September 28th, 2003 | Feature
Tokyo Game Show 2003 Report
Our friend in Japan Andrew Vestal gives a brief account of this worrisome expo, plus pictures of a Canadian guy. No, not ours this time.


An entry on my blog garnered the comment, “it’s soooooooo nice to read a post about TGS that doesn’t say there are too many 3d action games and the show/Japanese games industry sucks.” How could I tell him that was only because I was saving those comments for Crunk? Kids are so sweet, in their innocence.

I’m not going to talk much about games, at least in the specific, so you’d probably be best served by skipping straight to the pictures. Don’t worry, I’m not quite sure who the shaggy guy is either! I do know that his name is Jason, he lives in Tokyo, teaches English, and DJs with Game Boys. He kept using his mysterious, shaggy foreigner charm to get booth girls to pose in wacky and provocative ways. And you, the reader, get to enjoy his success.

So, about the show … the Tokyo Game Show was a sobering and somewhat depressing experience. It is a snapshot of an industry about to implode. (I am talking here about the Japanese console gaming industry specifically; other markets, at least for the time being, remain fairly healthy.) This isn’t to say that there was nothing worthwhile on display – a lot of games looked great, and there’s a handful I’m really looking forward to. But underneath the flashing lights and song and dance is an industry that’s scared, because it has no idea what it wants to do with itself or where it wants to go.

Nowhere was this more apparent than with Square’s announcement of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, the one-hour sequel movie to the original PSone game. Oh, sorry, not a movie – after the spectacular failure of The Spirits Within, that word is verboten. According to Square, Advent Children is properly referred to as “visual content.” Square went on to explain that they currently have no idea how they’ll distribute the content – maybe as a DVD release, maybe as a pack-in with another game – honestly, they just don’t know right now! Square is working without a net, or at least a business plan. The last time they tried something like this, they were bought out by Enix. You’d think they’d be a bit more careful about these things. In the end, they can probably put it on a DVD and sell it for $70 in Japan, but that’s not going to fly in the U.S.

But you know, at least Square is being upfront about their intentions. Many of the titles at the show leaned more towards “visual content” than “games” – this is the part where I complain about the glut of 3D action games. Every company was touting at least one; most had three or four. (Examples of the offending genre are Kunoichi, Dororo, Gungrave OD, Bujingai, Ninja Gaiden, Seven Samurai 20XX, Otogi 2, Magatama, Phantom Dust, etc., etc., etc., etc.) Some are cel-shaded, some are more traditional, all of them are incredibly fast, flashy, and in-your-face. It’s hard to explain what’s so bothersome about these titles; individually, they look fine, but cumulatively, they’re distressing. They’re like playing a Mountain Dew commercial, with the entire world constantly turned up to eleven.

I’m not opposed to games looking good – I like good graphics, honest! But there’s an increasing disconnect in these games between what the player does and what appears on the screen. You tap a single button, and lightning comes crashing down from the sky, noisily incinerating your opponent into sparkly particles. Cool. But why? As Dave Smith of IGN said of Taito’s Bujingai – a game starring ex-visual kei star Gackt – “you just press buttons and rainbows appear all over the screen.” It’s overwhelming, it’s exhausting, and once the initial flash wears off, it’s empty. It the audiovisual equivalent of eating nothing but desserts; it sounds great to the 14-year-old mind, but the malnutrition will kill you in the end.

The third-person adventure titles which did appeal to me – Castlevania, Siren, F.D. 18 – did so because they were chose a focused theme and were willing to exercise restraint. Less, in these cases, was definitely more. In the flashier department, both Ninja Gaiden and Onimusha 3 looked fun, thanks to their huge budgets and top-notch development teams. Other than third-person kill-em-ups, almost every game at the show was an RPG or racing game. And while both genres have titles that appear enjoyable and well-developed, none of them really demonstrated any new idea or new kinds of gameplay. Good or bad, all TGS offered was more of the same.

Perhaps that was the most distressing part of the show: a lot of games looked bad, and a few games looked good, but absolutely nothing1 was new. Innovation is the lifeblood of the industry, and though the hardcore will stay, casual fans are going to continue drifting away. Unsure of where they want to take the industry, the reaction of Japanese developers has been to simply increase the glitter and gloss and hope gamers don’t notice they’re playing the same thing seven times over. The Japanese game industry is busy environment mapping the deck chairs on the Titanic, and it’s only going to get worse from here on out. —Andrew Vestal

1 Except Mojib Ribbon! Which is almost unplayably original, at least for a non-native speaker of Japanese. Killer 7 also looks potentially awesome, if Capcom will ever reveal how it plays.

Crunk Games – Tokyo Game Show 2003 Report

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