In a year of AAA holiday releases, Persona 4 stands out, not just because of its high quality and enormous Metacritic rating, but because it is, ostensibly, a B game. Gasp, what? It's possible for a game to be great and not be AAA? Not a Final Fantasy or a Fable II or a Fallout 3 (drop a few more F's and we'll be on HBO) yet still compelling enough to get absurdly high scores? Despite how we enjoy calling games like Infinite Undiscovery and The Last Remnant "B-games", the fact of the matter is that they are not "B-games" at all. They were designed as high-budget, AAA titles, their goal being worldwide sales, but when they went wrong, at least in the US and Europe, we decided they weren't so triple-A after all. But let's not confuse excellence with budget or marketing clout. Let's not diminish lower-budget games by misconstruing development cost as playability. It's entirely possible for a game to cost plenty of time and money and come out disappointingly; it's also possible for a comparatively quick, cheap game to become one of the most laudable RPG releases of an entire year, and on a previous-generation system.
Of course, we already knew from the heading that I was talking about Persona 4, right?, and, to an extent, its predecessor, Persona 3. Here, we see games produced on a fairly low budget, at least compared to something staggering like Gears of War 2, or even upcoming Resident Evil 5; as for the length of time in development, it's not a fraction of Final Fantasy XIII. And there are no pretensions of making a big, multi-regional blockbuster. Persona 4 was designed with the Japanese market in mind, not much of a thought given to what Westerners may or may not care for; perhaps Persona 3's relative success made them feel secure in ignoring the American sensibilities that are so popular to keep under consideration elsewhere (Capcom and Square Enix, for two), but I get the impression more that it wasn't much of a consideration at all. The localization was probably a given from the get go, certainly, but what I'm saying is that its appeal to the Western gaming population was not part of the design. It was not trumpeted about beforehand, I doubt they had meetings discussing techniques, and no Western game engine was used (poorly or not) in the process.
Yet, somehow, Persona 4 garners such universal praise, far from the shores of Japan, that any score below a 9 seems almost shocking.
My point, if I've been too obtuse to make it clear, is that the current trend of thinking, where Japanese game development has fallen hopelessly behind and needs to westernize, is erroneous, and I'm using Persona 4, from among a few others which I could have chosen, as what I think is a shining example. While The Last Remnant came to us unfocused (and others would argue unfinished), trying to appeal to a worldwide audience, Persona 4 simply did its thing, never straining too hard to become more than a niche production. While the former had a huge budget and an enormous team of developers, artists and fancy localizers, the latter was staffed by a core group of talented individuals.
And thus the gigantic, triple-A release fell depressingly flat (The Last Remnant was frankly the game I was most looking forward to in 2008), achieving few, if any, of its international goals, and the plucky little B-game more than exceeded anyone's expectations. Yet, we still have people saying how they hope Persona 5 will appear on PS3 rather than PS2 (they'll probably get their wish, as I don't think we'll see another installment even enter development for at least a few years), never realizing that the platform Persona 4 released upon was a huge part of its success, allowing it to dodge the crippling development costs of the current generation, a problem more responsible for Japanese game design's apparent lackluster than anything inherently outdated in concept.
Not everything has to be a multi-million dollar, multi-national endeavor to succeed; in fact, such aspirations can lead to utter downfall.
Comments? Suggestions? Please feel free. And does anyone know how I can do a cut/break after the first paragraph (like Kotaku and others do) so folks aren't bombarded with the full post until they click "more"?