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Top 10 Games Developed By Natsume

Top 10 Games Developed By Natsume

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 Natsume.

It’s no secret that one of my favorite video game franchises is the long-running Harvest Moon franchise. After almost 20 years of the Natsume title slide appearing at the beginning of each American release of the game (including the embarrassing misspelling of their own company name in the introduction of Harvest Moon 64), the company and the framing franchise have become almost synonymous in the United States. With that in mind, it becomes rather surprising to realize that Natsume actually has had almost no role in developing the Harvest Moon series over the years. It originated with Pack-In-Video, a company too small to warrant its own list, and through the years took turns in the hands of Victor Interactive Software, Marvelous Interactive, and other developers. Natsume has merely published the series, but has played a role in developing several successful games on its own. Founded in 1987, Natsume has had a long and interesting history of straddling the line between publisher and developer; along with the Harvest Moon series, they are perhaps most recognized for publishing several other popular series, including Lufia, Rune Factory, and Reel Fishing, but they also participate in developing for a wide variety of genres, consoles, and distribution methods. As we’ll see, Natsume has perhaps one of the most varied libraries of the companies we’ve covered, ranging across numerous genres and platforms.

#10: Harvest Moon: My Little Shop (WII)

As mentioned, Natsume has had a relatively limited role in actually developing for the franchise for which it is best known; to date, it has only played a major role in developing two titles in the Harvest Moon franchise. In something of a rarity for a major company (although as we’ll soon see, this might be the status quo for Natsume), Harvest Moon: My Little Shop (as well other games the company has developed) was released for an online distribution platform, WiiWare. In an interesting twist as well, Marvelous Interactive, the company responsibly for actually developing the majority of games in the franchise, was responsible for publishing the game in Japan.

Harvest Moon: My Little Shop represents an interesting twist on the franchise; rather than farming and selling items, the player takes the role of the shopkeeper, purchasing items and reselling them in the store. This has flavors of something that many Harvest Moon fans have longed for: the ability to actually run a shop in the game. Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life touches on this function, but it is only Harvest Moon: My Little Shop that comes close to actually mimicking it. The weakness, of course, is that the shopkeeping game is in lieu of the farming simulation rather than in addition to, and as a result it wouldn’t be unreasonable to describe the game as yet another minigame fest for the minigame-saturated Nintendo Wii, but nonetheless it still provides a unique and fun experience for fans of the franchise.

#9: Abadox: The Deadly Inner War (NES)

Rewinding from the recent WiiWare generation to the earliest years of Natsume’s existence, we find Abadox: The Deadly Inner War. Like many games of that era, Abadox is a sidescrolling shoot ’em up. The visual style and flavor of the game makes it look and play a little more at the speed of a platformer game than at the breakneck speed more commonly associated with the shoot ’em up genre, but the actual gameplay is still squarely in the shoot ’em up realm.

Abadox came out in a time when shoot ’em ups were one of the most common types of games, but it set itself apart in two notable ways. First of all, the game was significantly more difficult than many other shoot ’em ups at the time; while bullet hell-style games allow the player to take enormous amounts of damage before dying, Abadox allows only one hit before the player is killed, forcing the player to replay the section from the previous checkpoint without any upgrades they had secured. The more notable element that sets it apart, though, is the visual style and décor: taking place inside an alien’s intestinal tract, the backgrounds, enemies, and environments all provide an incredibly unique visual style. This is also seen in the change in perspective at certain points; although the game starts out as a side-scrolling shoot ’em up, in certain places it transitions to a downward-turned vertically-scrolling game to match the progress through the digestive system (don’t think about that one too hard).

#8: Wild Guns (SNES)

Released toward the middle of the 1990s, Wild Guns was Natsume’s foray into yet another different genre: shooting galleries. If that doesn’t sound like much of a genre, that’s not inaccurate; shooting gallery games are typically relegated to arcades or home games with gimmicky add-on controllers. Rarely were shooting gallery games implemented with a regular controller, but with Wild Guns (which subsequently received a Virtual Console release in 2010), Natsume attempted to pull it off.

In many ways, they succeeded. The game was well-received – the game wasn’t simply a gun-less copy of Duck Hunt or Time Crisis, but rather involved a more significant control scheme and strategic element. The player can only shoot while standing still, but they can still have their character jump back and forth, dodge, roll, and otherwise move around the battlefield. In that way, it is almost more accurate to describe the game as a forward-perspective run-and-gun shooter; the perspective is that of a shooting gallery, but the gameplay provides far more depth than traditional shooting gallery games can possess. There are a variety of weapons, bombs, and difficult levels, and the entire game takes place in an interesting and unique steampunk setting with faintly anime-flavored graphics. The game also supports a cooperative multiplayer mode, still something of a rarity at that time in console history. Arguably the major element preventing the game from receiving widespread recognition in western markets was the late release: released in 1995 in the United States and 1996 in Europe, the game found itself competing with next-generation consoles.

#7: Shin Kidou Senshi Gundam W: Endless Duel (SNES)

In addition to having one of the more ludicrously long titles in the notoriously long-winded Gundam franchise, Shin Kidō Senki Gundam Wing: Endless Duel holds a relatively unique spot in history: it was actually the first video game to be released based on the popular Mobile Suit Gundam Wing anime franchise. As we all know, the franchise has gone on to spawn dozens of video games with varying levels of success, and in many ways those games all trace their origins back to Shin Kidō Senki Gundam Wing: Endless Duel. Unlike many of the games, though, Shin Kidō Senki Gundam Wing: Endless Duel is a head-to-head fighting game more akin to Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat; the action takes place on the traditional head-to-head fighting screen with health bars across the top rather than the more open-ended battle environments seen in more recent releases.

The game still manages to incorporate the unique elements of the Mobile Suit Gundam Wing franchise into its battle system, including boosters, hovering, and vertically-oriented stages. The game also provided the player with a special ability gauge that could be stored up to subsequently use special skills. The music in the game was also particularly notable. Never released in the United States, the influence of Shin Kidō Senki Gundam Wing: Endless Duel is nonetheless felt in the ongoing releases from the series; although, I still can’t help wondering why they needed such a long title for the very first game in the franchise.

#6: Medabots: Metabee (GBA)

Among all the franchises Natsume has been involved in developing, the longest-running and most successful is the Medabots franchise. Medabots plays in many ways like a rip-off of the Pokemon franchise; however, in actuality, the game was released too close to Pokemon’s original release date for it to be an outright rip-off given that the game would have had to be in development before the original Pokemon games were release. It does follow many of the conventions of the Pokemon franchise, however: the game centers around the player collecting, training, and battling creatures with varying skills and abilities, the games typically release in differently-flavored pairs named for colors, and an anime has been created based on the game. Although several of the games have seen American releases, the franchise is still somewhat unknown, perhaps because it generally lives in Pokemon’s shadow.

The franchise arguably hit its stride in the Game Boy Advance era with the release of the most acclaimed standard game in the series. Titled simply Medabots in the United States release (with two versions, Metabee and Rokusho), the game received excellent reviews, especially for a relatively unknown game. The game in many ways demonstrated some of the weaknesses of the Pokemon franchise; whereas Pokemon had begun to grow quite stale by the Game Boy Advance generation, Medabots showed off more advanced graphics, customization opportunities, and plot elements. Most importantly, the game provided a battle system that put Pokemon’s primitive one-on-one four-skill system to shame.

#5: Medabots AX: Metabee Ver. (GBA)

Like the Pokemon franchise, Natsume also eventually started branching out with the genres for its main franchise. With Medabots AX, they went in a direction very unlike any style Nintendo has yet pursued for Pokemon. The game is a 2D fighting game heavily reminiscent of a brawler with lots of RPG elements. Although the game did not receive as much acclaim as Medabots, I personally put it ahead of the more famous game for the more significant and innovative differences it draws compared to the Pokemon franchise.

Medabots AX puts the player in charge of directly controlling their Medabot. The game is broken up into stages, or battles, where the player directly fights with the Medabots controlled by the computer. Medabots are broken into teams so the player has a teammate, and health bars are displayed in the four corners of the screen to show the health of the fighters. In many ways, the game is most notable for demonstrating exactly the kind of game many of us would like to see from the Pokemon franchise. The only Pokemon-adjacent game even remotely resembling Medabots AX is Super Smash Bros., where the player can actually directly control a Pokemon with multiple moves at its disposal. Fighting against other Pokemon in a gameplay style like this would be quite a treat, and Medabots AX demonstrates just how plausible and enjoyable it could be. With how stagnant the Pokemon series has gotten, I don’t anticipate we’ll see such a game anytime soon, but we can hope.

#4: Shadow of the Ninja (NES)

Released near the beginning of Natsume’s company history (1990 in Japan, 1991 in Europe and the United States), Shadow of the Ninja was arguably one of the games that helped put Natsume on the map. A platformer with a significant tendency to act like a run-and-gun shooter (minus the guns), Shadow of the Ninja puts the player in the roles of a ninja tasked with rescuing the United States, which has been taken over by an evil Emperor named Garuda in 2029. Keeping with a common trend at the time, the cover art of the game is absolutely in no way remotely reminiscent of the actual design of the game. That’s not really a relevant point, I just find it to be a humorous observation.

The game plays like a normal platformer/action hybrid most of the time, but what sets it apart are the graphics and pacing. The graphics on their own were among the best available on the market, providing complex and interesting backgrounds for the game’s settings and really completing the perception that the game takes place in a major city. The pacing as well was excellent for the genre; unlike many run-and-gun games that tended to be overly plodding and strategic, Shadow of the Ninja did a great job of relying on and encouraging faster run-throughs and fighting. The game is also another example of Natsume’s early interest in cooperative games, and is particularly historically notable for featuring a mixed-gender fighting team.

#3: Power Blade (NES)

Another of Natsume’s earlier releases, also for the NES (and included in the PlayChoice-10, an arcade release of many popular Nintendo games), Power Blade was the other game that arguably put Natsume on the map in the video game industry. Shamelessly sculpted to leverage many of the popular movies from the late 1980s and early 1990s, the game featured a younger version of an Arnold Schwarzenegger lookalike on the cover and pitted the player against both a supercomputer and a team of aliens. Basically, the game could have been titled “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Greatest Hits: The Game” and not have changed anything but the names.

Despite (or thanks to?) that, though, the game was quite a hit. It received a significant amount of hype before its release in large part because of the very impressive graphics it supplied. The game was also unique among Natsume’s library in that it wasn’t released in Japan, although the reason for that is that the game was actually built on top of a previous Japanese game called Power Blazer that itself never saw an American release. The success and popularity of the game spawned a sequel, Power Blade 2, similarly starring an Arnold Schwarzenegger lookalike on the cover (this time with a dose of Duke Nukem for good measure). The sequel was not nearly as well-received, however, especially as it appeared that the graphics took a step backwards from the game’s revolutionary predecessor.

#2: Harvest Moon: Frantic Farming (DS)

The other release from Natsume in the franchise it is most associated with is Harvest Moon: Frantic Farming, a Nintendo DS game release in 2009; although the game was released for the Nintendo DS, however, it simultaneously received ports to iPhone and Blackberry platforms, reflecting Natsume’s new attention to emerging consoles and systems. Although it did receive a full DS release (with development influence from Marvelous Entertainment, the company responsible for most Harvest Moon games), the game is still not a main-series release, but rather, like Harvest Moon: My Little Shop, is better described as a Harvest Moon-themed spin-off more in the spirit of Puzzle de Harvest Moon, Platinum Egg’s only known product.

The game has very little to do with Harvest Moon outside its visual style; more akin to grid-based puzzle games like Bejeweled, the player is tasked with selecting vegetables from the touchscreen to achieve a high score Interestingly, though, the game does provide a robust cast of characters and a surprisingly significant plot for a puzzle game. The puzzle elements might not be anything particularly new, but the framing provided here is rather unique for a game in this genre. Perhaps most remarkably, the game manages to feel completely and totally like a Harvest Moon game despite sharing nearly nothing in common with the rest of the franchise in terms of gameplay. The availability of the game for mobile platforms as well reflects an interesting forward-thinking attitude on the part of Natsume.

#1: Omega Five (X360)

Like the two Harvest Moon games mentioned before, the best game Natsume has created (in my opinion) is another virtual marketplace digital download game, this time for the Xbox 360’s Xbox Live Arcade. Published by Hudson Soft (see how we got to Natsume from there?), the game is part of the recent resurgence in sidescrolling shoot ’em ups arguably popularized by games like Geometry Wars. Like Geometry Wars and many of the other games in this resurgence, Omega Five leverages strong and sound fundamentals for the shoot ’em up genre, but where it really excels is in its graphics.

Go look up some gameplay footage for Omega Five and you’ll immediately see why it’s garnered acclaim almost exclusively for this reason. The shoot ’em up genre was always one that excelled with better graphics, and the recent explosion in computing and graphic potential fed the potential for games like Omega Five. The graphics are so gorgeous that even the relatively standard gameplay otherwise, coupled with the low price point, is enough to vault Omega Five to the top of Natsume’s all-time list. That’s not to say that the game is completely standard; many enemy interactions are very unique for the genre, and I would be remiss to not mention the unintentionally humorous way the game renders the playable character. The music complements the visual stylings very nicely as well, providing a somewhat retro feel with modern presentation and instrumentation.

Conclusion

Honorable Mentions: Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Action Man: Search for Base X, Chaos World, Pocky & Rocky, Fullmetal Alchemist: Dual Sympathy.

Natsume today stands at an interesting crossroads in their history. It’s reasonable to expect the company will continue to publish the works of Marvelous, Neverland, and other similar companies, but the company’s development endeavors are seemingly somewhat up in the air. The company has devoted most of its development attention recently not to big console releases like it sought in the past, but rather to smaller downloadable games that might potentially provide a better profit margin. These games aren’t simply cash grabs, however; judging from the quality of releases like Harvest Moon: Frantic Farming and Omega Five, Natsume is pushing all-in with its resources to develop truly high-quality titles for the digital distribution platforms. That’s a push that may ultimately pay enormous dividends; the console and gaming markets are overwhelmingly moving toward these paradigms regarding casual gaming, gaming embedded in standalone devices, digital distribution, and multiple price points. By positioning itself in these domains now, Natsume is already setting itself up for long-term success with the way the industry is changing; and, of course, if the industry finds room for traditional platforms and methods, Natsume can fall back on its successful game publishing endeavors.

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!

One Comment

  1. Loved is Harvest moon

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