ChinaJoy 2016 – Retro’s Place In China’s Futuristic Market

This year I was lucky enough to be able to attend one of the busiest gaming shows in the world, ChinaJoy. What’s more, despite the blistering heat, there was approximately 300,000 dedicated gamers who also made the trip to Shanghai. All in order to explore some of the most popular and successful games and franchises that most outside of China will never have heard of.

Yes there was a smattering of companies you know – Bandai Namco, Ubisoft, EA and Konami. However, many were there under the auspices of domestic companies, such as Shanda Games which publishes Square Enix titles, and NetEase which manages Blizzard’s catalogue in China, to name but a few. However, far more prominent were simply companies and games that are largely unknown outside of China.

ChinaJoy 2016 Banner

So what’s this all got to do wth retro gaming then? Well in a funny way it has both nothing, and everything to do with it. Confused? Well I wouldn’t blame you, but stay with me as I try to explain.

What’s New Is Old

China’s gaming industry may be worth billions of dollars. However despite this, compared to the global industry, it’s arguably still in its infancy. As such, it’s had a relatively small amount of influence from the world of retro gaming, something that has caused the industry to take a slightly different path. A path where console gaming is the least popular form of gaming, and players swarm to PC MMOs and mobile titles, alongside a humongous recent drive to VR.

Now of course, as with anything there are multiple reasons for this. Nevertheless amongst these, two reasons that point to retro gaming’s minimal influence seem to stand above the others. And this lack of retro influence was something that I definitely observed at ChinaJoy.

ChinaJoy VR

Rules & Restrictions

The first of these relates to China’s strict censorship laws, laws that have historically prevented most games new and old from outside of China being officially released internally. Furthermore, as part of these controls, the Chinese government placed a ban on consoles in the early 2000s. This was done as the Chinese government believed it was the best method of protecting China’s youth from becoming corrupted by the negative influence of games.

This ban may have been recently lifted in July 2015, allowing Sony and Microsoft to finally release their gaming consoles. However compared to Western shows, it was surprising to see how much quieter the stands of two of the world’s flagship gaming platforms’ were in comparison to China’s powerhouses like Longtu and Tencent. Obviously this lack of traditional consoles and their titles has certainly had a lasting influence on China’s industry, making it radically different.

ChinaJoy 2016 PC MMO

This isn’t the only reason though, as this ban on consoles points to a deeper historical cultural aversion to video gaming, one that came at the height of the 80s and 90s. You see, whilst the Chinese government placed restrictions on both products deemed harmful to the nation, parents and society in general also played their part in keeping gaming out of China, also believing they were bad for China and its people. This however simply had the effect of pointing people to PC and mobile gaming, something that was very evident at ChinaJoy.

A Game of Clones

Finally, whilst China is now one of the world’s fastest growing economies, back in the 80s and 90s life in China was very different. As such, whilst families in countries such as America and Japan had the money to indulge in gaming, the same wasn’t true in China. Well not when it comes to consoles such as the Famicom and Mega Drive.

As such, even with bootlegged consoles such as the unashamed Famicom clone “The Little Tyrant (小霸王)”, and cheap compilation cartridges, gaming didn’t have the same nurtured upbringing as it received over in the west. All of which was more than clear to even the most untrained eye at ChinaJoy. In fact, if ChinaJoy was your first foray into gaming, you could be easily tricked into thinking that gaming started with World of Warcraft and the first smartphone.

The Little Tyrant

A Virtual Future

But yes, getting back to ChinaJoy and it was clear as day to see how rather than holding onto a past that largely seemed to pass them by, China’s developers are hurtling themselves into the future.  And are doing so arguably at a much faster rate than even we are in the west. Mobile games may have been where the money was in the last decade, but most in the domestic industry seem to be focusing on virtual reality.

Trust me, if there ever was a country that has embraced Virtual Reality to the max, then it’s China. With multiple headsets on display, and hundreds of games in development, China is squarely focusing on a future where most gaming takes places within virtual reality. In fact, ChinaJoy really just felt like the start of this, and at times it was hard to spot someone not locked into a headset.

Retro’s Place In China’s Future

Nevertheless, none of this means that the ideas of retro gaming aren’t present in China. Or that retro gaming doesn’t have a place in China’s future. Far from it.

In fact, what I actually observed was multiple cases of retro gaming mechanics and ideas being re-introduced to the mainstream gaming audience after a long absence. One such example was the prevalence of beat-em-ups. You see, games such as Street Fighter V and The King of Fighters XIV on the PS4 were easily amongst some of the most popular games on offer at the show. Squarely proving that classic gameplay elements can have an effect on a modern gaming scene not used to this type of genre.

Street Fighter V ChinaJoy

Another example was the over abundance of RPG games. Although despite finding Final Fantasy Type-0, the majority of the RPG titles that I was able to go hands on with, were set in a historical setting and were being developed exclusively for the Chinese mobile market. Nevertheless, despite displaying many mobile mechanics, the heart of the 8-bit JRPG can clearly be seen amongst all of the soldiers and princesses.

It’s A Me, Mario!

My most surprising discovery however, was finding attendees queuing up in their droves to play the most classic of experiences, Super Mario Bros. This was part of what was being referred to as the “July Game Master” competition, although it was sad to see it being played on a PC rather than a Famicom or NES. A competition that saw players challenged to complete various challenges within popular games, such as Chinese gaming pastime World of Warcraft, and some of the latest domestic VR games.

Mario Bros ChinaJoy

Compared to some of these games, the Mario challenge was a relatively simple one, defeat the first world. Nevertheless, it seemed like this was quite a challenge for some of the attendees. Best of all though, was seeing how much they were enjoying winning, losing, and ultimately the whole retro experience.

Nintendo Power

This was also clear when finding the inevitable 8BitDo stand, and all of the modern retro consoles, controllers, and memorabilia that it always holds. You see, much like Super Mario Bros., this stand was also extremely busy, with gamers grabbing all of the hardware they need to experience some of gaming’s greatest moments. Possibly even, for the first time ever.

8Bitdo ChinaJoy

There was also glass cabinet here depicting the history of The Legend of Zelda, something that was constantly surrounded with people taking pictures, just as they would in the West. What’s more, in another hall I even found someone painting a mural of Paper Mario within virtual reality. Both of which show that despite retro’s neglected past, the brand power of some of Nintendo’s greatest 8-bit icons is every bit as powerful inside China’s insular market, as it is outside.

Finally, when talking of gaming and global brand power, it’s hard to get away from Pokémon. As despite being de-facto banned in China thanks to the governments restrictions on Google, Pokémon Go’s rapid recent success was something never far from the minds of Chinese developers. In fact, this was also true of the overall brand power, with many of China’s emerging developers aiming to create a gaming brand as powerful as Pokémon in the future.

Zelda ChinaJoy

The Joy Of ChinaJoy

Whilst retro gaming in China may somewhat lack a past, my trip to ChinaJoy showed me that it doesn’t necessarily have no future. The influence of Retro gaming may have been small in the face of mobile mechanics and virtual reality experiences. However, for those who did take the time to delve into gaming’s past, it certainly seemed like they were enjoying these classic experiences as much as the new ones.

Furthermore, it also seems that the design choices of the 8 & 16-bit eras may still have a part to play in China’s future when listening to developers and publishers alike. Ultimately, whilst China seemingly hurtles itself into a virtual future, I can’t help feel that the infusion of retro gaming mechanics would definitely make the industry more holistic and enjoyable. What’s more, if retro is able to influence China’s future in a way it never has before, who knows what the future holds for this extremely unique and interesting market.

Finally, whilst not retro gaming, ChinaJoy ultimately left me with an incredibly powerful insight into one the most secretive yet misunderstood industries. An insight that broke down a huge amount of preconceptions, and made me very excited to not only learn more about the industry, but also to play more. Here’s to ChinaJoy 2017, and the hope of seeing even more of gaming’s past, present and future colliding.

Simon Drake

A lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that I've written a thesis on one and lived in the other. Currently on a quest to catch every last Pokémon. Follow me on twitter via @DudeXChill or @RingsandCoins.

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