Released in 1995, Tales of Phantasia was the game that changed Wolf Team's entire fortunes and future, both in good ways and in bad. The game was Wolf Team's most ambitious project to date, and as such, they preferred not to partner with their usual publisher and parent company, Telenet Japan, due to its bad reputation. Instead, they partnered with Namco (after a brief flirtation with Enix). Namco, however, ended up exerting more control over the game than the team desired. Originally titled Tale Phantasia after the novel written by the game's programmer, Namco demanded a title change to Tales of Phantasia, leading to the series' moniker by which it's known today. These issue, as well as other internal issues with branding and staffing, led to the game being delayed by over a year, while some of the staff left to form tri-Ace.
Despite all of this, the game went on to become a moderate success. It was especially notable in its day, becoming one of the first games to feature real voice acting. Its battle system was unique compared to other RPGs, allowing the player primary control over only one character at a time (as has, interestingly, become standard) while positioning characters on a 2D side-scrolling battlefield rather than the typical two-sided affair. Though different, that was not revolutionary; the art style of the game, however, was particularly notable, coming on the heels of games like Chrono Trigger that helped popularize anime-style graphics in RPGs.
#9: Sol-Feace (X68)
Before the fallout with Telenet Japan and Wolf Team's subsequent (slow) defection to Namco, they were responsible for several other high-quality but poorly-selling games released primarily in Japan. One of these, released in 1990 for the Sharp X68000 and later ported to the Sega Mega-CD and Sega Genesis, was Sol-Feace (released in North America as Sol-Deace). The game was, in many ways, a prototypical shoot 'em up game: the player controlled a ship on the left side of the screen, firing at strategically placed and maneuvering enemy ships.
The notable elements of the game, though, were the graphics, music, strategy, and certain structural elements. The graphics were among the most advanced released at the time, and it is not beyond the realm of believability to think that the game could have reached the popularity of other recognizable shoot 'em ups with a better publisher backing it. The enemies were more interesting and varied than many other shoot 'em ups of the day, with more complex movement patterns and strategies. The music, especially, was some of the most impressive of the generation, disguising the technical limitations of all the consoles for which it was released. To this day, the music still stands up in quality against music you might see from modern big-budget games. Lastly, the game also provided an underappreciated scrolling feature: although the game scrolled left to right, it also allowed the played to scroll the screen up and down by moving in those directions, an interesting step forward that other games were slow to replicate.
#8: Time Gal (SCD)
First and foremost, Time Gal was not initially developed by Wolf Team – it was developed by Taito, with Toei Animation (now of Dragon Ball fame) handling the animation and graphics. Wolf Team, in turn, was responsible for the port of the game to the Mega-CD. Why, then, do I rank it as one of Wolf Team's best games? Time Gal's localization to the United States represented one of the first and most successful times a game of that genre was actually brought to North America. The game used pre-animated sequences matched with what could possibly be best described as primitive quick-time events to tell its story. Gameplay was at a minimum, as was typical with the interactive movie genre, and the emphasis was on the story and cinematography.
Wolf Team's port of the game to the Mega-CD was not a simple copy, either; the animation was significantly improved. If you go and look up gameplay of the game on YouTube, you'll find that you might mistake the game for an anime outright; the only give-away that the game is actually a game comes in the auditory cues to input button commands. To me, games like this represented an early attempt by the gaming industry to focus on the visual presentation of a story, even at the expense of gameplay. It would be several years before gameplay and cinematographic storytelling could be merged into one, but interactive movies like Time Gal provided one of the starting points for developing toward that accomplishment.
Tales of Destiny is the second game in the Tales series that eventually gave the studio its namesake, although at the time of its release (1997) the studio was still six years away from its eventual name change. Tales of Destiny itself is in many ways the game that put the franchise on the map; for a long time, it was the best-selling game in the franchise, especially in Japan. Like Tales of Phantasia, Tales of Destiny sticks with an interesting 2D battle layout, positioning the fighters in the game along a straight line, in many ways giving it a flavor more akin to fighting games. The system was also not turn-based, but rather real-time, echoing what would become Tales Studio's (and tri-Ace's) tendency toward active real-time battles rather than the turn-based strategic battles.
Released for the PlayStation, the biggest weakness that Tales of Destiny encountered was timing: Final Fantasy VII was released for the PlayStation twelve months earlier in Japan, and was superior in every immediately visible way. That's not to say that Tales of Destiny was actually a superior game overall, but rather the visual qualities of the game fell far short of anything seen in SquareSoft's now-iconic title. Tales of Destiny was still remarkably ahead of its time, however, as its battle system bares far more resemblance to the types of active battle systems that are popular today than the turn-based systems that were the industry standard at the time of its initial release.
Commonly credited to its then-parent company, Telenet Japan, Valis: The Fantasm Soldier is one of the games that led to the schism between Wolf Team and Telenet Japan in the first place. In particular, Wolf Team perceived that it was Telenet Japan's poor reputation that led to lackluster sales for what was actually a relatively strong action game at the time. It was no genre-changer, but it stood up against the other popular franchises at the time. The game presented an interesting meld of platforming, action combat, and strategy; in many ways, it plays like a cross between Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Contra. Like most Wolf Team games as well, the music was among the best around at the time of the game's release. It deserved more recognition than it received, but never sold well.
The franchise went on to have four sequels, most of which were credited to Telenet Japan, although Wolf Team was the primary developer behind them all. This period of the franchise's history is also particularly notable in terms of Wolf Team's history, as it was during this phase that the team began to distinguish itself more and more as an independent studio under Telenet's umbrella rather than an actual member team within the company, as it had started out. It was that development that eventually gave the team the prestige and clout to go looking for its own new collaborator and publisher, leading it to Namco.
Released in 2003, Tales of Symphonia was the first game released by the studio after its name change from Wolf Team to Namco Tales Studio, and the fifth Tales game overall. It was also the studio's only entry on the Nintendo GameCube, although it was later supplemented with a PlayStation 2 port, increasing both the game's and the franchise's visibility with an entry on the generation's most popular console. Tales of Symphonia was, in many ways, the game that elevated the Tales series to its modern status; Tales of Phantasia created the franchise and Tales of Destiny gave it its initial visibility, but it was Tales of Symphonia that launched the franchise into the realm of most-popular JRPG series of all time, alongside Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Shin Megami Tensei. In the United States especially, Tales of Symphonia solidified the Tales series' position as arguably the second most-popular JRPG series available.
Like most of Tales Studio's games, the game's highest point of praise was an interesting battle and combat system. The game employed a more active battle system than other RPGs at the time, modifying the classic system used in the previous game to allow for more simultaneous action and to take advantage of the GameCube's and PlayStation 2's graphical capabilities. The game has also gotten better with age, as its renown and recognition has seemed to increase over time; recently, I have even seen it getting some love as potentially one of the best games ever made.
#4: Mid-Garts (MSX)
Released in 1989, Wolf Team's Mid-Garts was a scrolling shooter. On the surface, the game didn't appear to be much different than any other game in the genre, but closer inspection shows that with Mid-Garts, Wolf Team was attempting to elevate the genre past simple repetitive entertainment. The different flavor on the genre is apparent right from the outset; the cover is more like a painting, the game's subtitle echoes a deeper objective than just killing baddies, and the documentation included with the game is enormous; complex back-stories are given on all the characters, locations, and animals in the game. Wolf Team never intended for Mid-Garts to just be another shooter in an already-crowded genre; the game was meant to be more of an experience.
Throughout the game, that dedication to putting a new flavor on the genre is clear. In Mid-Garts, you encounter enemies the likes of which you never would have expected to see in a game of this simple genre. You'll encounter talking severed heads, preserved human fetuses, and even modern-day enemies like the US Navy. The plot that the player embarks on throughout the game is twisting, turning, and utterly unpredictable, and at times even manages to transcend genres, seamlessly moving back and forth between a shooter and a shoot 'em up (two similar genres, granted, but two that are typically kept fairly far apart). With the unique flavor of the game, it's a shame that it was largely relegated to anonymity due to Telenet Japan's influence.
Released in Japan in 2011, Tales of Xillia has yet to see localization to North America, making it one of the most hotly anticipated RPG titles in development today. Slated for a 2013 release in both the United States and Europe, its hype is made even stronger by the extremely favorable reception it received upon its Japanese release. Critics hail the game as the greatest Tales game ever, surpassing even the praised Tales of Vesperia and Tales of Graces F. Its sales are also among the best the franchise has ever had. Those numbers, those reviews, and the upcoming direct sequel combine to make Tales of Xillia one of the most hotly-anticipated 2013 releases in North America.
Tales of Xillia might also go down with a more dubious honor: the game may be the last game ever created by Tales Studio. Tales Studio was dissolved and merged into the broader Namco Bandai Games shortly after Tales of Xillia's release. Although the majority of the staff, designers, and programmers from the team are still employed by Namco Bandai Games, only time will tell whether they are kept together as a cohesive unit or not. At present, a direct sequel to Tales of Xillia (Tales of Xillia 2) is projected for a November 1st release, but time will tell whether the recent restructuring will impact that schedule. If nothing else, Tales of Xillia marks the end of an era; even if the same developers are assigned to the new Tales games, we shall never again see a game "Developed by Namco Tales Studio".
I'm writing from the United States, and thus while critics in Japan may have hailed the thusfar Japan-only Tales of Xillia as superior to Tales of Vesperia, I'll believe it when I see it; until then, Tales of Vesperia still receives my vote as the best Tales game yet released. Released in 2008 (with a 2009 Japan-only PlayStation 3 port), Tales of Vesperia was the best of everything the Tales series had to offer and more. It retained the anime-style graphics and characters that had become iconic in the series and the soaring and epic plotline that the studio seems to pull off so effortlessly. The game was so popular that it even caused the Xbox 360, until then something of a dud in Japanese sales, to fly off the shelves. The subsequent PlayStation 3 release, catering more to the most popular console in Japan, sold almost 150,000 copies on the very first day.
Like all Tales Studio games, the highest achievement for the game seemed to come in the battle system. Although the acronym that the studio uses to describe its system gets more convoluted with every generation, the system itself is strong. Most notably, it addresses many common issues with other RPGs' battle systems, such as merging roaming groups of enemies. The only weakness to the game's combat system is a rather primitive skill system, but that minor note isn't sufficient to hamper the game as a whole; with how innovative and unique the other systems are, perhaps having something familiar is desirable.
It might be somewhat unfair to give Arcus 1-2-3 an entire entry on this list given that it, itself, is a compilation of three games: Arcus, Arcus II: Silent Symphony, and Arcus III. The three games, however, form such a unique and cohesive experience that it's almost difficult to separate them out, and each are strong enough on their own right to make this list. The series had the potential to be recognized as one of the all-time greatest RPG franchises, and was surely a sign of things to come for the studio that went on to create one of gaming's most beloved JRPG series. In fact, many say it was specifically the lack of commercial success of Arcus that was the final impetus for Wolf Team to find a new publisher in the first place.
Arcus is a series characterized by an intricate plot, a complex and enthralling set of characters, and, perhaps most notably, among the most seamless and elegant mergers of plot and gameplay the gaming industry had yet seen. The combat and leveling systems required significant strategy and nuance; they were not simply races to the strongest spells to spam them at will. The series also featured some of the first in-battle voice acting the industry had ever seen, showing how such a simple feature can significantly improve the feel of a game. Put simply, the entire Arcus franchise had the potential to be referenced alongside Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest among the pantheon of the genre's greatest hits; if you have the means to play it, stop reading this right now and go do so.
Honorable Mentions: Tales of Graces, Tales of the Abyss, Road Blaster, Zan: Yasha Enbukyoku, Arcus Odyssey, Tales of Rebirth, Tales of Eternia, Tales of Legendia, Tales of Destiny 2, Tales of Hearts.
As mentioned above, Tales Studio faces an uncertain future. A year ago, the studio was officially dissolved and merged into the larger whole of Namco Bandai Games as part of a significant restructuring of the company. That does not mean that the actual staffers of the studio are gone, however; by and large, most are still with Namco Bandai Games, albeit in a less specific capacity. Judging from the company's intention to put out a direct sequel to Tales of Xillia later this year, it is reasonable to think that the dissolution might not actually affect the game produces by the now-defunct Namco Tales Studio, and that the restructuring is more of a change in names and organization. On the other hand, it might also be reasonable to assume that Tales of Xillia 2 is merely the remnant of a project in development when the studio was dissolved, and that upon its release Namco Tales Studio will finish its fade into obscurity. Only time will tell whether the restructuring hinders the company's ability to produce more high-quality Tales games, but regardless, the name Namco Tales Studio will no longer be emblazoned across the cover of these releases.
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 DDJ (09/05/2012)
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