2005 was a very different landscape for horror games; Resident Evil 4 had only been released that year and exclusively on Gamecube, the now ubiquitous 'over-the-shoulder' view was fresh and new, the emergence of J-horror films in the western market revitalized the genre for a few years, and the cult-classic horror game franchise Fatal Frame would see it's last North American release for an entire decade. It's been a long ten years for a franchise that was held by fans in the same regard as heavy hitters Resident Evil and Silent Hill. But where has it been all this time and what happened while it was gone?
Well, it's been everywhere but North America in some form or another.
Since the release of Fatal Frame III: The Tormented on the PS2 in 2004, publisher Tecmo has become quite close with Nintendo. You may be familiar with a number of the fruits of this friendship; Hyrule Warriors, Pokemon Conquest and Metroid: Other M all came out if their partnership. In fact their collaboration has led to quite a few easter eggs, cross-overs, and exclusive releases as well; Ridley's appearance in Dead or Alive Dimensions, The Mysterious Murasame Castle Mode in Samurai Warriors 3, and all kinds of Mario- and Zelda-related costumes popping up in Tecmo games.
While all of these games were getting released in North America over the lifetimes of the DS, Wii, 3DS and Wii U, one franchise was notably absent. Fatal Frame, one of Tecmo's most critically well received franchised seemingly disappeared. This wasn't the case elsewhere. Japanese Wii owners were treated to two exclusive Fatal Frame games; Fatal Frame IV: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse and Fatal Frame II: Deep Crimson Butterfly, as they're known in North America. Fatal Frame IV was even co-developed by Goichi Suda and Grasshopper Manufacturer of No More Heroes fame. If there ever were an angle to market to western core audience Wii owners, that would have been it.
Mask of the Lunar Eclipse's design fully embraced it's home on the Wii. The limited input options of the Wii remote meant implementing a helpful-but-not-game-breaking lock-on feature not unlike Metroid Prime's. And despite being one of the last remaining traditional survival horror games at the time, even Fatal Frame couldn't avoid adopting RE4's dynamic camera. The changes were welcome without destroying the foundation of what made Fatal Frame excel in the first place; the series wasn't jumping whole-hog into the changing times as much as Dead Space would later that year (third person shooter this is not), but contemporary influences were apparent and it was all the better for it.
Even with these advances the survival horror market was considered to be at a low point. After all this was 2008 and in less than a year Resident Evil 5, while attaining chart-topping sales, would drive the nail further into the coffin with it's far more action-oriented style and presentation. The methodical nature and psychological nuance of games like Fatal Frame might have seemed like too much of a risk for the Wii. Less than stellar sales numbers for Silent Hill Shattered Memories -- also in 2009 -- would help hold the nail steady.
Fatal Frame IV would remain in Japan only and unfortunately set the precedent for the following entry, a remake of Fatal Frame II. Sort of.
Tecmo and Nintendo (who by this point in 2012 had become co-owners of the Fatal Frame IP) would team up again for a second Wii exclusive Fatal Frame in 2012(!) called Fatal Frame II: Deep Crimson Butterfly. The game implemented a lot of the changes from IV and returned to the story of one of the most critically well-regarded games in the franchise. This game even bears the important distinction of being the first entry to be localized outside of Japan since 2005. Europe and Australia were both treated to Deep Crimson Butterfly under the name Project Zero 2: Wii Edition (Project Zero being the name of the series outside of North America). Unfortunately this was 2012 and interest in the Wii in North America was at it's absolute lowest. If Mask of the Lunar Eclipse couldn't make it over here in 2008 there was little to no chance of Deep Crimson Butterfly seeing North American shores. Not that there was absolutely zero precedent for it...
The Wii audience was just coming off of its first few perceived victories in the Operation Rainfall movement. Xenoblade Chronicles, Pandora's Tower and The Last Story were all late releases in the Wii's life cycle that showed little sign of North American localization. All three eventually made it over with Pandora's Tower hitting shelves as late as 2013. The Last Story was said to have been localizer XSeed's 'most successful title to date' according to Executive Vice President Ken Berry. Xenoblade Chronicles' main character Shulk has since been featured in Super Smash Bros. and is about to see it's sequel Xenoblade Chronicles X released this winter with a special edition Wii U. Interestingly enough, all three games, as well as Deep Crimson Butterfly, have unlockable trophies in Super Smash Bros.
The influence of Operation Rainfall as a grassroots movement has never been proven and Nintendo insists that petitions don't affect their localization decisions. That hasn't stopped passionate Fatal Frame fans from establishing similar groups on social media to raise awareness of the series.
(Quick aside: I lied. North American audiences DID get a small side story from the Fatal Frame world for the 3DS in 2012 called Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir. It received middling reviews but was an interesting experiment in the 3DS' AR capability. I recall reading somewhere that the future of the series in the West would be determined by interest in this title, but I was unable to find any references at this point to back it up.)
Needless to say all efforts to get official releases of Fatal Frame IV: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse and Fatal Frame II: Deep Crimson Butterfly have been fruitless. But this story does end on a positive note; the 10 year absence of Fatal Frame in North America is about to come to an end.
On October 22nd Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water will be released for the Wii U in a digital-only format. The first chapters of the game will be available to play at no charge in what Nintendo is referring to as 'free to start'. European Wii U owners will also have the choice of a physical Limited Edition of the game.
Marketing for Maiden of Black Water has been almost completely silent for the last few months leading up to release. The game's title was even removed after an update to the 2015/16 release schedule, leaving many people to wonder if Nintendo wasn't sabotaging the game's launch. The last few days however have seen a number of new trailers, gameplay videos and a focus on those Tecmo/Nintendo mainstays - crossover costumes. #FatalFrame even saw a brief trending period on Twitter during this mini marketing blitz.
According to a sales chart posted on Nintendo Everything around this time last year, projections for lifetime sales of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water look positive. The series has never sold gangbusters but here's to hoping that a renewed interest in one of survival horror's best franchises can help keep it alive for the future. Preferably in more than just Japan. Fatal Frame is a franchise that deserves to be part of the conversation again.