To call role-playing games niche isn’t entirely accurate. Final Fantasy exists, and has sold over 180 million copies of its games over its nearly four decades. Dragon Quest isn’t quite that high, but 88 million games sold is nothing to wave away. Oh, and Pokémon is actually Nintendo’s best-selling franchise unless you lump every iteration of Mario together to combat it, and those pocket monsters are right up there with Tetris in a fight for the best-selling videogame franchise ever.
These are all RPGs with some level of mainstream appeal, though, and the numbers start declining in a hurry. Bandai Namco’s Tales games have been around for a long time and are certainly popular among RPGs, yet have sold a combined 25 million copies. You never, ever stop hearing about Atlus’ Persona series if you’re anywhere near the online spaces that discuss RPGs, but that franchise hasn’t even cracked 20 million sales yet. Fire Emblem has never been more popular than in the last decade, but that resurgence just pushed them to a total of 16.5 million sales. Per the collected sales data available, just 31 RPG franchises—and RPG here is so loosely defined as to include things like Borderlands—have sold at least five million copies of their games, with Baldur’s Gate 3 recently pushing that franchise right over that cutoff to make it even that many.
No, RPGs in the general sense aren’t niche, but so very many RPG series within the genre are. The Baten Kaitos games are something of a niche within a niche, as they had to contend with not being one of those top-level franchise kind of role-playing games, while also implementing a card-based battle system that would turn away even more potential players. Deck-building is great and all, but there’s a reason Square Enix didn’t go in that direction when they changed up the series’ combat for Final Fantasy XVI, you know? And on top of all that, both Baten Kaitos titles have also been locked in the past, on the GameCube, which sold under 22 million consoles worldwide, and was certainly not the system that fans of RPGs went to, not in the same console generation that Sony’s Playstation 2 existed in. Hell, the GameCube wasn’t even the Nintendo platform to get if you wanted RPGs back then, not with the Game Boy Advance around and able to do a convincing impression of both Playstation- and Super Nintendo-era RPGs with its 32-bit power. Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean didn’t even hit Namco’s sales projection of 500,000 copies sold, which led to Nintendo publishing its sequel-prequel, Baten Kaitos Origins, rather than Namco. Given Origins didn’t even release in North America until a couple of months before the Wii replaced the GameCube, you can imagine how well it did sales-wise.
Both Baten Kaitos titles, though, received a positive critical reception despite their genuine weirdness, and what you could describe as a cult following did rise up around them. It was pretty much the best you could hope for with these games, which existed in no small part because then-Nintendo president Satoru Iwata wanted to work with developer Monolith Soft on an RPG, and for that RPG to release exclusively on a console that could use them. These games directly led to Nintendo’s close relationship with Monolith Soft, which in turn led to Monolith being purchased from Bandai Namco by Nintendo, and, eventually, there was much Xenoblade Chronicles-ing for all. Baten Kaitos didn’t turn out to be the hit or the start of a major franchise like either Namco or Nintendo envisioned, but Monolith got there with something eventually: nearly nine million of the 11.2 million lifetime Xeno series sales are due to the four Xenoblade titles, with the other six accounting for the remaining couple million and change.
That success is likely part of why the Baten Kaitos games have finally emerged from their slumber. There was a planned Baten Kaitos DS, but Namco canceled it. Rumors kept emerging for a Baten Kaitos game on the 3DS, but that never happened, and then it was discovered that a third Baten Kaitos game for consoles was planned, but also never left pre-production. The original two games have never even seen re-releases, languishing instead on the GameCube and the secondary market, where… well, let’s just say that, even though a remastered version of Baten Kaitos Origins is coming out in the present, there are still listings of the GameCube original on Ebay that’ll make you flinch. Baten Kaitos became a cult hit in part because that was about the only way to partake in its fandom: you weren’t getting any help from Bandai Namco on that one, despite repeated attempts from Monolith to get something going, so the rest of us were left to ooh and ahh over a game you probably couldn’t legally play anymore.
Now, though, Baten Kaitos is celebrating 20 years of nichedom, Monolith Soft just capped off an incredible trilogy that Paste simply cannot stop writing about, co-developer tri-Crescendo has hit their stride in that role in recent years by working on some critical and commercial successes, and Bandai Namco has already been dipping into its GameCube- and PS2-era catalog for modern-day remasters and re-releases, with series like Klonoa and games like Tales of Symphonia getting the update treatment. What better time than now to give Baten Kaitos a turn… and maybe even test the waters for the sequel that has seemed impossible for the better part of two decades now?
Bandai Namco certainly doesn’t seem to be skimping on this remaster, as they were accused of with the Tales of Symphonia one. Baten Kaitos I & II HD Remaster, as it’s actually called—Baten Kaitos Origins in North America was simply Baten Kaitos II in Japan, hence the sequel-prequel thing—is a straight remaster of the original without any content changes outside of updating some phrasing that’s gone out of style. There are, however, myriad changes to the games themselves by developer Logicalbeat: multiple options for making battles easier, faster, or simpler, multiple ways to speed up the game itself so you maybe feel a little bit less of that 2003-era RPG vibe while you play. Hey, that particular slow-paced feeling might be very much my thing, but it’s not for everyone, as Baten Kaitos’ sales can attest to.
There is not only a New Game+, as is something of the norm these days, but a New Game-, too, which is built to create additional challenge by restricting you in various ways on your next playthrough. The graphics have not been completely redrawn in a new style, but instead have been reworked so they’re optimized for today’s technology and screens: both Baten Kaitos games were designed with CRT screens in mind, and they are stunning works of art on those big boxes. The pre-rendered background art style of the pre-HD era basically hit its peak here, and it helps that Monolith Soft and tri-Crescendo decided to do things like make an entire region of the world out of candy to really sell not just the fidelity and pure artistry of it all, but pair it off with the imagination it deserved.
Bandai Namco is seizing the chance to make two hidden gems from a bygone era be not so hidden anymore. And while they’re Switch-exclusive titles, that’s a lot different than being an exclusive on the GameCube: the Switch has sold well over 100 million more systems than the little purple box with a handle did. (That was said with love, by the way, by someone who still has a GameCube and also both Baten Kaitos games for it.)
So, there’s the opportunity here for far more people than last time around to hear the excellent soundtracks of Motoi Sakuraba, whose Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean OST is either his finest work in a lengthy career or right up there alongside it, thanks to its mix of gorgeous strings, piano, grandiose horns, guitars both acoustic and electric, and the occasional boss battle theme appropriately named “Chaotic Dance” to go with all that. Synths, wind instruments, choirs… Sakuraba went to every well he could with this one. (And, if memory serves, it’s the soundtrack that led me to start figuring out where to find videogame soundtracks so they could be listened to outside of their intended context, so you can blame it for whenever I do something like this.) There’s the opportunity for more people to see just how beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds could be, and why they still made plenty of sense for the right art director and artists as late as 2006. There’s the opportunity for people to play yet another game where Monolith Soft decided to show off its penchant for weird, deep, and engrossing battle systems that’ll reward you if you just give them the chance. It’s an unexpected opportunity, but a welcome one: plenty of fans genuinely believed the Baten Kaitos games would never get the second chance the series deserves, but they (finally) are.
It’s unlikely these games will become massive hits this time, either, but maybe, just like how it took time for Monolith and Nintendo to find their own hit together with Xenoblade, Bandai Namco can finally get what they were looking for out of Baten Kaitos: the start of a reliable, popular-for-an-RPG series. Monolith has certainly seemed willing to return to it over the years, with Namco being the holdup each time out for one reason or another, but maybe if Baten Kaitos I & II HD Remaster makes this niche franchise feel a little less niche, we’ll get to see more of it in the future. Or at least not have to wait 20 years in between reminders that the games even exist. Given the state of things before these remasters, even that would feel like a victory.