Experience Points: What Has Happened To JRPGs?
You know I remember during the PS2 and PS1 eras how popular JRPGs were. There is a host of brilliant JRPGs notably from Squaresoft, Enix, Sega, tri-Ace, Capcom, Nacmo and the likes of Game Arts. Games from the Grandia series, Tales series, Final Fantasy series and Breath of Fire series all furthered my experiences of the genre growing up and into my high school years. I feel that the phase we are now in with JRPGs is turning away from what is perceived as the ‘roots’ of JRPGs where turn based combat and excessively complicated story arcs were common place. With a change now to a much stronger focus on difficult, gameplay mechanics and to a greater extent a lessening on the focus of character development that characterised the initial popularity of console JRPGs. The types of JRPGs that were prevalent on the N64, PS1, PS2 and Gamecube are less pronounced within the genre. These were prime platforms for console RPGs when I was first introduced to them, and I mostly had my addiction to JRPGs satisfied on both the PS1 and PS2.
I then moved on to the PS3 and Xbox 360 with Western RPGs becoming the mainstay in my gaming. The shine of newer JRPGs for me lacked what I fondly remembered in my earlier years. There was great change in games like Final Fantasy XIII and also in Dark Souls, and Dragon’s Dogma, which have reinvented how gamers receive the JRPG experience. For gamers this is hard to understand, much like how it is blasphemous for Devil May Cry to be rebooted as DmC by Ninja Theory, a western developer. It’s sacrilege. The fact is that JRPGs have changed. But what constantly irritates me is the multitude of forum posts and Facebook statuses about how the newest Final Fantasy can never live up to the prestige of older titles. JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII are cited as prime examples of how a JRPG should be. Many people aimlessly agree with this assertion due to the games’ critical and well received reception. I, personally, feel that Final Fantasy IX is the best JRPG from the PlayStation era, because it incorporated both the past of Final Fantasy’s heritage with a then modern gaming system. Final Fantasy IX was a postcard about all that was great about JRPGs past and present. However, it is often derided as the weakest of the Final Fantasy games from the PS1 era, unjustly so.
Yet what we’re seeing with the current range of JRPGs is a shift in visual aesthetics and gameplay design. With a movement towards a far broader and an international appeal to audiences across the world than seen before in JRPGs. In some ways globalisation and international trends have heavily effected Japanese game development, and this can be strongly seen in the current trend of JRPGs that are releasing across the globe. Prime examples of this are Dark Souls and Dragon’s Dogma. Both games boast a European medieval aesthetic and gameplay style that is reminiscent of the current trend in Western RPGs. However, this new breed of JRPGs are quite challenging maintaining the hardcore and challenging appeal of past JRPGs from previous console generations. Combat is the focus of these new breed of JRPGs and gameplay is what drives the flows of the games. Story and character development are either non-existent, or secondary to the combat and gameplay mechanics of both Dark Souls and Dragon’s Dogma.
Of course, there are still the typical JRPG fare that encompass the past heritage of JRPGs in more focused and direct ways than Dark Souls and Dragon’s Dogma. A recent JRPG called Ni no Kuni has been critically acclaimed for embracing all the elements that have made great JRPGs excellent in the past, in a fresh and colorful package. This shows that old school JRPG design can still be popular when other developers are driving the genre in different directions. I think that is an interesting development in the JRPG scene because we as gamers are getting such variety, and are amassing so many broken controllers in the process. This year will be an interesting time for JRPGs and with the next Final Fantasy installment around the corner things are definitely intriguing.