Genre Study: Japanese RPGs (JRPGs)
Nowadays when people refer to a “JRPG” it’s either associated with a flood of nostalgic love for a handful of long-running series or a groan as modern Japanese companies try to capture the form of evolution that many game players strive for. This is because modern day JRPGs aren’t a whole lot different from the ones that started life and popularity back in the 16-bit era in Japan and the 32-bit era in America. If you’re not too familiar with or have never played any of these games, modern or classic, you may wonder why games that follow a well-known and successful formula may fail. Sure, gamers’ tastes have changed to a certain extent, but there’s still plenty of us that love to play these classic titles and have no problem sinking tens of hundreds of hours into beating them all over again. Unfortunately for modern titles of this ilk, they suffer from a lack of resources and that personal touch that made the older games so charming. Even when they do, like the recent Wii release The Last Story, these titles still can’t hold a candle to the heavy hitters of history. As a result fans of the genre have pretty much independently decided to freeze this genre, and its subsequent games, in time and appreciate that era as exactly that: a specific time of genre-specific gaming bliss. This makes it difficult for modern gamers trying to break into the genre because the amount of time to complete most games is much lower these days, lack of explanation and exploration are things of the past, and the price tags on the “classics” are either sky high or dirt cheap for the “poor ports.” For that reason, we’ve compiled a basic overview of the genre as a whole, it’s roots, and the factors that make a title considered JRPG. At the end we also suggest a handful of very accessible titles that are good for those starting out, especially with many of the classics porting to handhelds with varying results, and will continue coverage throughout this site.
Planting Seeds and Growing Roots
Most role-playing games on PCs and consoles owe their roots to one single “pen and paper” game: Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). For almost a decade the main goal of early Eastern RPG video games was to successfully emulate this one imagination-filled game with endless possibilities and attempt to capture the thrill of living in a fantasy world. Since depth of storytelling is difficult to dynamically create – meaning that it can change on specific adventures like we see in actual D&D – the best way to convert these games in the early 80s was through long texts and several dungeons that act as levels. While microcomputers weren’t very prevalent in the US during the 1980s, they flourished in Japan and gave way to the earliest attempts at electronic RPGs. Koei developed two major JRPGs in 1982, The Dragon and Princess and Seduction of the Condominum Wife, that both introduced elements of early adventure games (beware looking up the latter title as it is an adult title with sexual themes). It wasn’t until 1983 that Koei releases Sword and Sworcery, which has you again rescuing the princess in an adventure environment but also revolves around an evil wizard as a nemesis. Secrets of Khufu, also by Koei, would introduce the dungeon crawler – a title revolved around exporing dungeons in search of loot – and Bokosuka Wars would introduce the strategy RPG – usually a turn and grid based title that simulated skirmishes, think Advance Wars. It’s all rooted in much experimentation for the time, which is why you get a lot of hybrid titles coming out for the various microcomputers and the Famicom (NES) that seem to blend genres. It isn’t until 1984, when an Amsterdam-born Dutch-Indonesian from the United States moves to Japan and develops the first true D&D video game, Black Onyx, that the genre starts to take off. In Black Onyx you control five different characters as you delve into a dangerous dungeon with varying entrances, exits, and routes in search of the prized Black Onyx. This title blew the lid off RPGs, introduced Japan to the genre staples, and became the best-selling computer game of all time (in 1984) in addition to being named Game of the Year by Japan’s top video game magazine. After a successful port over to the Famicom, Nintendo took notice of the genre and worked hard to integrate these titles onto its consoles.
In 1985, a game designer by the name of Yuji Hori decided to take these building blocks from the last two years and fuse them together in what we would now consider the classic JRPG, that game was Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior in its US NES iterations). Hori took the random first-person perspective fights from Wizardry, the top-down view of Ultima, and many of the concepts of dungeons from Black Onyx to create a long adventure with a decent story from Hori’s own pen. What Dragon Quest really did outside of aesthetics was make the RPG accessible to gamers of all types. You got a more wide range of the map that didn’t require graph paper like the first-person RPGs did to this point, the stats were basic concepts like hit points (HP), magic points (MP), experience (EXP), and leveling (LVL). Instead of tracking all of the complex stats of a D&D game you just got stronger with higher numbers as you “leveled up” and didn’t have to get into complex systems you’d never seen before. There were main quests and side quests, allowing you to move through the game at your own pace and slowly work your way through the plotlines you cared about (although in a much more basic way than you would think of today). If you died, no problem, you were sent back to the king with half your gold gone, the consequence of death far from the “Game Over” screen after two or three hours of brutal battles. It probably didn’t hurt that the large first person battles with enemies were drawn by Akira Toriyama, known best by Americans as the illustrator behind Dragonball Z. Your character not only had to rescue the princess, but this was only the first small quest of a much larger game that would later have you saving the kingdom and winning over her love. It wasn’t all perfect, the pacing of Dragon Quest is definitely slower than other titles of the time, especially because this game focused heavily on grinding. For those not familiar, “grinding” means to get into random encounters and overcome enemies to earn enough experience to get to a higher level so that difficult enemies are no longer a challenge or are in the least more manageable. If you grind long enough in Dragon Quest your character would be able to kill most enemies in one hit and require few items and assistence to take on enemies. Your character was also a jack of all trades, capable of magic and combat with no real restriction, but that came as a price to many players who liked to specialize in the class of character they were creating. Still, Dragon Quest made it possible to enjoy a rich story and D&D style without having to devote time and money to learning the rules of that game as well.
What Dragon Quest started, Square definitely completed with what we consider to be the best 8-bit JRPG and the template for which most titles follow moving forward: Final Fantasy. Whereas many console RPGs were stealing little bits and pieces from the melting pot of RPG styles, like Zelda II: Adventure of Link and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Final Fantasy basically modified the blueprints of Dragon Quest to create an RPG that was accessible to the masses but customizable to the point that any hardcore fan could appreciate it. Developed by Hironobu Sakaguchi and his seven man “A-Team” at Square, Final Fantasy would be a game made for the Famicom from the ground up. This was unlike all other JRPGs of the time, which were created for computer and later ported. It received its title because at the time Square was in financial dire straits and Sakaguchi determined that if this game was not a success he would quit the games industry completely and go back to school. It should be noted that the origins and validity of this claim have been contested. In a story written by Sakaguchi himself, four warriors of light are tasked with recovering four elemental stones from released fiends and then taking on the core of evil, Chaos, in a final battle through time. The story is a bit long winded over the course of the 25-40 hour campaign, but not difficult to understand and when the twist hits most players can pick it up no matter how long its taken them to reach the end. It followed most of the staples of Dragon Quest (turn-based combat, overworld map with dungeons, random battles, even the rescuing of the princess before you officially start the game), but also diverged from the game in several ways to refine the genre. As a Famicom title, it featured a battery backup save so players could save their game and return later (Dragon Warrior would have this in the US but the original Dragon Quest in Japan required incredibly long passwords). It also had highly enhanced graphics thanks to the later release date and also the ongoing focus Square has always had for making its games look better than most, if not all, other games on the console. Instead of first person battles that had you fighting a single enemy, several enemies could appear at once in a third person perspective, which allowed for groups of enemies to be more intimidating and large bosses to be even more so. On that note you also control four team members in a party instead of just one, each member specializing in one of a handful of character classes, so now you had complex character design like a fighter and a mage. With new character classes, large bosses, and multiple enemies came the advancement of strategies; whereas Dragon Quest really only required that you be strong enough to take on the big bad, you couldn’t simply attack with each character and overcome the enemies in Final Fantasy. In some battles you would have your attackers hammering away at an enemy while others supported the team with spells and items to keep them safe from some of the devastating attacks that could come their way. Also unlike Dragon Quest a game over meant just that, so it became important to save often, but the game also purposefully wouldn’t allow you to save in a dungeon as a game mechanic for preparation and would become a staple for most titles moving forward. Grinding was also a large part of Final Fantasy as it was in Dragon Quest, often times requiring you to grind around a town for hours on end so that your earned enough gold and levels to purchase the items and gain the stats you needed for the strong dungeons. It was also much more important to talk to characters and villagers and remember what they told you as the world is so open and vast that without direction you could get lost with no idea where to go next (and many did). It was tedious to say the least but by the final battle with Chaos and the hopeful victory of saving the world, you really felt like a true hero with Final Fantasy.
Coming to America (Progress in the West)
In truth Final Fantasy owes everything to Dragon Quest and in Japan the latter is easily the most top selling JRPG franchise of all time, each title breaking the million copies sold mark across any console it releases on. That appeal didn’t quite hold in America. Along with the long storyline and endless text of these titles, localization (translation) quickly became a concern. Since most of these games were developed in small studios and used Japanese Kanji (written language), ideas and text could be conveyed much more compact in Japanese than in English (or other languages). Letters take up different spacing and simpler words can have longer spelling, making one text box in Japanese expand to several in English. Combine this issue with the limited space of the Famicom/NES and translation issues and making an English version of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy was no easy task. It finally happened in 1989 when Enix (US publisher of many Japanese titles) wanted to bring Dragon Quest to the US and did so through Nintendo of America. It was thought that with the success of The Legend of Zelda that Nintendo could properly promote and release this great title, but with a promotion for a free copy with a subscription of Nintendo Power, the archaic graphics from 1986, and the clumsy interface that few American gamers were familiar with it did not work well. Whereas Dragon Quest sold more than a million copies and Final Fantasy initially sold 400,000 copies in Japan, both were considered mild failures in the United States. Final Fantasy released shortly after Dragon Warrior in the US in 1990 and its graphics held up much better over here, which resulted in more favorable sales and an overall higher appreciation for the series even today. Oddly enough, Enix decided to localize and publish all three NES sequels of Dragon Warrior in the US, which slowly evolved into possibly better games than the NES/Famicom Final Fantasy series, but were all met with poor sales due to timing. At the time of release of Dragon Warrior III and IV, the SNES and Genesis were already out and cranking amazing games with more complexity and graphical prowess than any NES title as well as the console being off many store shelves at this point. This is why the games are not only rare, but expensive to collectors nowadays ($40+ each). Final Fantasy opted instead to skip the two other iterations on the NES, FFII felt like more of a step back with a completely open world, removal of experience points, and offered little more to the series other than the introduction of the Chocobo (an ostrich-like yellow bird that continues in the series today). There was a translated version of FFII for the NES (with a subtitle Dark Shadow over Palakia) that never came out because the harsh translation looked more like a cutting board of scattered plot rather than an actual game story. FFIII, on the other hand, introduced the job system and went back to the traditions of the first game complete with leveling, experience, and a quest system that makes it worth tracking down on the handful of re-releases we see today. Given the timing, Square opted to release the Super Famicom title Final Fantasy IV as Final Fantasy II in the US on the SNES, which is why the jump is so amazing and well received in the US.
It should be noted that these are not the only two games in town, during the Famicom era in Japan the inception of the Megami Tensei series would premiere, which took the JRPG concept and integrated a horror demonic theme and the memorization of enemies attacks and personalities, which is why until recently it struggles to gain attention in America. Back in 1987 when this was released on the Famicom, there was no way Nintendo would allow a game that so closely works with devils, demons, and religion to be released in the US. This series wouldn’t release in the US until the PS1 with Persona and even then would be consistently edited or lose chapters in the pantheon due to content. On the sci-fi front, the Sega Master System title Phantasy Star is an JRPG that included the adult story elements we have come to expect from modern games, but marked one of the only essential reasons to own the system. The Phantasy Star series would all release in America and continue on the Genesis because Sega had a habit of releasing every game in every region, which definitely benefits us. Despite it not really being a mainstream series, the super fans of the net would be livid if I didn’t give some love to the Mother series, better known as Earthbound in America, which had the initial title on the Famicom and a canceled English version that is kept alive by emulation fans as Earthbound Zero. We would get the sequel, Mother 2, as Earthbound on the SNES and the third game, Mother 3, would never see a GBA port in the US (again, it’s definitely kept alive by fan translations). Other smaller series would begin to pop up in Japan around the late 80s, early 90s, by several companies such as the Hydlide series, the Xanadu series, Dragon Slayer, Brandish, and Star Control, Ys, all of which have their own personal play style and even see some releases in the US, but none of which become the long running franchises they are in Japan.
When the Dam Breaks
In Japan around the early 90s, especially during the Super Famicom era, JRPG-style games become a significant genre that takes up a large portion of the market and there is no lack of titles for the 16-bit Japanese RPG fan. In what is probably too many games to count, I’ll name drop the mass glut of releases. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest get even more wonderful iterations, Star Ocean gets its first game, Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana) moves to consoles (original was on Gameboy in Japan and known as Final Fantasy Adventure in US), SaGa gets some titles (known as Final Fantasy Legend and Mystic Quest in America), Megami Tensei would continue, Fire Emblem gets its start, Landstalker premieres, and of course our very own game club title Chrono Trigger would be a meeting of the minds with the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy teams working together. Nintendo even gets into the mix with Mother 2 (Earthbound) and Super Mario Bros. RPG! (Square team making a Final Fantasy-style game starring the Mario cast). On other consoles some series staples begin as well with Falcom releasing more Ys games and reviving several others on the PC-Engine CD as well as introducing Neutopia (which did come come out in the US), and Sega would continue strong on its few series like Phantasy Star, the new Sega CD RPG Lunar, and even a release of Vay and Popful Mail, all of which made US appearences.
This would establish and continue the trend of RPGs in Japan moving forward, but in truth many of these games performed very poorly in America. This is why games like Super Mario Bros. RPG!, Final Fantasy II and III (which are actually IV and VI), Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Earthbound, Lunar and many more are expensive ($30-$100+) rarities here while they are not quite as expensive in Japan due to more commonality. In truth, most Americans just didn’t embrace the slow paced, exploration style gameplay required by these titles and many parents wouldn’t touch the games due to their high price tags – most of these RPGs had extra chips in them that skyrocketed the price tag to the upwards of $60-$80 in the US. This is even further backed by the success of many “action RPGs” that had real time attacks, faster pace, and shorter campaigns like Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Actraiser. The US rush wouldn’t come until 1996 with a little console known as the Sony Playstation and a little game called Final Fantasy VII.
America Gets on Board
The biggest issue with JRPGs in the US during the 16-bit era was that they were long games, extremely expensive to produce and thus had high retail prices, and small print runs. By the inception of the PS1, which hit the ground running and took off in America, CD-based gaming had become a reality and no game genre benefitted more than the JRPG. File size, text boxes, and production cost of games that were 100-600 megabits was no longer an issue thanks to the high storage space of a CD and with the cheap production costs (less than $1 per disc) there wasn’t much risk involved in releasing these titles in America anymore. On top of that Square had decided to ditch Nintendo as their sole platform for games due to the N64 being a cartridge based system that brought with it all the size and price limitations of years before. They proudly touted this with the 1997 release of Final Fantasy VII, a title with a name we all recognized but with the niche audiences of RPGs prior showed us a steam punk world we never imagined possible in the “fantasy” genre of RPGs. Did I mention the fact that the game was freaking gorgeous for the time? It was a game everyone had to have and after conquering the 50-100 hour compaign that spanned 3 discs and more than 1 gigabit of data, none of the prior titles in the pantheon were much of a stretch. Once the success of FFVII was known in America, JRPGs desceneded upon the country with a vengeance and newfound fans ate them up with an unquenchable hunger. Almost every game mentioned above made the move to PS1 in one form or another along with even more 32-bit era JRPGs like Wild Arms, Arc the Lad, Xenogears, Suikoden, Grandia, Legend of Dragoon, and so many more there’s almost no point in counting. From this point forward, the JRPG was alive and well in America, even spawning several companies in the Western world start to get onboard and create more common Western RPGs (including the Balder’s Gate series by BioWare). As time moves on the genre becomes so big and styles so diverse that these building blocks of video game developed RPGs from the East become known as JRPGs.
What’s in a Name?
There are few factors that tend to make up the JRPG, and while I’m mildly poking fun at some of these factors, you can come to expect them as you progress.
- There will be a character with spikey hair that in the zero hour will make the ultimate sacrifice or have another sacrifice themselves suddenly for his or her safety.
- Grinding will be essential, especially near the endgame, requiring you to drag the final ten percent of any title through the mud. This is especially aggrivating if you get the game that wants you to die at the last boss before learning this lesson.
- You’ll get lost at least once by vague directions or the 16-bit era towns that purposefully lie to you about the locations of certain areas. We have the internet now and a site called Gamefaqs, use it.
- Never use a Red Mage, they become useless halfway through.
- The world will end. This is not the end of the game, anything done can be undone, but be ready for it at any time.
- Some of these games are known for, and often praised for, their gameplay style. This does not always match your personal preference. No matter how good or bad a game is supposed to be, you know what fun is for you and if you’re not finding it don’t be scared to walk away.
- Do some research. Emulation in many forms is illegal, but the bigger crime is dropping $250 on Earthbound and discovering you hate it.
- Due to its Eastern influence and writers, you may receive plot points and endings that are not what you think of as complete. Keep an open mind and you may find yourself appreciating other cultures more. If this isn’t your style, there are plenty of kill ’em all shooters in the retro realm (and I love most of them).
Where to Begin
There is an easy answer here, but I don’t feel very confident throwing you into the 50+ hour campaigns of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest without first giving you a road map. Fortunately almost all of these games have become available for cheap prices either on the Wii Virtual Console or the PSN for PS3/PSP/Vita. Due to the length of these titles it can also be best to get them portably as they can be played for 30-60 mins at a time and over the course of a month make a longer RPG completable. Here are some early starters and the best way to get your hands on them:
- Chrono Trigger (SNES) – I know its the most overrated and commonly suggested JRPG known to man, but c’mon, it was basically designed to be the most approachable title of all time from a combination of the best teams to ever exist! At only about 20-30 hours with little grinding or random battles (you see all enemies before fighting them) and a mostly linear story, why wouldn’t you want to start here? As I said before it’s also Dragon Quests‘s Hori and Final Fantasy‘s Sakaguchi coming together with Toriyama’s Dragonball art, what’s not to love. In this time traveling active time battle JRPG you will get a feel for the basic fundamentals of the genre without breaking the bank or getting too lost or frustrated. Best options: DS version (usually around $20-$30) or Wii Virtual Console ($8). Watch out for the PSN/PS1 version, it has ridiculous load times that slow the pace of the game to a halt, if you can handle that it has a fair $10 price tag and works on PS3, PSP, and Vita.
- Arc the Lad (PS1) – This used to be an expensive and mean game to offer, but with the PSN release you can enjoy the original Arc the Lad for the low price of $6 and have it both at home and on the go (PS3/PSP/Vita). In it you will meet a small team of adventurers, explore a handful of dungeons, and learn the basic storyline of the series. It only takes about 10-15 hours to complete and introduces you a more traditional game with interesting touches. If you get hooked, the much more extravagant (and probably better) sequel is also only $6 on PSN and allows you to import your save for bonus features and continue the character(s), but lets not put the cart in front of the horse. If you’re a collector in search of the original, about $20-$30 for the game is fair.
- Legend of Dragoon (PS1) – Many gamers think fondly back to this title because for many it was one of the first JRPGs they ever experienced. Released by Sony on the PS1, it heavily aped everything from dungeon design, to concept, to story from all over the place but created a mixed bag of some of the best parts of other worlds. Seen as a “kiddie title” to those that had conquered multiple playthroughs of Chrono Trigger, knew all the ins and outs of FFVI, and were fan translating Ys IV I can see why it’s not ideal but for those at the starting line Legend of Dragoon was great. As a recent PSN release for $6 it’s another good idea and it’s on the longer side for those that want to ramp up their playing, it can also be found on disc for around $15-$30.
- Final Fantasy (NES) – The game that modernized the JRPG and started it all has been ported to everything. Whether its for $5 on Wii Virtual Console, $10 on PSN, $10-$20 on PSP or GBA, $16 on iOS/Android, or many other consoles there’s no denying that the original Final Fantasy holds up. Many of us, myself included, had to learn the hard way with a JRPG title and there’s no better training program than this one. You’ll get lost from time to time and I assure you some of those late dungeons will have you growling with expletives, but as a retro site it’s important to know your roots. My personal favorite version is still the original althought the PSN version comes in a close second (which is almost identical to the PSP version).
Okay, so you’ve gotten yourself familiar and want to know some of the big dogs? Here are great starting points to the main JRPGS:
Final Fantasy VII (PS1) – Definitely also the most overrated game of all time, but for good reason. With tons to do, mini games, side quests, chocobo breeding, and even some cross-dressing and oiled up musclemen, the oddities and charm of Japan flourish from this title. It’s also easy as hell and the materia system allows you to have one of the most versatile job systems to date. Think of it as Final Fantasy VI lite. It’s on PSN for $10, get it now.
- Secret of Mana (SNES) – While it’s going to cost you around $50 to secure and aside from emultion is really only available on the SNES, Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan)i s the flagship title that the series has been thriving for. While Final Fantasy Adventure on the Gameboy (which is actually the original Seiken Densetsu) had some good ideas that didn’t quite hit home, everything was pulled together nicely with a rock solid battle system in the Secret of Mana. Too bad we never got Seiken Densetsu 3 in America, although there is a great fan translation, because the series began to fall apart with future titles.
- Earthbound (SNES) – Known as Mother 2 in Japan and part of a larger series, non-fans can appreciate this game for being a charming and extremely wierd change of style for the traditional JRPG. With enemies like hippies and smoking crows and weapons like a baseball bat it’s a charming game from the perspective of a younger child. This will never come out over here again and the original SNES game is over $200 for just the cart, you may have to resort to nefarious means.
- Phantasy Star II (Genesis) – There is no more mature and compelling title in the 16-bit era than the sci-fi masterpiece of Phantasy Star II. With only a little reading on the web you can pick up the adventure that really stands on its own and features the first female lead protagonist I know of in an RPG. The whole series is worth experiencing but much like Secret of Mana, they nailed it the second time around and there’s no reason not to start here.
Well that’s our retrospective on the JRPG genre, look for more coverage of several games from the past in the upcoming months. Since many of these games take countless hours, it may benefit you to read up on any games we cover before you decide to delve into that pit.