The Evolution of the JRPG: Then and Now
(Note: This article refers mostly to the Final Fantasy series for examples but the vast majority of points are relevant for all titles early on in the JRPG genre.)
The Japanese RPGs of yesteryear and very much dead and buried. Turn-based battles are, for the most part, a thing of the past. Random battles are occasionally included, but the fluidity, or lack of, has been drastically altered. Look at Final Fantasy XV, for example. Whenever I show fellow writer and editor Mike Orvis some trailers for this upcoming wonder, he angrily/disappointedly shouts at the TV “This is Monster Hunter!”, followed by numerous groans. Is it the grandiose spectacle of ridiculously oversized beasts or the combat mechanics that, from a glance, make it look like a Hack’n’Slash title? The spectacle of Titan, still in reference to FFXV, is initially overwhelming, but if you tackle the thought of attacking the well-known Summon/GF/Eidolon with the mindset of, say, Shadow of the Colossus, then it becomes slightly more manageable.
“But Nick, that’s not a true JRPG!” I hear you cry. “I want my ATB back!” you scream, clutching on to your Cloud and Yuffie plushies, streams of tears rolling down your face, akin to those tears when that popular character got killed by another popular character in that popular Final Fantasy game. And that, you imaginary lot, is exactly what I’m talking about. The traditional JRPG of random, turn-based battles with little to no direction and a mesmerising midi soundtrack are a thing of the past. If, say, someone recreated the original Final Fantasy for today’s consoles, keeping all the fundamentals in place (battle style, story and direction) whilst upgrading the graphics, sound, etc, I think the vast majority of purchases would be due to nostalgia, not because it necessarily holds up well against today’s standard of games. In an industry where everything naturally evolves (mostly) for the better, why try and keep JRPG’s back where they first started?
I’m going to say something incredibly unpopular, and just bear with me on this, but I loved Final Fantasy XIII. It was the first Final Fantasy game for both the PS3 and Xbox 360, and therefore had a lot of hype and expectation around it. The critics liked it for the most part, but the FF die-hards… not so much. It was the most linear game to date, had a simplified battle system, and some of the cast got slightly annoying with their helium-pitched voices, particularly Hope and Vanille. But it tried something different. It gave up open-world exploration for a focused, concise story. Its battles, while being simpler than ever before at face value, opened up a deep and rewarding system that allowed players to tailor their party to how they wanted to play. It delivered an engaging tale that left me almost as happy as the ending scene of Final Fantasy IX did. Does that make it a good game? Not necessarily, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Is it what JRPG’s should be? Most definitely not. I missed the open-world aspect that I had become accustomed to and, while Final Fantasy XIII-2 tried to rectify this, they still have a way to go until they find a perfect balance.
“Aha!”, I faintly hear a few of you shout. “What about (Xbox360 JRPG) Lost Odyssey? That played like an RPG of old and was still amazing!” I whole-heartedly agree with you, invisible Internet commenters. This JRPG, handled by the famed creator of Final Fantasy himself, Hironobu Sakaguchi, was an incredible game, featuring all the tropes of the original offerings that bought the genre to main-stream popularity and I would adore it if more games came out like that. But I can tell you the reason that JRPG’s that show this kind of respect for their heritage are few and far between: Sales figures. Lost Odyssey, a sublime game, woos you with nostalgia, sells 880,000 units worldwide. Final Fantasy XIII on the other hand, has sold 6.9 million worldwide to date, excluding sales of the recently released PC ports. At the end of the day, as much as us gamers don’t want to see it on our end, the gaming industry is a business and therefore the bottom-line above everything.
More recent JRPG’s, such as The Last Story, Xenoblade Chronicles and the copious amounts of titles from the Tales series have shown that a balance can be struck between the old and the new. Between open-world exploration and still pushing you down a narrative quest line. Random battles with the freedom and epic scale of an action title. A vast amount of side-quests to prolong that inevitable end game grind. But, as should soon be obvious, the style of JRPG that kickstarted this beautiful genre into existence is no more. You’ll find hints and nods to it throughout your upcoming journeys and I hope you enjoy them, but it’s time to accept the fact that they aren’t coming back.
So there they are, dead on the ground, not gaining any experience from that epic boss-fight 5 minutes ago, and very much in need of a Phoenix Down. The rest of your party are uninterested, however, and continue their stride forward to shinier graphics, faster action, and downloadable content. The thought of everything that got you to this point gives you a warm fuzzy feeling deep in your potion-filled belly, but you shake those feelings aside and leap towards more impressive particle effects, a more streamlined experience and, hopefully, a bigger stash of gil over the horizon.
This, instead, is what you have to look forward to.