Does Nintendo Only Care About Japan?

The truth behind one of gaming's great cultural clashes.

In 2009, former Square Enix president Yoichi Wada made waves by calling out Japanese retailers and gamers over the country’s “youge” culture. Youge is a Japanese word that vaguely translates to “something else.” It’s used in the Japanese gaming community to describe games from the West which do not necessarily adhere to the conventions of popular Japanese games.

It’s certainly no coincidence that Wada made these statements shortly after Square Enix helped publish Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in Japan. In that context, Wada’s statements can be read as more of a plea than a righteous call for the Japanese game industry to be more accepting of Western products. Even if Wada’s words were motivated partially by profit, they still represented a dynamic new viewpoint from a studio that was once so untrusting of the Western video game market that they weren’t even going to release Final Fantasy – the game which helped save Square from extinction – outside of Japan.

Do you know why they ended up releasing Final Fantasy in the West? It’s because Nintendo helped convince them that the game could be popular here. Nintendo had seen Enix’s Dragon Quest succeed in the West – where it was known as Dragon Warrior – and they put the full might of their marketing power behind Final Fantasy’s release in America because they were convinced it could succeed here as well. The game didn’t sell incredibly well in America, but Nintendo’s efforts did help Square and the Final Fantasy series gain a valuable foothold outside of Japan.

Once upon a time, Nintendo played a crucial role in convincing Square to open their hearts and trust the acceptance of non-Japanese gamers. If Nintendo’s role in this fairy tale has been diminished over the years, it’s because there’s no longer a place for it in the flipped script that says Nintendo no longer cares about the Western market and that their business decisions are intended to appease Japan first and foremost.

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Let’s look at the numbers. In 2016, Nintendo made a series of sales reports publically available via the Nintendo of Japan website. Among them is a detailed breakdown of console sales figures by year and region. It’s telling that the only regions specifically noted on the sheet are Japan, America, and other. It’s even more telling that the only piece of Nintendo hardware that has sold better in Japan than it has in America – according to the reports – is the Nintendo 3DS, a portable system released at a time when many Americans chose to get their portable gaming through smartphones.

To fully appreciate the meaning of these figures, here’s a number that isn’t on the sheet: 191.6 million. That’s the current population difference between the United States and Japan. This discrepancy requires you to consider the regional sales differences in terms of percentages. In the case of the Wii, for instance, a little more than 10% of Japan purchased a Wii using current population figures. A little over 15% of America did the same.

For a company that supposedly sees the success of their products in the West as a bonus, the numbers seem to suggest that Nintendo would have been out of business a long time ago were it not for the purchasing power of the Western markets, specifically America.

Besides, this is Nintendo we’re talking about. They’re not just the company that helped bring JRPGs to the West; they’re the company that helped bring video games back into homes all across the world following the industry’s crash in the 80s. They’ve established a strong foothold in America and elsewhere and, at times, have used their American branch as the face of the brand. They even purchased a professional baseball team. How could anyone suggest that Nintendo sees their international success as a secondary benefit?

Well, because it’s absolutely true. 

Hardware is an often inflexible concept. A company like Nintendo designs and releases a piece of hardware as a technological device that doubles as a vessel for hope. They sell gamers everywhere on the idea that a console is going to deliver a particular type of experience. While that experience is sometimes dictated by the design of the console – the Wii being an obvious case of this – it’s more often than not delivered through software.

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The history of Nintendo and software tells a different story than the hardware sales figures do. The gap between software units sold in America and software units sold in Japan is not nearly as wide. In fact, Japanese gamers bought more SNES and 3DS games over the company’s measured time frame. More important than the number of units sold, however, is which pieces of software were selling.

If you’ve ever wondered why Nintendo seems so hesitant to bring back the Metroid franchise, just look at the franchise’s sales history in Japan. The only documented case of a Metroid game selling better in Japan than it did in America was the release of Super Metroid. Otherwise, the difference is significant. The American version of Metroid Prime outsold the Japanese version by 1.8+ million units. The other two Metroid Prime games sold at least 800,000 more units in America than in Japan.

Despite the fact that two of the top three best-selling Metroid games of all-time are Prime series entries, the fact that they did not sell well in Japan seemingly inspired Nintendo to change the series formula with Metroid: Other M. Developed by Team Ninja – as opposed to Retro Studios, the Texas-based company that developed Metroid PrimeOther M abandoned large chunks of the classic Metroid formula in favor of a more action-oriented style, which clearly sported several Japanese cultural influences. Other M initially experienced a sales bump in Japan, but it ultimately failed in all markets. Nintendo still hasn’t released a Metroid console game of significance since Other M

Better yet, look at the F-Zero games. Much like the Metroid franchise, the F-Zero games have always sold better in America than they have in Japan, at least in the case of F-Zero games with semi-documented final sales figures. While the F-Zero franchise has never been Nintendo’s bestseller, it’s still sold consistently well in America and other Western markets. Despite this, when Nintendo’s famed developer Shigeru Miyamoto was asked by French game site Game Kult why the series had been away for so long despite a recent survey on Twitter among French gamers which named it the most missed Nintendo franchise, Miyamoto responded with the following statement:

“I am really pleased to hear Twitter’s opinion, because since the first episode on SNES many games have been made but the series has evolved very little. I thought people had grown weary of it…I am also very curious and I’d like to ask those people: Why F-Zero? What do you want that we haven’t done before?”

Whether it was his intent to do so or not, Miyamoto perfectly summarized Nintendo’s attitude towards the West with that one statement. It speaks to their need to understand why their fans want something rather than their willingness to simply deliver on what they want.

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Culturally, Nintendo is a Japan-based company that is always going to better understand the needs of the Japanese market. While it’s irresponsible to suggest that they are in some way hostile towards foreign markets or their cultures, the last 20+ years are littered with instances of the company making major business decisions which show a preference towards the Japanese market.

None of these examples are more significant than the failed relationship between Rare and Nintendo. Many Western gamers who owned an N64 will remember the console as a stage from which Rare and Nintendo played dueling banjos with their releases. They took turns releasing some of the console’s greatest games and carried that system through some dry months. Of course, that’s ultimately a very Western viewpoint. Rare’s games – most notably GoldenEye 007 – did not sell nearly as well in Japan as they did in the rest of the world. Generally speaking, they are not as fondly remembered among Japanese gamers.

So, when Rare needed a financial partner to stay in business, Nintendo declined to offer a partnership or sufficient financial investments. In an interview, Rare co-founder Tim Stamper admitted he had “no idea why” Nintendo did not assist them financially at that time.

The confusion surrounding certain Nintendo decisions continues to this day as the company prepares to launch the Switch. In some ways, the Switch represents Nintendo’s willingness to concede to the influence of the Western market. The Switch is a region-free console, which means that western gamers will no longer have to beg for Nintendo to release certain titles outside of Japan. Nintendo is also ensuring that their developers are up to speed on the inner-workings of popular game engines like Unreal Engine and Unity in order to make the development process easier for Western studios. 

But even these concessions feel hollow. A Region-free console feels like Nintendo’s way of ensuring they no longer have to worry about a game getting so popular in Japan that it forces them to translate it to the West. Now, they can import a Japanese title and let a fan do the translation, similar to what happened with Mother 3. (Strangely enough, that’s one fan project Nintendo hasn’t targeted.) As for Nintendo’s increased interest in other game engines, their intent is called into question by Miyamoto’s statement on the matter:

Also, even though game software developers in the U.S. and E.U.are often said to have superior skills to their Japanese counterparts when it comes to software development techniques, Nintendoʼs software developers have mastered state-of-the-art technologies such as Unreal engine, and their skills can now be compared with those of Western developers. Our developers are more excited than ever to create software.

That makes it sound like Nintendo is still approaching East and West as “us vs. them.” Viewing the Switch with that mentality, it’s hard not to see the console as Nintendo’s attempt to design a system that will allow them to once again understand the western market by reinforcing their Eastern sensibilities. For instance, even though the 3DS’ global sales figures confirm that handheld gaming in the West has drastically shifted to mobile devices, they’ve still designed a console that’s key feature is its ability to function as a handheld. A handheld, it should be said, which won’t even be able to support multimedia functionality at launch unlike just about any modern smartphone. At the same time, they’re trying to turn your smartphone into a Nintendo Switch assistant by ensuring that you rely on it for things like voice chat. 

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Perhaps this is all circumstantial, but at a certain point, circumstantial evidence begins to form at least the foundation of a truth. In this case, the truth it forms is that Nintendo’s primary interest has long been to export the gaming culture of Japan as curated by Nintendo. To defy Japan in favor of another market would be like a farmer burning down his fields because a grocery store opened up in town.

Does this mean that Nintendo hates the West? Absolutely not. Nintendo has made great strides in recent years to close real and cultural borders in the gaming world. This all just means that the next time you find yourself asking why Nintendo does or does not do certain things, you shouldn’t look at numbers, your preferences, or your Twitter feed. 

Instead, you should look to the East.

Matt Byrd is a staff writer.