Friday, January 20, 2012

The Advent of Localized Visual Novels

Visual novels are a long-running staple in Japan.

Popular titles don't just sell like hotcakes, they go on to influence merchandising of all kinds, manga adaptations, anime version, and even the occasional fighting game spin-off.

For years if not decades, this has largely remained a very Eastern-centric pastime, if not as Japanese as they get.

That slowly started to change, partially thanks in no small part to the popularity of Capcom's Gyatuken Saiban/Phoenix Wright games, which arguably started making the genre a viable one in the US.

With the primary focus being on reading into witness testimonies, and giving the player an attachment to the immense cast along the way, the PW games are solid examples of what makes visual novels appealing.

Still, for the games to have a chance at selling in the US, the publishers and localization teams responsible usually try to find titles that involve gameplay of some kind; not just reading pages upon pages of text with little to no player involvement.

Not very surprising given how American gamers tend to expect some kind of action along the way.

This hasn't stopped die-hard VN fans from giving purist readers their fix, however.

The expansive 'Umineko No Naku Koro Ni'('When The Seagulls Cry') series, for example; an elaborate tale of magic versus reason, murders, witchcraft, and romance.

07th Expansion's PC novels spin one gripping tale, and remain one of the most widely known of the genre. It's also one of the best examples of a solid fan translation.

The Witch Hunt didn't just go all out in their translation works of the Umineko saga; they even got the attention of the series creator, Ryukishi, who went on to sanction their work, and even give them a reference in the story.

That's all good and fine for the comparatively small niche of readers who are savvy in patching Japanese titles, but what about going after the gaming population at large?

Localizing any VN title, even one with VN elements, remains a risky gamble.

RED Company's long-running Sakura Wars franchise, ever a huge success in Japan, finally had a title localized c/o NIS America, only to have an underwhelming performance when it came to sales.

A balanced mix of mecha strategic combat and the wooing of numerous female significant others, Sakura Wars remains one of the more enjoyable and innovative examples of visual novel RPGs.

Despite being a great game in its own right, Sakura Wars V is largely considered the worst in the series. Moreover, it was released both for a dying console(the PS2) and one that left it easily overlooked in a sea of shovelware(the Wii).

Whether it was the wrong game or the wrong time, the failure of NIS's endeavor seems to have largely spelled the end of Sakura Wars' chances in the states.

Fortunately, it didn't end hopes for the VN genre.

Aksys took a considerable gamble in localizing Chun-Soft's DS visual novel/suspsense puzzler, '999'.

The venture paid off in spades. The game went on to sell out all over the country, and continues to be reprinted to this day; up to its 5th printing at last count.
(It very much deserves it: 999 doesn't just tell a great story, it brings a great game along with it.)

With the success of 999, the flood gates appear to have opened, and VN fans have much to rejoice over.

Team GrisGris and 5pb's Corpse Party, a mix of visceral horror and traditional top-down RPG, was a pretty risky venture by definition for XSeed.

It deservedly did well for itself, and remains the biggest selling game on the PSP's PSN downloads this week.
(Which may not say much when the console is on its last legs, but a success is a success!)

Aksys aren't ones to be outdone, either.

Idea Factory's Hakuoki is next on their list, and as a rare first, this one's for the ladies: the protagonist is a female character, out to seek love and vengeance in feudal-era Japan.

As of recent, even some extremely dedicated fans have taken up the mantle, and created a visual novel of their own:

The controversial, and free!, Katawa Shoujo.

One of the more time-honored variants of visual novels, Katawa Shoujo is purely a dating sim: where all the available girls are afflicted with a handicap of some sort.

Despite the shallow-sounding premise, it's the solid writing, charming cast, and the ensnaring atmosphere that makes this one a keeper: and if the GameFAQs top 10 is to be believed, a very popular one.

It's also worth noting that some groups such as Manga Gamer and JAST sell official localizations of visual novels through the web, such as 07th Expansion's Higurashi(the precursor to Umineko), and the well-received Aselia The Eternal, though their works tend to skew more towards the eroge(adult) genre.

So what's next for the genre in the US? Only good things, if all the previous examples are to be believed.

I'm waiting with bated breath for an official Umineko localization, myself.


  1. Hi CJ_Iwakura
    thanks for the write-up, it's a good summary of visual novel's entrance to the Western world.

    Might also add the significance of what fan translators have achieved at tlwiki & elsewhere and how it has impacted on some of the commercial releases at Mangagamer (NNL & minori) and Jast (Nitroplus, My Girlfriend is the President, etc).

    Also JAST has a long history of bringing sex games and some story games to the West. Ever17 published by Hirameki International (which has now ceased operation) is notable. These are our pioneers.

    Most visual novels produced in Japan have sexual content and are 18+. that's why a focus on how the sexual content has reached our shores can also be a point of focus.

    Your sentences are a bit funny here and there, they feel very marketing-style like, but they don't flow. I think it would be more effective if you just write in normal sentences. That's my thought anyway


  2. The next big thing at the moment seems to be the Steins;Gate translation. The website initially promising a fan-translation have announced they're going into talks with JAST and will be closing the site within two weeks.

    The big news is there's a lot of interest to get it released as a title on Steam. Whether Steam would accept it is still very much up in the air.

    I think that would legitimise the genre in a lot of people's eyes, and interest in titles outside of niche downloadable games about pigeon love and handheld adventures could grow pretty exponentially.

    I hope.


  3. Weren't Hotel Dusk and The Last Window visual novels? The Last Window at least felt like it, with even a narrational novel that filled up as you went along and it offered even a deeper peephole to the motivations of the characters.

    1. Yep, these count as well, but I haven't finished Hotel Dusk, and Last Window isn't very cheaply gotten in the US(not yet, anyway).

  4. I read about the fans bitching about losing their fan translation in favor of an official localized release.

    If they want the game to do well, they should clam up and support the developers.

    1. Aye. I think they're a little worried though. The Chaos;Head translation was pulled back in 2009 so there could be an official release, but now in 2012 that still hasn't happened.

      I couldn't quite see the same happening with Steins;Gate but given the circumstances I can see why they're anxious.


  5. No mention of the Disgaea visual novel on PSP? :(

    I loved that. Really, really enjoyed clocking it a few times for all the endings. Very funny, with all the charm of the strategy games. Truth be told, I had the strategy elements in the proper Disgaea games, because I just haven't got 100 spare hours to play through them.

    The visual novel was the perfect method for enjoying the rick humour and writing, but without all that tedious strategising.

    1. there was a Disgaea visual novel game for PSP!?

      ...I'm on it! Thanks for the heads up!

  6. Well, I was focusing on recent games, but Disgaea Infinite is pretty great, yeah. (It's just real difficult.)

  7. You didn't mention Jake Hunter. Also worth noting is the fan translation of Policenauts, which is arguably one of the best visual novels.

  8. Hakuoki isn't the first commercial release of a VN for girls in the US, btw. - 2006 already saw stuff like Yo-Jin-Bo, Animamundi or Enzai.

    Also one might want to note the popularity of the Spouse-Wooing in Harvest Moon or the Social Links of Persona 3+4.

  9. I wasn't familiar with previous otomes, but I did hear Hakuoki wasn't the first. Definitely one of the higher profile ones, though!

    Policenauts is a visual novel? I thought it was more of an adventure game like Snatcher. Interesting.

    (And I heard Jake Hunter is kind of awful.)

    1. hmmm... i'm quite intrigued by this.

      You regard both Snatcher and Policenauts as adventure games (which I agree), yet say Hotel Dusk and Last Window are Visual Novels.

      What's the difference?

    2. It's a tough distinction to make. I guess I think of Snatcher as more of an adventure game since it has light gun shooting and Monkey Island-esque explorations. Hotel Dusk and Last Window are grey area, but I think their presentation is way more VN than Snatcher.

    3. Thanks for the answer.

      It's interesting to see how people define 'visual novel'. Personally i would classify Hotel Dusk et al as adventure due to the 3D exploration, interaction, and puzzles.

    4. True, but VNs like 999 have that as well.

  10. How about Aksys Games release of Theresia (visual novel/horror)?

  11. What is the one on the first screenshot? looks nice

  12. I haven't played a lot of VNs (2 Ace Attorney games, 999, and Katawa Shoujo), but I've played enough to know that this is an amazing genre. Ah, if only we lived in a world where the VN prospered while the generic FPS withered and died...if only...

  13. A world where all of my favourite stuff is popular is fantasy. I mean, Korpiklaani can't even outsell Justin Bieber in Finland, which proves that the taste of the masses is shit.

  14. I recently got into visual novels and I'm trying my best to make them more popular in the West - I keep telling people about them. They're great. What's the game on the first screenshot?

    1. That's the fighting game spinoff of Umineko.

  15. Think the article could expand on earlier efforts on importing VNs. RIP, Hirameki. They had good foresight to bring over Ever17.