On This Day In Gaming: Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii)
The video game history is littered with as many colossal failures as monumental successes. While the development staff of the latter savors a crowning achievement, employees of the former endure punishing defeated. Although a handful of studios have weathered unsuccessful game launches, most cannot continue to operate. For this reason, video game companies typically embrace a risk-averse development strategy. But a select few wield the courage necessary to push back against the industry norm. This is the story of an exceedingly ambitious director who overcame a decade of adversity to create one of the most important Nintendo JRPG franchises. Released on this day 10 years ago for the Nintendo Wii, Xenoblade Chronicles became the crowning achievement of Tetsuya Takahashi.
On This Day in Gaming is a series that honors the anniversary of the most iconic video games in history. We analyze director and studio development decisions while also reminiscing on the enduring legacy that continues to influence the industry.
The Xenoblade Chronicles Story
Beaten and Broken Down
During the fall of 2006, Monolith Soft founder Tetsuya Takahashi was depressed. His dream had been to break away from traditional Japanese role-playing games by creating the most epic series in the genre. Until then, most games within a JRPG franchise were standalone experiences with similar themes and styles. Takahashi’s desire was to create a series of interconnected titles, and his vision manifested itself in the Xenosaga franchise. Originally scheduled for six chapters, Xenosaga Episode I sold relatively well. The game finished 2002 as the seventh best-selling Japanese game, which impressed Namco so much that the publisher increased its support. Takahashi quickly approved an anime adaptation as well as a four-part visual novel.
But then disaster struck. The staff at Monolith Soft responded to the industry’s critique of the first Xenosaga game by integrating many changes into Episode II. Fans enjoyed the battle system and characters; however, many felt that the cutscenes were too long and convoluted. Moreover, the sequel was significantly shorter than Episode I. While the game debuted strongly on the Japanese charts, sales quickly declined. By the end of 2004, Xenosaga Episode II sold less than its predecessor.
Understanding that Namco had high expectations for the third installment, Takahashi decided to shorten the Xenosaga series from six episodes to three. This decision led to many creative issues, which included a massive departure from the series’ original script. Despite noticeable flaws, Xenosaga Episode III sold well during at launch. However, much like the second game, sales of the final episode quickly faded. Critics praised the story, but reviewers blamed the game’s failure no a the lack of side content and innovation. By the end of 2006, Episode III became the worst-selling game in the series, and Namco officially ended its partnership with Monolith Soft.
From the Ashes
Morale amongst the Monolith staff was at an all-time low. The vision of creating an intricate series of epic JRPG novels failed, and the company no longer had a publisher. Not to mention, the diminishing sales from the Xenosaga series also left the company in dire financial straits. Frustrated, broken and upset, the studio desperately needed a fresh idea and new partners.
Just as the phoenix rises from the ashes, Takahashi would not accept defeat. Lying awake one night in 2006, he got the idea of two opposing settlements living on the backs of two giant beasts. Takahashi quickly captured his thoughts in a notebook and brought them into work the next day. The idea intrigued the Monolith staff, and the art team quickly put together concepts for the 3D models. Combining the concept art with an unused story from Takahashi’s narrative vault, the Monolith team had the right ingredients for an epic game. The only piece remaining was a partnership with a new publisher.
Enter Shinji Hatano. The Nintendo executive spent several years developing a report with Takahashi and encouraged the Monolith staff to explore new ideas. When the opportunity to partner with Monolith became available, Hatano advocated for a partnership. In early 2007, Nintendo successfully negotiated the purchase of an 80% stake in Monolith Soft, which solved the company’s monetary issues.
All Takahashi needed to do was pitch his idea to Nintendo. After a productive conversation with Nintendo producer Hitoshi Yamagami, Nintendo greenlit the project. Whenever Takahashi felt insecure about the game’s scale, Yamagami calmed his fears. Whenever Monolith fell behind schedule, Yamagami intervened with Nintendo. After three and a half years of grueling development, Monolith proudly unveiled its crowning achievement: Xenoblade Chronicles. But little did Takahashi know the extent that western audiences would demand for his game.
Japanese exclusives remain a topic of debate among the video game community; however, western outrage reached its peak in 2011. After witnessing the excitement surrounding the release of Xenoblade Chronicles in Japan, North American players demanded the game in the west. Armed with the goal of inundating Nintendo of America with requests, the starving community of JRPG fans named their movement “operation rainfall.”
The fan base quickly got to work by flooding the IGN forums and even former NoA president Reggie Fils-Aime with emails. Players formed Facebook groups and started Twitter trends. After nearly 18 months of consistent prodding, Monolith treated the western audience with an English localization. And the community did not disappoint.
While the exact sales figures remain a mystery, Xenoblade Chronicles was one of the best-selling games in North America during April 2012. Emphatic supported continued throughout the remainder of 2012, and Takahashi shared his appreciation during an interview with late Nintendo CEO Satora Iwata. The Monolith Soft founder revealed that Xenoblade sold twice as many copies in the west when compared to Japan. Armed with a new series and backing of a grateful partner, Takahashi knew the future was bright, and the rest is history.
Needless to say, critics around the globe praised the game for its engrossing narrative, open-world design, and captivating music. By the end of 2012, Monolith Soft touted countless awards across the video game industry. Not only did Xenoblade Chronicles revive Takahashi’s studio but it also forged a legacy for future Nintendo games.
- Super Smash Bros Crossover. The combination of enthralling characters, charming music, and ravishing worlds made Xenoblade Chronicles a nature fit for the Super Smash Bros universe. Sakurai made Shulk a payable character in both the Wii U and Nintendo Switch adaptations of Super Smash Bros. In addition, Nintendo added Gaur Plain as a playable stage in both games along with the renowned soundtrack.
- Open-World Guru. Innovation is the key to success, and no series epitomizes this premise quite like Xenoblade Chronicles. Nintendo and Eiji Aonuma took notice during the early stages of development for Breath of the Wild. As the Zelda team struggled to transition their own series into an open-world adventure, Aonuma brought on members of the Xenoblade team for consultation. Monolith performed so well that Nintendo is currently employing Takahashi’s staff for the development of the sequel.
At its core, Xenoblade Chronicles is an open-world action JPRG with turn-based elements. Characters perform a series of auto attacks, which fill a talent gauge, and each member wields a list of abilities called “battle arts”. Upon executing a battle art, the game also activates a mandatory cool down period. Maintaining balance between auto attacks and battle arts is key to prevailing in battle.
The game also relies heavily on characters stats, which players can augment by increasing levels and equipping weapons and armor. Finally, each party member has a skill tree that further enhances abilities and skills. While each of the points listed above are common in the JRPG genre, the following list is unique to Xenoblade Chronicles:
- Visions. Shulk’s visions are core not only to the story of Xenoblade Chronicles but to the battle system. During combat, the Monado will give Shulk a vision of an upcoming attack. By selecting an appropriate counter move, such as a buff or debuff art, Shulk can quickly gain the advantage in combat.
- Affinity. Although affinity is not a new concept for the JRPG genre, the method of execution is special. The game not only tracks affinity level between party members but also provides affinity data between NPCs. This system adds a sense of reality to each town by displaying the likes and dislikes of friends and family members.
- Heart-to-Heart. While the story of Xenoblade Chronicles plays out in the form of epic cutscenes, heart-to-heart encounters provide additional perspective on individual characters. So long as the affinity between members is high enough, players can watch these additional side conversations. In addition, these discussions are located at special map locations for each character. This mechanic adds depth not only to the protagonists but also to the world’s lore.
Xenoblade Chronicles Trivia
The initial gameplay and lore designs of Xenoblade Chronicles were quite different from the final product. While Tetsuya Takahashi had a strong vision for the game, the following is a list of lesser-known development trivia:
- Takahashi initially planned to call the game Monado: Beginning of the World. However, the late Nintendo CEO Satora Iwata changed the name to Xenoblade in honor of Takahashi’s prior games.
- The staff initially designed the game with a traditional turn-based battle system. But the crew was unable to integrate Shulk’s battle visions; therefore, they switched to an active system.
- Takahashi enjoys anime and paid homage to the Fullmetal Alchemist series. Upon trading with an NPC, the game rewards the player with the achievement “equivalent exchange.” This is a reference to the anime law with the same name.
- Players can see the unused map section of the Bionis’ shoulder in the game’s final cutscene. While unintentional, Takahashi later rectified this oversight in Future Connected epilogue.
And there you have it: the story behind one of Nintendo’s most unlikely success stories. But we want to know what you think. Did you play Xenoblade Chronicles during the Wii era? Have you also played any other game in the Xenoblade series? Let us know in the comments below or the social media links on the right. Also, be sure to check out our other On This Day in Gaming articles to learn more stories about your favorite video games.
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