimagining of the 1984 puzzler was met with immense anticipation.

The final product lived up to the hype, exploding on PlayStation VR headsets and TV screens in a vibrant, pulsating mixture of light, sound and gameplay. The headline for an article in The Verge summed it up perfectly by stating that “Tetris Effect” is a glorious love letter to the original.

Christmas came early on Dec. 7 with the release of Nintendo’s fighting game “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate,” (which pits characters from Nintendo’s games against each other). One week later and the game was already No. 1 on Amazon’s list of best-selling games of the year, which is updated daily.

The series has been around since 1999, and for the “ultimate” edition, director Masahiro Sakurai did away with all pretense and included every character from the series’ history, and 11 new ones, creating a scale-tipping roster of 74.

Meanwhile, Square Enix reintroduced the world to the glory days of the Japanese gaming industry with “Octopath Traveler.” The game is a throwback, aesthetically, to the Japanese role-playing games of the mid-’90s and was a global hit for the Nintendo Switch.

Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu rated the game 36 out of 40, while U.S. website IGN gave it a 9.3 out of 10.

“We tried to make a game that brings us back to that time, when we needed to imagine situations, emotions, but with a new-looking graphical aspect,” producer Masashi Takahashi told Martin Robinson of Eurogamer in July.

There was plenty going on outside Japan too, with yet another resurgence in single-player games after yet another executive, this time from Electronic Arts, hinted at their demise.

“Single-player games are the phoenix at this point,” “God of War” director Cory Barlog told IGN in May. “We go through the ebb and flow. Games change by the different creatives that get involved and say, ‘I have this crazy idea.'”

Barlog’s “God of War,” published by Sony, was the first mainline entry in the action series since 2013 and one of the most successful games of the year. A reinvention rather than a reboot of the popular, ultra-violent franchise, it lived up to its considerable hype when it was released in April.

The game’s story of Kratos, the titular God of War, and his son Atreus, or “Boy” as gamers know him, struck a chord with fans. The game managed to stay true to the series’ roots while also making room for a deep and engrossing story told against the backdrop of Norse mythology that added emotional levels to a franchise that had been defined by only rage and revenge.

“God of War” was just the tip of the iceberg for fans of narrative-driven titles with huge open worlds. “Spider-Man,” another smash hit from Sony, “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” and “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” were all of a similar vein.

Good open-world games like “God of War” hit all the right narrative notes, but also give players control over whether to continue with the story or do something completely different and progress at their leisure.

The most anticipated release of the year was Rockstar Games’ sprawling Wild West epic, “Red Dead Redemption 2.” Like “God of War,” the game was a massive open-world, story-driven experience and almost universally hailed.

Although not all the news was good, as comments, whether taken out of context or not, about members of the team needing 100-hour work weeks to complete the game surfaced. Rockstar found itself in the center of a intense controversy about “crunch,” the mandatory overtime that’s usually done near the end of a game’s development.

The ensuing maelstrom didn’t hurt the game, though, with the title winning four awards at this year’s The Game Awards earlier this month, the most by any title.

It was not, however, named game of the year, an honor that went to “God Of War,” which also beat “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey,” “Celeste,” “Monster Hunter: World” and “Spider-Man.”

Even in a big year for single-player games, “Fornite,” the battle royale sensation, still stood above all. The game was released last year, but its influence expanded in 2018.

It’s not even fully contained within the gaming sphere anymore. France’s Antoine Griezmann did a “Fortnite” dance after scoring during the World Cup final in July and Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price had to assure fans a wrist injury wasn’t due to marathon “Fornite” sessions. The Vancouver Canucks have banned their players from playing the game on road trips this season.

“Fortnite” reached Japanese shores this year, accompanied by the idea of using aging boy band Tokio in the marketing push.

The game is changing the industry, as publishers rush to add battle royale modes to their games and the industry at large remains focused on multiplayer titles. “Call of Duty 4” shipped without a dedicated single-player campaign, but has a battle royale mode.

As a busy 2018 ends, gaming fans don’t have much time to get caught up before the cycle resumes. Next year’s first blockbuster, “Kingdom Hearts III,” hits Japan on Jan. 25.

Top five video game releases of 2018

‘God of War’ — PS4
The reinvention of one of Sony’s most popular franchises is a triumph. The brutal action that made the series popular is still there, but Sony’s Santa Monica Studio has added new depth to gruff series star Kratos, who is on a journey with his son Atreus to spread his wife’s ashes. Combat is smooth and enjoyable and the weapons system behind it is deep. The game is set in a large open world teeming with things to do between story beats.

‘Spider-Man’ — PS4
Insomniac Games’ take on Marvel’s iconic web crawler might be the best superhero game ever. The game is full of enough easter eggs — not to mention suits — from both the comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe to satisfy longtime fans, but tells an original story accessible to newer or more casual fans. Swinging between New York’s skyscrapers is exhilarating, which is good since web-slinging is one of the most important things to get right in a Spider-Man game.

‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ — PS4, Xbox One
How do you justify making fans wait several years for a game? By releasing a title like this. Rockstar Games pulled out all the stops (perhaps too many) to create this Wild West epic. The game puts you in the boots of Arthur Morgan and takes you on a sprawling journey that serves as a prequel to the events of 2010’s “Red Dead Redemption.” From shootouts to the game’s more mundane moments and morality decisions, it proved to be well worth the wait.

‘Tetris Effect’ — PS4, PlayStation VR
From the way the visuals dance in the background to the small sounds pieces make when moved, “Tetris Effect” feels alive. Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the mind behind “Rez” and “Lumines,” is no stranger to weaving music and sound into his games, rather than having it simply sit in the background, and Enhance Games’ “Tetris Effect” is another example. The gameplay is the same as it has always been, it has just never been this vibrant.

‘Celeste’ — PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
You are going to die in “Celeste.” A lot. So much that the game even reaches out and gives you in-game messages as a pat on the back. “Celeste” isn’t a blockbuster on the edge of technology. It’s simple and beautiful in its approach and complex in its execution. The platformer challenges you to get Madeline up Celeste Mountain by finding a way to reach the exit of its challenging and intricate levels. The game features a charming story and finding the way through its puzzles soon becomes addictive.