For many RPG fans, the Game Boy Advance has been a strikingly positive achievement in the field of game development. As home consoles have grown ever greater their technological prowess, the GBA has allowed a distinctive sort of graphically and narratively old-school RPG to continue to flourish. Many, even, reached impressive sales figures rivaling the big budget RPG epics on the PS2. But as the immensely popular GBA was phased out in favor of a new portable console emphasizing unique features over traditional gameplay, I had a passing concern -- one that, I'm sure, was shared by others -- that the GBA would serve as the nail in the coffin of these games. "Would," I wondered, "consumers embrace SNES-styled games on a system that rejects such traditionalism? Or will these RPGs just die away?"
As an aside, I often find myself fascinated by numbers. If you'll forgive the obvious point, they can tell us a great deal, even when discussing video games. Besides the certain satisfaction that it's easy to derive from the success of a favored game, there's an analytic benefit to looking at the numbers as well. For starters, they can give the reader a good way of gauging what will happen in the industry in the future.
So when my concern first sprouted regarding whether the DS would inherit the RPG successes of the GBA, I began to look at the numbers, hoping that they would shed some light on the subject. If we work under the theory that developers will make the games if they sell, then the key question is how are they selling, specifically in comparison to their predecessors on the GBA.
First, let's accept this caveat: it's difficult to make precise A-to-B comparisons. Similar games may have qualitative differences, and they'll likely be released at different phases of their system's lifetime to differently-sized user bases. They can serve as a general guide, though. In looking at answering my questions, I looked at the most easily comparable games across the two platforms and compared their general success.
Two of the best games for cross-platform comparisons are Dragon Quest: Slime Morimori for the GBA, and Dragon Quest: Slime Morimori 2 for the DS. Both games carry the same name, were designed by the same developer (Tose), and came from the same publisher (Square Enix). The first game has sold roughly 319,000 copies since its release; the latter game, which is still consistently charting in Japan, has sold about 273,596 to date. Its sales progress has slowed and the game is unlikely to best its predecessor. Slime Morimori 2 has, however, achieved a fairly comparable level of success, likely meeting Square Enix's expectations.
A similar case can be made with Mario & Luigi 2 for the DS, the sequel to Mario & Luigi for the GBA -- at least, in the Japanese market. The first game has sold roughly 447,000 copies, while Mario & Luigi 2, released in January, has currently racked up 361,612 sales. 20,237 of those sales came in the month of March, where the game ranked #38 in overall sales. If it can maintain that level of selling for a few months more, it, too, will likely come extremely close, but not quite top, its predecessor's sales. The situation in America is a bit murkier, and it will likely be a few more months before we can make a good determination of where Mario & Luigi 2 will end up in total sales. The original game has pushed around a million copies in America, though, and it's highly unlikely the sequel will achieve such a level of success. As of January, the game has sold around 310,000 copies in the US.
Tomy's Naruto RPG for the GBA acquired sales in the neighborhood of 135,000. Once again, the sequel has fallen ever just so short of reaching or eclipsing its predecessor. Naruto RPG 2 has currently achieved around 127,000 units. The game no longer appears on Japanese sales charts, and so that number is unlikely to climb higher. Still, it achieved a roughly comparable level of success as the GBA's RPG did.
Next, let's compare Shinyaku Seiken Densetsu (Sword of Mana in America) to Seiken Densetsu DS: Children of Mana. The Brownie Brown developed action RPG for the GBA pulled in around 299,000 sold copies; the Next Entertainment developed dungeon crawler for the DS has currently sold about 179,194. The game is a recent release, only coming out in the month of March, but it appears to be on track to follow the model set by the games listed above: ever so close, but not quite matching what was achieved on the GBA. Once again, though, the American market remains an open question. Sword of Mana sold about 243,000 units in the US; Children of Mana has yet to see a domestic release.
But what about Konami's Castlevania series? After all, this was a major RPG franchise on the GBA, yielding three installments before making the leap to the DS in Dawn of Sorrow. The series' sales primarily come from the US market, in contrast to most RPGs, and the transition from system to system has gone well. After its third month, Dawn of Sorrow had pulled in around 164,000 sales, meaning that after three months it had already eclipsed the total sales of its two immediate predecessors. Aria of Sorrow sold around 158,000, while Harmony of Dissonance landed at around 126,000. Konami responded by stating that it was pleased with the sales, which had exceeded the company's expectations.
One big, notable exception to the established model comes in the form of Pokemon's Mysterious Dungeon. This game is perhaps the easiest of all to compare across platforms: the game is essentially the same for both the GBA and the DS, and both games were released at the same time. Mysterious Dungeon differentiates itself from other RPGs in that the DS game has outpaced its GBA compatriot, with sales of 708,737 versus 683,773.
While Mysterious Dungeon has proven itself the positive exception to the rule, other series have not been so fortunate. Take Harvest Moon, for example, which has seen a steep dropoff in sales after the platform transition. The GBA's Friends of Mineral Town and Friends of Mineral Town for Girls sold about 159,000 and 149,000 respectively. The DS's Sprite Station and Sprite Station for Girls, on the other hand, have only achieved around 107,000 and 77,708 in sales. This notable decline is certainly viewed as a disappointment by the publisher.
The DS has also seen a share of noteworthy sales flops. Xenosaga DS has launched to horribly anemic sales, despite carrying the name of a large, successful home console franchise. Konami's Lost in Blue and Taito's Lost Magic were both ignored by the game-buying public in Japan (though the former has proven to be a niche success in America, where it has sold around 50,000 units compared to under 10,000 in Japan).
In many cases, it is difficult to make comparisons because the DS installments of GBA hits have simply not arrived yet. The coming months (and year) should see the release of Final Fantasy, Tales, The Legend of Zelda, Boktai, Magical Vacation, and Dragon Quest Monsters on the DS, and this will allow for a fuller picture to be presented. My goal will be to revisit the issue again in the future after more franchises cross over to the DS.
In the meantime, however, the overall trend is quite positive. Despite the fact that a few games are raising some slight apprenhension due to sales declines or outright flops, current numbers suggest that DS RPGs are largely doing fairly well, with many series seeing a smooth transition to a new platform. Cautious optimism for the future of RPGs on the DS seems warranted, and publishers so far seem to be happy with the sales results they're seeing as more RPG projects are announced.