Why do people like Japanese role-playing games? What is a Japanese role-playing game? Why the hell do I write a column about them every week?
Welcome to the Random Encounters Explainer. Consider this a primer on JRPGs, your introduction to the genre and a piece designed to answer many of your burning questions. Whether you're an expert on all things Atelier or you don't know the difference between Final Fight and Final Fantasy, allow me to help you develop more appreciation for an under-appreciated genre.
Let's do this.
So what is the deal with JRPGs? Why should I care about them?
Well, they're awesome. More than any other genre of video game, JRPGs are adept at playing with your emotions and crafting the illusion that you're fighting your way through grand adventures. They tend to focus on narrative and exploration. Sometimes they tell wide, sweeping stories about angry gods and evil empires. Other times they keep things simple and adventurous. And sometimes they let you hang out in high school.
In general, the experience you can get out of a JRPG is drastically different from the experience you can get out of any other genre of video game. Although you sometimes have to be patient with them.
Hold up. What's a JRPG?
You know, this is a surprisingly tricky question. By its strictest definition, a JRPG is just a role-playing game made in Japan: a Japanese role-playing game. But there are also a ton of Western games designed to look, feel, and play like Eastern RPGs: games like Anachronox, Charles Barkley's Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden, and the latest Penny Arcade.
In many ways, the genre has evolved to become something more than just "a role-playing game made in Japan."
Then what makes a JRPG a JRPG?
Any number of things. One common factor is turn-based combat—that is, combat in which every character stands around and waits for some arbitrary clock to run out before they attack. You'll usually gather a party. You can usually visit a variety of exotic cities, dungeons, and other locations. You'll usually participate in some sort of character progression system. Maybe there are airships. World maps. Lots and lots of bosses and monsters and tough challenges. Awesome music. A whimsical sense of humor.
But it's not those parts that make a JRPG a JRPG; it's the sum of them all. JRPGs are JRPGs because they're dream-packed, emotion-triggering, hair-raising adventures that make you laugh, cry, and everything in between.
In other words, JRPGs are JRPGs because they feel like JRPGs. Helpful, right? Really, though, it's like porn: you know it when you see it.
Sounds boring. Why do people like them?
Lots of reasons! For one, there's a certain rhythm to turn-based combat that a lot of people enjoy. We might love their stories and characters. Or maybe we just like getting lost for a while in experiences that we can't get elsewhere.
I find JRPGs intimidating/archaic/obsolete/annoying. Why should I care?
Well... give them another chance! The genre has much more depth and breadth than you might believe if you've only limited yourself to games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.
Okay... then what should I play?
Have you tried the Paper Mario series? Or Mario & Luigi? Both are hilarious, fast-paced twists on the genre.
If you want something really unique and special, get your hands on Valkyria Chronicles, a strategy role-playing game with an unusual setting, some lovely cel-shaded graphics, and one hell of a combat system.
Want something faster? How about the action-packed Kingdom Hearts series? Or the hack-and-slash Ys games, several of which have been repackaged for Steam and PSP?
What if I've never played a JRPG before? What game should I play?
Good question! Let me give you a few options:
Final Fantasy VI - The best game in the most popular RPG series on the planet. It packs one hell of an emotional wallop. Its characters are subtle, interesting, and hilarious. And that music.
Suikoden - A fast-paced, politic-heavy game that places you in the shoes of a rebel out to fight against a nasty, oppressing empire. It's a little rough around the edges, but that's part of the charm. And it'll help you segue into my favorite game of all time, the illustrious masterpiece Suikoden II.
Mother 3 - Charming, easy to get into, and poignant as hell.
Lost Odyssey - Old-school sensibilities in a new-school package. If you can get past the awful voice acting (and a few annoying characters), you might really enjoy this console JRPG. Worth playing if only for the dream sequences, which make up some of the best writing I've ever seen.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - About as awesome an adventure as you can find nowadays. A little too text-heavy for some peoples' tastes, but I love it to death.
Final Fantasy VII - You might as well see what all the hype is about.
I loved Final Fantasy VII. But I haven't played a single good JRPG since then. What game should I play?
Check out Radiant Historia, a DS game that is something of a spiritual successor to Chrono Trigger. Or Persona 3, an addictive (albeit way-too-long) dungeon crawling high school simulation. (It's better than it sounds.)
Or spend some time with the dark, surreal, sometimes-repetitive Nier.
I find JRPGs to be slow and plodding. Is there a JRPG that's awesome before its third hour?
There are many. Try an old action-JRPG like Soulblazer or Illusion of Gaia. Or a new one, like the bizarrely awesome The World Ends With You.
Okay, seriously, I can't find a single JRPG story that keeps me engaged. Why are they all so awful?
Because you have no soul. Also, maybe you just haven't found the right story for you. Check out Final Fantasy Tactics, a Shakespeare-inspired tactical RPG with a plot that rivals Game of Thrones in betrayal and medieval badassery. Or Xenogears, a sci-fi masterpiece that's up there with the most ambitious (and strongest) RPGs ever.
If you want a simpler, more romantic tale, check out the aforementioned Trails in the Sky or Mother 3. The Suikoden series is also chock full of masterful storytelling.
Why are JRPGs so afraid of innovation?
Are JRPG creators consciously recycling tropes?
In some cases, yes. The Tales series, which is particularly popular in Japan (and has its own loyal fanbase out here), is purposefully designed to be built around stereotypes and fantasies and nostalgia and all that jazz. It has its pros and cons.
But a lot of the time, JRPG developers are very careful to avoid and subvert their own tropes. Hence the new wave of RPGs that try very, very hard to be different. Some work. Others don't.
Why are the swords so big?
Just kidding. Maybe they started out ginormous so you could see them among the 8-bit pixels of old-school sprites, and as characters grew, their swords grew along with them.
Any awesome JRPGs coming out in the near future?
Yes indeed. I have yet to spend a significant amount of time with some new releases like Gungnir, Unchained Blades, and Ys Origins, but they all also seem very cool.
Well... thanks. I sure have seen the error of my ways. I love JRPGs now.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.