Japan losing its video-game edge?



By Lou Kesten

Real news from the virtual world:

SETTING SUN? Has Japan lost its mojo in the video-game industry? Square Enix President Yoichi Wada thinks so. As the annual Tokyo Game Show began last week, Wada argued that game development has shifted to the West, and he urged his colleagues and competitors to work together to reclaim Japanese dominance.

There wasn’t much at this year’s lackluster TGS to encourage supporters of Japanese game development. For one thing, the most successful and innovative Japanese company of the new millennium – Nintendo – didn’t even show up. And the most buzzed-about new game of the show – “Halo 3: Recon” – is being developed by an American studio, Bungie, for an American-made console, Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

Bungie described “Recon” as a “campaign expansion” for “Halo 3,” although it will be sold on disc rather than as a download. For the first time, it will allow the player to experience the “Halo” universe through the eyes of someone other than Master Chief – namely, a shock trooper who was first encountered in “Halo 2.” It will be available in fall 2009, and Bungie described it as “the final basket of goodness that we will be delivering for the ‘Halo’ trilogy.”

HEARTS AFIRE: Square Enix had one of the largest displays at the Tokyo Game Show, but the much anticipated “Final Fantasy XIII” was still unplayable. The company’s most notable new title, if only for sheer incomprehensibility, was the latest chapter of its bizarre Japan-meets-Disney experiment, “Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days.” Square also announced a partnership with biosensor manufacturer NeuroSky Inc. to develop a brain wave-controlled video game.

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Other TGS highlights included the return of the Wii’s most ridiculously violent hero, Travis Touchdown, in “No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle.” Sony announced “Patapon 2,” a sequel to its innovative rhythm-strategy game for the PlayStation Portable. And we’ll finally be getting a high-definition version of “Castlevania,” with Konami’s classic vampire-hunting series coming to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Sony also said it would be releasing new software that will allow players to use the PS3’s DualShock 3 controller while playing games on the PSP. The feature will first be available for “Resistance: Retribution” – and if you connect your PSP to a PS3 with a copy of “Resistance 2,” you’ll be able to unlock additional gameplay.

STAR POWER: Across the Pacific, hardcore computer gamers gathered at the Anaheim, Calif., Convention Center for BlizzCon, the annual celebration of Blizzard Entertainment’s “Warcraft,” ”StarCraft” and “Diablo” franchises. It was the first opportunity for most American gamers to get a look at “Diablo III,” the action/role-playing epic introduced earlier this year in Paris.

No strategy game may be more widely anticipated than Blizzard’s “StarCraft II,” which has been in development for five years. Enthusiasts were either delighted or horrified by the news that “StarCraft II” will be broken up into three games, one for each of the universe’s competing races. Blizzard said the first game, focusing on the Terrans, will probably have 26 to 30 missions, but fans of the Zerg and Protoss factions worried that it will be even longer before they’ll see their favorite aliens again.

SCRATCHING AN ITCH: One of my biggest gripes with the “Guitar Hero”/”Rock Band” phenomenon: Granted, it’s hard to find guitars in black pop these days, but where’s Prince? How about some Parliament? What about, say, The Gap Band?

Perhaps hip-hop will finally get its due in the rhythm-game genre once fake turntables become as commonplace as fake guitars. Genius Products, a home-entertainment distributor, is hoping to reach that untapped market with “Scratch: The Ultimate DJ,” due next spring. “‘Scratch’ will feature original recordings from the catalogs of many top urban artists and will allow players to re-imagine songs on the fly and add their own creativity,” said creative consultant Quincy Jones III, who’s worked with acts such as LL Cool J and Ice Cube.

The game’s fake turntable controller is being developed by Numark, a top manufacturer of DJ equipment. Unfortunately, the game itself is being developed by 7 Studios, mostly known for lousy movie-to-game adaptations such as “Shrek the Third” and “Napoleon Dynamite.”

NEW IN STORES: Electronic Arts mixes science fiction and horror in “Dead Space” (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3). … THQ’s gangstas return for more criminal mayhem in “Saints Row 2” (360, PS3). … Sega revives an arcade legend in “Golden Axe: Beast Rider” (360, PS3). … Bored with the NFL? Try some other types of football with EA Sports’ “FIFA Soccer 09” (most systems) or Midway’s “Blitz: The League II” (360, PS3). … The Adventure Company brings the delightful “Sam & Max: Season One” to the Wii. … Konami tries to carve out a piece of the guitar-game pie with “Rock Revolution” (360, PS3, DS).