When we think of most Japanese role-playing games that come out today, austere affairs with limited budgets generally come to mind. Nintendo apparently wants to change that.
Thursday’s long-awaited Nintendo Direct came as a surprise to many, as the bulk of the show was spent on the multitude of JRPGs in their early 2016 lineup, discussing Xenoblade Chronicles X, Hyrule Warriors: Legends, Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam, the three Fire Emblem Fates games, Final Fantasy Explorers, and two highly anticipated Dragon Quest remakes. That’s more RPG content at once than Nintendo’s ever had since the Super Nintendo era. Previously, it’s been shy to support the genre quite to this degree because of its perceived waning popularity, so this about-face is something of a surprise.
Perhaps the fan outcry through Operation Rainfall for then-unreleased Wii RPGs like Xenoblade Chronicles has something to do with it. Its successor, Xenoblade Chronicles X, was announced for the West not that long after it was first revealed. Blockbuster JRPGs are something of a rarity right now, with only Final Fantasy still asserting itself as a contender, so Nintendo has a big opportunity to fill a void here. Xenoblade Chronicles X is cast as a big, beautiful game that can hang with the Dragon Ages and Fallouts as an event-worthy console RPG. Riffing off of the open world of its fantastic predecessor, it pushes its scope even further, integrating mech battles into the already engrossing MMO-inspired battle system. And the graphics look stupendous, especially given the vast amount of landmass developer Monolith Soft have packed into it. You can see some designs in Xenoblade Chronicles X that parallel big trends in Western blockbusters, like its open world and MMO-inspired combat. It’s clear Nintendo is hoping to appeal to the overlap in audiences between JRPGs and open world games, though it remains to be seen how the Wii U’s smaller install base hampers its sales potential.
It’s telling that Nintendo has been putting forward Xenoblade Chronicles X as the lead of its RPG lineup, as it’s emblematic of its slate of 3DS selections as well. Where publishers scaled back on JRPG budgets and forced developers to make some design compromises, Nintendo wants to bring about an alternate dimension where where that just isn’t the case, where the JRPGs are just as flashy and loud as the bigger budget fare. What’s more, they’re achieving it with mostly handheld releases. Games like Fire Emblem Fates and Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam look and sound amazing with seemingly nothing compromised. It’s also telling that Square Enix games feature heavily in this new world order given that they basically started the flashy RPG trend.
One other factor possibly causing this tidal wave of RPGs is a new commitment listening to the audience. After Operation Rainfall succeeded and Fire Emblem: Awakening became a huge hit, it was clear that the old conventional wisdom that JRPGs were on their way out wasn’t quite as true as they thought. We were always going to get Mario and Zelda games, but it’s possible that the new emphasis on presentation seen in Fire Emblem Fates is based on a new strategy to tap into an underserved audience. So, too, is the three Square Enix games’ prominent appearance in the show, all highly requested from fans — especially Dragon Quest VII, which Western fans have wanted for years.
Now it’s not a sure thing that this aggressive strategy will pay off. After all, high production values aren’t necessarily what will magically attract bigger audiences. What is striking is that the only two-lower budget RPGs featured were Project X Zone and Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon. Nintendo is calling back an audience it abandoned long ago, and it’s doing it in the loudest, brashest way possible. While they’ve been slowly getting back on the RPG wagon in the past few years, this Nintendo Direct feels like a proper coming out party for their new commitment to RPGs, announcing it using big, splashy-looking games that resound to everyone that, at least for Nintendo, the genre will not be confined to a dusty corner of the industry.
Truthfully, you’ll see a bit of a spike in Wii U sales thanks to Xenoblade Chronicles X, but the big win here is in the density of its 3DS lineup, throwing so many RPGs at the world that we can’t ignore it. 2016 is going to be the year many an RPG fan finally invests in the 3DS.