The enduring appeal of JRPGs

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. 

Ad – content continues below

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.

Ad – content continues below

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.

Ad – content continues below

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.

Ad – content continues below