Ten years later, we look back at the pitfalls and triumphs that led to the legendary game.
Update 2 PM MTN, May 28, 2020: Comments made by Monolith Soft president Sugiura Hirohide to this month’s issue of Famitsu have been included.
Though some might dismiss Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition as yet another remake—of a game that’s already received a remake, no less–in a year rife with several other video game remakes and remasters, it’s also a sign of just how far the franchise has come since its inception. While Xenoblade has become something of a key pillar in Nintendo’s offerings to a certain demographic, it’s odd thinking about how dim the prospects of a North American release for the title were, a modern triumph eight games and decades in the making.
Xenoblade itself has come a long way since its initial 2010 release, and while its acclaim and accolades have been sung throughout the past decade, it’s a success built heavily upon the backbones of its predecessors and the unparalleled vision of its creator. The landmark achievement very nearly didn’t exist.
Didn’t Know That
Operation Rainfall was a fan campaign that centred around Nintendo localizing three RPGs for Western consumption: The Last Story, Pandora’s Tower, and Xenoblade Chronicles. Between XSEED Games and Nintendo all three were ultimately published in North America. Xenoblade remains the crown jewel of the trio.
Xenoblade Chronicles itself is but one game in a larger series of JRPGs, loosely known as the Xeno series, which is composed of Xenogears, Xenosaga, and the aforementioned Xenoblade. Although each of these IPs are owned by different companies (Square Enix, Bandai Namco, and Nintendo, respectively), there is one fiber connecting each of these series together: Tetsuya Takahashi, the creator, director and scenario writer for each of the games in this series.
Or, rather, almost every game.
See, Xenoblade Chronicles wasn’t the first acclaimed RPG by Tetsuya Takahashi, or his development studio, Monolith Soft.
It was, however, the first to have been relatively uncompromised in its development.
Tetsuya Takahashi’s first major directorial credit was with Square Enix’s (then known as Squaresoft) Xenogears, released in 1998 for the original PlayStation. Before Monolith Soft, there was a team of relatively fresh developers at Squaresoft, who initially pitched the title as Final Fantasy VII. Though the project was seen as too dark and complicated for a Final Fantasy title, it was allowed to flourish independently, and come into its own as a new IP. And so, the team behind Xenogears would spend two years crafting one of the darkest JRPGs on the system, featuring a unique, combo-based combat system, a legendary soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda, and one of the most complex, unabashedly mature plots in a Squaresoft game at the time – and arguably even in video games as a whole.
Shöchi no tama wo torareta yö: “As though a jewel in one’s hand has been taken away.”
Unfortunately, among the many things Xenogears is remembered for, perhaps the most infamous is its second disc, continuing the story from Disc 1 after a massive paradigm shift in the game’s narrative. After changing discs, the story’s smooth, organic pacing steps back, as the characters take a literal seat and recount various events of the narrative. Some of the game’s highest points are still playable, interspersed throughout bouts of heavy exposition and dialogue, whereas other moments in the narrative are merely presented in barely playable chunks – or worse yet, outright presented via cutscenes.
For many years since its release, the consensus was that Squaresoft stifled Xenogears’ development, siphoning resources to finish development of Final Fantasy VIII, but no official explanation was ever given for why Xenogears’ second disc turned out as it did. It wasn’t until E3 2017, in an interview with Kotaku, Takahashi explained that Squaresoft had given a hard 18 month cap on development.
A number of companies were involved in the ‘Xeno’ franchise, including:
Square: You know them for Final Fantasy. The original makers of Xenogears. In 2003 they merged with Enix to become Square Enix.
Namco: You know them for making a ton of your favourite arcade games. They staked the departing developers and helped form Monolith Soft. In 2006 they merged with Bandai to form Namco Bandai, and in 2014 flipped the name around to Bandai Namco.
Nintendo: You know them for making Mario and many other games of your childhood. They purchased Monolith Soft in 2007 and in addition to allowing Monolith to work on their own games they utilize them to support development of games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
It was a deadline that the team of young developers were not able to meet without running into delays on the project. As it became clear the team would be unable to realize the full scope of what they had envisioned, Takahashi was met with two options: either create a new ending and leave the game at Disc 1, per Squaresoft’s suggestion, or find a way to salvage the team’s work and preserve the game’s story in some fashion.
In the end, Takahashi opted for the latter, resulting in the compromised Disc 2 of Xenogears.
There’s a sense that there was a much, much greater ambition for Xenogears than it had realized. In October 1998, a few months after Xenogears’ Japanese release, a compendium known as Xenogears Perfect Works ~The Real Thing~ was released in Japan, chronicling several details of the game’s world, character backstory, developer notes, and information about the rules of Xenogears’ world. Moreover, as the credit’s roll on the game, it’s revealed that Xenogears is merely part five of what was to be a six-part series which never fully came to fruition.
On-Ko Chi-Shin: “Learn from the past”
Rather than abandon all the concepts and ideas that were to be used in the six-part series, Tetsuya Takahashi and Hirohide Sugiura would leave Squaresoft, forming a new company with former Squaresoft employees, all under the pursuit of expanded creative freedom. In October 1999, Monolith Soft was founded with major investment from Namco.
In an interview published after this piece went live, Monolith Soft president Sugiura Hirohide says Xenogears 2 may have been a possibility, but Square’s focus on the film industry at the time made it untenable. Xenogears 2, he says, was the focus of a newly created Monolith, though that apparently changed.
Instead, their very first project was a spiritual successor to Xenogears for the PlayStation 2: Xenosaga.
Xenosaga was also a sci-fi flavored RPG series, though it leaned more into the realm of sci-fi than its predecessor, and was even heavier with its religious motifs and philosophical themes. Though it was stated to not be directly connected with Xenogears, it nonetheless shared and expanded upon the very same concepts, including those outlined in Perfect Works. Much like Xenogears before it, Xenosaga was initially intended to span six games; yet, were one to look at the series history, you’d find only three.
Following the 2002 release of Xenosaga: Episode I, a 2003 interview with Famitsu revealed that an executive decision was made within Monolith Soft to let a younger team of developers within the company handle Xenosaga: Episode II. The reason cited for this change in development was a concern over fewer new creators entering the video game industry along with concerns over stagnation within the series.
Interest was expressed in expanding the Xenosaga series beyond RPGs, including forays into “a novel or anime series”. Takahashi stepped down as the director of the core Xenosaga series instead supervising its production.
With a new core team including producer Tomohiro Hagiwara, director Koh Arai, and scenario writer Norihiko Yonesaka, Tetsuya Takahashi and his wife, Soraya Saga, merely provided the original script and premise for the upcoming sequel. A sequel which, by its mid-2000s release, had seen rewritten scripts, altered scenarios, an engine change, and a polarizing new art direction.
The circumstances behind the changes in Xenosaga’s development on the whole are much broader than that of Xenogears, with the impact of these changes being greater than requiring another disc. Part of the story intended to be included in the six-game series had been included in the 2004 Japanese-only mobile game, Xenosaga: Pied Piper, and yet another portion of the story had been relegated to a series of flash movies released on the series’ Japanese site, set between episodes II and III.
Most interestingly, after the release of episode I, all mention of Xenosaga being a six-part series had quietly stopped, with only the prospects of an episode IV being mentioned prior to the release of episode II.
With the release of Xenosaga: Episode III in 2006, the Xenosaga series of games would come to a close, with three main games, a prequel mobile game, and a DS remake of the first two releases. An overhaul in Monolith Soft’s development process, a desire to avoid stagnation, and, perhaps, over ambition knee-capped the series.
Once again Tetsuya Takahashi’s vision wasn’t met.
It was after these events that Hirohide Sugiura, co-founder of Monolith Soft, would seek advice, in light of Namco’s then-recent merger with Bandai and concerns that the newly-formed Namco Bandai (which flip-flopped its name later on) was less willing to take creative risks. The advice he received? “Make something that can’t be found elsewhere in the industry.”
Udonge no saita yö: “A rare happening.”
That advice was from Nintendo’s then managing director, Shinji Hatano, and shortly thereafter Monolith Soft would become an official subsidiary of Nintendo, a move that would forever shape Takahashi’s vision.
Development of Xenoblade began between the end of Xenosaga: Episode III’s development, and the release of Monolith Soft’s lesser-known title, Disaster: Day of Crisis.
The concept of people living on the bodies of gods had only crossed Takahashi’s mind after Xenosaga: Episode III’s development wrapped, resulting in the creation of two small models that were used as reference points for how the game should progress. It wasn’t until the final stretch of Day of Crisis’ development that the original concept of Xenoblade – Monado: Beginning of the World – was pitched to Nintendo.
The challenge of delivering a game on time re-emerged for the team.
There’s an old Japanese proverb about a cricket trying to swim across a river. At first it’s swimming away happily, but halfway across, it just seems to give up.Tetsuya Takahashi in the Iwata Asks series.
It appeared Monolith Soft’s ambition would get the better of them, as it became clear they would miss their projected deadline for the title. Recognizing this, Takahashi had approached Hitoshi Yamagami, a Nintendo executive overseeing the project, offering compromises through which they might still be able to reach the deadline.
This time, though, the concessions proposed to cut the game’s development short were completely rejected by Yamagami, stating “You’ve come this far. You should see it through to the end. I’ll convince the others at the company.”
Whereas previously, Xenogears and Xenosaga had paid for their ambition, executives within Nintendo had seen and recognized the potential that Monado: Beginning of the World held.
So much so, in fact, that the title’s name had been changed to Xenoblade, with then-CEO of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, stating the name change was to honor the very legacy that Takahashi had built up between work on both Xenogears and Xenosaga.
In time, Xenoblade would release on the Nintendo Wii in 2011, trickling out to every region by 2012. While any story could simply end there, citing how the game was an overwhelming success for Monolith Soft and Nintendo, Xenoblade is more than a mere runaway success for both companies: it marks the first time that Tetsuya Takahashi and Soraya Saga have fully conceptualized and completed a project.
Nana korobi, ya oki: “Fall down seven times, get up eight”
After many years in development, the result of Monolith Soft’s efforts was a console JRPG unlike any other at the time. While prior Xeno games leaned more heavily on their narratives than their gameplay, Xenoblade was quite the opposite. One of the main goals that Takahashi sought to achieve with Xenoblade was to better balance the two defining aspects of the common JRPG: story and gameplay. Rather than funnel players into the game’s next cutscene, Monolith Soft crafted vast, sprawling landscapes, just begging players to see all which Xenoblade had to offer.
Players could explore areas such as frozen reaches of Valak Mountains or the lush Makna Woods to their heart’s content, with smart design choices to cut down on backtracking, keeping players engaged in the seamless battle system, and investing players into the main characters with optional scenes that better showcase the party’s interactions with one another. By giving players the option to freely push the story forward at their own pace and creating a vast, interconnected world, Monolith Soft had managed to craft an experience that has since resonated with fans across the world.
Since the release of Xenoblade, the title has proven itself not only as a one-off game, but as a successful series, with Monolith Soft following the title up with Xenoblade Chronicles X on the Wii U, itself followed by the release of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, plus its expansive DLC, on the Nintendo Switch, with the latter eventually going on to become Monolith Soft’s best-selling RPG. Xenosaga’s KOS-MOS and T-elos even appear as blades you can unlock and use.
It’s unclear where the Xeno series might go next, but one thing is for certain: many of Tetsuya Takahashi and Soraya Saga’s previous ideas and concepts can still be found within Xenoblade, including its many direct references, allusions, unused concepts and homages to the stories of Xenogears and Xenosaga as a whole.
Takahashi’s vision for a six-game series exploring the spiritual growth of humanity might yet live on…
Adel MacDowell is a local NYC man who obsesses over pizza, machinery, and ’90s arcade intros.