Friday, April 10, 2015

XENOPATHOLOGY Letter One: Michael, March 18

Cough cough, pardon our dust, long time since I've updated, etc. Would you rather read about what I've been up to, or some hard-hitting video game criticism? I thought so. Take it away, Michael:


Greetings, folks... this is guestblogger Michael Peterson, formerly of Project: Ballad, using Will's real estate here since I no longer have permanent online residence. Will and I are pleased to present a letter series between he and I over the upcoming days and weeks (and months?) focusing on the newly-released Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, the wider-release offering of the cult Wii title, and maybe on some other things as well. I thank my good friend and comrade in games writing Will for the time spent and the words exchanged. It's a time of great contention for games, but there are few things more joyful than discussing an interesting game with a friend.

Being an Epistolary Tale of Scale, Storytelling, Monadology, and Overcooked Allusions in the Xeno franchise of "J"RPGs, focusing primarily on the Nintendo 3DS release of Xenoblade Chronicles in 2015, and looking forward


Dear Will,

Thanks for clearing some space for me on your desk!

The time of this writing is the third week in March. Xenoblade Chronicles 3D will be arriving in western stores on April 10th. I thought maybe we'd start talking about this game, and the others in its series (be those connections loose or otherwise) before you get started.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is the first game available that is exclusively for use on the Nintendo New 3DS, rather than any 3DS models before it. What color is your 3DS, Will? Mine's Monado Red. Much as in some of the previous video game letter series I hosted, I'm entering as the comparative expert opposite someone new to the game in question, and in this case I'm very much a fan of the title. Though not an unequivocal one, as we'll get to in time. I certainly have my issues with it. But I will do my best to lead you on through the world of Xenoblade in discussion, without spoiling anything you don't already know. Which leads to another question: how much do you know about this game, going in? Is Shulk's Super Smash Bros. appearance and its attendant mis-applied and overused memes the extent of your knowledge?

For the benefit of the folks following along at home, a bit of backstory. Xenoblade (and we'll have to keep the title shortened for our own sanity as discussion carries on) began life as a game that was initially titled Monado: The Beginning of the World. Renamed relatively late in its development, Xenoblade was released for Wii in June 2010 in Japan.

In 2011, word came that the game would be localized in Europe and Australia for release in the summer, but there was no word of a North American release. There are any number of conspiracy theories as to the reason, but if nothing else, somebody assumed that it wouldn't sell here. The original Monado title had a placeholder on Amazon that languished as the European release date approached, and a group of ardent fans began what was titled "Operation Rainfall," an effort to bring Xenoblade, Hironobu Sakaguchi's The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower to the US. Operation Rainfall spread awareness in any number of ways, but (according to Wikipedia) a particularly notable one was that on June 25, 2011, a preorder push for that defunct placeholder became the number one best-selling video game on Amazon for the day.

The game was finally given a North American release date for April 2012... but only as a GameStop exclusive. Because of this, the game instantly became a rare item. Nintendo of America's position was that Operation Rainfall had not influenced the localization decisions, but Nintendo didn't usually offer entire games as retailer exclusives, so... At any rate, the game was exceedingly well-reviewed and attained a cult following, and GameStop subsequently faced some controversy because copies were scarce, but used copies priced exceedingly high were available on its website, leading to a high demand amongst some and a spiteful refusal to look for the game at all from others. As another notable quirk of its release, localization was done through Nintendo of Europe, and thus the voice actors were English actors rather than American ones, even upon arriving on our shores.

I got my own copy from Kevin Czapiewski as a gift as we worked on Project: Ballad.

Fast-forward to August 2014, and Shulk is revealed to be a new fighter in the latest Smash Bros installment, surprising many - though not me, personally. I'd been predicting it (and awaiting it greedily, I must admit) for quite some time, as Nintendo's been pushing the Xenoblade license incredibly hard since releasing the Wii U. Xenoblade Chronicles X, a spiritual sequel, is due later this year, and is the highest-profile "hardcore gamer" (if we can gag that term down for a bit) title that they have slated. The first teaser was one of the earliest Wii U games previewed, and they've got a lot riding on it. Rereleasing this game, and giving it the love that it deserved the first time around, was a marketing decision for its Wii U game as much as anything. And in that sense, it's smart - this is a good game, and by every single indicator thus far, Xenoblade Chronicles X is shaping up to be something very special. It's my most anticipated release in years and even if it disappoints in the ways that Xeno titles always do - and this is something that I think you and I will be talking a lot about as we exchange these letters - even if it does, it's still likely to be one of the most fun and engrossing RPGs since the 16-bit era. As, indeed, Xenoblade was the last go-around.

So! You will be playing this game for the first time, and I will be playing it my third time through. Last time, I played it with my wife, and we essentially 100% cleared the game, so feel free to ask me for any help along the way if you need it - though I'm not certain that you will. There is, however, plenty for us to talk about. Obsession, the storytelling of Xeno games, the state of "J"RPGs in the modern age, the relationship between Eastern- and Western-developed RPGs, how being over- or under-powered affects how we engage with a game, completionism, the tendency of a fan to fill in story blanks and how gaming is so tuned to that instinct, Digital Devil Saga, archetypes, accents, "social links," how Xenosaga is one of the worst video game experiences of all time, cute mascot characters, subplots, female characters, Yoko Shimomura's love affair with the violin, and the tendency in the modern age to reduce a subject to a meme rather than engage with it... and that's what I came up with off the top of my head just now.

What do you know about this game's story and gameplay going in, Will? Why did you pass Xenoblade by when it was first released, and why are you coming to it now with this portable, 3D-enhanced release? Do you have a Shulk Amiibo (I do)? As an adult, how do you devote time to a game of prodigious length like an RPG? And what are your thoughts before we begin this long letter series?



P.S. Ah, Hell, fine, for the sake of our readers, just the once: "I'm really feeling it!"

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