#10: Catherine (PS3)
One of Atlus’s most recent games (and the most recent game on this list), Catherine will almost surely hold the title of game most often inserted into the sentence, "He put _____ instead of _____?!" Developed by the same Atlus team responsible for the Persona series, Catherine is one of the most interesting gameplay concepts to receive a big-budget release in the seventh generation so far. Part dating simulator, part puzzle-platformer, part survival horror, and perhaps even part visual novel (at least in the themes and trends present in the plot), Catherine is arguably one of the most Japanese-oriented games to actually make it to American soil and also receive significant commercial success and critical acclaim.
When I describe the game as 'Japanese', I also don't mean simply that the game was developed in Japan. Catherine is interesting in the way it appeals very directly to the preferences and tendencies of the Japanese gaming market. Its pseudo-realistic world that takes certain very specifically supernatural turns is a hallmark of much of Japanese media, and the heavy infusion of popular culture into the game is also a uniquely Eastern way of setting a game's atmosphere. These elements are not surprising for a game developed and released in Japan, but what makes Catherine truly impressive is the way Atlus was able to make these traits appeal to Western audiences as well. That itself is a skill that Atlus seems to have perfected over the years, as we'll see several times throughout this list.
It's entirely possible that I'll never again have the chance to talk about a Virtual Boy game on a positive Top 10 list, so I'm seizing this opportunity. Developed by Atlus for Nintendo's highest-profile failed console release, the virtual reality Virtual Boy, Jack Bros. was set up for failure from the beginning. Not only was it released for a failed console, but it also had no franchise or notable developer reputation to build on in the largest market, the United States. A spin-off of the Megami Tensei series (although it seems sometimes like everything Atlus makes is somehow a Megami Tensei game), it was actually the first game in the series to reach American soil. Atlus had not built a very notable reputation stateside yet either, so it was set up as an unknown game from an unknown developer on a failed console. Yet, despite all of those cards being stacked against it, Jack Bros. still found critical – though not commercial – acclaim.
The quality of the game combined with the failure of the Virtual Boy console had also led to Jack Bros. becoming a rather prized collector's item. Given that the Virtual Boy did not sell well, Jack Bros. saw a rather limited print run, but when combined with the critical praise given to the game, demand quickly far exceeded supply. The game is also one of the earliest to star the de facto mascot of Atlus: Jack Frost, a white snowman sometimes featured in the Atlus logo.
The Megami Tensei series is one of the most massive franchises in gaming, in terms of both number of games and games sold. Part of the reason for that is that the series is comprised of numerous different spin-off and subseries, including the original series, the Devil Children series, the Majin Tensei series, the Last Bible series, and the Shin Megami Tensei series, itself comprised of the Digital Devil Saga series, the Devil Summoner series, and the Persona series. Overall, the series has over 40 titles, plus several spin-off Anime and Manga, making it easily one of the largest series in terms of releases.
An interesting element to the Megami Tensei series, though, is that many of the individual series are completely unique from one another. The Digital Devil Saga series is one of those series that is significantly distinct from many of the others. The game preserves the series' overall focus on mythology, religion, and Japanese culture, but takes a very different setting and perspective than many other games in the series. The game was praised especially for providing a very mature entry into the RPG genre, which had stagnated somewhat since going through puberty in the early 1990s. Like much of the series, the game had somewhat niche appeal, and many of its advanced themes and story elements will certainly turn off many players; however, the game was still a critical and commercial success, showing Atlus's ability to translate its properties for a Western audience without losing their appeal.
Initially released in 1993, Power Instinct differed notably from the types of games Atlus would go on to be known for; while the company is by and large recognized for its uniquely Japanese RPGs, Power Instinct was an arcade fighting game, more in line with what one might expect from SNK Playmore and Konami, two of the other major players in the industry at the time of the game's release. That's largely because at the time, fighting games were one of the gaming industry's biggest moneymakers – just as platformers had their turn for dominance in the late 1980s, and RPGs and first-person shooters have traded off control of the industry since, fighting games were the industry's killer app in the early 1990s.
Recognizing the saturation of fighting games in the industry, though, Atlus aimed to set their entry apart in a number of ways. Rather than opting for the realistic or ultra-gruesome graphical style of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, the game opted for a more humorous approach. Many of the playable characters are intentionally bizarre, appealing to a different sort of sensibility. The gameplay of the games is also notably different from other fighting games at the time, and although some might find the comparison a little strange, I find the gameplay more reminiscent of an early Super Smash Bros. While most fighting games concentrate on face-to-face combat, Power Instinct puts an emphasis on a more open fighting arena, emphasizing jumping, dashing, and evading. That alone was enough to set Power Instinct off as a unique game, launching a long and still-active franchise.
I've noticed that with many serious franchises, portable installments are largely cash grabs – the game quality itself is incredibly lacking, but the combination of thirst for the series, lower price for the individual games, lower development costs, and a low standard of comparison on portable consoles conspire to grant commercial success (I'm looking at you, Assassin's Creed). Many companies don't devote full attention to their portable installments, but that's one place where Atlus differs: not only does the company put out quality portable games, but those games even comprise some of the greatest games the company has ever created. In my opinion, these portable games are four of Atlus's six greatest creations.
First among these is Etrian Odyssey. Like most Atlus creations, it is a role-playing game, but unlike many of them (especially the console Megami Tensei series), Etrian Odyssey takes on a very dungeon crawler-like approach. One of the most interesting elements of the game is its use of the stylus to allow the player to maintain their own map; rather than most RPGs' tendency to clear out the fog of war on the minimap as the player visits certain spaces, Etrian Odyssey gives the player the responsibility to keep track of their location. The game was highly rated upon release, and was strong enough to spawn its own franchise: to date, the series has seen four games, with the fourth – a 3DS release – heading to the United States next year.
Back when the Nintendo DS first debuted, it represented in many ways the most revolutionary game-changer for the video game industry in over a decade. Since the advent of 3D gaming with the fifth console generation, console development had become something of an arms race: all the major consoles had similar controllers, similar hardware, and similar structures, and the question was just who could pack the best specs along with the best developer equipment to churn out the best games. After trying to play by those rules in the sixth generation and losing, Nintendo turned its eye toward ingenuity and released the Nintendo DS, a console that, like the Wii after it, innovated rather than simply improved.
But as the many successes and failures from gaming industry have shown us, innovation is only as strong as the games that are produced to leverage it, and the DS therefore relied on innovative game development to make its new console worth it. Enter Atlus again, this time with its Trauma Center series. The first game, Trauma Center: Under the Knife, was very specifically developed to leverage and demonstrate the Nintendo DS's unique hardware capabilities. Keeping the Anime-style graphical elements of many other Atlus games as well as plenty of the more Japanese sensibilities and thematic elements, Trauma Center: Under the Knife went on to be a great success, giving the Nintendo DS exactly the kind of console-selling killer app it needed to stake a claim in the industry and begin its rise to become the best-selling console of all time.
The second Megami Tensei game on this list also comes from the broader Shin Megami Tensei series: Devil Survivor. Like Digital Devil Summoner, Devil Survivor starts its own new sub-series, leading to one sequel to date. The franchise is the most recent new Megami Tensei sub-series, and itself is a great demonstration of the care and effort Atlus puts into their portable installments. The game reached critical acclaim upon release, not just as a portable game but as one of the most solid RPGs released in 2009 as a whole. The game itself was strong enough to also warrant a 3DS re-release.
One of the interesting elements of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is that the game once again takes a notably different twist on its genre than others in the broader franchise. Unlike most Megami Tensei RPGs, Devil Survivor is a tactical RPG, more closely resembling Final Fantasy Tactics than any of the other Megami Tensei games. Despite that shift, though, the game stays allegiant to Atlus's typical focus on Japanese popular cultural. For a tactical RPG, though, that represents a very interesting shift; I can't recall any other examples of such games taking place in realistic modern settings. The game also retains the series' general focus on demons, spiritual forces, and the supernatural (in keeping with the translation of the game's title). Through these motifs, the game still has a distinctly "Atlus" feel, but its genre twist is remarkably executed.
The oldest Atlus product on this list, Dungeon Explorer, released in 1989 (and not to be confused with the similarly-titled 1994 release for the Sega CD), is an early example of a role-playing game. As I've said for other RPGs of this era, it was released before the genre had distilled and settled into the normal sub-genres, and thus companies were still taking liberties in exploring and testing the possibilities of the genre structure. Dungeon Explorer, then, straddled the line between action game, dungeon crawler, and now-traditional RPG. The game allowed the player to choose a class for their character and use items and abilities like many modern RPGs, but tilted more on the action game side in actually giving the player a limited number of lives rather than just restarting from the previous save point. Easily the most innovative element of Dungeon Explorer, though, was its multiplayer: up to five players could play at once in a cooperative mode, one of the biggest multiplayer modes of the time and, to the best of my knowledge, the first co-op mode in a role-playing game.
The biggest difficulty that Dungeon Explorer ran into was its console: released on the TurboGrafx-16, the game was unable to find a significant audience in the United States. It was re-released decades later for the Virtual Console and PlayStation Network, and still supports the same five-player multiplayer it was capable of in the past, making it unique even among virtual console releases. The series also saw a sequel for Nintendo DS and PSP in 2008, developed by Hudson Soft rather than Atlus.
Not to be confused with the similarly-titled and already-covered Radiata Stories by tri-Ace (although the two are rumored to share several development team members), Radiant Historia is an original game released for the Nintendo DS in 2010. With such a recent release date, Radiant Historia debuted into an incredibly well-defined genre, and thus was tasked with the classic challenge of either expanding the genre's scope and innovating or simply excelling in the genre's pre-defined conventions. Radiant Historia does a little of both. In many ways, it's a standard and traditional RPG. The game succeeds in part by executing standard requirements flawlessly: its graphics and music are beautiful and immersive, its characters are interesting, and its gameplay is very solid. It's also itself an interesting testament to Atlus's quality: Radiant Historia is incredibly different from the RPGs Atlus usually produces, which favor modern settings and heavy religious iconography, but it's still internally nearly flawless. The game even received some attention for Game of the Year for 2010 and 2011 (in America), a rarity for a portable game.
The game was also rather innovative, however, leveraging a time travel mechanic similar to the one seen in Chrono Trigger. The major selling point of this gimmick was that it actually was allowed to impact the storylines; unlike many RPGs which follow the same story regardless of what the player chooses to do, Radiant Historia actually allows the player to see the consequences of their actions in different timelines, marking a significant improvement over the type of similar system used in games like Final Fantasy XIII-2.
The Persona series is arguably Atlus's most popular and most famous series to date, and the series as a whole is represented here by the #1 ranking of the series' most popular entry, Persona 4. Yet another subseries within the Megami Tensei series, the Persona series got its start in 1996 with the release of Revelations: Persona. The game shifts the focus of the Megami Tensei series to a collection of high school students that battle invading demons by night. The game was an instant hit, in large part (at least according to my speculation) because of its accessible and unique setting. Few games (aside from run-of-the-mill life sims) in my experience attempt to situate themselves in an entirely normal world while also imbuing that world with secret fantasy themes. The Persona series capitalizes on the same appeal as superhero alter egos and secret powers, motifs that have themselves launched a thousand franchises.
The best game in the series according to many is one of the most recent: Persona 4 for the PlayStation 2. Like the other Persona games, Persona 4 stars a high school student and his friends, combating in a normal Japanese setting imbued with several pop culture references. The game represented the best of what Atlus had to offer: a perfect execution of tried-and-true concepts combined with incredibly unique motifs and thematic elements, all packaged in a distinctly Japanese setting with enough appeal for Western audiences to appreciate as well. The game has gone on to received acclaim not only as a potential Game of the Year for 2008, but also one of the best games of the decade and, potentially, even of all time.
Honorable Mentions: Maken X, Shin Megami Tensei, Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City, Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard, Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2, Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, Kartia: The Word of Fate, Princess Crown, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Persona 3, Revelations: Persona
Although this game focuses on Atlus as a developer, the company also has a great deal of acclaim as a publisher as well. They were the North American publisher for the recent hit game Demon's Souls, and more recently, published Code of Princess, an Agatsuma Entertainment product, in the United States as well. The company is well-known for the difficulty it places in its games, not only in those it develops but also in seeking out difficult games to publish. From a business perspective, the most recently development with Atlus is actually its disintegration; the company is now technically defunct, having been completely merged into its holding company, Index Corporation. That hasn't stopped the production of games or the Atlus label, though: since this supposed dissolution in 2010, the company has produced over a dozen new self-developed games, as well as publishing over a dozen more; included among these recent developments is the previously-mentioned Radiant Historia. Index Corporation and Atlus's own CEO, Shinchi Suzuki, have both affirmed that the dissolution of Atlus as a standalone entity was solely a move to put it on more stable financial ground, thus ensuring a parade of quality Atlus titles for a long time to come.
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List by DetroitDJ (10/16/2012)
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