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How ‘Persona’ got a Rhythm Game – A Short Index/ATLUS History

I always felt like Persona 4 was a title that overstayed its welcome. The original RPG was great when it released back in 2009, but everything that’s come out since has felt like a slow grind in the wrong direction. Over the course of a decade since the original game’s release there has been a remake on the Vita, a fighting game with two different iterations, two different anime adaptations, a movie based on the anime, several manga and novel adaptations, and finally a rhythm game with an added story mode to it. Each new creation brought Persona 4 farther and farther away from its youth-culture commentary and more into the realm of generic high school/fantasy tropes that are popular in anime. But how exactly did we go from a game that explores the concept of self-identity and morality to little girls dancing to super market theme music? Well, a lot of it has to do with who was running ATLUS at the time.

ATLUS was a subsidiary of Index Corporation in 2008, the year that Persona 4 came out. Index started out as a mobile software developer, but “entertainment conglomerate” might be a better term for them since they expanded into just about everything. Outside of ATLUS they also acquired the animation studio Madhouse and the long past its prime Japanese Movie studio Nikketsu. It used the latter to develop and market B-grade Japanese horror films to an international audience. Hell, Index even owned a French football team at one point.

Index Corp was all about maximizing profits, and modern Persona was one of their biggest cash cows. Persona 3 tested the waters with two Japan-only mobile games before eventually riding back in on the wave of popularity 4 had after its anime debut. Index’s ownership of ATLUS lasted around 7 years. They were forced to file for bankruptcy in 2013 following a fraud investigation. This eventually led to the arrest of Index’s chairman and company president for falsifying stock reports. ATLUS was merged with Index by this point so the company going under would mean that what remained of ATLUS would go under as well. SEGA swooped in and bought most of Index Holdings before performing corporate surgery to retain ATLUS and its foreign branches, leading to the happy and healthy developer and publisher we have today.

Persona 4 might as well have been an annual franchise under Index Holdings, as there was well over enough games, anime, and spin-offs to have something different out each year. This also included the coming year after their bankruptcy with Persona 4: Dancing All Night. The game’s announcement came In November of 2013, a few months after Index fell apart and the eventual SEGA buyout. It’s very unlikely that this title hadn’t been in development, or at least planning, prior to all of this.

Dancing All Night ended up being a somewhat decent rhythm game, depending on who you ask. Persona games, and just ATLUS games in general, have unique soundtracks. So, having a selection of good music wasn’t an issue, the problems came from everywhere else. Dancing totes a rather lengthy story mode to it, which reflects a lot of the later anime trope-like decisions the series had. It was basically 10 hours of nonsense that didn’t explore any of the old characters or make any of the ones it introduced interesting. It did nothing really…except waste your time if you wanted to unlock all the songs.

The other problem is that the game is optimized for the Vita. Most rhythm games have you following a trail of notes but Dancing instead has them project outward, so you can watch the characters dance about during the song while playing. This is all fine and manageable on the tiny Vita screen but can be a living hell on a TV if you’re playing the PlayStation 4 version. ATLUS started development on Persona 3 Dancing Moon Night and Persona 5 Dancing Star Night following the sales Dancing All Night, and here we are a couple of years later.

ATLUS has done some things to improve upon the base 4 set, such as removing the story mode entirely to simply focus on the music and gameplay instead (probably for the best, considering how nicely and 5’s stories ended). Notes still fly outward, meaning the Vita version is still the optimal version. It’s not like there’s much else they could have done,  rhythm games are simplistic at their core. Both titles just recently came out in Japan and are slated for an early 2019 release worldwide. While I’m not keen on the Dancing games, I’m glad to see ATLUS invested in improving them. Experimentation keeps franchises interesting…. even if you’re still just using the same characters a decade later. I guess we get some nice remixes out of them, if anything.

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