That Time at E3 That NIS America Tried to Get Me Drunk

That Time at E3 That NIS America Tried to Get Me Drunk

Not that they needed to; their lineup of niche software stands on its own.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

E3 is like Christmastime for people who work in the games industry and hate their livers. Mixers, meetings, parties, and dinner with friends you see only once a year: It's basically a week-long combination of games and liquor.

I decided going into this E3 that I'd be avoiding alcohol — not because I have some raging drinking problem I'm worried about, but because I have a raging time zone problem now that I live on the east coast and traveling to E3 isn't simply a matter of a quick flight down from San Francisco. Jet lag's rough enough on my nighttime productivity (and a writer's work really begins once the show floor closes for the evening and everyone else heads out to party), but add in the fact that I'm a sleepy drunk (rather than an angry or happy or weepy one) and booze would be a quick and easy way to make sure I sleep through E3 rather than work.

Alas, that promise to myself fell apart about midway through the first proper afternoon of the show, thanks to NIS America. The publisher's PR team decided to take a sideway definition of getting an E3 booth; rather than renting one on the show floor, they staked out a booth at a nearby bar and restaurant. My appointment with them fell right in the middle of happy hour, and they insisted I get a drink. So much for that.

This is my 13th E3, and somehow the first time I'd ever met with a publisher at a bar. The offsite venue made for a bit of oddity, but it wasn't totally out of keeping for NIS. E3 has always been geared toward larger publishers, especially since dissolving the weird gathering place that once was Kentia Hall, and my NIS has always been one of the publishers that has a presence at the show but not in a proper show floor booth. They've occasionally set up a corner in some other publisher's booth, but I don't believe they've ever had a dedicated floor space all their own.

The company's upcoming lineup really served to underscore just how committed they are to dwelling in the niches of the industry. At least half their roster for the year is either exclusive to PlayStation Vita or else has a Vita version. Vita! Sony won't even acknowledge their own handheld platform at this show, and here's a third party whose business model revolves around it. Sony treats Vita like a Twilight fanfic they wrote in high school and put on the Kindle store; they're happy to pocket the trickle of residual income that still comes in, but please please please don't mention it. Meanwhile, NIS has basically built a tiny media empire writing fanfic about that fanfic.

But there's no shame in NIS America's lineup... well, aside from Criminal Girls 2. And even that game actually has some solid game mechanics (designed by Kazuya Niinou of Trauma Center/Etrian Odyssey/Dragon Quest Builders fame) lurking beneath its uncomfortable surface themes of using sexually charged punishment to gain control over a party of nubile teenage girls. But that's the sole exception, and otherwise NIS America's upcoming lineup is short on the sort of smutty material that makes some Vita fans reluctant to take their systems out in public, and long on interesting and generally high-quality niche content.

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that NIS America is publishing not one but two Touhou games. The entire Touhou phenomenon is difficult to explain, but basically it was a series of esoteric bullet-hell shooters created more than a decade ago by a single indie designer by the name of Zun, featuring a huge roster of characters with extensive backgrounds. The games caught on with an enthusiastic underground fanbase, and Zun took a pretty easygoing attitude about the property, which resulted in the creation of a ton of fan games based on his original work. After years and years of this existing in the west as a tinier-than-tiny cult phenomenon, Touhou finally seems about to make enter the American mainstream... or at least as close to the mainstream as a series of bullet-hell shooters about hundreds of teenage girls can manage here.

Of NIS America's two Touhou releases, however, the standard shooter (Genso Rondo: Bullet Ballet for PlayStation 4) will be the less interesting of the two, at least for me. The other release, Touhou Genso Wanderer for PlayStation 4 and Vita, takes the fan franchise into the roguelike genre. Not that there's any shortage of roguelikes and roguelike-inspired games these days — a new entry in the gold standard Shiren the Wanderer series will be arriving courtesy of Aksys next month — but given the enormous breadth and general weirdness of the Touhou series, Genso Wanderer has genuine potential to be an interesting and unconventional take on the format, which of late has largely gravitated toward Shiren-based tie-ins with other franchises. It'll be nice to see a different rendition of the console roguelike, at least.

Also of note in NIS America's upcoming lineup is a visual novel called Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness. Based on an anime series with a theme similar to that of Minority Report, Mandatory Happiness has the kind of anime look you don't see often in localized games these days: Adult characters, muted colors, zero cuteness. It, too, will launch on both PlayStation 4 and Vita.

And finally, there's Yomawari: Night Alone, which is like nothing else in NIS America's library, or anyone else's library for that matter. It's a survival horror game, but it looks and plays differently than any survival horror game I've ever seen. The entire world is rendered in a sort of isometric 2D style, wreathed in deep blacks and shadows, and you control a tiny super-deformed sprite of a young girl trapped alone in a town overrun by fearsome yokai. It reminds me ever so slightly of Kuon for PlayStation 2 or Silent Hill: Shattered Memories in that you have no means of self-defense, only a flashlight and the ability to hide behind conveniently placed shrubbery when yokai draw near. It's simple, but it has sufficient challenge and atmosphere to keep things interesting.

NIS America really seems to have pushed back over the past few years against the reputation they picked up for publishing games low on quality and high on titillation. It's probably no coincidence that this coincided with Idea Factory breaking off to self-publish their own games. The company has filled the Idea Factory/Compile Heart-shaped void in its lineup with a solid lineup of games that break away from the clichés of the mainstream. I don't know if there actually is an audience for the sort of software NIS America publishes, or if the people who complain about the lack of those games are the type to put their money where their mouths are, but it would be nice if one of these years I could meet with NIS in a real E3 booth rather than a restaurant booth, or a table in the LA Convention Center concourse, or whatever.

By the way, despite the glass of wine, I managed to stay awake long enough to write last night anyway. I'm resolute like that.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

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