The rise of the Western games in Japan

by on December 22, 2014

Back on September 11th, Destiny was released in Japan, 3 days after its Western release. Bungie and Activision’s newest title has sold nearly 140,000 copies within its first week, combining the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 versions according to data from Famitsu, even enabling Sony’s newest console to get a little boost, seeing sales go from around 7250 the prior week to 23,623 units. All these numbers are strange, especially considering the reputation and the monumental flop of the Xbox One in the land of the rising sun, but it looks like Japan became, for some years, less impervious to Western productions.


The British Gorilla

It is difficult to have a complete view of the video game market at the time of the Famicom and Super Famicom reign. We do know with certainty that no Western console game has managed to reach one million in sales in Japan at that time. As for the PC, the market is even more blurry, but for other reasons: the country has never been a large consumer of computer video games.

The first Western production to cross the million in the country is Donkey Kong Country. Although published by Nintendo, UK based Rareware took care of the production, releasing the title in Japan back in 1994 under the name of Super Donkey Kong. The numbers were astounding, with over 3 million copies flying off the Japanese shelves, and over 9 Million worldwide. But this game is what could be called one of the “cheaters”, since on paper it is considered a Western work, Donkey Kong Country’s roots is Japanese, originally created by Shigeru Miyamoto, which can help greatly to its success. Other great success emerged recently, with titles like Luigi’s Mansion 2 made by Canada’s Next Level Games, DmC from UK’s Ninja Theory or even Castlevania: Lords of Shadow from Spanish studio MercurySteam, although this last example is far from being a commercial success in the homeland of the series.

Western Influence in Japan (2)

Rareware nevertheless experienced some very honorable success in the glory years of the Nintendo 64 in Japan, even without make use of Nintendo characters’ popularity. Banjo-Kazooie sold over 400,000 copies and Perfect Dark even approached the 100,000 sales mark. But the one western game who will then really shine at that time is Naughty Dog’s PlayStation debut title: Crash Bandicoot. Within the first month of its release back in December 1996, Crash Bandicoot sold around 60,000 copies, continuing to 700,000 copies at the end of its lifecycle. The second episode of the series to date remains the only other Western game to have sold more than one million copies in Japan.

These examples are nevertheless exceptions. One can possibly add the others, such as British Bizarre Creations’ Formula One, published by Sony (400,000 sales), or EA Sports FIFA 98 which approached the 500,000 sales figure. Released back in May 98 by Square EA (a Japanese-American joint venture between EA & Squaresoft), the game took the opportunity of the World Cup craze, but later on discover the might of Konami in its home turf, as two weeks later Winning Eleven 3 was released (becoming Pro Evolution Soccer in Europe) and became a great success in Japan. The FIFA licensed franchise then discovered the eternal duel between the two leading football series on consoles, becoming a symbol of national preference on the Nippon archipelago.

The case of Grand Theft Auto

The PlayStation 2 generation soon became the one era to show that West does not sell in Japan. When game franchises like Tony Hawk, Splinter Cell or Star Wars were a hit in America and Europe, they passed unnoticed in Japan. Even Naughty Dog’s recipe was failing: Jak & Daxter flopped throughout the first two episodes and the third one wasn’t even released in Japan. The same sort of “curse” affected Electronic Arts, which still was doing pretty well in the early 2000s with their cooperation with Square. But slowly, the Need for Speed and Medal of Honor franchise started to sink into indifference.

One title yet managed to fight the misconception that a Western game cannot make it in Japan. One which visuals, art direction and overall atmosphere immediately betray its origin, unlike games like Crash Bandicoot and Ratchet & Clank: Grand Theft Auto III, which was then published in Japan by Capcom. The Japanese company made an extra effort to do things as they should be, particularly blithely censoring the game to make it more consistent with the law of the country.


GTA III, released in September 2003 in Japan, two years after its Western release, was backed by a major marketing campaign from Capcom. The title is an immediate success, with over 100,000 sales in its first week and a total of 400,000 copies around the end of its cycle. The later on opus will even do better – with the exception of the fourth installment suffering from a PlayStation 3 yet to be established – confirming the popularity of the saga in Japan.

But then GTA is more the exception than the rule that the example to follow. For many, this is a special case, which echoes the success already established in the West, of maybe the most popular video game of that time. It will take longer to show the way for Western publishers and change the habits of Japanese consumers.

The Xbox 360 era

After the resounding failure of the first Xbox in Japan, Microsoft started investing into a much more aggressive tactic with Japanese publishers key partnerships to push its Xbox 360. Despite a disastrous start, the console gets on track within the first months thanks to a multitude of exclusives titles, such as Ace Combat, Blue Dragon, Star Ocean or even Lost Odyssey. The machine is still a commercial failure, taking in considerations the competition, yet still convinces more than a million Japanese. And as these Japanese exclusives became scarce, Microsoft started highlighting temporarily exclusive Western games that could appeal to the region, such as the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Western Influence in Japan (3)

Relatively speaking, the game managed pretty good sales. By combining both platform version, Oblivion sold over 80,000 copies on the Xbox 360 in Japan and then doubled in numbers thanks to the PlayStation 3 version. Gradually, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 generation gave more hope for Western games, with some publishers are beginning to even dare opening Japanese subsidiary including Take Two and Bethesda.

Yet, the western game success is far from extraordinary, next to what can be achieved with series like Final Fantasy, Gundam and Yakuza, but publishers are still taking risk, and more of them are trying their luck. With nearly 200,000 sales for Fallout 3, 240,000 for Skyrim, 175,000 for Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed exceeding the 200,000 mark, this gives hope for many, especially with Naughty Dog coming back on the scene with increasing success of Uncharted and The Last of Us approaching 300,000 units sold.

To arms soldiers!

In the flood of western productions, one of the cases that changed the most the mentality of Japanese gamers is Call of Duty. Totally ignored by the Nippon public at the time of the PlayStation 2, the series will start its rise to glory on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, managing to sell over 100,000 copies. Soon after, World at War was scrapped from a Japanese release, mainly because of its context (the American-Japanese conflict during WWII), the American publisher joined hand like its rival EA with Square Enix, which became responsible for editing the next Activision Blizzard game: Modern Warfare 2.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was an immediate success, with nearly 200,000 copies sold in its first week. An important success, a month before its Japanese release, the title causes queues at import stores as fans prefer to buy the US version rather than wait for localization. This new phenomenon encouraged Square Enix to start a new practice with Call of Duty: Black Ops, releasing a partially localized version, with simple subtitles, followed a month later with a fully Japanese voiced version.

The amount of imports reduced dramatically and Square Enix can calmly enjoy their success: with all versions, the Call of Duty series begin to exceed the 500,000 sales mark, proving that the Japanese market is not allergic to FPS. At the same time, Battlefield will also start to grow, especially with the launch of the PlayStation 4, with Battlefield 4 managing to defeat its rival series with nearly 100,000 copies sold when Call of Duty: Ghosts merely reached 20,000 copies.


Towards a new era?

Back in 2013, the best-selling game of the year on console (in this case, PlayStation 3) is a western game: Grand Theft Auto V. The title had monumental success in America and Europe who landed in the first place rankings, yet merely an eighth place in Japan, only surpassed by 3DS releases. With Capcom removed as a Japanese joint-distributor, Take Two had taken the methods of its former partner, such as watering down the content for the local censorship bureau, managing to release Grand Theft Auto V less than a month after the United States launch.

Since GTA V has exceeded 800,000 sales combined between its PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions, could become with the next release on PlayStation 4, the second Western game after Crash Bandicoot 2 to cross the million. On PlayStation 3, the game is in the top 5 of the best-selling games on the machine and continues to be in the top weekly Famitsu with every monthly publication.

Western Influence in Japan (4)

The Take Two game is slowly turning as a Western prophet before the new generation. Even if Japan does not adhere to the PlayStation 4 fever raging in the West, it is primarily because the console is in flagrant lack of Japanese games or any appealing console exclusives. Nevertheless, the country still managed to sell more than 700,000 consoles, which currently releases many Western games. If we put aside the special case of Knack, the best-selling PlayStation 4 title of the year (as it was bundled with the machine for a long time), there’s still seven Western titles in the Japanese top ten selling games on the PlayStation 4 charts.

Times have indeed changed in Japan when it comes to their consumption of games, as it was the case previously with the western influence of music, television and even Anime. Videogames – even if some scholars disagree – are yet another mean to spread cultural power in a region. If Japan has been the “victim” of westernization ever since the early 1800s, with deep American, British and French influence in their laws, politics, clothing and even religion, there’s no wonder that the next medium for Westernization in the Nippon peninsula will be gaming.

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