When I think about all the role-playing games released in Japan that never make their way to U.S. shores, I like to picture a snarling dragon sitting atop a pile of game cartridges, spitting fire at anyone who comes within breathing distance.
Hey Japan. Time to stop hoarding your gold.
This is not a new phenomenon, of course. American RPG fans will undoubtedly remember all the games we missed in the 90s: Terranigma, Final Fantasy V, Live A Live, and many more. But it's a little nutty that this localization barrier still exists today. If you don't speak Japanese, there's no way to legally play games like Valkyria Chronicles 3, Suikoden PSP, and of course, the infamous Mother 3.
It's too bad. When a Japanese developer announces a new game, my first reaction is not "Awesome!" but "Shit, we're never going to get that, are we?" When Atlus announced yesterday that dungeon crawler Etrian Odyssey IV is coming here next year, I was more relieved than anything. It had been way too long. I was starting to worry.
If you're wondering why Japanese game publishers and developers have been so reluctant to localize their RPGs, the answer is easy. They think it's too much of a risk. They look at games that have failed to take off in the U.S.—RPGs like Brave Story and Half-Minute Hero and quite a few others—and decide it's not worth the time, money, and shame involved in localizing their games for an audience that doesn't seem to want them.
But here's the thing: we do still want JRPGs. There are still plenty of fans who are happy to spend money on great, high-quality games. Don't believe me? Let's look at two big examples.
A few weeks ago, when I interviewed Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime about the Wii U, I managed to sneak in a couple of questions about Xenoblade, one of the Wii's biggest RPGs. Released in Japan during 2010, then in Europe a year later, Xenoblade was not confirmed for U.S. localization until December 2011, months after many diehard fans had already imported or pirated it.
So what took so long?
"We needed to make sure that there was really an opportunity for it," Fils-Aime said. "We wanted to see how it would sell in Europe, and based on the performance in Europe, we would look to bring it here to the U.S. It did well in Europe; we decided to bring it in here. We took a very smart approach and we sold it ourselves online in terms of physical goods as well as a focus on GameStop as a retailer, and it was a very good effort for us."
"How'd it sell?" I asked.
"Quite well," he said.
I had already gone over my allotted interview time, so I didn't get a chance to prod him for more numbers, but that "quite well" could mean just about anything, depending on Nintendo's expectations. Could mean 200,000 copies sold; could mean 20,000. (Probably closer to the latter.)
The important takeaway here is that gamers were willing to dish out money for a high-quality, critically-acclaimed JRPGs. Didn't matter that it was in standard definition. Didn't matter that a ton of its prospective audience had already bought the European version. RPG fans were hungry for good games, and they proved it with their wallets.
And what of The Last Story, that other big JRPG that came out for the Wii this year? I asked publisher XSEED's Jessica Chavez (who you may remember from her excellent Kotaku Q&A a couple of months ago) how it performed.
"The Last Story has definitely gotten the support of the fans," she told me. "It's doing really well, and we hope word of the game's quality/sexy packaging will continue to entice more to check it out."
Again, no specifics, but my point still stands: U.S. gamers are willing to spend their money on excellent Japanese role-playing games, but with many of them, we're not even getting the chance. Granted, publishers like XSEED, Aksys, Level-5, and Atlus are doing a commendable job of localizing and releasing their Japanese games in the United States. It's the bigger guys—the Squares, the Konamis, the Segas—who need to stop hoarding and mistreating their RPGs.
While chatting with Nintendo's Fils-Aime, I also asked about the next RPG from Monolith Soft, the one they're making for Wii U. Should we expect that same Xenoblade rollercoaster ride all over again?
Reggie Fils-Aime: "The way we look at the opportunity is, given a level of marketing support, how much are we gonna sell and is it gonna be a profitable venture?"
"We know that they're working on a game," he said. "I personally haven't seen it, but I know there's a lot of excitement in Japan and Kyoto about what they're working on, so I look forward to seeing it. In the end, if it's a game that we decide to publish from... what would be a second-party standpoint, certainly we'd love to bring it here to the US.
"The way we look at the opportunity is, given a level of marketing support, how much are we gonna sell and is it gonna be a profitable venture?"
Fair enough. Presumably that's why Square Enix hasn't released Final Fantasy Type-0 in the U.S. yet; they know the Final Fantasy brand could move copies, but the PSP is dead, and not a lot of people are buying Vitas. Maybe they're waiting to see how a classic role-playing game like Bravely Default: Flying Fairy will do in Japan before they commit to bringing it here. Maybe they think nobody here will care about Slime MoriMori Dragon Quest 3.
That's all well and good. I don't expect any gaming company to operate in a way that won't make it money. But there's an audience for great Japanese RPGs, and the success of games like Xenoblade and The Last Story prove that. Sure, RPGs not named Final Fantasy might not move more than forty or fifty thousand copies without some sort of marketing budget, but a game can still be profitable on that scale. Look at the success of XSEED, of Aksys, of Monkeypaw Games.
And hey, even if a publisher doesn't make money off the Western release of a given game, sometimes building up fan loyalty can be just as beneficial. By localizing a niche RPG—like, say, Mother 3—a company like Nintendo could have turned a cadre of angry fans into some of its biggest supporters. We feel connections to the guys like Atlus and XSEED not only because they talk to us like human beings, but because they rarely hold games back. This summer, Atlus released two niche RPGs on the dying PSP—Gungnir and Growlanser Wayfarer of Time. Both games flew straight under most peoples' radars, but the hardcore Growlanser fans will never stop appreciating Atlus for giving them the opportunity to play that game.
It's depressing that localization has become such a big issue for RPG fans. Fifteen years ago, I never could have imagined that I'd miss out on so many RPGs just because I don't speak Japanese. So listen up, you lovely publishers. We're here, we want to play good games, and we're willing to give you money for them. We just need a chance.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.