Innovation Rant
by FreezingInferno

A few months ago, a friend of mine let me borrow The World Ends With You. For those not in the know, "TWEWY", as it's affectionately called by fans, is a DS RPG published by Square-Enix that's regarded as one of the best on the system. Nintendo Power had this to say about it back in July or so, during a Top 20 DS Games list:

"Coming from a publisher that's not known for taking risks these days, The World Ends With You is one of the most bravely experimental titles on a platform renowned for innovation."


Now, that's exactly what I want to talk about with you fine folks; Innovation. Some of my personal favorite games are fresh takes on old overplayed ideas. Let's take the Mother/Earthbound series as an example. The developers decided to take the basic RPG structure of the wildly popular Dragon Quest games, and change the setting from medieval to modern. Gold became debit cards, saving became phoning your dad, swords became baseball bats. Such a twist had never been done before, and propelled Mother to a modest following in Japan. On the other side of the world, though, all we saw was the sequel, Mother 2; better known as "Earthbound". Taking the same ideas as Mother but injecting massive amounts of quirkiness and humor, it too gained popularity.. in Japan, that is. Over here, it was a bomb as far as sales are concerned. The game and series, however, gained a cult following (and I do mean CULT; take a stroll through Starmen.net sometime and you'll see what I mean). Mother fans were further denied as time went by; the GBA ports of the first two games weren't translated, nor was the GBA sequel, Mother 3. Even a rumored Virtual Console release of Earthbound was later found to be bogus. Despite the rabid small following it DOES have, it seems that Nintendo has deemed translating the Mother series to be a waste of money.

Earthbound isn't the only innovative series to fall victim to general obscurity, though. Another fine example would be Actraiser. Released by Enix near the start of the Super Nintendo's lifespan, it had PHENOMENAL music, as well as an interesting genre mashup; while half the game was your standard action/platformer, the other half was a simulation mode where you built towns up to prosperity while keeping them safe from invading monsters. To this day, Actraiser is still remembered fondly in certain circles as an amazing all-around game. The same cannot be said for Actraiser 2, though; released three years later, it did away with the simulation part and was just a straight-up action game. To further complicate things, it was a frustratingly hard action game. In 15 years, we haven't seen another Actraiser game. How about Startropics? A pair of top-notch action/adventure games released by Nintendo for the NES, Startropics is what you would get if you put Zelda and Earthbound in a blender and drank the sweet sweet smoothie that resulted. Partly a victim of obscurity and bad design decisions, Startropics hasn't seen a new entry in 15 years. Think about that for a second, folks; there are kids in high school who have been alive as long as these games have been forgotten. Why? Why can't we have our Mother 3, or Actraiser 3, or Startropics 3?

The answer's fairly simple, I believe; Game companies exist to make a profit. As beloved as these games may be by their various small fanbases, that's just it; they're SMALL fanbases. The millions that would need to be spent to make these things a reality just wouldn't turn a profit; there's too little a group for them. But, why is that? If they're such great games, why don't they have huge fanbases? I have an answer to that as well, as controversial as it might be; People are sheep. Look at what sells these days, gamewise; established big series like Halo, GTA, Final Fantasy, and the like; series that don't drastically change too much from installment to installment. Sure, you have prettier locales and new things to do, but it's still familiar territory.. and, for the publishers, a safe bet. Slap Final Fantasy on something, and it'll sell like hotcakes. Remake the old ones, they'll still sell metric tons and have you having sex with your wife on a bed of money. People like what's familiar, and only rarely do they try new things out. This is part of the reason why unique series like Mother or Startropics wouldn't be profitable in a business sense; we're afraid of change.

It's not just games, either. I remember a scant few months ago, when a friend of mine was griping to me about how the TV show Reaper was officially cancelled. As a fan of the show, he was upset that such a witty and amusing show was canned while the formulaic still thrived. He said something about it that struck a chord with me, and I quote him now: "Oh, but don't worry, you can still watch formulaic crap like House, CSI: Miami, and Law and Order, but say goodbye to actually FUCKING ORIGINAL SHOWS like Reaper and Pushing Daisies."

Now, a little word game for you all; replace "House" with "Halo", and "Reaper" with "Startropics". Surprisingly, the analogy still fits. The established same-old will be here to stay because we love the familiar, and it's the unique and innovative stuff that suffers for it. Let it be known that I'm not condemning all "popular" games; my shelf of Final Fantasy, Megaman, and Zelda games would come to life and slap me for being hypocritical. I'm just saying, every once in a while, take a chance and give something new a shot. Something like The World Ends With You; a very bold move for an accused "rehash king" like Square-Enix. Who knows what you'll find if you give the obscure a chance? Could be crap, sure... but it could also be the most fun and stylish experience you've had in a long time.







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