Why I'm Thankful for Okami

There was a time when Japanese myth and culture wasn't freely celebrated in localized games.

Opinion by Nadia Oxford, .

I somehow managed to miss out on Capcom's action-RPG masterpiece, Okami, when it came out on the PlayStation 2 in 2006. Then I missed it again when it came out for the Wii in 2008. Then I missed it again when it came out for the PlayStation 3 in 2012.

I finally nabbed the wolf by the tail this week with Okami for the PlayStation 4. You'll likely be unsurprised to learn I think it's a great game. It's a gorgeous romp inspired in equal parts by Zelda and Japan's Shinto religion and traditions (which in turn equals a lot of scrapping with evil spirits to restore balance to the natural world).

Also, I generally enjoy playing as bestial protagonists. Lunging at my enemies' throats with my teeth bared makes for a nice change from swinging a sword or shooting a gun. "Four legs good, two legs bad," and all that. Er, Orwell was stating his preferred RPG hero archetype when he penned that line, right…? I didn't pay much attention in grade 10 literature.

But I appreciate Okami for reasons beyond its graphics, gameplay, and themes. I just appreciate the fact it and games like it exist. That is, I'm glad there are games thoroughly steeped in Japan's culture and traditions, and I'm glad follow-up questions about said traditions are easily answered with the Internet.

Whatever goes upon four legs is a friend.

Video games weren't just considered kids' stuff through the '80s and most of the '90s. Once games started coming from Nintendo (and out of Japan in general), they also took on an air of mystery—and, in the United States, an air of foreignness that came under scrutiny. In the '80s and '90s, it was hard to find news about video games from the country that specialized in them. Game magazines sometimes dedicated a page or two to Japanese releases that rarely stood half a chance of getting localized. When I first heard Super Mario Bros 3 existed in Japan, it was like learning unicorns lived in some far-off corner of Earth. I accepted the game as something that was probably real, but I couldn't confirm for myself one way or another.

Game magazines barely had the space necessary to tell us about the state of the industry in Japan; they sure as heck didn't have the real estate to talk about how the country's traditions influence games' stories and symbolism. Thus, a trope we consider standard in games today—say, a leaf being the basis for shape-shifting magic—was laughed off as bizarre.

Eventually, the advent of the internet gave scholars endless space to educate us about Shinto. Moreover, people who were generally more learned about Japanese culture than the rest of us cackling schlubs took to message boards to educate us on why a leaf made Mario grow a racoon tail. Gradually, we learned—but not before we made reams of Flash videos and sprite comics about how the Nintendo games we grew up with were "sooo weird" because their developers "probably did sooo many drugs, LOL."

OK but to be fair, having the sun drop out of the sky to kill you *is* the stuff of bad acid trips.

Of course, sometimes we just unknowingly appropriated Japanese folklore, albeit in good faith. I still have a multi-page fantasy "novel" I wrote in '92 (on cheap paper and with a pencil that was clearly stubby and dull) that lifts monsters straight from Dragon Quest III, including the multi-headed dragon Orochi—a creature directly out of Japanese myth, though I had no idea. I just thought the evil serpent was dreamed up for a video game.

So, I'm glad younger generations can get instant answers when they play a game like Okami. I'm glad I can tell them "Well, it's because—" when they ask why Mario changes when he grabs a leaf, or why so many games from Japan have temples, arches, and multi-tailed foxes. Heck, I'm just glad a game like Okami is readily available for anyone who wants to play it. It wasn't too long ago when games were kept away from English-speaking audiences because they were "too weird" or "too Japanese." Even those that squeaked through were subject to alteration, e.g. Bandai's Dragon Ball game for the Famicom became "Dragon Power" and was given box art that's a perfect visual representation of how Asian culture was regarded at the time ("Just add a dragon and a guy doing Kung-Fu and we're golden").

At least Dragon Warrior III's Orochi didn't become "Smaug" or something.

Now that games like Okami are actually encouraged to dart across the gaming landscape as freely as a wolf tearing through fields of flowers, I hope kids skip cheap jokes about how unfamiliar inspirations probably all came "from drugs, ha ha ha." I hope they proceed directly to the stuff that kindles inspiration and imagination.

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Comments 14

  • Avatar for riderkicker #1 riderkicker 4 months ago
    I have also find the DS game.Edited December 2017 by riderkicker
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  • Avatar for otenko #2 otenko 4 months ago
    That "weirdness" of japanese games is exactly what makes them so interesting.
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  • Avatar for davedalrymple11 #3 davedalrymple11 4 months ago
    One of the earliest cases I can remember of a game being released in the US with (most of) its Japanese cultural references intact was Legend of the Mystical Ninja. It was very much an anomaly.

    And, as an aside, it's still remarkable to me how quickly we went from the bounty of localized Japanese games in the PS2's twilight years to the "Great JRPG Famine" of the late 2000s.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #4 MetManMas 4 months ago
    @otenko Oh yes, definitely. I adore Japanese games the most when they focus on the bizarre and visually striking. Like, if someone were to ask me why I adore Chrono Cross even though it does a poor job of being a good Chrono Trigger sequel, I'd point them straight to this screencap gallery and say "That's why."

    I really should pick up Okami, but there's so much other great stuff out or on sale right now and I don't wanna empty out the fridge just yet to make space.Edited December 2017 by MetManMas
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  • Avatar for moochan #5 moochan 4 months ago
    To be fair Dragon Ball to Dragon Power might have just been a licensing issue plus Dragon Ball haven't been in the west yet. Anyways yeah it's always nice when really Japanese games get to keep their Japanese. Played Okami back on the Wii (Wiimote had issues drawing things correctly funny enough) and really loved it. Maybe I should give it another shot. I hate saying it but Okami on the Switch just seems perfect like lots of other games. Not just because of how beautiful it would look on the handheld but with it being a Zelda like game I feel lots of Nintendo fans would love it.
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  • Avatar for LunarKnite #6 LunarKnite 4 months ago
    @davedalrymple11 Legend of the Mystical Ninja was such a great game! Even better co-op. It's quirky, heavily Japanese-influenced setting and enemies was a treat for young and teenaged minds when I played it over the years. I only wish we had gotten the other SNES games in the series localized.
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  • Avatar for Fourfoldroot #7 Fourfoldroot 4 months ago
    I do find Japanese games so much more characterful; less constrained by tedious reality, albeit oft reliant on certain archetypes... that can be overlooked for the benefit of such (to me) otherworldly-ness. I also appreciate that they are often filled with comedic characters even in the most apocalyptic storyline.

    On a slightly related note, given we are talking of Japanese influence, I'm very much looking forward to Ghost of Tsushima, the Sucker Punch game drawing on Japanese history.

    Edit: oh, links aren't permissable here?Edited 2 times. Last edited December 2017 by Fourfoldroot
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  • Avatar for docexe #8 docexe 4 months ago
    I remember those dark days back in the NES/SNES era, when the common argument given for why some truly good looking games never were released in this continent was that they were "too Japanese" for American audiences.

    The only thing I can add is that globalization might have its pitfalls but damn it if I don't welcome it! A jewel like Okami would never had crossed the Pacific with all its folkloric elements intact back in those days.Edited December 2017 by docexe
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #9 NiceGuyNeon 4 months ago
    Wait, you're telling me Okami came out 11 years ago and for ELEVEN YEARS THERE ARE STILL PEOPLE WHO HAVEN'T PLAYED ONE OF THE GREATEST GAMES OF ALL TIME?

    What the hell is everyone doing? WHAT THE HELL IS EVERYONE DOING??
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #10 MetManMas 4 months ago
    @docexe That was always a stupid argument to me. People should be exposed to other cultures, and there are some really awesome games that embrace the Japanese culture.

    We really should've gotten way more Goemon games than we did.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #11 MetManMas 4 months ago
    And I went ahead and got Okami HD.

    Can't say I'm surprised by how ludicrously chatty the game is (I played Okamiden years before this and it was also incapable of shutting up), but I do adore the art and music direction. And while I still doubt I'll play the DS sequel again anytime soon, playing the original's giving me a greater appreciation for just how well it emulated its older sibling's style on lesser hardware.
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  • Avatar for ajhopwood #12 ajhopwood 4 months ago
    Okami was a treat to play through. It’s the best non-Zelda Zelda game I’ve played and it was really neat to play a game that was also teaching me about Japanese mythology.

    This article makes me want to learn more about Shinto so I can understand why leaves turn Mario into a tanooki.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #13 LBD_Nytetrayn 4 months ago
    "Lol drugs" got so tiresome so long ago.
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  • Avatar for discohospital #14 discohospital 4 months ago
    But on the other hand, we now have Capcom telling Japan that it has to be happy with our versions of its Street Fighter games (in the new collection), so to perhaps hyperbolize a bit, it seems our (pop-)cultural colonization is now so pervasive that we can not only curate and sell Japan's cultural products back to it, but in a form dictated by our nostalgia for them. So I guess there's the downside of the globalized perspective rearing its head, haha.

    But yes, whatever path had to be taken to get us here, and even with many problems still persisting, ultimately some not insignificant ground has been gained over the years with regard to how Japanese games are presented to us, and whether or not they are in the first place. The argument could be made that Japan is now much more aware of western markets and that this may have some influence on what they do and how they do it, but then you’ve got something like Persona 5, which at the very least might present a unique case/new precedent for both sides of the ocean to examine in that it deals with serious social, cultural, and political issues, some very specifically Japanese and difficult to understand beyond a surface level without preexisting knowledge of current Japan, but was still a relatively big success (and an unprecedented one for its developer/publisher) in the west.

    I’ve missed all previous iterations of Okami as well, but my excuse is that I was largely out of the video game loop for something like a decade plus, partly owing to not having any current hardware (outside of a DS). Not the greatest excuse itself, but I'm in the process of righting a lot of wrongs - and on that front, outside of being the only person on earth currently with a PS2 permanently hooked up to a CRT TV and in use on a daily basis, buying the new Okami HD was one of the most obvious and easiest purchase decisions in my gaming history (even though I should probably be playing it on a Wii...?)

    Anyway, yeah, it really no longer makes sense to whitewash or substitute culturally specific points of reference now that an internet search can answer most basic questions in a matter of seconds, and the internet is always at the fingertips of most of us who are economically privileged enough to be playing video games in the first place.

    Literal representation of reality has never been much of a concern in Japanese art forms, so who better to break free of these bonds and push the limits of imagination in a medium like a video game that offers design possibilities under a different set of rules and constraints than our universe’s physical laws?

    Oh, and:
    “When I first heard Super Mario Bros 3 existed in Japan, it was like learning unicorns lived in some far-off corner of Earth.”
    I had a very similar experience with Rockman 4 (in EGM or somesuch). And frequently something not unlike it with Nintendo Power, which did devote some space to upcoming/recent Japanese releases, many of which I, like many others, waited in vain for.
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