The MoeGamer Awards are a series of “alternative” awards I’ve devised in collaboration with the community to celebrate the sorts of things that never get celebrated in end-of-year roundups! Find out more here — and feel free to leave a suggestion on that post if you have any good ideas! We’re out of time for this year, but leave a suggestion anyway and I might use it next year!
In the five-and-a-bit years since MoeGamer has been a thing — and, indeed, pretty much since the beginning of the decade, when I chose to specialise my gaming in the things I personally found interesting rather than that which was critically well-received by the mainstream — I’ve come across a lot of wonderful developers.
Some of these are new companies just getting started; some have undergone radical changes since their formation; some have a long and fascinating history. Some have put out just a few games that are worthy of note; others have been incredibly prolific. All of them are worthy of respect and attention; a disappointing number of them don’t get either of those things!
When I think back over the decade just gone by, one developer in particular stands out as not only being an absolutely defining influence on my modern gaming tastes and approach to exploring media in general, but also as being a group of passionate individuals who are more than happy to learn new lessons from each and every title they ship in the name of gradual, constant improvement. And that’s why they’re my choice for Developer of the Decade.
And the winner is…
Compile Heart was founded in 2006 as a subsidiary of Idea Factory, a publisher-developer which had been around since 1994 after its formation by former Data East employees. Compile Heart was originally managed by Masamitsu Niitani, who created the Madou Monogatari and Puyo Puyo series at the company’s spiritual predecessor Compile.
The company’s first couple of releases were PlayStation Portable ports that mostly remained confined to Japan. The first full-scale Compile Heart game to hit the market was 2007’s Rogue Hearts Dungeon for PlayStation 2, a roguelike in the Mystery Dungeon mould that likewise didn’t leave its native land. And this was followed up by a Nintendo DS adaptation of the Black Cat manga in 2007 — though again, we never saw this in the West.
The company’s first overseas release was Octomania for Nintendo’s Wii. This was a puzzle game originally released for Sega’s Dreamcast-esque NAOMI arcade hardware in 2006, and is often compared to Puyo Puyo. This is unsurprising, since the project was overseen by Niitani himself, but the actual mechanics are rather different; rather than dropping things into the game screen, the player is instead tasked with rotating clusters of coloured octopuses around in order to gather them in nets. The game is largely forgotten today, but remains worth seeking out if you enjoy obscure puzzlers, and it has some super-cute character art and sprites.
Throughout the rest of 2007, the company released a string of Japan-only games, including a PlayStation 3 adaptation of the anime Megazone 23 (which received an “Overseas Edition” including the English dub of the anime despite never actually coming overseas), and a Nintendo DS game based around Hell Girl.
A landmark moment for the company was its collaboration with parent company Idea Factory and Sakura Wars creator Red Entertainment: Record of Agarest War (also known as Agarest: Generations of War in Europe). This originally released in Japan in late 2007, but didn’t make it to Europe until 2009 thanks to Ghostlight, and came to America the following year.
Agarest was an ambitious, large-scale game that blended tactical combat with dating sim elements, allowing the playable male protagonists to pursue relationships with the various female characters, ultimately marrying them and having a child, who would become the protagonist of the subsequent “generation” in the narrative. The game remains niche-interest to this day, but was popular enough for Ghostlight to port to Windows PC in 2014, along with its prequel and sequel.
The next noteworthy Compile Heart title from a Western perspective was Cross Edge, which released in Japan in 2008 and was localised in 2009. While this game had a somewhat mixed reception, it was noteworthy for bringing together an extremely disparate cast of characters, featuring guest appearances from characters last seen in the Atelier, Disgaea, Darkstalkers, Ar Tonelico and Mana Khemia series.
This would be far from the last “collaborative” game Compile Heart would release; it was followed by spiritual successor Trinity Universe in 2009. This was another landmark moment for the developer: not only was it their first game to feature fully three-dimensional characters, it also marked the beginning of a long and prolific relationship with the artist Tsunako, whose distinctive character design would become an iconic part of many Compile Heart titles from hereon. Tsunako had previously worked on sprite art for a few titles for the company — including Cross Edge — but Trinity Universe marked the first time her 2D art was seen by a broad audience of gamers.
Today, Tsunako is primarily associated with the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, which debuted in 2010 in Japan, coming West the following year. The game proved very popular in Japan, with its satirical, allegorical nature poking fun at the game industry being singled out for particular praise. However, it was not at all well-received when it came West, with critics accusing it of being “sexist” and “stupid”. It is neither of these things, and anyone who believes it is has very obviously not spent more than ten minutes with it.
The first Hyperdimension Neptunia game is a tough sell for many people because of its rather peculiar mechanics. There’s an extremely complex combo creation system, for example, where putting together a perfect sequence of moves for a character to perform is practically a puzzle game in itself, and healing and item usage makes use of a bizarre “conditional” system that you never have complete control of.
For some, the unconventional, experimental gameplay coupled with Compile Heart’s obvious inexperience in producing 3D games was too much to bear; but for others, the clunkiness only added to the considerable charm provided by the witty script, the memorable characters, the excellent voice cast, Tsunako’s gorgeous artwork and the genuinely amusing use of parody and satire.
Neptunia did well enough to spawn two sequels, each of which showed clear improvement over the last. Hyperdimension Neptunia mk. 2’s excellent battle system forms the basis of many of Compile Heart’s RPGs to this day, and this was further refined in both Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory and the subsequent PlayStation Vita remakes, Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth, Re;Birth 2: Sisters Generation and Re;Birth 3: V Generation.
Yes, here’s an interesting part of Compile Heart’s history. In 2013, the company clearly understood two things. One: Neptunia was clearly outstripping all of the rest of their titles in terms of popularity. Two: they had learned a lot since the original Neptunia games were released on PlayStation 3. So why not “try again”?
So that’s exactly what they did. Collaborating with small developer Felistella, Compile Heart completely remade the first Neptunia game to more closely match the style of mk. 2 and Victory, and enhanced all the games to be consistent with one another, adding additional content, new mechanics and a compelling “Plan” system that allowed you to craft not only helpful items for yourself, but also tweaks to game systems. Thoroughly appropriate for a series of games that is actually about gaming.
The Re;Birth games marked the point where Neptunia’s popularity truly exploded worldwide, and Compile Heart was quick to capitalise on this with a variety of collaborative spin-off titles, including the fantastic strategy RPG Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart, developed alongside Sting, and the satisfying hack-and-slash title Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed with Tamsoft.
Neptunia formed the backbone of Compile Heart’s releases, but the confidence (and, presumably, profit) that the series brought the company enabled them to start doing something they had always been good at: experimenting.
In 2013, the company announced its “Galapagos RPG” project. This was a conscious attempt to make games that were unapologetically “Japanese” rather than following the trend of developers changing their core style in an attempt to court Western audiences. That meant games with a heavy degree of abstraction to their mechanics; games with beautiful, colourful anime-inspired art styles; games with dramatic narratives, often exploring surprisingly heavy themes; and, of course, games with cute girls out the wazoo.
This focus didn’t mean Galapagos RPG titles wouldn’t be localised, of course; quite the opposite, in fact, since around the same time, Idea Factory set up its Idea Factory International branch so it could localise and publish its own titles rather than relying on third parties such as NIS America. No; it simply meant that these games wouldn’t specifically be designed in an attempt to attract Westerners. They would unashamedly have a target audience, and if you didn’t fit into that target audience — well, tough luck for you, I guess; go play something else!
Perhaps not coincidentally, Compile Heart’s Galapagos RPG games have been among some of their strongest, most mechanically and narratively interesting titles, be it Fairy Fencer F’s thought-provoking take on fantasy, Omega Quintet’s colourful subversion of post-apocalyptic tropes, Death end re;Quest’s blend of Japanese horror, urban myths and isekai fiction, or Dragon Star Varnir’s agonising decisions over who lives and who dies.
And even outside of the Galapagos RPG project, Compile Heart has been doing a variety of interesting and unusual things. They’ve collaborated with Shade on Gun Gun Pixies, a super-cute narrative-centric game with a surprising amount to say about modern life, health and mental wellbeing. They’ve created two of the best dungeon crawlers in recent memory with the Mary Skelter series — which I will get around to very soon, I promise! They’ve even successfully reimagined the Madou Monogatari series as a Mystery Dungeon-esque roguelike about curry.
And with every new game they make, they show that they’ve learned something new, that they’re still willing to experiment and that they’re still unapologetically catering to their clearly defined, enthusiastic, passionate and loyal audience.
It’s hard to think of a developer who has grown and improved more than Compile Heart over the course of the last ten years — nor one that has brought me joy quite so consistently over the course of all of their games that I’ve had the pleasure of playing.
Hats off to you fine folks. And I can’t wait to see what the future holds. Nep, Nep-Nep Nep-Nep, Nep-Nep, Nep, Nep!
More about Hyperdimension Neptunia
More about Megadimension Neptunia V-II
More about Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online
More about Death end re;Quest
More about Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force
More about Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God
More about Omega Quintet
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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