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Crunching Numbers: PSP RPGs

Bryan Boulette

The PlayStation brand is one that has long been associated, since its debut in the mid-nineties, with both commercially and critically successful RPGs. The name has seen systems which have housed some of the greatest popular blockbusters -- Final Fantasy VII, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy X, and Dragon Quest VII. The PlayStation name has also been associated with some of the most highly praised games, whether they were so noted for their intricate stories or innovative games -- games like Suikoden II, Valkyrie Profile, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, and more. Developers and publishers alike reacted to these successes accordingly, expanding the market by releasing more and more RPGs, on a scale far greater than any prior or contemporary console.

When Sony prepared to launch a portable gaming system to compete with Nintendo's longstanding domination of the handheld field, the company did so by promising to bring console-level experiences to on-the-go gamers. Naturally, with early announcements of a Final Fantasy VII spinoff and a Tales game, this was expected to include a glut of popularly successful RPGs.

Has that been the case, though? In this edition of Crunching Numbers, we take a look at the success that RPGs have been experiencing -- or not -- on the PSP. Has Sony's promise of elevating portable gaming out of the "handheld ghetto" come true? So far, consumers seem to be disagreeing with the promise the PSP has offered. As we've looked at the sales of RPGs so far in both North America and Japan, we've noted a number of troubling trends.

The number of games which have simply been ported from older systems is a bit troubling, but not a shocking occurance in handheld gaming -- Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, it must be noted, often suffered this fate, too. However, gamers have been embracing ports on the PSP far less readily than they did on the GBA. Many of the NES or SNES ports on the GBA achieved noteworthy sales: Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls sold around 300,000 units in Japan and then ended up a little bit under 500,000 in America; Final Fantasy IV, more recently released, is still pulling solid numbers, currently around 360,000 between Japan and America; Mother 1+2, the NES/SNES compilation, has achieved well over 300,000 in sales through Japan alone; Tales of Phantasia, recently released in the US, has sold a bit over 170,000 between Japan and the US. Most impressive, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past nabbed 1.4 million in sales in the US -- on top of an additional 300,000 in Japan.

But things haven't been as cheery for the PSP. Suikoden I+II, the compilation of two of the most sought-after and critically-praised PSX RPGs, pulled in downright dismal numbers -- at last check, it was around 21,707. Breath of Fire III, another PSX port, did even worse, topping out at 16,823. Atlus' Princess Crown, the port of the beautiful Saturn action RPG, sold comparably to Suikoden, getting 20,166 in sales. Sakura Taisen I & II, ports of the first two entries in the strategy RPG series from Red Entertainment and Sega, was only able to achieve sales of around 15,786. PoPoLoCrois condensed multiple PlayStation games into one slightly remade single game, and the extra effort helped it out a bit in the sales -- but not much. It still didn't crack the magical 100k number, and the game ended up at around 78,423.

There have been a couple of success stories. First, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth got fairly decent sales. As of a few weeks ago, the game had sold around 113,546, though it dropped off the charts soon after. The greatest success has, unquestionably, been Namco's port of Tales of Eternia. Buoyed by a near-launch release, the game has sold over 250,000 units in Japan. One complicating factor for all of these games, however, is the restricted markets into which they're being sold. Through, ah, unknown reasons, most of these ports have not seen North American releases (only Valkyrie Profile and PoPoLoCrois have gotten that honor, with the former set to come out this summer), depriving them of valuable sales.

It's a grim situation in Port City. But what about the original games developed for the platform? Those, surely, have performed better... right? Sadly, no. Most of those have met with a similarly dismal fate.

Konami met with an early stumble when its original RPG, Twelve, performed disastrously. The game sold only 18,652, and never got a North American release. Kingdom of Paradise, created by Climax (the developer of such games as Shining in the Darkness, Landstalker, and Alundra) was greeted with only around 20,000 purchases in Japan, and performed only slightly better upon its release in the states, where it's so far sold around 51,503 units. Electronic Arts' Lord of the Rings Tactics has netted around 46,836 in sales in the US.

Perhaps the most disappointing failure so far has been that of Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner. The game, designed by the creator of the acclaimed Shin Megami Tensei series, got a fantastic budget courtesy of Sony and reviewers offered it high, glowing scores. Despite all that, though, it still only sold around 27,478. No words have been spoken regarding a release on the other side of the Pacific.

Sony Online Entertainment's launch RPG, Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade, has been a standout success. It benefited from being the first RPG out of the gate, and that status propelled it to 405,587 in sales. The game was not, however, able to transfer its early sales into series popularity, as its sequel, The Warrior's Code, has languished with only 41,998 in American sales.

Activision found moderate success with its PSP-inclusive multiconsole strategy for X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse. The PSP port of the game, which debuted a few months after the home console versions, has seen around 120,297 units moved to consumers -- an impressive number, though it's tracking much lower than its console brethren.

And what about Bandai, with its Legend of Heroes series? Frankly, the games have struggled. The first pulled in decent numbers with its release in Japan. It was an early title, after all, which helped out a lot. Prophecy of the White Witch ended up with 100,989 in sales (the game is being released in America later this month). It sequels, on the other hand, flatly tanked. A Tear of Vermillion sold 15,604, while Cagesong of the Ocean sputtered to a measly 9,141 in sales. So far, Vermillion is the only Legend of Heroes game to have been released in the US, and its sales have been comparable to those of other PSP RPGs -- at 60,141, not very impressive, though not bombing. It will be interesting to observe whether the sequels in the US follow the same pattern as in Japan -- mediocre to fair sales for the first, abyssmal sales for the follow-ups.

The overall sales pattern isn't just negative, it's downright frightening. In stark contrast to the success the genre achieved on the PSX and the PS2, RPGs on the PSP are just not selling, outside of two launch window releases, and this is a very worrisome set of results. Whether port, remake, or original game, these RPGs are seeing depressing acceptance by consumers.

Anyone hoping to see a reversal of fortunes here, and to see the PSP stand alongside its home console brothers under the PlayStation banner with regards to RPGs, should keep a close eye on sales as they progress. At this point, it's unclear if anything can turn around this slump, but here's hoping. It may just be that the PSP is in dire need of a savior, a single RPG that will achieve blockbuster status and cause RPG fans far and wide to embrace the platform. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is the most likely contender, but the situation may be too entrenched for even that game to generate a boost in RPG popularity on a wider scale. If it can't, we're very likely to see the genre simply die away on the system entirely, with fewer and fewer releases each year.

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