A few short weeks ago, Atelier Ayesha became the fifth game in its series to achieve international publication. Five years ago, if someone were to tell me this would happen, I wouldn't have believed them. Even at the height of the PS2/DS years, when more RPGs were going abroad than ever before, Atelier was one series that seemed permanently stuck in its parent country.
It's often been said that game companies are more concerned with numbers than the desires of their fanbase. Even though Atelier had good numbers in Japan, there's no denying that it would be a tough sell abroad. Ironically, the very features that kept these games back were also the ones they were most lauded for. These were not complex, plot-heavy epics. There was no princess to save or dark lord to vanquish. RPGs though they were, the Atelier games could only be considered distant cousins to most other RPG franchises, and thus the hesitation. Publishing a game is difficult enough, but to publish one that went so far against expectations was a potential disaster.
The series began in the late 90s. Atelier Marie appeared on the PlayStation without much fanfare, and doubtless many were surprised when they first loaded it up. The visual novel adventure and the shop simulation game were both established genres in Japan with small but loyal fanbases. Marie was one of the first titles to combine both of these genres within the framework of an RPG. Much like the series' alchemy, these three elements blended together to make something far more than the sum of its parts.
Those component genres didn't really exist abroad, however, at least not in any form that would be easily recognized. Marie was successful enough to eventually be ported to the Sega Saturn, Dreamcast, Playstation 2, and mobile phone networks. The series spawned thirteen major sequels, plus three in-series spinoffs and two whole side-series, on ten different platforms (including all ports). The two side-series, Atelier Iris and Mana-Khemia, were close enough to "typical" JRPG models that they came stateside well before their parent franchise.
Five years and five titles later, the Atelier series finally has a foothold in North America, but the differences linger. Many still are put off by how the series works. Those expecting gameplay like the more mainstreamed Iris games are surprised or bewildered. For gamers who have come to appreciate the quirks, each new iteration brings greater enjoyment.
— Michael Baker
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