During my recent runs through portable RPGs like Operation Abyss and Devil Survivor 2, I couldn't help but notice that these games have incredibly anime-influenced visual styles and narratives. Yet underneath the speed lines and sweat drops, they're deeply traditional and intensely challenging takes on the RPG genre.
It makes for a strange combination of design elements: Visual shorthand that speaks of casual, mass-market, teen-oriented appeal, yet gameplay foundations that seem geared toward a much older and more serious audience. How did such a strange and contradictory fusion come to be? And why don't you ever see these more traditional takes on dungeon crawlers like Operation Abyss come from the West, where the genre got its start? Sometimes, game concepts take on a life of their own in faraway lands. Like they say, a prophet is without honor in his hometown... evidently that's sometimes true for games, too.
Dungeon Crawler RPGs
Invented in: USA/Canada
Most popular in: Japan
Back in the late '70s and early '80s, American and Canadian game developers like Richard Garriott and SirTech began transforming the tabletop RPG concept into video game form. Where other designers played up the story element of the genre with text-driven games such as Zork, the likes of Akalabeth, Ultima, and Wizardry decided to explore the combat and battle components of RPGs. They dropped players into vast dungeons viewed from a primitive first-person perspective, where they'd take turns fighting random monsters they encountered along the way.
Over time, Ultima moved away from this format. Wizardry, however, embraced it. Though the series eventually faded away in the Western market when SirTech dissolved in the late '90s, it continued to thrive in Japan, where it had curiously taken root; the Wizardry series remains an ongoing concern overseas thanks to determined licensors, who soldier on long after the franchise's original creators left to go their own way. Except now, Wizardry is extremely anime-influenced... and its clones, such as Operation Abyss and Etrian Odyssey, are even more so — despite playing fundamentally like early '80s PC RPGs.
You can probably thank a few factors for the sustained popularity of this format in Japan. The nation's big introduction to RPGs came in the form of The Black Onyx, Bullet-proof Software's blatant Wizardry clone. Additionally, the PC market in Japan became its own distinct thing early on, loaded up with the sort of dense hardcore games Western players expect on the platform but also tons of graphical adventures and visual novels that took advantage of the high-resolution displays of early Japanese home computers... and which, naturally, drew heavily on manga and anime styles. Over time, those audiences cross-pollinated, and even though many of the resulting games drifted to consoles and portables, it nevertheless means the last handful of games to continue carrying the Wizardry torch consist of an improbable combination of intensely challenging old-school dungeon exploration and giant-eyed waifs.
Invented in: USA
Most popular in: Japan
I could explain what a roguelike is, sure... or you could just read the feature where I already did so. Yeah, let's do that. OK. All caught up? Great!
The roguelike got its start in the early '80s with Rogue, a sort of communal single-player RPG designed for the text displays common to the dumb terminals of shared-time computers at American universities. In time, it evolved through iterations like Nethack and ADOM... but it never really became a commercial concern. The few retail releases of games like Rogue and even console titles like Dragon Crystal for Game Gear flew like lead zeppelins in the Western market.
In Japan, though? Well, that's a whole different story. Early Japanese roguelikes initially fared about as well as in the U.S., but that changed in 1993 when Dragon Quest developer Chun Soft created its first Dragon Quest spinoff for publisher Enix. That game, Torneko no Daibouken: Fushigi no Dungeon (Torneko's Big Adventure: Mystery Dungeon), simplified the genre somewhat in order to make it work on a console with a dozen buttons instead of a computer with a full keyboard. But it still retained much of the essence of roguelikes, from the turn-based combat to the unforgiving penalties for failure to the intricate and surprising interactions possible between enemies and items.
Chun Soft and Dragon Quest parted ways soon after, but they turned the Fushigi no Dungeon concept into its own series, replacing bumbling merchant Torneko with stoic wanderer Shiren and slimes with generic cute fuzzballs. The roguelike essence remained, however, and in time the Mystery Dungeon franchise became a small phenomenon, resulting in numerous sequels for Shiren himself and collaborations with franchises like Pokémon and Final Fantasy. It inspired quite a few competitors, too, such as Izuna and even a roguelike interpretation of the '80s anime movie Windaria for DS, of all things.
These days, roguelike-inspired games have become quite a trend in the U.S. (thanks mainly to the likes of Spelunky and FTL), but the core genre itself has never found a commercial foothold here the way it has in Japan.
Castlevania and Friends
Invented in: Japan
Most popular in: USA
Back in 1996, Konami released Castlevania for NES, and it became a minor hit for the young publisher. The sequel went big, however, scoring the cover and lead feature for the second-ever issue of Nintendo Power (which was read by millions and millions of kids). From that point on, Castlevania became a mainstay, with sequels appearing on practically every platform ever made; there was even almost a 32X game!
For some reason, though, Castlevania always fared better in the U.S. than in its home territory. While specific numbers are hard to come by, former producer Koji Igarashi has said as much; the series even dropped its original title in Japan (Akumajou Dracula) to adopt the American Castlevania name for a while, and The Dracula X Chronicles was created specifically to answer the demands of overseas fans who never had a chance to play the import-only Rondo of Blood for PC Engine CD. Even now, the series' spiritual successor is geared toward Western fans first, with heavy promotion in the U.S. press leading up to launch.
Why? Who knows! But Castlevania isn't alone in its disproportionate Western popularity. A number of Castlevania-style games and series through the years fared better in America; perhaps most famously, there's Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden series. When it came time to revive that series after a decade of inactivity, Tecmo didn't simply use the American name in all regions (abandoning the Japanese Ninja Ryukenden brand), they also produced the game specifically for Xbox, a platform whose lack of a userbase in Japan is practically comical.
Early DOS/Apple II Platformers
Invented in: USA
Most popular in: Japan
While Super Mario Bros. may have codified the platformer genre, it didn't invent it. In the early '80s, plenty of designers tinkered with the idea of little men running around mazelike platforms packed with dangerous enemies and perilous leaps. Those games did fairly well for themselves around the world, but many of them took on a life of their own in Japan. Two in particular became far more beloved overseas than they ever were back home in the U.S.: Tim Martin's Spelunker and Doug Smith's Lode Runner.
Spelunker has become a thing of legend in Japan thanks in large part to its infamous difficulty level. You can easily find Spelunker merchandise in game shops and at conventions, and it continues to see sequels to this day (Square Enix produced a free-to-play one earlier this year). Its enduring legacy helped inspire the creation of Spelunky, which takes more than a few obvious cues from Martin's hateful PC classic. Lode Runner, on the other hand, has sold several times more units during the franchise's life than in the west, thanks mainly to a number of sequels and revamps that never saw the light of day in other territories.
The secret of these games' success? Being in the right place at the right time. Both Lode Runner and Spelunker were among the first-ever third-party releases for Nintendo's 8-bit Famicom console (Lode Runner, in fact, was the first third-party Famicom title). The Famicom was where home gaming in Japan truly exploded in earnest. While Lode Runner and Spelunker were simply two good games within a vast ocean of competitors back home, in Japan they were among a handful of games available for a wildly popular new console, and just about everyone who picked up a Famicom ended up playing them. Even if there's a sort of grudging affection for Spelunker (its Famicom port wasn't exactly the best), it's a sincere enough affection to keep the series alive.
Invented in: USA/Japan
Most popular in: Europe/Korea
Back in 1983, the late Danielle Bunten Berry created a new kind of game. M.U.L.E. was one part economic simulation, one part competitive race. It was the first great example of what we'd consider a strategy game today, a work so far ahead of its time it even included online multiplayer back in the days when that meant attaching your computer to a princess phone and an acoustic coupler and calling someone via dial-up so your computers could screech at once another for a few minutes.
The best early strategy games came largely from the U.S. and Japan: M.U.L.E., Bokosuka Wars, Raid on Bungeling Bay, Herzog and Herzog Zwei, Dune II, and more. And while the genre (both its turn-based and real-time branches) became popular in those territories, strategy has never been nearly as big there as in Europe or Korea.
In Korea, this phenomenon circles back entirely to StarCraft, which was another of those "right place, right time" situations. Its modest technical requirements meant it could work on practically all computers, including those common to the burgeoning PC cafe scene. It quickly exploded into a competitive sport, and its popularity has spread today to StarCraft's second cousin, the MOBA — not just in Korea, but in most of Asia. While American kids are teabagging opponents in Call of Duty, their counterparts in Asia (except Japan) are setting up tower defenses.
Meanwhile, Europe (especially Easter Europe) tends to prefer the old-fashioned take on strategy, not those newfangled MOBAs. There's no single inflection point in this case; European and UK game makers have been banging away at the genre since the '80s. Their creations never saw the same international success as your Warcrafts and your Command & Conquers, but they caught on at home. These days, the best traditional strategy games usually come from Europe. Given the continent's rich and millennia-long history of protracted warfare, perhaps it's as natural a fit as America's love of open-world exploration.