News Article

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

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

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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User Comments (46)



CrimsonFire said:

A good direction for Nintendo.
Bring all these awesome games that wouldn't even be considered for localisation over here because their great.



retro_player_22 said:

Still waiting for Fatal Frame IV atm. I just don't get why they couldn't just localize it release it here considering they already got rights to the IP now.



FiveDigitLP said:

Right now, I'm loving Fire Emblem: Awakening. Granted, I've only played one other game in the series, but still!

@Rapido That's for sure! I definitely would like to see Bravely Default come to the West! That and maybe Beyond the Labyrinth.



Peach64 said:

I loved my Wii, but I don't think Nintendo's titles were as good on it as prior generations overall (there are exceptions, as I think the Galaxy games are the finest Mario titles they've made).

I'd love for them to make a big push to focus on the gamers again. It's great that they had success with Wii Fit and Wii Party and all that, but I really don't care for them at all. It's easy to say we want a new Mario, Zelda and Metroid etc, but it would be really nice if Nintendo could work on building up it's collection of dev teams and maybe in addition to Super Mario Universe or whatever it will be called, wouldn't it be great to see another 3D platformer that's a brand new IP but still has that Nintendo charm? Same goes for other genres.

I'll be the first to admit I'm not impressed with the games available for the Wii U, and the ones I really want seem a long way off too, but I am so excited about the idea of Nintendo getting back to what they do best instead of trying to go after the non-gamer crowd.



Gamesake said:

With Game Boy Advance games coming to the Wii U Virtual Console and Fire Emblem's new popularity, it might be the right time to finally bring Fire Emblem: Sword of Seals over to North America.



Sean_Aaron said:

I think this is very positive, but I also harbour a secret fantasy that we'll see more decidedly Japanese games also getting released here even if download only. I'd dearly love to see a localised Mahjong Taikai Wii U from Koei Tecmo, even though the odds are very much against it.



Kaboom said:

"Niche" Japanese titles getting Western attention are nice and all, but what about some of the bigger series that already have an audience in both the East and West? I'll be over here waiting for Dragon Quest announcements.



WesCash said:

As long as the games sell well over here, Nintendo should be continuing this trend. I'm not really interested in niche Japanese games or even things like Xenoblade Chronicles or Pandora's tower, but good for those who are.



ArkOne77 said:

"Niche" is right! I'm a late comer when playing RPG - JRPG games in general......was trying to back track and pick up Xenoblade Chronicles, Last Story, Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn but they are nowhere to be found in store! Folks on ebay are selling Fire Emblem: Path Of Radiance(Gamecube), Radiant Dawn (Wii) & Xenoblade for outlandish prices! Is this common in this particular genre of games? Guess I'll just have to start with Awakening and whatever else lands on Wii U. :/



cornishlee said:

RPG's have never really appealed to me. So, while the more games the better, in terms of providing consumer choice, I'd hope for a little more than that if I'm to continue to enjoy my Wii U for the next six years.



Bankai said:

For the record, the Japanese don't consider any of these games to be niche.

Niche is stuff from GUST or Idea Factory.

The only reason they're considered 'niche' on Nintendo platforms in the west is that they've traditionally gone without being localised. On the other console hardware I don't think the likes of Fire Emblem could fairly be called niche.



ThomasBW84 said:

@Bankai Absolutely. As I said in the conclusion, if this trend does pick up steam then the term "niche" will no longer be relevant for these games in the West.



Void said:

@Gamesake I would hope they do, I also think that if they do, NOA will change the name to Binding Blade, because, in Awakening, a character you can get, Owain, in some of his supports, he shouts the name of different games(His 'special moves') I've seen him mention Radiant Dawn, Sacred Stones, Blazing Sword and Binding Blade so far, I imagine they were talking about Fuuin no Tsurugi, or it might not mean anything.



Bankai said:

@ThomasBW84 I would suggest that aside from Nintendo-only websites, mainstream JRPGs are not considered niche in the west either. Certainly the PlayStation community is used to them, look at the success of Ni No Kuni.



belmont said:

I am not sure I agree with the general idea of the article.

After PS2 (Persona 4 was the last mainstream j-rpg released in EU) all j-rpg fans had were DS and PSP with tons of games but the hardware was not as good as it should be to deliver the best experience. We had Radiant Historia, Dragon Quest 4,5,6,9, Final Fantasy 4, Star Ocean 1,2, Tales of Eternia, the YS series only to name a few (on both DS and PSP). Wii had only the not so good Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World.

As the years passed PS3 took the place of PS2 in j-rpg for US and EU gamers with tons of "Niche" Japanese Titles like the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, Atelier series. Tales of Graces and some more (Ar-tonelico, Trinity Universe). During Wii's final years Xenoblade and Last Story were released but it was too late.

Now PS3 is still strong on new localizations like Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory and Atelier Ayesha out next month in US and EU (and Ni No Kuni released the previous week).

Apart from this we have absolutely nothing. For Wii U there is nothing released in Japan nor anything announced. For PSP there are tons j-rpgs (and some classics like Suikoden) released even today (and upcoming in the next months) but nothing is going to be localized for sure. There are some upcoming for Vita (like Legend of Heroes) but again, until now, nothing was announced for localization (except YS4) and most seem highly unlikely. There are some on 3DS but the only real j-rpg we have seen here is Tales of the Abyss (and Etrian Odyssey 4 out soon).

As far as localizations are concerned after PS3 there does't seem to be a clear future on "Niche" j-rpgs as localization of psp, vita and 3ds games seems unlikely. So the emergence of "Niche" j-rpg in the Nintendo (and any other platform except maybe PS3) Mainstream (after the DS) seems somewhat unlikely to me.



Eien1239 said:

@belmont This article looks towards the future like 6 months or a year ahead not now. where did the ps3 come from(I guess it's needed).



Bankai said:

@belmont Well, the JRPG developers have to go somewhere. The likes of GUST and Idea Factory, Nippon Ichi and Namco Bandai aren't just going to disappear.

The indicators are that they will remain with Sony platforms. GUST has already produced three games for the Vita in Japan, for instance. It's just that, currently, the more niche ones are waiting for the console to take off to justify their investment in it.



Bankai said:

But seriously, can we please stop calling every JRPG game "niche"? They're not. That's like saying the entire platformer genre is niche because hardly any are made for Xbox at retail.



millarrp said:

If this holds true I'm looking forward to it....I may not get every game, but I'm sure there will be some out there that will appeal to me



alLabouTandroiD said:

I hope we'll hear confirmations of the Ace Attorneys and games like Bravely Default and Fantasy Life soon.



AtomicToaster said:

If the Wiiu became all about Nintendo games, indie games, and quirky japanese titles... well, that would be more than enough games for me to play! Stuff like Skyrim or Bioshock I'm getting for PC anyway.

Consoles needed to get back to basics and become specialists in playing games, NOT crappy PCs. So thus far, I think the Wiiu still has the potential for having one of the best possible futures. Even if the AAA companies just keeps focusing on the graphics in an industry that's in trouble, well I think the bottom is going to fall out on that system eventually.

I'm guessing small japanese devs will go for Wiiu and 3ds as a home and Western indie devs will find a home on PC and smartphones.



Emaan said:

Love the direction Nintendo's taking. The idea of other renowned Japanese developers teaming up and pledging support to the 3DS and Wii U is wonderful. Can't wait to see the games that'll be created.



Neram said:

"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."

Yes! I wholeheartedly agree with you there Tom! It's very refreshing to read that sentence. Each time we call a game JRPG we might as well be calling it "niche" and forever perceiving it as such. I've said it before and I'll say it again, we never needed that label for the past 20 some years.

I'm very excited to play some of these diverse titles.



mookysam said:

Fire Emblems have seen release in the west for a long time now. Perhaps it is being given higher prominence because the wider release schedule is relatively thin? As for the more niche games Nintendo has released over the past few years, like Inazuma Eleven or Solatorobo, they have said that it was so their older systems did not go unsupported in the absence of first-party developed games. I fully support and encourage this, but it does highlight that Nintendo games alone cannot support entire systems in perpetuity, and that they do not have the reasonable resources to simultaneously develop for multiple platforms. That said, they've been vocal about working to combat this by forming more partnerships with external companies.

Thinking about Japanese RPG's specifically, they are a popular genre in the west, but have never had a big presence on Nintendo home consoles (since the SNES, that is). I don't think the situation will radically change for the Wii U.
The handhelds have been particularly good to the genre with generally consistent levels of localisation, as have the Playstation consoles. Smaller publishers have been particularly willing to invest in titles that may be considered more niche, and bigger companies like Namco have stepped up their game, especially on the PS3. The genre is in good health, much more so than many people give it credit for. The real challenge for Nintendo is whether or not the genre can find a large enough audience on the Wii U, and for that they need wider support.



XCWarrior said:

I'm all for Nintendo deciding to bring over all the Japanesse games that Sony and Microsoft won't touch. That's the best way to bring back the core market with Nintendo. They just need to publish things, whether retail or digital. the eshop has to get filled up. They need to give people software that can't be found anywhere else. And they need to do it before PS4 and Durango come out.



Yoshis95 said:

I think nintendo life just likes using that fire emblem picture so now they are making excuses to use it. but i must say i get excited when i see that picture



Shrapmo said:

So this means I will get my PS4 for my western games and Wii U for my unique Japanese games! This gen is starting to sound good to me!



Sean_Aaron said:

It doesn't really matter how many of them there are if Japanese RPGs continue to have a small audience (outside of Japan, obviously). If they get more heavily promoted and start selling up there with the Marios or even the Zeldas, then yes, I think we can call them mainstream titles.



Bankai said:

@Sean_Aaron so Ni No Kuni just debuted in the charts at #1. Critics are divided on the Final Fantasy games but they continue to sell well. Dark Souls was a massive hit, and Demon's Souls before it was a franchise-building success.

A genre doesn't need to hit the sales numbers of the pew pew genre to avoid being niche. Anyone with a PlayStation 3 realises that there is still a large market in the west for these games.



Araknie said:

The point is, we are sure all this games will have a physical form of release?

I heard an Italian Podcast yesterday and it was filled with "i don't care" at all Wii U Direct because they all are Japanese games.
It's really pitiful this situation.



MerchantPrince said:

@Kaboom Well, that does tend to depend upon Square more than anything. It's difficult for Nintendo to do anything with those games without say so from Square as well. And they seem to be very stubborn recently.



Nico87 said:


I guess I agree about most of what you said.

Regarding localizations:

  • Don't forget Xeno X.
  • Atlus have announced Shin Megami Tensei - Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers.
  • You forgot to mention Tales of Xillia in your list. It has been announced by Namco Bandai USA. They've also announced Project X Zone for 3DS.
  • Aksys Games have announced Muramasa Rebirth for Vita and Hakouki: Warriors of the Shinsengumi for PSP.
  • Xseed have announced Killer is Dead (not an RPG, I know) and Rune Factory 4 for 3DS, and they recently released Corpse Party: Book of Shadow for PSP (download only).
  • Monkey Paw Games have announced Class of Heroes 2 for PSP (download only as of now).
  • Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will obviously be released in NA/EU.

I think you can rely on Xseed, Aksys and NIS America to continue to support the "niche market".

Regarding your last paragraph, I totally understand what you're saying and I don't think we will see many "niche" RPGs on the system at all. The good thing, however, is that most of the RPG stuff that has been released for the 3DS (in both Japan and USA) hasn't really been niche. They've been major titles. Just look at what we've gotten so far:

  • Fire Emblem: Awakening
  • Kingdom Hearts: DDD
  • Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked
  • Tales of the Abyss
  • Unchained Blades (download only, niche, not major )

In the future we'll have:

  • SMT DS: Soul Hackers
  • More Pokemon
  • Project X Zone
  • Persona 4
  • Monster Hunter Tri G
  • Monster Hunter 4
  • Etrian Odyssey IV

To be fair, if you look at a list of RPG's released in Japan for the 3DS, you won't find much more than what I've listed above.

Other than that, I really, really want to see Bravely Default getting a localization.



ecco6t9 said:

Crazy idea, take some DS games that were never translated, give the the 3D treatment and release them as 3DS games?



scrubbyscum999 said:

Nintendo should have a stronger focus on Japanese games. I find Nintendo gamers are gamers who play Japanese games anyway. If the keep the Japanese games and JRPGs coming, could care less if they have any worth while Western releases personally speaking.



GreenDream said:

@ArkOne77 Yes, RPG titles, especially the classics, have often commanded a higher price than their contemporaries throughout gaming history. It was common to pay $70-90 for a game like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy 4, or Chrono Trigger, back in the SNES days.

Since RPG's have historically had very limited print runs, and were rarely part of the "mainstream", it is still common for certain rare titles which have STILL not gotten digital rereleases, such as Suikoden 2, to retain price points of $100 or more. As you may know, involved RPG's often require more dedication and time than your average shooter or action title. This gave them "Boutique" status over the years, which has only recently been subsided, with the digital age.



GreenDream said:

"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."

I disagree with the article's statement on this issue. JRPG is a classification of game design, which differs notably from WRPG's. We refer to certain RPG's as "Japanese" or "Western" because of their design philosophies, not because of where they exist, where they are made, or who designed them. The core differences between two titles such as, for instance, Ultima 7 and Ys Books 1 & 2 , (these titles released about 20 years ago) are important things which are not going away. Sure, they're both considered RPG's, but saying they are all simply "RPG" does not do justice to the myriad designs throughout the spectrum of RPG's. Ultima 7 is a WRPG, and Ys is a JRPG. There's no getting around their core design differences. It's a bit clumsy to classify things that way, but RPG's cannot be lumped together into a sum group of equal parts, like FPS's or shooters usually can; so the labeling of "JRPG" or "WRPG" is going to stick around.

Also, "niche" is not necessarily a statement on popularity or sales so much as it is a statement on who the product appeals towards. Most people would much sooner gravitate towards Mario or Pinball than Breath of Fire or Final Fantasy, for instance. Even in Final Fantasy's case, where it "went mainstream", it still retained a considerable amount of menu sifting and organizing... not things that most people think of as "fun". These particular design decisions can be described as "niche", because they are conducted so differently from the "mainstream" titles (especially AAA action titles).

If anything, the only reason why Fire Emblem would not be considered "niche" at this point is because of Smash Bros, a decidedly "mainstream" series. It took a "mainstream" game to alert many people of something which was "niche". So long as the design philosophies of the series remain as they have, it will continue to be decidedly "niche". Can you honestly think of any baby boomers who would be interested in such titles? My baby boomer parents enjoy Bubble Bobble and puzzle games, but I doubt Fire Emblem would even remotely pique their interest due to the heavy investment required.



GreenDream said:

@Nico87 The only Shin Megami Tensei titles that are not niche are the Persona titles; even then, it's really only been Personas 3 and 4 which "went mainstream". They still give plenty of opportunities for menu sifting, but they definitely have nowhere near the hardcore menu sifting of Devil Survivor.



GreenDream said:

@Neram I dunno about you, but there's no way I would ever lump Baldur's Gate and the Tales Of series into the exact same category...

On the other hand, I WOULD place two titles such as Anachronox and Final Fantasy into the same category. Anachronox might have been developed by a western team, but it's design philosophies are distinctly resonant with those classified as "JRPG". There's a good reason for those classifications.



GreenDream said:

@Bankai There's a lot more money being thrown around through titles like Skyrim than through titles like Ni no Kuni, sadly... The Elder Scrolls was not "mainstream" until Oblivion, though. Many JRPG's are referred to as "niche" because they just do not hold the same consistent, gripping appeal upon the masses as stomping on goombas, tossing birds at pigs, and lining up gems.



gojiguy said:

Dear Nintendo, get off your butts and make a new F-Zero or an hd remake of GX.

People STILL play GX competitively to this day because its so good.

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