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Japan's constant change

John Ricciardi | Sept. 20, 2010
10 years ago, the playing field in games was very, very different from today

SAN FRANCISCO, 18 SEPTEMBER 2010 - When I first came to Japan nearly 10 years ago, the playing field was very, very different from today. The handheld market was just a tiny blip on the overall radar (the Game Boy Advance was still a few months from release, and the NeoGeo Pocket wasn't exactly lighting up the charts), the PlayStation 2 hadn't yet started its rise to dominance (it was the constant butt of jokes before its sales finally broke out), and, perhaps most important, Japan-developed video games were still leading the way in innovation'both technically and from a game design standpoint. Kind of hard to believe, isn't it?

I grew up a huge fan of Japanese video games, and it was always a dream of mine to live and work here in Japan. Ironically, just as I spent most of my young adult life importing video games from Japan, once I got here the balance of power began to shift toward the West, and before I knew it, I was importing most of my games again, only this time from America. How unfair! At first, it was because most of the big Japanese releases wound up coming out in the U.S. first, as Japan's big holiday sales don't really kick off until December and the U.S. got everything a couple weeks earlier in time for the post-Thanksgiving Day retail rush. Later, it was because most of the big games were just coming from the U.S., period. So much for the dream.

At first I was pretty bitter about all this. But as time went on and I learned more about the culture here, I began to appreciate Japan for what it was -- or what it had become -- even if it wasn't exactly how I envisioned it when I was a kid.

The evolution of Japan's video-game industry had long run parallel to that of the West, but at some point during the past 10 years -- around the time when broadband spread like wildfire throughout Japan and cell-phone technology took off -- the Land of the Rising Sun started to chart its own course in a very different direction from where the West was headed.

See, Japan is a small, densely-populated country with an incredibly efficient mass-transit system and a much smaller per-person average living space than America. So when publishers in Japan started making decent games for cell phones -- and the handheld gaming market began to revitalize with the Game Boy Advance and later the DS and PSP -- Japanese consumers started paying attention.

When you spend hours of your day on the train or on foot, it just makes sense that your platform of choice is one that fits in your pocket. Fast-forward to 2010, and handhelds rule the day here. I don't need to tell you how huge the DS has become in Japan -- I mean Square Enix even elected to release its most recent mainline Dragon Quest title, IX, for the Nintendo handheld, which was unheard of last generation.


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