I have asked Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime about a video game called Mother 3 so many times that, in recent years, he would bring it up before I did.
He'd laugh about the question. If we were doing an interview and there were other people in the room, he'd jokingly predict to them that I was going to ask.
Eventually, however, I stopped asking. That was 2009, three years after Mother 3 came out to much fanfare in Japan—on the day I met Kotaku's crazy uncle Tim Rogers in Akihabara, Tokyo, in fact. The game was a big deal in Japan and a sequel to a beloved Super Nintendo game that came out in the U.S. This thing was artwork, a national phenomenon, or so it was pitched. But it never came to America.
For three years, I bugged Fils-Aime about it, but I relented in '09 because it became clear that this was a Nintendo habit: Make a game for one part of the world and keep it from the rest.
Whether that was smart business for Nintendo or not, it didn't seem modern.
The easiest way to aggravate the most ardent Nintendo fan is to mention Fatal Frame 4, Mother 3, Jam with the Band or one of the many other Nintendo-developed or Nintendo-published games that never came out in the United States. Mostly, they came out in Japan, although sometimes they'd hop over to Europe, too, which was the case for the strange Freshly Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland, which I described in 2007 as "the meanest game Nintendo ever made." (It was mean in an interesting way.)
Nintendo makes more games than most video game companies. They also leave the most out of America, and they leave those games out for good. Until today. Today, we have news that a game that Nintendo of America has repeatedly ignored is actually coming to America. Xenoblade Chronicles, celebrated in Japan when it came out in June 2010 (it got a Herman Cainian 9/9/9/9 from top Japanese review outlet Famitsu) and recently scheduled for Europe, seems like it will hit the States in 2012.
In June, Nintendo had indicated multiple times that Xenoblade and two other Japanese Wii game's chances for an American release were dim: "We never say 'never,' but we can confirm that there are no plans to bring these three games to the Americas at this time. Thanks so much for your passion, and for being such great fans!"
Maybe Nintendo has changed. Or maybe they're simply in need of already-developed games they can plug into a 2012 calendar that is bereft of games. Nintendo's main console development efforts are obviously shifting to the Wii U, which is coming out some time in the back half of next year, and all the company has to show for America-announced Wii games is a new Rhythm Heaven. A game like Xenoblade, already translated for Europeans, helps plug the hole. It also mollifies some of the Nintendo fans who sent Nintendo letters and miniature swords to campaign for the game's release.
Let's jump back to 2009, to what seemed like another era. I was working at MTV and I was talking to Reggie from Nintendo about, among other things, Mother 3:
MTV Multiplayer: We used to talk about "Mother 3" [the highly-regarded 2006 Japanese role-playing game that has never been released in America, despite a fervent Internet fan movement]. And then I stopped asking you about it after a while.
Fils-Aime: I'm a big "Mother" fan. I have to set the record straight on this topic, because I have seen all of the hate comments. I'm a big "Mother" fan. Huge "Mother" fan. I would love to see "Mother" localized in our market. In fact, I've talked to [Nintendo president] Mr. Iwata about it because this is a game he has some history with. [pauses] But it is not on our announcement schedule. [laughs]
MTV Multiplayer: How can that be? [laughs]
Fils-Aime: I am a fan of a lot of different products that aren't on our announcement schedule.
MTV Multiplayer: How could there be something you like, but it's not on the announcement schedule? Take me into the psychology of that.
Fils-Aime: Maybe I'm going to burst some people's bubbles, but just because I'm the president of NOA doesn't mean that every game that I love gets published in our territory. We run a business. And so, in order for a title to be published, the development, localization, launch, volume, all needs to make economic sense.
Nintendo's reluctance to release its Japan-only hits in America has made less sense in recent years. The company has cited development costs and localization costs. It's not free to translate a game. Except, of course, when fans do it for you, as they repeatedly have for the games Nintendo won't bring to America.
Rival juggernaut Sony has been releasing Japanese games digitally since September 2010 without even bothering to translate them. They've circumvented the cost of shipping those games around the country by issuing them digitally on their PlayStation Store. Nintendo has slowly increased its output of digital games, but has focused on selling its back catalogue of games that had already come out in America, making an exception for the Japan-only Nintendo 64 game Sin & Punishment, which was made in English from the start and had a Wii sequel on the way to the States.
In an era of digital distribution and Internet-crowd-sourced fan support, many of the old excuses for not releasing an obscure game melt away. Nintendo can argue, of course, that the audiences who care about foreign games might still be too small to be worth the hassle. It'd be naive to ignore the fact that those who can get their hands on a fan translation of, say, Mother 3, probably already have.
The top-selling game in Japan a couple of weeks ago was the debuting, American-made Modern Warfare 3. The American-made Skyrim just became the first non-Japanese game to get a perfect score in Famitsu.
Video gamers have been playing entertainment made halfway around the world for decades. We're already cross-cultural experimentalists. Some of us have long been ready for even the obscure ones, even the ones that, culturally, we were not supposed to care about. Nintendo might finally be waking up to that.