Whenever a Japanese game has a high anticipation level, Western gamers can’t wait to cite the high Famitsu score. There’s a problem with this, however, and I’ll show it to you with the Science Maths.
The Mystical Appeal of Japan
Constantly, game news hubs are hit with posts about Famitsu‘s review scores which don’t contain a single quote, just a number. There are a few reasons for this, the first and most obvious being a lack of understanding of Japanese. The person making the post on his lame website can’t translate the review, but hey, the modern gamer has proven that the text of a review matters far less than the number at the end, right? So skip it altogether.
Keepin’ the Bar Low
You need not speak any Japanese, however, to look at the magazine itself and note the brevity of the reviews, often being only 3 or 4 sentences; their biographies next to their names are actually longer than the reviews they’re presenting. That means if you did translate the reviews, it would actually look worse, because it would bring to light the fact that they are incredibly short and vague. Back in high school, Mrs. Snyder required five sentences per paragraph and a range of 5-10 paragraphs for most writing assignments. Famitsu‘s reviews are actually held to a much lighter standard than a 10th grader’s book report? Apparently so.
Imagine an English-speaking website doing this regularly, making a “review” out of a mere three extremely vague sentences and a number. “The graphics are great and I love the characters! So much action, so cool, sugeeeee! 9/10.” Wow, thanks for the insight. I now have a deep understanding of…well, nothing, really.
Take the above hypothetical a step further, with the author of such a review posting his work on other websites. Forum members would laugh it off, N4G members would (appropriately) flag it as “Lame”, Wikipedia would question the merits of the source, and the editors of aggregate sites such as GameRankings or Metacritic would dismiss the material in seconds. Yet with Famitsu, there’s such a magical appeal about it, that it’s given the green light to break all the rules and spit in the face of common sense.
Even in Japan, There are Only 24 Hours in a Day
Consider this as well, the magazine has a stable of reviewers who are reviewing upwards of five games each for the week in question. Those four scores that make up the magazine’s out-of-40 score are from people who are reviewing a bunch of games each. While they don’t always appear in back to back issues, you see most faces recurring regularly. Let me tell you from experience, reviewing games with a strict deadline is not as easy as it might seem, even when it’s your full-time job.
So now imagine that you don’t just have to review one game, but six of them. And within two weeks of that, you’ve got five more on your plate. On behalf of all of us who have ever reviewed games and taken our work seriously, let me say: holy shit.
Whether or not you’re in the camp that feels a game should be beaten before it’s reviewed, you’ve got to realize that schedule makes it nearly impossible to really delve very deeply into many of the games a Famitsu reviewer is tasked with evaluating. Whatever your feelings on that point of game reviews, it’s certainly worth note that some games, if only for story, need to be given more time than others.
Despite mentioning a higher-than-usual amount of repetition in their review comments, Famitsu granted PSP shitfest .hack//Link a 32/40. That’s a 50-hour game at the very least, and the people who reviewed it also had to deal with Keroro RPG, Pokemon Ranger DS, Armored Core: Last Raven Portable, and The Eye of Judgement in the same issue. You know damn well that .hack//Link wasn’t played very long. I, on the other hand, completed it, and by the end, I was practically suicidal.
Funny, I even mentioned within the review that my early impressions were much better than my final opinion, as I declared:
As of 5 hours, .hack//Link was a good game. After 12 hours, it was a so-so game. After 20 hours, it was a half-decent game for diehard .hack fans, but irrelevant to anyone else. After 30 hours, it became torture. At the end of a 50-hour completion run, it now literally turns my stomach to imagine picking this game up again.
I’m guessing Famitsu‘s crew bailed out before their hour counts hit double digits, due to their visible time constraints and high scoring of a game they admit didn’t really pull them in.
When Famitsu scores a game high (which is almost always), lots of game shops around Japan will post its review page next to the box on the shelves — you know, to help the store sell games. The more people buy those games, the bigger Famitsu‘s potential audience for all the strategy guides the company puts out, to say nothing of the increased exposure by having your product advertised right alongside all the hottest games.
Science, Math, Charts
Let’s conclude with some research. Now, I’m as aware as anyone that there is a lot of inflation in game review scores and that the problem is far from being limited to Famitsu, but just because a lot of people are doing something doesn’t suddenly make it okay. People love to rave when something gets into the mid 30’s or above in Famitsu, as if that means something. You need to realize just how often that happens and take into account that a 36/40 in Famitsu only really represents a score a scant few ticks from the magazine’s average score of about 31.
I am sitting next to a stack of eight Famitsu magazines. It’s math time. These magazines are a random sampling of the vast piles of shit in my closet and have dates from this month, earlier this year, and even a few from 2010. I have all kinds of Famitsus and Dengekis from the last few years laying around, so I grabbed this pile and looked at all of the 71 reviews from the eight magazines. The scores add up for 2190 points, for an average of 30.85. There are far more games that score in the 30’s than there are the 20’s, teens, and singles, combined here. In fact, the bottom half of the scale sits literally unused across this entire sampling.
In the most recent issue I have, there are 15 reviews, and the lowest score given is a 26/40. Yeah. They reviewed 15 games, and the worst one — the absolute lowest in a pile of 15 games — is a 6.5/10. In the 71 reviews contained within the magazines, the lowest review score I found was a 21/40, and this number only showed up one singular time with no 22’s or 23’s hanging around. Twenty-one is the new loneliest number. The game that got this low mark wasn’t exactly anticipated, either, it was blatant Nintendogs ripoff Dog School Lovely Puppy by Industry heavy hitter Starfish SD. Ah yes, I’m sure the “Pet Communication” genre usually demands so much more.
Why Review Content is Important
Look, I can understand a review outlet dishing out high scores to the majority of highly anticipated titles. But to see all four reviewers assigned to a given game rank each and every game with a decent ad budget among the top tier so consistently is insane. Humans react differently to games the same way we react differently to music, movies, and books. Believe it or not, there are people out there who dislike Gran Turismo 5; there are people who despise Call of Duty; there are plenty of real, reasonable, fine human beings who just can’t get into Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed the way some other people can; and seemingly half the Final Fantasy fan base hated both Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIII (which were awarded 40/40 and 39/40, respectively). If you’re giving every single highly touted game a high mark, and doing so while listing incredibly short, vague reasoning bordering on guesswork, then your reviews are essentially rendered meaningless. You’ve got four people, and all of them pretty much agree on virtually every game they review? I’ve had a hard time getting four people to agree what color the sky is.
I can do that without even playing most games. Watch this. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 brings all the action the series has become famous for. If you loved MW2, this game is for you, 33/40”. Or, “The vast amount of content and engrossing world make Skyrim a must-play title of the highest order. This isn’t just a game, it’s an experience, 39/40”. I’ve never even played those games, but my comments are the exact same type that Famitsu cranks out for every game that buys a significant amount of ad space, and right about in the score wheelhouse. But if you pressed me for more comments about the game or to talk in more detail about why I felt that way? I couldn’t do it, or I’d start saying some stuff that would soon be proven untrue, just like what happen to Electronic Theatre when they basically made up a review of Final Fantasy XIII, the link to which is now dead due to its high bullshit content. “…Attainment of new milestones in creating believable virtual societies” indeed, ha.
Seriously, one Famitsu guy’s review of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep was “I love that all of the characters have different styles and commands. When I use them they are different. The boss battles were so great”. Exactly how useful is such a review? That little, tiny amount of information is not too hard to just make up without having played the game. Is there much value to a review that tells no more than what a writer could easily make up without even touching a game?
Famitsu is a fine magazine overall, but its reviews don’t deserve the amount of hype they somehow garner. Their reviewers are not given enough time to really sink their teeth into the stacks of games they’re called upon to review, the text is so short and vague that you could write a similar review without even playing the game in question, the review scale is yet another victim of score inflation, and the magazine is obviously motivated financially to give high marks to big-budget games and studios. That’s why Famitsu sucks.