Much has been made of Xenoblade, Monolith Soft’s highly lauded JRPG which is finally making its way to the United States after months of fan campaigning and desperate petition to Nintendo of America. Many of my fellow Europeans who have played it have sung its praises, calling it the JRPG of a generation and the greatest of the past decade. Before Xenoblade came Xenosaga, an overly ambitious project for the Playstation 2. The trilogy was backed up by a strong lore and interesting premise, but rather stagnant gameplay that varied wildly in quality between installations. While regarded highly by its own selection of dedicated fans, it didn’t have the critical success its successor achieved in Europe, nor did it reach the levels of acclaim that Xenogears claimed, the root of this series of spiritual successors.
Xenogears was released on February 11th, 1998 in Japan, making the jump across the Pacific on October 20th 1998. Its translation was rumoured to be a rather hot topic at the time due to the controversial nature of the religious aspects of its story. Unlike many Squaresoft games released in the 90’s that never made the jump to the PAL regions at release, legendary games such as Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy Tactics, Xenogears never saw release in PAL regions at any point in time.
I first heard about Xenogears in the summer of 99. I’d played Chrono Trigger for the first time in 1998 and thoroughly loved it; I circumvented its unavailability with an internet connection and a blank CD. Having heard that a sequel was being produced, I managed to look into it using the internet at school and find out a little bit of information. My quest for information eventually led me to Yasunori Mitsuda, the composer for the music for Chrono Trigger. Even as a 10 year old, I thoroughly adored the music of Chrono Trigger, a love I hold to this day at 23. I looked through his discography and came across the name Xenogears. More spelunking for information resulted in me finding the cover art for the game. It had a robot on the cover. In 11 year old speak, Robot means “this is amazing and you want it”. Later on in his career, Yasunori Mitsuda went on to compose music for both Xenosaga Episode 1 and Xenoblade alongside two symphonic arrangements of the Xenogears soundtrack. The latest of these "Myth: The Xenogears Orchestral Album" was released in February 2011.
I recruited my older brother to acquire the game for me and before long, I had two CD’s, they were white and labelled “Xenogears Disk 1”, “Xenogears Disk 2”. I remember them vividly, and so I should. I still own them, they still work.
I booted the game up with great difficulty as my Playstation wasn’t exactly in fantastic shape; kids don’t take care of things after all. I wrestled with the console until it started to work, which tended to be in the most precarious and unsteady position I could find for it. I started the game up and the presentation was striking. It was the first time I’d ever seen the mixture of a 3D world and 2D sprite characters. In retrospect, it hasn’t aged well and the sprite work wasn’t fantastic but I was enthralled. I’d played games like Metal Gear Solid, Gran Turismo and the Final Fantasy 8 demo I got from a friend. They didn’t rapture me with the same sense of wonder that Xenogears had done.
Even as a kid I lost myself entirely to games at times and Xenogears was no exception. The gameplay was a breath of fresh air, not emulated successfully even in 2011. The characters were mind-blowing, Citan’s cool headed intelligence, Fei and his mysterious blackouts and Grahf was like my own personal Darth Vader. He was tall, dark, enthralling and sinister, the most villainous man in my small world, yet oddly appealing. While most of my peers were hypnotised by “The Phantom Menace”, I wanted more Xenogears and in retrospect, it was the best thing I ever did because “The Phantom Menace” was an atrocity.
Whenever I finished school, I’d load up Xenogears and carry on. I’d make it to Shevat, then move on to Solaris, I’d try and learn a new Deathblow to help with the upcoming boss battles and then carry on. Eventually, I got to the infamous Disk 2, a rapid shift in presentation.The second disk of Xenogears is notorious due to a rapid, abrupt and unforgiving shift in storytelling methods. Many consider it a real game breaker as it basically stops being a JRPG and becomes an occasionally interactive visual novel until the final 2 hours. There is no official reasoning behind this as companies don’t tend to air their development practices to the public. The common belief is that many Xenogears developers were pulled to the Chrono Cross project with funds becoming extremely limited. Many members of the Chrono Cross project left Squaresoft and formed Monolith Soft shortly before the release of Chrono Cross. It’s far from confirmed, but it seems highly reasonable. Nevertheless it didn’t really bother me, perhaps I was too young to become impatient so easily, but I was enjoying the story and soldiered on. I hit the sparse gameplay segments and kept reading diligently, I said goodbye to Grahf and returned to the open world. Like all things, it came to an end, but I was in love.
Time carried on, Final Fantasy 8 came out, Chrono Cross came out, Final Fantasy 9 came out, and I played and loved all those too but every year I’d head back to Xenogears. I got older and wiser, I learned that Xenogears ‘ disk 2 issues might have been due to diverting funds to Chrono Cross and I resented that game for it and moved on. Eventually, Xenosaga episode 1 got announced for the PS2. It was US only but I never had a mod chipped PS2 and never had the pleasure of playing it. Episode 2 saw a PAL release. I enjoyed the numerous homages to Xenogears, and how they honoured the combination of on foot and mech combat of Xenogears but it never had the soul of Xenogears. Xenosaga episode 3 came and went, never stepping foot on PAL soil officially.
I eventually became interested in owning genuine copies of all my most loved games and I acquired Super Famicom copies of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. I kept an eye out for copies of Xenogears, and eventually I stumbled across a copy in fantastic condition. I bought it with haste and gave it pride of place in my gaming collection. Despite finally owning a real, authorised copy of Xenogears, I wasn’t able to play it on my Playstation 3 or my Playstation 2.
My trusty Playstation 1 was on its last legs and struggled to read disks anymore. I knew the problem and how to solve it, but the problem was solving it cost effectively and with quality parts. I took to seeking out markets, looking for pre-owned PS1s that were in good condition. I had a fairly strict set of criteria for my searching, I needed to get one that was the same model as my old Playstation for several reasons: Different models had a different position for the spindle and it's cradle, some models were lacking the Serial port, others the Parallel port and the last models of the fat Playstation lacked both. Most importantly, I wanted a system that was in good condition so I wouldn't be shopping again in a years time. I didn't know if the parts were interchangeable, so my search ended up being quite lengthy, but it came to fruition after 6 months. I took the new Playstation home and performed life-saving surgery on my old Playstation. It lived, and it was good as new.
I played Xenogears with a real, legitimate copy for the first time in September 2011. With the recent announcement of import games hitting PSN however, many are hopeful that sooner rather than later, Xenogears will get the PAL release it richly deserves. 13 years later is better than never, after all.