Nippon Ichi Panel Impressions

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Ever since the tactical RPG Disgaea: Hour of Darkness debuted in North America in 2003, diehard RPG fans have been singing the praises of Japanese developer Nippon Ichi. Known for their unique blend of wacky humor and their tendency for jam-packing games with countless hours of content, Nippon Ichi has garnered a loyal fan base, with their admirers turning out in droves for the Nippon Ichi discussion panel at Anime Expo 2011, held this past weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

For the panel, members of Nippon Ichi's American branch NIS America showcased three upcoming titles. The first was Cave Story 3D, another remake of the cult PC sidescroller, notorious for being the work of a single talented indie programmer. The remake is apparently being handled by the same development team (Nicalis) responsible for the Wii version of the game, which featured a set of updated 2D graphics. The team seems interested in taking advantage of the 3DS' visuals, though why they chose to remake the same game, especially one known for its quirky and attractive pixel art, remains a mystery.

Cave Story 3D screenshot

Nippon Ichi has been oddly slow in providing details on Cave Story 3D, so seeing the game in action was a relief. Despite ditching the traditional 2D sprite-based visuals, the action seemed as decidedly old school as the original, with laser blasts firing across the screen and enemies exploding into clouds of smoke. Interestingly, though the graphics have been obviously updated to 3D, the flurry of damage counters retain their original blocky font and are now rendered with some added depth, causing them to pop out at the player. With the trailer playing on a simple projector, it was hard to discern how the game will look on a 3DS, but it's easy to imagine the frantic action being visually interesting, especially with these damage numbers filling the screen. Again, though the game certainly looks playable, one can't help but think that this graphical update is rather unnecessary, much as it was the first time around. Though it's interesting to see the graphical evolution of the game across three distinct versions, the original 8-bit ascetic had an irreplaceable charm.

The next game to be shown was Bleach: Soul Resurreccion, a 3D brawler based on the popular Japanese manga of the same name. Originally released by Sony in Japan under the name Bleach: Soul Ignition, this is another example of NIS America's appeal to fans, the company having been responsible for the localization of many cult Japanese hits abandoned by their original publishers. Localization editor Phoenix Spalding gave some brief details on the title, comparing it to the Dynasty Warrior series but placing emphasis on the RPG elements, with characters gaining experience and learning new skills as they progress. From the trailer shown it seemed the most impressive facet of the game was the impressively detailed character models, all of whom stayed faithful to their manga incarnations. The special attacks were a dazzling light show that had fans of the series cheering, and with 21 different playable characters, Bleach lovers will be sure to find their favorite in the roster. Unfortunately, the game seems to suffer from the same problem the Dynasty Warriors series does---namely a lack of complexity. While it's impossible to truly judge a game from the trailer alone, it was obvious that areas were very flat and barren, with a definite lack of variation in the enemies battled. Even despite these flaws, Dynasty Warriors fans have continued to propel the stale franchise forward, and this type of game, combined with such a popular license, seems like a sure fan-pleaser.
Watch the trailer for Bleach: Soul Resurreccion
Though fans applauded the first two titles, they went absolutely ape-crazy for the last of the games being shown off. This, of course, was the upcoming strategy RPG Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten, Nippon Ichi's flagship series and what most of the people in the room had come to see. The trailer started off rather slow, with a dull-voiced narrator reciting a list of cliched promotional lines typical of other fantasy games, while a simple tune played. Luckily this turned out to be nothing more than a tease, as suddenly the narrator began to whip the hall into a frenzy with his promise of the manliest game ever created, proclaiming, "Disgaea stands for manly fantasy!" The game's ridiculous stats were another talking point, promising the return of characters up to level 9999 and the ability to deal 100,000,000 points of damage---both of which were summarized as Disgaea "taking a dump on the face of common sense!" All of this was interspersed with the riotous laughter of the attendees, unable to contain themselves as one segment showed a stack of characters successively punching a character all the way to the moon and as another demonstrated the ability to combine smaller enemies into one giant enemy and use it as devastating weapon.

One feature Nippon Ichi is hyping is the game's network modes, which don't allow for any true multiplayer but are definitely a step in the right direction. Players can build their own pirate ships, which can then invade the worlds of other players. There's also the ability to build your own maps and share them on the network, likely adding thousands more hours of content to the already overflowing title.
LA Anime Expo 2011 Disgaea 4 Interview
Once the commotion died down, the president of Nippon Ichi, Souhei Niikawa, talked briefly about the game with the help of a translator. He was most excited about the possibility the network modes offered, what he termed an "endless battle with friends" that one could continue "forever maybe." With a grin he told the room, "Please purchase Disgaea 4... and explode the universe!"

Following this was a brief Q&A session, fans quickly lining up for a chance to ask Niikawa and the localization team questions about the upcoming titles, as well as beg for sequels to their favorite titles. One fan asked whether the series names had any relevance, and Niikawa revealed that Disgaea actually takes its name from the words "dystopia" and "Gaia." When asked how he got into making games, Niikawa said he originally wanted to be a professor of archaeology like Indiana Jones, inciting some laughter from the audience. He then explained how in college he played Final Fantasy V and discovered his new calling in life. Another question dealt with the popular Prinny character and how Niikawa felt about these exploding penguins, which have become Nippon Ichi's mascot. Niikawa smiled and pointed to his Prinny hat, telling the crowd, "Everybody buy this hat! We will take over Mickey Mouse!"

There were some very interesting facts to take away from the Q&A regarding Disgaea 4. First of all, though the team is trying to bring as much of the DLC as they can stateside, some of the characters offered for download in Japan are owned by different entities, and getting to the rights to them will be a challenge, if not an impossibility. Additionally, Disgaea 4's network play will be region-locked, meaning players in America can't send their pirates to infiltrate the land of the rising sun.

Disgaea 4 Japanese version screenshot

Many other questions concerned possible future releases, but Nikawa insisted that Nippon Ichi's future is largely based on the feedback they receive from fans. Rather than promise a portable Makai Kingdom, a Makai Kingdom sequel, or any Disgaea titles for the 3DS, he reiterated that the best way to show support for those projects is to be active in the community, emailing Nippon Ichi with ideas of what you'd like to see or voting for your favorite games on the Nippon Ichi site. One game they were willing to speak about was Hyper Dimension Neptunia, and the localization team admitted they were surprised by the game's success in the US. Though unable to confirm a sequel officially, they did tell fans to expect one.

Though the panel ended with many questions left answered, it seems obvious that several great new titles are on the way from Nippon Ichi, an outcome sure to please their loyal fanbase. And judging by the enthusiasm of the panel's audience, both Nippon Ichi and NIS American should continue to enjoy a lasting popularity for years to come. While deposing Mickey Mouse might seem like an impossible dream, try telling that to the company that claims to "take a dump on the face of common sense."

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Vito Gesualdi GameZone.com Senior Editor, DraftMagic.com Editor-in-Chief, NoNoComedy.com Contributor, and the hardest working man in show business. King of video walkthroughs for new games. Follow me on the twitters @VitoGesualdi.
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