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Jetsetter: Microsoft refuses to give up on Japan, even after Japan gave up on it

If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. In the twelve years since Microsoft started selling video game consoles, the company has never had much luck penetrating the highly selective Japanese gaming market. All told, just 1.6 million original Xbox consoles were sold in Japan after its release in 2001. The Xbox 360 didn’t fare much better, with total sales of around 1.7 million as of the end of 2013. The Xbox One will be released in Japan sometime in 2014, but Microsoft has yet to set an exact date. 

In fairness to Microsoft, the odds were always stacked against them in Japan. The company entered the console race at a difficult time. In 2001, the original PlayStation was still selling strong, coming off an industry-redefining run in the 1990s. The PlayStation 2 was already on its way to becoming the behemoth best-seller it would eventually be, and PS2 development dominated the attention of Japan’s best game creators. By the time Microsoft was ready to unleash the Xbox 360 in 2005, the Japanese gaming market was undergoing a dramatic transformation, moving away from home consoles like the PlayStation 2 in favor of portable gaming devices like the Nintendo DS and Sony’s PSP. It didn’t matter that the Xbox 360 played host to Japanese series like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy, the very same series that made the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 so successful, the country’s gamers had gone portable by the millions.

Despite Microsoft’s lack of success in Japan, their efforts to get quality Japanese-made games on their consoles has been admirable.

jetsetradiofuture1The original Xbox played host to some of Sega’s very best post-Dreamcast games, and they were exclusive to boot! Panzer Dragoon Orta, Jet Set Radio Future, and Gunvalkyrie all saw the long dead studio Smilebit at the very peak of their creative powers. Meanwhile, Microsoft also found favor with From Software years before Dark Souls made the studio a household name. Their action games Otogi and Otogi 2 remain highlights of that giant black box’s library.

The Otogi series paved the way for other Japanese-made exclusives on the Xbox 360. From Software’s Ninja Blade is a glorious slice of action excess, and it flat out stole the thunder away from Ninja Gaiden II, another Japanese-made Xbox 360 exclusive (though the game would later be remade for Sony consoles as Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2). Over the past decade, Microsoft has kept a steady stream of games from Japan coming to the Xbox 360, and not just international heavyweights like Final Fantasy XIII. Bizarre games from Konami like Otomedius Excellent and even Kinect games from the likes of Grasshopper Entertainment have made it to 360, despite there being just the smallest audience in Japan and abroad. 

Throughout it all, the Xbox consoles have also been home to some truly spectacular Japanese titles, games that never made it to the U.S. or even Europe. They were few and far between, but every now and again, Japan would be the sole recipient of some truly remarkable Xbox fare. And before anyone pipes up, we’re not talking about Namco Bandai’s Idolmaster series either.

For the original Xbox, the most essential import-only release is From Software’s Metal Wolf Chaos. If From Software never released another game, never finished Dark Souls II or made another Armored Core, their place in the gaming canon would be secure thanks to this game. Just watch the trailer above. It’s a game about a violent military coup in the United States. The President of the United States, in order to fend off the evil machinations of the vice president, must pilot a gigantic Gundam-style mech suit. The POTUS screams cheesy one-liners at the people of San Francisco before shooting up entire city blocks. It is a work of magic.

456714-mwc_wp1_1024Virtual-On Force, the Xbox 360’s best import-only game doesn’t hold a candle to Metal Wolf Chaos, but it’s still pretty great and it involves even more giant robots that punch things. Virtual-On Force is the fourth entry in Sega’s all but forgotten mech fighting series, and it’s also arguably the best. Force hit arcades back when the first Xbox came out back in 2001, but in 2010 it finally got a home port on Xbox 360. This is a special one for importers too, as it’s one of the few 360 games that was totally region free. If you find a copy, you can pop it into your Xbox 360 and play away.

Will the Xbox One have any nuggets like these? It’s too early to say. Microsoft has already announced at least one game that stays with its tradition of courting Japan’s auteur game makers. D4, by Deadly Premonition director Swery, is due out this year. “I’d like to also increase the amount of games that are made for the Japanese gamers,” said Takeshi Sensui, Microsoft Japan’s Interactive Business Manager, speaking to Famitsu this past week. “In order to do that, in addition to the big Japanese developers, we’ll be keeping close communications with the small and medium-sized developers, as we prepare the lineup.” Keep fighting the good fight, Mr. Sensui.

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