#10: Reel Fishing (PS)
Marvelous (and Victor) is most well-recognized for two franchises: one of them, of course, is the Harvest Moon franchise, but the other – lagging far behind but still significant – is the loosely tied together series of fishing games the company has produced over the years. I describe the series as "loosely tied together" because while the games all revolve around fishing, they fall into two distinct franchises. The more recent of these two, spanning nine different releases, is Reel Fishing.
The first Reel Fishing game came out back in 1996 for the PlayStation, and like many Wii games more recently, it came with a special controller to be used with the game that was also compatible with the later PlayStation releases. After the first two games were released for the PlayStation, the series transitioned to the Dreamcast for an ill-fated 2001 one release titled Reel Fishing: Wild before returning to the PlayStation 2 for arguably the franchise's best and most acclaimed release, Reel Fishing III. With the debut of the Nintendo Wii, the company again transitioned, releasing a Nintendo Wii disc release and two WiiWare releases. Although none of these releases received quite the level of praise as some of the earlier games, they did present a unique tie-in between the main game (Reel Fishing: Angler's Dream) and the WiiWare releases, Reel Fishing Challenge and Reel Fishing Challenge II: owning the full disc release would unlock extra content in the downloadable WiiWare releases.
We covered The King of Fights franchise as a whole several weeks ago with SNK Playmore. SNK Playmore was not the only developer to ever create games in the franchise though; like many franchises, while the primary company compiled the games for the main console releases, portable releases were licensed to third-party developers. The King of Fighters EX: Neo Blood and its sequel, The King of Fighters EX2: Howling Blood, were two such games, developed by Marvelous for the Game Boy Advance system.
They heyday for fighting games occurred in the early 1990s, and by the time the 2000s rolled around, the genre was seen by many as a bit outdated and obsolete. In addition, fighting games had never particularly caught on with mobile platforms (although, in fairness, until Pokemon came along and legitimized mobile consoles a bit, mobile games were very rarely legitimate competitors with console releases). With those two facts stacking the deck against it, Marvelous nonetheless struck gold… the second time around. The King of Fighters EX: Neo Blood was largely a flop, but its sequel Howling Blood debuted to significant acclaim a year later. Localized to the United States by Atlus a year later (see, it all ties back together!), The King of Fighters EX2: Howling Blood has gone on to be labeled arguably the best portable fighting game ever released. Marvelous managed to leverage the limitations of the Game Boy Advance (compared to console games) to rekindle what made fighting games fun in the first place, giving the genre a miniature reawakening.
Developed by Victor Interactive Software in the days before the acquisition by Marvelous, the Keio Flying Squadron series is a very interesting series. The most interesting element of the series, right from the beginning, is that each game in the franchise is a significantly different genre – we're not talking Final Fantasy's habit of changing the characters and worlds from game to game, but rather a wholesale change of genre while keeping the characters and world largely intact. The first game in the franchise was a shoot 'em up game, the second was a platformer, and the third was a party game in the spirit of Mario Party. The second of these three games, Keio Flying Squadron 2, was the franchise's highlight.
Although the game never reached American soil, it nonetheless received a rather large release, including Europe and Australia along with Japan. That decision was made in large part to capitalize on the areas of strength for its console, the Sega Saturn, which failed to compete with Sony and Nintendo in the United States but was (slightly) more successful elsewhere. The game was also praised as one of the Saturn's best, exemplifying the strength it showed with 2D platformers (despite missing the genre's heyday by about 8 years). To date, the game has not received a Virtual Console rerelease, and thus the game is still something of a rare gem. For those with the chance to play it, though, it still presents a very unique and different experience.
The entire reason for writing a list on Marvelous is its affiliation with one of my favorite game franchises, Harvest Moon: Marvelous and its predecessor, Victor, are responsible for developing almost all of the main series Harvest Moon games from the Nintendo 64 era to today. The challenge with a franchise like Harvest Moon, though, is that it can be so unique and formulaic that it becomes stale over time. That is in many ways what had happened when the seventh console generation rolled around: previous games had started to become more and more of the same old Harvest Moon fare, and the series was in desperate need for a reinvention.
While Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility did not quite provide the degree of reinvention that perhaps the series needed, it was still a shocking shot in the arm that rejuvenated the franchise as a whole. The game generalized out the tasks available to the player enormously; what was previously a farming-and-dating simulator suddenly presented legitimate sidequests for fishing, mining, and other chores, and all of these new features were balanced together nicely. The courtship system was also rejuvenated, with relationships finally taking its place in the forefront of the game world. That courtship system was nested inside a broader social interaction system that presented an enormous improvement over its predecessors, giving the series for the first time what felt like a truly complete, cohesive, and dynamic game world. Although the franchise has thusfar failed to capitalize on these innovations, Tree of Tranquility was still an excellent release.
As mentioned previously, Victor and Marvelous are also closely associated with a series of fishing games. Although commonly, people often regard the Reel Fishing and River King franchises as part of a combined fishing-themed series, in actuality the two are very, very different. Whereas Reel Fishing is a fishing simulator, the River King games are fishing-themed roleplaying games, in very much the same way that Harvest Moon is a farming-themed roleplaying game. Like Harvest Moon, River King got its start with Pack-In-Video, who developed the first three games in the series for the Famicom, TurboGrafx-CD, and Super Famicom respectively; the series never reached American audiences, however. When Pack-In-Video was acquired by Victor, the license for River King (Kawa no Nushi Tsuri previously) came with it, and the company quickly put out Legend of the River King for the Game Boy. Released as the third installment in the series in Japan, the game was the first to be released in the United States.
The series has gone on to receive fifteen releases, although only four have reached American audiences. Victor continued producing the games after the conversion to Marvelous Interactive Studio, and at one point experimented with renaming the games to Harvest Fishing to capitalize on the greater success of the Harvest Moon franchise. The move was ultimately rather unsuccessful, and the franchise has remained somewhat obscure outside the attention its original release received in the United States; still, it presents a surprisingly solid experience that is especially appealing to fans of the similar Harvest Moon series.
Many people would put Harvest Moon: Back to Nature in the top spot among Marvelous's products; in fact, for me personally, it's my favorite Harvest Moon game of all time. However, the main thing keeping me from elevating it all the way to #1 is that an enormous portion of the game's development and appeal were already created and perfected in an earlier release; Harvest Moon: Back to Nature itself might be slightly superior, but that is largely because 90% of its work was already completed before the game was ever begun. By that same token, a closely-related and equally-beloved Harvest Moon game, Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town, does not appear on this list at all for the same reason: it is far too much of a port of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature to deserve its own slot.
All that said, Harvest Moon: Back to Nature is likely the all-time most-popular release from Marvelous, taking the still-fresh game structure to the runaway success of the fifth console generation. The game world was filled with the cast of characters perfected in earlier Marvelous releases, with a variety of personalities to meet and explore. The game also succeeded in ways that later Harvest Moon games have failed to mimic; the festivals were fun, the characters were charming, and the mechanics were simple enough to avoid getting in the way of the game's light-hearted charm. Of course, part of the game's quality will always be how minutely it changed a previous great game, but we'll get to that in a moment.
There's some confusion regarding the developer of Half-Minute Hero; some outlets give credit to Marvelous (Kotaku, Siliconera), while others instead point to a lesser-known studio, Opus (GameFAQs, IGN). This confusion likely means a collaboration, with Marvelous playing the role of both development collaborator and publisher, but given that Opus has not yet produced quite enough quality games to deserve their own list, I'm listing Half-Minute Hero as a Marvelous creation.
Released in 2009 for the PSP and later ported to other consoles as well, Half-Minute Hero is an incredibly unique game based on its foundational gimmick: the player has only 30 seconds to beat the game. That's not actually the most accurate way to say that; in reality, the player has lots more time and can pause time or add time back, but the foundational idea is still a very small time limit. As such, the game is actually broken into dozens of missions that each have a similar 30-second time limit, and the story of the game is told as a super-story over all these individual missions. As if that dynamic wasn't unique enough, the game is also the ultimate genre-bender: the different missions come in a variety of genres, including RPG, shoot 'em up, real-time strategy, and action/platformer. Of course, with such a varied list of genres, the depth of each one is lacking, but that doesn't take away from the unique charm of the game. The game is also interesting in that it was originally developed as a freeware downloadable that was subsequently scaled up to a full release.
Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life is without a doubt the black sheep of the Harvest Moon franchise. I call it the black sheep for two similar but distinct reasons. For one, the design of the game is by far the most different from the "typical" Harvest Moon game of any game in the franchise, outside the recent spin-off games Rune Factory and Innocent Life. Secondly, and similarly, the game's fanbase is very different: among Harvest Moon fans, A Wonderful Life is one of the least-loved games, but among the broader fanbase, A Wonderful Life is one of the franchise's most popular games. Its departure from the core established Harvest Moon concepts alienated fans of the franchise, but also allowed the game to acquire a larger fanbase outside of the series' fans.
Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life puts a much more significant focus on the plot and relationships of Harvest Moon compared to the farming. For many, this would be desirable, but this is accomplished by completely altering the core gameplay concepts. Days are longer, and thus there are only 40 days per year. You're restricted to ten years, forced to get married at the end of Year 1, and the ten game years are spread out over a much longer period of time to allow plot development surrounding your child actually growing up. But besides all of this, in my opinion the most revolutionary thing about Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life were the graphics; it remains to date the most beautiful game I've ever played, and it is beyond me why Marvelous has not developed the graphical worlds of the later games in the same way even while returning to more traditional gameplay.
The oldest game on this list, The Legendary Axe was developed in the very earliest days of Victor Interactive Software specifically for the PC Engine and similar TurboGrafx-16; it was actually a launch title for the American release of the TurboGrafx-16. A fairly traditional platformer, The Legendary Axe puts the player in the shoes of a character named Gogan off to rescue his girlfriend – but unlike Mario, you'll be fighting to save your girlfriend from being gruesomely sacrificed rather than baking cake for a bunch of turtles.
Upon its release, The Legendary Axe became one of the most acclaimed games of 1989. It won several awards for the best TurboGrafx-16 game of 1989, and received some consideration for best game, regardless of platform, by some outlets as well. Nearly every element of the game received praise, including the smooth graphics that were significantly ahead of their time, the extra attention played to the sound effects, and the action-packed pacing of the game. In many ways, The Legendary Axe should have been the ideal release game for the TurboGrafx-16 – it put to shame anything that the NES could produce, including Super Mario Bros. The execution of the game was so flawless that even today, it plays very nicely as a retro-style game that doesn't feel outdated. This quality has led to the game being among the most anticipated as-yet-unreleased games for the Nintendo Virtual Console.
The game that started it all… sort of. Harvest Moon 64 is the second Harvest Moon game, the first developed by Victor Interactive Software, and the first for the new generation of consoles. While Harvest Moon wasn't as established as several other franchises that required significant reinventions for 3D graphics, it nonetheless was tasked with bridging that gap, and it did so flawlessly. Harvest Moon 64 is, along with Harvest Moon: Back to Nature, the series' high point. These are the two games that wide audiences played before Harvest Moon started to become more of a niche franchise appealing to a certain segment of the market.
Harvest Moon: Back to Nature and Harvest Moon 64 are very similar games, in large part because Harvest Moon: Back to Nature borrows incredibly from its Nintendo-based predecessor. The cast of characters, visual design, and game mechanics of Back to Nature all originated in Harvest Moon 64, although in a confusing twist, many of the family relationships were changed. Although I personally prefer Back to Nature of the two, I find that Harvest Moon 64 has a certain charm about it that even Back to Nature did not recapture; the relationship between Karen and Kai, the vineyard and wine cellar, the mountain environment, the town square – Harvest Moon 64 had a certain charm to it that no other Harvest Moon game has yet equaled. It is perhaps for that reason that the characters from these earliest games continue to be reinvented in later releases, with Karen, Ann, Elli, Mary, and Popuri continuing to appear in recent releases like Magical Melody, Tree of Tranquility, and Harvest Moon DS.
Honorable Mentions: Vampire Hunter D, Super Castles, Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland, Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town, Harvest Moon: Magical Melody, Harvest Moon: Hero of Leaf Valley, Ikenie no Yoru, Banana, Boundary Gate: Daughter of Kingdom, Legendary Axe II.
It's not always easy to tell where one company ends and another begins. At first, I had intended to make separate lists for Victor Interactive Software and Marvelous Interactive Software, but ultimately decided that "acquisition" boiled down more to a name change that did not ultimately affect much of Victor's internal structure or operations. However, the recent change at Marvelous is more significant: In 2011, Marvelous Entertainment (the entire company, not just the Marvelous Interactive Software branch) merged with AQ Interactive, a somewhat well-known game developer, and Liveware to form Marvelous AQL. Whereas the acquisition of Victor Interactive Software by Marvelous Entertainment boiled down to a name change of the same studio, the creation of Marvelous AQL merges together multiple different development teams, thus making it more difficult to give Marvelous AQL credit for Marvelous's and Victor's earlier releases. Since its inception, Marvelous AQL has been busy, releasing a new Harvest Moon for the 3DS, a new Rune Factory for the 3DS, and a Half-Minute Hero sequel for Windows. The company also teamed up with Square-Enix to produce the Nintendo Monopoly-style party game Fortune Street, in one of the more bizarre marriages of companies, franchise, and genres I've ever seen.
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List by DDJ (10/30/2012)
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