Xenoblade Chronicles is 10 years old today, so we thought it a perfect time to republish this personal account from our Games of the Decade series back in January. We recently revisited the game with the excellent Definitive Edition on Switch, of course, but here Mitch discusses his experience with the original version, one of the Wii's final big releases...
The year was 2011. After a long and successful run, Nintendo’s Wii console was finally winding down and fans turned their hopeful eyes to the horizon, just over which rested a promising new platform called the Wii U. Nintendo’s E3 2011 presentation received plenty of hype due to the unveiling of the new hardware, but the company also had millions of fans to please that still weren’t quite ready to retire their Wii consoles yet. They, of course, had Zelda: Skyward Sword to look forward to in the fall, but aside from that and Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, the Wii’s upcoming lineup was looking rather disappointing considering that third-party support had all but vanished and Nintendo itself was clearly moving on. Nintendo fans in Europe, however, had one more notable release to look forward to that would be coming later that summer: Xenoblade Chronicles.
In the wake of considerable doubt that it would ever leave Japan’s shores, the sprawling JRPG from Monolith Soft had been confirmed for Europe in March, with Nintendo of Europe picking up the tab for publishing duties. Though it was rather niche at the time, the universal acclaim, ambitious scope, and developmental talent around Xenoblade elevated it to an almost mythical status in the gaming community, and pairing this perception with the light release schedule for the year ensured that there was a lot of buzz around a game that – perhaps only a year prior – would’ve come and gone with hardly much fanfare.
European fans were understandably excited, but then there were the North American fans. They, too, were pumped by the March news, because certainly it had to mean that Nintendo of America would be making a similar announcement. Nintendo had gone to all the trouble of translating this huge RPG into English, so it stood to reason that the company would want to make back as much on the investment as possible.
And yet Nintendo’s silence was deafening. Any mentions of Xenoblade would be either ignored or met with the ol’ “no comment”. Not only did Nintendo of America seem wholly uninterested in bringing Xenoblade over, but it even went to the extent of actively suppressing awareness of the release, as evidenced by one Nintendo of Europe marketing manager remarking how they wanted to show the game off at E3, but were specifically asked not to by Nintendo of America.
At this point, the fans had a choice: they could either do nothing and allow their window of opportunity to pass, or they could try to do something about the decision that had evidently been made. Enough of them went with the latter option. Challenged by Nintendo’s dismissal of the release and eager to play it for themselves, North American fans banded together in a grassroots effort to get the company’s attention in a movement that came to be called Operation Rainfall.
The movement was centred around three titles, with the other two being The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower, and it was impressively organized. Thousands of fans came out of the woodwork to participate in a series of letter-writing campaigns and online demonstrations – such as getting Xenoblade to the number one spot on Amazon’s multiplatform pre-order list – designed to make it all but impossible for Nintendo to simply ignore the issue any further. This went on for months. Even as the movement gained some substantial attention from gaming media, Nintendo continued to stonewall in the hopes that the fans would let it go. They didn’t. And though it seemed unlikely, Nintendo finally caved about six months after the formation of Operation Rainfall. Xenoblade then came to North America early in 2012 as a limited run, GameStop exclusive, and the rest is history.
And you know what? The fans were right to fight for this game. Even now, Xenoblade Chronicles still stands as one of my favourite RPGs, simply because of how effectively it modernized the JRPG formula while still keeping things relatively traditional. You still had the tired ‘chosen one’ plotline, but the premise of everything taking place on the back of two gigantic, dead titans led to some truly fascinating plot points. The massive open-world environments that it encouraged players to explore and the hundreds of quests contained within gave it an MMO-like feel, but the tedium was drastically cut back with small quality of life features that streamlined progression. The Final Fantasy XII-esque battle system proved to be both challenging and deep, while Shulk’s future sight abilities added some interesting wrinkles to the pacing.
And though the graphics certainly appeared a bit, ahem, simple if you took a closer look, it’s tough to argue that Xenoblade didn’t have quite a few awe-inspiring moments as more of its surreal, wide-open environments were shown off. Truth be told, I wasn’t this awestruck by a game’s world until I first got my hands on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild which, surprise surprise, owes much of its overworld map design to none other than Monolith Soft.
Today, the Xenoblade franchise has essentially become a staple of Nintendo’s ongoing release schedule. Not only did the original Xenoblade Chronicles receive a re-release as a New 3DS exclusive, but it’s also getting an HD remaster that’s due out for the Switch this year. The series is important enough that Nintendo decided to greenlight and release a second game, Xenoblade Chronicles X, on the Wii U in an attempt to turn around the narrative surrounding the then-rapidly declining platform. It’s important enough that Nintendo then decided to release another sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, two years later as the final release from the company for the Switch’s inaugural year. It’s important enough that Sakurai decided to give Shulk a spot on the roster for Super Smash Bros., with the character appearing in both Smash 4 and Ultimate.
What used to be a series that Nintendo thought nobody would be interested in has now become something that’s carved out a passionate and, most importantly, growing fanbase. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 ended up selling 1.7 million copies as of last June, making it the best-selling release so far, and sales of the later released Torna: The Golden Country DLC expansion also exceeded Monolith Soft’s expectations. Sure, Xenoblade may never be posting Mario Kart numbers on the sales charts, but it’s more than proven that it has something to offer that fans all over the globe want more of. Aside from Splatoon, I’d contend that Xenoblade has shown itself to be the next most significant new IP from Nintendo this decade.
The key thing to take away from all of this, however, is that it demonstrates the power of the fan community when they can all agree on something. If Operation Rainfall had never been formed and North American fans never made as much noise as they did, Xenoblade Chronicles likely would’ve become little more than a footnote in Nintendo’s long and storied history. It wouldn’t have been forgotten, but it would always be that weird ‘hidden gem’ that some (European) people would talk fondly of when remembering the Wii. It is because of that initial fan campaign that the original Xenoblade went on to become the influential success that it did, and as a result, any subsequent wins for this series in the years to come will also be a direct result of that dedication. I think it’s critical that we remember this, because it’s easy to fall into the mindset that the voices of the fanbase fall on deaf ears. Believe it or not, they don’t.
I suppose that’s what makes Xenoblade Chronicles (arguably) my favourite game of this past decade. Not only was it an utterly stellar game based purely on its own merits, but the grassroots campaign that sprung up around it was something that I had never seen before and still haven’t seen since. Xenoblade Chronicles was a once-in-a-decade game for many reasons, then, and it has me wondering if such a thing will occur again in these next few years. At the very least, I know I’ll be there on day one when Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition launches later this year, and my hope is that Monolith Soft will continue to nurture this series as the years roll by.