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First Click: The future of Japanese games may rely on the Nintendo Switch

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January 26th, 2017

If you just came out of cryogenic freezing after a decade and took a look at the major video games that have been released over the past few months, you could be forgiven for thinking that little has changed since 2006. That's because despite a steady decline in global influence since the release of the PlayStation 3, Japanese developers have been unusually well-represented of late.

The most talked-about game of the season was Final Fantasy XV, an unexpected return to form for Square Enix. Sony's big holiday PlayStation 4 exclusive was The Last Guardian, a long-awaited follow-up to PS2 epic Shadow of the Colossus. This week saw the release of Resident Evil 7, a radical reinvention of the series that drags it back from irrelevance. Earlier this month we had Gravity Rush 2, which in scope and stature feels like the modern-day equivalent of a PS2 cult classic. The West even has a new Yakuza game to play.

And there’s more on the horizon, too — The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild might just be the most anticipated game of the year so far; Persona 5 is likely to be one of the best; and the likes of Nioh and Nier: Automata are the kind of midrange Japanese hitters that we just haven’t seen too much of this console generation.

So Japanese games are back, right? Well. This recent flurry of strong releases could well be a sign of things to come, but there are reasons to be pessimistic. The vast majority of Japanese games are developed with the domestic audience in mind, after all, and the Japanese console industry is in pretty poor health.

The PlayStation 4 only recently cracked 4 million sales in the region, and that’s without any credible competition. Final Fantasy XV, which arrived in a storm of hype and acclaim, only sold around half what its predecessor XIII managed at launch. Big-hitter publishers are increasingly focusing on mobile gaming, because that’s where consumers are; in the case of Konami, the company appears to have peaced out of the traditional video game world entirely following the well-received Metal Gear Solid V. Even Nintendo just announced a Fire Emblem mobile game that incorporates controversial free-to-play elements the company’s late former president, Satoru Iwata, suggested it would never touch.

So, with the status of console gaming in Japan uncertain at best, fans of Japanese games in the West may wish to temper their expectations, even if things have looked positive recently. But there is one potential event that could shake things up for the better: the impending March launch of the Nintendo Switch.

Nintendo has everything to prove, of course, following the disastrous Wii U. And its home systems haven’t been safe havens for third-party developers in over two decades. But in terms of pure hardware design, the Switch is the most appealing home console for the Japanese market in recent memory. Its flexible hybrid nature means it doesn’t need to dominate living room space, which is often at a premium in Japanese apartments. Its portable functionality could make it a strong vessel for games like Monster Hunter, which became a social phenomenon in Japan because of its IRL multiplayer appeal. And its relative lack of power and standard ARM architecture means that Japanese developers shouldn’t need to spend too much money or leap too many unfamiliar technological hurdles in order to get things looking their best.

The Switch already has a reasonable lineup of Japanese games announced, too. There’s Nintendo’s own output, of course, but other companies have also announced significant support. Square Enix will be bringing the eleventh entry in the wildly popular Dragon Quest series to Switch as well as 3DS and PS4, and is developing an intriguing new pixel-art adventure codenamed Project Octopath Traveller. Namco’s Tales of and Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei JRPG series will both be coming to Switch. Grasshopper Manufacture is even making a Switch follow-up to the No More Heroes games on the Wii.

None of this will mean anything if the Switch fails to take off in Japan. But with a meagre domestic audience for the PlayStation 4 — let’s not even talk about the Xbox One and PC — Nintendo’s next console is the biggest long-term hope for the future of traditional Japanese gaming.