Why Is There A Resurgence of Old Japanese Games?

corpse party

If there is one thing to be said about PC gaming as a platform, it is that it offers a significant diversity of experiences to consumers. Over the past few years, Steam and GOG have continued to expand their libraries of titles beyond the cursory division of AAA / Indie titles, and have begun to scour the past to bolster their libraries, towards games which would have prior had either poor accessibility or lacked an extant infrastructure for software distribution. And so it comes to 2016, where in the past few months two towering horror franchises have been made available to the PC gamer; Kenji Eno’s D (1995) and Corpse Party (1996).

D has the dubious honour of being one of the best FMV horror games available.

What I propose to examine are the forces at work that are bringing obscure Japanese games over to the PC, and why these titles, now over twenty years old, are a coup for the platform.

Untangling the original histories of both games are a lengthy task. Given the significant space between their original release and now, few online sources exist to provide a full production history, but their influence has remained to linger in the annals of gaming history. D, an interactive horror adventure, was the flagship title of WARP, a company founded by the late Kenji Eno, a Japanese game developer who made a career out of defying expectation. Corpse Party has its roots in Japanese Dōjin soft[1] culture, and from its meagre origins as a freeware title intended for the PC-9801 grew into a franchise spanning across several sequels, two remasters, two OVAs, and… an interactive stall in a Japanese theme park. Outside of their chronological ties, both games are affecting Horror titles with memorable execution (no pun intended). Placing these titles within easy reach of the Western consumer creates not only the opportunity to play them, but to witness a period long past in PC gaming, and hopefully offer the chance to appraise these historical titles through a fresh set of eyes.

d game

This atmosphere is bolstered by Kenji Eno’s score, an accomplished series of compositions that create an ambient sense of unease through lingering synth ostinato.

D has the dubious honour of being one of the best FMV horror games available. Much like the earlier 7th Guest (1993), D puts you in the role of a character trapped within the confines of a foreboding mansion and tasks you to make your escape. As a game, D could be described as a linear, cinematic game where transit through the mansion is held up by a succession of cursory puzzles. The solution to these puzzles typically don’t require a great deal of contemplation, and involve finding a key to open a door, or adjusting cranks and turning dials until the requisite barrier is cleared. Instead, the challenge in D comes in its time limit of 2 hours. Fail to escape the mansion within this period, and Laura (D’s central protagonist) dies. The game cannot be paused or saved, and must be completed in one sitting. This kind of challenge is rarely, if ever, seen in modern gaming, and this added difficulty is a unique glimpse into FMV gaming’s peak, and a conscious attempt to legitimise the form in storytelling and gameplay. How successfully the game achieves this is an issue best left to the player, but despite D’s archaic design and clunky puzzles, it retains a palpable atmosphere.

The early CG renderings of a 17th Century mansion glaze the game with an uncanny plasticity, and the game world is made particularly foreboding by design, with spiked walls, iron grilles (and in one instance a rolling boulder trap) which clearly demonstrates that no room is ever really safe. This atmosphere is bolstered by Kenji Eno’s score, an accomplished series of compositions that create an ambient sense of unease through lingering synth ostinato. Outside of the game itself, D had a particularly interesting release, which was illuminated in 1up’s interview with Eno in 2011. At the time of D’s release, violence in videogames had become a consistent talking point in America, with the release of Night Trap (1993) on the Sega CD becoming the centerpiece of congressional hearings concerning software with violent themes – the outcome of these hearings led to the foundation of the ESRB, which continues to license age and content ratings on games authorised for distribution in the USA.

D would also create the world’s first ‘digital actress’.

Eno was to submit a ‘master’ copy of the game approved for mass production. Aware that if the deadline was issued late he would have to deliver the master copy by hand to the publisher, Eno submitted a ‘clean’ copy of the game (scrubbed of its references to cannibalism) for approval. Once approved, Eno switched the approved copy of the game with his finished, gory masterwork en route to America, and delivered his intended version by hand to 3DO headquarters. D would also create the world’s first ‘digital actress’. Known only as Laura, she would appear in WARP’s follow up games, including Enemy Zero (1997) and D2 (1999) before Eno abandoned the stressful world of games development for over ten years.

d game

The port of D was undertaken by Night Dive Studios, who have previously brought a selection of desirable, out of print titles (System Shock, Shadowman, Darklands) and some bizarre gems (notably Harvester, a personal favourite) to the PC market. D’s PC port was originally handled by Acclaim in 1996, but copies of this version remain exceedingly difficult to find. This similarly affected the original Playstation release – despite the game originally selling over a million copies in Japan, not enough copies were produced in the West to meet even preorder sales. Night Dive’s effort to release D via digital distribution has allowed the game to rise from the shadow of its obscurity, and signifies an increasing interest in Japanese PC gaming.

Given these improvements, the PC version could be considered the definitive version.

The story of Corpse Party is the kind Indie developers love to hear – a journey from freeware title to a successful and long-running franchise. Despite its ludicrous title, Corpse Party is a game that truly understands the mechanics of horror. The game begins with a group of students from Kisaragi Academy who participate in a ritual to make their friendship last beyond their imminent graduation. Naturally, something goes terribly wrong and the characters are whisked away to a dilapidated elementary school (ironically named ‘Heavenly Host High’) with seemingly no chance of escape. As it happens, the school itself is an inter-dimensional nexus, and a manifestation of the angry spirits of the children (and other teleported high-school students), all of whom met some grisly fate within its walls. The PC version (available on GOG and Steam) is a fully translated release of Corpse Party BloodCovered [sic], a remastered release with additional characters and scenarios not found in the original, alongside greatly improved graphics and sound design. Given these improvements, the PC version could be considered the definitive version.

corpse party

The gameplay of Corpse Party is relatively simple. Typically, each chapter begins with a party of one or two characters, left to figure out where they are and how to save themselves. Much of the game’s action occurs from a top-down perspective similar to a JRPG, and involves exploring the game world, broken up by (like D) some simple puzzle solving or careful evasion of malicious spirits. Generally, the player’s motion through the world is guided by scripted events and scenes that deepen the lore of the haunted school or provide moments of characterisation of the game’s protagonists. Corpse Party, as a horror game, succeeds on several fronts. The localisation has been performed by industry veterans XSEED (known largely for translating Falcom’s YS and Trails series) and provides the game with a cast of believable and sympathetic characters.

Though the first chapter is over within the space of thirty minutes, the characters are well-fleshed out through the dialogue.

The first chapter begins with best friends Seiko and Naomi awakening alone in the school. As the chapter progresses, their friendship begins to strain as Seiko’s air-headed optimism begins to grate with Naomi as her facade of strength begins to fade and despair sets in. Confronted with the gory events of the school and their dwindling chances of survival, their friendship begins to falter with disastrous consequences. Though the first chapter is over within the space of thirty minutes, the characters are well-fleshed out through the dialogue, and the rising tensions between the two are punctuated with dialogue that accentuates how Seiko and Naomi are trying to propel each other forward in their different ways, despite their terror.

The sympathetic portrayal of the students of Kisaragi High raises the narrative stakes as they respond to the horrors of Heavenly Host in an emotive and human way, making their death (or redemption) all the more impactful. In addition to this, Corpse Party’s pretence of the school as an inter-dimensional space means that events do always occur in chronological order, meaning that even in the first few chapters there are glimpses of events which the player won’t see until much later in the game, meaning that the game sets up a number of mysteries where one character will hear the ‘echo’ of a future event, and heightens the game’s pervasive sense of mystery.

The effort placed into sound design at every corner of Corpse Party adds to the lingering sense of dread experienced in playing it.

Attentive players will be able to build up a sense of chronological order to the game, and work out exactly when and where the characters are in relation to each other. A final note on Corpse Party is the game’s superb sound design. Both character dialogue and sound effects were recorded and produced in binaural stereo (or ‘dummy head’ mic), which allows for the game’s soundscape to be truly palpable; with headphones on, ghostly voices will trail from one ear to the next, the score fades out slowly as the players move into more foreboding spaces, and every rip and squelch of student sinew is heard when a gory fatality occurs. The effort placed into sound design at every corner of Corpse Party adds to the lingering sense of dread experienced in playing it, and I would not hesitate to recommend the game as the finest horror experience on PC to date.

corpse party

It would seem that Dōjin Soft and Japanese games have begun a renaissance on PC. Much of the credit belongs to Steam as the chief platform for PC games, and their continued efforts to diversify their catalogue. Greenlight allows small indie developers to pitch and publish their games directly to Steam’s user base, which creates opportunities for exposure and acknowledgement, two very important aspects of low-key game development. The path has also been paved by prior releases such as Recettear in 2010, a Dōjin game that blended ARPG dungeon crawling with a store simulator to surprisingly engaging effect. The game’s viral popularity led to lifetime sales of half a million copies – no slouch for a game with little to no marketing push behind it.

Dungeon exploring RPG Sakura Dungeon, whose clothing-optional approach to enemy design is one likely factor in the game’s success.

Another factor has been the re-release of the Final Fantasy series on Steam. At the time of writing, Final Fantasy VII and XIII have sold over half a million copies each, while Final Fantasy VII now has sales well over a million[2]. This has established that a significant portion of Steam’s playerbase is interested in JRPGS and Japanese games in general, and this trend has been borne out by an influx of Dōjin games arriving on steam. Steam has had a part in building this market by their own endorsement, with April 2016 marking Steam’s second anime sale to create further awareness and exposure of niche Japanese games available on the platform.

At the time of writing, there are several Dōjin titles trending in Steam’s top 100, from fighting in Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus, cat-girl management simulating in NEKOPALIVE, and dungeon exploring RPG Sakura Dungeon, whose clothing-optional approach to enemy design is one likely factor in the game’s success. These market figures suggest an increasing interest in Japanese indie software, both in terms of anime as a visual aesthetic, and more traditional gameplay formats (management, dungeon crawler, visual novel, etc). There are also a number of Western games utilising the hallmark anime style, likely capitalising on the market’s growing hunger for anime’s dynamic and vibrant visual aesthetic.

sakura dungeon

It would be remiss of me to base these assertions purely on Steam sales, however. Elsewhere, Playism (launched in 2011) remains a specialist platform for Indie games, with particular emphasis on Dojin soft. Like GOG, games are offered to the consumer DRM-free, and keeps a well-stocked library of niche Indie titles. Though not exclusively tied to Dojin soft, Playism provide added value as a window to Japanese games development through interviews with eponymous game makers such as Cave Story’s Pixel and NIGORO, creator of La Mulana and its much-awaited sequel. Through an interview with indiegames.com, Nayan Ramachandran of Playism differentiates between Dojin Soft and Indie games, calling Dojin games a ‘hobbyist’ dev scene, where Indie developers make games development their career. Where this seems a useful distinction, the growth of both the Dojin scene and the wider accessibility of classic Japanese PC games suggest that the dividing line between East and West game development scenes are eroding as their consumer base begins to grow.

The increasing presence of Dojin soft on steam should give any new game developers out there solace.

PC gaming is in an exciting time. AAA developers continue to look towards the PC as an important release platform, with more frequent cases of the PC version arriving on the same day as its console counterpart. Microsoft’s surprise announcement at this year’s E3 noted that future Xbox One titles would also release on Windows 10, which will see the Gears of War and Forza franchises accessible to PC gamers. The Indie scene continues to grow and diversify, with a suite of titles to suit players with even the most niche of tastes. The increasing presence of Dojin soft on steam should give any new game developers out there solace – the market grows ever hungrier for diverse gameplay styles and retro graphics, so take heart. Somewhere out there, somebody wants your game.

[1] Dojin Soft (also referred to as Doujin or Doujinshi games) is used to describe Japan’s gaming hobbyist dev scene.

[2] Data taken from steamspy.com, which aggregates sales figures from Steam.

Teaching Assistant at Queen's University. PhD in film. Videogame aesthetician.

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