Side Story

Has The Genre Passed Away, Or Moved On?

Violins sound their chords, guitars rock and voices sing – bottles are popped, corks fly. New games in the action genre have graced us this year, something that is cause for celebration these days, isn’t it? Yet for some the bottles remain corked and the music muted, while for others the only voice heard is a sigh of relief. What is going on?

Not too long after Nier: Automata’s release Platinum Games legend Hideki Kamiya offered these words: “Nier’s success has to this point given Platinum a new fanbase, a growing staff, a brilliant success story, an increase in qualified job applicants, and a great benefit,” followed by saying “Normally, I can’t help but do everything by myself… it’s a pitiful story, but to say that Yoko-san saved Platinum would not be an exaggeration. I cannot thank him enough.

Fast forward to the release of Team Ninja’s final expansion pack for Nioh, to hear director Fumihiko Yasuda offer these words:
“When the scene after William’s final battle was completed, there was a huge sense of loss and I was very sentimental. That’s because for years, William was always there on our monitors traversing Sengoku Japan, fighting Yokai after another… and I felt I would no longer see that again. Nioh’s development happened during difficult times for Team Ninja. So while it was a tremendous challenge, it also came with unimaginable joy and sorrow. This may sound dramatic but as I see William, who dies again and again, only to come back stronger and continue to take on tougher foes. In this vision, I see the new embodiment of Team NINJA as well. While I am starting to think about the future, at this very moment I only wish for our players to take delight in the final chapter of William’s tale”.

In one year both of action gaming’s most high profile companies offered up the reveal that they had been struggling, be it creatively, or worse: financially. Both Nioh and Nier: Automata were successful, selling over one and two million copies each. Thanks to smart budgeting and market research, these games allowed them to fill their pockets while other companies struggle to make a profit with far larger numbers. So the question is, how did the genre die in the first place, and why? And how did these games save it?

A quick refresher on the genre before we pop the cork on that question. Action games in their current form hail from arcade titles like Space Harrier, Final Fight, Double Dragon and later also their home video versions, added by games like Contra, Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi. Titles like these promoted and rewarded knowledge, experimentation and twitch reactions – all working in perfect harmony. It should come as no surprise that both Itagaki and Kamiya – the fathers of the current era action titles – were big fans of those types of games more often refered to as 覚えゲー(pronounced OH boe GHe). In 2001 it starts to get interesting. Following the release of Devil May Cry 1 a trend was started; people had never seen anything quite like it. Just like with Super Mario Brothers in the early 90’s, a ton of titles came out to take part in its success. Games popped up left and right like a revival of Shinobi and Rygar but also new titles like Chaos Legion, Otogi, God of War and Legacy of Kain: Defiance while also becoming the go to genre for quick tie-in games like Ghost Rider and The Nightmare Before Christmas; all incorporating style meters, juggles, combat with direction inputs and more, trying to cash in on the hype. But as with all trends and hypes, it dies. Markets go oversaturated with having too much of the same thing, and move on to the next trend like first person shooters in 2007 and the cinematic experience genre in 2009 and beyond – this is simply the way of man.

This, unsurprisingly, had a big impact on how companies viewed the genre. The sudden shift in interest from the general public in 2008 hit Devil May Cry 4 and Ninja Gaiden 2 hard. While speculation, having the trend passing before their eyes, the games would be forgiven for rushing out the gate in such an unfinished state. The genre’s future also wasn’t helped by it being particularly hard to design, with narrative and presentation being second to nuanced mechanics and balance – resulting in the eventual games being either low on quality combat mechanics like Wet and The Witcher, or lacking in content to showcase the high quality combat in such as Metal Gear Rising, Vanquish and Killer is Dead. Last ditch efforts were made to expand the audience from their remaining core to those interested in the newer trends. Devil May Cry’s reboot DmC: Devil May Cry tried a more narrative approach with streamlined combat, offering more insights into the world, its social structure and Dante’s place in it. Ninja Gaiden 3 made a sudden shift to a personal narrative, showing more of Ryu’s persona than ever before while toning the combat down to one available weapon with less complex enemies. While it may not have been the wish of the designers and directors, there was simply no choice – to gamble the future of a studio on the small core of fans was too big of a risk. But to quote one of our previous articles: […] in the end, a game that tries both, doesn’t succeed in either. And it was this risk that Team Ninja head Yosuku Hayashi admitted to regret not having taken. Speaking on Ninja Gaiden 3 he offered these words: “It seems like we made a Japanese hamburger for the West, maybe as a Japanese developer, we need to make good Japanese food… and that’s what people are wanting from a Japanese developer,” followed by stating, “the state the Japanese industry is in right now [means they are] doing everything they can just to basically stay above water.” Make sushi, not burgers, in the hope that we’d dine again. And he took this advice to heart as soon after Ninja Gaiden 3 was remade in the original vision with new weapons, more combat options and layers upon layers of mechanical depth added to a rough foundation. DmC: Devil May Cry similarly received a large update that attempted to revive the core vision, both succeeding and winning back many fans. 

One game that had the biggest impact of them all, on the genre and its future, is a little title nobody paid any attention to when it was unveiled. A small Asia-only game, titled デモンズソウル. This game, ignored by all, would soon conquer the hearts of many, and its successors even more. The game smartly mixed old role playing mechanics, some dating back to Dungeons and Dragons, with the basic action fundamentals like dodges, blocking and waiting out enemy animations before punishing them, all wrapped around a solid stamina management system. Its punishing nature a breath of fresh air in contrast to the trends at the time, allowing it larger success than imagined by its publisher. By now it should be no surprise that the translation of that mysterious name is Demon’s Souls. It started a new trend of slower, and less complex, but more punishing combat that many would aim to imitate. Here is a game about taking your time with slow and clear animations, not lightning fast ninjas. This trend has slowly seeped into more games in the genre, even ones like Team Ninja’s Nioh, and like the trend started by Devil May Cry, its fire too, will fade with time.

Because as a whole, the action games have evolved past the trend and have become a genre, free from constrictions and made stronger by a core audience that loves it and cares for it. Yes, the time of the big budgeted titles has past. But the developers are now finally embracing what they are, a genre in the thousands with a clearly defined fanbase that can be kept alive with smaller amuses like The Legend of Korra, Transformers Devastation and Absolver – balanced with a rare feasts like with Nioh, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Nier: Automata and Bayonetta 2 that use a big name or a hook-in with another audience for increased sales, while still staying true to their roots. And that is what Kamiya meant, that to stay alive one must sometimes expand, but not too far. That is why it saved them, what saved the genre. For it never died, it was merely finding its place in the hobby we call home. 

So sing with us, party. But not with western champagne, but with Sake( 酒). Not with a violin, but a Koto (箏). Raise your glasses fellow ninja, demon slayers, cyborgs and – most importantly – friends, for the genre is alive and will never die.

斬 postscript notes 斬

  • During the entire writing process of this article I listened nearly exclusively to this song, it just really got me pumped.

  • The whole dinner part of the article came from my feelings while listening to the soundtrack listed above, I just go the feeling of a grand feast with music everywhere, that erupted near the end in total joy and celebration.

  • This article was ‘triggered’ by a Youtube video I had watched a while ago:

  • While talking to the poster of this video on this reddit post I thought I’d bring my own take on the topic at hand.

  • I was, slightly, surprised to see that Devil May Cry 4 and Ninja Gaiden 2 launched in the same year just as the Call of Duty hype was going on thanks to Modern Warfare’s release. This put things in a new perspective for me.

  • The image used for Demon’s Souls is one used for fan favorite Biorr in the European Collectors Edition Guide, for I wished to keep the name a bit mysterious at first.

源 sources 源

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