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Andrew Sheivachman

By Andrew SheivachmanThe Daily Northwestern

In the fall of 2004, a tiny Japanese prince saved the stars in the sky of the American gaming world.

Katamari Damacy was released in America on Sept. 22, 2004, to a barrage of media coverage; all major gaming rags and online sites heaped praise on the title. Even the usually pretentious Gamespot said, “Katamari Damacy is not overly esoteric, and the mechanics are simple and enjoyable enough that people of virtually all shapes and sizes should be able to pick it up and start having fun in minutes.”

The game was exceptional due largely to a combination of fun, quirky art design and innovative, yet simple, game play. Players roll a ball that picks up tiny objects. The ball gets larger as it picks up more items, and the game allows progressively bigger items to be picked up as the ball grows. Eventually, the ball can pick up enormous items such as the landscape and thunder gods. This mechanic proved catnip to critics while the game’s accessibility and light-hearted atmosphere intrigued many casual gamers. Although the title didn’t sell many copies, it did create a large fan base – two successful sequels were spawned, as well as T-shirts, stuffed animals and other random nerdy knickknacks.

This wasn’t the first time a strange foreign game had become a major cult success in the United States. America’s obsession with Japanese gaming culture began with the Nintendo Entertainment System and the original Super Mario Brothers, released in America in 1985. At the time of its release, who could have predicted that a game involving an Italian plumber’s battle against a strange turtle would end up as the best-selling game of all time?

Super Mario Brothers revitalized the global video game industry that had crashed thanks to the Atari era and gave birth to a new generation of gamers happy to look abroad for their entertainment. The game created TV shows, clothing lines, innumerable sequels and the Nintendo brand that is now synonymous with quality and kid-frendliness in gaming.

Final Fantasy, also for the NES, is another strong example of a game with nontraditional aspects that captivated American audiences. Final Fantasy was released in 1987 by Squaresoft, a Japanese game developer on the verge of bankruptcy. FF was literally supposed to be its final fantasy before Chapter 11. But the game became a major hit in Japan due to its state-of-the-art graphics and unique gameplay.

Nintendo knew it had a hot property on its hands and gave away the game for free in America to subscribers of the Nintendo Power propaganda magazine. The buzz became enormous. Geeks around the country began to curl their toes and squeal in ecstasy upon the arrival of a new FF in America. Fans today now spend millions on FF paraphernalia, from strategy guides and soundtracks to cigarette cases and cacti.

The Final Fantasy series is now the best-selling brand of its genre, but there are a number of other role-playing games that have developed cult status in the United States. Countless RPGs crossed the Pacific during the last decade, varying in quality from the superlative Chrono Trigger to the junky 7th Saga. None, however, were as unique as Nintendo’s Earthbound, which followed a crew of children thrown into an epic psychic battle against odd aliens.

Westerners enjoyed Earthbound because of its endearing sense of humor and wickedly untraditional story. The title may have sold modestly, but the brand has cemented itself into the gaming subconscious. Nintendo has yet to bring an Earthbound sequel to the country, but fans have been petitioning and complaining for more ever since the original was released. Meanwhile, Japan has been treated to a number of sequels and spin-offs.

Earthbound is now an exceedingly rare and valuable game because of its cult popularity. If a game is rare and incredibly Japanese, it also stands to be incredibly expensive in America. No game better exemplifies this trend than the Sega Saturn’s Panzer Dragoon Saga.

During the swan song of the Saturn in 1998, Sega imported many Japanese-only games over to English and publicized them en masse in America. These included the strategy RPG Shining Force 3, the bloody arcade shooter House of the Dead, the lackluster firefighting simulator Burning Rangers and the epic RPG Panzer Dragoon Saga. With the exception of Burning Rangers, these titles also happen to be bland adventures that critics generally enjoyed for their credible length, prettiness and strategic depth.

Sega, however, printed only a few thousand copies of Panzer Dragoon Saga; demand shot up, and the title was soon trading on eBay for hundreds of dollars. The game wasn’t especially good (I owned it), but it nevertheless became a collector’s item and a quick cult classic. It is unclear whether the game became popular due to its quality, like SMB or FF, or merely due to a few cool attributes and high demand, like Earthbound. In all likelihood, the collector’s market has done more for PDS than anything else.

Quirky Japanese games have achieved cult status in America due to our cultural obsession with the unconventional and nontraditional. We want the newest and most provocative entertainment, even if it involves just a plumber jumping on odd creatures. Japanese culture is especially alluring to us because of its unique values. Heck, Pokemon has sold millions of copies based on this principle. A boy can easily undertake an epic adventure with only his determination and an animal slave as weapons in a Japanese game, whereas an American game would instead cast a broadsword-toting barbarian.

Sometimes, it is simply more fun to play as a tiny prince.

Reach Andrew Sheivachman at [email protected]