For our eighth episode of the Nihongo Master podcast, we talked about a topic which is probably close to a lot of your hearts: video games.
More than any other country in the world, Japan led the charge in the development of video game tech and software. Space Invaders and Pacman ruled the arcades of the early 80s, while franchises like Final Fantasy and the Legend of Zelda dominated the polygonic days of the 1990s — their modern-day descendants still continue to top the charts with each new installment.
Hardcore enthusiasts will be able to rattle off countless Japanese companies who have been influential on the video game scene, but we only stuck with three of the biggest: SEGA, Sony, and Nintendo. Between these three companies, they have more iconic characters than anyone could possibly remember. And in broad terms, their story is the story of Japanese video gaming culture as a whole.
Let’s look at the summary of what we talked about in the podcast!
Back in 1983, the Japanese could also enjoy coming home to unwind with a game on their brand new Nintendo Famicon (short for family computer). This gorgeous lump of red and white plastic was a vision of retro heaven. In Europe or the US, this device was better known as the NES (or Nintendo Entertainment System) which was the updated model released around the world in 1985. Both consoles took their respective markets by storm, and placed the pixelated crown right on the head of Nintendo’s top in-house game developer Shigero Mayamoto.
These early consoles were also game-changers in terms of the characters and IPs they introduced to the gaming world — we dropped a few names, and if you want to test your gaming knowledge, give the episode a listen!
Nintendo cemented their position at the top of the video game food chain in 1989, with what was technically their second bash at producing a hand-held console: the Gameboy, which was a smash hit, and sold over 120 million units! By 1995, Nintendo dropped Virtual Boy, a rudimentary VR headset, and about the same time the Nintendo 64 dropped — it held its own against the new heavyweight on the scene, the Sony Playstation. And so began the endless arguments about console superiority which still dominate millions of internet forums to this day.
However, the PS1 still outsold the N64. By the time they released the Gamecube in 2001, Nintendo had the PS2 and Xbox to contend with. These struggles have never fully left Nintendo, as proven by the paltry sales of the Wii U in 2012.
Whatever the case, Nintendo is far from dead and buried. The Switch, which is Nintendo’s half-portable half-console hybrid from 2017, was nothing short of revolutionary. It returned to the innovative, accessible roots of the company’s gaming philosophy, and brought some of the best games of this generation despite being considerably less powerful than its rivals on paper.
Want to know more about Nintendo? Give episode 8 a listen on Spotify or Apple Podcast!
In 1993, the Sony Interactive Entertainment branch of the company was formed. Want to know how they decided to start the company? I won’t tell you here — but you know where to get the answer!
In December of the following year, the Playstation barreled onto the scene to bruise the cheeks of Super Mario with a well-placed roundhouse kick to the head. The groundbreaking 3D graphics and iconic square-circle-triangle-x controller raised a massive hype, and Sony got its feet well and truly planted in the video game market almost a full 2 years before Nintendo could respond in kind.
This meant that the Playstation could be marketed as the console for adults — in stark contrast to the usually more cartoonish visuals of Nintendo’s system. Lara Croft rings a bell to anyone? Refresh your memory with a listen of Sony’s rundown in episode 8!
Within the next few years, a solid lineup of action heroes stood alongside her as the flagship main characters of Sony’s console. Classics like Solid Snake from Hideo Kojima’s stealth-action classic Metal Gear Solid, zombie-hunting Chris Redfield from Resident Evil, and Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy 7 all came from Japanese studios. These were the franchises which would sail Sony over into the 21st century as the new titans of gaming culture.
The PS2 managed to shift an amazing 155 million units worldwide over the 12 years following its launch in March 2000. By switching to DVDs instead of CDs, the games were meatier and the graphics more realistic; not to mention a more appealing console. Then came its successor the PS3, continuing the trend of appealing to grown-up gamers, making it a direct like-for-like rival of the new Xbox and Xbox 360. And 2013’s Playstation 4 brought virtual reality to the lineup with the Playstation VR headset.
We covered more content on Sony in the podcast episode — so give it a listen if you’re a Sony enthusiast like me!
The iconic SEGA arcade towers in Tokyo’s Akihabara district were a local landmark for almost two decades. SEGA has been a major name in arcades since way back in the 60s, so there are still some other outlets dotted around town. Alongside the usual dance rhythm games, there are also some distinctly Japanese offerings — want to know what they are? We talked about a few intriguing ones in the episode, so give it a listen!
SEGA was the first major casualty of the console wars — they haven’t released a console since 1998’s SEGA Dreamcast bombed at the box office. To get your hands on any SEGA gear nowadays, you’d have to head along to a secondhand store in one of the retro electronics hotspots.
The SEGA Mega Drive was the one that brought all the power of SEGA’s trademark 16-bit arcade machines to a home console in 1988. SEGA Genesis is what it’s more widely known as in America. Being a 16-bit machine in an 8-bit era, it naturally had the edge when it came to graphics and gameplay and was a huge hit. Think Golden Axe, Street Fighter 2, Castlevania, Sonic the Hedgehog. If you wanted to be the coolest kid in class back in the late 80s, you’d better have those games sitting on your bookshelf.
But despite riding high throughout the early 90s, their 1994 Japan-released SEGA Saturn console totally flopped in the US one year later thanks to the forward-thinking folks at Sony who undercut it on price and one-upped it on just about everything else. Even with Dreamcast in 1999, PS2 got in the way of any potential huge success.
They’ve kept making software even until now, with a hand in some pretty big franchises. If you’re a PC gamer, you’ll be well aware of this from the Total War series, or Football Manager.
Here’s the list from the vocab recap in episode 8:
Adobenchā (アドベンチャー) — adventure
Retoro (レトロ) — retro
Gēmu (ゲーム) — game
Shujinkō (主人公) — protaganist/main character
Kantan (簡単) — easy
Futsuu (普通) — normal
Muzukashī (難しい) — difficult
Aitemu (アイテム) — item
Reberu (レベル) — level
Teki kyara 敵キャラ— enemy character
Kakutō gēmu (格闘ゲーム) — fighting game
Akushon (アクション) — action
Rōrupureingu (ロールプレイング) — roleplaying
Keikenchi (経験値) — exp/experience points
Chika-ra (力) — strength
Subayasa (素早さ) — agility
bācharuriariti (バーチャルリアリティ)— virtual reality
Shokugyō (職業)— profession/job, character class
Tsuzuki (続き)— continue
shūryō (終了)— quit
ākēdo (アーケード) — arcade
otaku (オタク) — geek or nerd
taiko (太鼓)— traditional Japanese drums
shimyurēshon gēmu (シミュレーションゲーム) — simulation game
chūkohinten (中古品店)— secondhand store
Shoshinsha (初心者)— noob, or more generally: beginner
otsukaresama desu (お疲れ様です)— a phrase which basically means “good work”
gēmuōbā (ゲームオーバー)— game over
Haisha (敗者)— loser, or defeated person
Shōsha (勝者)— winners
So that’s the summary of Japan’s leading video game companies — as I’ve mentioned, we covered so much more in the episode so I highly suggest giving it a listen. There’s some exclusive content that I left out here on purpose, and you wouldn’t even know what it is…until you head over to Spotify or Apple Podcast right now and type “Nihongo Master podcast”!