Talking Point: The Emergence of "Niche" Japanese Titles Into The Nintendo Mainstream

If in doubt, go with what you know

As the weeks pass of Wii U's early days, and the 3DS campaigns to prove that gaming handhelds still have a major role to play, there are some signs that Nintendo's being forced to adjust its strategies when preparing new games. With the previous week's debates about third party content — both multi-platform and exclusive — reminding us of potential challenges ahead, Nintendo is having to broaden its efforts to ensure that, if all else fails, it keeps the high-quality content flowing on its consoles.

That brings major pressures, however, which were perfectly demonstrated by the fate of Wii in 2012. While its contemporaries Xbox 360 and PS3 arguably continued with a strong line-up of game releases, Nintendo's system floundered badly, with only a few notable exceptions. The reasoning was simple, many third-parties had abandoned the platform and Nintendo was directing much of its available resources to producing content for 3DS and the upcoming Wii U. The final death-knell came with a Nintendo of America's Bill Trinen stating, during Wii U's launch, that there were no Wii projects in the pipeline from the big N. Aside from the very occasional third-party release or long overdue Operation Rainfall title in North America — we're looking at you, Pandora's Tower — the game is over for the system.

The rather sad dénouement of a console with enough innovation and character to deserve better is an early warning for both Wii U and, to an extent, 3DS. Nintendo's policy of prioritising innovation and clever design over additional processor cores or higher clock speeds can lead to some wonderful gaming experiences, but can also put pressure on its platforms to attract all of the highest profile multi-platform blockbusters, which in turn places a reliance on feeding an audience that's in the game for something different, including 3D Mario, the latest Mario Kart, a Zelda epic, additional Wii Fit experiences and more. We're not saying that Wii U is destined to fail to deliver third-party content of a high quality, and it may well produce unique experiences on a par with some of the overlooked gems on Wii; only time will tell.

That's all ground we've debated previously, but it seems that Nintendo's aware of its potential future role, once again, of picking up the slack of unenthusiastic third-party publishers. The company is becoming increasingly active as a publisher, which could help to minimise future issues such as that with Rayman Legends, securing either timed or permanent exclusives. Money talks, after all, and Nintendo does have some to throw around if necessary.

Perhaps we're seeing a new focus from Nintendo, however, as part of a necessary adjustment to tackle its significant development responsibilities. Moving to the handheld market, a great deal of marketing and effort has gone into the North American release of Fire Emblem: Awakening — though launch day stock issues seemed to let it down in some areas of the region. As our feature, Fire Emblem's Western Adventure showed, this Intelligent Systems-developed franchise was predominantly Japan-only in its early days, and its first ventures into localisation were arguably regarded as niche titles enjoyed by dedicated hardcore gamers. And yet, when you combine optional tweaks to the formula to support new players with a marketing push arguably new for this series — as well as plenty of positive press reviews — this is a title that's attempting to earn worldwide appeal, rather than being a complex Japanese strategy game with a small but loyal band of Western fans.

Of course, technically the vast majority of Nintendo's titles — outside of exceptions developed by studios such as Retro Studios — are Japanese games, including those most treasured and well-known franchises. Fire Emblem: Awakening does highlight Nintendo's eagerness to take concepts that are hugely popular in its homeland to a wider consumer base, however, which we've already seen in previous generations with Animal Crossing; Nintendo is no doubt keen to repeat the phenomenal Japanese sales of Animal Crossing: New Leaf in the West. We'd suggest that these efforts look set to diversify further, not just in terms of the number of traditionally Japanese projects coming West, but Nintendo's eagerness to broaden its development partners and teams, whether that means the studios owned by the company — Monolith Soft — or experienced developers — Atlus.

These examples are drawn from the recent Wii U Direct, a broadcast that perhaps demonstrated this increased emphasis of moving away from "Japan-only" titles that fail to gain any traction elsewhere. The broadcast was notably "global", rather than the recent practice of regional streams with their own priorities, and as a result we not only saw teased franchises well known to the West, but two titles that until recently would probably be categorised as doubtful for localisation.

To start with "X", as Monolith Soft's title is codenamed, it's easy to forget that its predecessor on Wii (whether X is directly a prequel, sequel or neither) had a troubled release history. Xenoblade Chronicles took its time to arrive in Europe, before initial perceived resistance from Nintendo of America meant even more delay before it reached that region, while some will claim its eventual release was ultimately a victory for fan-movement Operation Rainfall. Yet it would be a brave company that teases a title that looks quite as epic as X in a globally branded webcast, before changing its mind — we're certainly in no doubt, this game is coming to the West.

We also saw a development partnership forming for a Fire Emblem crossover with Atlus' series Shin-Megami Tensei, which we can probably assume with some confidence to be an RPG. There was no gameplay footage of that one, though it's hard to tell whether that means it's a while away or whether it's just being kept under wraps. A lot of the titles shown weren't given release windows, it must be said, though we can be pretty sure that Mario will appear in the Holiday season.

As Satoru Iwata made clear when announcing the collaboration with Atlus, we can expect to see more crossovers and projects in league with other developers. We already know that the next Super Smash Bros. title is being produced alongside a team from Namco Bandai, if you want one particularly high-profile example, and with many of Nintendo's biggest allies unsurprisingly being Japan-based it's a trend set to continue.

While a negative perspective could be that an increasing prioritisation of titles or development teams that some may have previously regarded as "niche" is a reflection of Nintendo's troubles attracting significant support for its platforms, gamers who enjoyed some of the most diverse offerings on DS and Wii may see it as a blessing. Considering the consistent frustrations here on Nintendo Life with enticing titles failing to make the trip West, we suspect much of this community will welcome this perceived shift.

Some of these notable examples suggest that we may need to gradually stop referring to some series as being "niche" or "JPRGs", but just as new RPGs and so on coming to Nintendo's systems. With Nintendo promising that there are still unannounced Wii U titles coming in 2013, it'll be interesting to see how many will have a distinctly Japanese flavour, joining many of those world-famous franchises that, although hugely popular in the West for the past 25 years, are from the same homeland.

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