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Great Responsibility: Nintendo's role as a leader in Japanese RPG development


This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.

It's always Nintendo, isn't it? When E3 rolls around, they're the ones who always seem to have me waiting on pins and needles for an RPG announcement, whether it's Dragon Quest, Xenoblade Chronicles, or in this year's case, Fire Emblem. Only Nintendo seems to be able to do this to me anymore. More than ever, it's Nintendo of America that holds the keys to the most compelling RPGs on the market today.

There are exceptions, of course. I really enjoyed what I played of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (it looks like the next Dragon Quest VIII to me), and I would love it if Inazuma Eleven were brought over to North America. Square Enix, for all the attention they have been lauding on shooters of late, is another major player. Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts number among the few franchises that still have the power to turn heads at home and abroad.

But Nintendo's influence runs much deeper, to the point that they can have an impact on games that they aren't working on directly. Consider, for example, the Nintendo 3DS is rapidly becoming the de facto platform of choice for JRPG development. The shift began when Capcom threw in their lot with Monster Hunter 4, and it's continued apace ever since. That Shin Megami Tensei 4 – a very rare numbered sequel in the long-running series – will be released on the Nintendo 3DS speaks volumes on how Atlus feels about the platform's long-term prospects.

In recent years, Nintendo has also been something of a patron saint for Japanese RPG developers. It was Nintendo that published The Last Story in Japan, and Nintendo again that picked up Dragon Quest IX for a North American release. Their stable of in-house developers include the likes of Intelligent Systems (Fire Emblem) and Monolith Soft (Xenosaga, Xenoblade Chronicles); and they have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Game Freak, home to the most popular RPG this side of World of WarCraft in Pokémon.

Critics complain about Nintendo's fondness for franchises, but they have done as much as anyone to infuse the genre with fresh blood with their support of studios like Mistwalker. Only Level-5, home of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and numerous other fresh IPs, has contributed as much. And with the Wii U on the way and the Nintendo 3DS continuing to grow, there's reason to believe that trend will continue.

If I have any reason to worry, it's because Nintendo has become increasingly obstinate about sharing the fruits of their labor with the American market. Following E3, a knowledgeable source commented that Fire Emblem's success in Japan meant that Nintendo "couldn't ignore it." That seems to be more and more the case with NoA these days, what with Xenoblade Chronicles only being released at the last minute, and Pandora's Tower continuing to be missing in action. That they should be so supportive of Dragon Quest and so obstinate about their own games seems a little strange to me. It's not as if the Wii is exactly bursting with games.

Their reticence is also counter-productive in that they have a real opportunity to tap into a passionate, nerdy bunch of gamers who will quickly rally around any platform holder who is willing to take care of them. It's a group of fans who have felt abused and abandoned by the industry at large; and as a result, have a great deal of pent-up frustration. To harness that energy is to gain a hardcore following that will do anything to promote your brand. To antagonize them, as we learned during Operation Rainfall, is to kick the proverbial hornet's nest.

For better or worse, Nintendo of America is in this position because of the decisions made by their counterparts in Japan. With their support of JRPG developers large and small, the company at large has willingly picked up the mantle and put themselves at the forefront of a genre. And so long as Square Enix, Sega and, to a lesser extent, Namco Bandai remain content to rest on previous achievements, the fans will continue to look to Nintendo to lead the way.

Such responsbility is only a burden if Nintendo chooses to see it as such. I prefer to see it as an opportunity to distinguish a pair of new consoles in the face of an increasingly homogenized industry. And if Nintendo has learned anything in the past six years, it's that there's virtue in being different.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

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