Sunday, July 6, 2008

Non-Japanese are SMRT!

Video games have carried a tragic, but historic legacy of being unreleased or dumbed-down for release outside of Japan. The first prominent example of this is Nintendo of America's decision to not release Super Mario Bros. 2 and instead create a faux sequel from Doki Doki Panic, citing American gamers would struggle too much with the greatly increased difficulty of the original sequel, hurting sales in turn. It took until 2008, roughly 20 years later, when the game was properly labeled Super Mario Bros. 2 for release in North America. Europe got it even worse - they only had access to the title on the Wii's virtual console for a mere week or so before it was taken down as part of its promotional run. The fortunate upshot of this was a very unique title got a chance to show its face around the world when it would have wasted away, otherwise. However, I digress...

Why is it a trend today to release games where death either contains no real consequence (because you have 2,000 other lives) or you just cannot die period? Is it some sort of hyperextension of Dr. Spock's theories or the fact companies really do think non-Japanese are impatient or something else entirely? Regardless of the reason, non-Japanese gamers are being denied many wonderful opportunities in gaming, either permanently or for extended periods of time.

Point-in-case: Square-Enix and Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix. This title will likely never see the light of day outside of Japan, however it is one of the most masterful pieces of gaming to be released since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Note: I am not speaking about the original KHII, I am speaking very specifically of Final Mix). When the original KHII was released in North America, critics bemoaned the lack of a truly-difficult setting, which turned the game into a button mash-fest. Despite having three difficulty settings included, many believed the hardest setting available was equal to a regular strength difficulty in other games. The updated Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix is only available through Japanese import, and by comparison contains a much more difficult game when set to the same "hard" difficulty equivalent of the North American edition. It is in this difference of difficulty-between-regions that a whole new level of appreciation can be gained. New bosses and much needed bonus material aside - the game demands incredibly precise timing to even score a hit on some bosses that was not even a thought to me when I played the American version. Clearly the US version's difficulty was noticeably lessened compared to the Japanese version. Final Mix even has a newer, even more difficult level of play, named "Critical"! Despite all this potential insanity, the sense of personal accomplishment in conquering the game was far better than any sort of Gamerscore achievement.

There is a version of Tetris, rarely seen outside of Japan, called Tetris: The Grandmaster. Played in arcades, this version of the classic puzzler starts off like any other version, however it progresses to incredible speeds, eventually entering a mode commonly called 20G. Pieces fall instantly down and have slightly less than a second before they lock in place, creating an incredibly difficult but rewarding experience - after lasting a few minutes at 20G, you can earn the highly coveted, but rarely earned rank of "Grandmaster" and your name will remain on the high score screen for all to see. Interested? Unless you live by an intensely dedicated import arcade, you'll probably never see the game outside of some YouTube videos and an emulator. Reason for lack of release is widely believed to be the level of difficulty being too hard for non-Japanese.

Sadly, it seems like the small details that made a game an AAA-grade title are going by the wayside in favor of not disappointing someone who cannot beat it on the first try. There is still something to be said in this day and age for the sense of personal accomplishment felt when after a few tries at timing a particular move against a boss it is finally pulled off and you progress a little further. Am I the only person who played NES games in the 1980s and despite becoming frustrated, knew I was making it a little further each time I died? Where, I ask you, dear game developers, have all the flowers gone? Japan?

Perhaps all the flowers are being squandered on the new gamer. A school of thought has been established which dictates games must be fully accessible to every single person who picks it up. Death can't loom too close and game overs can't have full consequences. Certainly all games should be playable by everyone but catering so very hard to ensure everyone can play easily has resulted in the loss of the "oni"s and "critical" modes that didn't cost a lot of programming time and satisfied plenty of the old guard of gamers.

I'm not arguing all titles released outside of Japan are dumbed down for the sake of other regions. I've participated in Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Puyo Pop, F-Zero, Castlevania, Contra, and Ninja Gaiden and pulled my hair out multiple times. While these games are testaments to the legacy of video games, there are fewer and fewer hard titles as time goes by, replaced with titles that are "softer" as they're localized. This isn't to say games that had problems, such as The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask and Wind Waker, which had the owl statues added and a greatly improved triforce locator implemented, are softer. These are necessary improvements and are good for gameplay.

I'm also not arguing that all games should be made blisteringly hard, but there should be a good, lasting level of difficulty available for those who desire a challenge beyond the typical. Don't pull the "but the children!" card - Japan has children too, and American children of the late 1980s and early 1990s lived without severe defects after dying on the Mother Brain sequence for the 48th time. All I want is a good challenge to be available to me, if I so desire. It makes good business sense, too. It increases a good game's replay value and overall recognition among fans, and carries the side effect of me being far more likely to purchase a sequel title.

Remember "Beaver Bother"? I do. The feeling of accomplishment was worth it.

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