Most Anticipated: X
Marks the spot.
There's a Japanese proverb that tells the story of a cricket that decides it will swim across a wide stream. The insect sets off with great gusto, but when it reaches the middle of the river it begins to doubt its ability to finish the task. Sieged by self-doubt, the cricket turns around and swims back the way that it came. It's a proverb that - with admirable humility and self-awareness - the game designer and head of Monolith Software Tetsuya Takahashi once said applies to his career.
For example, the PlayStation role-playing game, Xenogears (the first title that Takahashi led as director) ran out of budget midway through development. The team was forced to tell the second half of the story through a series of montage cutscenes. Likewise, Takahashi's grand and ambitious six-part epic Xenosaga was cut short after just three releases, limping to a premature conclusion. The director has a history of making it halfway across a river before finding that his ambition has outstripped commercial, technological or simple physical realities.
History seemed set to repeat with Xenoblade Chronicles, Takahashi's most recent title, published by Nintendo in 2011, a game set on a pair of gigantic bipedal statue gods. Midway through the project the team encountered a raft of difficulties and, realising they would miss the launch deadline, a deflated Takahashi met with Hitoshi Yamagami, the Nintendo producer who oversees RPG development, to suggest a list of deadline-aiding compromises. But Yamagami rejected the plan and told the designer: "You've come this far. You should see it through to the end. I'll convince the others at the company."
It was a risky yet shrewd move on Nintendo's part. The finished Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the strongest and most interesting releases of the past decade, a game that revitalised interest in a fading genre and which, with a clutch of smart tweaks, brought together the very best of contemporary Japanese and western design traits. Takahashi had at last found a partner with both deep enough pockets to fund his outrageous visions and the creative wisdom to steer him away from crippling indulgence.
'X', Takahashi's next game, supposedly due for release on the Wii U in Japan this year, may not arrive on time, despite Nintendo's assurances to the contrary. It will, one presumes, be ready when it's ready. As painful as the wait might be (especially considering the Wii U's losing struggle to keep its head above the waters of financial loss) past performance demonstrates that, with the Nintendo-Takahashi collaboration, patience is rewarded.
Despite a long development period to date, relatively little is known about the game aside from that which can be gleaned from last year's glorious trailer. It's clear X assumes the same open world, MMO-like structure of Xenoblade Chronicles - Nintendo's Iwata has said that the game aims to offer "seamless exploration", implying a game devoid of intruding loading screens. There are even clues that the game may more fully embrace MMO-style multiplayer adornments. Also, the game fits squarely into the loosely bound mythology of Takahashi's previous work. The current logo is almost identical to that seen on the Japanese cover of 1998's Xenogears while Kunihiko Tanaka, character designer on the earlier game, is lead artist on X.
The trailer shows hangars filled with hulking, bipedal mecha (dubbed 'dolls' in the game's terminology), juxtaposed with Jurassic wildlife, which plod and munch across verdant landscapes. There is a humbling sense of scale to the world - not surprising when Takahashi stated that he aims to "create the biggest game world possible for the Wii U." Considering Xenoblade Chronicles' world was estimated to be roughly equivalent in size to Japan's archipelago, that's an awful lot of landscape to cover. Perhaps for this reason the mecha can be seen to transform into vehicles, although there's none of the Saturday morning cartoon theatrics of the Transformers series: this is dusty, practical technology.
Anticipation for X shouldn't be limited to fans of Japanese role-playing games. Xenoblade Chroncles deftly shrugged off genre and convention and there's every indication that X will do the same, mixing action, strategy and narrative into a delicious, idiosyncratic concoction with broad appeal. X may not have the greatest commercial prospects, but in terms of the creative partnership underpinning the game, few forthcoming releases can match its bold promise. Swim Takahashi. Swim for all you're worth.