This series of Top 10 lists focuses on several of the companies that have had the most significant impact on the video game industry through their development of many of the most influential and revolutionary video games ever created. More than just an overview of the companies, however, the goal of this list series is to be something of a step back into the shaping of the industry. This series will attempt to take us back through the evolution of the industry, as seen through the eyes of the companies that made that evolution happen. Console design is important, but at the end of the day, the video game industry is an industry of just that: games. The industry is driven by the companies that design the best games.

A few bits of housekeeping before I get started: first of all, game development is an inherently muddled process, and oftentimes it is difficult to draw lines around who developed which game. At times, this may lead to disagreement over who the developer of a particular game truly is; however, with how quickly the industry changes and the speed with which companies are bought, sold, and changed, there is never truly a black and white to what constitutes one developer's library. Secondly, there will be a lot of differentiation in the sizes of the libraries described in these lists. As such, in certain lists, I will refrain from including more than one game from one franchise and instead use one game as a stand-in for the series as a whole; in other lists, multiple games from the same franchise may be listed. Lastly, while I have a list of companies I plan to look at eventually, I am always looking for suggestions on what company to cover next; if you would like to make a suggestion, you can drop by the Top 10 List discussion board, contact me through my contributor profile, or visit either of my websites that cross-post these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com.

This week, I’ll be talking about tri-Ace.

Founded in 1995, tri-Ace was created by three individuals formerly associated with Namco, then referred to as Wolf Team. The team of creators comprised Joe Asanuma, the company's first President, Yoshiharu Gotanda, the company's second President, and Masaki Norimoto, the company's principle game designer. The name of the company was chosen to reflect these three individuals: Yoshiharu, Joe, and Masaki are the three aces to which the company name refers. From the beginning, tri-Ace has focused almost exclusively on RPGs, creating several original intellectual properties that remain today among the most underrated RPG experiences available. Early on in company history, tri-Ace formed a close relationship with Square-Enix, the famous pioneer of the RPG genre as a whole, and since then most of tri-Ace's properties have been published by the larger and more famous brand name. The company has produced games across nine different consoles, mixing in a mesh of original properties and ongoing series. The company also has a close relationship with the similarly-named tri-Crescendo, founded in 1999 by former tri-Ace sound engineer Hiroya Hatsuhiba. tri-Crescendo went on to engineer the sound for most of tri-Ace's releases before moving on to become something of a standalone company working on titles such as Baten Kaitos.

tri-Ace is responsible for two main RPG series along with several other standalone RPGs. The fame of the two RPG series is hard to compare; in my experience, one is more popular with Eastern audiences while the other is more well-known in Western circles, but my experiences may not necessarily generalize. The latter of these two franchises is Valkyrie Profile. We'll talk at greater length about the franchise as a whole later in this list when we discuss the earlier games, but notable here is one of the company's more recent releases, Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria.

Released in 2006 for the PlayStation 2, Valkyrie Profile 2 revolves around the eponymous character Silmeria, one of the three Valkyrie sisters introduced in an earlier game. The character is actually two different people trapped in one body, battling for control and seemingly driven mad because of it. Rooted partially in Norse mythology, Valkyrie Profile 2 takes the player through the mythical lands of Midgard and Asgard on a quest to prevent all-out war between gods and men. As with many tri-Ace games, the battle system is one of the most advanced characteristics, blending real-time and turn-based combat into a highly tactical gameplay experience. The system is complex and deep, representing an appeal only to hard-core fans of the RPG genre. Upon its release, the game received some of the highest marks given to a tri-Ace game yet and was considered by many to be a sleeper and cult hit for the year 2006.

The other of tri-Ace's most famous series is, in my experience, a more Eastern-slanted franchise with a strong following in Japan: Star Ocean. This series traces its origins to the first game tri-Ace ever developed, back in 1996 for the Japanese Super Famicom system; the game would not receive a United States release for over 10 years, eventually arriving as a port on the PSP. Star Ocean differs from many popular RPG series at the time in many notable elements. Character recruitment, for one, is notably different as rather than a set of plot-relevant characters forced on the player, the player can pick and choose from a pool of 10 possible recruits. There is no world map in the game, instead giving the player direct routes between different locales, interestingly similar to how more modern RPGs have been structured. The game also represents an early example of tri-Ace's interesting battle system design, expertly combining the menu prompts of turn-based battling with an actual real-time battle system.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Star Ocean, however, is the way it was responsible for the formation of tri-Ace has a company. The company founders were originally on staff at Namco, assigned to the team that would develop the eventual release Tales of Phantasia. Creative differences between members of the team, however, led to part of the team resigning and starting their own company to create a game more in line with their own vision: that team became tri-Ace and that game became Star Ocean.

This series that started with 1996's Star Ocean for the Super Famicom has recently celebrated its 14th anniversary with its most recent release: Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Originally released for the Xbox 360 and later ported to the PlayStation 3, Star Ocean: The Last Hope is tri-Ace's most recent American release and arguably its most successful, although as we will see I personally rate some other current-generation games more highly. In keeping with tri-Ace's reputation, the most notable feature of the game is the way it packs active, engaging, real-time gameplay into an RPG system; in an age where RPGs have begun to evolve towards more active battle systems, tri-Ace is ready and waiting to show off its prowess in such development as it has demonstrated over its entire career. Star Ocean: The Last Hope is also notable for representing one of the more interesting sci-fi RPGs in recent years, giving multiple planets to explore and a ship to control.

The initial release of Star Ocean: The Last Hope met a somewhat lukewarm commercial reception, possibly in part because the audience to which it most appealed generally favored alternate consoles (the game first appeared on the Xbox 360, but the franchise most strongly appeals to Japanese audiences who favor the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii). The later PlayStation 3 port, dubbed the "International" release (even though the game had already been released internationally for the Xbox 360) received a much warmer reception, both due to a closer alignment of audience and console and due to fixes to certain annoyances in the game's original release.

In my opinion, tri-Ace's 2008 release Infinite Undiscovery is the very definition of a game ahead of its time. Many of the innovations characteristic of Infinite Undiscovery have since worked their way into some of the most popular RPGs released in recent years, although these features did not receive critical acclaim in this particular release. The game as a whole bills itself almost entirely on how active, engaging, and dynamic its world is; the defining feature of the game is how the player's decisions and actions can have far-reaching implications on the occurrences and discoveries that will follow later in the game. In keeping with this dynamic presentation, things can happen even when the player is just waiting around or browsing menu screens. Battles are intentionally more strategic, forcing the player to come up with complex strategies to solve different enemies.

Among the most notable innovations of the game that has since become something of a mainstay in modern RPG design is that, while the player's party is made of four characters, the game AI typically controls three of them. Although Final Fantasy XII employed a similar system, the system in Infinite Undiscovery is much more similar to that in the later Final Fantasy XIII. Despite these innovations, though, the game received only a mixed reception, in large part because although the ideas underlying many of these innovations were revolutionary, the execution at this particular time was lacking; such is the definition, in my opinion, of a game ahead of its time, one that possessed all the ideas that later would define a genre but simply failed to execute them.

Staying with their focus on new intellectual properties in the latest console generation, another of tri-Ace's recent releases is the 2010 cross-platform game Resonance of Fate. Unlike almost all of tri-Ace's previous releases, Resonance of Fate (End of Eternity in Japan) was published not by Square-Enix, but rather by Sega. The game was still an RPG, however, keeping with tri-Ace's wheelhouse. Like most of tri-Ace's most popular releases, the most notable element of Resonance of Fate is its battle system, once again brilliantly unifying turn-based and real-time combat, in addition to an interesting real-time strategy twist. Again, like many tri-Ace releases, the battle system, and accompanying equipment and leveling systems, is so complex that it may turn off some more casual or inexperienced RPG players; however, those accustomed to the genre and the strategic demands it places on character equipment and preparation will surely enjoy the depth and customizability of the system.

Like Infinite Undiscovery, Resonance of Fate encountered a moderately positive reception upon its release. In many ways, the criticisms reflected exactly the dichotomy referenced above: most large video game outlets gave it lukewarm reviews, commenting on the meager storytelling and overcomplicated combat system, but outlets more dedicated and experienced with the genre praised its more subtle plot elements and its deep gameplay innovations. Like Infinite Undiscovery, Resonance of Fate is partially responsible for reinventing the turn-based battle system into a visual spectacle rather than just an exercise in straight information visualization.

We've discussed already the first and fourth game in tri-Ace's famous Star Ocean series; the third game, in turn, is Star Ocean: Till the End of Time for the PlayStation 2. Aside from the grammatically offensive phrasing of the game's title, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time represents an interesting entry in the franchise's history. Among all the Star Ocean games (and even among all of tri-Ace's releases), Star Ocean: Till the End of Time met perhaps the most cold initial release, largely in part to a series of glitches and bugs due to some last-minute changes by Sony. A later Director's Cut release, however, solved many of these issues, and it was this version that made its way over to the United States eight months later (18 months after the game's initial release in Japan). That version, in turn, received a very strong reception.

Star Ocean: Till the End of Time marks perhaps one of tri-Ace's greatest achievements with regards to its battle system, moving as far across the spectrum as it had to date between turn-based and active battle. The combat was much more similar to systems seen in Rogue Galaxy and other similar RPGs of the time, around the time that hardware had advanced enough to render traditional turn-based combat sorely and blatantly outdated. Like the other games from the developer, the various systems in the game are remarkably deep, although in the case of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, they remain a bit more accessible to newbies to the genre or series.

tri-Ace is undeniably an Eastern-oriented company, with every single title in its library seeing a Japanese release date substantially earlier than an American counterpart. As part of that, it perhaps should be no surprise that one of the greatest games they've developed (in my entirely subjective opinion, of course) is a game that, to date, has yet to see an American release: Beyond the Labyrinth, or Rabirinsu no Kanata in Japan. The game is still an RPG, although it is framed significantly differently, focusing more on dungeon crawler elements than the sweeping RPGs we've seen in the past. The game is notoriously unforgiving, belying its somewhat colorful framing and bubbly protagonist; like most dungeon crawlers, death is always right around the corner. The battle system involves a unique color rotation, and overall represents an amazing reinvention by a company that seemingly reinvents its combat systems as regularly as you or I change our socks.

The remarkable thing about Beyond the Labyrinth, aside from tri-Ace's demonstrated ability to develop a brilliant game decently outside their normal wheelhouse, is its breathtaking beauty. Although all of tri-Ace's games have had a unique and engrossing visual style, it has never been the major selling point for any one game – until now. Beyond the Labyrinth is the most beautiful game developed for the 3DS to date, with lush landscapes and soaring templates that would be brilliant on the most powerful consoles, let alone on Nintendo's humble little portable console. We should all hope for an American release soon because if one game could save the 3DS from itself, it's Beyond the Labyrinth.

Radiata Stories in many ways is an anomaly in tri-Ace's gaming history. There are definitely large parts of the game that fall squarely in line with tri-Ace's history, such as the overwhelmingly dynamic world and open layout, but in many ways it draws a sharp contrast from the other games in the company's history. For one thing, one of the major points of praise for the game was the simplicity of the combat gameplay. Critics praised it for being simple enough for new players to understand and enjoy, very much a departure from tri-Ace's typical deep and complex combat battle systems. The game is also notable for how thoroughly developed the cast of NPCs are: over a hundred NPCs are recruitable, and even more come with their own realistic lives including jobs, families, and daily schedule. In some ways, the game almost feels like a Harvest Moon game: there is a day/night system, and that system determines where the hundreds of NPCs are at any given time.

The game was also one of tri-Ace's most hyped and celebrated releases, gathering a significant amount of critical acclaim and appeal even before it ever hit the market. Its reception in the United States, however, was considerably more lukewarm, where it missed out on every receiving substantial critical or popular attention, despite some positive reviews. To date, the game has not yet received a sequel, with 2010's Radiant Historia sharing a few development members but no common gameplay, story, or visual elements.

The fourth Star Ocean game on this list is likely the most famous one in the franchise, and potentially the most famous game in tri-Ace's development history. Released in 1998 on the PlayStation and, unlike its predecessor, receiving an American release shortly thereafter, Star Ocean: The Second Story starts off from the very beginning with a different twist on the genre: the player chooses which of two characters to play as, with the decision having far-reaching implications on the remainder of the game rather than just being a palette swap on an identical main character. The action-packed real-time combat systems that tri-Ace is famous for make another appearance here, but in this instance such a system is even more notable given that, at the time, the idea of an RPG with a real-time battle system was nearly unheard of; in many ways, the Star Ocean franchise, and Star Ocean: The Second Story in particular, might be considered the forerunner to modern RPGs' overwhelming emphasis on active battle systems.

Star Ocean: The Second Story is also one of tri-Ace's most significant critical and commercial successes. Critically, the game received high marks from most reviewers, especially those acquainted with the RPG genre of the time. Commercially, it remains one of tri-Ace's best-selling games. Its success led to manga and anime adaptations as well, including a 26-episode series run in 2001. Star Ocean: The Second Story is likely most responsible for the franchise's continuation to this day, considering its success in both Japan and the United States.

This list ends in the same place it started: with Valkyrie Profile. Released in 1999 (2000 in the United States), Valkyrie Profile is arguably tri-Ace's highest-profile release to date. The game was successful both critically and commercially, becoming one of the best-selling and most popular RPGs on the already-crowded PlayStation RPG list. In many ways, ironically, the crowd of RPGs available for the PlayStation may have actually helped raise Valkyrie Profile's standing: because people were expecting RPGs for the PlayStation, they were more likely to check out a new intellectual property for it; by comparison, games like Infinite Undiscovery have largely gone unnoticed because they were released on a console not known for producing quality games in that genre.

Valkyrie Profile, though, was distinct enough from other RPGs on the PlayStation to formulate its own fanbase. First of all, it capitalized on a popular yet underused source material in its deep leveraging of Norse mythology. Secondly, the control and exploration style of the game was very different, at times playing much more like an adventure or platformer game than an RPG. The overall structure of the game is interesting as well; players are limited in how much they can actually do in the game by how many turns they take, not in battle but in the overall game world. The system is too complex and unique to explain fully here, but it's well worth checking out if you've never played the game. Ironically, the game also uses a more traditional turn-based battle system, unlike most other tri-Ace releases.

Honorable Mentions: Star Ocean: Blue Sphere, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, Frontier Gate, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth

tri-Ace has been somewhat quiet in recent years; after its last big-name release, Resonance of Fate in 2010, the company has only released a pair of portable titles: Frontier Gate for the PSP and Beyond the Labyrinth for the 3DS. What's more, the game has not yet released any information on new games they have in development. Given the company's participation in the making of Final Fantasy XIII-2, however, it might be reasonable to expect them to play a role in the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII-3. If so, that would likely be a very wise decision on the part of Square-Enix: for almost 20 years, tri-Ace has been developing games with the sort of combat and battle systems that have only become standard in the last 5 years or so. Almost every modern RPG uses a form of active, real-time battle, and tri-Ace has been perfecting that art for several console generations. In many ways, it might behoove the company to focus on developing the combat systems for other companies' releases, if only to ensure that their work receives as broad an audience as possible; although every tri-Ace game has been high-quality, the battle systems do not always receive the acclaim they could due to perceived weaknesses with other areas of the company's games.

If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!

List by DDJGames (08/30/2012)

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