Nihon Falcom is recognized primarily for three franchises, with arguably the least-recognized of these three being their Legend of Heroes series. The franchise got its start inside another famous Falcom franchise in 1989, and was soon spun off into its own standalone franchise after two instantiations in the previous series. The series was further developed into two sub-series, first the Gagharv Trilogy and, secondly, the Trails series, named after the subtitle of the first game, Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. Within this franchise, there have been seven standalone games (including a sub-sub-series revolving specifically around Trails in the Sky), with arguably the strongest being the most recent release, Nayuta no Kiseki.
Released last July for the PSP, Nayuta no Kiseki is among the latest in Falcom's recent attempts to develop for more contemporary consoles, and the release shines beautifully. It carries over Falcom's long history of strong action role-playing games, but brings that legacy into something of a new platform. Throughout almost the entirety of their history, Falcom has developed primarily or exclusively for PC-based platforms, but beginning in 2006, they have placed a major emphasis on the PSP. Such a shift has helped keep the company relevant as its genre of games have been increasingly absent from PC gamers' libraries, and the narrow focus on only Sony's portable platform has allowed them to hone and refine their skills with the new platform in order to maintain their always-high standard of excellence.
Throughout this list series, I've had some pretty fortuitous luck. News broke about new Capcom and Monolith Soft games shortly before my lists on them were posted, and in this instance, Falcom's newest game was released only five days ago: Ys: Celceta no Jukai, roughly translated as Foliage Ocean in Celceta. Thusfar no American release is planned, but the game is available in Japan.
As a game, Ys: Celceta no Jukai has a somewhat interesting background, both in terms of its placement in canon and its development. In terms of canon, Ys: Celceta no Jukai takes the place of both Ys IV: Mask of the Sun and Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys. These two games, formerly considered part of the series, were developed by third-party contractors Tonkin House and Hudson Soft, respectively. As time has gone on and Falcom's other series have suffered and faded, the company seems to have maneuvered to take more direct ownership of its flagship franchise, developing new games to take the place of older ones that were outside its control in terms of the franchise's world. The game is also interesting from a gameplay point of view: it adopts the same overall style of battle and party-making as the earlier Ys Seven, the first original Ys game on the PSP. Although it has only been out for a few days, it is already being hyped by some as one of the next hotly-anticipated localizations.
#8: Zwei!! (PC)
Released on the PC, PS2, and PSP over a seven-year period, Zwei!! is one of Falcom's lesser-known franchises, even among those that never found English localization. Like most of the company's work, Zwei!! is an action RPG, but the game supplies several interesting gimmicks that set it apart from the majority of the rest of the sometimes-crowded genre. For one, the game lacks a single main character, instead having the player switch back and forth between Pokkle and Pipiro, its main characters. This isn't a game like Final Fantasy 8 that switches between main characters at scripted moments; the player can choose to switch at any time. The game's plot and structure are more reminiscent of dungeon crawlers than the modern JRPG.
The most interesting element of Zwei!!, though, in my opinion is the way in which it leverages its original platform, the PC. Action RPGs are not exactly the most common PC genre, but Zwei!! finds interesting ways of making itself at home on the PC. The most notable of these is that it actually leverages the PC's more open platform to provide Zwei!!-themed goodies and programs outside the context of the game itself. Included in this are several minigames themed around the game that do not need the game itself to run; they live (optionally, of course) on the player's desktop and reference the game, but are otherwise standalone entities. Although action RPGs aren't particularly at home on the PC, steps like these increase the strength of that connection.
#7: Brandish (SNES)
Falcom got its start making several small PC games before striking gold with its now-iconic series. Part of the reason those series finally achieved mainstream attention is that, although most were initially developed for PC-based engines, many received ports to mainstream consoles shortly after. That was the case with the first new intellectual property Falcom created after the conception of its three biggest series, Brandish.
Originally released in Japan in 1991 for a pair of PC platforms, Brandish received a port four years later to become one of Falcom's then-rare localized games. Debuting for the SNES, the game never reached a significant level of popularity because the console itself was fading, but for those that did give it a try, it stood as one of the best the console had to offer. The game was also particularly successful in Japan based in large part due to market forces of the time: while action RPGs were popular and the PC-based platforms that Brandish debuted on (PC-9801 and FM Towns) were popular, few action RPGs were made with the specific constraints of the PC system in mind; instead, most were console ports. By uniquely sculpting itself to work within the PCs' infrastructure, Brandish found a successful audience and went on to become Falcom's fourth most-successful franchise, following Legend of Heroes, Dragon Slayer, and Ys. To date, four sequels have been released, although the original remains the only one to have been localized to North America.
The franchise that went on to become one of Falcom's three most-successful franchises actually started off as a single installment in an established series. Released in 1989, near the pinnacle of Falcom's dominance, Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes was simultaneously the sixth game in the Dragon Slayer series and the first game in the new Legend of Heroes series. Before Call of Duty and Modern Warfare moved toward series and subseries, Falcom was blazing the trail.
Like many Falcom games, it took Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes several years to obtain a North American port. Part of this is because many Falcom games were initially developed for PCs that were only popular in Japan (remember, this predated the ubiquity of Microsoft Windows, and the PC market was still significantly fractured). Localizing the game to North America was not just a matter of translating it, but also of porting it to a new console. A year after release, the game was ported to the TurboGrafx-16, an underappreciated console developed by NEC and Hudson Soft. That allowed for a somewhat limited North American localization, but it was sufficient to earn the game awards for Game of the Year 1992. That quality and acclaim is what allowed the game to launch its own franchise, The Legend of Heroes, even though no further games in the series would be published in the United States until 2005 (The Legend of Heroes IV: A Tear of Vermillion).
In case you're trying to decipher the grammar or semantics of the game name, let me save you the trouble: it's just the name of the main character. Released in 1991 for various PC engines, Popful Mail was something of a hybrid RPG platformer, borrowing heavily from some of Falcom's other franchises like Ys and Dragon Slayer. In terms of sales, Popful Mail went on to become one of Falcom's most-successful franchises, although its popular acclaim is significantly lower than the three or four other great franchises the company has produced. The game emphasized its platformer elements more than those other games, however and is definitely best described as a platformer first and foremost.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Popful Mail, though, is the success it almost had. For a little historical context, remember that around this time, Nintendo of America rebranded a completely different title, Doki Doki Panic, as a Mario game and released it as such in North America, replacing the original characters with Mario-themed characters. To compete, Sega had the same idea: it would replace Popful Mail characters with Sonic characters and release the new game, Sister Sonic, with a female lead akin to Ms. Pac-Man. That deal fell through, however (with various outlets giving differing levels of credit to a petition from the original game's fans against the rebranding), and instead the game was localized for the Sega CD with the original cast. The game also received an SNES release, increasing its North American exposure.
#4: Ys Seven (PSP)
Falcom began producing games for the PSP with the original titles Gurumin in 2006 and Vantage Master Portable in 2008, along with releases in its popular Legend of Heroes series in 2006, 2007, and 2008. After other developments with the console, including a port of Zwei!! and a sequel to Brandish, the company finally seemed to be ready in 2009 to bring its most popular franchise to the new console. I might be overstepping my speculation, but by my estimation, it seems that Falcom was particularly wary of diluting the quality of its Ys series with a release on an unfamiliar console, and therefore waited until they had sufficient practice with the medium to expand the series' library.
That time came in 2009, though, with the release of two Ys games for the PSP: Ys I & II Chronicles, an enhanced remake of the franchise's first two games, and Ys Seven, the first new game in the series in three years. In many ways, the timing of Ys Seven's release could not have been better. Although Falcom had been refining and improving their RPG development for decades, they experienced a decided lull in North American recognition; by the time that Ys Seven was released, the genre in a whole had gone in a very different direction, allowing Ys Seven to stand as remarkably unique among the other games in the somewhat-homogenous genre. From its battle system to its artwork, the game presented a unique experience unlike any other on the PSP, receiving acclaim as one of the best RPGs of its release year.
Rewinding from the latest releases all the way back to the beginning, we find Dragon Slayer, the game that put Nihon Falcom on the map. Released in 1984 for several PC consoles (and later ported to the Game Boy and Sega Saturn), Dragon Slayer was incredibly ahead of its time. It marks one of the earliest ancestors of several modern genres, pioneering both dungeon crawler game structure and real-time combat. Although real-time combat today is a standard element in modern RPGs, at the time of Dragon Slayer's release turn-based combat was still the standard, and the increased engagement of the real-time action-based combat in Dragon Slayer helped set it apart.
Dragon Slayer was also relevant for a more business-oriented reason: it received a port published by Square for the MSX platform, another PC platform popular in Japan. That marked three significant developments: the first instance of Square publishing a game, a practice that would help launch them as the industry's foremost RPG developer; the first instance of Falcom consenting to a third-party publisher, a move that would expose their games to new audiences but also limit their own scope; and the first instance of Falcom and Square uniting, forming one of the most prominent duos of gaming companies ever conceived. At a time when the RPG industry had three main players (Falcom, Square, and Enix), the unity between two of those players was an incredibly significant development.
#2: Ys (MSX)
Different franchises receive fame in different ways. Some tread water until a particularly strong release catapults them into the limelight. Some arrive at fame simply by longevity; release enough titles in any franchise and people will start to notice it. For many, though, fame comes like a movie franchise: the initial release is so good that it launches a series all on its own. Such is the case for Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished.
To put it plainly, Ys I had it all. It was simultaneously a great game and an enormous innovator. Its graphics were the best ever seen on nearly every system on which it was released, most notably the Sega Master System that reached the highest degree of industry penetration in the United States market. The gameplay provided a depth that was unseen in most games; in an age when it was still reasonable to expect a game to be beatable in an afternoon, Ys I provided enough substance for weeks of play time. It was also among one of the first game to feature a full composed soundtrack with a real composer rather than just a collection of background diddies, and the score remains to this day one of the best ever created. At the time of its release, Ys I was even favorably compared to industry heavyweights like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, with several even calling Ys I the better game. It is not a stretch to say that audience might have been shocked to learn it was these latter two franchises that would go on to a richer history.
While Ys is an example of a franchise that took off with its original release, Falcom's other famous series, Dragon Slayer, owes much of its acclaim to its second installment. That's not to say that Dragon Slayer was not a great and acclaimed game; it was, but the second game in the series, Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu, is arguably one of the greatest games of all time (and, by that same token, most underappreciated games of all time, judging from the fact that there is a very significant chance that you've never even heard of it).
Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu was released at time when many genres had not yet totally fractured, and from that timing, it was situated to influence a wide portion of the gaming industry. It featured real-time action akin to The Legend of Zelda coupled with character statistics and equipment systems more closely-associated with Final Fantasy and other RPGs. The game also supplied one of the earliest examples of an in-game morality system, expansion packs, non-linear gameplay, and so many other features that I shouldn't even bother trying to list them here. The best way to describe it is to say there were features present in Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu so ambitious that they sound like interesting new ideas for games today. Dragon Slayer II went on to launch a side-sequel, Faxanadu, and provided the main Dragon Slayer series with enough momentum to survive for a decade. It remains one of the most underrated games of all time.
Honorable Mentions: Sorcerian, Legend of Heroes II: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch, Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished - The Final Chapter, Ys III: Wanders from Ys, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, Zwei II, Ys: Foliage Ocean in Celceta, Brandish: The Dark Revenant, Dragon Slayer Jr.: Romancia, Tombs & Treasure, Dragon Slayer IV, Lord Monarch, Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure.
As mentioned in the introduction, among all of Nihon Falcom's other achievements, perhaps its greatest accomplishment is its longevity. Very, very few game development companies have survived as long as Nihon Falcom has; Sega, Capcom, Midway, Square, and numerous other modern industry heavyweights cannot compete with Falcom's longevity in the gaming industry. Of course, the company has clearly not experienced the same level of success during that time, having peaked in the late 1980s and today treading water as a solid but otherwise typical game developer. Its success in Japan has never translated to success in North America like it has for many other companies, contributing in part to its lack of visibility in the world's largest video game market. That said, however, the company is in pristine position to increase its profile in the coming years. Its shift to the PSP and PlayStation Vita comes at a perfect time, giving it an audience in North America on a medium more popular among RPG fans. The power of its main franchise, still recognizable even among those who are unsure of its depth, is a strong selling tool, and it has remained sufficiently distinct from the rest of the genre to offer a unique experience unlike what any other company is offering for the console.
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 (10/02/2012)
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