Life simulation in Japanese games

One of the main goals of video and computer games since their inception has been the realisation of virtualised world. In other words, the simulation of the real world. The most common examples that people across the world can recognize would be the multitude of driving simulators (with varying levels of realism across the board) and The Sims, a life simulation game series that has been acting as a huge time sink to many players since its inception in 2000. Seriously, all the people I’ve known who played The Sims had a mania towards it to the point of one girl wrecking her four-year relationship.

The thing is, certain type of simulation games aren’t really common in the West. The main reason I chose driving and life simulation above as examples is because of their widespread nature. Sports overall can be counted as sort of simulation, depending how the level of realism they have, but without a proper controller such games always fall tad flat. Sure you can do realistic dribbles in Fifa, but that’s all in the controller. You’re not standing up and actually dribbling the ball in a virtual environment. That’s currently impossible, the technology isn’t at the level of Star Trek‘s holodeck yet.

 


Alpine Racer had a control rig of two sticks and slots that emulated skis. The game require complete physical movement to be controlled, and was fun

The main difference between American, European and Japanese cultures when it comes to simulation games, which also reflects our approaches to games in general, is that there is a level of separation. Sure, driving games and such are fun thing to play, but ultimately a Westerner could just go and try these things himself for real. In Japan, however, this is not the case due to geographic and overall cultural influence. The reason Japan has so many golf games is that it’s a status symbol. To have a membership in a golf club is a sign of financial success and socially high status. These golf clubs are much more than just tracks to play golf, as they offer a complete spa and vacation resort experience. It’s a prestige, and simulation of that prestige is invaluable.

Similarly, due to the limited space Japan has, the experience of e.g. owning a dog can be a challenge. It’s also a financial risk that some people can’t simply do. Hence games like Nintendogs became a success, though Nintendogs wasn’t the first dog simulation game. There has been a few in the past, with one of the more notable ones being Sega’s Inu no Sanpo, or Walk the Dog. The game works on a treadmill and on force feedback leash. You are given instructions when to walk normally, run or dash, while the screen would have a realistic Japanese scenery going on while your dog just stumbles along events that can happen. Like a runaway cat taking your dog’s attention or car almost hitting it. All the while you can feel the force feedback through the leash in your hand.

Walk the Dog may be a curiosity for a Youtuber to rant on, it’s a case study how Japanese simulation games do allow people to do things they couldn’t otherwise. Of course, there is one specific simulation game that doesn’t only hit the cultural nerve but also has a mania following with train otakus. Densha de Go! or Go by Train! is another example of simulation games allowing something desirable in the culture, as trains are nearly revered in Japan.

 


Armed with a special controller replicating a train’s control panel, Densha de Go! was a massive phenomena in the late 1990’s and gained a legendary status as far as train simulators go

Densha de Go! isn’t just about achieving something that’s beyond most people. It’s also a sort of taking control event, where the player can move from being a simple passenger to the role of the train driver. The game also benefits from having realistic environments for the tracks, which has been argued to relieve stress in many ways, e.g. allowing a salaryman to travel and see new sights without moving away from his home, or bringing back childhood memories through seeing familiar train routes from back home.

Of course, one of the most Japanese simulation game genres out there is the raising genre, or ikusei games. Or sodate-ge, if you want to be informal bastard. Without a doubt the most well-known title in the genre is Gainax’s Princess Maker, in which the player character takes control of raising a girl from childhood to adulthood. The game’s a contrast to The Sims‘ controls, where the player doesn’t exactly control much of the character in the end. In Princess Maker, the player is responsible is one individual’s growth into the ideal women, and the game offers 74 possible endings, ranging from your daughter ending up being a solider, bishop or a whore.

Princes Maker can be seen as another way for Japanese men to ogle at young girls of different ages in a perverted way, but the more likely reason why Princess Maker became popular is that it allowed lonely men to experience some resemblance to family happiness. Which is one is the sadder option is up to you.

The most popular and well-known raising game however isn’t Princess Maker when it comes to global population. That would be Tamagotchi, which experienced its explosive boom in the late 1990’s. These eggfriends was a bane of many school’s existence, with the fuckers beeping in the kids’ bags every so often requiring to be fed or their shit be cleaned out. The basic idea is that you have an egg that hatches into a creature that must be taken care of and raised well in order it to flourish, until it dies. Early in the game the creature gets sick easily and there has to be rather large amount of effort to keep it alive in the first place. Balancing with its diet and mood was important as well, as sweets tended to get it sick while normal food kept it alive in the first place. The reason why the game became a bane was that the device beeped every time the creature needed attention, and you can imagine how teacher’s felt when thirty Tamagotchis went off during every hour, demanding their shit be cleaned.

Not everyone saw the device as a terrible bane. Some teachers and adults saw Tamagotchis as a device to teach responsibility to the child playing it due to the whole death of the creature if its neglected thing going on. What Bandai didn’t see with its raising pet simulator dangle thing was the psychological effects it had on the player. The Tamagotchi Effect describes the development emotional attachment towards non-living objects, like robots or software agents. It’s not necessarily a negative effect, as it can be used as a form of therapy, as is the case with the PARO Therapeutic Robot. The choice of the creature dying in Tamagotchi has caused some trauma with the player, but this sort of permanent deaths in a massively popular game was something new. It brought a level of realism to a game that was expected to be cute lil’ thing. Instead, it brought adult responsibility and death.

To be honest, I never got into Tamagotchi, but it’s a subject that really necessitates its own post with an analysis of its effects.

Whether or not we can count a software like Summer Lesson a game on its own rights is for another time, but it can’t be ignored that it is essentially an evolution of life simulation, where the player takes control, or rather becomes, a tuition teacher to a schoolgirl during summer. While its raising elements are a more limited than Princess Maker‘s, the player is expected to set up a schedule for Miyamoto Hikari, the student character. Much like Princess Maker, it has been criticised for being a game for perverts, where in reality its intentions are anything but. After all, Japanese culture has always added a small hint of sexuality to its cute things in a positive fashion, which Western culture often misunderstands.

In the end, Summer Lesson emulates real life much like any other in its genre. It just managed to get unnecessary flak way too much, whereas the game’s main content really isn’t anything far off from other manager/raising simulators that have been around on Japanese PCs and consoles since the 1980’s. Summer Lesson also allows the player to take part in a valued job, much like in Densha de Go!. Perhaps it too is a way for the player relive their youthful years or experience some sort of life they couldn’t otherwise achieve, much like what other simulation titles offer as well.

Maybe I should skip buying Switch this year and get PS VR for Summer Lesson after all.

Monthly Three: Arcade Game

If computer games are about the complexity of things, then the arcade was pretty much the opposite. Flashy graphics, tight action, fast gameplay, intoxicating sounds, and most importantly, the audience and the social aspect it brought to the table. Another aspect that they had is that they were made to be picked up and dropped. They would grasp into the game the very moment you drop a coin in. Computer games demand longer periods to be spent with them due to their complex nature, which is pretty much the opposite to arcade games. Arcades were designed to munch your coins down, which doesn’t mean difficult gameplay, just design that puts up a challenge. The best and most famous arcade games were not hard like how the hardcore crowd thinks.

There should be no surprises on this list, you most likely already know the games I’ve picked to represent what an arcade game is.

Pac-Man

I’m not sure if I can say anything profound about Pac-Man that isn’t repetition. Essentially, everything it in is iconic, from the waka waka sound to the idea of Power pellets. It’s fast and can get hectic, very easy to learn but mastering the point gain requires time and practice.

But most importantly, it was colourful and abstract. It was this sophisticated kind of abstract approach that allowed games in general to branch off into wide variety of different directions. After this, there is almost an explosion of games that would become more fantastical, as well as huge amounts of Pac-Man clones.

People flocked arcades to play Pac-Man, as it had universal appeal. It had a cartoon, comic series, serials and huge loads of merchandise. For a game about a yellow ball eating pellets and running from ghosts, the Pac-Man is a phenomenal game that embodies arcade games’ nature of appealing to everyone the best.

Space Invaders

Space Invaders is few years older than Pac-Man, but it’s just one of the three elements that created the Golden Age of video games alongside the aforementioned and Atari. Pac-Man was popular had a wide appeal, and so did Space Invaders. After Taito had launched Space Invaders in Japan, arcades that had nothing but it began to pop up and the game raked in profits like no other. Something about Space Invaders simply attracted customers, and that something was pure, distilled gameplay.

Seemingly a simple game, Space Invaders speeds up with each destroyed alien. This is a quirk of the hardware, as originally it couldn’t handle all the materials on-screen. Combine the relentless beating from the cabinet and the experience is perfect. Strategy is not only recommended, but required to beat the game, as the shields the player have can be show through. The shots take time to travel through the screen as well, meaning you had to time and aim your shot almost far better than expected. It birthed a genre, and clones like Galaga would pop up very soon after. Just like Pac-Man, Space Invaders is still a phenomenal game that veterans of the industry, like Miyamoto and Kojima, refer as the game that got them interested in games.

Space Invaders attracted people to play it.

Defender

Space Invaders and Pac-Man may have been hectic, but their one-screen nature didn’t really lend to feeling of speed. A scrolling screen would be required for that.

There are some conflicting reports whether or not Defender was the first horizontally scrolling game, but it’s popularity gets the spot here. Defender‘s fast, colourful and relentless. Compared to Space Invaders, it is very complex with game with positioning, destroying enemy UFOs and saving civilians. For a game of its time, it was intimidating, and at first its success wasn’t evident. However, much like how Atari’s Missile Command gathered people around it, Defender was a very much like a spectator’s game. If you got good at it, you could play the game longs times on just credit, a feat that people wanted to behold.

Defender is still one of the harder games that came from the arcades that wasn’t designed solely to eat your coins. Much like other great arcade games, players throughout the years have created strategies and methods to play the game as long as possible. Defender didn’t simply require split moment decision-making and eye-hand coordination, also forming the aforementioned strategies and applying them.

Both Space Invaders and Defender have roots in Asteroids and Computer Space, and while those are historical games, Asteroids is the only one that people remember and for a good reason. Computer Space may have been the first modern arcade game released to the public in 1971, but it was a failure. Both of them are largely first steps towards what defined the arcades.

Space Panic and Donkey Kong

I feel that it is necessary to say that Donkey Kong, while the most popular early platformer-type game, Space Panic predates it by one year.

Developed by Chris Crawford of Universal Entertainment Corporation, Space Panic has all the elements that would later appear in both Donkey Kong, Pitfall!! and Lode Runner. While Space Panic is largely forgotten in the annals of game history, it sets up the groundwork for a the whole genre.

To be fair, discussing Donkey Kong would be to echo many of the previous points already mentioned, but it’s a game where you can see how much games could evolve at the time in on year’s time. The Golden Age of video games is not defined one game, but by this evolution Donkey Kong was part of that constant evolution where arcade game developers and manufacturers would be inspired by each other and try to create a more popular product.

Street Fighter II

The 1980’s was the era for arcade games to flourish, and the beginning of the end for arcades began in the early 1990’s when computing technology had advanced to the point where everybody could begin to afford a home computer. Arcades used to be the place were you went to see the latest and most advanced graphics and gameplay compared to consoles, while computers had their own thing going on. While games like International Karate, Yie Ar Kung Fu and other fighting games predated Street Fighter, they all had their own conventions and no real standard was set. SEGA’s Heavyweight Champ from 1976 is probably the first fighting game, but even with that position it is very much a forgotten game

The reason why Street Fighter II, despite being almost two decades younger than its predecessors, gets this spot is due to it essentially taking all that and blowing the whole genre wide open, waking waves of clones in its wake and being copied to some extent by essentially every single 2D fighting game since. Just like Missile Command, Defender and the like Street Fighter II was a spectators’ game, but unlike with its predecessor, now you could challenge the master of the machine with your choice of character.

Street Fighter II embodies all that an arcade game still is; attractive to look at, easy to get into and hard to master, requires forming strategies and split second decision. It’s not slow and methodical like a computer game, and could say it lacks the sophistication of Ultima and Wizardry. However, arcades and computer games were two different kind of beasts, meant to strike completely different nerve, and their catchy style of gameplay is still used to this day despite the death of arcades themselves.

PC games and the hardcore story

I decided to attend a game design course not too long ago just for the kicks in our local university to see what kind people there were and what things the lecturer would go through. What came out of it was more or less the things I already had known, and a new understanding how ignorant PC gamers can be with the term “hardcore gamer.”

A hardcore gamer is a myth created on message boards and chats. There is none. When discussing the matter with the students there about the subject they concluded that a hardcore gamer is somebody who plays a lot of game, collects them and has a lot of knowledge behind them. Skyrim was brought up as an example for a hardcore game. However, somebody who plays the Wii, console games or arcade titles in general was a casual gamer. Inquiring them whether or not I was a casual or hard lead to no answers. This was because they had no basis in their arguments, only an idea that has been floating around.

What seems to bind these hardcore gamers and hardcore games together is the story elements and options the player has within the stories. Skyrim and Mass Effect were given as prime examples. The phrase “this game has no deep plot, it isn’t a hardcore game or anything” was the most rephrased sentence in bulk of the presentations given by the students. The selections and choices given the player also seemed to be a big part in the game. According to these people, who also seemed to represent the majority of the online student’s opinion, was that arcade games do not allow players to choose.

Let’s stop here for a moment and wonder what is choosing inside a game. According to these students, a game does not a any choices if the story in the game doesn’t allow them. However, they went silent when asked if any action done in a game is a choice or not. I gave Final Fight as an easy example. The game does not give choices to the player outright in form of text, but gives the player to choose from their own preferred way of fighting the goons the way they wanted. They disregarded these as choices and options, and called them as puzzles. How the hell selecting between two guys to punch is a puzzle? The only way these students could understand what a choice is was through multiple choice questions like in Mass Effect. In games a choice is something that player chooses to do. It has nothing to do whether or not it’s a story selection or not. Simply the decision of jumping unto someone in Super Mario Bros. is a choice given to the player.

Vast majority of the attendants were clearly had their roots in computer games and only in computer games. Their route to console games was most likely in the early 90’s and then later on with the current generation of consoles. Their point of view was fixed to one way only, and nothing could budge them. They had no appreciation outside their own beloved computer games that were clearly superior to measly arcade and console games. Their games were more cerebral and had more story into them, more realistic and rewarding.

But ‘lo, they regarded such game as Contra as a true hardcore game! How Contra can be a hardcore game when it’s the epitome of arcade game, a true casual game if we were to use such terms. Pointing this out they said that the difficulty alone makes Contra a hardcore game, but to this I demanded to know what excludes all other arcade and console titles from their list of hardcore games. They basically had none and went back at talking about difficulty levels and stories. To this I noted that aren’t bulk of adventure games difficult only in a manner of knowing what to do rather than skill, making them truly casual games? Adventure games are also extremely easy to anyone to pick and and play, like Myst.
These students had no idea what to talk about simply because they were computer game players.

It’s been a mindset that computers will some day be integrated to the society to the extreme and become something more than a mere tool. They expected Atari to become such entity, then NES, then PlayStation, then the XBox, and now the iPad. Computer games will never be popular on any other platform other than computers. The same can be said of console games with the exception that most arcade ports did succeed on consoles and the largest console franchises originated from arcades.

Hard core gamers and their stories are one of the reasons that the game industry’s in decline. The Wii and the DS has showed what kind of console and arcade titles is what people want. If the industry were to make more and more hard core games, they would lose more and more money and customers. It would take another industry crash them to realize that hardcore gamers do not exist. What they are in their true colours is computer game players directed to consoles. If the industry would return making console games for consoles, arcade game for all platforms and computer games for computers, then we could return to a more balanced industry.

Look at Angry Birds, a computer game on computer devices and its succession. Look at New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a console arcade game on a console and its succession. Or if we want to go back in time, look at how successful such game as Pac-Man was on any platform it was released. The only place where it failed was the computer, and computers do not matter in the long run.

What will it take for players to open their eyes and start enjoying games as games, rather than as experiences?

The arcade lives

One argument that is brought up periodically is that the life system in games is outdated, that it hampers the flow of the game. This argument has been out there so long that the industry has become to believe it.

The life system originates from the arcades, where your quarter usually corresponded three lives or so depending the dip switches used. When given lives were used up, another coin with ten second timer would give three more lives to go with. The player could also earn more lives by certain point intervals or finding 1-up items. The latter is rare in arcade games, but more common in their ports and in console games.
The life based system creates interesting challenge; if you’re not good enough, the game’s over before you notice it. The lives limit the game and forces the player to become good at the game rather than just breeze through.

Why was the life based system abandoned? As mentioned previously, some argued that it was an archaic system from the old days. This is, as you might expect, completely wrong. The argument came from computer players who were frustrated at the difficulty level of console and arcade games. Computer games rarely had a proper life system, and if they had, the games using them were console games on PCs. This lead the developer slowly abandon the life system, and as a side effect some games suffer from having bad life system. As with any mechanic, the life system needs to be properly applied to any game with good crafts skills.

Let’s take a look at Mega Man Zero, a game that has completely useless life system. The 1-Ups are scarce and rare, only found around few spots in each of the games. The thing is, because you can reload your saved game after every failure the life system is completely stupid inclusion. Another way to screw up the life system would be to give more lives to the player than enough, a think modern Mario games, 2D and 3D alike, do so much that the player has more than 99 lives before the end of the second World.

The life system, by all means, was to make the game harder, but also encourage the player to try again. Now that most games have underwent a complete PC transformation the life system has been discarded and now the player almost has to do the job so that they can die. It takes a lot to get the game balance just right in order to life system to work. Because nowadays these creative heads of game studios barely do any work (of any kind) the game balance is totally screwed, but players do not notice this because the life system is not present and you barely ever find yourself returned back to the main screen.
We barely have any games that pose a challenge, games that make you work to get better at the game, not good with the controls.

The arcade quality

Making games has got easier since the 70’s. Very few games that are made today are arcade quality any more. In time when PC got all the homebrew and bunch of horribly coded games, arcades had more often perfection of their time. In the 80’s arcades were the place to play games, meet people and commune in general. An arcade game has to succeed, there’s no losing in arcade market. Those games that do fail will never make their due. Those games aren’t remembered by anyone these days, except hardcore MAME fanatics.
A successful arcade game has to have playability, replay value, easy yet complex controls and unseen depth, but most importantly, it must be easy to pick and play. Everybody has heard of Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Pong even if they haven’t played the games. Computer games will always lose to arcade games simply because arcade games are for everybody. Let’s make this clear; Arcade games are not computer games. Console games are combination of computer and arcade games. The term for computer, console and arcade games is electronic gaming. It compasses more than just these three, it encompasses everything from digital pinball machines to certain love test machines and to all modern gambling machines. Modern computer players have a good reason to mock modern console games, as both Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 are nothing more than glorified one-use computers. They’re not game consoles, they’re multimedia centres, especially PS3 with its Blu-Ray support. Exactly this is the reason why both of them lost to the Wii and why Wii U will be a disaster compared to its predecessor. In the 80’s and early 90’s we saw a lot of games that were essentially arcade games for the home consoles, like the all Atari consoles, the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Master System and the Sega Mega Drive /Genesis. Nowadays we’re looking at consoles filled with computer games made for consoles, and they’re not selling as much as games sold in the 80’s. People keep looking at sales charts and pointing out that this is false, but they never take into account population growth, how many people own multiple consoles etc.

Arcade games demand perfection from both developer and player. Very few developer these days can make arcade games any more, and now that Nintendo has abandoned their arcade roots, the future of console games is dire. I find it laughable that both 360 and PS3 has add-ons that are basically a keyboard and mouse for “more precise control in your action games.” The fact that developing of console games themselves has shifted into developing computer games for consoles. Development of arcade games does not exist par few exceptions. Capcom has gone all the fighting game craze during these last years, and not the good kind might I add. Because the skill of coding has diminished during the last thirty years, it just might be that the second Video Game Crash isn’t because there’s so many bad games nobody pays for, but because the market is filled with games that have too high price for wrong reasons.
Personally, I am willing to pay 60€ for three new games and that’s that. The first one is being released 19th of this month (next week’s Friday) and the game is Xenoblade.
When people say “they don’t make it like they used to” is painfully true.

I wonder what it takes for companies to notice that their tactics is more damaging that constructing?