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October 13, 2014

So What’s The Deal With JRPGs?

Don’t you just love how after spending a solid two months talking about shooters, almost as soon as it’s over I jump immediately to its diametric opposite in JRPGs?  And on more than one occasion, just 'cause?

You could argue that it’s “comfort food” or “getting back into my comfort zone” -- but I’d hope that you wouldn’t.  I like JRPGs, but it seems like I’m being typecast as a guy who only likes Japanese games, or only likes Japanese things; anyone who’s read this blog for long enough should know that’s not the case.  In all honesty, JRPGs aren’t even my favorite game genre.  Granted I don’t know what that is, exactly, considering that my favorite games are all over the map.  But let it be known that even if I can (and will) appreciate a good JRPG, I still think they’re not the be-all and end-all.

So let’s talk a little about JRPGs…as a way to compensate for the fact that I never really did go over a semi-comprehensive list of good JRPGs for every system.  I admit it, I goofed.

If words aren’t enough, please accept a slew of Christina Hendricks pictures as an apology. But then again, why wouldn't words be enough?  Surely we don't live in a world in which the written word has a thousandth of the worth of the average picture.  That would just be ridiculous, and largely counter-intuitive to a society so reliant on verbal and textual communication.  Simply outrageous.  Simply, truly outrageous.

...You're not even reading this text, are you?

I’ve gone on about how games should strive to have better stories, and talked even more about how I think games should try to be more than just exercises in murder.  If any genre had a chance of surpassing the medium’s expected limits, it’d be…well, role-playing games in general.  Mass Effect has made a fine showing, and I have high hopes for Dragon Age: Inquisition, even with EA’s dark hand dipping into the mix.  (I’ll have to be sure to make a female MC the next chance I get, because apparently that’s a stat that gets monitored and can send a message to devs.) 

But more often than not, there’s something wild about the average JRPG.  At its best, Japanese media has a “go anywhere, do anything” mentality, where even the most absurd concepts can find a healthy fanbase.  Still, even if there’s a reputation for weirdness and “not making sense”, a good JRPG isn’t like some shifting alien starfish.  It can still be -- and usually is -- grounded in some semblance of reality.  There are basic concepts and mores that anyone can appreciate.

As always, the Tales games offer up a good example.  Setting aside the fact that each installment goes to great lengths to flesh out its world(s) and conventions, it’s all based around the meeting, interaction, and synergy between disparate characters.  To put it simply, they’re games that put the emphasis on heroes -- and friends, and family, and even lovers -- coming together, and just so happen to save the world.  It’s a franchise self-aware enough to take jabs at itself -- and more seriously, put the genre’s prized tropes under the microscope -- but there’s an ideal, sincerity, and flat-out warmth that makes those games what they are.

Well, except for Dawn of the New World.  But that doesn’t count.

For one reason or another, turn-based combat bears a cross the size of the average semi-truck amongst a lot of gamers.  I’ve never had much of an issue with it -- which is why I’d argue that Final Fantasy 10 had some pretty satisfying combat, IMO -- but what matters is that each game differentiates itself from another by way of its systems.  There are a thousand different ways to handle combat, and more often than not I find those answers of “How to make fighting fun” completely welcome.  Real-time-combat; turn-based strategy; a hybridization; a mix of genres, from MMOs to fighters to shooters all the way to trading card games; there’s no limit to what can be done, and as a result it offers up plenty of chances for customization.  You can create the experience you want.

And it IS an experience, more often than not.   Not the “experience” so often spoken of by bigwigs at E3 presentations; I’m talking about a real adventure.  You get to go on a journey, and see and hear things you never would have thought possible.  Travel through a brave new world!  Meet tons of interesting people!  Learn something new!  Take away lessons from a game -- a game, of all things! -- that you may never forget!  In its purest form, I think that’s what a good JRPG is all about.

It’s just a shame that not all of them are good.

I’m going to take the high road and not pick on Final Fantasy, least of all its so-called Lightning Saga.  But then again, I hardly need to.  It seems like -- as with any given genre in any given medium -- the worst of the JRPG bunch are those that rely solely on clichés and archetypes without doing anything to break from the mold.  Or if not that, there are those who hold those archetypes up as the gospel, and take them to extremes.  It’s hard for a player to get grounded in anything when it’s occupied by a bunch of moon-people.

I’d prefer to leave the idea of otaku pandering out of it, but I’d be stupid to pretend that wasn’t a factor.  Star Ocean: The Last Hope had some good ideas, but they ended up getting buried under a barge’s worth of stereotypical anime characters -- to the point where I can’t name a single female character that wasn’t utterly grating.  Ar Tonelico Qoga was even worse, hinging the better part of the plot on what’s dangerously close to a harem…and certainly not helped by the combat revolving around stripping young ladies.  And those are just some of the games I’ve tried, however unfortunately; there’s still a lot more out there that’s just as awful. 

Record of Agarest War 2 comes to mind.  I couldn’t even bring myself to finish the hour-long demo, because even if the game managed to rise above its tripe-filled beginning, I didn’t have the patience to sit through it.  (It didn’t help that the majority of the game’s budget went toward making an opening sequence with idol-singing, with one of said idols being more than a little bouncy...and apparently, a solid two feet taller than her moe pink-haired partner.)  But worse yet, it couldn’t even deliver on compelling gameplay.  Oh sure, it had a bunch of inputs and gauges and options, but in my experience -- and based on testimony elsewhere -- you could safely ignore all of it and button-mash.  It’s perfect for focusing on the built-in marriage mechanic, right?

Good gameplay can potentially save a bad story, and vice versa.  But even so, if the gameplay of a video game isn’t up to par, then can it really be excused?  I suspect not; otherwise, Phantasy Star Universe would have made much bigger waves than it did, and not be an embarrassment at best thanks to a double-whammy of bad gameplay and a bad story.  (Seriously, does anybody remember that game?  I just did, to be honest.)  A JRPG that forgets that it’s about the journey -- about progression, and gaining something new and valuable with each step taken -- might as well leap straight into the bargain bin.  Assuming that it missed the dumpster first.

That’s about where I stand.  But I wouldn’t mind getting some fresh perspectives -- so the rest of this post belongs to you guys.  Feel free to weigh in on the question at hand: what’s the deal with JRPGs?  Why have they had the effect they’ve had on gamers?  Is their decline deserved?  What makes them good?  What makes them bad?  And if you dare, do you think even the best among them were good in the first place?

You know what it’s time for.  Draw your swords, dear readers.  Ready?  Set…comm-

Yikesy mikesy.  Green is such a cool color.  

…You know, it’s gonna be weird, knowing that I’ve now got a folder on my computer filled with Christina Hendricks pictures.  I guess I’ll have to counterbalance it with a folder full of Alyson Hannigan pictures.  She’s the best ever, and I’ll field no debate on the subject.

Wait, why am I talking about this?  Oh, right.  Because I’m dumb and silly.


  1. Crikey, she's got big knockers hasn't she? Were there some words in this post as well? I forgot to check ;)

  2. Well, I prefer the phrase "improbably buxom", in all honesty. One must treat the opposite sex with the class, respect, and prestige they deserve.

    Also, it sounds funnier.

  3. Seriously, that woman is all sorts of gorgeous.

    To answer your actual question. The biggest thing they need to overcome is the slow burn. JRPGS consistently have cool mechanics that are totally amazing once you get into full swing, but they don't handle the first 10 hours of a game well.

    Everything is gated. Or they do the Metroid https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qDk5Hx2yGM (14:22)

    People today have ADD, and I can't blame the expectation to give something to chew on from the start. I don't really need to be eased into the battle system over 10 hours. Do it in 1.

  4. Either I'm the only female who reads your blog or I'm the only one immune to the power of buxom women... because I'm a woman. So perhaps I'm the only one who actually READ the post. XD


    I haven't played enough JRPGs to make a sound judgement (only a bunch of MegaTen, Tales of Xillia, and arguably Fire Emblem Awakening), but I might be in the minority who kinda likes a turn-based system of combat. Sometimes I like to play a game where I manually button in commands and strategize at my own pace. Odd that someone who prefers Sonic over Mario actually likes slower-paced combat and games... again, from a strategic standpoint. I'm not that great with impulsive, fast-paced games that require mastery, timing, and skill. (Hence my general hesitation in trying hack-and-slash, some shooters, and fighting games.) It only becomes an issue when the turn-based system is overly complicated with too many menus or there's no auto battle to speed past sleep-inducingly easy encounters. And it's an issue if the combat objective is basically to attack indiscriminately, regardless of strength of weakness. You might as well remove strategy and planning all together.

    My words might not hold much water, but I've been wondering that the biggest reason gamers lament the "fall" of JRPGs is because Final Fantasy has either been stagnating or declining in quality. Or there's the impression that Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts (and thus Square Enix) are the ONLY faces of and contributors to the genre. Because it's funny that when people started saying how FF13 sucked, the gaming community ran around like a colony of headless chickens and claimed, "JRPGS ZRE DED OMFG ITS THE END WHY SQUEENIX YYYY???" I wonder this because for the longest time I presumed JRPGs referred to just Final Fantasy and anything made by Square Enix. Holy crap, did I get a humongous wake-up call once I heard about Tales of, MegaTen (and it's gazillion sub-series), Earthbound/Mother, Fire Emblem, Phantasy Star, Radiant Historia, Xenoblade, Atelier, etc. To say JRPGs are dying because of Final Fantasy's epic blunders is hilariously baffling to me; there are a bunch of JRPGs out there of varying quality and worth.

    That begin said, if overdone, unimaginative tropes and cliches continue to persist in the most incompetent ways imaginable, THEN I might believe the "JRPGs are dying" talk. I can't say much about that, but I will point out that the fantasy world with orphans, magic, huge swords, and angsting is a collection of old ideas that need to be played with in different ways. The anime influences can get obnoxious if the writers are incompetent, especially when bowling ball-sized boobs, harem, moe, panty shots, slice-of-life fanservice conquer the product like they have in a lot of shows recently. Of the genres I have tried out, I'm fairly sure RPGs in general are doing fine. Either that or I'm biased (which is likely b/c I'm human).

    Another thing to remember is that the 7th and 8th generation has been hijacked by action adventure games and shooters, especially of the online multiplayer variety. Some developers even claim to add "RPG elements" with having different classes and leveling up weapons and characters to kick more ass. The spirit of RPGs is still alive, but it's being channeled in other forms in other genres. And again, trends change. JRPGs aren't king of the world anymore, but they are as hell ain't dead.

  5. You know, I can't help but question the quality and efficiency of Samus' suit(s) if it's THAT easy for her to lose all her power-ups. Seems like a bit of a design flaw, if you ask me. But maybe that's the price you pay for a suit that can let you turn into an explosive metal basketball.

    Whatever the case, that is a good point to consider about JRPGs. I'd like to think that people can sit down and play a long game if given the chance (Eternal Optimist speaking), buuuuuuuuuuuuuut the genre doesn't do itself a lot of favors at the outset, I suppose. Like, Tales of Symphonia may flip the script on players, but it takes a while to get to that point -- not to mention you've got to putz around with Demon Fang and such before you can actually make some decent combos. That's kind of a problem in a game half-built on making decent combos, isn't it?

    I'd bet that there are ways to speed up the process. I mean, pretty much the one thing Final Fantasy 13-2 did right was give you access to most of the junk you wanted as soon as you had a free range of movement. I'd say more, but thinking of 13-2 has put me on the verge of lapsing into a psychotic episode, so I'd better back off.

  6. You're (as far as I know) not the only female reader, but you are certainly the most consistent. That's...something for both of us to be proud of, maybe? Though from what I've heard, there are plenty of women who can't resist Mrs. Hendricks' charms; whether that's because of her improbably buxom status or not, it's hard to know conclusively.

    ...This comment's heading toward a weird place. Then again, a future post may very well probe the limits of my depravity, so maybe that's to be expected.

    I hear you on the combat aspect, though, and in a lot of ways I mirror your sentiment. I've been thinking about it since I wrote the post, and I found myself comparing turn-based combat to chess. Well, it's not a one-to-one comparison, but it strikes me as strange that turn-based combat can/does get bashed when games built around it don't. The audience might not be exactly the same, but I doubt there'd be a person alive who'd say, "Man, chess is some ol' bullshit! All you do is wait for your turn and move your pieces across the board! You know what it needs? More action! I wanna move my pieces whenever and wherever I want!" If it reached that point, then it'd be exactly as you say: no different from mashing green army men against one another.

    In any case, it's true that there are a LOT of alternatives to Squeenix's fare. So maybe the problem is "exposure"; FF and KH are some of the biggest fare out there, for obvious reasons, and they will be for a while yet. I want to say that it's because they have the age/nostalgia factor...but then I remember that the Tales games have been bumping around for nearly twenty years. Xenoblade is connected (however loosely) to Xenosaga, which is connected (however loosely) to Xenogears -- a PS1 title of some renown. And that just opens up a whole can of worms -- i.e. gaining access to and knowledge of JRPGs is likely easier than it's ever been. I don't ever have to touch FF13 again, because I've got FF9 tucked away in my PS3.

    I guess it's all a matter of exposure. People need to know what's out there, or else they might never find out it exists on their own. How are JRPGs and their makers going to get known? That's a pretty good question -- because even now, there are good ones that deserve major love.