Professor Layton used to be everywhere. The top hat-donning puzzle purveyor was huge on the Nintendo DS, especially in the UK, where each new game topped the retail charts while briefly turning the overly polite Brit into a household name. Given how clearly he riffs on the likes of Sherlock Holmes and calls an exaggerated version of London home, it’s no surprise we took to him more than most other territories outside Japan. But as the 3DS came into the picture and handhelds left behind their once casual audience, Layton’s popularity also faded away, with only a few sequels, crossovers, and spin-offs emerging in the years since.
He was popular on the platform in the same way Brain Training and Nintendogs managed to be, piercing the mainstream consciousness with easy to understand gameplay and charming characters more akin to a traditional puzzle book than a video game. Its riddles were proper head scratchers, known to encourage teamwork, discussion, and a drive to boast about the triumph that comes with solving them like nothing else out there. You know a puzzle means business when you’re putting the console down to pick up a notepad to write in, a feat which Professor Layton achieved without even trying.
Yet it was also popularised in that small window of time when smartphones were becoming a common part of our lives. Mobile games and lifestyle applications superseded the desire for portable games consoles across the mainstream, a paradigm shift that wouldn’t be touched on again until the Nintendo Switch came around almost half a decade later. Professor Layton felt like it was teaching you valuable mental skills while simultaneously providing cutesy tales pulled straight from a Studio Ghibli film. Its appeal was clear to see, but it was also fleeting as it faded from the charts and became a niche all of its own. Layton became a hardcore gem, a reputation evident in the rarity of later titles and how he soon walked away entirely.
Layton's Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires' Conspiracy handed the reins off to a new heroine with a similar drive for solving puzzles and saving the day, although I don’t think any of us took to it nearly as quickly. She’s a cute character starring in a game worth playing, but without Layton and Luke thwarting baddies and going to town on some riddles, it failed to revive a franchise already in its death throes. Nintendo stopped talking about it, and I think it was assumed the shop was being closed up for good when Level 5 scaled back operations.
Nope, the studio is now making multiple new games including a brand-spanking new entry in the Layton universe. The New World of Steam was revealed in a recent Nintendo Direct with the briefest of trailers. We know Layton is there, he’s in a new world, and there are clouds of steam billowing about the place. My bet is this new title somehow riffs on London’s industrial revolution, perhaps asking our Professor to investigate some wrongdoings associated with the proliferation of steam throughout society. Heck, maybe he journeys to an entire city run by the stuff that also happens to be super-duper evil and hiding sinister secrets only a dude who loves puzzles and hanging out with young children all the time is capable of solving.
I grew up with Professor Layton, the man teaching me how to use my brain like a true gamer and appreciate Level 5’s output away from its usual repertoire of beloved JRPGs. Now he’s making a comeback, and despite only receiving the briefest glimpses about what this might entail, his history gives me more than enough reason to get excited.
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