Industry Impermanence: The Remake Culture of Japan

Final Fantasy VII

Remakes. Sometimes we desperately desire them, and other times we despise them. However, have you ever really stopped and asked yourself why there are so many remakes in the world of video games? Of course, the short answer is good old-fashioned money. The idea is simple: take an established brand, remake it on the cheap, and reap the easy cash. Hollywood does this all the time, so of course games would too, right?

Except, if you start looking deeper, you find that this isn’t really the case in the West. In fact, the Western market tends toward sequels, while it’s largely only the Japanese market that produces remakes. Final Fantasy games seem to be remade or updated every year, but when was the last time you saw an Elder Scrolls remake? Sure there have been a few; Monkey Island and Myst come to mind. Occasionally, you get an HD re-release here and there, but almost nothing in terms of complete remakes. Still, if game remakes are faster cash than sequels, why is Japan the only one making them? Is it just money, or is it something more cultural? Let’s explore.

To start with, let’s knock out a common misnomer. If you’ve lived in America and followed gaming media, you’re probably aware that there’s been a lot of buzz in the past six or seven years about the increase in remakes. You’ve probably heard the same opinion on news sites, forums, and social media; the Japanese industry is burning out, losing creativity, and surviving largely on remakes. You get this picture painted for you of an industry so devoid of new ideas that it simply rehashes and repackages everything for some quick yen. While there’s certainly some truth to that, particularly in the quality of recent remakes, on the whole it simply isn’t true.

In fact, Japan has been making remakes, updated ports, and re-releases since the earliest days of the gaming industry. It started, to some extent, with the diverse PC market, requiring games to often be completely re-programmed for release on any of the five-plus popular PCs at the time. The trend of ports continued with the rise of the Famicom (NES) and PC Engine (TurboGrafx-16) in Japan. By the time the Super Famicom (SNES) hit the market, the idea of remaking a game with updates to the game’s graphics, music, and core gameplay had caught on. From there, tons of popular series got remakes, such as Dragon Quest, Pokémon, Super Mario Bros., Kirby, and Ys.

The problem for those who grew up in America is that, in most cases, we didn’t see these remakes. Sure, we got Super Mario All-Stars and Kirby Super Star, but in most cases, remakes didn’t come to the U.S. The Dragon Quest series saw the first three games be fully remade on the Super Famicom, but we never got them in the West. Then, a few years later, Enix decided to remake these same three games again on Game Boy Color, which America did finally get. The thinking at the time seemed to be that, while they would sell in Japan, they simply wouldn’t sell in America.

Super Castlevania IV

A perfect example of this was Super Castlevania IV. In Japan, the game was marketed as a remake (or what we’d now call a “reboot”) of the first Castlevania game. However, when the game was brought to America, they retitled the game, adding the Roman numeral “IV” and changing the instruction manual so that it appeared to be a whole new story. Realistically, this would have made far more sense as a remake, especially for the series’ timeline in years to come, but there seemed to be a feeling that Americans only wanted something new.

And this is where we get down to the cultural question underlying the whole issue. When you look at the public response to remakes in America, what do you see? With almost every game, there’s a split between people who love the idea and people who hate it. For the West, there’s a strong sense of nostalgia and preservation of the past that often guides our feelings. Pokémon is a great example of this, as even 20 years and three generations of remakes later, people still complain about how changing the old game ruins it. We welcome new games, just as we welcome new buildings and new technology, while we fiercely protect and preserve our past as if it should be set in stone.

On the most fundamental level, Japan is completely opposite of this. People in the West have this vision of Japan as a culture steeped in history, filled with ancient temples and castles from hundreds of years ago. And they’re right—Japan abounds with historical sites and ancient places, but there’s an interesting fact about them that tends to elude the West. Despite having all of this history, Japan is a country built on the idea of impermanence. There are many reasons for this, but the three biggest of these are religion, war, and natural disaster. Nothing in Japan is ever truly seen as permanent, and this design philosophy seeps into every aspect of society in little ways.

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

To illustrate this idea outside of gaming, I present to you Osaka Castle. This beautiful structure—a perfect picture of ancient Japan—is, in fact, a complete reproduction built in the ’90s. Osaka Castle, like nearly all of Japan’s castles, was destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout history due to wars, earthquakes, and other disasters. In particular, during the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s, most of the original castles were demolished. Of the over 100 castles that exist in Japan today, only 12 of them are original. Often times, these newly rebuilt castles have classical exteriors, but modernized interiors, complete with elevators and modern museums.

For Japan, this act of rebuilding the original structure while improving it is preservation itself. Many Western people would be appalled at the idea of tearing down and rebuilding monuments of the past in this way, despite it sometimes happening anyway. But how is it that Japan can fight to preserve these relics of the past while seemingly destroying them by ruining what made them historical? This is an even tougher cultural question, which involves a little study of Zen Buddhism in Japan.

There are are two important phrases in Japanese that express this all-encompassing idea. The first is “mono no aware,” which basically expresses the feeling of wistful sadness when we realize that nothing is permanent. Impermanence, or “mujo” in the Japanese religion, is one of the three paths used to attain separation from the physical world when trying to attain enlightenment. From the earliest days of Japanese culture, there’s been a constant reminder that nothing is permanent: tsunamis. These huge waves—and the massive earthquakes which proceed them—often wipe clean places that were built to last. As I write this, it’s now three days since the 5th anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, a heartbreaking reminder of this impermanence.

The other phrase is “wabi-sabi,” which is as much an aesthetic as an idea. This one is much harder to pin down, but the simplest way to describe it is the idea that everything is imperfect. From a philosophical standpoint, every human being is trapped in the physical world—a world of imperfection. The idea is that, as we grow and evolve as people, we shift our souls or consciousness away from the imperfect physical world to an enlightened and perfected spiritual one. What this means for Japanese culture is that in history, there was a tradition of art and architecture that used asymmetry and a certain level of incompleteness and imperfection. Many famous temples and shrines employ these ideas, and they have entered the Japanese worldview on a subconscious level.

Wizardry online

So what do these castles and Buddhist teachings mean for video games? My theory is that, on some basic level, both the creators and consumers of games in Japan are fully used to the impermanence of the industry, as well as the concept of growing into perfection. It only takes a quick look in the Japanese recycle shops to get an idea of this concept. Games in Japan have little or no re-sale value after only a few months, and countless scores of old games that were once in the $70 range are now in the $3 range. And unlike the U.S., this doesn’t just include the “shovelware” games of the past, as even top hits like Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, Pokémon, and Dragon Quest drop to under $20 after they reach a few years old.

When I left Japan, I wanted to buy several of the Pokémon Game Boy games, like Pokémon Blue and Pokémon Silver, but I changed my mind. Knowing these games would likely never be compatible with the newer generations, I felt like buying them in Japan would be a better idea. I was right. Pokémon Blue sold for $30+ in the U.S. before I left in 2014, while the same game was roughly $3 in Japan. Even the Game Boy Advance games, like Pokémon Emerald, which regularly sells for $45+ in the U.S., was only $5. The same was true for the Pokémon Heart Gold/Soul Silver remakes, which were only about $16 complete in their boxes with the PokéWalker attachment. Only the current generation, with the high-selling Pokémon Alpha Sapphire/Omega Ruby remakes, are expensive here.

Sometimes, Japan even remakes games that aren’t even their own. In the early ’90s, both the Wizardry and Ultima series—pioneers of the modern RPG—were remade in Japan for the Famicom system. These games were beyond standard ports, as they completely overhauled the early Apple II and DOS versions’ graphics and gameplay. In Ultimas case, these remakes would later be re-translated from Japanese back into English to be released on the NES. Wizardrys story ended up being even more bizarre. These games were so popular in Japan that, long after the series died out in the U.S., a Japanese company bought the rights to the series in the PS1 era and continues to release new Wizardry games in Japan today. In both of these cases, the Japanese PC gamers saw these Western games as the epitome of wabi-sabi, and decided to improve and share them for the Japanese market.

For Japanese consumers, there’s a feeling that the old games simply got lost to time and the harsh realities of the market. While it’s relatively easy to pick up those old games, the feeling of joy they brought is gone because the world has moved on from such old ideas. It’s this mix of impermanence and imperfection that I believe makes the world of remakes so profitable in Japan. People love the idea that their past is not just being preserved, but restored in a way that improves them and evolves them closer to perfection.

While many in the West view this as a sacrilege to history, the Japanese view it as an honor to history … as long as it’s good. Ys has done well, with its high quality PSP/Steam remakes, while Square Enix’s low-budget iOS/Steam remakes are consistently trashed. You should keep that in mind, Final Fantasy VII.

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