Why do Japanese games go left to right?
June 18, 2009 11:40 AM   Subscribe

Why do so many (most?) classic Japanese side-scrolling games scroll left to right? Mario, Sonic, R-type, Megaman and plenty of other big names all go in the same direction. Why?

I could understand the convention from a western point of view; reading trains us to equate going right with progress but Japanese is read right to left so you'd expect it to be the other way round in games from over there.

Perhaps the direction-of-reading angle is a red herring, but it seems such a consistent standard should have some specific reason behind it. Surely it's more than an arbitrary decision that happened to stick?
posted by Lorc to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
fwiw, japanese is normally read left-to-right.
posted by jeb at 11:49 AM on June 18, 2009

Japanese is read right to left

posted by mr_roboto at 11:51 AM on June 18, 2009

Check out this wikipedia page for details: Horizontal and vertical writing in East Asian scripts

remember in the very beginning of metroid, if you went to the left, you got some kind of power up? This must have been a dominant enough thing by the time metroid was released that you could make a secret out of just going left. And metroid was released in '86.
posted by jeb at 11:52 AM on June 18, 2009

According to wiki, the first side-scroller was Moon Patrol, which was both Japanese and moved left to right. So, perhaps it was an arbitrary decision which just set precedent.
posted by munchingzombie at 11:55 AM on June 18, 2009

I came in here to mention that one of the earliest side-scrollers I could think of was written by an American, but it looks like jeb and mr_roboto have a better answer.

On preview: munchingzombie, the article you link to says Moon Patrol was one of the first side-scrollers, although it was released the same year as Pitfall!
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:58 AM on June 18, 2009

Huh - I was completely ignorant of the difference between horizontal and vertical Japanese writing. A little googling on "yokogaki" explains the difference. Thanks for the informative link, jeb.

I suppose if you're a Japanese game designer making a horizontal scroller, it makes perfect sense that you'd treat it the same way you would horizontal writing.
posted by Lorc at 12:20 PM on June 18, 2009

When written vertically, Japanese columns are read right-to-left.

But horizontally, rows of text are written left-to-right.

Unless it's the driver side door of a vehicle, there you will often see horizontal text written right-to-left, for the same reason US uniform flag patches are backwards on the right shoulder.
posted by @troy at 12:41 PM on June 18, 2009

>But horizontally, rows of text are written left-to-right.

At present, generally this is true. But go back a few decades, and you'll find many examples of horizontal text written right-to-left, especially on signs, billboards, titles of reading material, names of shops, and the like. This practice continued through World War II, and many instances exist today. All native Japanese speakers need to be adept at reading horizontal text right-to-left.
posted by Gordion Knott at 12:50 PM on June 18, 2009

MobyGames lists Superman for the Atari 2600, released in 1978 and programmed by John Dunn, as the oldest side-scroller.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:00 PM on June 18, 2009

Comic strips are read left to right.

Commonly in film, movement to screen right indicates forward movement.

Stories told painted on Greek amphoras progress from left to right, or clockwise. (I believe)

Most people, when entering a room, will turn right. This is used to design store floor plans-- eye catching or expensive products will be placed to the right of the entrance.

I have no idea if these are all western centric conventions or not, but it seems likely that once left-to-right side scrollers caught on, they stuck.
posted by fontophilic at 2:00 PM on June 18, 2009

"Comic strips are read left to right."

Not Japanese comics, which is why the original poster asked this question about Japanese video games.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:14 PM on June 18, 2009

The very organization of cartesian coordinates and computer and television hardware (which could themselves be language-direction-influenced) may have steered choices in scrolling direction:

- the X axis of 2D screen coordinates increases toward the right. This might be preferable as a default simply because it seems logical not to use a negative sign for forward movement.

- Similarly, background tile data tends to be drawn in rows, as arrays of memory addresses whose positions increment from left to right. Adding new tile data when scrolling right involves appending it to the end of each row, to the right of the visible screen. This maps to the concept of an end to the scenery, or level, or whatever else.

- Raster lines (the horizontal movement of the electron beam in a television screen) are drawn from left to right; most graphical updates are computed during the vblank period (while the beam is off) but it's just another instance of "left-to-right" being the norm.

Gots to go play me some Kung Fu now.
posted by jake at 3:20 PM on June 18, 2009

My bad, I dug a little deeper to through the Wiki's and Moon Patrol was not the first side scroller, but the first to use Parallax to give the illusion of depth.
posted by munchingzombie at 4:34 PM on June 18, 2009

I thought, like jake, that it might have something to do with the way early hardware worked. But it could also be that there's a hard-wired neurological preference for left to right progression - see this thread on the "SNARC effect". I don't know if that effect has been measured in experiments controlled for reading direction and handedness, though.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 7:12 AM on June 19, 2009

The sun moves across the sky from left to right.
posted by Hogshead at 8:22 AM on June 22, 2009

The sun moves across the sky from left to right.

In the northern hemisphere. Well, actually it's only above the Tropic of Cancer if you mean year-round. Admittedly, that's the culturally dominant part of the planet for videogame programming.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:56 PM on June 22, 2009

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