Since then, Genius Sonority's name has mostly been a byword for "outsourced" among Pokemon fans, bringing the same shudders that Backbone does for retro gamers. But with the recent release of Denpa Men: They Came by Wave, a kind of augmented reality RPG for the Nintendo 3DS, I've found that their roots go back further than Pokemon.
Here are a couple names that Japanese RPG fans ought to recognize: Dragon Quest and Mother. It was from those two franchises, and the studios Heartbeat and Creatures, Inc respectively, that Genius Sonority has drawn much of its talent over the years.
Heartbeat was behind Dragon Quest VI and VII, two of the most successful (if controversial) Dragon Quest games ever made. After what Enix termed a "sabbatical" in 2002, key Heartbeat employees including founder Manabu Yamana joined with Nintendo to create Genius Sonority. They then went on to join forces with members of Creatures, Inc, which was then just a couple years removed from the untimely cancelation of EarthBound 64.
The two studios would go on to become part of the three-headed entity that currently manages the Pokemon franchise. Creatures, Inc now focuses on the card game in addition to putting out games like Pokemon Ranger. Genius Sonority, for its part, worked on Colosseum, Pokemon XD, and Pokemon Battle Revolution. Colosseum and its sequel were ostensibly full-blown RPGs, but they functioned more as pricey expansions for them main handheld series. It hasn't been until Denpa Men, which coincidentally arrived around the same time that I was falling head over heels for Pokemon again, that the pedigree of Genius Sonority has started to shine through.
As with Dragon Quest, the concept of Denpa Men is fairly simple. There are lots of little sprites floating around at any given time -- they look like The Legend of Zelda's Tingle -- and they can be captured by using the 3DS' AR functionality. Using your captured Denpa/Tingle Men, you can then explore various dungeons while fighting classic turn-based battles.
The battles themselves are even simpler than the time-tested Dragon Quest system, featuring only an attack command, a special skills command, and an item command. The system has a lot in common with the basics of Pokemon, which itself reaches back to the days of Dragon Quest. Fundamentally speaking, the root of most Japanese console RPGs can be found in Dragon Quest's desire to make the genre accessible to the masses, hard as that may be to believe when looking at behemoths like Persona and Xenoblade Chronicles. It's just that Genius Sonority has a closer connection to that tradition than most.
And given their close relationship with Creatures, Inc, and their resulting connection to Mother, it's not surprising that Denpa Men has its own offbeat sense of humor. Unlike the tireless Pokemon of Genius Sonority's other games, the Denpa Men don't take kindly to being used as cannon fodder. The light touch Genius Sonority lends Denpa Men is a welcome one in a genre that can occasionally be a little too self-serious for its own good.
Reviews to this point have largely been favorable, which suggests that there's an appetite for light downloadable RPGs with a distinct sense of humor (indeed, a sequel is already out in Japan). It's the same formula that has propelled Dragon Quest, Earthbound, and yes, Pokemon to lasting success, and will continue to drive the genre forward even with cheap fanservice threatening to drown it.
As for Genius Sonority, it's heartening to see that the studio's strong collection of talent is quietly getting back to their roots. I'm more than happy to trade Pokemon Colosseum and its ilk for more games like Denpa Men. I suspect I'm not alone.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.