Most stateside gamers have probably never heard of Level-5. If they have, it's more than likely due to the charming and maddening line of Nintendo DS puzzle games, Professor Layton. Some might even remember Dark Cloud and its sequel from the early days of the PlayStation 2, and all eight of you PSP owners in the U.S. might recognize the epic Jeanne d'Arc. These games alone make Level-5 a noteworthy company, but they've quietly surpassed "noteworthy" status to become one of the largest and greatest indie developers in the whole world.
How many video game companies can you name that have a soccer stadium with 20,000+ seats named after them? One. Level-5 in Fukuoka. And soon, all of North America will know this little fact as Level-5 founder and president (not to mention brilliant game designer) Akihiro Hino just announced that his company is opening a North American branch in order to localize and develop games for the American market.
Seriously—this is big news. Japanese developers and their indie games have been somewhat invisible in North America. Mainstream games from Japan did use to dominate the console market, but in the last decade they've become largely inferior to Western games in terms of technology and design. Nintendo, Square, Capcom and Konami have all lost the cachet they once had with hardcore gamers. Level-5, a company free of baggage and burden, will hopefully fill this void.
But what have they done that's so great?
Several things, in addition to the games mentioned above. Though Level-5 has yet to announce what games will be released in the U.S. from their excellent lineup, Ni No Kuni seems like an obvious choice. It's an RPG for the Nintendo DS that will soon be available for the PS3, and it's made in collaboration with Studio Ghibli, the same people who make the best anime movies ever. The game looks just as beautiful as everything else Studio Ghibli touches, and the Japanese press love it. But if it doesn't come out in English, this U.S.-invasion thing is not going to go very well.
The studio's second most popular franchise that hasn't hit U.S. soil yet is called Inazuma Eleven, but it probably wouldn't be very successful here, based on what I've seen. It's a RPG sports game, an all but unheard beast, casting the player as a anime-styled soccer goalie. The game has spawned several sequels and it's become a popular anime TV show in Japan, but Americans don't enjoy soccer as much as the rest of the world—or JPRGs at this point, which probably dooms Inazuma's chance of a North American release.
Hino did say in his statement that Level-5 would be developing games specifically for North America, but didn't announce any further details about them. If the only game we get out of this venture is Ni No Kuni, I will be satisfied. But it could be a lot more and one of very few good signs for the future of Japanese games in the U.S.