The Xbox 360 Experiences A Mid-Life Crisis In Japan

The Wii is easy to peg — family-friendly and fun. The PS3 is also easy to categorize — slick and high-tech. But in Japan, the Xbox 360 has a category of its own. And that's starting to change.

It was former Dead or Alive designer Tomonobu Itagaki who is quoted as saying that nobody buys an Xbox 360 in Japan by accident. Whether or not he actually said this is somewhat besides the point, because it's true.

While Microsoft had (and still has) a very mainstream product in the West, for years, Xbox Japan has catered to a very niche fanbase, finally selling a million total consoles sold in Japan in spring 2009, while rivals the PS3 and the Nintendo Wii had already hit that mark in the first year that they were released.

There are various reasons why the Xbox 360 struggled and continues to struggle in Japan — whether it be the strong brand recognition of Nintendo and Sony or simply general perceptions about the hardware. But it can no longer said that there are not games that cater to Japanese players. There are many games, but thing is, they don't cater to all Japanese players like the way Nintendo games do.

The number of people who are going to buy an Xbox 360 game that comes with a vibrating wand is, let's be honest, minuscule, compared to the number of players who are going to get something with a much broader appeal, like the upcoming Nintendogs + Cats. And many of the Western games, which very much have a diehard following in Japan, likewise do not appeal to mass market sensibilities, just in the same way "very Japanese" games do not generally appeal to the Western gaming masses.

Kinect was supposed to be the breakthrough for Microsoft, and there was unconfirmed chatter that Microsoft was apparently pressuring developers to do things like remove excessive panty-shots in hopes of improving the console's image. These rumors, however, seem unfounded as Gal☆Gun still is heavy on the upskirts. And Kinect was not the magic bullet that Microsoft hoped for in Japan, with the launch generally being viewed as a bust. Roping in two schoolgirl idols might have seemed like a good idea, but they didn't have the same widespread appeal of, say, Nanako Matsushima.

Yet, game studios who made (and who are making) Kinect games for Japan seem left out in the lurch. Namco Bandai games released Body and Brain Connection in Japan when Kinect launched late last year — the game is out in the West this week. As with Brain Age, the game is based on the work of Professor Ryuta Kawashima, but has players use their body instead of a touch pen.

It's an interesting concept, but the way it's being promoted in Japan seems alarmingly close to the way Nintendo does its advertisements, in particular Wii "roundtable ads" in which folks talk about their experiences, such as this Wii Fit one with new mothers. Of course, Nintendo did not invent this style of ad, but has made it unmistakably its own.

Body and Brain Connection is probably the title best suited for Japan and Japanese households. But with Brain Age games already old hat and the buy-in for most players (a console and Kinect) maybe too high, it seems the Xbox 360's change might be too little too late.

No worries, there's always the hardcore bullet shooters and console ports of PC visual novels.

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