Tokyo in video games: a brief history

Is it the most authentically depicted city in games ever?

When do you recall first seeing Tokyo? For me, it might have been the same time as when Bill Murray opened his jetlagged eyes, peering out of his limousine and taking in the assault of neon signs around him at night in Lost in Translation. Nowadays however, it’s not hard to instantly recognise Japan’s capital city, which in itself has become synonymous with video games. We can’t get enough of virtual recreations of real-life places, undoubtedly why playing Watch Dogs Legion in London is an exciting prospect for many, but I can’t think of a city more represented in games than Tokyo.

It wasn’t always like that however. Even as someone who grew up on Japanese games, I don’t recall playing any that were explicitly Japanese, mostly because those were either only available as imports or localised in such a way to appeal to a Western market. Super Mario doesn’t immediately cry out as a Japanese creation, Sonic the Hedgehog was designed to target an American audience, RPGs took inspiration from Western tropes, while Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid had American settings.

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My first taste of Japan in games then didn’t happen until the Dreamcast era, incidentally the first and only time I imported a console at launch. Due to its lacklustre launch line-up apart from Virtua Fighter 3tb, I also bought a copy of the Japan-exclusive Godzilla Generations. A truly god-awful game that basically lets you control a tanky version of the famous kaiji, and a few other unlockable variants, stomping around cities with nary a challenge.

And yet, I imagine the appeal for Japanese players was that it allowed you to wreak havoc on real Japanese cities, as the big lad made its way from the shores of Fukuoka to Osaka all the way to Tokyo. I’m pretty certain it’s still one of the first games to realistically represent their cities – like not 1:1 accuracy but you can certainly spot famous landmarks like Osaka Castle or Tokyo Tower amidst other buildings that crumble like cardboard on a cheap tokusatsu set. No doubt this was the first time we were able to see these representations because of the Dreamcast’s graphics and processing power.

This would also be the start of a distinct Japanese identity making itself visible in the mainstream, especially with the Dreamcast’s big expensive killer app Shenmue that put players in the shoes of a Japanese high school martial artist on a quest for revenge. That was admittedly set in the small harbour town of Yokosuka, in real life about an hour’s train ride away from Tokyo. But the capital plays a recurring role in other Dreamcast titles, including Jet Set Radio and Metropolis Street Racer, the latter which did model its setting on the real thing.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Sega takes inspiration from Tokyo as it’s after all its home, even though at the time its headquarters were in a rather bland corporate space nearby Haneda International Airport – that said, Tetsuya Mizuguchi opted to have his division United Artists – responsible for the rhythmic delights of Rez and Space Channel 5 – based in the cooler hub of Shibuya. Of course, they’re far from the only developer in Tokyo, but the still prominent visibility of Sega from its arcade centres does make the place more like their backyard, and where annual Sega Fes celebrations also take place.

They would then take this even further on PlayStation 2 with the beginning of the Yakuza series. It’s as close as a Japanese studio has done in creating a game set in an open world city in the vein of the Grand Theft Auto series, albeit in a more intimate scale, confined to the small but dense and seedy district of Kamurocho, based on the real-life Kabukicho in Shinjuku.

On PS2 tech, there were limitations to what could be done, with a camera often fixed and looking down from above, while the game would momentarily pause as you reached another street to load up the next section. But even as a fictionalised version of a real place, the developers put a lot of attention to detail in its realism, bolstered by licences such as the now iconic Don Qujiote bargain chain store on the street corner, which it continues iterating on with each subsequent entry.

Kiryu’s saga might take him to new places as far as Osaka or Hiroshima, but you’re always back in Kamurocho like a second home. The city as a character does get bandied around a lot these days, but I think it resonates most truly for Kamurocho, which you gradually become intimately acquainted with, eventually feeling like a local yourself, as you pop into Kyushu No. 1 Star for its house Char Siu Ramen or see what new games are in the Club Sega centres. With each iteration, it looks more visually impressive while buildings and businesses also change over time, much like Tokyo itself.

But it’s one of those places that when you actually get to visit it for yourself that you realise just how remarkably recognisable Kamurocho is to Kabukicho, even after taking into account the embellishments such as the Millennium Tower or the way they’ve had to condense Golden Gai into the Champions District. It’s that ability to capture an experience at ground level that really makes it more memorable than larger but ultimately empty open worlds.

It does make me wonder what it would be like if a big budget studio like Ubisoft were to ever incorporate the city into one of their own games like The Division or Watch Dogs. Imagine those resources going to recreate Tokyo in mouth-watering detail whereas a game like Persona 5 has to make do with trying to capture its many facets with postcard-like backdrops. Yet I’m not sure technological grunt, money and photogrammetry necessarily means a more realistic city.

In attempting to make up for my cancelled trip to Japan this year, I tried using Flight Simulator to fly over Tokyo. As others may have discovered with most non-US cities, including London, the tech has limitations, so while artists may have added a few proper landmarks, a lot more has been left out. Suffice to say, my attempts to fly over Shinjuku or Shibuya, or even the area of Asakusa where I previously stayed at, were somewhat disappointing.

In contrast, if I wanted to feel immersed in Tokyo, Atlus succeeds despite its limitations. Playing Persona 5, it captures the sense of confusion of trying to figure out how its subway system works, and the way new destinations pop up just a train ride away make sense of a huge bustling metropolis where you’re gradually discovering new exciting places to hang out.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to them being Tokyo developers and knowing the city like the back of their hand. You don’t need a 1:1 virtual map for the player to wander around so long as a few frames are able to evoke a sense of a place or reveal little details that an outsider wouldn’t pick up on (this is done equally well in anime like Steins;Gate or Makoto Shinkai’s films). Yes, you’ve got the touristy spots like the Scramble Crossing or Hachiko’s statue in Persona 5, but then there’s also the remote suburban backstreets of Yongenjaya, based on the real-life Sangenjaya, the same district where Atlus is based.

Yet what I find these games get most authentic about Tokyo (although it arguably applies to Japan in general) is on a more mundane level. It’s the presence of those drink vending machines and hot fried snack counters at the front of a convenience store. Ridiculous or not, that’s what I find myself missing the most about Tokyo: starting the morning with a can of hot coffee from a machine while by night I can wind down with the comfort of cheap and tasty karaage from the local Lawson. Seeing these presented in-game with such attention to detail then couldn’t feel more authentically Japanese.

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