My History with the Big ol’ Black Box
I’ve always been an unusual Microsoft fan/consumer. Unlike the majority of the Xbox install base, I didn’t purchase my original Xbox for Halo, Fable or Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. As someone who’s always preferred Japanese developed games, Microsoft’s hardware was never known for its eastern support. With that said, however, there were a few developers who created a handful of special games that made their way west; From Software’s Otogi: Myth of Demons & Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors, Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden, Smilebit’s Panzer Dragoon Orta, Jet Set Radio Future and Gun Valkyrie, Artoon’s Blinx: the Time Sweeper (one of my personal favorites…shut up, I’m dead serious!), the cult-classic, Phantom Dust, and even Namco’s Breakdown.
There was something to be said about the Xbox exclusives of yore. Let’s take a look at Smilebit’s titles, for example. Panzer Dragoon Orta, Jet Set Radio Future and Gun Valkyrie were natural progressions to Sega’s previous efforts on both the Dreamcast and Saturn, before their inevitable exodus from the console market, of course. Furthermore, these games carried a distinct feeling and style that couldn’t be found on the competitor’s hardware at the time. Tecmo/Team Ninja released their critically acclaimed and highly successful Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox, which was a more visceral and aggressive alternative to Capcom’s Devil May Cry on the Playstation 2 at the time.
Microsoft Studios also collaborated with various developers and created exclusive, mascot-driven platformers, for example; Artoon’s Blinx: The Time Sweeper and Beep Industries Voodoo Vince. Let’s also not forget games like Tork: Prehistoric Punk and Knight’s Apprentice: Memorick’s Adventures, too! Perhaps Microsoft was chasing Sony’s furry, yet lucrative mascot-tail with the likes of Jak & Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, and Sly Cooper doing so well? Regardless, none of these games were considered a hit nor were they a commercial success, but as someone who loved quirky/niche titles (and 3D platformers in general), I adored these experimental, B/C-tier adventures.
Needless to say, the original Xbox was home to an assortment of interesting, unique titles and Microsoft Studios clearly wasn’t afraid to foot the bill when it came to developing new, innovative intellectual properties.
360 Degrees of Success
The Xbox 360 was an entirely different beast compared to the original Xbox. Due to being first to market during the 7th console generation (and its direct competitor, the Playstation 3, struggling at launch a year later), the Xbox 360 became the de facto console of choice back in the mid-to-late 2000s. What was interesting about the Xbox 360 was that not only was it a powerhouse for 1st/3rd-party studios, the console also became home to many popular/well known Japanese franchises. Whether this was due to the fact that the install base was so large at the time or that the hardware was apparently easier to develop for (comparatively to the Playstation 3, of course), the Xbox 360 became the place to be when it came to Japanese gaming (and gaming in general).
It is of my belief that games like Capcom’s Dead Rising and Lost Planet did in fact herald in an age of Japanese game support for the Xbox 360. The original Dead Rising is one of my favorite games of all time and the title was a huge success for both Microsoft and Capcom, respectively. Dead Rising was a game that was clearly catered to the western market, but still retained the polish and mechanically-driven gameplay that Capcom was known for. Lost Planet, Capcom’s own bug-squashing, Contra-like, also launched a few months later in the same year to an equally positive reception. Hironobu Sakaguchi of Final Fantasy fame even released two critically acclaimed RPGs; Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon, under the creative studio known as Mistwalker. Although these two games were not classics by any means, Mistwalker’s first foray into the market were must-play RPGs for starved enthusiasts.
What was even more surprising were the franchises that have historically been associated with the Playstation brand making their way to Microsoft’s platform. Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation was (and still is) an exclusive title for the Xbox 360. Tales of Vesperia was a “console launch exclusive”, but ultimately made its way to the Playstation 3 (only in Japan, however). The Xbox 360 also became home to Japanese arcade shooters (shmups), with CAVE showing the majority of the support (see Deathsmiles, Mushihimesama and Dodonpachi). Let’s also not forget Hidetaka Suehiro’s (a.k.a Swery) cult-classic, Deadly Premonition, which was exclusive to the Xbox 360 for quite some time. So, one would hope this support and momentum would carry into the next generation, right? Well…
Xbox One XOXO
Microsoft finally announced their new console at this year’s E3. Xbox One X, the upgrade to the Xbox One (and not to be confused with the Xbox One S), features improved processing power, “true” 4K gaming, and a promise for even more backwards compatibility options. As Microsoft’s Phil Spencer insists, “It’s the most powerful console to date”…and I guess it should be, considering it’s $499 price-point. Microsoft is in an odd position this generation, however. Their install base and hardware sales pale in comparison to Sony’s current position with the Playstation 4. Furthermore, while the Playstation 4 has struggled in Japan, Sony’s slow crawl in the east isn’t even comparable to Microsoft’s bleak existence. Unfortunately, they’re in a rock and a hard place this generation and while they continue to make decent, consumer-friendly decisions (such as their commitment to backwards compatibility and cross-play functionality), there’s really no momentum in the one area that sells hardware, and that’s 1st-party exclusive software.
Microsoft presented a diverse lineup at their 2017 E3 presser. Forza Motorsport 7 took center stage and while it looked nice, unless you’re a racing-game aficionado, it’s just more Forza. METRO Exodus, Assassin’s Creed Origins, and Middle-earth: Shadow of War showcased well too, but these AAA-affairs are multi-platform titles, so most people were presumably more excited for the actual games themselves, not the fact that they were running on Microsoft’s new machine. The Indy games on display; Cuphead (finally getting a release date), Ashen, The Last Night, The Artful Escape and Ori and the Will of the Wisp, for example, looked great, but yet again, most of these games are also releasing on PC and may or may not get ported to other platforms down the road (similar to what happened with Playdead’s Limbo and INSIDE).
The only games that felt truly “exclusive” were Rare’s MMO-like, Sea of Thieves, Sumo Digital’s underwhelming re-reveal of Crackdown 3 and Playful Corp’s Super Lucky’s Tale. I may be in the minority here, but Super Lucky’s Tale is probably my most wanted Xbox One X title. As someone who loves 3D-platformers, this game struck all the right chords. While it’s no Super Mario Odyssey (although, a Donkey Kong Country Returns level designer is on-board, apparently), Playful Corp’s lighthearted adventure is a welcome addition to the 3D-platformer renaissance. Sea of Thieves looked fun, but I’m personally not sold on the “shared world” elements, although I’m willing to give it a shot when the game finally releases. Rare may be a shell of its former self, but I’m still generally a fan of their work.
An All Expenses Paid Trip To Tokyo
Spencer also mentioned that he took a trip to Japan to see what their 3rd-party developers were brewing. During the conference, Dragon Ball Fighters Z and Code Vein were pawned off as their Japanese “support”, yet these two games are, once again, multi-platform titles. Microsoft’s presence in the east is the big, fat elephant in the room. Spencer mentioned awhile back that there’s “a lot of dev interest in Scorpio/Xbox One” from Japan. If a few multi-platform games from the land of the rising sun are all that there is to show, then nothing has changed. Spencer did state, however, “…we have just signed exclusives that won’t be ready for 2-3 years…”. Perhaps his recent visit to Japan provides us with some hope? Who knows. Regardless, there’s a market in the east that’s been on death’s doorstep for awhile and only a miracle can save Microsoft at this point.
Back in 2013, Yukio Futatsugi, the man responsible for the legendary Panzer Dragoon franchise, released Crimson Dragon on the Xbox One, the spiritual successor to the Sega Saturn classic. Unfortunately, the game was not met with a warm reception. Regardless of the game’s inherent quality, it was still encouraging to see Microsoft launch their new system with an exclusive Japanese title, let alone created by a man with such an amazing pedigree. Not too far into the console’s lifespan, both Swery of Access Games Inc. and Platinum Games Inc. announced their new projects; D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die and Scalebound, respectively. For me, this signaled Microsoft’s interest/commitment towards supporting Japanese developers and convinced me to “jump in”, so to speak. Little did I know that the water wasn’t warm yet…
Crimson Dragon came and went. The studio responsible for the project, Grounding Inc., more or less disappeared from the scene (despite their apparent “good” relationship with Microsoft). Swery and Access Games Inc. released their first episode to D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die a few years back, however, the creator fell ill during development and a fallout ensued between the partners involved. D4 has since been left as an incomplete, unfinished episodic nightmare, unfortunately. Finally, Platinum Games Inc. and Microsoft Studios announced that Scalebound had been officially canceled, due to internal reasons, leaving fans paralyzed with dismay. So, what does that leave us with, again? Oh, Dragon Ball Fighters Z and Code Vein, of course. Cool.
At the end of the day, the Xbox One X is a difficult value proposition, I feel. If you’re an educated consumer/gamer who’s overly concerned with graphical fidelity/performance, you’re more than likely going to invest in a gaming PC (if you haven’t already). If you’re someone who’s more comfortable/familiar with console gaming (like myself), the Xbox One X is still a hard sell when the Playstation 4 PRO is clearly the go-to platform this generation, in terms of overall 1st/3rd-party support, install base, and features. Furthermore, what parent this holiday is going to choose the more expensive box? What family even owns a 4K T.V. to take advantage of the Xbox One X? Right, thought so. So, who’s this system for then exactly?
I personally feel like the Xbox One X is for the 20/30-something Microsoft/Xbox enthusiast. The guy/gal who’s also been there since day one who refuses to build a PC or buy a Playstation because either (a) all of their friends still play on Xbox Live; (b) they’re loyal to the company/brand; or (c) prefer to play games comfortably on their couch and don’t have the means/space to create a comfortable PC-gaming environment. Will I be purchasing an Xbox One X? Probably, but I’m one who follows/supports games, not companies/brands. Do I have preferences? Sure, but as long as there’s an exclusive title that looks interesting to me and I have the means to invest (both in time and money), I’ll be there.