Wednesday, January 20, 2010

EXP Podcast #61: The Dubious Health of the JRPG

Few genres have seen a rise and fall like the once illustrious Japanese RPG. There still exists a strong core group of players dedicated to the JRPG, but could the poor showing of Japanese titles in 2009 be the death knell for a dying art form? Jeff Fleming think so. This week on the EXP Podcast, inspired by his recent opinion piece, Scott and I visit to the local genre hospital and discuss the health of JRPGs, DS confinement, teen angst, and the 'unicorn magic' of operatic storytelling. As always, you can find the original article in the show notes and we highly encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- How do you define a JRPG? Do you consider is a distinct sub-genre with a value all its own?

- Have Westerb RPGs superseded JRPGs? Do they satisfy all the sensations the Japanese RPG once provided in the days of yore? Will we miss the fantastical?

- Have we matured past JRPGs or are they just becoming what they always should have been, a niche market sub-genre?

To listen to the podcast:

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Show notes:

- Run time: 27 min 52 sec
- "The Last Days of the Japanese RPG?" by Jeff Fleming via GameSetWatch
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. Hey guys, great cast. I love talking about RPGs, so it's always exciting to see people whose opinions matter to me discussing them. ^_^

    I disagree with some of your defining characteristics of jRPGs. Turn-based combat is nonessential. What about the Tales of... games, Star Ocean, etc? I feel like those are pretty soundly jRPGs, and they have action-based combat. Of course, Fleming doesn't seem too concerned with sticking to his own definition, since he includes Zelda, which is unarguably NOT turn-based (and which I agree is clearly NOT RPG of any sort). Also, I'm not certain that defined characters and a strong story are necessary. The original Final Fantasy, as well as a couple other games in that series, have the basest of stories and ciphers for characters (necessary because you build your team at the beginning). And what about the horrible cliche of the speechless protagonist? That's a non-character, and you can't even say that it's intended to make you role-play them because you have no meaningful choice about their actions (except for how to kill the next enemy).

    Also, I think the linear narrative aspect is overstated. Not only do most good jRPGs balloon out at some point and let you explore - think the second half of FF6, that's less linear than most wRPGs. You have the whole world to explore, and the only required point is the final dungeon. Or think of Chrono Trigger's abundant endings.

    Role-playing is not at all necessary for jRPGs; I'd go so far as to say that they are defined in part by the ABSENCE of role-playing. The characters are not yours, they are the designer's. You might get to make choices for them occasionally, but essentially you are steering them and not defining them ore controlling them. Unless you are talking about role-playing as simply referencing those characters and story (which are not strictly necessary anyway), in which case, "role-playing" carries no information. You "role-play" by that definition in virtually every game. You play Mario's role in SMB, you play Kratos' role in God of War, you play Master Chief's Role in Halo. This is actually the biggest point that I have a problem with. Most of the rest are quibbles, but this either cuts off most undisputed JRPGs, or includes clearly non-RPGs.

  2. Something underlying a lot of this discussion of JRPGs was the subtext that they are really designed and written for a younger audience. Emo teens and quests to ‘find yourself’ are key things that appeal to a younger demographic. The average age of the gamer is supposedly getting older, and this is certainly true when it comes to the people writing about games both professionally and otherwise. Therefore it’s not surprisingly that games naturally skewed to a younger audience would start to lose their lustre.

    With this focus on a younger market the DS and to an extent the Wii feel like perfect platforms for the JRPGs to thrive.

    You seem to contradict yourself when you talk about JRPGs requiring huge budgets and impressive visuals, wasn’t a big part of the appeal of Chrono Trigger and early Final Fantasy titles that, much like with a novel, your imagination was just as important to fleshing out the world as what the game actually showed?

  3. I agree with the characteristics you list of the JRPG.

    In terms of linearity, I believe that it is mostly stagnant in JRPGs. Whilst you may have the option of exploring worlds, it does nothing in terms of progression in either story or gameplay (apart from leveling up of course). I don't think Chrono Trigger can be used as an example of open-ended RPG, as the multiple endings did not leave way for any further exploration afterwards, so they cannot really be considered aspects of an open RPG. I however do not mind this at all, as I was one of the people who refused to help anyone in Dragon Age: Origins, which led to quite an interesting outcome due to my rushed and rather abrasive attitude to other characters. In fact, in comparison to my friends' playthrough, I had lost more companions than they, no doubt a result of my playstyle.

    Which segues to another point nicely, the roleplaying aspect of JRPGs. Unless you are an angsty adolescent like the protagonists you play, roleplaying and empathy overall is a difficult element to grasp. I agree with CrashTranslation in that JRPGs are generally aimed at a younger audience.

    I've been playing Eternal Sonata on the X360, and I'm not entirely certain as to whether I enjoy it or not. It is an entirely linear affair, which does not bother me, however its combat system is one which I do not think works. I haven't finished it, so I am up to the 'level' of combat system where you have about five seconds to make your move, still taken in turns between characters. I understand that through this system, it allows for multiple character control simultaneously (to a certain extent), I suppose like Dragon Age, although it is an irritating hybrid. By sitting on the fence between true real-time and turn-based combat, the elements sometimes clash and create a frustrating and mediocre system overall. It's hard to explain, but if you've played it, you may find the same annoyances every now and then, or maybe I'm just whining. Whatever the case, I prefer my JRPGs to stick to pure turn-based strategy.

    I know people who think it stupid for characters to stand and be pummeled turn-by-turn, there's something about Japanese games that makes them more of a 'game'. I feel this also in Dead Rising, which, through its strange leveling system, does not treat itself as some ultra-realistic simulation, but acknowledges and embraces its status as a video game. I find this element of Japanese games rather appealing. And it's something about this that brings me back to JRPGs for their basic, if archaic, gameplay system.

  4. Maybe the "Rise and Fall of JRPGs" hasen't got so much to do with the quality of JRPGs itself but with the amount of western alternatives we have today.

    I guess JRPGs reached their peek somewhere during the PSone era, but maybe that was just because we had nothing better to play at that time? Now Mass Effect and Fallout 3blow us out of the water, so who cares about Lost Odyssey(which I'm going to check out soon)?

    Some dude in some forum once showed himself happy that the big time of Japanes games has appearently come to an end, by saying something like: Man, I'm kinda happy to see all those Japanese-games-rule-the-rest-is-teh-suck!!! idiots crying nowadays, because we finally have come to the point that, as we have so much good western games coming out, we don't need to take all the crap that's coming from Japan and act like it's once again the greatest thing on earth!

    Maybe that nails it, although I have to say, that Japanese games in general often offer a certain depth that western games mostly do not.

    And stop hating on FFX already, that game is fucking brilliant ;)
    You probably never got too far into the story but it really gets the Matrix/Ghost in the Shell thing going later...awesome!

  5. @ Julian

    Woo! RPGs! I don't really know how to classify those psuedo-action based RPGs, but turn-based combat is still so much a part of my perceptions on RPGs. I even consider Parasite Eve a pseudo-RPG.

    As for role playing, you are absolutely correct. But I don't know how else to explain my perceived differences between the characters of a jrpg and, say, the character of Master Chief or the Fallout 3 protagonist. Just a realistic characterization I suppose.

    @ CT

    Maybe it's just a subjective thing, but no. A major part of the Final Fantasy titles for me when I played them as a child were the relatively impressive visuals. While early pixelated dragons were nothing impressive, I still looked forward to the graphical leaps forward JRPGs would inevitably bring. So my younger self believed at least.

    @ Justin

    This niche gameplay theme is where I also see JRPGs going. Just talking about them makes me want to play one again.

    @ Christian

    Yea. Take that FFX haters.

  6. I'm a crusty middle aged parent of two, and Kingdom Hearts is easily my favorite game. Not just favorite RPG, but favorite game. Some messages are timeless and ageless. Chrono Trigger is perhaps my second favorite, and what blood-soaked Halo nut is going to give it a second look if they are new to the title these days?

    Far too many "adults" seem to want "adult" content, when in truth maturity has little to do with what the ESRB calls "mature" content. The themes of friendship and standing for what one believes in found in KH is far more mature than anything found in a typical M rated title. The story of Cecil or Terra are dramatic, to be sure, but also more honest and mature than anything Master Chief or his clones has to offer.

    Gamers are aging, but they aren't growing up. Far too many are still stuck in the hormone-ridden teenage mindset, where boob physics and gore quantity are a mark of quality.


    That aside, there is indeed a clear difference between Japanese RPGs and Western RPGs. I find I prefer one or the other as my mood changes. Some days I just want a good Tactics game, some days I want FFXII, some days I want to revisit Legend of Dragoon (yes, it's a good game... not fantastic, but good), some days I want a good Baldur's Gate dungeon crawl.

    There is plenty of room for all of these games and more. I don't believe the JRPG is dying, or that it will ever die. It may run through game circadian rhythms, like any other genre, but that's normal. Remember the RTS or FPS glut after WarCraft and Doom, respectively? There were oh, so many *bad* games in an oversaturated market, but the genres are fine today. MMOs are going through similar growing pains these days, too. They will probably overextend as a genre pretty soon, but they won't ever go away completely.

    Oh, and have you checked out Black Sigil: Blade of the Exile? Shamus has a link to it over hereabouts:

    It's a completely new DS JRPG, crafted almost as an homage to Chrono Trigger. I wish they would have done a bit more with it to polish trouble spots, but the core notion of a CT-like combat engine (but with movement! Finally!) layered on top of a sweeping drama is very "old school", and that's a Good Thing. It may not match up to CT on the DS, but it's good fun.

    Speaking of the DS and old school JRPG mechanics, though, I do consider the portable gaming platforms to be perfect for this school of design. We may not have 60 hours any more to sit down and play a game on a big console, but when we can play it in 15-minute chunks here and there, we can squeeze it in pretty easily. I've logged over 200 hours on Disgaea DS almost exclusively in half hour or smaller increments.

  7. @CrashTranslation

    "You seem to contradict yourself when you talk about JRPGs requiring huge budgets and impressive visuals, wasn’t a big part of the appeal of Chrono Trigger and early Final Fantasy titles that, much like with a novel, your imagination was just as important to fleshing out the world as what the game actually showed?"

    I'm inclined to agree with you there (and, by implication, disagree with Jorge. What's with the Siskel and Ebert thing we've got going on lately?). I think the big budget, blockbuster RPG was a historical anomaly. Final Fantasy just happened to be at the right place and the right time to capitalize on the cinematic advances on the PS1 era.

    I think games like Pokemon are much more representative of JRPGs, as they rely on an active imagination just as their forbears did.

    Because JRPGs got were on the cutting edge of visuals for a short time they became more popular in a mainstream sense. I think people tend to see their return to form as a downfall rather than a natural contraction back to their traditional niche (both culturally and graphically).


    Thanks for reminding us of the distinction between "adult" and "mature." As you point out, the two very often have little to do with one another.

    The Edgar/Sabin relationship always resonated with me, perhaps because I have a brother. Like you say, there was an honesty there that is quite rare in games.

    I think systems like the DS are great venues for JRPGs because it forces designers to rely on writing and plot rather than visuals to make the story compelling.