It seems there are more and more anime games on the shelves these days. With titles like Uniel and Guilty Gear Xrd building hype among the fighting-gamers, and the surge of JRPG's that are now available to the american market, you can see just how anime and Japanese culture has influenced the new generation of developers.
The success and presence of these games almost makes it feel like the Japanese style has always had a strong presence here. However, hat has not always been the case. While there were a few Japanese shows on television back in the day, anime games didn't start making an appearance until 1989. It was that year a tipping point was reached-- and anime finally started to become cool.
Jeremy Parish is here from USgamer to dive into the history of the relationship between anime and video games:
Clash at Demonhead is the first to make it off the beach...
To judge Clash at Demonhead by its cover, you'd expect it to be your typical low-budget, 1980s, post-Flash-Gordon, sci-fi schlock: A muscular Rambo-looking dude in chromed armor fires lasers at an insectile skeleton-man and other strange monsters while what appears to be a space cheerleader shrinks timidly into his protective embrace. Real boilerplate, potboiler stuff.
And that is precisely why that old saw about judging works by their covers exists in the first place. Although the box of Clash at Demonhead actually does depict concepts from the game (the chrome guy is protagonist Billy "Bang" Blitz, the skeleton is apparent villain Tom Guycot, the mountain in the background is the locale in which the game action takes place), the in-game presentation couldn't be further from the straight-to-video, Mystery Science Theater 3000-fodder quality of the cover's airbrush job. If the box art begged to be splashed across the side of a stoner's van circa 1980, the in-game aesthetic would have been better suited a wall scroll at a mall kiosk a couple of decades later. It was 100% pure anime... a word most American gamers didn't even know at the time.
In a recent piece on Medium, Henk Rogers (the man who brought Tetris to the West and role-playing games to the East) discussed how his Wizardry-inspired Japan-only creation, The Black Onyx, presented itself to Japan with box art in the style of Frank Frazetta: "A hero standing on a pile of monsters swinging a sword. The problem was that in Japan nobody knew what the hell that meant," he recalled. Within a few years, sales of The Black Onyx were eclipsed by the likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Rogers admitted, "I realized that I didn't quite understand the Japanese aesthetic and way. These games were quite different to mine, and just struck a more effective cultural chord."
Dragon Quest, of course, became a blow-out hit in Japan in large part because of its illustrations and character designs by Akira Toriyama, the cartoonist behind popular manga series Dr. Slump and Dragon Ball. The game didn't attract much attention until publisher Enix began promoting it in the pages of Shounen Jump, the weekly comic anthology where Toriyama's work appeared. Suddenly millions of kids took notice. The whimsy of Toriyama's illustrations didn't translate well to the game's miserable little map sprites, but once battle began players got to go mano-a-mano against colorful monsters straight from the pages of Toriyama's comics. And Dragon Quest was hardly unique; Japanese-developed games had drawn visual inspiration from manga and anime for as long as Japanese designers had been making games.
But Toriyama-style cartoons were as anathema to American audiences as Frazetta-esque fantasy paintings were to the Japanese. A cultural divide was at work, which made things difficult for Japanese publishers who hoped to peddle their distinctly Japanese-flavored video games in the U.S. as the '90s rolled around. In those days, anime in the West was confined to a small, fanatical group of animation connoisseurs. Anime would make inroads in the States before long thanks to the likes of Akira and Sailor Moon, but at the start of the '90s a video game publisher would sooner turn a box into an eyesore of bad art and inscrutable design than dare leave Japanese cartoons on the cover.
While cover art was easy to change, in-game visuals were a different matter altogether. Try as they might to scrub away any vestige of a foreign origin (especially a Japanese origin), publishers usually (but not always) found it easier just to make the cover more Western in style and leave the in-game contents untouched. Maybe they'd reprogram a rice ball to look like a hamburger; perhaps they'd change some names around; but ultimately they'd leave the distinctly Japanese aesthetic untouched.
Which brings us back to Clash at Demonhead, a textbook example of this phenomenon in action. By no means was Clash the first game whose origins its American publisher tried to half-heartedly whitewash, and it certainly wasn't the last, but it may well have been the most obvious.
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