Top 10 Games Developed By Monolith Soft
This series of Top 10 lists focuses on several of the companies that have had the most significant impact on the video game industry through their development of many of the most influential and revolutionary video games ever created. More than just an overview of the companies, however, the goal of this list series is to be something of a step back into the shaping of the industry. This series will attempt to take us back through the evolution of the industry, as seen through the eyes of the companies that made that evolution happen. Console design is important, but at the end of the day, the video game industry is an industry of just that: games. The industry is driven by the companies that design the best games.
A few bits of housekeeping before I get started: first of all, game development is an inherently muddled process, and oftentimes it is difficult to draw lines around who developed which game. At times, this may lead to disagreement over who the developer of a particular game truly is; however, with how quickly the industry changes and the speed with which companies are bought, sold, and changed, there is never truly a black and white to what constitutes one developer’s library. Secondly, there will be a lot of differentiation in the sizes of the libraries described in these lists. As such, in certain lists, I will refrain from including more than one game from one franchise and instead use one game as a stand-in for the series as a whole; in other lists, multiple games from the same franchise may be listed. Lastly, while I have a list of companies I plan to look at eventually, I am always looking for suggestions on what company to cover next; if you would like to make a suggestion, you can drop by the Top 10 List discussion board, contact me through my contributor profile, or visit either of my websites that cross-post these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com.
This week, I’ll be talking about Monolith Soft.
You can tell that Monolith Soft was destined for great things just by looking at its origin. The company was founded in 1999 by Hirohide Sugiura; Sugiura, formerly, had worked for Squaresoft, working with the company during the peak of its popularity and influencing the Final Fantasy series during its Golden Age. From there, Sugiura departed to start his own company, receiving an initial investment from one of the largest and most successful game developers of the time: Namco, as discussed last week. Like many of the companies we’ve discussed in this series recently (Tales Studio and tri-Ace specifically), Monolith Soft hung its hat on developing great RPGs at a time when the genre dominated the industry. After a few years, a very successful freshman franchise and several other popular original properties, the company received a sizable investment from Nintendo; Nintendo saw Monolith Soft as its opportunity to acquire a closely affiliated developer of RPGs in much the same way that Sony had always relied on Squaresoft (and later, Square-Enix), and thus purchased the company (over time) from Namco. To date, that maneuver has not paid great dividends in terms of numbers – the company has released only a handful of games since a controlling stake was acquired by Nintendo – but the quality of the productions has remained, with one of the company’s most recent productions becoming the most hotly anticipated localization effort of the last half-decade.
#10: Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose (PS2)
Monolith Soft’s most recognizable franchise is Xenosaga, a trilogy composed of three PlayStation 2 releases each separated by two years. We’ll talk about the franchise a good bit on this list (as expected, given that it remains the company’s most recognized actual series), but for the #10 entry, we find Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose. After the acclaim received by Xenosaga Episode I, Episode II had to deal with the hype, fanfare, and expectations that come with a successful first release. The game actually was not very well received, however; nearly every element was panned as a step backwards from the game’s predecessor. That might be true; but Episode II still provided, in my opinion, the best character development of any game in the franchise. Rather than try to reinvent its own characters for a sequel as many franchises are far too apt to do (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XIII), Episode II gave us a significant and intriguing look into the main characters’ pasts. The game built on the first game in a way that most sequels fail to do.
The Xenosaga franchise as a whole is one of gaming’s greatest stories and most interesting franchises. Among the members of the development team for all three games have been the writers of the original Xenogears (the 1998 PlayStation release and spiritual predecessor to Xenosaga), as well as staff members from the poductions of Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and other Squaresoft properties.
#9: Baten Kaitos Origins (GC)
I’m not going to lie: I didn’t care for Baten Kaitos Origins. I never finished it, and I think it failed to preserve a lot of what was entertaining about its predecessor’s battle system. Plus, I thought the connection between its plot and the plot of its predecessor (or sequel, in terms of plot) was lacking, although that perception probably would have changed had I finished the game. My personal bias is the only reason why Baten Kaitos Origins is so far down on this list.
My complaints aside, though, there is no doubt that Baten Kaitos Origins is one of Monolith Soft’s most-praised titles, even if I didn’t care for it. It didn’t receive a significant amount of attention in large part because it debuted very late in the GameCube’s history (and because, well, who really played GameCube games anyway?), but among those that gave it a try it received significant acclaim and attention. In particular I’m told that the card battles represented a more intriguing and satisfying system than its predecessor, relying more on skill than on the luck of the draw and the ability to put together long chains. I didn’t care for it, but hey, what do I know. The game also capitalized on its predecessor’s extremely strong visual appeal; the original Baten Kaitos had one of the most iconic visual styles of the GameCube era, and was likely the last beautiful game to rely on pre-rendered 2D artwork underneath 3D sprites.
#8: Disaster: Day of Crisis (WII)
Unlike the majority of Monolith Soft’s releases, Disaster: Day of Crisis was released to relatively mixed reviews, a stark departure from the company’s usually-sterling reputation. Among other issues, the game was criticized for its overall lack of depth and complexity, terrible CPU AI, poor pacing, and general inconsistency and lack of polish. The release came and went without much fanfare.
The remarkable thing about the game, though, is that despite those particularly significant weaknesses, it still received some significant acclaim from certain analysts. That’s because while the game had some profound problems, it excelled incredibly in what it did well. From the start, the game’s premise is incredibly unique in an age of increasingly recycled ideas and mechanics. The game revolves around a series of natural disasters for you to navigate, including earthquakes, volcanos, and floods. They’re presented in what might be described as a platformer-style layout, but it’s interspersed with plenty of action elements. There are several varied segments, including rail shooter areas, quick time events, and many other minigames. The game also makes interesting use of the Wii’s motion controls; they’re still somewhat gimmicky, as many games’ motion controls are, but on the grand spectrum of gimmickiness, they fall closer to the desirable side. Most notably, though, is that Disaster: Day of Crisis was one of Monolith Soft’s first forays into non-RPG genres; only its earlier Namco x Capcom was so far removed from the genre in which the company made its name. Given that, Disaster: Day of Crisis is a very impressive release for an inexperienced company.
#7: Soma Bringer (DS)
Released in 2008, Soma Bringer is one of the games released under Monolith Soft’s new first-party partnership with Nintendo. Surprisingly, the game has not yet been localized anywhere outside of Japan, and given Nintendo’s focus on the 3DS, it looks increasingly doubtful that the game will ever actually be localized. That fact is quite a shame as Soma Bringer is one of the strongest RPGs available on the Nintendo DS. An action RPG (diverging from Monolith Soft’s history of more traditional turn-based RPGs, although Baten Kaitos is anything but traditional), the game derives an interesting class system in some ways more akin to either Western RPGs or the earliest Final Fantasy games, with various different classes to assign.
An additional remarkable element about Soma Bringer is that in many ways, its plot echoes several more recent RPGs that have been released after the game’s initial sale. Final Fantasy XIII in particular has significant parallels to Soma Bringer, including the characters, plot, and game society structure. The anime-style feel is itself somewhat unique as well; although the Tales series has made its reputation with anime-style animations and characters for years, Soma Bringer brings a significantly different feel to it, combining the artistic style with a more modern twist reminiscent of some more recent animated series. The soundtrack itself, in keeping with Monolith Soft’s reputation, is strong as well, earning its own release separate and apart from the game. I remain optimistic that Soma Bringer might eventually be localized, but if not, perhaps a sequel will come eventually.
#6: Namco x Capcom (PS2)
Your first reaction in seeing Namco x Capcom (pronounced Namco Cross Capcom – preemptively dismiss the opinion of anyone who calls it ‘Namco Ex Capcom’) on this list might be to laugh, or to think I’ve made some hilarious error. How could Monolith Soft have developed a game called Namco x Capcom? Wouldn’t it have been developed by, well, Namco or Capcom? In fact, however, Monolith Soft was contracted by the companies to develop the game on their behalf. Namco was responsible for publishing the game, but unlike the similar Street Fighter X Tekken (developed by Capcom) and Tekken X Street Fighter (developed by Namco… if it ever comes out), development was taken care of by a third-party developer, before Monolith Soft began its pseudo-exclusive partnership with Nintendo.
The other interesting thing about Namco x Capcom, though, is that it isn’t the genre you’d expect. While almost all crossovers between gaming universes are fighting games, Namco x Capcom is actually an RPG of sorts. The battle system is a unique hybrid of action and strategy RPG concepts; like Final Fantasy Tactics and other turn-based strategy games, battle takes place on a grid with characters taking turns with their movements, but like more active games, combat is handled on a separate screen with active interaction. The game featured an enormous cast, an incredible length, and a wild variety of characters from many of Namco and Capcom’s biggest franchises, including Tekken, Resident Evil, Street Fighter, Klonoa, Tales, Mega Man, and Xenosaga. The immensity turned some players off, but for Namco and Capcom fans, it resonated.
#5: Dragon Ball Z: Attack of the Saiyans (DS)
As one of the most popular media franchises of all time, Dragon Ball is certainly something of a cash cow. Its video game library spans over 50 games across four decades of consoles and handhelds. With such a strong media franchise behind it and with so many games in its library, it possesses that unique underlying appeal that can often grant great sales even in the absence of good game design. The franchise has certainly had many flops over the years, and for a time was as guilty as any franchise of just churning out new titles with little new content. Most games in the franchise were also in the fighting genre, a genre that already suffers from difficulty making individual games stand out from one another.
All that is to set up what makes Dragon Ball Z: Attack of the Saiyans a unique and popular game. Unlike most games in the franchise, Attack of the Saiyans is a turn-based RPG, bringing with it a significant different flavor than most Dragon Ball Z games. Plot can actually take a notable role, and there is presented a legitimate world to explore rather than just backdrops to the game’s battles. The game met a fair amount of criticism upon release, but achieved arguably the most important goal: appealing to franchise fans. Although this is purely speculation, I predict that Dragon Ball Z: Attack of the Saiyans never had a chance to appeal to players that weren’t fans of the franchise, and thus by winning over the franchise’s fans, it was as successful as it could be.
#4: Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra (PS2)
In my opinion, sequels can be released to two particularly difficult sets of circumstances: following up a very popular original game, or following up a very disappointing sequel to an originally popular game. In the case of Xenosaga Episode III, it falls into this latter position. Xenosaga Episode I was a groundbreaking and revolutionary RPG experience, elevating the genre to a level of world creation and storytelling that it arguably had not seen previously. Xenosaga Episode II, thus, had the difficult job of following up such a successful game, and ultimately, by public perception, failed: it was not a bad game by any means, but in a classic case of regression to the mean, it simply wasn’t as good as its revolutionary predecessor.
That put Xenosaga Episode III in an awkward spot. It had to succeed lest the entire franchise be framed as a one-hit wonder, but it also faced negative expectations stemming from its predecessor’s failures. Erasing the failures of a predecessor is a difficult task, but Xenosaga Episode III managed to succeed. To succeed, Xenosaga Episode III did the one thing so many franchises are reluctant to do: it returned to what made the original installment popular. The battle system was returned to a more prototypical RPG setup, the voices from the original game were brought back, and the focus has been restored to more of the original characters. It is rare that a developer admits mistakes and fixes them by regressing in a third installment, but in doings so, Monolith Soft elevated the Xenosaga franchise back to prominence and made Episode II the exception, not the rule.
#3: Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean (GC)
Co-developed with tri-Crescendo, Baten Kaitos is the game that sparked Monolith Soft’s eventual exclusive partnership with Nintendo. An epic and vast RPG, the game quickly became one of the GameCube’s only entries into one of the industry’s most popular genres. In creating an RPG for the GameCube’s otherwise-lacking RPG library, however, Monolith Soft did not default into prototypes and normal conventions; instead, they created one of the most unique RPGs ever made. It had an instantly-recognizable visual style, a varied cast of characters, an interesting money-making system revolving around taking in-battle photographs, and one of the most interesting player-character relationships I’ve ever seen in my years of gaming.
But without a doubt, the most significantly different element of Baten Kaitos was the battle system. The game operated under a normal turn-based system, but rather than choosing attacks from a set of menu prompts, each character comes equipped with a deck of "Magnus" cards. These are shuffled and randomly drawn during battle, and the player is tasked with rapidly choosing from the available cards to chain them together into strong attacks, healing spells, or other actions. The idea itself is unique, but what puts the system over the top is the execution; it is brilliantly executed to create the most persistently fun, engaging, and satisfying battle system I can recall from any game I’ve ever played. The game even manages to make incredibly long battles resist becoming boredom; in what remains the toughest video game battle I’ve ever played, victory took over an hour, but never once did I find the process repetitive, monotonous, or boring.
#2: Xenoblade Chronicles (WII)
Monolith Soft’s most recent game, Xenoblade (called Xenoblade Chronicles outside of Japan) is actually unconnected to the Xenosaga series and its spiritual predecessor, Xenogears. Originally developed as a completely original property, it was titled Xenoblade more as an homage to the company President and designer of the previous games, Tetsuya Takahashi. Upon release in Japan, the game quickly became one of the most hotly anticipated games for a Western release; although, in my opinion, it was not always clear whether this anticipation was because of the game’s actual quality, because of Monolith Soft’s reputation and the perceived Xenosaga connection, or because the Nintendo Wii was otherwise completely lacking in notable RPGs. After seemingly an eternity, with releases in Australia and Europe stoking the fires, Xenoblade Chronicles finally hit American shores last April.
Upon arrival, it became very clear that all the anticipation was not for naught. The game was released to universal praise no matter where it went, credited with being potentially the last great Japanese RPG in a genre that has been increasingly declining for several years. Like a similar earlier game, Final Fantasy XII, Xenoblade Chronicles shows a very strong MMORPG influence, presenting itself more as an open world than a linear game (ironic, considering the direction Square-Enix went with Final Fantasy XIII). In a twist of irony, the long localization process that stoked anticipation may have actually ended up dampening the game’s prospects; spread out of three years of releases among various territories, it lacked the oomph necessary to push for Game of the Year consideration, and its often remembered more for the build-up than the actual product, despite its internal quality.
#1: Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht (PS2)
It is perhaps the most bittersweet compliment one can pay to a company to say that no game they have produced is as good as their first one; while the certainly would want to duplicate their early success and quality, it is also impressive that a freshman title could be so strong. Such is the case, however, with Monolith Soft: in my opinion, the top game they’ve ever produced is also the first game they ever produced, Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht.
That’s not to say the game has found the universal acclaim of Xenoblade Chronicles; in fact, Xenosaga Episode I is one of the more polarizing games I’ve encountered, and in placing it as the #1 game on this list, you can pretty immediately infer in which direction it polarized me. In my opinion, Xenosaga Episode I deserves its place among many of the greatest RPGs of all time for its role in elevating and maturing the genre. Its far-reaching and deeply symbolic plot remains to this day one of the greatest entities I believe the gaming industry has produced, a sign that games can achieve a level of artistic expression to rival literature and cinema. The layered story and character development are perhaps the game’s greatest qualities, and it remains one of those increasingly-rare games that can give you more and more with each subsequent play-through. Its main criticism is that, like a Hideo Kojima production, it often seems more movie than game, but if it’s a movie, then all movies should be so engaging.
Honorable Mentions: Project X Zone, Super robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier.
Although the company seemed to struggle with the transition to developing exclusively for Nintendo, Xenoblade Chronicles has thrust Monolith Soft back onto the scene. The company has expanded recently as well, opening up new development offices. Given the lack of RPGs on the Nintendo Wii, one might think that the company would be in great shape to reach the captive audience of Wii RPG fans; if Operation Rainfall, the petition movement to have Xenoblade Chronicles and other RPGs localized to the United States, is any indication, there is definitely a demand for more Wii RPGs. With the upcoming Wii U release, however, it’s entirely plausible to think Monolith Soft has devoted their attention to developing a console-seller for the new system, and recent news (no, seriously – news that came out literally an hour ago as I write) suggests the company is working on an untitled project for the new console. For me, at least, that release alone will likely sell me on a Wii U… if they decide to localize it to the United States sometime in my lifetime.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!