1987’s Final Fantasy deserves all the credit it can get for helping popularize the JRPG genre (especially in the West), expanding the scope of NES titles, and kicking off an all-time great franchise, but was it really the first JRPG ever made?
To help answer that question, we first have to define what a JRPG is and what separates that subgenre from tabletop RPGs, CRPGs, ARPGs, strategy RPGs, and every other type of role-playing game out there.
The problem is that defining a JRPG has always been an especially contentious topic. It seems easy to say that a JRPG is an RPG made in Japan, but even that definition doesn’t satisfy everyone. For instance, Dark Souls is an RPG made in Japan, but you rarely hear fans describe it as a JRPG.
You could use common JRPG gameplay/design elements to help define the genre, but even that gets tricky. For instance, I could say that a JRPG has random encounters, turn-based combat, level grinding, and parties of customizable characters, but where does that leave games like Earthbound, Nier, and even later entries into the Dragon Quest and Persona franchises that don’t include all of those elements?
The simpler solution in this instance may be to look at the original Final Fantasy and focus on the elements of the game that later became “tropes” of the JRPG genre and help define the image we form in our head when we think of JRPGs from that era.
What we’re basically looking for, then, is a role-playing game made in Japan that features turn-based combat, random enemy encounters, character leveling, and an overworld you explore between dungeons and quests. If we accept that there was a time when JRPGs were at least partially defined by such qualities (and that deviating from those qualities represented a deviation from subgenre norms) then was Final Fantasy the first JRPG?
Well, the pretty obvious answer to that question is “no.” At the very least, 1986’s Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior certainly beat Final Fantasy to the JRPG punch. Final Fantasy director Hironobu Sakaguchi has stated many times in the past that his game probably would have never been made if it wasn’t for Dragon Quest‘s surprising success. There’s a complicated conversation we’re about to have regarding the “true” origins of the JRPG genre, but few will deny that Dragon Quest is an earlier example of a JRPG game.
But what if we broaden our definition a bit in an effort to find the first role-playing game released in Japan with natively written Japanese dialog/text that featured at least some of the notable JRPG mechanics that we outlined above? Well, we’d then have to highlight 1984’s The Black Onyx. That game is often credited with helping to popularize turn-based RPG games in Japan, and it was certainly one of the most successful Japanese-language RPGs released exclusively in that country until that point. It’s also hard to look at that game and not see how it clearly influenced Dragon Quest and future JRPGs.
However, because Black Onyx was made by a Western developer (Dutch video game designer Henk Rogers), it’s debatable whether or not it really fits the definition we outlined above. That being the case, let’s throw as much ambiguity out of the window as possible and just try to answer the question “What was the first RPG video game developed by a Japanese studio and released exclusively (or originally) for Japanese gamers?”
Believe it or not, that’s still a surprisingly complicated question. For instance, there were actually quite a few “ARPGs” developed and released in Japan before, or around the same time as, Black Onyx. Titles like Dragon Slayer, Hydlide, and The Tower of Druaga are all some kind of RPG even if they’re not typically what most people think of when they think of JRPGs. While each of those games is worthy of a separate conversation, they’re ultimately little more than a footnote in this particular discussion. After all, we know for a fact that there were RPGs developed/released in Japan before those titles started to help the genre gain mainstream momentum.
Even still, things get a lot trickier when you start to look at Japanese RPGs released before 1984, though. See, in 1981, a Japanese translation of Wizardry became a surprise hit in that country and inspired more Japanese developers to make RPGs and pseudo-RPGs of their own. While you’d think that finding the first JRPG is really just a matter of finding the studio who capitalized on that trend first, the fact of the matter is that a lot of the Japanese-developed RPGs released in the wake of Wizardry were…weird.
For instance, Pony Canyon’s 1982 title Spy Daisakusen (which was strangely based on the Mission Impossible franchise) visually resembles a dungeon crawler of that era, but it’s hard to call it an RPG given that it lacks so many of the key gameplay elements of that genre. There’s also Koei’s Underground Exploration, which was released a few months before Spy Daisakusen and actually features a lot of traditional dungeon crawling/RPG gameplay elements. However, because that game also lacks some of the features that often even vaguely define the RPG genre (such as stats and character-building), it’s hard to cleanly classify it as an RPG without making a pretty compelling outside-the-box argument.
This is the point where I’d also love to tell you more about Koei’s erotic adventure title Seduction of Condominium Wives, but to keep things moving along, let’s just say that it also doesn’t check most of the major RPG boxes. It’s actually closer to a text-based adventure game that so happens to see you battle Yakuza members and ancient spirits while trying to seduce local housewives and sell condoms. Suffice to say, it deserves a remake.
The thing you have to understand about these early “JRPGs” is that Japanese developers and gamers were also still trying to figure out what RPGs meant to them. That’s how we ended up with these wild and experimental blends of adventure games, dungeon crawlers, and the kind of JRPGs we associate with games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. If you want to read a little more about this time period, I highly recommend these excellent articles from PC Gamer and Gamasutra.
More importantly, we actually don’t know a lot about many of the games that were released during that time. So many games of that era have been lost to history or only exist as references in magazines or adverts. That means that there’s a small chance someone actually made a more “traditional” JRPG in the early ’80s and we simply don’t know about it or don’t know enough about it to give it more of the credit it may deserve.
However, there is one more game we have to talk about when talking about the earliest JRPGs ever: Koei’s The Dragon and Princess.
Released in December 1982, The Dragon and Princess features a classic medieval setting, a party of characters, stats, experience points, and, perhaps most importantly, random encounters that force the player to enter a “battle screen” where they participate in tactical RPG combat. While its combat system is a far cry from what we eventually saw in Black Onyx and Dragon Quest (and much the game plays out like a text-based adventure), it’s pretty remarkable how many “core” JRPG elements this game features. It’s arguably become the most accepted answer to the question “What was the first JRPG ever made?” even if people still rightfully debate the nuances of that discussion.
Of course, all of this information just makes Final Fantasy’s obviously inaccurate reputation as the first JRPG that much more confusing. If there were so many Japanese RPGs released before Final Fantasy (including some of the games Final Fantasy was obviously inspired by), then how has Final Fantasy become so closely associated with the earliest days of the genre in the minds of many?
Well, there’s obviously a degree to which the game’s popularity has impacted its historical status. Simply put, Final Fantasy was significantly more popular than so many of the early JRPG experiments that came before. More importantly, Final Fantasy was the first JRPG many Western gamers ever played (though I and others certainly grew up with Dragon Warrior). If Final Fantasy was the first JRPG you played, you’re more likely to remember it as the first JRPG. The fact that the series has remained the most globally popular JRPG franchise has only enhanced its status as a globally recognized JRPG innovator.
That’s not to say that Final Fantasy doesn’t deserve that honor. The way that the game combined the innovations of its predecessors and introduced a few new ideas of its own (including elemental weaknesses, the “party-view” combat screen, and the way it handled classes and party compositions) means that it really does feel like the first “modern” JRPG in a lot of ways. At the very least, it’s the JRPG of that era that would have the biggest impact on the evolution of the genre moving forward.
See, the evolution of the JRPG is similar to the evolution of slasher films. Games like Dragon Slayer, Black Onyx, and The Dragon and Princess are like Psycho, Peeping Tom, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They all helped set the stage for the genre, but they were really only adopted into it after the fact as spiritual predecessors. In the case of The Dragon and Princess, you could argue that one of the biggest reasons it wasn’t immediately referred to as a JRPG is that the term really wasn’t a thing at the time of that game’s release.
Dragon Quest, meanwhile, is like Halloween. They’re the earliest and clearest examples of what we now think of when we think of their subgenres. Both were clearly inspired by previous works, and their subgenres would grow to incorporate more ideas soon after their releases, but they showed everybody a clear blueprint to follow and proved that blueprint could be commercially successful. They set the stage for so much of what would come next.
Sticking to this analogy, I’d say that Final Fantasy is closest to Friday the 13th. Both were obviously inspired by something that came before (and they are arguably derivative of their inspirations in some ways), but the way that they refined and altered elements of their genres made them massive hits, helped kick off a boom period for their respective genres, and helped start franchises that became incredibly successful and innovative in their own right.
Of course, Final Fantasy continues to innovate to this day whereas Friday the 13th arguably peaked when Crispin Glover wildly danced to copyright-friendly music in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.