Gaming's Greatest Companies: Falcom

By Patrick Molloy on March 14, 2012, 7:30PM EDT

The Ys franchise has always been more or less of a footnote in the United States and Europe. But that seems to be ever the way of things for everything by Ys creator Falcom, a venerable Japanese developer whose slim library of U.S. releases gives little indication of how prolific they really are. The company has built a loyal niche of fans in America and Europe almost in spite of itself; Falcom has a number of long-running series (including Ys) that have only made their way west in bits and pieces. Brandish, Dragon Slayer, Xanadu, The Legend of Heroes -- you've probably heard of them, you may even have played some of them. But unless you read Japanese fluently or have incredible patience and a high threshold for frustration, chances are pretty good that you haven't played any of these franchises in their entirety.

Why have Falcom's works remained so tantalizingly out of reach for us non-Japanese people? There are a number of likely reasons, but the most significant is that the company has always first and foremost been a PC developer. Falcom got its start programming for the Japan-only home computers of the early '80s. Since then, the vast majority of the company's creations have been PC games first. But aside from early DOS-based releases of Ys I and Sorcerian, Falcom games have only ever appeared on consoles in America. That automatically limits what we receive to what the company bothers to convert from PC format.

Further compounding the problem is that Falcom's design philosophy has evolved very slowly since the debut of games like Dragon Slayer and Ys; "stubborn" might be the best way to describe the company's approach to game design. If it was good enough in 1984 then, by golly, it's good enough in 2012!

This isn't to say that Falcom games are completely backwards, but by and large the company develops for people who have fond memories of its formative days and doesn't mess with the formula for a given series too much. The result is a body of work that stimulates its fans' sense of nostalgia while being perhaps a bit too stylized (the less charitable might say "primitive") for newcomers. Since we didn't get the games here back in the day, there's not much sense in any publisher taking on the trouble of localizing them now, since we're not really the target audience.  All in all, it's a formula for obscurity.

Yet beneath the seemingly regressive appearance and mechanics of a game like Legacy of Ys I & II, there must be something worth experiencing, right? Yes, absolutely: Falcom's approach to design dates from a time when RPGs were obtuse and demanding, yielding great rewards and impressive depth only for those with the willingness and patience to play by the game's rules. Modern RPGs tend to be gentle, hand-holding affairs that kindly nudge you along every step of the way and try not to throw excessively challenging obstacles in your path. Although the kick-your-ass-and-make-you-like-it approach to RPG design does appear to be making a modest comeback (generally on portable systems, of all things), the general dearth of ultra-hardcore brutality in the modern RPG goes a long way toward explaining why a certain niche of role-playing fan continues to love the work that Falcom produces.

So do yourself a favor and pick up a Falcom developed title today.  You'll be glad you did!

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