I read this piece on Game Informer tonight. It made me cross. If you can’t be bothered to read it yourself, the gist of the piece is that Xenoblade Chronicles, one of the best games of the generation (in my humble opinion, anyway) “deserved better than what [Nintendo] forced [it] to be.”
To be fair to the author Chris “Warcraft” Kluwe, he does commend the game’s strengths: its excellent world, its inventive, creative ideas; even going so far as to say that the game had the potential to be “this generation’s Final Fantasy VII“. But to say that the Wii “laughs at [developer MonolithSoft’s] dreams… and flushes them down the toilet of GameCube-era hardware Nintendo likes to call cutting edge” is a spectacularly blinkered viewpoint.
The fact is, it’s unlikely that Xenoblade Chronicles (and its spiritual successors The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower) would ever have been released had it not been for the Wii. The Wii’s lower demands in terms of asset production means that a sprawling, ambitious game such as Xenoblade Chronicles can be produced on a fraction of the budget of an HD title. Even then, though, MonolithSoft had to cut corners; the “gasping fish mouths bobbing up and down through beautifully crafted dialogue” that Kluwe refers to are a symptom of this.
The sad fact is that Japanese role-playing games are not the unstoppable juggernaut they once were. Where once they were a system seller, now they are a niche interest at best. The “mainstream” has shifted well and truly to the West; even Square Enix’s venerable Final Fantasy series is seen as little more than a particularly well-polished curio these days. Big-budget role-playing titles for HD consoles such as Lost Odyssey and, to a lesser extent, titles like Nier (aside: which I’m currently playing and is awesome) struggle to find a substantial audience (compared to “triple-A” titles, anyway) and, by extension, the ability to recoup the enormous spend necessary to craft a beautiful world in high definition and 5.1 surround sound. So developers and publishers simply aren’t taking the risk because it’s, well, too risky.
But the Wii gives them a platform to make these titles without having to spend as much money and time on the creation of assets. It’s not a case of Nintendo “shackling an obviously talented team like MonolithSoft to the ball and chain of the Wii because [they] want to sell waggle” (for just one of many things wrong with that statement, Xenoblade Chronicles features no waggle whatsoever). It’s a case of Nintendo giving talented teams the opportunity to do what they do best and then release them to a market of enthusiasts who are still clamouring for these titles. Yes, the Wii has a lot of waggle-based crap. But it also has an impressive library of Great Games That Absolutely Fucking No-One Has Ever Heard Of Ever Because They’re A Bit Weird Or Nichey And Have 480p Visuals.
Just because JRPGs don’t sell well compared to titles like Call of Duty and Mass Effect doesn’t mean that no-one wants to play them any more. In fact, the audience for the genre is probably actually the same size that it’s ever been; the difference is that the Call of Duty players have sprung up around them and outnumber them considerably. Given the simple choice between making something that will make fans happy and something that will make a metric fuck-ton of money, the vast majority of publishers will take the latter option. That’s simply “good business”, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all — developers gotta eat, after all. But to deride Nintendo for providing a platform eminently suited to developers who actively want to create niche titles for console — games which often provoke intense passion among their fans (as you can probably tell from this post) — is simply ridiculous.
It’s an age-old adage in the games industry that graphics do not maketh the game. Never has it been more true than in this strange period where we have two HD consoles and one SD system. Would Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower have been better games had they been released on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3? Absolutely not. (Pandora’s Tower, in fact, would have been considerably inferior due to the fact it actually makes good use of the Wii’s unique control scheme.) They would have been better-presented games, sure, but the core gameplay in all three cases is brilliant — and, to add insult to injury, the graphics for all three aren’t even what you could possibly describe as “bad” — just low-resolution. There’s a difference — sadly, one seemingly lost on many reviewers who describe their visuals as “muddy” or “poor” and, in many cases, knock a point off the final score in punishment. I defy anyone who has stood on the Makna Falls overlook in Xenoblade Chronicles, seen the beautiful afternoon sunlight and shadows in the castle courtyard in The Last Story or stood atop the Observatory gazing towards the Thirteen Towers at sunset in Pandora’s Tower to say that these games have “poor” visuals.
As such, I implore those of you who are gamers to stop caring so much about titles having pin-sharp graphics, fully orchestrated soundtracks and a voice cast of Major Hollywood Talent. Yes, these things make games more impressive and exciting to watch and play, but given the choice between a world made up of nothing but HD first-person shooters starring Morgan Freeman (with the world’s population of racist teenagers on backing vocals via Xbox Live) and a world where I can play 100+ hours of Xenoblade Chronicles in 480p with a selection of unknown (but excellent) British voice actors, I know which I’d rather spend my time in.
That’s just me, though. I illustrate my blog with stickmen, so take my word with a pinch of salt if you wish.
(Edit: Here’s an unedited picture of Pandora’s Tower running in 480p taken with my iPhone camera. Looks pretty lovely to me.)