|Posted on October 12, 2010 at 8:20 PM|
The Fall of the Japanese RPGs
They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
For those of you not in the "know," the Japanese RPG, or JRPG for short, is a style of videogame genre that is based and rooted into the world of role playing. Role Playing Games, aka RPGs, is one of those "you know it when you see it" types of genres that can be a little hard to define when it comes to videogames yet easy to identify on a shelf. They're all rooted in this idea of a quest, party of characters and, basically, things you think of when someone says "Lord of the Rings" to which the original RPGs were rooted in. Role Playing is a genre of gaming that's existed well before there were videogames themselves, you might know it better as Dungeons and Dragons or that ending epic battle at the end of the movie Role Models where it takes the form of Live-Action Role Playing (LARP). It's all fantasy, imagination and probably a sexy elf or two either way.
During the emerging industry of videogame entertainment, the RPG was one of the very first genres to come along and attempt to find footing, first settling in nicely on DOS and home computers. All were very basic in their execution and all based and rooted into the rules and worlds established by the likes of Dungeons and Dragons or, commonly known, pen-and-paper RPGs. The Japanese eventually got a hold of this idea as well, their videogame market also beginning an upswing in the mid 1980s, and started to mold their own RPGs. However, their take quickly began to diverge from their western/DOS based counterpart. JRPGs streamlined the processes, usually stuck it all in a linear progression and centered elements on story and characters. By the 16-bit generation, the early 1990s, it was firmly rooted in this concept, completely abolishing any notion of player decision or direction by that point and the term JRPG began to emerge to identify these differences.
Whereas the more traditional RPGs, now dubiously called "western RPGs" dealt with open-ended, often quest based gameplay (also especially by the 1990s) and player interaction, Japanese RPGs focused more on character and narrative progression with little deviation. It relished in the melodramatic storylines and characters with plot twists interspersed along the way and presented it all in a more cinematic experience. Most would say the height of the JRPG was the decade of the 1990s which included the 16-bit (Super Nintendo and Genesis) and 32-bit (Playstation and Saturn) generations. This decade brought in the most quantity and quality of titles, not to mention a large amount of inventiveness and variety in the process. And yes...most JRPGs were on consoles whereas most "WRPGs" were on PCs, which drew the line and separation of the two even more.
"I'm an early WRPG" "and I'm an early JRPG"
Likes: Customization Likes: Literary archetypes
Open-ended gameplay Linear gameplay
Player interaction and involving quests Prewritten character arcs
Fantasy settings/stories Melodramatic plots/stories
Roller coasters and sky diving Long walks on the beach/ holding hands
Action movies and tedious dramas Japanese animation and comic books
Heavy dialogue, branching conversations Cinematic scenes, stylish directing
But that is not what this is about. That's all just a basic rundown, though, just to quickly get you up to speed on the JRPG. This isn't a history lesson. You see, in 1997 a really big game was released. It changed a lot, yet at the same time changed very little. Let me explain...
Change in the Wind
Most videogame enthusiasts point to Final Fantasy VII's release in 1997 as the "turning point" for JRPGs, arguably the single most successful JRPG in both Japan and in the West before and since. Before it was released, JRPGs were a pretty niche genre in an entrainment medium that was already pretty niche to begin with. Gaming wasn't nearly as big in 1995 as it would come to be in, say, 2001. The JRPG genre had its share of faithful devotees, though, such as myself. The "turning point" aspect is both true yet untrue.
It's untrue because, in reality, it didn't do anything much different than a lot of Japanese RPGs before it. It wasn't wildly original in gameplay, presentation or even story. It's music was pretty standard fare and graphically it would be overshadowed in just a year by Square themselves and certainly with the release of the Nintendo 64, Nintendo's latest and more graphically powerful console at the time.
Yet it's true because it did one thing: put style into the mix, which it did well and rose it above everything else that was on the market at the time. The developers of Final Fantasy VII, Square, looked at the brother-medium of Japanese videogames in Japan: Japanese animation. It's there that the entire genre looked to and naturally so as they share nearly everything about it. What is that distinguishes Japanese animation, or anime, from regular animation? Easy: "Style"...and a hell of a lot of it. By "style" I mean flashy, moody, usually dark action-oriented animation that also just happened to be very fantasy-based in nature which is exactly what JRPGs were going for. Movies like Ninja Scroll, Akira, Record of Lodoss War and Vampire Hunter D were boilerplates. The cinematic presentation went through the roof and ever since the release of Final Fantasy VII, many developers, including Square themselves, have attempted to emulate and repeat the success.
Changed everything...for good and bad. Square has since held on to FFVII tightly, making it into its own sub-franchise still releasing related products to this day including movies, spinoffs and merchandise.
Sony, the publisher of Final Fantasy VII in North America, knew they had something that, visually, would astound people. That's exactly how they promoted it too and the commercials focused entirely on the music, mood and style of the game. As a result, it was a huge smash hit, made the JRPG popular in North America making for, now, a new business model that opened the floodgates of the JRPG to find success.
For the rest of that decade, it did. Huge, massive successes and popular titles from a number of developers. This would last to about the middle of the next generation of consoles, but it's then that some problems began to reveal itself. People began to see the same horse but in just different colors.
The JRPG already had its detractors, dating well back to the early 1990s. They would cry out they are not "true RPGs" and so on, yet fail to realize that the Role Playing Game is an ever evolving genre with numerous styles and approaches to content. It was an RPG in every sense despite their claims. What it found, though, is they were right on one thing: it was very, very formulaic. For most of the 1990s, this was no problem. It was still new and young and even attempted to change things up just enough.
Then technology got big. Along with new technology comes new costs; as in making games started to become more and more expensive for developers. When things get expensive, companies aren't willing to take as many risks, especially Japanese companies where, by the end of the Playstation 2 era, were becoming swarmed with takeovers and were consistently in financial trouble. A great example of this is the mighty Square themselves. By 2003 they were bleeding money: spending more money yet creating about half as much content. They eventually had to merge with powerhouse publisher Enix to eventually form Square-Enix. In a way, the entire rise and fall of a company like Square (and still falling as they've only produced one game that can be regarded as "successful" in sells, however certainly received its share of negative reviews) is an exact parallel to the rise and fall of the JRPG itself..
However, that didnt' help them, and the entirety of the Japanese RPG market today shows why: fewer games, less originality and half-hearted dedication to the content of their games. They soon began stopping the progression of their games and gamers themselves began to take notice. Games began to blend into each other by this time and less original JRPGs began to emerge and, in some cases, games released while still incomplete. An example of the former is the "Tales of..." series from Namco/Bandai (yes, they merged too) and its repackaging of the same formula for the past ten years and an example of the latter would be the three Xenosaga games, originally intended to be six but completely rushed out the door when the money dried up.
Now what? Well, developers have played it safe and now stick to tried and true formulas and ideas. It's the same horse, just a different color each time. Meanwhile the WRPG has become more and more popular, particularly on consoles thanks to the blending of genres and a larger focus on story progression and streamlined gameplay. In other words: WRPGs evolved, JRPGs were left behind.
Lowering Standards and Stagnant Ambition
However, I must take a moment of silence before going further. To understand why the JRPG has since dropped in popularity and fallen behind, we should perhaps look at its drop in quality or, as I believe, the stagnation of its evolution and progression as a genre. Japanese RPG fans can be pretty damn lenient. I was one for some time, at least up through 2004 or so, and now just can't justify the defense anymore. I recently started playing a couple of games, I won't name them all but if you've played them you might get what they are, where the writing is just awful. In fact, the rather darker games of generations past, dealing with more adult ideas and situations, seem to be all but gone these days or shifted into being "mature" meaning it's just a bunch of violence and bullshit.
Now the stories themselves aren't "bad" per se. They're all really standard, but it's in the storytelling itself that has really gone off the deep end and has really been apparent since Final Fantasy VII itself which put ideas and concepts first, a core theme and overarching story second making for a disjointed and inconsistent story to be told. In one game I'm currently playing does it seem even more readily apparent.
JRPGs tend to fall into the "shit just happens" scenario. Need to progress the story? Throw in the McGuffin or the "shit just happens" scenarios and you're all set. This really has always been around for more or less, but now in the era where gamers demand and expect more and have evolved in their expectations, the JRPG has not evolved with them and the more obvious nature of these scenarios is proof of that.
Quick Example from that game: I'm walking along the world, party in tow, and just crossed a large river where I'm suddenly confronted by a villain. Ok, nothing out of the ordinary here - then sudden there's an appearance of a villain with no explanation of how they know where you are is fine. You usually just fight because one of the structural foundations of the JRPG is the progression and escalation of boss fights. They're one of the biggest draws. So do you fight? Nope...
...you get an earthquake.
The Earthquake then unleashes some sort of poisonous gas and knocks the boss out.
What's worse is that the characters are so matter-of-fact about it all. They just move on, no explanation or even thought about why there was a convenient earthquake. It's then never foreshadowed before or referenced again. It just happens....shit...just...happens.
Let's move a little bit older. Final Fantasy X is notriously bad for its strange "Shit just happens" scenarios, but it also fails to have logic alongside it. A great example of this is when one of your characters is kidnapped and held hostage by a large, mech-like machine. You chase after it, fight it (boss fight afterall, like I said) and then get your friend back.
What happens then? Why the person controlling that large machine, threatening the life of everyone and fighting you suddenly joins your party and is a friend. Suddenly everyone is friends and happy and, again, that situation is never brought up again. As I said, JRPGs rarely have an over-arching story - it's usually told in spurts and, thus, contradictions, plot devices and drops in logic emerge as a result.
That's how bad the writing in JRPGs can get, and those are merely two examples off the top of my head. There's no imagination, no ambition or even something to really get excited over it.
Then you have the characters, usually insanely young and all the exact same type of character that was around 15 years ago. There's little thought for drama or intelligence, it's all superficial melodrama from plot event to plot event. One recent game in particular took this to the extreme, and not only had you running from A to B, but stuck you literally in one singular road with no deviations. The time of exploration and at least the sense of openness is gone. JRPGs have always been linear, but they've never been as restrictive as corridor-jogging.
There's no doubt that when it comes to design, Japanese RPGs are often stuck in a dead end cycle. Larger scope titles rarely change the formula that has been the standard since the early 1990s of a linear story progression and little to no character customization. They focus on what that anime inspired style of RPG had become known for: artistry and story. Gameplay is secondary.
However, smaller, unique JRPGs have really come into their own. Perhaps its the lower budget and smaller teams that allow that to happen rather than pumping in insane amount of dollars and yen to tyr and force something great. Are they as epic as the world-saving games? No...but they offer something new and fresh and new and fresh is what the JRPG often lacks. You can only have so many groups of teenage heroes saving the world.
Being cliche and unambitious, or "playing it safe" can result in boring, trite and uninteresting titles, such the Tales games or the uninspired Final Fantasy XIII.
However being too ambitious can be harmful as well, such as cramming four games into a final one ala Xenosaga III, or being released unfinished, such as Final Fantasy XII. Too many ideas, too little money for their scopes.
However games that reel back the scope and show restraint tend to take more risks while still retaining their very strong JRPG roots in style and art, such as Persona 4, Breath of Fire V and The World Ends With You. The smaller titles have been more praised than the larger ones the past ten years and handhelds have rightfully dominated the genre.
But know one thing. Even though writing is questionable sometimes, the anime influence more and more apparent and the gameplay design often stagnant other than the smaller titles like the ones above, are still readily apparent...the fans of Japanese RPGs, those that love Japanese lifestyle and watch Japanese animation and so on, are fine with it all because things like Japanese animation is what many JRPGs are already rooted in to begin with. While I have grown and gotten older and kind of have lost interest in those sensibilities, true fans should be perfectly at home with it all.
Keep in mind these games are made for Japan first and those that love that culture are going to love them no matter what. It's just that the days when they were wildly popular in the states and on home consoles are probably a thing of the past...on handhelds, though....
Handhelds Are Where It's At
The Handheld market has helped retain the JRPG and keep it in line and lucrative. The money needed to fund a massive and large-scale epic JRPG for current home consoles has, time and time again, not delivered this entire gaming generation and a good amount of the previous one with the Playstation 2 and Gamecube. This is the reason why Square Enix, the top JRPG developer and publisher, has been putting more stake on the handheld market, most recently by putting Japan's most popular JRPG series, Dragon Quest and its ninth installment, on the Nintendo DS. The series for nearly 30 years, as noted way at the top of this article, has always been a console staple. Another example is Sony moving its popular JRPG for the Playstation 3, Valkyrie Chronicles, to its handheld with the sequel. It's cheaper to develop, plain and simple. Releasing a new game onto a console these days just isn't that viable anymore, especially if it ends up a failure as, sadly, many have this generation of gaming. The ends didn't justify the means to fund a full-budgeted hi-def next generation game for Square-Enix with Dragon Quest IX and Sony with Valkyrie Chronicles 2. From the looks of it, many Japanese developers are following suit.
The restrictions of the handheld also allows for people to allow the more "old school" and "retro" feel come easier. The stagnation isn't as apparent because the developer, rather than try and push forward with new technology, can take a step back and return to the elements that fit into their needs and abilities better. That is exactly what a lot of Japanese RPG developers have done...and thrived doing so, especially considering there is absolutely no WRPGs on handhelds and WRPGs don't lend themselves as well to that market on top of it all. It's strictly Japanese, and it will likely stay that way. The popularity of the JRPG was at its peak during this era that the handheld reflects when more and more people began playing them. By going back to that, you keep your original fanbase in tact and don't lose ground nearly as much. Gamers also tend to be more lenient on the games as well.
Soon to be in....THREEEE DEEEEE!
I like to call this the "Pokemon" model. Pokemon is one of the top RPG franchises and has been successful entirely on the handhelds. There's a few console spin offs, but no actual Pokemon title which has always been on the Gameboy since the early green-screen days of the 1990s. It's been successful ever since because it is able to not have to worry about trying to throw in amazing graphics or alter its control scheme and gameplay to accommodate new technology. The JRPG flourished in the 16 bit and 32 bit eras for a reason, and by staying on a handheld market that hasn't really gone past those generations of technology, the JRPG can still flourish, be creative and, especially, stay polished and well-made.
Does that mean there will be no more Japanese RPGs on consoles? Well...look around. There's not exactly a plethora as is. On the handhelds, though? Yeah, you can lose count pretty quick whereas on both the PS3 and Xbox 360, you can count all the JRPGs on your fingers.
The JRPG fan are often an emotional and faithful bunch. They're dedicated and steadfast and, often are older or at least tend to seek out older JRPGs from the past (again, because they haven't changed all that much which makes for easier accessibility). Newer WRPG fans aren't quite as dedicated. Someone who was introduced to the WRPG via Fallout 3 probably isn't seeking out Neverwinter Nights or Planescape Torment. Strangely, the older school WRPG players aren't entirely on board the new styles that WRPGs are going for. But you know what? That's a good problem to have, unlike the JRPG which seems to be going nowhere.
So, as the genre's fans watch the WRPG well surpass them in the elements they held on to, such as art and story, they sit in wait for that one game, that one amazing JRPG to redeem everything and bring salvation. That's the problem with JRPG fans, and for years I was like this as well...they're just not realists. Throw their fickleness into the mix (if you change too much they aren't happy, but don't change enough and they're still not happy) and you're just left with a no-win situation.
Next up on the JRPG-Savior chopping block and hyped to no end: Final Fantasy Versus XIII
(anime and j-pop infused style included, because it worked so well with Final Fantasy XIII)
Expecting some great amazing game isn't going to solve anything. One single title doesn't make up for a decade of mediocrity. The problem with JRPG fans is they need to understand perspective. "What do you want?"
The answer should be good games, and they are still out there. Are they the grandiose epic million sellers? No...but they weren't in the beginning of the JRPG either. What you should be asking for are just solid, well made games: titles like the Shin Megami series, Persona or Demon's Souls. Then look to the handhelds and realize that JRPGs may have stopped progressing, but where they stopped is still in line with what you want from your JRPG. Quit asking and demanding so much and enjoy the nice assortment and variety that's out there. From then you can demand things such as better written stories and so forth.
Yes, this generation of gaming is years old and there's nary a good JRPG in site on the home consoles. But you simply need to accept it, JRPG fans. It's not that the genre is "dead" - it simply isn't as popular or even as widely accepted as it once was. People have grown, changed and other genres have blended in elements to supplant the JRPG from its throne.
But you're still fans, right? Sure you are...so what's the problem? Nobody is telling you that you can't like JRPG, like I said there's still enough out there, especially on handhelds, to more than satisfy fans of the genre....
Ah...so that's it.
When it all comes down to it, it's about the sense of validation and acceptance that drives fans of any genre. It's the same reason why gamers will demand that videogames be viewed as "art" and whatnot. By seeing your JRPGs sell millions and be widely accepted by the masses, it helps satisfy the notion that your genre and gaming style of choice is one of the best. Really though...who cares what others think? Enjoy it and have fun.
As for me? I can no longer enjoy the Japanese RPG as it is. There are exceptions, I did like Demon's Souls (notably a WRPG influenced game a bit), but I feel the stronger emphasis on anime and a younger culture has turned me off more than on. There are flashes of things changing over the years, but those are mere blips on the radar. The game Final Fantasy XII took a drastically different approach, particularly with story which was entirely about war, politics and ideologies rather than teenagers with magic and saving the world (not to mention some very, very adult-themed and mature sounding dialogue). I loved this, but it was unfinished and, on top of that, divided those fickle JRPG fans I mentioned earlier.
I've learned to stop expecting change in the Japanese RPG world. I suppose it would have happened quicker if they hadn't shifted towards one particular style, and so many companies taking that route. Combined with the small brief flashes of uniqueness and change that they sometimes showed seemed to just delay my inevitable bore with it all.
I think it also would have happened even sooner if the Western RPG didn't show such progress and larger mainstream success the past ten years as the JRPG took a back seat. Now the WRPGs has the characters and stories and uniqueness that the JRPG once had...in a way today's WRPGs are more like the JRPGs of old than anything. They little reflect their old PC roots as well and continue to implement new and unique ideas to the fold by, ironically, adopting the elements that made the JRPG so successful (story, more linear approach, prewritten character arcs and larger emphasis on cinematics and atmosphere).
Warning: Objects on couch may be older than they appear.
Maybe it's also the fact that I'm just getting old. Hell, I am old, and so seem to be a lot of JRPG players who would rather pick up their old copy of Final Fantasy III on the Super Nintendo or even Xenogears on the Playstation over the likes of a Lost Odyssey or Final Fantasy XIII. It's that "been there, done that" attribute to it all, and for me that's very much true. I grew up, but the genre didn't grow with me. It's still what it's always been, however I am not. As I said, a lot of JRPG fans tend to go back to the roots of the genre, I myself first playing Dragon Warrior, then Dragon Warrior III then finally really getting into the genre with Phantasy Star II and Final Fantasy II (now known as Final Fantasy IV). Throughout the 90s, that's all I played. Hell, I still own every single JRPG I bought from Dragon Warrior IV to Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy to Vagrant Story, Suikoden II to Lufia and a lot in between.
So am I just an old fart who's tired of it all and can't relate to the genre, or should I blame the genre for progressing so little and leaving me abandonment issues?
Either way, I'm sure I'll still be saying "They don't make 'em like they used to."