The Reasons So Many Japanese RPGs Never Make It To The United States

Feeling screwed? If you're an American fan of Japanese games, you certainly should be. Publishers in the East have not treated us very well over the past few decades. They've given us rushed and incomplete localizations. Often they don't send us North American ports at all.

Sometimes, it feels like Japanese game makers just don't want us to play their games.

From Nintendo's Mother 3 to Sega's Valkyria Chronicles 3 to countless ports and remakes on the PlayStation Network and other platforms, there are a whole lot of great Japanese role-playing games that most U.S. fans have never even had the chance to play. But Victor Ireland wants to change that.

You might not be familiar with Ireland or his former company, Working Designs, but if you played Japanese role-playing games during the PlayStation era, you probably played something they made. Ireland was responsible for the localization of Alundra, Vanguard Bandits, and the wonderful Lunar series, among many more.

Working Designs is long gone, but Ireland is still trying to translate and port over as many Japanese role-playing games as he can. The first step, he told me, is printing a deluxe physical copy of the PSP dungeon-crawler Class of Heroes 2. He partnered with publisher MonkeyPaw Games to launch a Kickstarter for the physical copy of the game in hopes of showing Japanese publishers that crowdfunding is a viable way to stir up fans and get Americans interested in their products. And he says that if Class of Heroes 2 meets its $500,000 goal, it will open the doors for future localization projects.

"Once it's a known quality, it becomes easier," Ireland said in a phone interview. "If we do [succeed], we can go back to Japanese publishers, show them that we funded it, and get them excited about the whole model."

"We're doing what's possible rather than what's wished for."

So why start with a game like Class of Heroes 2? This is hardly the dream RPG that American fans have been craving. It doesn't have the clout of a Lunar or a Suikoden. And even Ireland admits that its predecessor was not very good (though he says the second game is far superior).

"We're doing what's possible rather than what's wished for," he said. Niche games and licenses might have done well in America over the past few months, but to Japanese publishers, Kickstarter is an unproven commodity. And Ireland says he had a great deal of difficulty getting people on board. Japanese developers Acquire and Zero Div were willing to participate, so he took them up.

Ireland wouldn't tell me what games he hopes to bring over next, for fear of ruining business deals that are not yet finalized. But there are quite a few big hitters in Japan that haven't made it here. In addition to the aforementioned Valkyria Chronicles 3, we've missed out on PSP role-playing games like Final Fantasy Type-0, the new Suikoden, Shining Hearts, and many others.

So why have so many RPGs on the PSP never made it here?

"I think it's a combination of the hardware and retail," Ireland said. "It's a combination of existing sales for stuff that's already out and retailer enthusiasm for stocking the product."

For one, Sony's first handheld has not done nearly as well in North America as it has in Japan. And with the release of its successor, the Vita, earlier this year, the PSP is all but obsolete in the United States.

And "Best Buy is not just gonna step up and buy 20,000 copies" of a game like Class of Heroes 2, he said. Nor have those retailers shown interest in some of the other niche PSP games out there.

Japanese publishers don't like taking risks, Ireland says. Even when a North American publisher promises to take on a game's financial burden, a publisher is afraid of losing face in the result of a failure or poor performance.

At this point, the obvious solution might be to localize RPGs and then bring them over to the U.S. on a digital platform like Steam or the PlayStation Network. Some Japanese developers, like Falcom, have dipped their toes in the water of digital distribution. But others aren't as interested.

"The reality of the market is that publishers are skeptical," Ireland said. So he wants to show them numbers—not just words.

I don't think Class of Heroes 2 will meet its $500,000 goal, and that's a real shame. Not because Class of Heroes 2 is a particularly great game, but because it could open up unprecedented possibilities for Japanese game localization in the future.

So all we can hope is that, even if Class of Heroes 2 doesn't take off, Japanese publishers start looking at Kickstarter's success in the West and turning to people like Ireland to help bring their games to a new audience. I think there are many JRPG fans here in North America. Japan just has to find them.

This Week in JRPG News

* Bravely Default: Flying Fairy might be one of the best-looking titles on the 3DS, ridiculous title and all. Still no word on a U.S. release, but I have faith in Square Enix...

* ...because they're giving us Theathrythm Final Fantasy, another ridiculously titled game for the 3DS. that looks fantastic.

* Tales of Graces F makes a responsible parent out of Kotaku's Mike Fahey. Isn't this a great story?

What To Play This Weekend

Something new: Chaos Rings II, the turn-based RPG that hit iOS this week. It's a bit expensive and I haven't played it yet, but I'll trust Fahey, who says it's worth the $17/$20 Square Enix wants.

Something old: Persona 3 Portable, which Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton says is the "best game ever yo." (Note: Not his actual words.) Also, it's now $20. Update: Hamilton reports that he "is in full on, hearts on fire love" with Persona 3.

Your Questions Answered

Every week, I post several reader questions about JRPGs. Want to see your question featured in an edition of Random Encounters? Send it to me: jason@kotaku.com

Jorge writes:

Without adding nostalgia into the mix...do you really, honestly and objectively (with all your JRPG experience) think modern JRPGs have gone downhill? If yes, why? If no, then why is the media making it look like so? To favor Western developers?

No. I just think many writers and critics don't have the time, energy, patience, or interest required for many JRPGs. And very few of them want to try.

That's okay, of course. Every reviewer is entitled to his or her niche. But there are so many excellent modern JRPGs out there—games like Xenoblade, Radiant Historia, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, and so many more—that it's hard not to scoff when people throw around generalizations like "JRPGs are dead."

(Final Fantasy, on the other hand, is stuck on life support.)

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.