Today marks the release of a demo for Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on the Playstation Network. The PS3 exclusive is an HD remake of sorts of the same game on the Nintendo DS, released only in Japan at the end of 2010. If you have seen Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies or Princess Mononoke, you will immediately recognize the quality of animation and expressive faces on the characters in this game as a Studio Ghibli creation. I have been ecstatically waiting for this game ever since it was announced as getting a release in the West thanks to Namco Bandai.
Of course, I am in an increasingly small minority who is eagerly anticipating a game like this. Japanese RPGs have gone from must-haves for game players back to a small niche that some only remember fondly from previous generations of consoles. This can be attributed to a lot of factors which we’re going to look at here. Very few genres can evoke the kind of magical emotion that a massive and sprawling RPG is capable of, and Ni no Kuni looks to be one of them. Whether or not the general public will be open to this idea is the question on my mind.
Whatever your primary taste in gaming is, you cannot look at that footage and say that Studio Ghibli does not know how to craft the most beautiful hand-drawn animation in the world. While just about every single studio on the planet has abandoned traditional looks like this and gone in the direction of 3D computer graphics, Ghibli not only has stuck to their roots but thrived thanks to great storytelling. While Disney made one attempt at going back in time and failed (2009’s The Princess and the Frog “only” grossed $101 million in America), Spirited Away became the only foreign release to win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars and earned over $200 million before even seeing a release in the United States.
That is the name value that Ghibli brings with them to Ni No Kuni, a Japanese RPG in a United States that has all but shunned just about any role playing title to come from the east for years. As much as I will always love the genre, I will freely and happily admit that it’s a niche interest at best. Level-5 has not been any sort of slouch in pumping out quality games for years; they developed an early Playstation 2 title by the name of Dark Cloud and its sequel. They have made a name for themselves with the Professor Layton series on the Nintendo DS. Dark Cloud sold well because it was the closest to a Legend of Zelda game that a Sony system was going to have. Unfortunately, the release of the PS2 also began the downward trend in not just popularity but expectations of what a Japanese RPG would bring to United States players.
The image above can trigger flashbacks for a number of generations of game players. For some, it may take you back to the 16-bit era, when the Super Nintendo housed a lineup of RPGs that made any other developer’s attempts look pitiful by comparison. Squaresoft alone was responsible for Final Fantasy II and III (now known as IV and VI since we have access to the entire series), two games that could provide you with weeks or even months of entertainment alone. They didn’t stop there. In about five years, Square also made Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG and Secret of Evermore. They also found time to localize the first Breath of Fire game.
By the time I became aware of most of these games, I was already opening up a Playstation and marveling at playing games on a CD-ROM. It was on Sony’s new system that the Final Fantasy series found not just a new home but an incredibly wider fan base thanks to Final Fantasy VII. To this day, no other entry in the series remains as controversial and hotly debated among fans. For me, it was my entry to the series and RPGs in general, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. At the same time, many fans who had remained loyal to the series suddenly lashed out at Square for bringing it into the world of 3D and changing the setting to something more “modern.” I understand this argument to a point, but looking back, they are the same ones who bitch about the direction Final Fantasy XIII took. I’ll get to that later.
With Final Fantasy VII becoming a bestseller the likes of which Square had never seen, they were off to the races with publishing RPGs in America. Unlike what you would expect with a trend such as this, almost all of them were classics. Xenogears, Brave Fencer Musashi, Parasite Eve, SaGa Frontier, Chrono Cross and Legend of Mana were released in what can truly be described as the golden age of role playing. Many give this label to the SNES, but I can’t look at the combined quality and quantity of games on the PSOne and not consider it to be the pinnacle.
We also finally received Final Fantasy compilations with redone translations and new animations, which were merely an added bonus to supplement Final Fantasy VIII and IX, the latter of which remains my favorite entry on the Playstation. Other companies got on the success of the genre, with Enix releasing Dragon Quest VII, Namco contributing Tales of Destiny and Sony putting out Legend of Dragoon. By the time Final Fantasy X was released on the Playstation 2, it looked like the genre was unstoppable. FFX became so successful and beloved that it was the first Final Fantasy to warrant a direct sequel and continuation of its storyline.
Change was looming, however.
A big part of the rise of Western influence in RPGs can be attributed to Bethesda and Morrowind, the third entry in the Elder Scrolls series and the first to pop up on home consoles. Thanks to the similarity in the nature of PC and Xbox hardware, porting the game to Microsoft’s first system was relatively simple. While the graphics may not have been up to par and the nature of controlling such a game felt different on a controller versus a mouse and keyboard, it wasn’t just the release of Morrowind on the Xbox that was ushering in a new wave of role playing. Online, massively multiplayer games were starting to infringe upon the single player experience, and people migrated to the freedom of exploration versus the cramped campaigns of old. Everquest started it, Star Wars Galaxies contributed and World of Warcraft blew it all up. Meanwhile, Bioware, known mostly for dungeon crawlers on the PC, gave us Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
This all happened around the same time that a massive merger between Square and Enix was completed. The days of niche releases of Japanese RPGs were over. In the last several years, we have seen more releases, direct sequels and side stories to Final Fantasy games than could have ever been imagined by even the most desperate fan fiction writers. In the four years between the release of Final Fantasy XII and XIII, no less than 15 games bearing the “Final Fantasy” moniker were put out in the United States. It’s no wonder that so many people turned up their noses at FFXIII, and despite my love for it, I have yet to play its direct sequel.
Since this generation’s inception of consoles, published Japanese RPGs are a rare occurrence. A few scattered Tales games have appeared on the PS3 and Xbox 360. Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu got to work together again on Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, both exclusive to Microsoft. Hyperdimension Neptunia, an RPG that personifies the console war in the form of giant-breasted young girls, somehow made its way to the PS3 in North America. The Nintendo Wii’s lineup of JRPGs can be counted on one hand. On the other hand, the release of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (which is essentially Grand Theft Auto with a fantasy setting) was treated the same as another Call of Duty, shipping 7 million copies in one week.
Ni no Kuni is going to be released on January 22. The Wii U is already on the market, technically beginning the next generation of video game consoles. The future of gaming is consistently being debated and talked about in forums, comment sections and blogs. There will always be a place for a traditional video game with a controller in your hand, and Level-5 seems to get this. Just like Studio Ghibli has never opted for the use of 3D in their movies, Ni no Kuni is sticking to what captured imaginations in the first place.
Namco Bandai is well aware of this, and if there is one company we can expect co continue supporting Japanese RPGs, it would be the makers of the Tales series. They will also be publishing the latest entry, Tales of Xillia, on the PS3 in 2013. Square-Enix, once the undisputed kings of role playing, will be attempting to make amends with their retooled version of Final Fantasy XIV. Don’t be surprised if Ni no Kuni wins several awards for giving a lot of people what they may not have expected: an experience to remember, more than just a numbered entry.