Level-5, the developer behind a ton of games since the turn of the millennium, has seemingly been in a weird spot in the past few years. Having reached its 20th anniversary in 2018, with characters appearing in other games, and still releasing new games in popular series like Ni no Kuni and Professor Layton, and new IPs like Snack World, Level-5 has experienced a lot of ups and downs the past few years. Personally, I’ve enjoyed just about every Level-5 game I’ve played, from Ni no Kuni and Rogue Galaxy, to all three mainline Yo-Kai Watch Nintendo 3DS games, and most recently, Snack World. Something I’ve noticed is that Level-5 as a developer isn’t talked about much in the West unless it’s regarding a more specific and critically acclaimed game or series, such as Ni no Kuni. 2018 marked Level-5’s 20th anniversary, for which Japanese magazine, Famitsu, had a 40-page feature dedicated to the developer. However, on the Western side of things, only EuroGamer had a greatly detailed piece on the history of the developer, but it still lacked some details. So through citing that article and plenty of others, I’ve decided to take a look at Level-5’s history, biggest successes, shortcomings, and some of the specifics behind all the games they’ve previously released or are currently working on, trying to determine where they could be heading next. Just one article with all of these details would be much too long — according to my editors — so enjoy this three-part series on the creation of Level-5 and where their journey has taken them up to now.
The Formation of a New Studio and Development of their First Game
First founded in October 1998 by current CEO Akihiro Hino and his development team at Riverhillsoft, Hino did not believe Level-5 could succeed as an independent developer, choosing instead to partner with Sony Computer Entertainment. At the time, the PlayStation 2 was also in development, and Sony would allow him to make games for it as long as he set up his own company. Their debut title was the now-beloved action RPG, Dark Cloud, which was originally planned to launch alongside the PlayStation 2 in Japan in March 2000 but was delayed to December 14 that same year, later receiving a worldwide release in 2001.
Work on the sequel (known as Dark Chronicle in Japan and Dark Cloud 2 in the West) began so quickly after the Japanese release of the first that the later Western release of Dark Cloud added a system originally made for Dark Cloud 2, as according to a Famitsu interview with Hino. Dark Cloud 2’s reception was even more positive than the first, with many praising the updated graphics and refined gameplay. Since the international launch of Dark Cloud 2, there have been rumors of a third game floating around, with Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo suggesting that more people should be asking for a sequel so it can be taken into consideration. In a 2017 interview with Polygon regarding the matter, Hino stated that despite the strong desire many fans have for a possible sequel, it’s not something Level-5 can do on their own since the IP is owned by Sony Computer Entertainment There have been some negotiations in the past so while Level-5 would like to work on a third title, it’s still currently unknown if they ever will. While a third Dark Cloud game may not be in the cards right now, both Dark Cloud and Dark Cloud 2 have seen digital rereleases on PlayStation 4. The successful launch of both Dark Cloud and its sequel led to Level-5 helping on development on some big projects in the following years.
Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy
After the release and critical acclaim of Dark Cloud and Dark Chronicle in Japan, Level-5 gained a high amount of recognition due to working on three high profile games, the first of which was True Fantasy Live Online, which was planned for Xbox in Japan but was canceled in 2004.
In 2000, Hino talked to a producer after playing Dragon Quest VII to give some feedback, letting the developers know what he would have done differently. The producer then asked if he would like to have a go at making a Dragon Quest game, which led to Level-5 developing Dragon Quest VIII for Square Enix under the supervision of series creator Yuji Horii and his team at Armor Project. With Dragon Quest still being one of the most notable JRPG series in Japan today, it’s no surprise that more people were keeping an eye on Level-5. In a way, this made everything come full circle, due to Hino’s love of video games first igniting after playing Wizardry — which also had a hand in inspiring Dragon Quest — and later being inspired to go into the video game industry after playing Dragon Quest III. It seemed like it was only a matter of time until Hino got to work on Dragon Quest himself. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King was originally released in Japan on November 15, 2004, and was the first Dragon Quest to feature fully 3D graphics. It also served as the series reintroduction to Western audiences in 2005 (famously including a demo disc for Final Fantasy XII), being the first game in the series to not be retitled to Dragon Warrior in North America. The international popularity and success of Dragon Quest VIII then led to Hino also directing Dragon Quest IX for the Nintendo DS not long after the international release of VIII, as well the release of an enhanced Nintendo 3DS port of the Dragon Quest VIII about a decade later in Japan on August 27, 2015, and in Western territories on January 20, 2017.
After seeing the success of Dark Cloud and its sequel on the PlayStation 2, Sony Computer Entertainment had Level-5 create a third RPG for the PlayStation 2, this time with a higher budget and more creative freedom. The end result was the spacefaring adventure known as Rogue Galaxy, which was first revealed in the August 2005 issue of Famitsu, and at the time was the biggest game Level-5 had ever worked on. While Rogue Galaxy wasn’t a massive hit after its Japanese release on December 8, 2005, and its international release throughout 2007, it still managed to receive favorable reviews, with critics praising the graphics, absence of loading times, pre-rendered cutscenes, and transitions to gameplay, but having mixed feelings about the gameplay and story. In addition to localizing the game into another language, the English localization had a number of improvements added to the graphics, gameplay, and dialogue, with localization producer Nao Higo calling it the “perfect version”. On December 4, 2015, Rogue Galaxy was announced to be in the first group of “PS2 on PS4” games alongside Dark Cloud and Dark Cloud 2 and was released the following day.
As we can see, Level-5 gained more independence as they continually proved themselves through the development of their high-quality titles. Eventually, this would lead to Level-5 creating their first fully independent game and series.
Continue reading about Level-5’s journey in part 2!