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BulletMagnet avatar 6:28 PM on 04.20.2012  (server time)
Collaboration: IF Only...


It would appear that my fellow c-bloggers are currently writing about video game-related collaborations and crossovers that they wish would happen. Interesting.

Most of the community’s focus, at least so far, has been on theoretical team-ups that, practically speaking, are incredibly unlikely to occur, but would inspire nothing short of delirium within certain specific segments of the fanbase if they did. An understandable trend, as imagining the impossible is kind of the point behind the assignment.

But guess what folks?

Over in my neck of the woods it’s already happening; has been, steadily, for several years now, in fact.

Sound like I’m yanking your chain? Read on: it’s absolutely true! All of it!...

except for one TINY little problem.

It’s not exactly a household name for non-niche gamers, but weirdos like me tend to be at least somewhat familiar with a Japanese publisher/developer known as Idea Factory. Founded in the mid-to-late 90’s, the company’s comfort zone has always resided primarily within the RPG and strategy realms, but a couple of years ago the outfit decided to forge a brand new specialty for itself: collaborations.

And not just ANY collaborations, mind you: borderline-impossible ones.

LOADS of them.

So, greenhorn, you were impressed when Capcom managed to engineer a handful of joint productions with SNK and Namco? Sure, it allowed you to finally act out that Blanka/Kim Kap Hwan fan fiction you'd slaved over (minus the subtle ambience and philosophical undertones, of course), but you’re forgetting one important thing: some people, strange as it may sound, might have actually HEARD of Street Fighter and Fatal Fury. Moreover, the two series, gameplay-wise, at least superficially resemble each other. A crossover between the two had at least an iota of potential to turn something that might be mistaken for a profit – the entire notion actually made a certain type of sense.

Shh! you hear that? It’s the scornful laughter of Idea Factory, off in the distance, at Capcom’s pitifully tiny cojones.

Want to do a REAL collaboration, it mocks? Okay then: try putting the likes of Growlanser, Gungrave, and Code of the Samurai all together into one game…oh, and then top it all off with Shadow Hearts, just to keep things interesting. By the way, that’s all BEFORE you add a generous sampling of your own original characters and series into the mix.

Go ahead, we’ll wait.

…what’s that? Giving up already? *tsk tsk tsk*…

So, let’s recap for a moment…we, a company with a mere fraction of the history or industry-wide pull that an establishment like Capcom commands, managed to get Atlus (the Persona guys), RED Entertainment (Sakura Wars), and Aruze (the company that bought out those losers at SNK) to work with us, all at the same time…and did we mention that this was one of our very earliest shots at collaboration?

In case this fact wasn’t clear enough, no, Chaos Wars wasn’t exactly Infinity Ward and DICE putting out Call of Battle (with the Field of Duty map pack to follow), in terms of either buzz or market impact: that said, for fans of the obscure and semi-obscure series brought together therein by Idea Factory, this was a minor moon shot of sorts (especially seeing as the bugger actually ended up being localized, albeit terribly, in the USA, despite the fact that many of its individual portions never had been). Out here on the fringes we spend inordinate amounts of our time fervently praying that a given company’s last game sold enough copies to keep things afloat; the notion that somebody out there had enough faith in such offbeat brands – or was just plain crazy, either possibility worked for us – to combine them gave us hope that there might be (*gasp*) an adequately-marketable future for the stuff we liked to play.

As it turns out, our aspirations to this particular end were not misplaced in the least: Chaos Wars was just the beginning of Idea Factory’sFrankenstein-esque antics within the niche gaming world.

Consider Trinity Universe, which brought together Nippon Ichi fan favorites Etna, Flonne and Prinny from the Disgaea SRPG series, and threw them into cahoots with Violet and Pamela from Gust’s alchemy-centric “Atelier” line of role-playing games – the funny part is, this was actually a step down from their previous project, Cross Edge, in terms of sheer scope and ridiculousness. Not only were NIS and Gust on board for that one too, but so were none other than (*double gasp!*) Namco-Bandai, which owns the publishing right to the Gust-developed Ar Tonelico, and, yes, Capcom themselves, who lent five characters from the long-dormant Darkstalkers to the festivities.

Of course, even the above utterly pales in comparison to the likes of Hyperdimension Neptunia – not only did Idea Factory manage to knead in a particularly heavy dose of Sega (the main character is basically an anime girl version of a never-produced Sega system…who can summon Alex Kidd and Shinobi in battle), but the entire premise of the game is a spoof of the current-gen “console wars”, and features truckloads of winks at and references to the three “active” console makers and their innumerable products.

That’s not to say, of course, that there are no “official” guest stars to be found: not only are anthropomorphized takes on Gust, Nippon Ichi, and Idea Factory itself (under the nom de guerre of “IF”) present as playable characters, but so are RED and the visual novel-centric 5pb, via downloadable content. The recently-localized sequel, which shifts its focus to portable systems/girls, brings everyone back and invites Falcom (Ys, Legend of Heroes) and Cave (DoDonPachi, Mushihime-sama) over to play too. And they can wield The Power of Inafune…after being sent on their merry way by former Hudson Soft spokesperson Takahashi Meijin.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that Compile Heart, the Idea Factory subsidiary that directly developed Neptunia (and appears as yet another playable heroine), is formed partially of former staffers from dearly-departed Guardian Legend and Puyo-Puyo developer Compile? And that they’re working on another Neptunia sequel as we speak? And that Idea Factory is ALSO currently collaborating with Sting, developer of unique strategy hybrids Yggdra Union and Knights in the Nightmare?

Most of these names might not mean a heckuva lot to a majority of you, but rest assured: for a certain class of gamer, Nerd Heaven looks a lot like this. To put it bluntly, things are absolutely awesome in our quaint little neighborhood – our fellow connoisseurs of interactive digital entertainment can only hope that one day they may share in some similar manner of collaborative glory.

…yup, simply awesome.

*contented sigh*

…except, that is, for that one LITTLE problem I mentioned earlier.

...namely, the fact that most of these collaborations really aren’t all that great.

You see, in its native Japan Idea Factory is sometimes nicknamed “Idea F*ck”, a blunt reference to how many of its ideas end up going bad. And we’re not talking in terms of, say, graphical fidelity, which certainly isn’t the company’s strong suit but can be overlooked relatively easily by fans: we’re drilling straight to the core here. In a nutshell, IF is infamous for repeatedly attempting to whitewash major gameplay deficiencies with heaps of its aforementioned otaku appeal: yawning imbalances, jagged pacing, perplexing design choices, ludicrous overcomplication (for an idea of what you’re in for, check out this recounting of the skill system in Record of Agarest War), you name it and it’s probably brought at least one of Idea Factory’s titles crashing down. Both players and critics have panned release after release – for the record, while I personally wouldn’t have been QUITE as down on Neptunia as DToid was, there’s little in that review I can argue with on a point-by-point basis.

Yet somehow, amidst all of this, Idea Factory remains almost unbelievably prolific, cranking out game after game, and winning ally after ally for its joint projects (including an execrable tourney fighter, though to be fair they didn’t develop that one in-house) – what in the world is it that keeps them in business, in the face of so much subpar output?

Desperate nerds like myself, that’s what.

We’re either so taken with the idea of seeing our favorite characters all together in one place (in this way, we’re not much better than the eight-year-olds who beg their parents for a lousy license-based property just because a cartoon animal they like is on the box), or so eager to FINALLY see such a brazenly nerdy concept done right, that we continue to give the company second, third, and fourth chances to redeem themselves, insisting inwardly that once they see just enough of our vital support they’ll FINALLY have enough drive and resources to truly do our geeky exuberance justice. So we continue to put up with the gouge-worthy DLC and cheeky fan service (headed, perhaps inevitably, in ever-more-shameless directions), always in anticipation of that crowning moment when our loyal patience is at last rewarded in full.

By and large we’re still waiting, though this isn’t to say that there’s absolutely nothing to be hopeful about: despite their not-insubstantial flaws, Trinity Universe was a nice step up from Cross Edge, as was mk2 over the first Hyperdimension Neptunia. The potential for Idea Factory to refine its source material into a truly knockout crossover game is certainly there, though it’s yet to accomplish a heckuva lot more for fervent supporters than dragging them along until the other shoe drops with a resounding "clunk": will this clumsy, painful-to-watch dance ever change its tempo? Nobody knows, but for those out there snickering at “those ever-so-malleable losers” like myself, be forewarned, as there are portents here of what may well await more visible sectors of gaming in the not-too-distant future…or what may well have already landed in your posh backyard, even if you haven’t noticed.

Undoubtedly, a major part of the reason that IF has managed to amass so many alliances among niche developers is a matter of simple necessity: trapped in thrall to insular and picky fanbases, a number of these outfits have surmised that cooperating, instead of competing, with each other is an all but unavoidable path if they want to keep themselves open for business. Heck, look at Capcom and Namco, standard-bearers of the once-flagging fighting game…who once did this and are now doing this (oh, and were you aware that Guilty Gear developer Arc System Works is currently paired up with Atlus itself?). Though your Triple-A favorites may appear immune to such trends as of now, in such a high-stakes, rags-to-riches business as this one the next Rugrats Go Wild (or motion-controlled mini-game collection, for that matter) is never far off for a once-proud developer fallen on harder times.

On this side of the proverbial tracks, the future is now: our favored game makers are already huddling together in anticipation of the gathering storm. On the one hand, this sets the stage for some truly amazing collaborations that never could have come to pass otherwise…on the other, a well-set stage isn’t worth much if there aren’t any entertaining acts being performed on them, or if the performers themselves aren’t up to snuff. At this point the question is posed to the viewer: do you walk out of the theater right this second, or hang around in hopes that the upcoming show is the one you’ve been waiting for (the buzz has been great, after all)? What about after the next one? Or the one after that? You might roll your eyes at some of the out-crowd for having kept our butts obediently in our seats for so long, but trust me, once you find yourself in a similar position with a franchise you’ve loved for years the answer won’t come to you nearly so easily as you thought it would.

Thus, to all of you out there dreaming of the video game collaboration that will change everything, by all means keep dreaming – and keep on supporting the games you enjoy – in hopes that something special eventually comes out the other side. That said, don’t sigh “if only…” too loudly: someone out there is listening, and one day might just be crazy enough to give you almost exactly what you wish for.

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