Why I'm Thankful for Okami

Why I'm Thankful for Okami

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

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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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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