For years, Japan was the dominating force in the games industry. Ever since Nintendo blasted onto the scene in the eighties, it's always been my opinion that the developers in the land of the rising sun have had the edge on everyone else. The Atari age has long since given way to names like Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Capcom, Konami, Square, and so many others. If I made a list of my hundred favorite games, I'd be willing to bet that seventy or more of them come from Japan.
These days, however, the tide has shifted. The worldwide yearning for platformers and action games and traditional RPGs has been eclipsed by the first person shooter and sports game markets, two genres that Japanese developers are woefully unfamiliar with. Only the top games in each genre outside of Halo clones and Madden wannabes can make bank anymore, and developers are starting to play it safe with what they bring to the table. One genre affected by this trend is the JRPG, which has always had a focus in Japan, but also branched out to the world stage more often than not. These days, however, it seems Japan's favorite genre seems to be transforming more and more into Japan's shyest genre, rarely coming out to say hi to the rest of us.
In a rather shocking revelation, I've actually managed to find a hearty list of JRPGs that I pine for. I've never been the genre's biggest supporter, which doesn't surprise me in retrospect considering I never owned a SNES, Playstation, or Playstation 2 during their primes. However, I hereby pledge to buy any of the following games that come to America. I said the same thing about Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, thinking it would have no chance of arriving; I made good on my promise, bought TvC: Ultimate All Stars, and loved it. So it's on you now, localization teams. Make it happen.
In 2004 I was introduced to the Tales series with the Gamecube hit, Tales of Symphonia. You'd be hard-pressed to differentiate it from most JRPGs except for one crucial factor: the battle system. The Tales series has traditionally featured a real-time battle system that played akin to a sidescrolling action title, an idea that I had always desired and Tales of Symphonia delivered. Since Symphonia, we've seen only five Tales titles in America (and none since 2008's Vesperia) while Japan has been bombarded with more than double that. Some are spinoffs that I don't have much interest in, but I've been chomping at the bit for Tales of Graces since its revelation in 2008. Symphonia's battle system knocked my socks off at the time, but Graces looks like a huge step up that North America missed out on, and it seems we won't get it again when Japan gets an upgraded PS3 port later this year. We've also been ignored completely by the three big Tales titles on the DS, as well as the PS3 port of Vesperia, all of which are big releases that fans expected to escape Japan. I'll gladly put my money down for Tales of Graces, its upgraded PS3 port, Tales of Vesperia PS3, Tales of Innocence, or Tales of Hearts. On the other hand, I might have to swear off Namco forever if we don't get the recently-announced PS3 title that promises to be the next big thing for the series.
What are the chances? Graces has been out for a year in Japan, and the other titles even longer than that. Yet there's been no sign of a North American release. Hopes are all but dashed at this point, much to my dismay.
If that name sounds familiar, don't get too excited: Xenoblade has no real relation to the Xenogears or Xenosaga series, other than sharing the same developer. Everything else I've heard about this game sounds intriguing, though, especially the setting: The entire game takes place on the still-standing corpses of two giant rival gods, locked in battle, with one god-land inhabited by humans and the other full of mechanical beings. The battle system has been compared to Final Fantasy XII's Gambit style and the game has earned some very high praise from those who have played it.
What are the chances? The game was released nearly two months ago in Japan, and there's been no word of release anywhere else. There's still a shot, but I wouldn't count on it. Nintendo seems unwilling to publish this in America, just like with Monolith Soft's previous Wii-exclusive title, Disaster: Day of Crisis. Quite unexpected, considering each game has been featured in Nintendo's E3 presentations in the past...
The Last Story
The original creator of Final Fantasy is at the helm of a game with a very similar title. The similarities seem to end there, however, as what little we know of The Last Story seems to indicate it shares more in common with Gears of War than with Hironobu Sakaguchi's most famous series. The one trailer we've seen shows off what seems to be a cover-based battle system with light stealth elements, classic fantasy aesthetics, and some impressive visuals for Wii. Here's hoping this unique new JRPG from a man who could be called the genre's father will deliver...and not just in Japan.
What are the chances? Mistwalker has recently stated that we'll find out whether or not the game will hit outside of Japan by the end of this year...around the time that it's set to release in Japan. A simultaneous release is not to be expected, then, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility of seeing this game in America sometime next year. Then again, Nintendo is apparently the title's publisher, just as it was with Mistwalker's DS-exclusive FMV extravaganza ASH that hasn't been seen outside of Japan either, so...yeah.
The Earthbound series hasn't been seen much in America...it actually can't even be called a "series" here, considering the only game to make it out of Japan was Earthbound itself (aka Mother 2). Known for its anarchic humor and RPG parody, Earthbound is one of the most intensely-beloved games on the Super Nintendo, and its sequel has received equal praise even with its darker tone. However, it seems Nintendo would rather keep the series from getting too much exposure outside of Japan, as Earthbound hasn't even been seen on the Wii's Virtual Console yet. That may be due to some legitimate legal concerns, but that doesn't make it sting any less.
What are the chances? The game's been out for four years, and we still haven't heard a peep about localization. We can't even get a virtual console release of a game that already came out in America. Also, Nintendo. This one's dead, as far as I'm concerned. Check out Greg's review of Mother 3, as well as his first-hour reviews for Earthbound and Mother 3, then decide whether to spend $100 on a SNES copy of Earthbound, learn Japanese to play Mother 3, or find other means to experience the two...
Segagaga and Captain Rainbow
Sometimes, a game's premise is enough to grab my interest, and that's certainly the case with these two offbeat looks inward for Sega and Nintendo. The humorously-titled Segagaga coincides perfectly with the Dreamcast's early demise at the hands of the Playstation 2's hype machine, tasking the player with stopping Sega's fictional competitor DOGMA from taking over the console market. Plenty of cameos from Sega icons, game parodies, and satirical parallels to Sega's competitors give Segagaga a very surreal and almost tragic feel.
On the other hand, Captain Rainbow stars a washed-up TV superhero who journeys to an island where wishes are granted, only to come across mostly-forgotten Nintendo characters of yore. The game's tone is firmly planted in the realm of the strange, with Captain Rainbow helping Little Mac get back into shape (or push him into becoming overweight) and exploring the decidedly weird existence of the gender-bending Birdo, along with other Nintendo antiques making cameos.
What are the chances? I think it's more likely that I'll win the lottery and then immediately be struck by lightning than play an English version of either of these games.