“Actually, we didn’t really do any research in particular. I just wanted to depict what I imagined America would look like if it had been invaded by Japanese culture in the early nineties,” says X.Y. Luo, creative director of Showa American Story. His words will surely come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen the trailer released this January. This game developed by the Chinese studio NEKCOM Games is set in a fictional America decorated with carp streamers and Jizo statues, having become culturally colonized by Japan in the year Showa 66, a parallel 1991 where Japan’s Showa era didn’t end in 1989. The Statue of Liberty is wearing a kimono, while a massive paper lantern with the Japanese character for “gold” written on it hangs from the Golden Gate Bridge. I doubt I was the only one who saw the game’s billboards and flyers oozing with Showa aesthetics and assumed it was made by creators well-versed in Japanese and Showa culture. I’ve lived in Japan for over eighteen years myself, and I was completely fooled. According to Luo, though, not only are there no Japanese people on the development team, they aren’t even trying to create a faithful Showa feel to begin with.
A Chinese take on Showa style
According to Luo, “I used Japanese manga, movies, and the like that were popular in China as my base. I thought it would be more interesting to show people a unique take on Showa style as seen by a Chinese person than it would be if we depicted it faithfully. While I was confident that Chinese users who experienced the same timeframe and creative works as me would understand the charm, I never imagined I’d get this big of a reaction from Japan and the West.”
Born in Wuhan, China in 1983, Luo was drawn to foreign cultures from the time he was a child, where Japanese manga, anime, and TV dramas or American pop songs, cartoons, and movies. He had a particular fondness for Japanese culture. The game’s setting of an America that has been invaded by Japanese culture from that period could be something similar to the world that existed in Luo’s mind as a boy. Showa American Story is like a theme park that combines the Japanese and American cultures that Luo loved as a child, and maybe it was only natural for gamers around the world who’d also come into contact with those same cultures to take note.
“Showa American Story contains a lot of scenes that parody my favorite titles. There are references from series like Dragon Ball, Mobile Suit Gundam, Saint Seiya, Fist of the North Star, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Luo said Western bands like The Police and Modern Talking inspired him as well. “When I was young, discos where you would dance while listening to Western music were popular in China. I think the game reflects those memories too,” he said.
A road movie-style game where you travel Showa America
Showa America is a mixture of Japanese culture from days past with American culture that would, to us today, seem retro. The game is a sandbox action-adventure title that alternates between exploration and battle. Game director Jensen Fang said that while it places a heavy emphasis on exploration, plenty of work has been put into combat as well, with over 20 types of weapons that can freely be used.
“While the combat is of course solidly made, I think players will spend more time overall on exploration. Aside from main missions and side quest events, you can ignore enemy encounters and run away from them, so players who like exploration can keep on going without anything getting in their way,” Fang said.
I took a look at actual gameplay footage in which the protagonist Choko Chigusa explores “Neo Yokohama,” or Los Angeles, running around its abandoned streets and the “Neo Yokohama Central Park.” Not only did I get to see sights from the trailer like the Neo Yokohama Police Department and a poster of the Statue of Liberty, the footage also included a variety of locations, from a weapons dealer to a car wash. The city is infested with zombies and monsters, with few people in sight. Japanese objects like traditional lanterns and torii gates are all around. As Choko walked the streets, she talked to herself about a variety of topics—in a similar vein to Aloy in Horizon Forbidden West. She reminded the player of her current goal, reacted to what she saw, and worried about the state of her home of Japan. Choko came to America with her younger sister hoping for a better career as a stuntwoman, only for her sister to go missing while Choko was killed by a mysterious agent. Choko is miraculously revived ten years later and finds herself in an America that became filled with zombies and monsters. Her remarks to herself seemed to show not only her strength but also her unease.
Coincidentally, the game’s feature of finding and collecting retro items like Daruma dolls while exploring reminded me of the recently released Ghostwire: Tokyo. There also seems to be a fairly large number of buildings you can enter, so fans of exploration will surely want to search every nook and cranny of the game’s world.
Fang says that the game isn’t one continuous open world, but is instead made up of multiple sandboxes. “I think an easy comparison would be Super Mario Odyssey. There are multiple cities as you go along the highway in America, each of which is its own sandbox. We’re putting work not only into the outside environments, but interiors too. I think players will really get to savor the unique world that is Showa America by exploring it in detail.”
Players travel between sandboxes by way of the aforementioned camper. Pick your next city on a map inside your camper and you’re on your way. Fast travel is also available, but players can choose to actually drive the camper there. It seems that side quests can occur while driving, so many players will feel the need to take the wheel themselves. The world outside the camper changes according to the city you’re currently in—similar to Red Dead Redemption 2—creating a kind of road movie feel where the scenery of your base is new every time you travel. You can customize the inside of the camper with the items you collect while exploring, so you might find yourself feeling like you’re traveling in a vehicle you can really call your own.
A wild and sexy world
While I didn’t get the opportunity to see any scenes of travel in the camper, I was shown Choko traveling on a motorcycle. She can run over zombies at high speed and travel off-road, but it seems that the motorcycle isn’t used for getting around between cities and is only available for traveling within specific areas.
As your base of operations, your camper plays an important role in Showa American Story’s gameplay loop. Choko can do many things here, whether that’s eating or training. You use AP (Activity Points) and choose what you want Choko to do. It’s a system reminiscent of the daily life sections of the Persona series, with Choko’s stats increasing depending on your choice of activity, and some activities even taking the form of a minigame. In the footage I saw, Choko sat on a sofa while reading a manga and took a bubble bath. There was special attention paid to sexy animations, such as her adjusting her long legs as she sat or stretching them out while in the bath.
The trailer even contains a very specific pool known to often appear in Japanese adult videos. You might even be able to say that the game is influenced by Japanese pornography.
“Yes, Japanese adult videos are one of my influences,” Luo admitted with a laugh. “That infamous swimming pool is in there because it was the first thing I thought of when I learned the game needed a pool! It is supposed to take place in America, of course, so it’s not exactly the same pool. I hope players enjoy the role it plays in the story.”
With side quests that feature perverts who want a young woman to sit on their face, psychological counselors who talk about pornography in order to calm women down, and adult video directors concerned about their low libido, the game’s sexual content stands out even when reading its press releases. There are a lot of other bizarre characters, like a mad scientist who walks on stilts and wears a propeller, a serial founder of cults who can never make it work, and more.
“The side quests are meant to flesh out the setting of Showa America. They also contain a lot of minigames, not just combat. Their stories are more out there than the main story, so I hope players enjoy our ridiculous ideas,” Luo explained.
Luo says that he and his team took inspiration from the Yakuza series when it comes to side quests. When I asked Luo about any other games that influenced him, he immediately brought up No More Heroes, saying that Goichi Suda is the game creator he respects the most.
The game’s surreal world does indeed bring No More Heroes to mind, and this seems to apply to its elaborately designed boss fights as well. Gameplay footage I saw from around the middle of the game featured a boss fight against “Queen Bee,” an assassin who looks like your average office lady at first glance. Once the fight starts, though, she comes at the player with attacks that are anything but average. Just as she unleashed a yellow beam from her “Queen Bee Stinger” that looked like a giant bazooka, she followed up by scattering “Poison Star” everywhere, a deadly poison that looked like honey. After taking enough damage, she then transformed into something that looked far more like a real queen bee. I’ll avoid any spoilers and leave this second form up to the reader’s imagination, but I promise you that it is ridiculous.
Combat itself seems rather simple, in a good way. Players activate combos by pressing the square and triangle buttons on the DualSense controller, and also have access to a special EX Attack that drains a gauge. Enemies enter a “Break” state after taking enough damage that causes them to stop attacking for a time, giving you an opportunity to focus your attacks on them. Weapon usage is primarily close-up action, but there are longer-range weapons like shotguns, so picking the right weapon for each situation can give you an advantage in battle. That being said, Showa American Story doesn’t want to make things too difficult.
“Having players enjoy the unique setting of Showa America is our top priority, so we’ve made sure that players won’t be unable to progress in the story due to difficulty,” Fang said.
Not only does Choko have her own skill tree, each weapon has one as well. It seems that characters you befriend as you complete quests may also enhance your weapons. The friend system is also reminiscent of the Confidant mechanic from the Persona series, allowing these characters to support the player in many different ways even though they don’t fight alongside you.
Though Showa American Story is full of fascinating features, NEKCOM Games is not that large of a studio. “We had a lot of discussions as a team when this project was first proposed. Development started when we agreed that while a fully open world game would be too much for us, we could probably make it work as a sandbox game,” Luo said, thinking back to the initial stages of development. Still, Showa American Story is NEKCOM Games’ largest-scale game to date by far. “We worked on it for several years using just about all of the resources available to our company, and parts of it are even outsourced,” he explained.
Showa American Story is in development for PS5, PS4, and PC, with other platforms still under consideration.
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Author: Ryan McCaffrey