Xenoblade's North American Release A Victory For Fans And The Medium Both

Gamasutra's Christian Nutt discusses why the North American release of the outstanding Xenoblade Chronicles means more than you might think.
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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