If you grew up in the 1990s like I did, you might remember how we all thought, “Only Japan makes great games.” Most of the great game companies were Japanese and they were exporting their best games all over. For me, I love old-fashioned Japanese role-playing games (JRPG) in the vein of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Suikoden, Wild Arms, and much more. But in the turn of the century, the quantity and quality of JRPGs have considerably gone down. One can argue, and many many have, that there has not been a really great Final Fantasy game since the ninth installment on PS1. What happened? And are there hopes of a resurgence on the horizon?
To understand the downfall of the JRPG, one has to understand the beginning. The RPG genre as a whole is really an off-shoot of pen and pencil RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. RPGs had their start in America. These early RPGs like Adventure in the 1970s or later Ultimate and many others took the basic parts of the pen-and-paper style and put it onto a personal computer. Instead of a dungeon master reading from his or her prepared script, the computer did that job in readable text, and it did most of the math for you too.
Japanese game companies took this ball and ran with it. RPGs became a staple of gaming, probably because those who liked Dungeons and Dragons were the type of people who would like computers. But in 1982, game company Enix changed everything by releasing Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior in America). This set the standard and template for all games to follow. You, as the player, take control of a small group of warriors battling a vicious evil. You travel an open world, battling cute but dangerous creatures, collecting experience points and money used to invest in better equipment, and do various quests for different NPCs (non-playable characters). When you are damaged, you lose HP (health points) and when you use magic, you lose MP (magic points), and you can use different items to restore either of these. This basic template would be used for nearly every other game and basically create the JRPGs as we know it today.
With the popularity of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy in both Japan and America, many other companies jumbled aboard the JRPG boat, and in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, we got a glut of great games. But most of these games were singularly on game consoles like NES and later SNES. Western RPGs continued to grow and develop, but most of these were on computers. The original RPG players never stopped playing, and Western developers focused on this smaller group of gamers.
These Western RPGs focused more on the minutiae and were less accessible than their Japanese equivalents, but they tended to be much deeper. They stood more true to pen-and-paper RPGs. In the ’90s, JRPGs focused on fun and easy to pick-up gameplay with a deep story, but western RPGs focused more on player choice and freedom to play the game how you want.
I think you can see the shift of focus from JRPGs to Western RPGs with the Xbox. The Xbox brought with it a lot of formerly PC-only publishers into the mainstream console market. Among these was BioWare. BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic is the first Western RPG I can remember playing. This was the game, for me at least, that initiated the choose-your-own-adventure type of gameplay that had been long present in PC based Western RPGs. You made your character through your choices. Another game that exemplifies this was the legendary Fallout series.
Contrasted with the comparatively strict and limiting scope of JRPGs, Western RPGs seemed much more open, freeing, and replayable. In a JRPG, you often have very few choices in how you play out the story of the game. NPC tells you “Go to town A,” you can take your time getting there but the only way to progress with the story is to go there and act out the next part of the game. Western RPGs were more open and they let you have more choice. These games helped bring us into the open-world game craze that we are still in today. You can read a lot of game reviews and see that Western critics mark off points on games that don’t allow the players more choice.
Today, we live in a world of nostalgia. My generation, in particular, is stricken with this disease. More and more, we see old properties coming back into the limelight. JRPGs are part of this, too. Look at the success of Ni no Kuni – it was a failure in Japan but was very successful in America. Why? Nostalgia.
Ni no Kuni is an old-fashioned JRPG. The story is simple, yet vast. The characters and monsters are adorable. The battle system is turn-based (kind of), and it follows nearly all the original aspects of the traditional JRPG blueprint. This is what Japanese developers need to do.
I hope the new Final Fantasy is good (but I don’t think it will be). It is probably a perfect example as to why JRPGs have fallen so far. They don’t understand what people liked about JRPGs, or what people like about Western RPGs. People don’t want J-pop looking boys running around with huge swords, and driving in cars. Most players don’t care how “realistic” the imaginary characters look. They want Final Fantasy IV or VI. They want the old blueprint back again. Gamers want a combination of the openness of a Fallout and the structure of a Final Fantasy.
I think that some companies are learning this. Rainbow Moon was very successful and is getting a sequel. As is Ni no Kuni. I think we will see a renaissance of JRPGs, not from the big studios, but from the smaller ones that have never really changed. I think one of these smaller studios will make a traditional JRPG that has an appeal to a wider, younger Western audience. Let us hope.