During a panel at the Monaco Anime Game International Conferences 2023 (MAGIC 2023) in Monte Carlo, two legendary figures from Japan’s video game industry discussed the industry’s first 30 years.
Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy, and Koji Igarashi, creator of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, discussed the rise and fall of Japan’s video game industry in the early 2000s and its recovery in the 2010s.
In keeping with what Sakaguchi has said, he claims that the release of Dragon Quest in 1986 was a significant inspiration. Sakaguchi doubted developing RPGs on the NES (or Famicom in Japan) before Yuji Horii’s breakthrough.
The Legend of Zelda didn’t have much effect on him, although he enjoyed playing it when it came out the same year.
“Nintendo and (Shigeru) Miyamoto’s games were on another level,” Sakaguchi said.
“Mario already kind of had a story,” he added. “I think that the story in Zelda was an extension of that. In these games, the story is not the most important component. I wanted to make a game in which the story comes first, which is why Dragon Quest felt closer to what I wanted to achieve.”
“The music and systems are of great importance as well, but it is the scenario and story by Yuji Horii that made Dragon Quest special.”
“At the time, people in the West saw pixel art and three-heads-high characters as something for children.”
Igarashi, on the other hand, saw things quite differently. With Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, he cites The Legend of Zelda as an influence.
“At the time, people in the West saw pixel art and three-heads-high characters as something for children,” Sakaguchi said. “It was frustrating that our games were struggling there, as we wanted to find a way to expand our business. That finally happened when we were able to incorporate CG for Final Fantasy VII.”
Although Dragon Quest may have been the first RPG seen outside of Japan, Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy series is widely credited as the one that genuinely revolutionized the genre. As much as Sakaguchi loved the reception his NES and SNES games received in Japan, he was disheartened that they were largely overlooked in the West.
Final Fantasy’s meteoric rise to fame on the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 cemented the franchise’s position as a gaming classic. Japanese video games had been on the pitch before the launch of the PlayStation 3, except for Nintendo’s offerings.
“I think that one of the main reasons for that is the fact that consoles like the NES and PlayStation were very specific hardware,” suggested Sakaguchi. “This made it easier for Japanese developers to master the hardware, as we could ask Nintendo or Sony directly in Japanese.”
“This is why – I realize it might be impolite to say this – Japanese games were of a higher quality at the time. As a result, Japanese games were regarded as more fun, but when hardware became easier to develop for, things quickly changed.”
“Japanese developers had been developing skills specifically for console games, but in North America and Europe, there was a long history of PC culture,” Igarashi said.
“By the time there was no longer a big difference between developing for console and for PC, Japanese developers could no longer rely on their specialty as console developers, and had to master PC development,” said Igarashi, positing that this was the major reason Japanese games started falling behind.
“This is why – I realize it might be impolite to say this – Japanese games were of a higher quality at the time.”
Sakaguchi added: “Many Western gamers grew up playing Japanese games. When games by Western studios started to improve, they felt new and fresh when compared with the Japanese games those players were more familiar with. I believe that in entertainment, freshness is extremely important.”
After Sakaguchi left Square and launched Mistwalker in 2004, Western role-playing games (RPGs) began to prominence. Millions become devoted followers of The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect.
Meanwhile, Japanese role-playing games like Final Fantasy XIII and Sakaguchi’s Blue Dragon had trouble keeping up with demand. Sakaguchi believes he didn’t feel it was necessary to take inspiration from Western role-playing video games.
“In the West, children often get their own room from a very young age, whilst in Japan the whole family sleeps together in the same room,” said Sakaguchi.”
“I think that such small cultural differences can be felt through the games we make today. Even when Western games became mainstream, I didn’t feel the need to be inspired by them. I believe that cherishing my Japanese cultural background is what attracts people towards my games in the first place.”
In this way, Igarashi’s story is unparalleled. The Metroidvania genre he helped pioneer is one of the most popular among independent creators today, and dozens of new games take direct influence from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
“In my case, (at Konami) I wasn’t able to make the type of game that I knew fans were waiting for anymore,” Igarashi said.
“Mobile games were gaining popularity in Japan,” he recalled. “As a company, I think it was the right decision to shift focus. However, as a result it was no longer possible for me to make the same type of games.”
“That’s when I heard the voice of a devil inside me telling me to quit. I think that to a greater or lesser extent, the direction of companies and what developers wanted to make started to diverge.”
With recent releases like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Metal Gear Solid V, Elden Ring, and Final Fantasy XIV, it’s fair to say that Japanese developers are once again at the forefront of the gaming industry.
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Nonetheless, the current atmosphere is quite different from the 1980s and 1990s. Nintendo has deep roots in Japan, while Sony’s video game company, SIE, moved its headquarters from Tokyo to San Mateo, California, in 2016. As free engines like Unreal and Unity provide more English documentation than Japanese, this move has been detrimental to Japanese creators.
“I believe that cherishing my Japanese cultural background is what attracts people towards my games in the first place.”
“Nintendo is a very creative company,” said Sakaguchi. “They want to create games they believe are fun, and Shigeru Miyamoto is still central to that, which in turn is reflected in their marketing.”
“That’s why their headquarters need to remain in Japan. Sony (PlayStation), on the other hand, is a much broader company that does business in many different genres. The biggest market is the West, and with their strength in marketing it is natural for them to make that market central.”
“The way I see it is that Sony is approaching videogames as a more cinematic type of entertainment,” said Igarashi. “Of course, they are aiming at the biggest market, but I think they need to be located where the best cinematic entertainment is made. Nintendo, on the other hand, is closer in spirit to a toy manufacturer.”
Igarashi has emphasized his aim to continue doing what he does best despite being motivated by the commercial success of recent Japanese games like Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring.
Sakaguchi’s time has been consumed by Final Fantasy XIV, excluding all other video games. Final Fantasy XIV is a significant hit compared to other recent Japanese video games. Final Fantasy XIV has shown that it can compete with World of Warcraft, EVE Online, and Everquest, even thoWestern studios have ally dominated the MMORPG market.
“As the director (Naoki) Yoshida says himself, FFXIV is like a Final Fantasy theme park,” noted Sakaguchi, explaining the reason he thinks Final Fantasy XIV became such a big success.”
“It seems like an MMORPG on the surface, but in reality it’s a bit different. It’s a game that celebrates 35 years of characters and worlds from Final Fantasy, similar to something like Disneyland. In that regard, you might even call it a new genre.”
In 2022, an IGN interview highlighted Sakaguchi’s fervor for Final Fantasy XIV. During MAGIC 2023, Sakaguchi talked about how Chrono Trigger came to be.
New this year is Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. After receiving excellent reviews, nearly a million copies were sold by 2020. There have been reports that Igarashi is working on a sequel, although no official confirmation has been made.
Sakaguchi’s studio, Mistwalker, developed the classic role-playing game Fantasian, which debuted on Apple Arcade in 2021. His ideas will likely be carried out, as he stated an interest in developing a sequel and releasing the original on PC at MAGIC 2023.