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 Neverland.

While Pack-In-Video started the Harvest Moon franchise and Victor (and Marvelous) nurtured it, the honest truth was that the series stagnated relatively quickly. The ingenuity of the series just didn't keep up with the innovation of several other genres, and although games like Tree of Tranquility did a good job of injecting some new blood into the franchise, they didn't really keep it competitive with other popular franchises. Sometimes that happens, though – a company gets so comfortable making one kind of game that it fails to branch out. When that happens, it's important to inject new blood into the series' development: and for that, enter Neverland. Along with ArtePiazza (architects of the less-successful Innocent Life spin-off), Neverland was tasked with more significantly reinventing the Harvest Moon series, and reinvent they did; but more on that in a bit. As a company, Neverland was founded in 1993, and has released games for eleven consoles across four generations. Many of these games were only famous in Japan (although the majority of their developments were, in fact, localized to the United States), but they were responsible for two major series to receive international acclaim. Interestingly, Natsume was the primary publisher of both these franchises in the United States as well, further demonstrating the unique relationship between Natsume, Marvelous, and Neverland.

Of the two franchises with which Neverland is most closely associated, Lufia is the earlier. Spanning six games in total, Lufia is relatively small among the more major RPG series, but it nonetheless has garnered an almost cult following many years after its release. Three games from the franchise make this list, starting with the game that kicked the series off: Lufia & the Fortress of Doom.

Aside from sounding like a rejected Indiana Jones sequel, Lufia & the Fortress of Doom actually didn't receive significant acclaim upon its initial release. Debuting in 1993, the RPG genre had already become reasonably well-established; five Final Fantasy games, for example, had already been released. The game didn't quite have the maturity to compete with franchises like Final Fantasy, SaGa, and Secret of Mana. However, removing ourselves a bit from the historical context in which the game was released, Lufia & the Fortress of Doom was still a high quality game, allowing it to receive a significant following over time once people stopped comparing it directly to the other RPGs released in its year. Its story and characters in particularly were very charming and captured a sort of appreciation missing from many other franchises. That appreciation may also be partially retroactive; as was witnessed with the Final Fantasy games and other franchises that gained extra popularity over time, the success of Lufia's sequel caused a significant increase in the attention paid to the series' earlier game.

Released in 2003, CIMA: The Enemy is another Neverland RPG, again published by Marvelous in Japan and Natsume in the United States. An original intellectual property, CIMA nonetheless drew from Neverland's experience with making RPGs, as it had been honed over the development of several of the games we'll be covering below. Released for the Game Boy Advance, CIMA: The Enemy was a few years too late to capitalize on the earlier lack of quality portable games; by 2003, two generations of Pokemon and several other portable RPGs had legitimized the Game Boy Advance as arguably the new go-to console for quality traditional RPGs, especially as the improved technical abilities of the PlayStation 2 made 2D RPGs obsolete on any other medium.

CIMA: The Enemy's distinguishing feature was a very interesting plot and gameplay symbiosis. The overall goal of the game is to rescue non-playable characters from in-game dungeons. The non-playable characters are nonetheless directed by the player in a very interesting sort of RPG/strategy RPG hybrid. This gameplay structure also draws a very direct parallel to the plot of the game; the story of the game dictates that it is the player's job to rescue these non-playable characters from dungeons that harvest human hope. This in itself explains why these intelligently-designed dungeons actually have escapes: without the possibility of escape, the humans trapped in the dungeons lose all hope, thus preventing the dungeons from harvesting the hope they were built to gather.

Record of Lodoss War is an instantly recognizable title, not because of the quality of this particular game but rather because of the immensity of the franchise with which it is associated. The franchise was originally conceived as a series of novels, although those novels themselves were based around the design of a game world. The games in this case were not video games, but rather tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. The fantasy novels of Record of Lodoss War capitalized on these tabletop games by fictionalizing and dramatizing the events of certain players. The popularity of the franchise led to an explosion of affiliated media, including anime, manga, soundtracks, and, of course, video games.

The popularity of the franchise is, as one would expected, largely concentrated in Japan, and as such the majority of the video games in the Record of Lodoss War franchise have been only released in Japan. In total, ten games have been released, but only one was localized to the United States. Titled Record of Lodoss War: Advent of Cardice in Japan, the subtitle was dropped for American and European releases given the absence of a prior series. The game follows a relatively traditional RPG plot, tasking the player with destroying an evil goddess, but differs from many tabletop RPG video games in its preference for an action RPG system. The game also departs from typical tabletop RPG video games in its relatively deemphasized level-up system, favoring instead a complex equipment system.

Although never localized to the United States, Chaos Seed is an example of a game with significant fan attention to achieving a translation; significant effort has been devoted over the past several years to at least developing a flat text translation to help bring the game to a larger audience. Released in 1996 for the Super Famicom and later ported to the Sega Saturn, Chaos Seed's success was largely limited by timing. At the time of its release, attention had already turned toward the next console generation, and hardly any 2D traditional RPG could hold a candle to games like Final Fantasy VII coming down the pipeline. Even the re-release on the Sega Saturn couldn't help it, given the Saturn's relatively dismal sales figures and the still-outdated game graphics.

As mentioned with Lufia, though, time tends to help games that are outdated at release achieve more acclaim; after all, after a while all games are outdated, and so the playing field is level again. Chaos Seed, thus, has achieved a bit more following over time. The game provides a very interesting and unique experience. The only real way to describe the gameplay is that it's room-based – the focus is on manipulating walls and rooms into the specific creations the game demands. It's not far-fetched to basically call the battle system feng shui-inspired; the entire game seems to revolve around a game version of furniture arrangement. That's a crude way to describe it, but it isn't entirely inaccurate.

Another game that was never released in the United States, Energy Breaker has also been subjected to a long translation process, but in this case the effort was ultimately successful only a few weeks ago. Unlike most other Neverland games, Energy Breaker is a tactical RPG rather than an action or turn-based RPG. The game is heavily reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics despite being released a year earlier, putting it a bit ahead of its time (not that Final Fantasy Tactics created the genre, but it certainly popularized it). Energy Breaker suffered the same problem as Chaos Seed – released late in the Super Famicom's lifespan, it couldn't compete with the offerings coming down the pipeline from the PlayStation, even though it still compares favorably to Final Fantasy Tactics.

The most distinct feature of Energy Breaker is that, unlike most tactical RPGs (at least that I've played), the player actually gets to also control a character in a standard RPG setup, exploring towns, visiting shops, and finding hidden items. Most tactical RPGs I've seen play the entire game within the strict constraints of the battle screen, giving the player only an overworld interface with which to explore the broader game world; in Energy Breaker, it's perhaps more accurate to say that the tactical portion is just the battle system for a more traditional RPG. The game also featured an early conversation system similar to the one seen in Mass Effect; similar to Mass Effect, the system is irrelevant and doesn't have any impact on the game's outcome.

The Shining series originally got its start on Sega consoles, initially commissioned by Sega to fill out the RPG roster of its Sega Mega Drive console and later brought in-house for development, especially for the Sega Saturn. The belief by Sega was that to compete with other major players in the industry, it was important to have entries in every popular category. This belief was certainly true, and the failure to follow this belief is part of what doomed the GameCube, given its meager offerings in the industry's two top genres at the time of its release, first-person shooters and role-playing games; but, I digress.

Although Sega famously exited the console industry and the Shining series never saw a DreamCast release, the series lived on: in 2002, Grasshopper Manufacture (the brainchild of the famous Suda51, and a company that I should really write about soon…) acquired the rights to the series and developed Shining Soul for the Game Boy Advance. Although of a different continuity universe than the original games, Shining Soul paved the way for more quality releases, leading up to one of the best Shining game to date, Shining Force EXA. Developed by Neverland and released in 2007, Shining Force EXA was the third PlayStation 2 Shining game and the second by Neverland. Its predecessor, Shining Force Neo, was famous for all the wrong reasons, but Shining Force EXA received more acclaim, with special attention to its unique Geo-Fortress gameplay system, giving the player a home base.

The second Lufia game on this list is also the series' most recent release. Developed for the Nintendo DS and released in 2010, Lufia is technically a remake of a previous Lufia title, but the differences between the games are so significant that it is disingenuous to call Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals a simple remake. This isn't an example of Square-Enix slapping some new graphics on Final Fantasy III and re-releasing it for the Nintendo DS (not that there's anything wrong with that); Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals is a complete reimagining of the original game. The battle system, for example, is an all-new action RPG affair rather than the turn-based system used in the franchise previously. The plot of the game remained largely unchanged, though, which was likely a good thing considering the popularity of the game on which it was based.

Unfortunately, Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals was a failure financially, barely selling at all. But like many good games, sales figures are not indicative of actual quality: the game still received very solid reviews from professionals and gamers alike. Most reviewers stated that the game did just enough to be considered different from the original game and modern among the current gaming landscape while remaining true to the original game as well. The game may have also suffered from the name it was given: while a remake like Final Fantasy III relies largely on the link to the original game, Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals lost some public cognizance of the link to the original Lufia II.

The other franchise for which Neverland is most recognized is also the franchise that led me to write about the company next: Rune Factory. We'll talk about the franchise as a whole next, but for Rune Factory Frontier, the important note is that at this point, Neverland had already developed two other Rune Factory games, all for the Nintendo DS. Rune Factory Frontier was the company's first foray into the bigger console, and it was met with significant acclaim. I would argue that it is harder to take an established portable franchise and develop a game on a major console than the other transition, given that scaling up is often more difficult to do than scaling down; but with Rune Factory Frontier, Neverland achieved this change of scale nearly flawlessly.

The most important element of Rune Factory Frontier's success, for me, is how the company was unafraid to be different in nearly every respect. Harvest Moon console games had been around for almost two decades, and it would have been simple to add just a little maturity to the plot and artistic style, throw in a battle system, and call it a day. Instead, though, Neverland went for a wholesale and complete reinvention of absolutely every element. Its graphical style is cohesive and thorough, its character design is staunchly anime-influenced, its plot and setting have a distinct eastern flavor, and its farming system is still very unique compared to the rest of the Harvest Moon series.

Before Rune Factory Frontier, though, was the game that started the franchise. By 2006, the Harvest Moon franchise had become somewhat stale; even though the new releases since then like Tree of Tranquility and Tale of Two Towns have been very good, they don't present any new kind of appeal. Harvest Moon: Back to Nature and Harvest Moon 64 are two games that tons of people played, but now it feels like relatively few people give the franchise a shot. To change that, Neverland entered the picture.

With its long history of RPG development, Neverland was chosen by the producer of the Harvest Moon series to develop a game that he described, in his own words, as "Harvest Moon where you wield a sword". The game was a mash-up of Harvest Moon farming and dating simulation and RPG-style monster fighting. Rather than just fighting monsters, though, those monsters take the place of the animals from previous games; instead of buying cows, for example, you can attack and capture a Buffamoo, which gives milk. The game also went with a completely unique artistic style as referenced in the about Rune Factory Frontier section; the cast of characters is all new and the anime influence is clear. That anime influence applies to the plot as well, which has a distinctly Japanese feel to its nuances. Above all, Rune Factory was also not a timid step into a new direction, but a bold one: ten bachelorettes, a sizable bestiary, and a large world all show that Neverland went all-in with this new development.

Neverland's most famous game, and the source material for the aforementioned "remake" Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals, is the 1995 SNES release Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals. The follow-up to the original Lufia despite the previous game's relative lack of success compared to other RPGs of the day, Lufia II was instead a runaway hit, marking one of those rare instances in which a sequel surpasses its predecessor. This was particularly impressive given the game's release date; as mentioned, games toward the latter end of the SNES's lifespan tended to perform poorly, but Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals still performed well despite its late release date.

While the game is a traditional RPG in many ways, what truly set it apart are its puzzles. The game has a much more significant puzzle focus than many of the other RPGs at the time; for many RPGs, "puzzles" were a misnomer and were really just a way to pad out the game's length a little bit, but for Lufia II, the puzzles were actually a very key component. The other unique feature of Lufia II is its Ancient Cave: whereas most RPG areas are predetermined by the designers, the Ancient Cave instead provides ninety-nine randomly-generated floors. This random element means that the cave is never the same twice, making it difficult to learn and master. The player is also stripped of their levels and equipment, forcing them basically to begin the game anew, reliant only on the items they can find in the dungeon.

Honorable Mentions: Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny, Rune Factory 2, Rune Factory 3, Rune Factory 4, Rune Factory Oceans, Shining Force Neo, Egg Monster Hero, Lufia: The Legend Returns.

Although Neverland as a company has been around for almost 20 years, it appears to just now be hitting its stride. Almost half of its games have been released for consoles that came out in the last six years, including many of the games that have given it its relatively strong reputation. The company has basically everything that a game developer nowadays wants: it has a strong main series that it can bank on in Rune Factory; it has a series with a long historical legacy for which gamers love new installments in Lufia; it has a strong licensing partnership with a more established game developer in Marvelous; and it has a long-standing publishing agreement with another establishing company in Natsume. The Rune Factory series in particular has become quite a boon for Neverland's prospects, now spanning six games across four consoles, and having recently made the jump to the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo 3DS. The new Rune Factory game for 3DS is especially anticipated for an American release, with an abundance of new features, improved graphics, and an enhanced town system.

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 (11/06/2012)

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