The Contrarian: The View From Here

Statements I’ve made in past installments of this column have inspired groups of lederhosen-clad gaming otaku to storm my lonely castle brandishing pitchforks, torches and Power Gloves to slay the monstrous heresy I have assembled. I shall keep this beast shrouded no more and instead unleash it here for all the world to see. The chains creak, the portcullis rises, and a grim shadow lurches awkwardly forth. There, you see! There it stands! Listen to its yawp!

I really just don’t get Nintendo.

Now you see my lurching shame. But it is the simple truth. I’ve never been much for Nintendo’s games and indeed, large swaths of the Japanese gaming field leaves me cold, baffled, or simply amused. I had fun with the NES way back when, but when the Super Nintendo came out I was already a Sega Genesis fan. Nintendo 64? Nope, never had one – I was playing Dreamcast.

Let that sink in for a minute. Zelda? I think I played that Ocarina one for a couple hours at a friend’s house. The 3-D Marios? Sunshine bored me swiftly. Super Smash Bros.? Yeah, at a party I think. Metroid? Nope. Star Fox? Uh-uh.

That’s right. I’m one of those people that looks over Nintendo’s offerings, studies the reviews, admires them in the abstract, and then moves on to something else. I’d no sooner play Odama than I would watch a movie by Antonioni, but I can tell you about both of them. The ten minutes of Chibi Robo I played at E3 this year were charming but there’s really no chance I’m going to buy it – let alone a Gamecube to play it on.

My lack of enthusiasm for the cream of Japanese gaming doesn’t end with Nintendo. Are you sitting down? I’ve never played a single minute of any Final Fantasy games. Never even tempted. Not my thing.

There are Japanese games I’ve enjoyed, but they’ve mostly been games I’d say are more gaijin-friendly. Resident Evil? I’m so the master of unlocking. Jet Grind Radio? Designed my own graffiti tag. Ninja Gaiden? Kicked tall ass. Panzer Dragoon Orta? Swoon!

Most of the games I enjoy are very much built for the American/European market. Halo, Knights of the Old Republic, RalliSport, Splinter Cell, The Simpsons Hit & Run, Destroy All Humans!, Indigo Prophecy – these are titles I’ve played the hell out of, not to mention preceding years of Doom, Quake, Warcraft and other staples of the (mostly) western gaming diet. Back in the 1980s, Japan made loads of my favorite games. But somewhere along the path from Donkey Kong to Donkey Konga my taste and that of the Japanese mainstream diverged pretty sharply.

Take Super Mario 64. It’s a legendary game. But it didn’t mean squat to me because I’d already been playing Jumping Flash on the Playstation. This was a 3-D first-person platformer whose specialty was vertical motion – you leapt to truly mind-boggling heights where much of the level was lost in the clouds below, then you’d come screaming back to earth in an intense free-fall. Jumping Flash was an amazing game, marrying the rush of speed I got from the original Sonic the Hedgehog with a vertiginous lunacy all its own. And of course, the still-unusual first-person platforming perspective wired all that kinetic activity directly to your spinal cord causing involuntary body motion as you soared and fell. It was a truly intense experience, while still offering the whimsy and charm of a Japanese platformer. By comparison, Super Mario 64 was just hopping around. I couldn’t care less. The wide-open exploratory gameplay it pioneered was lost on me until Grand Theft Auto 3 came along, adding American-style cars and guns.

The sense of motion offered by Jumping Flash as opposed to the ambling boings of Super Mario 64 is actually a key element in my separation from Japanese gaming. I love games that move. More specifically, I love games that let me move in ways I don’t in real life. Sonic and Jumping Flash both offered that. In later years, first-person games in general have tended to grab me, as have vehicle games. Jet Grind Radio and its sequel Jet Set Radio Future set me on fire. Rez communed with my soul. Test Drive V-Rally and RalliSport Challenge both honked my horn. Even Splinter Cell, the slowpokiest of slowpoke games, lets me plug into a body with intensely calibrated motion, edging forward by inches into the shadows. The original Halo almost lost me in the first five minutes with its frustratingly slow movement, but once I got into the groove and realized how important taking cover was (thanks to the clever shield mechanism) my mind and my controller were as one.

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Ninja Gaiden‘s wall-flipping, shoulder-launching badass intoxicated me, as did Panzer Dragoon‘s morphic flying dragons. Resident Evil‘s motion was frustrating but I at least felt like I was there – and when those dogs came through the windows I leapt out of my chair. You know what I’m talking about.

I think that’s what I’m missing in the major Japanese franchises. Mario doesn’t wire up my brain for movement. Final Fantasy – well, jeez. Chibi Robo, as adorable as it was, didn’t make me feel like I was really there.

I want games to transport me, to upload my brain into some other kind of body – or some new kind of machine. And I haven’t seen enough of that kind of thing in the games Nintendo, or much of the Japanese gaming industry, sends our way.

That leaves me with a sort of fond but distant regard for the efforts of Shigeru Miyamoto and his colleagues. Some of them make games I love. I read their reviews and interviews as obsessively as I do the rest of gaming coverage. But they mostly make games for people who are not me. Judging by the slow death spiral of the GameCube outside of Japan, I’m not alone.

The chasm between Japanese and western gaming is widening, not shrinking. Those distinctively quirky, idiosyncratic titles so beloved by our homegrown otaku don’t find their way into the dorm rooms and LAN parties of America. Those of you who obsessively import the latest titles for your modded consoles do not comprise a meaningful constituency and your cries fall upon the market’s deaf ears.

The battle for the mind of the western videogamer has been fought and won. This isn’t a meritocracy and I’m not saying the games I love are better than the games you love. They’re great games, innovative and delightful and bizarre. But the trend in this country is toward the marginalization of those strange and glorious mutants in favor of the well-defined genre assembly lines of EA, Ubisoft and Take Two. And I’m complicit in that process because the games I love are winning. It doesn’t make me right and it doesn’t make me happy. But I’ve seen the view from here and I’m telling you straight up: when Sony is run by a Brit and when even Japanese gamers want Xbox 360s almost as much as they want Nintendo Revolutions, you don’t have to be a hater to see what’s coming.

Otaku today, gaijin tomorrow, sayonara Mario.

John Tynes has been a game designer and writer for fifteen years, and is a columnist for the Stranger, X360 UK, and the Escapist. His most recent book is Wiser Children, a collection of his film criticism.

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