Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Genre Study: The Niche Game

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I’m sick of hearing the phrase, “nothing is coming out,” in relation to video games.  That’s not true, so many games are coming out on a consistent basis that we cannot even have a single day of the week they all release.  What I feel most people mean is “there’s nothing coming out that interests me.”  That’s a much more fair appraisal.  Depending on your interests or tastes in games, this summer can either be chock full of great releases or a barren wasteland with nothing new to experience.  Personally I am enjoying Batman Arkham KnightGodzilla, looking forward to cracking the seal on Onechanbara Z2 Chaos, and of course the Mega Man Legacy Collection and Rare Replay retro efforts soon to hit.  Aside from perhaps Batman, the rest of these games fall into a specific category that has grown a lot of steam lately: niche gaming.  Niche gaming, much as the title suggests, caters to a dedicated but specific audience – not one unlike the audience here at GH101 I might add.  It’s easy to scoff at niche titles, especially when you consider that they often have frequent sequels that don’t appear to iterate much.  It’s good that these games exist because they are essential to keeping the experiences of gaming as a whole strong, not to mention they’ve been around as long as gaming has.

Classic Niche

Perhaps almost all video games of the ancient past are considered niche.  I know for a fact many of the Dungeons & Dragons games, despite the popular sales, were only for a specific audience.  There’s no doubt that the RPG, often the JRPG, wasn’t mainstream on consoles until the mid 90s.  Yet other titles have made a transition from mainstream and now to niche, such as the shmup.  Yet others seem to constantly remain flux from mainstream to niche and back again, like first person shooters and fighters.  It’s important to note that while these trends, niche titles, and even perhaps “B-Tier” games have always been around, they blended in easier back in a time where games had development times and budgets that are a fraction of either today.  More specifically I would like to focus on games, and not genres, where the fan base is acute and avid.  The following are some examples of early games that some massive fans always purchased.

Dragon Quest (Warrior):  I’m not even sure if Dragon Quest (Warrior in the NES days) has ever been mainstream.  I’d like to believe it has the appeal of a Final Fantasy or perhaps at least a Pokemon, but in my eyes Dragon Quest has always and will always be a niche title.  The first four games all were localized and came out on the NES, which is saying a lot because almost no RPGs made the trip from the East and even Final Fantasy was too scared to release more than one title on the console.  Not only were the games ported with care, but the fans of the games continued to buy them deep into the world of the Super NES – and probably were furious that those two titles (V and VI never came over until recently on the DS).  I even had friends who imported those Super Famicom games and used long annoying translation guides that looked like an encyclopedia (and cost somewhere around $30 to print on plain paper at Kinko’s) just to play these games.  If you don’t consider that a niche gamer, I don’t know what is.  Still, there aren’t a lot of them out there, which explains why copies of the latter three Dragon Warrior titles on the NES have skyrocketed in price and rarity.

dragonball_gameDragonball: Dragonball is a powerhouse manga that led to a powerhouse anime and of course a powerhouse gaming franchise.  Built around the concept of super powers and epic battles, the story of Goku and the Dragon Balls – all complimented by the incredible art of Akira Toriyama (also of Dragon Quest fame) – was tailor made for video game franchises.  It shows, too, in native country Japan where Dragonball received four Famicom titles in the 80s, five more from Dragonball Z in the 90s (on the Famicom!), and over a dozen more on the 16-bit consoles before eventually making its way over to the United States in 2003 (Dragonball Z: Ultimate Battle 22 on the Playstation).  The trend continues with Bandai Namco sending me the occasional Dragonball titles for review, of which I always return because I am neither the audience nor would I pen a fair review.  That said, these games were imported by some of my friends as early as the Super Famicom days and there are still a couple who continue to pick them up.  They almost always get bad or even terrible reviews, despite fan love, which may best demonstrate the niche nature and why these titles are completely inappropriate on any gaming site for review.  In all honesty I think the publishers dole them out, regardless of review score, as a way to remind the fans of the series that the newest one is out.

Now I’m sure with these two examples you can tether on plenty more, like perhaps even Pokemon.  I can’t exactly consider that or other strong series that seem to get endless iterative sequels (especially sports) because they are purchased by a large audience and often transcend a specific group.  Pokemon White/Black wasn’t just purchased by fans of the series from inception, many of these players are new to the series or passed down from a generation, thus they are not what I think of as niche.  They don’t serve a specific audience, but rather perhaps a wide scale age group.

Establishing A Franchise

Once we enter into the CD era, certain franchises seem to exist that transcend time.  In many cases these are sequels or franchises that you simply cannot believe still exist today, however no matter how many release, the trend seems to be they are getting more popular rather than less.


Dynasty Warriors: This is actually a spin-off series (that in itself has spawned plenty of spin-offs) from the original Romance of the Three Kingdom titles dating as far back as the microcomputer days with a past even in North America on the NES.  Granted, the gameplay is completely different until you enter into the Dynasty Warriors days, but this franchise seems to crank titles on a regular basis since its genesis in 1997 on the Playstation and never lose momentum with its core audience.  Although it’s considered the most popular franchise for Tecmo Koei, amassing more than 18 million sales across the series, there are so many games that I can’t help but feel it’s basically the same 100,000-250,000 people buying each game.  The consensus is that the games almost never change – it’s just you versus a million enemies – and mostly all of the spin-offs follow the same formula with a new “storyline”.  Potentially this franchise could lose niche status with the recent Hyrule Warriors spin-off, which is a Legend of Zelda take on the series, and even the aforementioned Dragon Quest spin-off Heroes.  Again, the writing is on the wall: tons of sequels, limited audience, poor review scores.

Dynasty Warriors is not alone, although it is perhaps the most notable of the modern day franchises.  I guess even more recent are the Souls titles (Demon Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne) but even those are starting to gain mainstream traction.  Still, it always seems like you can’t find the justification in purchasing niche games until you become a fan of one.  For myself, it’s heavily Japanese influenced (I choose the derogatory term “otaku” to refer to myself) games and the shmup.  These are the games you get for you, perhaps never mention you got them, and secretly love.  Perhaps you are not a niche gamer, which is fine, but the next time you see me picking up Senran Kagura or the next Cave title, perhaps you shouldn’t view it as what’s wrong with the gaming industry and rather what’s great about it.


Written by Fred Rojas

July 21, 2015 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Blog, Features

Tagged with , , ,

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