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 Xenoblade 's North American Release A Victory For Fans And The Medium Both
Xenoblade's North American Release A Victory For Fans And The Medium Both
December 2, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

December 2, 2011 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

I got something of a karmic pardon this morning. Nintendo announced the North American release of Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii. Released in Europe in August to incredible acclaim -- it earned a 92 Metacritic -- it was best known in the U.S. for being the reason that many broke down and hacked their Wiis to play import games (myself included.)

At the time of its release, I fully intended to write an editorial about why it was a crying shame that the company wouldn't put the game out here. In my mind, the editorial was going to be an effective mixture of rabble rousing and public shaming, and it really would have helped this game make it out in the Americas.

All I really managed were some snarky tweets before I got busy with other things. So this morning I breathed a sigh of relief at the news -- not just for gamers' sake, but also my own.

It's a good thing Nintendo of America came to its senses and decided to release the game outside of Japan and Europe. It's really a very good game, for one thing.

It's the kind of game that fills a conspicuous hole in the generation: the revolutionary Japanese RPG that answers the complaints of audiences tired of what's wrong with the genre. This is something that other big names -- Microsoft (Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey), Square Enix (Final Fantasy XIII), Sony (White Knight Chronicles) -- have thus far completely failed to do.

This is the kind of game that is representative of something beyond itself. Developed by Monolith Soft, the team behind the Xenosaga series -- both a big hope and, ultimately, an unrealized ambition for the genre in the last generation -- it builds on the promising, uncompleted work started by 2006's Final Fantasy XII to modernize a genre that's doggedly resisted almost all attempts at evolution.

Xenoblade Chronicles is fast-paced, user-friendly, free, open, and respectful of its audience's time -- all of the things that JRPGs are typically accused of not being, in other words. But it doesn't lose the essence of the genre all the same, delivering the engaging melodrama, epic sweep, and charm that Japanese games are best known for. It's a beautiful blend. This is a game that deserves to be played, and by more than just the genre's die-hard fans.

I ferried a copy of the European release of the game to a friend at Tokyo Game Show -- which took place a couple of weeks after the European release of the game. Over beers and food that week, conversation kept turning to whether or not the game would ever make it to North America, and the consensus was that it didn't stand a chance.

The argument went like this: "What's NOA's incentive? They won't really make any money on it." The strongest counterargument -- "They need to release something between the launch of Skyward Sword and the Wii U!" -- really isn't all that strong. NOA has to go to the expense to get the game tweaked (it's not like the European version, though fully English-localized, can completely skip certification, testing, editing, marketing, packaging design, and other integral parts of the publishing process) and that costs money, making this a (potentially) losing situation for the company, from a business perspective.

Nintendo of America has been burned by publishing late-in-the-generation RPGs before (anybody remember Baten Kaitos Origins?) and continually makes face-slappingly bad decisions about which games in the genre to release (the soporific Magical Starsign and Glory of Heracles) and which to ignore (Soma Bringer, from the same developer as Xenoblade, and the genre essential Mother 3.)

The company also has a long history of completely ignoring fully-localized European releases: Freshly-Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland, Doshin the Giant, Inazuma Eleven, and Disaster: Day of Crisis all hit the territory without a peep from NOA.

Hell, somebody -- I forget who -- now owes Sony's Shane Bettenhausen a steak dinner, in fact. A gentlemen's bet was made in Tokyo: Nintendo of America will never release Xenoblade Chronicles in the U.S. I thought Shane would be paying out, frankly.

I don't know, in the end, why Nintendo did this. There are two good reasons for it to have done so, however. One is building goodwill with its hardcore fan base. For all that the company has vastly expanded its audience with casual gamers thanks to the DS and Wii, the average consumer can be fickle.

Over the years, as its fortunes have waxed and waned, the company has endured with the help of a core audience that simply adores it. These fans are the kind of people who run out to buy 500,000 copies of Skyward Sword on its release to make sure they get the gold Wii MotionPlus controller. The kind that stick with Nintendo despite the beating it's taking in the mainstream press over the sales and design of the 3DS. The Ambassador Program proved the company has some humility, and so does this move.

Moreover, like I already said, this game proves something. Yes, video games are a business, and one at which Nintendo lately often excels. At the scale at which it moves product -- Mario games selling in the tens of millions -- the sales potential for Xenoblade Chronicles is comically low. But the company -- all companies -- has a responsibility to publish works which enrich the medium.

Xenoblade Chronicles proves that there's life left in a genre that has become synonymous with stagnation and conservatism. It is a damn fine game, and there are frankly still too few of those being published relative to what's out there. And certainly, in 2012, very few of them will be published on the Wii. It is a game where a highly motivated developer stuck a stake in the ground and said "I want to transform the way this kind of game is made" and did it. How can a game like that not be made available to the broadest audience possible? It is, to my mind, an ethical question as much as it is a business one.

Now, I'm left with only one question for Nintendo of America. What are your plans for Hironobu Sakaguchi's The Last Story?

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Simon Ludgate
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It's not a victory for PC fans until there's a PC port! C'mon PC port!

Christian Nutt
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It's a first party Nintendo game developed by an owned studio. You can always buy it and play it on Dolphin (emulation.)

Ardney Carter
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PC fans can always get the console. It's ridiculously cheap compared to the cost of keeping a gaming PC rig on the cutting edge.

Simon Ludgate
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@Christian, Dolphin, eh? I'll look into that, I've had good experiences re-playing my PS2 collection emulated and I'd bet the game would look a lot nicer fully anti-aliased at 1080p than the 480p I'm given to understand is the Wii's maximum. Plus then it would give me a reason to buy the Wii Fire Emblem game; played the GC version to death on my friend's borrowed Cube :) Do you know if Wii discs can be popped in and played? I thought there was some kind of funky format thing going on.

@Ardney, it doesn't make sense, to me at least, to buy a whole console for one or two games. Plus I already have the PC, so the cost to continue with a PC is zero.

Christian Nutt
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I know you can play GameCube games on Dolphin, but I don't know the mechanism for dealing with the discs, no. I haven't experimented! A lot of people suggested Dolphin for me as a way to play Xenoblade, but I went with hacking my Wii as all I have is a Macbook.

Matthew Fioravante
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I've played the entire game on dolphin. It runs just fine. Go play it, its the best RPG to come out in modern times.

Tony Chu
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Really glad to see this game make it over here. I'll be picking up a copy for sure. I was going to get around to importing it, but I can pick up the US version in April now.

Hopefully there'll be enough of us to send a message that these kinds of games can do alright here. I don't actually think there are... but I hope the "look at what you can't have!" notoriety Xenoblade gained will convince more people to try it.

Jeremy Reaban
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Still, I've never understood how games like this could be a loss for a company like Nintendo (or Sony or whoever).

I mean, there's a small host of companies that stay in business localizing RPGs that have less appeal/quality. NISA/Aksys/Atlus/Xseed.

Does every game a big company publishes need to sell millions? Isn't simply making money enough? That seems to be the problem with the industry, there is very little middle ground these days - it's either blockbusters or indie stuff that could have been done on a Colecovision

Christian Nutt
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@Jeremy, Well, a big problem is overhead. These companies have a huge overhead, so putting people to work on a game that won't sell much has a big impact -- small companies like Atlus etc have a VERY low overhead and are extremely aggressive about saving costs wherever they can, so they can do it much cheaper... what they can't do, of course, is support a release like New Super Mario Bros that has a huge marketing campaign, sells millions of units, etc.

Andrew Esswein
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After drinking a bottle of wine, i found this petty entertaining reading this out loud to a country accent.

I didn't learn anything about this game itself, it was just a crying shame that this post was a rabble rousing.. I wanted to know more about the game. Yeah I too am trying to make a game in Asia. Sorry America, but you guys think an idea is worth a dime a dozen. That's why I'm keeping this one locked away in a chest untill I find the right team of adventurers.

Actually it's the type of game you would wanna play too. If you play games that is. If your not paid to fuss about new releases from competing companies

Kris Graft
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Maybe you shouldn't post on the internet after drinking, going forward. ;)

Bryson Whiteman
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Too late for me since I imported it the week it was released in the UK, although I'm glad NOA has somehow come to its senses.

Xenoblade is a friggin' awesome game, by the way. More people will get to experience it now, and that's a good thing.

wes bogdan
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Honestly i can't understand what took so long as Wii is home to the most shovelware on any system EVER the system should get as many quality games to offset the 95-98% crap that has been dumped over the years i just hope Wii U doesn't follow Wii in this regard.

Nintendo's quality control people need to do a much better job when gems get overlooked and deku sports is on shelves @ all.

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It simple really. They didn't want it to compete with Zelda sales.

Per Micael Nyberg
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Christian, thank you for writing this piece.

Monolith Soft is an intriguing studio that deserves more attention and Xenoblade in particular is one of their finest moments so far. For all the negative remarks that have been made about the state of the Japanese game industry of late this game proves (in spades) that there is plenty of bite left in the old wolf. Sure, the natural embrace of commercial game engines and middle-wares in the west and the lack thereof here in Japan has taken it's toll this generation. But working here I can say things are changing. Fast. Things are certainly looking up with the horizon immensely widen by social game platforms, smartphones and tablets next to handhelds and a new generation of consoles around the corner. Add the inevitable smart-TV's to that mix and future is very very shiny.

Nintendo did well by acquiring Monolith Soft. They should let them continue making splendid games like this and Nintendo should concentrate on finding a successful marketing formula for them. I sincerity hope that this game does as well as it ever can when released in the US.

Daniel Martinez
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Gotta hand it to Monolith...

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Nintendo of America has been burned by publishing late-in-the-generation RPGs before (anybody remember Baten Kaitos Origins?

I have to agree about this (Ironic it 's the same company that created this game) but I still crunch through Origins on my Wii from time to time (Have not finished it yet but I did finish the first one.) I now will have Skyward Swords (Christmas Present) to play over the holidays into next year and then this game in April into the summer. Hopefully the Wii U will be backwards compatible with the Wii and maybe also provide a bit of upscale to some of the old games.