Back in September, I had the chance to attend Tokyo Game Show, one of the biggest gaming events of the year and one which shines a light on upcoming games from the Japanese video game industry. Otaquest went to the event and covered many much-anticipated upcoming releases that were on display, including New Sakura Wars, Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Project Resistance. Between massive booths for games like these, Final Fantasy VII Remake and more, each with equally large queues on public days for guests desperate for a chance to experience these anticipated upcoming titles at their first public outing, you certainly weren’t spoilt for choice on what to play. An attendee at the event could spend so long at these booths they may never get the chance to experience some of the more obscure areas of the massive event space over at Makuhari Messe. Yet, in a large yet unassuming area within the merchandising hall stood Tokyo Games Show’s indie gaming hub, where hundreds of indie developers predominantly from Japan could be found, showcasing the most creative and exciting experiences currently in development in the Japanese indie gaming scene.
When put alongside impressive Western indie titles such as Celeste, Sayonara Wild Hearts and more, the Japanese indie scene can feel immature by comparison, a result of Japanese developers being slower to embrace the digital distribution platforms and lower barrier to entry of free-to-access development engines that facilitated the industry’s growth internationally. While certainly a less mature scene, its certainly no less creative or exciting. In recent years the Japanese indie scene has undergone a transformation, as cultural shifts and the removal of barriers make indie games development a viable option for more budding Japanese creatives; nowhere was this more on display than at Tokyo Game Show 2019.
Giraffe & Annika, The Modern Japanese Indie Game with English Inspirations
Out of all the Japanese indie games I was able to catch up with at Tokyo Games Show in September, it was Giraffe & Annika whose demo most left me wanting to play more. Bringing together a small group of creatives under the banner of the indie collective Atelier Mimina, Giraffe & Annika utilizes Unreal Engine 4 to create a 3D adventure game with an emphasis on puzzle-solving and exploration. Here, you control as an amnesiac girl named Annika as she explores the island of Spika and attempts to recover her lost memories.
Although the game is also set for release on Steam, the short time I had with the game was through an early build of the title’s planned Nintendo Switch release. This demo dumped the player into the game’s opening moments, as Annika questions where she is after waking from a dream with faint memories of her mother. The world you’re given to explore is welcoming and inviting, its rural fields reminiscent of a relaxing mid-summer stroll through the countryside. This is no coincidence, either, with the developers speaking to me about how the game’s environments took inspiration from England’s rural countrysides and coastal areas. The prominent lighthouse featured within the game is perhaps the most obvious inspiration found here.
There are obstacles that you will have to face, sure, but the game wants you to explore and it doesn’t want to make things so difficult you’re too scared to find the hidden collectibles that can be found around every corner. It’s a feeling that extends to the gameplay and the fun cast of characters; you have friends like Giraffe who promise to help you on your journey, while even your rival gives off the impression that they care for your wellbeing just as much as they want to impede your progress.
While perhaps a little overly strict when it comes to restricting your abilities in these early moments (Annika isn’t even able to jump before you’ve explored the first area), the demo does succeed in showcasing the key elements that could make this under-the-radar indie title worth your time, from the aforementioned exploration to the game’s unique rhythm game-inspired boss battles. This will all come to a head when the game releases on PC this year and Nintendo Switch and PS4 next year.
Cotton, An Arcade Classic Revival
If Giraffe and Annika is a showcase of how independent creatives are coming together to develop their own indie titles, taking advantage of the lower barrier to entry of games development through royalty-funded development engines like Unity and Unreal Engine, Cotton showcases something unique to the Japanese indie scene. Companies such as Capcom have worked to remaster and rerelease classic titles, yet the games chosen for such projects are exclusively their most well-known classic titles such as Street Fighter or Mega Man. As important as remasters are in the effort to preserve the history of gaming as a medium, for as long as corporations are in control of the preservation process the profit motive will remain the most important factor in deciding what ‘deserves’ to be remembered. Despite retro-inspired games being more popular ever thanks to titles like Shovel Knight and Celeste, lesser-known classics of years gone that could benefit from this trend are often overlooked and are at risk of being lost to the sands of time.
The Japanese indie scene is stepping in to fill this void, remastering and enhancing lesser-known classics. This brings us to one of the biggest indie booths at Tokyo Games Show and a game we’ve discussed here at Otaquest once before. If you visit the independent used gaming store BEEP in Akihabara you’ll quickly learn that it is far more than a business, as the company also operates as a museum for the PC and arcade gaming scene of the 1980s and 90s within Japan. Recently, the company made headlines for putting up for sale the original series of Touhou games while offering playable versions of the doujin classics on native PC hardware to store visitors, an example of their dedication to showcasing gaming history just as much as it is in selling it. As part of this, BEEP is stepping into indie game development, taking a lesser-known but much-loved classic arcade shoot-em-up in Cotton and remastering it for modern platforms. This title was originally released by Success in 1991 in arcades, later being ported to various devices such as the SHARP X68000 in the years since. This version of Cotton is the one being ported to modern platforms in its original state alongside a remastered version, with new art, a 16:9 aspect resolution and remastered music being promised.
This game was also on display at Tokyo Game Show, the version on display being a partially implemented remaster playable on Nintendo Switch. While the 16:9 aspect ratio and elements of the remaster work such as art were partially in place, many assets still used those taken from the original release. ‘We want the final build to feature new art and music, but it, unfortunately, wasn’t ready for this event,’ they told me on the show floor.
BEEP plan to release this remaster on Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4 and PC next year, with possible plans to continue to remaster further titles if this proves successful, allowing indie developers to bridge this knowledge gap within games preservation.
Mochi Agaru and PlayDoujin, Changing the Doujin Software Scene
The doujin software scene within Japan is as inaccessible as it is well-known. This was the scene that birthed Touhou Project, Umineko, and TYPE-MOON, the creators of the Fate/ franchise, after all, yet the scene is often inaccessible to many due to the fact that, historically, many doujin games have often been exclusively made available in limited quantities at conventions such as Comiket. Often these games are hobby projects more than commercial projects like those found from indie developers, sold at events and online yet created more for fun than profit as a test of personal skill. Many of these titles may not immediately catch the eye of players, the hobbyist nature of many of these projects on display in their often crude visuals and middling technical qualities, yet their common focus on a strong central design concept usually makes such issues irrelevant.
Things are changing within the doujin software scene, however. An embrace of online storefronts, in particular, Steam, has made doujin projects more accessible than ever, with companies stepping in to help publish and share these small-budget creative curios with as wide a market as possible, including consoles.
Which brings me to the final thing I want to bring your attention to in this whistle-stop tour of the Japanese indie scene, that being a company known as PlayDoujin. Similar to companies like Circle Entertainment and Arc System Works except with a particular focus on doujin titles, the company advertises itself as a doujin software publisher. They were also in attendance at Tokyo Games Show showcasing two titles while canvassing promotional materials for others.
Of these titles, the highlight for me was a 2D side-scrolling action platformer known as Mochi Agaru. Although the visuals certainly won’t be winning any awards any time soon, its gameplay is where this title truly shines. The game reminded me of the oft-forgotten Yuji Naka Wii game Rodea the Sky Soldier in 2D or a faster-paced Umihara Kawase, as you used mochi to swing off walls, platforms, and objects to move through each level and reach the goal. As a player, you can either aim for the fastest time or you can search the levels for the hidden pieces of sushi scattered around them, with a promise of new mechanics being introduced over the course of the game. It’s a simplistic concept, sure, but this is perhaps doujin gaming at its best, where a single mechanic is refined and iterated upon to create an experience that puts fun gameplay above all else.
Also being showcased by the company was Magical Girls’ Chronicle Magusphere, a game that took a much different direction to Mochi Agaru, as you controlled a magical girl who would use her arsenal of guns to destroy tanks and other invading enemies in a city. Gratuitous magical girl transformations are meticulously animated in ways that showcase a love of the genre above all else, yet the gameplay stands up in its own right. These titles and more are being published by PlayDoujin with the hopes of bringing them to the widest audiences possible, introducing doujin gaming to groups of people who previously would never be exposed to games from the scene.
Tokyo Game Show 2019: Understanding the Modern Japanese Indie Gaming Industry
The Western indie scene’s explosive growth has been well-documented, with the biggest indie games such as Undertale enjoying legions of fans around the world. Internet distribution and easier access to high-quality development tools have helped the indie scene to grow exponentially by empowering solo developers with the technology needed to develop games outside of traditional corporate structures.
These same factors which helped the Western indie scene failed to perforate within the Japanese indie scene in the same way. In an interview with Variety last year, former Level-5 and current indie developer Akira Mitsuhashi noted that Japanese work culture and the personal and societal pressures surrounding it stunted the growth of the commercial indie scene and were part of the reason that hobbyist doujin software was the only viable path for solo developers to take. As this work culture within Japan begins its reforms, as the tools needed to create video games have become more accessible to more people, the indie scene within Japan has also changed and experienced explosive growth. Developing games on your own is a more viable option even without governmental support sometimes found in other countries, allowing more people to follow such passions of developing their own games on their own terms rather than slotting into the corporate machine.
Conventions in the West such as PAX have embraced and showcased Western Indies in a way that Japanese conventions are now beginning to emulate, something which can only help the indie games industry grow within the country. In order to help the growth of the indie scene within the country, Nintendo began promoting indie games through its Indie World YouTube presentations, recognizing the growing demand for indies in the country, although most games showcased in these presentations are currently international favorites and not interesting home-grown indie titles.
Looking back just a decade earlier, aside from a few outlying breakout doujin games hits coming from the convention scene such as Touhou Project, the indie gaming scene within Japan was a non-discussion. Times are changing though. Tokyo Game Show 2010 didn’t even have an indie area, and the indie area in 2013 had just 41 developers showcasing projects. This year, that list was in the hundreds. These few titles here were among over 100 indie titles, predominantly from Japanese developers, being showcased at Tokyo Game Show alongside the biggest upcoming games in the industry such as Death Stranding and Persona 5 The Royal. Alongside platforms that allow Indies to showcase their work at major expos, indie-specific gaming events such as BitSummit allow Japanese indie developers to showcase their work and network with fellow creatives. Platform holders are taking notice of the Japanese indie scene in the same way as they have embraced indie developers in the West, as well. Nintendo and the Sony Playstation brand are both lead sponsors of BitSummit, with other developers such as CyGames also supporting the indie scene in the country.
With the indie scene primed for growth thanks to a perfect storm of development tools and distribution methods for indie projects being more accessible than ever, alongside cultural change, these games and projects here are just the tip of the iceberg of the potential the Japanese indie scene has to develop new and exciting experiences for audiences around the world. .