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Behind the pixels: Nintendo and Bizarre Creations

Are game reviews culturally biased?


For many years I've noticed a distinct incongruity between game review scores assigned by American and Japanese magazines and online sites. Consider a game like Monster Hunter 2 for the PSP. Famitsu magazine's four reviewers scored the game 9, 8, 9, 8. Gamespot gave it a 50 out of 100. G4 TV gave it a 60. EGM gave it a 62. Monster Hunter is a genuine phenomenon in Japan, with the newest version selling almost 1.5 million copies. American sales have barely topped 100,000.

Conversely, the Splinter Cell series has performed remarkably well in the U.S. with reviewers and game buyers, but Japanese critics and consumers have never embraced it, despite similarities to the Metal Gear franchise that's widely popular in Japan. Obviously, cultural tastes and preferences play a big role in these disparities, as any westerner who has visited the Akihabara district of Tokyo can attest. We all love video games, but by no means do we all love the same ones.

One might expect American critics and gamers to find themselves more culturally attuned to their counterparts in Europe and Australia, but this isn't necessarily true. A case in point is the critical response to the recently released Project Gotham Racing, developed by Liverpool-based Bizarre Creations.

European and Australian reviewers were decidedly more enthusiastic about the game than reviewers in the U.S.  Publications like Edge Magazine and online sites like Pro-G and Computer and Video Games hailed the game's perfect mix of realism and accessibility:

You sense it’s the game Bizarre have been meaning to make for the last seven years, and for that alone, it’s precious. [Edge]

The presentation, the career game, the online stuff, the load times...everything's better. And with streets packed with spectators, signs and flags, it's a much more vibrant lace than Gotham's sterile cities of old. We simply have no alternative but to crown Gotham 4 the best racing game on Xbox 360. [Official Xbox Magazine UK]

American reviewers tended to evaluate the game in relation to its predecessor, PGR3, and judged it more of the same:

Visually this generation has progressed well past the point where Project Gotham Racing 4 would evoke the kind of bug-eyed glee that its predecessor did. [G4 TV]

Substantial changes are what the series needs to really glow again, and they just aren't here. Bizarre Creations "phoning it in" is still better than a lot of developers' best, but if Bizarre Creations has something truly innovative up its sleeve, it seems it's saving it for its next title for its new publisher, Activision. [Gamespy]

It is just an extension of PGR3. [games (TM)]

A compilation of scores from a variety of sources suggests a discernible cultural divide over PGR4:

Europe and Australia scores:
Official Xbox Magazine UK (100); Jolt Online Gaming (97); Computer and Video Games (92); Pro-G (90); 360 Gamer Magazine (90); Edge Magazine (90); Total Video Games (90); PALGN (90); Boomtown (90)
Average score: 92.1

U.S. scores:
Gamespot (85); Gaming Age (83); Electronic Gaming Magazine (83); IGN (81); games (80); Gamespy (80); Official Xbox Magazine (80); G4 TV (80); GamePro (75)
Average score 80.7

It's worth noting that Forza 2, designed by an American developer, Microsoft Game Studios, shows similar signs of regional or cultural disparity. Its highest scores came from U.S. reviewers--including a perfect 100 from both Gamespy and G4 TV--while its lowest scores came from abroad: Computer and Video Games (82); Total Video Games (80); and Xbox World Australia (80). To be sure, not all U.S. reviewers scored Forza 2 so highly, and some European sites rated the game 90 or above. Nevertheless, it's hard to miss the general trend apparent with both Forza 2 and with PGR4.

I'm not suggesting we need to be worried about anything here. Regional and cultural differences are bound to play a role in how games are received around the world. But I do think magazines and review sites should consider these differences when they review and rate games intended for a worldwide audience. EGM typically assigns 3 people to a major game review (a good idea), but this rarely results in any diversity of cultural sensibilities. It usually just means 3 different opinions from the 1UP Network.

I personally wish we could do away with review scores altogether, but I realize that's not going to happen. I also wish writers would focus more on genuine game criticism and less on thumbs-up/thumbs-down consumer reviews. That probably won't happen either. Maybe the best we can hope for is a bit more awareness among reviewers that video games inevitably reflect a variety of cultural influences.

Or, as they say, one man's meat is another man's poison. And lest we forget, Famitsu gave Nintendogs a perfect score of 40.