There's this idea floating around. I'm sure you've heard it. It comes in many forms, most of them obnoxious.
- "Japanese role-playing games are archaic and obsolete."
- "They're driven by nostalgia, not innovation."
- "They really suck nowadays."
- "lol JRPGs."
It's all crap.
See, the common consensus among a great deal of gaming fans, critics, and scholars seems to be that the era of Japanese role-playing games is over. Kaput. Gone are the triumphant days of insta-classic masterpieces like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII. Today, it's all about whiny protagonists and level grinding and those wacky Japanese tropes and cliches.
As my colleague Mattie Brice writes over at PopMatters:
"...That's how [Japanese role-playing games] feel to me now, a weight that I constantly rationalize carrying. I just feel too old for them now, grown past the usual tropes and mechanics. This is because JRPGs only earn such a title and standing by including a large amount of conventions from a niche of games, and if you mess with that formula too much, a game drops outside of the tastes of the fanbase... In a sense, JRPGs represent a lot of what's wrong with video games. Namely, things being there just because. Many of these titles advertise 60+ hours of gameplay, but a lot of that time is spent grinding levels and includes other filler tactics."
Sweeping generalizations aside, what about the ones that don't do things "just because"? What about the funky, beat-driven romps through a twisted version of Japan in the inimitable The World Ends With You? Or the surprisingly fun genre-ribbing of Half Minute Hero? Or the heavy cloud of melancholy that hangs over every moment of hack-and-slash bullet hell in the surreal, morbid Nier?
Today's Japanese role-playing games take more risks than any other genre.
And no, those aren't exceptions. In fact, it's easier to find innovative JRPGs than trope-filled ones nowadays. Sure, you have your old-fashioned stalwarts, your Dragon Quests and Golden Suns, games that cling onto the addictive turn-based formulas that made RPGs so popular in the first place. But the majority of today's offerings—particularly in the genre's most popular series, Final Fantasy—look nothing like the RPGs you might have seen 10 or 20 years ago.
Today's Japanese role-playing games take more risks than any other genre. Look at Valkyria Chronicles, a game that takes the Rock-Paper-Scissors strategy mechanic of a game like Fire Emblem and puts it on a real-time battleground with destructible environments and lovely cel-shaded obstacles. And it's all set during a twisted take on World War II.
What about Inazuma Eleven, a JRPG that is also a soccer game? Or Mother 3, a case study in bouncy, rhythm-fueled gameplay and stirring, poignant narrative? Or Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, a game that blends turn-based and grid-based combat systems in fiendishly difficult fashion? Or the countless other unique JRPGs released in Japan (and often only released in Japan) on a monthly basis?
Of course, not all of these innovations are great—I've never fallen in love with Eternal Sonata's Chopin-inspired dream-world or Disgaea's number-driven chaos. But almost every current-gen JRPG I've played is strange and unique and often quite smart, in its own way. Some, like The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, are just damned good at making you feel like you're on an adventure. Others, like Radiant Historia, take old-school aesthetics and spruce them up a bit, grafting on new mechanics and narrative devices so you enjoy more than just nostalgia.
But stack all these games up next to Western blockbusters. This year's sure-fire AAA hits include the likes of Mass Effect 3, Assassin's Creed III, a new Call of Duty, Halo 4, and maybe a few more big titles that haven't been announced yet. Before even picking up any of these games, you know exactly how they're going to work. They will all likely be excellent, but few will be innovative. Few will be as strange or as different as the average modern JRPG.
So why is the JRPG the victim of so many sweeping generalizations and belittling insults here in the U.S.? Maybe it's just an easy target in an industry where we love to shoot things down. But I think the real issue is that there's this idea entrenched in many peoples' heads of what a JRPG looks like—this idea of a spiky-haired protagonist with a huge sword fighting a 60-hour, grind-filled journey that ends with a fight against several gods and a sanctimonious lesson about the power of friendship. And yes, there are JRPGs made today that paint that exact picture. But not all of them. Not even a lot of them.
It's sad, don't you think? I shouldn't have to stand on the bully pulpit, shouting at the world that it's probably a bad idea to sweep an entire genre under the rug because you didn't enjoy level-grinding in that one Dragon Quest or you hated the anime cut-scenes in the latest Tales game. But there seems to be an unprecedented level of ignorance in the gaming industry when it comes to this subject.
Just look at all the people who claim the recently-released Xenoblade "revitalized" the genre. Xenoblade didn't revitalize the genre. It never needed to be revitalized. JRPGs are as alive and wonderful as ever.
- Monkeypaw Games has added a new gameplay video to their Class of Heroes 2 Kickstarter, established for the deluxe physical edition of the upcoming JRPG. Although it doesn't seem likely to hit its goal, we'll still get to see a digital version of the game.
- Here's a lovely new trailer for the lovely Ni no Kuni, which will hit the U.S. next winter.
- Lots of new info on Pokémon Black and White 2, courtesy Andriasang.
- Square Enix has released its own music channel, chock full of tunes from games like Final Fantasy and Xenogears.
- The Legend of Dragoon, which I remember enjoying quite a bit when I played it (back in the day), is hitting the PlayStation Network next month.
Persona 3 Portable, which I just started playing for the first time ever. (I know. Don't judge.) It's really, really good. There's just something about the day-by-day schedule, which involves jabbering during the daytime and dungeon-crawling at night, that's compulsive and addictive. It's great. Except for Kenji. Screw that guy.
Every week, I post several reader questions about JRPGs. Want to see your question featured in an edition of Random Encounters? Send it to me: email@example.com
Reader Kyle writes:
Are companies like NISA and Atlus truly doing justice to the JRPG scene in the US by not advertising and pushing the JRPG scene as much as say EA, Activision, and other big companies?
Sadly, companies like NISA and Atlus don't have EA and Activision levels of money. They can't advertise and push the JRPG scene as much as those giant publishers can. It's just not possible. On the flip side, companies like EA and Activision are doing a disservice by not picking up Japanese role-playing games. Because, really, why shouldn't Electronic Arts stand behind games like Hyperdimension Neptunia?
Kyle also writes:
Do you think that companies should take a page from NISA and Atlus and release all the extras that Japan gets with game launches (cds, art books, figures, playing cards, ect.)? The stuff that they release with their games is awe inspiring; compared to a free map pack or a skin, that comes with most new games anymore?
This is a good question that I'll leave to reader discussion. I've never cared much for collectible packages—I'm perfectly fine with just getting a game. But maybe that's just me. What do you think?
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.