A Look Back at Artdink's Games for PlayStation Vita - ArticleAdam Cartwright , posted on 30 March 2019 / 1,698 Views
This is the first entry in a series of articles I’m planning on writing that will look at the output of a number of Vita-supporting developers from launch through to the present day. I’ll be examining their history in the games industry, the games they released on Vita, how those titles performed, what games they could have released but didn't, and finally I'll provide an overall conclusion on their Vita support.
In 2017 I wrote a series of articles looking at all of the Vita games released by a number of different publishers, but at the time I was already thinking about how interesting it would be to examine the output of individual developers. Sony’s handheld may not have been a sales success in itself, but certain studios managed to make a living by creating titles for it that targeted the right audiences. None demonstrate this better than Artdink, the quirky Japanese company that has increasingly branched out into anime development in recent years.
History – The Unconventional Developer
Artdink’s history dates back to the 1980s when it released the first entry in its long-running city simulation series A-Train (which was subsequently ported to practically every platform under the sun), but I’d argue that the developer became most well known for its experimental titles on the PS1.
Among these were things like Aquanaut’s Holiday, a calming underwater exploration game; No One Can Stop Mr Domino, a very unique puzzle game where you run laps and place dominoes; and Tail of the Sun, an adventure title in which you explore the land to find Mammoth tusks that are used to build a tower to reach the sun. Many of them were described as “non-games” due to their open-ended nature and unconventional structure, but they established Artdink in the market. If you’re interested in playing them, the majority are available on Japanese PSN for a few hundred yen.
Artdink continued producing quirky games well into the PS2 & PSP era, with things like The Seed: Warzone and a number of A-Train entries for the former, and new iterations in its mech-programming franchise Carnage Hearts for the latter. In fact, the first entry to hit western shores was Carnage Hearts EXA on PSP, which was both praised and derided for its complexity (you can still play it on Vita through backwards-compatibility, although sadly the PS1 version isn’t up on PSN).
In a precursor to its Vita support, Artdink also worked on a number of anime crossover games during PSP’s life, including the Gundam Battle series and multiple Macross Frontier titles. All of these combined mech combat with flight mechanics and seemed to be very well received by fans of the shows, demonstrating that Artdink had a knack for this type of work (again, you can get the Gundam games on Vita if you have a Japanese PSN account).
Vita – New Hardware, Continued Successes
In the early years of the Vita Artdink continued to produce the types of games that had propped it up on the PSP, beginning in 2012 with a new entry in its Gundam Battle sub-series, entitled Mobile Suit Gundam: SEED Battle Destiny.
This time focusing on the ‘cosmic era’ of the ever-evolving Gundam storyline, the game kept the same lock-on system and mission-based structure seen in previous entries, but embraced the Vita’s improved hardware by using the dual analogue sticks for better control options and featured higher-quality assets for the mechs and environments. It proved popular with importers and sold a solid 100k in Japan, marking a good start to Artdink’s Vita support, although sadly it would be the penultimate Gundam title the company would work on and the last one on a handheld.
Artdink re-used this formula again in 2016 with Macross Delta Scramble. This was a new entry in another long-running mech-combat series based on an anime adaptation. Again, the game mixed open-air flying with third-person shooting combat to great effect, but beyond that it provided some of the most gorgeous Vita graphics seen at the time (alongside a rock-solid framerate), making it one of the most technically impressive titles on the handheld. Sadly, it didn’t fare particularly well on the sales front.
Still, I was a massive fan of Delta Scramble and it was probably the game that made me take note of what Artdink was capable of on the handheld, which by this point included an incredible amount of other anime titles.
Artdink Goes ‘Online’ With Another Anime Franchise
Perhaps thanks to proving itself with Gundam and Macross, Bandai-Namco entrusted the developer with another one of its successful franchises – Sword Art Online. Here, Artdink took many of its existing design ideas but applied them to a different template and it worked surprisingly well.
Artdink's first attempt – Sword Art Online: Lost Song – focused on the ‘fairy dance’ arc of the anime and allowed players to engage in MMO-inspired combat. It also introduced flying elements, no doubt inspired by its work on Macross. While reviews were somewhat mixed, highlighting the repetitive content and wonky story, the game was praised for its open design and ability to invoke the feel of the MMO. It was also noted that the game ran well on Vita, likely due to it being the lead platform for development.
Sadly, this wasn’t replicated in the sequel Accel World vs. Sword Art Online: Millennium Twilight, which suffered from a poor framerate and questionable graphical quality, but only for the handheld port, making it a difficult purchase to justify for those who owned a home console. Despite these issues Accel World was otherwise praised for smartly crossing over the two franchises and offering gameplay improvements over Lost Song, making it a cautious recommendation if you fancy playing on Vita.
Aliens, Dragons and Magic Girls
With the doors busted wide open regarding what anime series Artdink could work on, the company used Vita as a testing ground for a variety of different ideas. They all shared one common thread though – they were action games that used the skills Artdink had picked up during Gundam as a gameplay base.
This was first tried with a Dragon Ball Z game that was a tie-in to a movie, named Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z. While it was relatively well optimized for Vita (running at native resolution and a solid framerate) and the IP was still relatively popular around the world, it seems that fans of the series weren’t impressed by Artdink’s mix of 4v4 combat and open flight exploration. Battle of Z shifted around 620k copies worldwide, which was worlds apart from the amount that later Xenoverse games would sell.
Still, Artdink kept trucking on with its Vita output. Next was Puella Madoka Magicka: Battle Pentagram, an action game based on the popular series about a group of magic girls who fight surreal enemies called witches. Using much simpler gameplay design that was more akin to a musou than a flight-action title, it proved to be a decent seller in Japan (50k), but import reviews bemoaned its simplicity and lack of variety, making it one of Artdink’s weaker games.
Artdink made up for this a year later though with the release of World Trigger: Borderless Mission, a title which I imported and had a tonne of fun with. While it contains an inevitable layer of jank and some unfair difficulty spikes at time, its mix of open-environment exploration, combined with Earth Defence Force-inspired alien shooting and superpowers that allow you to jump up buildings, made for a really enjoyable title. It highlighted everything that Artdink had become good at and made a fantastic companion piece to the anime, although as usual there were a good few performance issues along the way.
Old Artdink is Elsewhere
While the Artdink of the 1990s is long gone, unable to produce the kind of experimental titles that it used to make due to the commercial realities of the gaming market, the company does occasionally release the odd game that falls into this camp. Sadly, Artdink only did this once for Vita.
That was with the exploration-strategy game Neo Atlas 1469. Amusingly this was a much-delayed sequel to a franchise that had flourished on the PS1. Despite the fact that it debuted as a Vita-exclusive in Japan in 2016, it came west as a PC-only title a year later, before being ported to Nintendo Switch, where it’s getting a western physical release later this year. From what I can tell, the English translation has never been patched into the Vita version, making it frustratingly out of reach for owners of Sony’s handheld.
Artdink does still make A-Train titles too, most recently with the PS4 release A-Train Express, but the developer has also dabbled with the franchise on handhelds, in the form of the 3DS title A-Train 3D: City Simulator. Sadly, Artdink never attempted to release any A-Train games on Vita, despite its penchant for Vita development, and that's a shame because there are no other simulation games like it on the console.
By far Artdink's biggest missed opportunity was not releasing the well-received Macross 30: Voices Across the Galaxy on Vita, instead making it a PS3 exclusive in 2013. As a celebration of the last 30 years of the franchise, it would’ve been a perfect fit for Sony’s handheld line, where the series had actually flourished, but for whatever reason it never happened.
Artdink is a fantastic example of a company that succeeded on Vita. Thanks to its skill in crafting anime tie-ins with a strong action base, combined with Vita’s audience which was skewed towards niche Japanese titles, the studio was able to find a fantastic home for the past 7 years, and was rewarded in turn with solid software sales. As a result, we were treated to some surprisingly enjoyable games and Artdink was even able to experiment with reviving one of its dormant franchises, albeit to mixed reception.
Unfortunately, there were a few missed opportunities along the way. I’d love to be able to play an A-Train title on Vita, for example, and am really gutted that I can’t get Neo Atlas on the handheld in English, but as Vita-supporting developers go, things don’t get much better than this. Artdink was properly on board with the platform and games like Macross and Sword Art Online are a tonne of fun to play.