The X Button - Falcoming Home

by Todd Ciolek,

I glance through Falcom's catalog this week, which means I should open with some weird, insubstantial trivia about a Falcom game. If you'll pardon an awful segue, there's nothing in Falcom games less substantial than Dela's outfit in the Brandish series. Koei tried to fix that, though.

The Brandish games aren't Falcom's biggest sellers, possibly because they're complex dungeon hacks burdened with a weird perspective. They follow a personality-lacking warrior named Ares, but the cover art tends to favor his rival, the sorceress Dela. Headstrong and vain, Dela seeks revenge on Varik for slaying her master, and she does so while wearing a mix of armor and bikini that might as well be a parody of feminine fantasy garb. She's a frequent antagonist throughout the first Brandish, which Koei actually released for the Super NES.

Those of you who lived through Nintendo's more prudish 16-bit era may say “I bet they censored her outfit in the North American version.” Yes, they did. Koei and/or Falcom decided to stick Dela in a one-piece to avoid controversy. They also renamed Ares to Varik and Dela to Alexis, presumably so no one would confuse her with hip-hop outfit De La Soul or the mother of Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

I'll say that Koei even improved her attire just a little, taking it from utterly ridiculous combat bikini to more routine fantasy-mage absurdity. Not that it mattered; most Super NES owners who tried Brandish were either unimpressed or actively nauseated by the game's bizarre, Ares-centric viewpoint. It wasn't until this very month that the series reappeared in North America with Brandish: The Dark Revenant, a remake of the original game. It fixes the unnatural rotation, and it adds a tougher side quest where you control Dela. And yes, her outfit is uncensored.

NEWS

NIGHTCRY SEEKS PC PORT, DINNER WITH KICKSTARTER
Project Scissors: NightCry emerged last year as a spiritual descendant of the macabre Clock Tower series. In fact, it's more than spiritual in its connections, as Clock Tower creator Hifumi Kono is behind the game. And he's hardly the only important name attached: Silent Hill creature designer Masahiro Ito, Final Fantasy XII and XIV concept artist Kiyoshi Arai, and Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane are all aboard. Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, Appleseed director Shinji Aramaki also signed on, and Ju-On director Takashi Shimizu even joined in with a 29-second teaser for the game.

NightCry unfolds on a massive ocean liner with an lengthy and presumably dark history, as the main character discovers when she and her fellow college students come aboard. The game's set in that distant time of 2003, when cell phones and other horror-defusing technologies weren't quite so common, and it upholds the Clock Tower conceit of players left powerless before a looming and seemingly unstoppable force. The heroine can wander around, gather items and chat with passengers or crew, but she's reduced to running and hiding when the game's central evil comes after her. Desperation and helplessness drive many of the best survival-horror games, and NightCry evidently knows it.

As it stands, NightCry is headed for the Vita as well as the iOS and Android platforms. However, Kono turned to Kickstarter for a PC port. The $300,000 price is steep and the early footage is rough, but Kono and his team at Nude Maker (yes) have a knack for weird and rewarding projects like Steel Battalion and Infinite Space. NightCry might join them.

NEW DEAD OR ALIVE CHARACTER LOOKS LIKE LESS BORING KOF CHARACTER
Were you angered over Tekken 7's recently introduced Lucky Chloe? Well, you don't have to worry about Dead or Alive 5: Last Round rolling out a jarringly attired catgirl. The latest new character, in keeping with Dead or Alive traditions, is a generously endowed young woman named Honoka.

Honoka's play style is a buffet of stolen moves, as she apparently built her own brand of martial arts by mimicking other fighters. She's also a sweet-natured girl who nonetheless loves brawling. That's all pretty boring even by Dead or Alive standards, but the first preview footage of Honoka reminds me of another character…but who?

Oh, that's right. Her outfit and reddish hair recall Moe Habana from The King of Fighters EX games. They're slimmed-down Game Boy Advance versions of The King of Fighters titles, but they added new characters like Moe (left), a crow-tossing girl, a hard-hitting supermodel with a huge purple cowlick, and a guy who dragged his young daughter to every fight. Perhaps I'm just starved for a new King of Fighters, one that brings back weird and obscure characters from the series. But for those who prefer Dead or Alive, Last Round comes out for the major consoles plus Steam (and minus the Wii U) in just two weeks.

THE FUTURE OF FALCOM

Falcom is one of Japan's RPG powerhouses, even if the West doesn't always notice that. Square and Enix dominated much of what North America knew of console role-playing games in the 1990s, and they became even more prominent after fusing into a behemoth that controls Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Kingdom Hearts. Aside from the Square Enix collective, relative newcomers like Atlus' Persona and Nippon Ichi's Disgaea fill many of the gaps. Yet Falcom is still there, with a loyal fan base and an extensive, largely undiscovered lineup.

Nihon Falcom formed in 1981, with founder Masayuki Kato taking its name from the Millennium Falcon and the “com” abbreviation popular in Japan's computer circles. Aptly, the computer industry saw Falcom's first games as the company tried out mahjong, golf, and even a puzzle game called Joshidaisei Private Stripper. After dabbling like this for several years, Falcom struck the right vein with an early action-RPG called Dragon Slayer. It was a success among fans and fellow game designers alike, its influence reaching even to Nintendo's own The Legend of Zelda. No one noted Dragon Slayer's success as much as Falcom, and the company's catalog swelled with RPGs. Dragon Slayer rapidly wove a confusing web of spin-offs, and by the end of the 1980s it had begotten Xanadu, Romancia, Sorcerian, and The Legend of Heroes. Even so, it would not be Falcom's best-known series.

Ys: Ancient Ys Vanished appeared on the PC-8801 in 1987. While its overhead viewpoint resembles Dragon Quest or The Legend of Zelda, Ys (correctly pronounced “Eeess,” so it rhymes with “peace”) combined both approaches to RPG battles. Protagonist Adol simply runs into enemies instead of striking at them, and he gives or takes damage depending on his stats and angle of attack. Ys and its sequel proved compelling in an age when RPGs seldom ventured beyond simple plotlines. The two games presented a lost utopia, a mysterious blue-haired maiden named Feena, and a silent, redheaded hero tasked with unraveling the mystery around them. Such sights became staples for a generation of RPG plotting, and it was no coincidence that later games like Lunar and Lufia found mysterious girls paired with resolute adventurers. Sometimes the two even sported Adol and Feena's exact hair colors.

Ys landed on various computers and even the Sega Master System, yet the game hit its highest point on the fledging TurboGrafx-16 (called the PC Engine in Japan). Alfa System and Hudson Soft combined the first game and its sequel into a CD-ROM collection called Ys Book I and II. It became a breakthrough for the CD format, sporting gorgeous animated cutscenes as well as performances from veteran voice actors like Alan Oppenheimer and Michael Bell. The TurboGrafx-16 never again had such a showcase in North America.

It was perhaps the soundtrack that impressed most. From the moment the Ys title faded and the first faux-orchestral peeps sounded, Ys Book I and II was like nothing the game industry had seen or heard before. Unfortunately, the price of the TurboGrafx-16's CD attachment restricted the wonders of Ys Book I and II to older gamers, lucky kids, and any friends they wanted to stupefy with their new CD game system.

Yet Falcom had crept onto North American shores in other ways. Dragon Slayer spin-offs appeared on the NES as Legacy of the Wizard (above) and Faxanadu, while a Mayan-themed adventure game called Asteka II became Tombs & Treasure for North American audiences. Even a translated Sorcerian appeared on numerous computer platforms.

The Ys series (pronounced “whyyys”) also hit all three major American consoles with its third installment. Ys III: Wanderers From Ys began life as an unrelated game, with Adol as a placeholder hero who somehow became permanent (according to an interview with Kouji Yokota in The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers). This third installment of Ys replaced its predecessors' overhead views with awkward side-scrolling gameplay inspired by Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and even today it's considered a strange departure for the Ys line. It was, however, the most visible Ys game of its day, appearing on the TurboGrafx-16, the Sega Genesis, and the Super NES.

For all of this exposure, Falcom's name didn't stick in the North American market.

“For a long time, Falcom had no real brand identity overseas, largely because their console games were ported and published by different companies,” says Kurt Kalata of Hardcore Gaming 101. “No one could tell that Legacy of the Wizard, Tombs and Treasure, Sorcerian, Faxanadu, Brandish, and Ys all sprung from the same company, because they came from Broderbund, Infocom, Sierra, Nintendo, Koei, and in the last case, Sega and Hudson.”

It was easy to find Falcom games on Nintendo and Sega consoles, but it was much harder to become a dedicated Falcom fan.

“I think the big reason back in the day was the lack of a single publisher, a single platform, or a single strong series,” says Robert Boyd of Zeboyd Games. “Back in the early days of Squaresoft, if you owned a Super NES, you could play their flagship series, Final Fantasy, and if you liked it, you probably remembered the conspicuous Squaresoft logo at the beginning and could seek out other games of theirs, like Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger, also on the Super NES. However, Falcom's early games were scattered between the PC, NES, Turbo-CD, Sega Master System, Sega CD, and more. So even if you became a Falcom fan, there was no guarantee that you'd be able to play most of their translated library of games.”

Even as they enjoyed popular releases in Japan, Falcom's presence in North America slipped. The Ys series (pronounced “yes”) was a hit in its native country, with two direct-to-video anime adaptations and scads of soundtracks. The fourth game in the series even took on different forms: Hudson Soft's The Dawn of Ys for the PC Engine and Tonkin House's Mask of the Sun for the Super Famicom. Neither saw a localization.

Ys and the spawn of Dragon Slayer stopped coming West by the mid-1990s, but Falcom wasn't entirely absent. The Sega CD saw their goofball side-scrolling action-RPG Popful Mail, which Sega at first intended to turn into a Sonic the Hedgehog spin-off called Sister Sonic. Fan outcry made Sega relent, and Popful Mail emerged on the Sega CD with a localization from Working Designs. The game snared the best of the three companies with its tale of an avaricious warrior named, of course, Popful Mail. Falcom's base ideas are appealing, Sega's adroit programming carries it well, and the Working Designs school of liberally comedic translation suits Popful Mail perfectly. References to Euro Disney and old Campbell's soup commercials go down smoother in a game with a race of dragons who are all named Gaw.

Far less acclaim surrounded Brandish, a Falcom dungeon-crawler that went from the PC to consoles. Koei released the Super NES version in North America, but many RPG fans ignored it—and others mocked its bizarre viewpoint, which turns the environment around the character.

If Falcom saw scant recognition in North America, it hardly affected them in Japan. Over the years, Falcom has proven a cautious company with reliable, if sometimes modest, profits. While other RPG heavy-hitters tried to break into movies and embrace other genres, Falcom stayed with what they knew. This let them survive stably, even if it didn't break through to the overseas market.

Yet some missteps awaited in Japan. Popful Mail fizzled after Falcom's own Super Famicom port, and some later drama CDs even replaced Mail's endearing mage and dragon sidekicks with more generic anime-girl companions. Falcom made a stranger move with Ys V: Kefin, The Lost Kingdom of Sand in 1995. Ys (pronounced “zanna-doo”) was known as a CD-based series with incredible soundtracks, but Ys V emerged as a Super Famicom quest with more primitive, cartridge-based music. Many Ys fans disliked the very idea of the game, and few were placated when Falcom released an "Expert" version in 1996.

The rough reception of Ys V sent Falcom back to their comfort zone: the computer. For nearly a decade, Falcom stuck to PC titles: new Legend of Heroes games, Ys remakes, the strategy-RPG Vantage Master, a Sorcerian revamp, a remake of the older RPG Dinosaur (which has no dinosaurs), the action-RPG Zwei!!, and a fourth Brandish all appeared on the Windows platform. This prevented North American releases in many cases.

“Until they made their PSP debut in 2006 with a port of their 2004 PC title Gurumin [above], Falcom was primarily a PC developer,” says Tom Lipschultz, localization specialist at XSEED Games. “And while PC gaming is undergoing something of a renaissance in the West now, thanks to services like Steam, it was a very different market here up until just a few years ago—not a less lucrative one by any means, but in many ways a more limited one, with PC gamers gravitating, or at least believed by publishers to gravitate, more toward first-person shooters, point-and-click adventures, simulation titles, MMORPGs and single-player western-style RPGs.”

Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure proved the right game to draw Falcom out of their PC chrysalis. It's a charming, cartoonish action-RPG about a girl befriending a secret society of monsters, and it earned a North American release through Mastiff Games. The mid-2000s also brought Ys back to consoles. The sixth game in the series, The Ark of Napishtim, came out on Japanese PCs in 2003, but Konami brought the PlayStation 2 and PSP ports to North America. Bandai Namco followed suit with PSP localizations of the Gagharv trilogy, part of the broader The Legend of Heroes canon. While this wouldn't bring other Falcom titles roaring westward, it set the stage for Falcom's biggest leap.

In 2010, Falcom landed a major ally with XSEED Games, and the publisher swiftly localized the PSP versions of Ys Seven, Ys I and II Chronicles, and Ys: The Oath in Felghana (a spectacular remake of Wanderers from Ys). The latter two appeared on the Steam platform, alongside the prequel Ys Origin. XSEED even optioned the voluminous Trails in the Sky trilogy, another part of The Legend of Heroes. No longer buffeted from one publisher to another, Falcom games now had a safe home in North America.

“When Falcom started development for Windows in the late 90s, there was no real way to distribute their games outside of Japan,” says Kalata, who considers Ys: The Oath in Felghana his favorite Falcom title, “probably because no publisher wanted to take the risk on Japanese games, which were largely considered the domain of console gamers. It's only been recently thanks to Steam that these games could be made easily available worldwide. And XSEED has to work uphill to market them, especially since many of their games are still relegated to portable Sony platforms, which haven't exactly been huge successes.”

Falcom faces another challenge: their games often don't stand out at a glance. Artwork for Ys titles and Trails in the Sky reflects a familiar anime-fantasy aesthetic, superficially much the same as any humdrum RPG of the PlayStation 2 era. The Ys games (pronounced “nin-ja guy-den”) tend to tell much the same story, one in which Adol finds ancient secrets, fells an equally ancient horror, and wins over some sweet young girl who'll be left behind when he heads off to new adventures. Rarely as experimental as larger publishers, Falcom lacks an Earthbound, a Valkyrie Profile, a Vagrant Story, or a Panzer Dragoon Saga. Quintet, a developer founded by Ys director Masaya Hashimoto and writer Tomoyoshi Miyzaki, provided a glimpse of where a more daring Falcom might have gone. Quintet's action-RPGs ventured into darker themes of duality and creation, and the trilogy of Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma seems an evolution of the ideas begun with Ys.

Yet Falcom's strengths may be hidden, particularly when it comes to games left unlocalized.

“They're actually pretty great at writing stories and drawing art that fits each franchise like a glove,” says Lipschultz, “I do think Falcom likes to play around with cliches, though, often subverting expectations by setting up a character or situation to fall into pure trope territory only for something crazy to happen that nobody could've possibly seen coming. The Legend of Heroes series is easily the best example of this style of storytelling, though many other Falcom titles go even farther. One of my favorite Japan-only Falcom games on PC, Dinosaur: Resurrection, has a plot that's built entirely on abstract surrealistic horror, constantly throwing complete non-sequiturs at players in order to keep them on edge and off guard.”

While some Falcom RPGs remain uninterested in breaking new ground, their fans often appreciate the smaller scale and cohesive tones.

“The Ys games have much simpler plots, but it's clear when playing them that this simplicity is very much as intended,” Lipschultz concurs. “The games are designed to be action-packed experiences that don't bog you down with cutscenes or complicated goals, often relying on player intuition and established series traditions to drive the action forward. But even the Ys games have a pretty complex overall series lore running through them, with a shockingly high amount of internal consistency and world building, both of which are things I feel Falcom does better than almost any other modern Japanese developer. You'll rarely ever find someone pointing out a plot hole in a Falcom game!”

In an age where bigger budgets often bog down RPGs with cutscenes, plot convolutions, and lavish sights, Falcom's dedication to gameplay wins over many.

“Falcom is excellent at the action part of their action-RPGs, particular any of the Ys games after the sixth entry,” says Kalata. “They're really fast-paced and solidly designed, especially the boss battles. They really feel like the best marriage of arcade mechanics and RPG elements.”

Such estimations are shared by Andrew Dice, co-founder and project director at the localization outfit Carpe Fulgur LLC.

“A Falcom game is always fun to play and interact with, which can't always be said of their competitors,” says Dice, who also names Ys: The Oath in Felghana as his favorite Falcom release. “It's a rare Falcom game where you go gallivanting across the entire world. Their characters and plots usually deal with a more local area, even in their more action-y Ys or other titles and not just in Legend of Heroes, and as a result the stories often feel a bit more intimate and, ironically, engaging than other RPGs of the type, despite the "world" being bigger in those games.”

No discussion of Falcom is complete without mention of music, considered by many to be the company's finest achievement. Falcom's composers supply every angle: a mystic forest might merit some dizzying guitar licks just as easily as a typical soaring RPG overture or gentle woodwind sonata. The work of Sound Team jdk, Falcom's official cadre of composers, regularly inspire concerts by the group jdk Band, and Falcom soundtracks, including originals and remixes, may well outnumber the company's actual game releases. There's scarcely a weak score in Falcom's library.

“You can't really talk Falcom without talking the tunes,” Dice says.

Even if Falcom never was a big name in the English-speaking world, the company has its fans. Some of them now make games of their own. Boyd, who considers Trails in the Sky his favorite Falcom title, crafted RPGs such as Cthulhu Saves the World and the third and fourth episodes of Penny Arcade Adventures.

“We try to focus on music in our games as much as Falcom does,” says Boyd, currently at work on the RPG Cosmic Star Heroine. “Also, when we're discussing the overall vibe for each of our games with the composer, we always give them a list of required listening material to get in the right mood. More often than not, the list consists of Hitoshi Sakimoto, Shoji Meguro, Noriyuki Iwadare, and various Falcom games.”

Dean Dodrill, creator of Dust: An Elysian Tail, often looks to the Ys series, and his favorite game of all time remains Ys Book I and II.

"Ys has always influenced my work, both in animation and video games," Dodrill says. "There's a unique visual quality to that series, sort of a mix of eastern and western fantasy. It also comes from a more innocent time, I think. For my first game, Dust: An Elysian Tail, I wanted to capture that feeling of being a selfless hero, of traveling to the far reaches of the earth. I'm also partial to a world where floating islands are the norm. I even borrowed a name from Ys for one of my villages, Zeplich."

Notably, Falcom's biggest cult favorite in North America may not be the routinely popular Ys series (pronounced “fai-nuhl fan-tah-see”). The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is the first of a sub-trilogy, and its PSP release earned abundant praise for its enjoyable combat and detailed storytelling. It succeeded where Bandai Namco's release of the Gagharv sub-trilogy failed to strike, and it's not just because those previous Legend of Heroes releases had a name like “Gagharv” hanging over them.

“The actual localization is certainly better and I have no doubt that helped,” says Dice, who's currently working on localizing the second chapter of Trails. “Though I'm going to throw a tiny bit of industry shade, which for the record is still merely my opinion and not that of any company involved, and say that wasn't a high bar to cross in any event. So long as the Trails games don't have grammatical curiosities such as 'I didn't eat an unusual today' outside of intentional comedy, Trails is going to win that contest by default.

“It also doesn't help that, from the start, the PSP versions of Gagharv had some issues,” Dice continues, “Such as reworking a lot of the classic art to, arguably, not be as attractive and replacing the sometimes slow but unique realtime battle system [of the PC 98-01 version] with something much more standard and probably a bit "faster," but also not quite as memorable. So the versions of Gagharv we got had a weak localization, somewhat weaker art and lost what made them stand out in terms of gameplay. The Trails games being, in my humblest of opinions, very good games and thus much stronger in every single regard just makes them stand out that much more.”

Trails in the Sky benefitted further from a Steam release last year, and fans hope that it'll forge further paths for Falcom games that aren't as well-known as Ys.

“Now that PC gaming is taking off in the West again, there's an entire back catalogue of great titles ripe for the localizing,” says Lipschultz, who holds out hope for his personal favorite, Xanadu Next. “Not to mention all their future prospects on PS4 and Vita. Falcom's games are some of the most consistently high-quality out there, and people have absolutely taken notice of that.”

This year brings several Falcom titles to these shores. Brandish: The Dark Revenant (above), a much smoother remake of the troubled dungeon-hack, is already out for the PSP and Vita. Mastiff hopes to have a Steam version of Gurumin available soon. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Second Chapter nears its release, and it's perhaps the year's most anticipated RPG that's not a Persona or Final Fantasy or Witcher. After lagging on the international level for decades, Falcom games seem ready to take their rightful place.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

CRIMINAL GIRLS: INVITE ONLY
Developer: Imageepoch
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation Vita / PlayStation TV
Release Date: February 3
Unconfirmed Hidden Character: Cody
MSRP: $39.99

Let's begin with one thing I like about Criminal Girls: its alleged premise is intriguing. The game is a dungeon-crawl up from the depths of hell, and you guide a bunch of wayward souls questing for redemption. Survive the infernal maze, and they'll return to the world of the living. Not quite Grim Fandango, but it's a novel twist on the usual randomly generated labyrinth tour.

Of course, that's not what Criminal Girls: Invite Only is really about. Your dissolute charges are all cute anime maidens in quaintly striped prison garb, and their sins range from lust and greed to pure social withdrawal. One of them is just secretly slothful, which raises all sorts of troubling hamartiological questions. To overcome their hellbound inclinations, They'll roam around dungeons, fight random battles, and face their varied sinful failings. The battle system allows the characters to suggest special moves, and team attacks help out during combat.

However, the delinquents need spiritual guidance, and this comes when the player jabs and flicks at them as they lie in provocative poses. That's pretty much why Criminal Girls exists, and NIS America is careful about censoring the game. The “motivational” harassment scenes will lose their voice-overs and assorted moans, and steam effects will appear in some scenes. Those aside, the game should be just as unclouded in its audience and intent as the Japanese version. Some said that Criminal Girls couldn't be released in North America. They were wrong. Others said that it shouldn't be released here, and that's a harder claim to disprove.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you want.


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