JAPAN FACES OBLIVION
Bethesda's deeply customizable first-person action-RPG The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, called "Game of the year" by many specialist publications and called "Best game like, ever" by thousands of fourteen-year-olds (who go on to tell you "You can kill anybody in Oblivion, dude"), has officially been released in Japan. I went to my favorite game shop yesterday evening, to see if Oblivion had or hadn't sold out in a frenzy, and the clerk told me they still had "plenty of copies left". There you have it -- Japan hates Oblivion.
Oh, I'm being mean. Sorry!
Oblivion has finally been released, nearly a year after its release in America, fully localized into Japanese, thanks (in part) to the complaints of Japanese internet-petition makers. The scenario is actually quite interesting: this is the sort of thing that used to only happen outside Japan: savvy print magazines would run the odd screenshot of a Japanese RPG, and the readers would go nuts and write letters into said print magazine, asking if such-and-such awesome-looking game was going to be released outside Japan. Back then, the American arms of Japanese game publishers were a bit slow to act, resulting in Final Fantasy VI being called Final Fantasy III, among other casualties.
Weekly Famitsu, Japan's most powerful and influential games magazine, tends to be a little pressed for real estate each issue, so they seldom (read: never) run coverage of any games that aren't confirmed by their publishers (also the magazine's sponsors) to be released in Japan. In other words, Famitsu never ran a single screenshot of Oblivion until long after the hungry internet hordes found it, lusted after it, begged for it, and got their wish.
Just last week, Weekly Famitsu scored Oblivion generously: 10, 9, 10, 9. This ties it with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City as the highest-scoring Western-developed game to be released in Japan. Each of the reviews celebrate the game for having a "Huge world", a "thoughtful localization", and "nearly limitless freedom". One of the "9" reviews is ecstatic about a rather curious point: "Being able to change the difficulty level in the middle of battles is great!" Hmm. I get a funny feeling when I read that sentence: it reminds me of the old woman at the ramen shop near my house, who will tell me I look "So cool!" and give me a thumbs-up even if I show up unshaven, in my pajamas.
Will the game be a hit in Japan? It's hard to say. So far, the biggest-selling game on the Xbox 360 has been Blue Dragon, at just over 100,000 copies. The only titles to come close to Blue Dragon's success have been Lost Planet and Gears of War, which were lucky enough to have been released within a few weeks of Blue Dragon. Bandai-Namco's RPG Trusty Bell only managed to sell around 30,000 before disappearing.
Does a good Famitsu score guarantee high sales? This is an excellent question. Why, Zelda: Wind Waker for the Nintendo Gamecube scored a perfect 40/40, yet didn't sell enough to save itself from the bargain bins. Likewise, Dragon Quest Swords, which only scored 8, 8, 8, 9, yet sold 305,000 in its first week and over 50,000 in its second week. One could argue that it sold 305,000 in its first week thanks to the strength of its brand name. In addition, as is the case with most games published by Square-Enix, the review of Dragon Quest Swords missed the game's release date, and instead appeared a week after the release (Likewise, Square-Enix's new release, It's a Wonderful World, was published today, though won't be reviewed in Famitsu until next week). Hmm. As one of the 305,000 who purchased Dragon Quest Swords -- and, more tellingly, as someone who just didn't like Oblivion -- I would probably rather play Oblivion again than Dragon Quest Swords. (This is not a completely irrelevant comparison, by the way: both games feature action-based RPG combat and both are viewed ideally from a first-person perspective.)
If nothing else, the outcry regarding Oblivion seems to have taught Microsoft a lesson or two: just recently, Famitsu ran screenshots and previews of Mass Effect and Bioshock, two quadruple-A games that Microsoft might have been thinking of not bothering to localize for the Japanese market.