No, JRPGs Are Not Stale, Old-Fashioned, Archaic, Obsolete, Out Of Touch Rehashes

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 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 rationalise 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 generalisations 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?

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 generalisations and belittling insults outside of Japan? 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 "revitalised" the genre. Xenoblade didn't revitalise the genre because it never needed to be revitalised. JRPGs are as alive and wonderful as ever.

This Week In JRPG News

  • 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 next summer.
  • 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.

What To Play This Weekend

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.

Your Questions Answered

Every week, I post several reader questions about JRPGs.

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.


Comments

    Excellent article. If anything, first person shooters lack innovations, it is basically same game mechanics used over and over, yet series such as COD tops the charts and gaming press rarely criticise it as much as JRPGs.

    Double standard if you ask me.

      Western FPS, especially of the 'modern warfare' era receive just as much scorn as JRPGs. Couple this with the brown space marine subgenre, and you'll realise there isn't a double standard.

      We simply get far more interesting indie/alternative passion projects from Western companies: Bastion, Minecraft, Journey, DoubleFine's Kickstarter Project, Banner Saga, etc. Japan's 'indie' scene is almost non-existent in comparison. Consoles simply dominate over there and require extensive lincensing deals and legal red tape to work on.

        I think you'd have to be pretty ignorant on the subject to pretend that the huge library of Japanese "doujin" indie games out there are "non-existent"... Just because many of them are never released in the West, that doesn't suddenly make them "non-existent".

          Steve, the Japanese indie scene is *absolutely massive*. Go to Akihabara, visit the many multi-story shops dedicated to indipendently produced games / manga / music, and you will come home wishing such places existed in the west too. Most peoples experience of the Japanese indie scene in the west extends no further than Touhou, but there is so much more than that if you actually look for it.

      Bash JRPGs for not being innovative or new, label Call of Duty 50 as the best game that year.

      Yup, no double standards here.

    I actually think Kenji was the best out of the companions you got, in terms of his personal struggle.
    Not that I used him or anything or particularly payed any atteion to anything he said once that was resolved, but still.

    Also, title pictures makes me sad we're not seeing VC 3.

      I do believe you're thinking of Ken, not Kenji. Kenji is the Magician social link.

    Persona 3 is a good game. Persona 4 kicks it's ass!

    The thing is every genre has its detractors, it just seems to me jrpg fans seem to get there knickers in a knot the most about any criticism.

      They're so not formulaic, shallow, self-absorbed and creatively complacent that they need an elite cadre of whingers to leap to their defence.

        Good point there, discounting this guy's entire argument because he is an elitist, whinging journalist.

    Part of the problem is that the western market is not exposed to the mass of excellent JRPG that never got localised & they keep getting fed the same old sequel by a select few companies.

    This isn't news.

    I disagree. The only people who like playing JRPGS now are hardcore JRPG fans, and tend to also be people who love anime and all things Japanese. JRPGS are all as generic feeling as space marine FPS games.

    Maybe I'm just sick of playing as 14 year old boys out to save the world, or someone who I can't even tell is male or female at first glance. I KNOW I'm sick of random encounters and grinding levels to be ready for a boss fight. I find the western RPGS a lot more interesting these days.

      i think your name says it all. best to stick to your western games.

    The problem with modern JRPG is that, compared to earlier games, most developers are actually taking features away and creating very simplistic games in the process.

    i haven't played a final fantasy game since 10 because they removed turn based combat. best RPGs were on the super Nintendo imo.

    Jason Schreier: Weeaboo extraordinnaire.

    He had to dig so deep to pick out a handful of examples few and far between who were still variations on the same thing. As much as I loved Valkyria Chronicles, it was still a by-the-book JRPG/TBS, The World Ends With You was probably the most original spin on the concept but how many would you say broke new ground?

    Okay Jason, go back to stroking the plastic hair of your $500 anime figurines.

      You're just being a hypocrite. How many WRPGs have broken new ground? The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Witcher, etc., are all just by-the-book WRPGs that aren't doing anything new and rely far too heavily on the same tired old Tolkien / Star Wars cliches. Compared to unoriginal WRPGs like these, JRPGs like Valkyria Chronicles and The World Ends With You (and the others mentioned in the article) are way more original.

    Loved the them as a kid, they were my bread and butter from the snes days all the way to the original PlayStation. I'm just sick of them, so how can they be innovative?! I think the stories are appalling, combat and mechanics generally reasonable to great. Its just that driving force like character development that's just complete garbage these days. I must have around 8 to 12 on the 360 alone and aside from mistwalker titles and resonance of fate (oddly) they just arn't very engaging no mater what twist they add to combat. At least, that's how I feel O.o

      I don't know if I outgrew them or what, but I agree with the stories not being able to hold my interest. Back on the SNES it felt right, but somewhere during the Nintendo 64/Playstation era they just lost their shine and now I can't stand them. It didn't feel like random encounters were interrupting the story on the SNES, but the when the story telling got more advanced it started to seem like changing channel mid-movie to spam A for a minute. They don't even feel like part of the same game to me.
      The few modern JRPGs I've taken a crack at felt like combat only existed as filler content which just made it impossible for me to get into the story. Meanwhile I can play actual filler content in Fable and love it. Crazy.

    I can think of just as many bad Western RPGs as I can Japanese ones. I honestly don't see too many Western RPGs nowadays radically changing any formulas either to be honest. Give it a few more years and I think you'll find Western RPGs not innovating much at all. Many Western developers are now milking franchises and when they do that, innovation suffers. Western RPGs will be no exception.

    I think the problem at the moment is that fans and critics have their eyes squarely planted on Final Fantasy. When something that big loses its shine, it kind of ends up rubbing off on everything else around it. It makes the flaws of otherwise great JRPGs a lot more obvious. Another problem is that not a lot of people bothered playing games like Xenoblade or Valkyria Chronicles. Heck, many haven't even heard of them.

    I so agree with this article. Sweeping generalisations have always been a bigger problem then the games themselves. People are too quick to dismiss JRPGs these days, despite there being some great ones out there.

    My biggest annoyance is when people go to unreasonable lengths to claim a JRPG that has innovated is stale, simply because it is based off command-based RPG mechanics. It's seriously like people expect to jump into another genre to be classified as innovative enough, which is ridiculous for obvious reasons.

    Some JRPGs are good, some are bad. This applies to every genre of games. For whatever reasons JRPGs get special, negative attention.

    To be honest I have no idea. I haven't played a single JRPG for like 10 years because of how much I hate the way their art direction has evolved. And now I have no interest in reinvestigating the genre.

    That's right, not surprisingly I DON'T want my avatar to be an androgynous, JPop idol who flings around ridiculously oversized weapons that look like inflatable props. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

    It's a shame really. I used to enjoy the type of linear story telling that good JRPGs provided.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now