The fifth in a series of articles I’m writing, looking at the output of a number of Vita-supporting companies from launch through to the present day. I’ll be examining what the games they released were; (if the data is available) how well they sold; (in cases of them being ports) how well they ran; as well as a brief look at games which perhaps should have come to the console either in the west or in general.
This will be the first article in this series where I look at a company who has a dual-role – a developer and publisher in Japan – Nippon Ichi Software (NIS); and a localizer and publisher in the west – Nippon Ichi Software America (NISA/NIS America). This duality has meant that they have become one of the Vita’s premier supporters worldwide – bringing a host of fantastic homemade titles as well as releasing enjoyable experiences to the west that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Launch & 2012 – a launch title and not much else
In stark contrast to Ubisoft – who absolutely killed it with support in the Vita’s first 12 months – Nippon Ichi were largely absent, much like Square-Enix (perhaps this is a commentary on how long it takes western vs. eastern developers to commit to a new piece of hardware).
However, the company did show up during the console’s launch in Japan with a port of their strategy-RPG title Disgaea 3 subtitled Absence of Detention (which showed in the west in April 2012). Continuing their trend of porting the series to PlayStation handhelds (which begun with a version of the original Disgaea on PSP in 2006), the Vita release included additional content beyond its PS3 counterpart as well as all the DLC included on the cart. It proved to be a sales success, at least in Japan, where it opened to a respectable 22k but had sold nearly 84k by the end of 2015 – well up there with the other entries in the franchise (although western sales remain unknown, it’s likely the title sold decently due to being the first major release post-launch).
Apart from Disgaea, the company’s only other game released for Vita by the end of 2012 was Special Reporting Division, a visual novel/adventure game released only in Japan. Despite being part of the company’s 20th anniversary celebration, the title was met with lukewarm sales of only 11k in Japan by the end of 2012 and remained unlocalized despite being an internally-developed title.
It was difficult to assess what was coming from Nippon Ichi based on their first year of support – they had supported PSP very well, but their output seemed minimal on Vita – at least to begin with.
2013 – is this it for NIS on Vita?
If 2012 was a quiet year for NIS on Vita, then 2013 was a super quiet year. A single game was released during the year – Criminal Girls: Invite Only, a remake of their 2010 Imageepoch-developed PSP RPG featuring some leud mechanics. This was a modest sales success in Japan, opening to 16k sales and eventually selling 31k by the end of 2015 – less than the original release, but not bad for a remake.
The game would eventually find its way west in 2015 (after a rather delayed localization cycle), but no other titles would be released in 2013 by either NIS or NISA. The latter was particularly surprising given the explosion of Japanese Vita support that happened in 2013 – although perhaps this was because one of their bread-and-butter franchise Atelier had been taken by a new publisher when Koei-Tecmo bought Gust, meaning all western publishing was handled by them going forward.
In addition to this, there were a number of games developed by NIS in Japan during 2013 that should have found their way onto Vita, but didn’t for whatever reason. Perhaps most surprising was Disgaea D2, a sequel to the original game, which remained PS3-only – despite earlier Disgaea games that were eventually ported to PSP & Vita years after their initial release. It may have been a technical decision as the port of Disgaea 4 on Vita often suffered from slowdown and framerate drops, but according to NIS President Sohei Niikawa we never got D2 because of the Vita’s poor hardware sales in the west, which was a shame as the console had become quite a home for the franchise.
Other titles like Guided Fate Paradox also skipped Vita, which was puzzling as the game was a pseudo-successor to the 2010 PSP title Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkman Evildeath. As a turn-based rogue-like the game would have run on the handheld quite easily and there was plenty of audience for this sort of title early in the console’s life, making this quite a bizarre decision. Also missing was The Witch and the Hundred Knight, although according to the company this game was tested on Vita and decided it ultimately wouldn’t run at a decent level.
As such, it was easy to think that the company wouldn’t ever commit in any meaningful fashion based on their support in 2012 and 2013, but this was merely a precursor to the explosion that would happen the following year.
2014 – an explosion of support
In stark contrast to the prior two years, 2014 was a veritable feast of Vita support from both Nippon Ichi and NIS America, with both bringing multiple games including some very critically acclaimed titles.
Leading the charge from the Japanese side was Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited, their port of the 2011 PS3 title. In their home country, the game opened slightly stronger than its predecessor to 33k sales, but long-term sales weren’t as strong with figures reaching 65k by the end of 2015 – although with a western release later in the year the total numbers would have been much higher than this. The port itself begun to see some technical problems with slowdown and graphical glitches which was somewhat disappointing given the scope of the game, but it was far than enough to sully the experience. They also revived their horror-VN series Hayarigami with Shin Hayarigami on PS3 and Vita, but this stayed Japan-only as with the previous titles.
The company also begun to experiment with new ideas during 2014, particularly with their new puzzle-platformer HTOL#NIQ: The Firefly Diary. Designed by Masayuki Furuya, the game marked a more indie-esque approach from the company with stylised 2D visuals and a dark theme – it was promoted as a digital release in Japan but a limited physical run of 11k copies in Japan sold out almost completely in the first week, showing the game to be a fantastic success. The game came west in 2015 where it received a lukewarm reception and another limited physical release which managed to sell out completely before release, suggesting that the title managed to be a success. Aside from this, NIS also released Great Edo Blacksmith, another indie-esque game (this time an RPG) but – as with Hayarigami – stayed Japan-only.
If the company were doing interesting things in Japan, then their western branch were doing really interesting things. They started the year with a spree of releases, spear-headed by the investigation-visual-novel DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc in February, which had been ported to Vita from PSP in late 2013. The game – and the series in general – turned out to be a resounding success for NIS America, with both the game and its sequel (released in September of 2014) selling 200k in the west within a year and receiving rave reviews. The franchise would become a staple for the company going forward, with a spinoff and eventual sequel coming to the west as well as expanding to Steam and PS4.
But this was just the start of what would be an amazing year for NISA. Arriving in April was Demon Gaze, a first-person dungeon-crawler from Experience Inc. which would be the start of a long-running partnership between the two companies. The title reviewed well and Japanese publisher Kadokawa Games confirmed it had sold more than 200k copies by the middle of 2014 – a great result from a title in this genre. Speaking of Kadokawa, NIS America partnered with them again later in the year with the strategy-RPG Natural Doctrine – Kadokawa’s first interally-developed title – that sadly reviewed rather poorly due to some sloppy mechanics and a lack of polish.
The company also continued a long-running partnership with Compile Heart to bring Hyperdimension Neptunia: Producing Perfection to the west, an idol spin-off in the popular RPG franchise. Unfortunately, this would mark their final released entry in the series due to Compile Heart’s parent company Idea Factory establishing an overseas subsidiary to handle localization projects, meaning NIS America lost a regular stream of work and one of their strongest selling franchises.
The year was capped off with a large amount of distribution work in Europe – ranging from the latest entry in Falcom’s history RPG franchise – Ys: Memories of Celceta – to the well-receiving fighting game from Arc System Works – Arcana Heart 3: Love Max.
It was lovely to see the support Nippon Ichi gave Vita in 2014 – from both eastern and western branches – that was so different than any prior years for them. It was the beginnings of an ongoing love affair with the handheld from the company, that would see peaks and troughs over subsequent years but would remain vastly improved going forward.
2015 – a few bigger titles; but slower overall
If 2014 was the year that Nippon Ichi exploded in support for the handheld then 2015 would continue this, although perhaps in a slightly more muted capacity from before. Still, a number of well-received titles were released both domestically and abroad, ensuring that the console well kept ticking over for another year.
In Japan, the year was kicked off with a port of the PC title Fuuraiki 3, a photography simulator that has you driving around rural Japan on a motorbike to take pictures to enter a competition. If that sounds niche – you’d be right (however, the game looks absolutely beautiful in pictures) and sadly stayed only in Japan, where it sold a modest 7k. It was the latter half of the year where things really heated up – with releases such as Criminal Girls 2 showing the company’s commitment to the platform, although it only sold a disappointing 29k domestically, with a western release following in 2016.
It was their indie-esque horror title Yomawari: Night Alone that really caught the eye of gamers, however. Released in October 2015 in Japan and a year later in the west, the game made a great Halloween-themed title and reviewed well – continuing the theme of games started with HTOL#NIQ. Crucially, it also sold well in Japan – nearly 50k by early 2016 – which was noted by the company’s president as being more than double what they expected. Hopefully western sales continued to impress in 2016.
NIS America had a quieter year, with just a few key releases throughout the year. In June, the company localized Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy, the latest DRPG by Experience Inc. which released on Vita in Japan in 2014. This marked the beginning of a tradition of yearly releases of dungeon RPG’s from Experience Inc. in the west, the NIS handling Stranger of Sword City in 2016 and Operation Babel in 2017. Although no sales figures are available, the fact that these games keep coming hints that their performance must have been good enough.
Their only other 2015 release – aside from their aforementioned internally developed titles Criminal Girls and HTOL#NIQ as well as some distribution work for titles like Lost Dimension and Trails of Cold Steel – was the DanganRonpa spin-off Another Episode. Following the sister of the first game’s protagonist, the title was one of the poster games for Vita in the fall of 2015 alongside Persona 4: Dancing All Night and received a nice push from the company alongside a beautiful limited edition, which sold out rapidly and was likely another success for NIA.
Despite 2015 being ‘quieter’ in general than 2014, the year still saw a tonne of games released both domestically and overseas from Nippon Ichi, establishing them as one of the premier companies on the handheld by this point. This is something that would continue through 2016 and indeed into 2017, where they would become arguably the biggest supporter of the console by that point.
2016 – bouncing back up again
In Japan, 2016 was the biggest year for releases from NIS ever in terms of volume; although sadly not every title sold particularly well. The year begun with Hero Must Die, a remake of a mobile title from 2007 that follows a hero after he is killed by the final boss and is given an extra five days of life by a benevolent angel. If you’ve ever interacted with me you’ll know this was a game I was desperate to get in the west but sadly it remained Japan-only, possibly due to mild sales in its home region of just 7k first week, which seems low given the title’s production values.
If Hero Must Die saw the beginnings of mobile-esque games on Vita, then Nippon Ichi would continue this mantra throughout the year. Various titles – ranging from The Longest Five Minutes to Penny Punching Princess – were released during 2016 in Japan, all of which failed to set the sales chart alight, although most reviewed fairly well. The company also revived their Cladun IP with This is Sengoku!, which opened to sub 5k in the region, although this was likely bolstered with a western release – which also included PS4 & PC versions added specifically for the west. This started a growing trend of Vita titles coming overseas but adding additional console versions, likely as a result of the handheld’s dwindling western userbase.
Two more games arrived during 2016 – the first was the latest indie-esque title from the company named A Rose in the Twilight, which followed the design sensibilities of HTOL#NIQ and opened to a moderate 8k in Japan (with a western release in 2017). They also released Coven and the Labyrinth of Refrain, the company’s attempt at a first-person dungeon-crawler with artwork from Takehito Harada, which would go on to become their biggest domestic sales success in years. Despite opening to a meagre 17k in the region, the game went on to sell more than 70k in Japan by the end of 2016, making it their third-best-selling Vita title behind their two Disgaea remakes. Coven has yet to see a western release, but with the recent announcement of a PS4 version it seems more likely – whether the Vita version comes across remains to be seen, however.
Meanwhile, their western branch continued to go from strength to strength – including aforementioned releases including Criminal Girls 2; Stranger of Sword City and Yomawari. In addition to these, the company also continued to nurture existing relationships further, bringing across Spike Chunsoft’s strategy-RPG Grand Kingdom – pseudo-sequel to the 2011 PSP title Grand Knights History – after establishing a connection with the company through the DanganRonpa games. Most interestingly of all, they worked with 5pb (publishers of Operation Abyss) on Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness, a visual novel based on the popular anime series.
Overall, 2016 was another impressive year for the company – especially in terms of domestic releases – but was also the start of a worrying trend where certain titles weren’t coming west at all (Hero Must Die) or would only come west with additional versions added (Cladun), something that would be emphasised even more in the following year. Yet in spite of this, they still had a few surprises in store for 2017.
2017 – to be continued!
If 2016 had been the year where Nippon Ichi’s Japanese development flourished, then 2017 would be the year it took a massive downturn. The company only has two titles in the works – the April-released visual novel Exile Election and a sequel to Yomawari subtitled Midnight Shadows. Both included a PS4 version with their Japanese release and while Exile Election is staying in Japan, Yomawari is coming west as another Halloween release in October.
Comparatively, NIS America are having a stonking year, arguably their best ever on the handheld. Their biggest coup is that they secured the rights for a western release of Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana across Vita, PS4 & PC, despite the fact the franchise has long been associated with rival company XSEED Games. They’re also releasing the latest DanganRonpa game – V3 – that will hopefully see the same levels of success as its predecessors in the western market; as well as the newest strategy RPG from Kadokawa Games – God Wars: Future Past.
And yet this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of their western releases in 2018. They’re bringing across Demon Gaze II in November and this is their second Experience Inc. game this year, following Operation Babel: New Tokyo Legacy in May. They kicked off the year with Touhou Genso Wanderer, a Japanese doujin RPG which was released alongside Touhou Double Focus, a metroidvania spin-off. And they’re continuing their work with this series of games going forward with Touhou Kobuto V: Burst Battle which is scheduled for release in October; after a slight delay to add a Nintendo Switch version.
All of this is in addition to titles I’ve previously mentioned – including A Rose in the Twilight; Cladun Returns: This is Sengoku! and Yomawari Midnight Shadows. To top it all off, the company made the bizarre decision to localize Tokyo Tattoo Girls, the niche-as-hell strategy RPG, on Vita and PC. All-in-all, it stands to be NISA’s most successful year ever on the handheld and a testament to their faith in their platform even at this late stage in the day.
And for the first time in this series of articles, I can actually talk about the future beyond 2017 – NIS America have two games lined up for 2018 in The Longest Five Minutes and Penny Punching Princess, already establishing as one of the Vita’s biggest supporters in 2018. The issue with this is that both of these were games originally released in 2016 and scheduled for western release in 2017 but – thanks to the advent of the Nintendo Switch – their releases were delayed to add a Switch version at the same time. It’s a bit disappointing to see a release delayed for such a long time for a reason like this (especially since the start of Vita’s life was littered with late ports), but such is the reality of the current market for the handheld in the west (and the continued success of Nintendo’s new console).
There is the potential for even more titles to come west in 2018 too – with Spike Chunsoft’s Zanki Zero being a particular highlight due to being developed by the staff from the DanganRonpa series.
2017 will remain a great year for Nippon Ichi and Vita – and it’s a year that’s been much stronger than I thought it would have been, full of stand-out titles and plenty of surprises – but it’s also a year that begins to show the signs of what will happen with the handheld going forward, that support will evaporate towards Nintendo’s new console a little bit faster than I thought it would.
Despite some relatively quiet beginnings on the console, Nippon Ichi flourished into one of its biggest supporters – both in Japan and in the west – thanks to some great development and localization efforts. It’s especially impressive given the size of the company compared to corporate juggernauts like Bandai-Namco and Square-Enix that they could go toe-to-toe with them on output, even if not perhaps in scale of the titles.
It’s somewhat of a shame, then, that in the twilight of the console’s life we’re seeing games delayed to add other versions in the west; or skipped altogether if adding another console isn’t viable. Both Fuuraiki 3 and Hero Must Die will remain games I remember longing for when I first heard about them, yet they’ll likely be left forever Japanese-only, meaning I’ll have to struggle through an import in order to pay them; while titles like The Longest Five Minutes feel so long off that my enthusiasm is draining.
Still, the company have remained loyal to the handheld even at this late stage, bringing titles to the west well into 2018; on top of the sea of games they’ve already released – meaning that these minor blemishes can be easily overlooked thanks to the legion of brilliant content the company have helped to provide on the Vita. I think it’s fair to say that NIS America had a big hand in shaping the console’s later life and for that I’m very grateful, because games like DanganRonpa and Demon Gaze have been among the most enjoyable titles I’ve played in years.