The enduring appeal of JRPGs

Feature Niall Mcloughlin 12 Dec 2013 - 10:46

As Square Enix's Bravely Default hits the 3DS, Niall asks, what is it about Japanese RPGs that keeps us coming back for more?

JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games) are quite possibly the most polarising, contentious genre in gaming. Love them or loathe them, the genre offers a beautifully strategic style of gameplay that tends to focus on exploration, something which is loved by millions of fans worldwide.

With characters who have personality and depth, and games that give us the ability to watch these characters grow and develop, the gamer gets a greater sense of connection to the story - and, importantly, it's often a connection that is formed from emotion. What I want to look at here is the positive side of the genre, the things that make it so great and so rewarding, and that have provided me and countless others with hundreds of hours of memorable gaming experiences.

The JRPG was fairly underground until the mid 1990s, at least here in the west. But then popular systems such as the Super Nintendo allowed some JRPGs to reach the public attention. One example was the wonderfully twisted Chrono Trigger. The game introduced a new audience to the Japanese aesthetic: it offered gorgeous visuals and a beautifully developed plot as well as a monstrous campaign that rewarded the player for devoting their time to it.

Another example, and one that has developed a rightful cult following, was the maddeningly superb Earthbound. With its glorious misplaced humour and submarine trips, the game definitely had character, and it was another SNES-based addition to the JRPG genre. Other titles for the SNES included Final Fantasy titles such as FFVI, as well as Illusion Of Gaia and Lufia 2. The SNES really had an astonishing collection in its back pocket. Looking back, it seems strange that even when household names like Mario got an RPG incarnation, the JRPG genre just didn’t quite take off. But its time would come. 

That time arrived when one stunningly crafted, emotionally profound, technically proficient example of the genre came along: the utterly gorgeous Final Fantasy VII. The game was a step forward of such gigantic proportions that it managed to single-handedly stirred the JRPG genre into the mainstream.

Providing an evocative plot, wondrous graphics (for the time) as well as a technically fluid battling system, the game became astronomically popular in Japan, Europe and the US. Everything the game introduced can be summed up by the backlash and ultimate response to the death of Aeris. Fans desperately sought reasons to bring her back, trying any method that seemed to offer even a glimmer of hope.

That emotional response is another reason why Final Fantasy VII became a phenomenon when it was released back in 1997. Even today, that one moment provided still provokes discussion, such was the power and intensity that Square Enix had managed to construct.

Thanks to the popularity of the Final Fantasy series, the JRPG genre itself began to explode, as games likes Xenogears, Dragon Quest, and the Phantasy Star series took off. Why it took six Final Fantasy sequels for the west to finally embrace the JRPG is a mystery, but what's undeniable is how the key characteristics of the games appealed to the masses. These games offered a multi-layered mode of escapism for the player: they were different worlds, ones that rewarded the time taken to explore them, something that was simply unheard of at the time. These games were revolutionary, and people were starting to pay attention.

Naturally, when one thing becomes popular, it starts a bandwagon, and many iterations of the same thing follow. Some will be successful, some will not, but over time there will always be a point where the market is so saturated that the audience they fought so hard to attract starts to become disillusioned.

In recent generations, attempts have been made to reinvigorate what was thought to be an aging combat system, that of the turn-based fighting structure. Personally, I’m a great fan of this “archaic” system. Most fans of JRPGs and RPGs in general that I knew grew up tactically planning their next move in Xenogears or the Final Fantasy series, praying their methods would be successful. The system allowed you to take your time to plan your moves, and arguably the tension of the battles was increased as a result. In a fierce battle where every move counts, the turn-based system provided that spilt second of doubt, when you couldn't tell whether a move had been successful or not.

Those moments of tension that have undoubtedly been lost amidst the new style of free-flowing action. While the real-time systems used in modern games are seamlessly designed, offering a new tactical edge while exploring more creative ways of battle, the faster pace can leave some of us a little overwhelmed, struggling to figure out what to do and when to execute what the game is trying to get you to do. It’s a design that has permeated the last generation and you’d be hard pressed to find a JRPG on console that offers the traditional turn-based structure, which is a shame.

Of the last generation, I’m a great lover of Tales Of Vesperia and Eternal Sonata, as well as the additional Star Ocean and Final Fantasy releases. However, one game stands testament to everything I love about the traditional JRPG; one game that even in the midst of change, stuck to the origins of the turn-based system. That game was Lost Odyssey. Now, I’ll be the first to admit the game isn’t perfect, far from it, but I felt a great respect, a subtle connection with the game that warmed me while I deconstructed its suitably brilliant turn-based system. It reminded me of a time where JRPGs gave me the option to take my time, become patient and plan my attack.

The appeal of either system is purely subjective, and while I have a deep fondness for the traditional turn-base system, the contemporary real-time system demonstrates the ever-growing progression that all genres may adhere to, one that fuses the old with the new to create a system that will endure into the coming generation.

With the Xbox One and the PS4, a new era dawns on every genre and in particular those which are not as successful as they once were. Looking at the confirmed release list of JRPGs for the new system we have two additions: Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts 3, both established, well-loved franchises. Naturally it would be crass to suggest that only such established franchises will make it onto the new consoles, but I hope in time the JRPG is given a chance to shine once more. It would be a great shame if this generation signals the death of console JRPG gaming.

So what are the reasons why fans keep coming back for more, keep asking for the rigorous, painstaking hours that are needed to really fulfil the true potential of a JRPG? Maybe it's exactly that. In a generation where multiplayer has overshadowed single player campaigns, where time isn’t spent worrying about how the gamer will play alone, the JRPG offers something very few others can: an immersive, thought-provoking experience, one that allows complex characters to create deeper relationships with the gamer. It's a slower, more introspective gaming experience that's not unlike the experience of reading a good book. The faster-paced, pick-up-and-play contemporary gaming experience isn’t for everyone, and while the RPG genre can offer a similar style of gaming, the more time a person puts in, the more rewarding the experience will be.

It's a cliched to say that modern society has no attention span, but it's tricky to deconstruct the reasons why people are turning away from RPGs without tackling this issue. Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997, and 16 years down the road the game's fanbase is older, more independent and undoubtedly in the middle of time-sapping careers. If you've got a heavy workload to worry about, where's the time to play JRPGs going to come from? It make sense, really, that people are more likely to jump into a straightforward first-person shooter than spend hours on a time-consuming RPG. Logically, then, maybe the current generation of gamers needs a Final Fantasy VII of their own, something to attract them to a genre they might not have experienced before.

The decline of JRPGs might also have something to do with the way the Japanese gaming industry is adapting to shifts in gaming perspective - or, not adapting, as it seems the industry has adopted a fairly stubborn attitude towards any kind of change. I wouldn't call that arrogance, but I'd struggle to argue against anybody who would.

No matter how you perceive the situation, the winds of change do feel near. Anyone with an interest in the genre can see the JRPG has some work to do in order to retain its appeal in an ever more frantic and claustrophobic gaming marketplace. With more and more franchises extending further, and the ability for indie developers to have their work showcased on each platform, the market share for each respective genre is likely to shrink. Add to that the endless inclination to revolutionise, improve and keep things fresh, and the pressure is on for everybody to plead for the public’s attention, especially under the allure of AAA titles.

But there is hope. One type of system fights in the RPG's corner, standing firmly behind it and offering a new gaming perspective for fans: the handheld device. Recent additions like the 3DS and PS Vita, as well as older systems, give players the ability to tackle battles in shorter bursts, which might give people more reason to stick with a game. As I’ve mentioned previously, time has arguably been one of the reasons for disillusionment with playing JRPGs, but with these systems (and mobile devices!) the JRPGs future may well literally be in our hands.

Newer offerings such as the Pokemon series as well as the critically acclaimed Bravely Default provide the same enthralling sense of exploration, intensity and accomplishment that JRPGs in the past were so astute at providing - and they use traditional turn-based systems. 

I, for one, will stick with the JRPG until the bitter end, whenever or wherever that may be. While the genre may never again reach the zeniths it once hit, JRPGs still have so much to offer the gaming community, whether you are a passionate fan or casual gamer. We're in an exciting period, a time of experimentation and venturing into the unknown. The enduring appeal of this genre has always lain in the freedom it offers, the way it encourages the player to strive for adventure, providing beautifully constructed tales wrapped around characters who are as flawed and as imperfect as we are. The future holds even greater prospects for the genre.

The JRPG is a genre that should never be ignored - it should be embraced.

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I've always struggled to like the JRPG genre - and I've played a lot of them. The twee storylines, vaste swathes of text to read or poorly acted cutscenes isn't offset by the "rochambeau" comedy combat (look it up - particularly the South park clip).

I think it also has something to do with the fact that it's the RPG sub-genre with perhaps the least amount of 'roleplaying' to it. Sure you can level your characters, arm them and choose who fights and who doesn't, but in my experience there is very little to change the fact that you are a passenger in this adventure. You're not an active participant and the story will play out the same whether you're involved or not. It's more of a small scale tactical war game, rather than you playing a role.

That being said, I do think the turn-based combat still has it's place in modern and classic gaming. The original Fallout series, Baldur's Gate (the PC series, not the PS2 one), Valkyria Chronicles (PS3 and PSP), Mass Effect, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age and probably quite a few more I've missed all have turn-based action in spades. What they also have - with the exception of Valkyria - is a real sense of crafting a unique character or characters. This is where JRPGs suffer, I think.

For me, where RPGs come alive is in the free-roaming, character-tweaking, light path/dark path world of Elder Scrolls. I think Skyrim is the closest thing to a proper ROLEplaying game, where the character feels uniquely yours and the adventures feel like they are personal to you and you alone.

As a Brit I find American accents in JPRG's make the games suffer. I've had to turn down the sound on Bravely Default and it's miles better. Imagine Cloud being voiced by Tidus!

I absolutely love the Final Fantasy series :) Currently deeply entrenched in the new game Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn. This is a great article, DoG team! And kudos for using a screenshot from (to be geeky and accurate) Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete Blu-Ray :P

Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997, and 16 years down the road the game's fanbase is older, more independent and undoubtedly in the middle of time-sapping careers.

God, this is me!

-ctrl+f "Ni No Kuni"
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I hate the voice acting melodrama in a lot of the current
JRPG's, back when it was just text it was akin to reading a book where you
would picture how their voices would sound, it was more immersive. Now it's like playing a badly acted cartoon as opposed to an absorbing book.

I have tried a few JRPGs over the years and I never, ever, ever failed to be engaged by them in any way. I just don't get the appeal. I know it is out there and that there are diehard fans. But I just don't get the appeal.

You do realise you can change the voices to Japanese?

If you can, listening to the Japanese audio is usually better, I find.

I think that7s a double negative isn't it? 'I never, ever, ever failed to be engaged' means you have always been engaged.

Final Fantasy VIII was the first one I played and to this day I consider it the best. Sure, it may not as slick and refined a combat system as VII, but I felt much more connected to the story and the characters. Like the article says, that's what really sets JRPGs apart.

One of my biggest problems with JRPG's is that they are often far removed from where RPG's came from. This is a bigger problem with newer ones, especially in series like the "Final Fantasy" series. I think people miss the point when it comes to why games like "Bravely Default" and "Pokemon" are celebrated to remaining traditional. Especially "Pokemon".

More than most other JRPG's in recent memory, "Pokemon" continues to embrace the idea of giving the player control of their gaming experience to immerse the player into its world. That's never been more true than with X/Y where you now have a degree of control over your avatar's appearance in addition to a team of your own making. That immersion is only aided by making the game a more social experience, where you not only play your game as you see it, but you can find out how others are interacting with that exact same world. Play for fun. Play to be competitive. Get your Pokemon into beauty contests. It's all good and it's all up to you.

The same goes for "Bravely Default". The world map may not seem like a big deal to people, but it was a glaring loss when "Final Fantasy" transitioned onto PS2. "Final Fantasy X" felt like you were just following a very long, one-way tunnel with little opportunity to deviate. How can a game be immersive when there is so little opportunity to actually explore the surroundings? As much as people are loathe to include the MMORPG entries into the flagship series, XI and XIV felt more like true RPG's than games like X, XII, or XIII ever will, since they embraced an open-world, player-centric approach. "Bravely Default"'s social aspect helps a bit, being able to show off a bit of what your favorite class is, and how you're choosing to play the game. Play as a Summoner because you want to represent yourself as a Summoner to others, not because the game tells you that you must be a Summoner.

I think that is why people take to games like "Skyrim". Games like "Skyrim" offer the ultimate immersive experience. You explore the world as you desire. You have ultimate control over growth and storyline progression. The game may lose out intense character study that JRPG's may have, but "Skyrim" truly makes you feel as though you are making decisions within the rules of that world. For players looking for something a little more character driven, I find the "Mass Effect" series tries to find a more equal balance.

I think, if JRPG's are to thrive, they need to remember that, first and foremost, they are RPG's and not interactive storybooks. The Warriors of Light of the first "Final Fantasy", after all, were simply 4 blank slates that were the vocations of your choosing. It's great that they've put video games on the map as legitimate mediums for storytelling, but please don't do it at the expense of player control.

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