Operation Rainfall Highlights Nintendo's Drought

Can you remember the last time you played a game on your Wii? I mean a game, not something that requires a waggly Wii Sports-esque modifier to qualify.

That long, huh? Well, you're not alone. Despite a lead in the market over its nearest competitor to the tune of some 30 million consoles, the Wii's American software library—from both first- and third-party developers—has grown rather anemic compared to previous years.

Wii sales reached a saturation point long before Nintendo unveiled the console's successor at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, and software sales haven't fared much better. As of June, Wii software sales saw a year-over-year decline of a staggering 22 percent. (The Wii's competitors saw 3-6 percent increases.)

Surprisingly enough, Wii games exist. Modern ones, no less. You just don't know about them, because they don't make it here from Japan. If Nintendo has a hand in publishing or developing those games, that lack of knowledge can probably be traced back to Nintendo of America, whose draconian localization practices keep those promising games from entering American shores at the first sign of non-blockbuster status.

Nintendo of America's conservative practices have always attracted devotees of lost causes. Every now and then, a Nintendo-produced game that fails to make it across the Pacific will spark the interest of dedicated American fans, and of those at least a few would be worth the risk to localize. Nintendo has a habit of doing this to more of their high-profile franchises than most; consequently, Nintendo's fanbase tends to react more passionately than most.

But this new drought feels different to a lot of U.S. Nintendo fans. Even the non-games—the ports, the sports, the otherwise ignorable—seem to be drying up, and more people seem to be taking notice. This is the dry spell that typically comes after the next console release, not a year before it's due.

Observe Operation Rainfall, a fan-based movement created to convince Nintendo of America to localize some of the recent releases that sprang up in the wake of Nintendo's lackluster E3 showing. Operation Rainfall's genesis came in June, when Mathieu Minel, the marketing manager at Nintendo France, claimed that Nintendo of America wouldn't allow its European counterpart to show Xenoblade Chronicles at E3 because they wouldn't be selling it. (Minel coincidentally left Nintendo France within two weeks of his Xenoblade comments.)

As usual, gaming-friendly message boards picked up the banner of nerd-rage, with Wii fanboys and detractors alike uniting in frustration over another perceived slight from the publishing overlords. Unlike the average display of reactionary forum vitriol, however, the movement that became Operation Rainfall quickly became a constructive one.

Operation Rainfall's three target games—Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower—are, respectively, a JRPG reminiscent of Final Fantasy XII, an adventure game that looks like a modern-day Secret of Mana, and a sword-and-sorcery God of War. These three are among the most promising of Nintendo's newest offerings, and they all fit niches woefully underrepresented in the Wii's U.S. lineup, from this or any other year.

Galvanized into more a productive path of action by the haphazard attempts of their predecessors, Operation Rainfall has organized a multi-phase information campaign that would give most grassroots political campaigners a run for their money. Twitter campaigns and Facebook swarms are one thing, but when they wanted to prove the point that interest exists in their targets, Operation Rainfall members managed to get Xenoblade Chronicles into the number-one spot on Amazon.com's top 100 game sales list.

But even this will be too little, too late, both for the Wii and, if these doldrums continue, for its upcoming successor. Operation Rainfall is currently in the middle of a letter-writing campaign, but Nintendo of America's response so far has been only to officially confirm that there are no plans to localize the Rainfall games. By continuing to ignore its base in favor of non-traditional sources, Nintendo builds a weak platform for future endeavors, one that might break the next time those non-traditional sources are asked to buy a new console.

I've said it before and I'll say it again—even in America, Nintendo is the old guard of Japanese corporate culture, a recluse that only stirs a few times every decade when it quietly delivers a masterstroke against an unsuspecting industry. Ancient and inscrutable, its only enemy is its own hubris.

Operation Rainfall may never claim the victory it seeks; Nintendo is too big to listen to the likes of fans with money. Its members may be consigned to wander the Internet in perpetuity, seeking fan-written translations and games imported from Europe or Japan like so many others before them. But even then, they will have served a purpose; the need in the hearts of the faithful for something like Operation Rainfall shows us that even so recently after the dark days of the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube eras, Nintendo's hubris is still far from dormant. Take heed.