Books: a work about Japanese game dev was published in Russian. We publish an excerpt

Bombora Publishing House has translated the Russian book “Power Up! How Japan breathed new life into the gaming industry.” Its author Chris Kohler wrote about the history of the development of the Japanese game dev and the impact he had on the global gaming industry. Kohler prepared his book based on many interviews with cult developers like Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideo Kojima.


“Games are folk art, collective, social reactions to the main impulse or activity of any culture. […] they are extensions of a social person and a political body […].

As a continuation of the common reaction to daily stress, games become accurate models of culture. They combine the actions and reactions of entire peoples into a single dynamic image… The games people play reveal a lot about them,”

Herbert Marshal McLuhan
“Understanding Media: External human extensions”

This is the epigraph to David Scheff’s fundamental work Game Over, published in 1993. The book itself is a fascinating, novel—like portrait of the people to whom Nintendo, the largest publisher of video games1 and the leader of the gaming industry in those years, owed its success. First of all, Game Over was a journalistic chronicle of international business intrigues and court showdowns, but this epigraph showed that Scheff was also thinking about the cultural aspects of Nintendo games. No wonder he admitted later that he was first interested in games just because his son loved them very much.

There is, however, one caveat: Scheff wrote about the culture of video games only in the context of America. And while there is much to be said about the role of Japanese video games in American culture, the bottom line is that Scheff wrote about games that are not products or models of American culture. They are products and models of Japanese culture, “actions and reactions” of the Japanese, which appear to us ready for use in an almost unchanged form.

And with what enthusiasm we buy them. Video game sales in the United States in the 2000s increased dramatically compared to the 1990s – from $3.2 billion in 1995 to $6.2 billion in 2002. Games produced in Japan traditionally bring in most of this amount. Many Japanese games, especially those developed by Nintendo (whose headquarters is located in Kyoto), get to the top of the bestseller lists. Super Mario Bros. (1985) from Nintendo holds the title of the most purchased game of all time2, although other Nintendo games — from The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time to various Pokémon releases — are not too far behind.

Throughout the (relatively short) history of video games, Japanese developments have made a splash in the world — Space Invaders in the 70s, Pac-Man in the early 80s, Super Mario Bros. in 1985, Street Fighter II in 1991, Final Fantasy VII in 1997. Even when a non-Japanese game becomes a hit in the US or elsewhere, it often makes full use of elements that first appeared in Japanese games. And it comes out on a platform made in Japan: Tomb Raider for Sega Saturn in 1995, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for Sony PlayStation 2 in 2002.

And the question arises: why? Why did Japanese games become so popular all over the world already at the dawn of the industry, without or with only minimal modifications? With Japanese films, for example, it was not so. And although Japanese animation and comics are now practically mainstream in the Western world, they have this status not so long ago. Few Americans in 1980 knew what manga was. But most were crazy about the Japanese Pac-Man. And their heads were partly turned by her Japanese design — easy to remember, in the spirit of manga.

Really, why? First of all, we should ask ourselves: what distinguishes early video games from modern ones? The most obvious answer is that the increase in computing power of computers over the past decades has led to the emergence of machines capable of producing improved graphics, and the invention of compact disks has allowed storing large amounts of information and thereby making games with a more complex game design.

But that’s not all. Indeed, modern games are technologically much more advanced than the first commercially available home gaming system. It is known as Odyssey — in 1972 it was released by Magnavox, a company engaged in the production of various electronics. The novelty cost $99.99.3 Odyssey could generate a maximum of a white line on the TV screen and three white dots: two “rackets” and one “ball” that bounced between them — so the game imitated tennis. There were other types of games for Odyssey, but in all of them only a few small monochrome dots could be seen on the screen at the same time.

Odyssey, and later other home gaming systems of that time were perceived as short-lived toys, and not as a permanent addition to the TV. Part of the reason was that only the games built into them could be run on them — there was no mechanism for adding new ones. In addition, the games themselves were very simple, monotonous and bored quite quickly. The idea that gaming hardware would not be able to occupy customers for a long time began to change when programmable console machines appeared, which were devoid of built—in games, but were able to run games stored on separate media.

Programmable hardware helped start the evolution of video game machines from simple toys into devices without which it is impossible to imagine a home entertainment center — what was a music box has now become a phonograph. Programmable systems have also freed game designers from the need to make platforms on which these games will work when creating games.

Michael Katz, a former employee of the Sega game publishing house, recalled such details about the time when more and more new game publishers began to appear in Silicon Valley. “Those who played on Atari had such a choice of cartridges from Atari itself that we could not imagine how anyone could need more cartridges. No one thought that they (buyers) would notice at least some difference in the schedule… and we couldn’t imagine that someone would agree to buy cartridges from an unknown company that cost $3-5 more.”

Imagine how the same statement would sound if we were talking about a different kind of media: “Readers had so many books that we could not imagine that someone would need even more books. No one thought that readers would notice at least some difference in words, and even more so they would pay $ 3-5 more (the usual price) for books from a company that no one had heard of.”

Nonsense, right? But in the context of the games of that time, it was an absolutely reasonable remark, because “a game is a game.” Almost every game available at that time was just a shooting or driving contest, and there were not so many distinctive features of different cartridges, in the buyer’s opinion. The games in the 1970s and early 1980s did not have clear finals. Instead, they suggested doing the same thing until the player finally lost his last spaceship or crashed his little monochrome typewriter.

Today, fans of video games spend hours immersed in such RPGs as Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy: delve into the subtleties of the plot, the features of the worlds shown, the abilities and relationships of the available heroes.

So it’s not that modern games are bigger in volume and graphically more perfect: the content and design itself — what forms the basis of these games — have also changed.


Henry Jenkins, head of the comparative media analysis program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called modern video games “virtual play spaces, thanks to which children are locked at home… they can push the boundaries, study, influence and interact with a much more diverse set of imaginary places than the often faded, predictable and worn-out set of places from their ordinary life.” Jenkins explains his idea by drawing an analogy with how boys were brought up in the XIX century. He writes that in the XIX century, boys took adventure stories as a basis for their own games — for example, they read a book about pirates, and then played pirates. Jenkins clarifies that modern games rely heavily on “playing a role in the imagination, and different genres of games allow children to imagine themselves in different… roles or situations.” This description is true not only for those games where the word “role—playing” is placed directly in the name of the genre – complex works in which a lot of attention is paid to the plot, and the player often has to make various tactical decisions. Even modern games are simpler, where the emphasis is on action, show specific characters and different situations. Consequently, the characters and scenarios in all these video games serve the same purpose as adventure books — they give food to the imagination.

So, probably the most important difference between modern video games and the early ones is the appearance of what can be called “cinematic elements”. The player is no longer represented by schematic little men or spaceships — modern games show full-fledged heroes who have both prehistories and motives, and in the course of the story these characters may develop. The narrative is integrated into the games: they are made based on the chosen plot. And in most modern games there are what are called cut scenes, or film cuts. These are sometimes non—interactive, often movie-like episodes whose task is to show the beginning or development of a story that is usually complex and lengthy.

Cinematic elements attract players because they enrich the gaming experience. Game designers quickly realized how valuable spectacular congratulations on achievements are, realized how important it is to give players specific goals with clear rewards in advance that they would strive for. If there are characters in the game that are endearing to themselves, players get attached to them, and at the same time they immerse themselves more in the game itself. And if there is a storyline in the game, the players have a tangible and understandable goal to get through the game to the end: they want to see the end of the story, find out how everything ended.

This revolution was due to the influence that the Japanese had on American entertainment. Cinematic inserts, which have now become something commonplace, first appeared in Japanese video games of the early 1980s. In the 1982 Video Invaders by Steve Bloom, one of the first books about video games, there is such a fragment: “The Japanese are endowed with a “sense of the comical” and are very fond of comics, sitcoms and cartoons. Taito America President Jack Mittel explained: “They (the Japanese) want more of a plot, something in the spirit of the adventures of Walter Mitty, like a whole movie…””.

Even the title of Bloom’s book reflects how significantly Japanese games influenced American gaming culture from the very beginning: the phrase Video Invaders beats the name of the game from the Japanese company Taito — Space Invaders. Bloom further describes the Japanese game Donkey Kong, which was new in those years (which will give birth to the world-famous series about the adventures of Mario, although Bloom did not know about it at that time) like “another weird cartoon game from Japan.”


As Alex Kerr wrote in his provocative book “Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan”, “Japan remains quite competent in many fields, as well as in scientific and artistic research, but nowhere does it have a leading role.” This is not quite true. Kerr speaks knowledgeably about the decline of traditional Japanese art, architecture, cinema and technology, but perhaps Japanese video games are the exception that confirms the rule.

“Strange cartoon games” came from the country and from people who adore comics and cartoons. Frederick L. Schodt, the author of two books and countless articles about Japanese comics, wrote in 1983 that the Japanese consider them (comics) “an effective […] way of transmitting information and use them everywhere […]. This is also facilitated by the fact that so many people learn to draw them. For the younger generation, comics are a generally understandable language […]. (They) live in an era in which the emphasis is on the image … (and) have no prejudice against comics. The Japanese themselves quite deservedly call such people shikaku sedai (shikaku sedai) — the “visual” generation.”

Moreover, certain aspects of the Japanese approach to design are particularly good for an art form like video games. The characters of Japanese anime, influenced by the artistic style of manga pioneer Osamu Tezuki, are strongly stylized, drawn with unrealistic proportions, even when the stories with their participation are absolutely serious. In the book “Understanding Comics” (Understanding Comics) Scott McCloud noticed that Japanese manga artists appreciate characters who look simplistic, abstract, and this simplification is important for self-identification with the characters in the story. McCloud himself designed his book as a comic book and simplistically draws himself, the narrator, just in order to capture the reader’s attention.

“This way of drawing characters,” J. S. Hertz noted in the book Joystick Nation, “perfectly suited early video games in which the resolution of the graphics did not allow for normal display of characters with adult (realistic) proportions. Cute little heroes contained fewer pixels per inch and it was easier to use them, so video games borrowed conventions that had developed in manga for practical reasons.”

The Japanese describe this style with the word mukokuseki, which literally means “deprived of nationality”, but is mainly used to denote “a cultural product from which racial or ethnic characteristics and contexts are removed.” Indeed, although the characters in Japanese anime have no features of ethnic Japanese, the style itself cannot be called “devoid of nationality”, because this is a unique work of Japanese artists, completely unlike American or European comic drawings.

More broadly, the Japanese have a centuries-old tradition of visual culture. One could even say that the image, not the word, has always been the most important thing in Japanese culture. Whether it’s ukiyo-e prints, which literally can be translated as “floating world”, or highly stylized performances in traditional noh and kabuki theaters, or erotic illustrations by shunga, which paved the way for gekiga’s piercing and frightening “movie books”, the forerunners of modern manga comics, every time in the era of Japanese history the most popular art forms were visual in nature.

We can even say that haiku — short Japanese poems that, using a minimum of words, draw a vivid landscape scene related to any time of the year – are designed for visual perception. Even Japanese writing uses signs based on drawings of objects.

The image began to be treated differently in the Western world, where abundantly illustrated books and comics are considered entertainment for children. About a child who reads books without illustrations, they will say that he reads at an adult level. An adult who willingly reads comics will be considered strange. But the generation of shikaku sedai (a phrase that now describes even modern middle-aged Japanese) perceives images as a way of communication and therefore loves both comics and animation. According to Schodt, “in particular, because of this, many talented young people who at another time might have become writers or artists go to professional comics.” And in the early 80s, when Schodt wrote these lines, many of these young people became game designers.

Their American contemporaries didn’t seem to understand what to do with all this. In Video Invaders, American game designer Tim Skelly, then working at Cinematronics, criticized the Japanese approach to game design, calling the developers “bad imitators” and adding that “most of their games fail here. In my opinion, in the future, their affairs in the United States will go very badly.” However, less than a year later, it was Cinematronics and similar offices that were left out of business when the video game market in the United States collapsed. It was Japanese companies that revived the US gaming industry.

Leonard Herman, a specialist in the history of video games, wrote that “at a certain point, the United States was leading in all forms of production, from cars to televisions and radios. But over time, Japan […] overtook them […], failing to seize the primacy of the United States only in the market of video games and computers. It seemed that computers were the last product that was still truly American. Since these were small computers, video games also remained a purely American phenomenon… until 1978, when Taito released Space Invaders, and Japan quickly seized the lead here.”

In 1983, the video game market in the United States collapsed. In Japan, the games were doing great, but American companies like Atari, Coleco and Mattel could not keep the industry afloat in the United States. By 1984, many publishing houses had gone bankrupt. In 1985, Nintendo released its Famicom home game console in the United States, and with it a whole library of Japanese games translated into English. For a year, Nintendo managed to resurrect a dead market. Atari tried to compete with it, but American video games were noticeably inferior to games such as Super Mario Bros. from Nintendo.

Even now, mainly due to the long—standing influence of Japanese “strange cartoon games”, many successful games in the USA are from Japanese authors. In the January 2002 issue of the popular video game magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly, the editors voted the 100 best games of all time. Out of 100 games included in this list:

  • there are recognizable, dissimilar characters in 86;
  • 78 has a full-fledged plot or narrative elements;
  • 38 belong to the genre of role-playing games, built entirely on the promotion of the plot;
  • 93 are made in Japan.


1 Nintendo is still one of the major game publishers, but its title of “largest” is regularly challenged by other companies. According to different calculation methods, Japanese Sony or Chinese Tencent may be ahead. — Approx. trans.

2 As of the beginning of 2022, Minecraft by Swedish developer Markus Persson is in the first place. Nevertheless, out of the ten best—selling games in history, six are on Nintendo’s account. — Approx. scientific ed.

3 Here and further, prices in the USA are indicated by the author without sales tax, which is added to the price on top at the checkout (unlike VAT in Russia, which is already included in the price on the price tag for the product). In different states and cities of the United States, the tax differs and can reach up to 10 percent. — Approx. scientific ed.

Alex Kerr has written several books on Japan and Japanese culture. “Bombora” in 2018 published another of his works — “Lost Japan”. — Approx. trans.

⁵ Sometimes, of course, Japanese games still have Japanese customs or Japanese cultural context. They are usually removed or changed if the game is released in the USA — see Chapters 8 and 9. — Author’s note.

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