There's a little Lego figure standing next to my computer screen. It's a miniature depiction of Darth Maul, from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and he's holding a double-sided lightsaber.
Sometimes, when I'm trying to think, I'll take that lightsaber and snap it in and out of Darth Maul's outstretched little Lego hand. Everything about that snapping motion — the tactile click, the slight recoil, the instant stability — is uniquely comforting.
Kind of like a turn-based role-playing game.
A lot of people don't like turn-based RPGs. They don't like selecting options from a drop-down menu or watching characters stand around as enemies attack them. I get that. I've criticized it, too.
But there's also a certain comfort in turn-based combat, something you can only get from games like the Dragon Quest series and the many titles it has influenced. A certain snapping motion. A certain rhythm. As Kotaku's own Kirk Hamilton wrote last year: "Any great video game has a groove to it, a kinesthetic dance of feedback and response that can easily be thought of as a kind of music."
Turn-based combat is kind of like a slow dance. At its best, it's delicate and soothing. At its worst, it's the junior prom date who keeps stepping on your feet.
Pick up a copy of Dragon Quest IX on Nintendo DS. Enter a battle or two. Groove out to the music and let yourself be swallowed by the flow. The terrifying crunch as an enemy sword pierces your belly. The brief beat between each character's turn. The numbers that flash every time somebody gains or loses health.
It's a different, more particular experience than the combat you might see in a game like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Those games have quicker cadences, faster beats. Turn-based RPGs crank down the pace.
That's why they can sometimes be boring. Sometimes you're not in the mood for a slow song. Sometimes you want something to dance to, an excuse to get up on your feet. Sometimes you want to move on to the next track.
But sometimes, that soothing, familiar feeling you can only get by swaying to the rhythm of menu-driven combat can be a refreshing breather from the rapidfire stress of real life. Sometimes, like the snap of a Lego figure's hands, turn-based combat can be a pattern worth repeating over and over again because it relieves tension, or eases your mind, or, hell, just feels gosh darn fun.
Perhaps that's one of the reasons I've fallen in love with Japanese role-playing games over the years. The JRPG is a wonderful, enthralling genre that, despite popular misconception, is constantly changing and evolving. It's also an under-appreciated genre in the U.S., where gamers tend to dismiss JRPGs as relics of a past constrained by 8 and 16-bit limitations. It's a genre that I want to spend more time talking about.
So here's Random Encounters, a brand new weekly column devoted to all things JRPG — the ones you must play before you die, the ones you should avoid at all costs, and everything in between. I'll also be running several weekly features, including a roundup of each week's JRPG news, regular JRPG recommendations both old and new, and a Q&A section in which I answer — or attempt to answer — reader-submitted questions.
That's where you come in. I want to hear your thoughts, comments, and opinions. To participate, just shoot me an email (email@example.com) with a question or two that you think might make good discussion points for the column.
Stay tuned, JRPG fans. Exciting times are ahead.