Why Do People Care About JRPGs?

Why do people like Japanese role-playing games? What is a Japanese role-playing game? Why the hell do I write a column about them every week?

Welcome to the Random Encounters Explainer. Consider this a primer on JRPGs, your introduction to the genre and a piece designed to answer many of your burning questions. Whether you're an expert on all things Atelier or you don't know the difference between Final Fight and Final Fantasy, allow me to help you develop more appreciation for an under-appreciated genre.

Let's do this.

So what is the deal with JRPGs? Why should I care about them?

Well, they're awesome. More than any other genre of video game, JRPGs are adept at playing with your emotions and crafting the illusion that you're riding through grand adventures. They tend to focus on narrative and exploration. Sometimes they tell wide, sweeping stories about angry gods and evil empires. Other times they keep things simple and adventurous. And sometimes they let you hang out in high school.

In general, the experience you can get out of a JRPG is drastically different from the experience you can get out of any other genre of video game. Although you sometimes have to be patient with them.

Hold up. What's a JRPG?

You know, this is a surprisingly tricky question. By its strictest definition, a JRPG is just a role-playing game made in Japan: a Japanese role-playing game. But there are also a ton of Western games designed to look, feel, and play like Eastern RPGs: games like Anachronox, Charles Barkley's Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden, and the latest Penny Arcade.

In other words, the genre has evolved to become something more than just "a role-playing game made in Japan."

Then what makes a JRPG a JRPG?

Could be a number of things. One common factor is turn-based combat -- that is, combat in which every character stands around and waits for some arbitrary clock to run out before they attack. You'll usually gather a party. You can usually visit a variety of exotic cities, dungeons, and other locations. You'll usually participate in some sort of character progression system. Maybe there are airships. World maps. Lots and lots of bosses and monsters and tough challenges. Awesome music.

But it's not those parts that make a JRPG a JRPG; it's the sum of them all. JRPGs are JRPGs because they're dream-packed, emotion-triggering, hair-raising adventures that make you laugh, cry, and everything in between.

In other words, JRPGs are JRPGs because they feel like JRPGs.

Sounds boring. Why do people like them?

Lots of reasons! For one, there's a certain rhythm to turn-based combat that a lot of people enjoy. We might love their stories and characters. Or maybe we just like getting lost for a while in experiences that we can't get elsewhere.

I find JRPGs intimidating/archaic/obsolete/annoying. Why should I care?

Well... give them another chance! The genre has much more depth and breadth than you might believe if you've only limited yourself to games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

Okay... then what should I play?

Have you tried the Paper Mario series? Or Mario & Luigi? Both are hilarious, fast-paced twists on the genre.

If you want something really unique and special, get your hands on Valkyria Chronicles, a strategy role-playing game with an unusual setting, some lovely cel-shaded graphics, and one hell of a combat system.

Want something faster? How about the action-packed Kingdom Hearts series? Or the hack-and-slash Ys games, several of which have been repackaged for Steam and PSP?

What if I've never played a JRPG before? What game should I play?

Good question! Let me give you a few options:

Final Fantasy VI - The best game in the most popular RPG series on the planet. It packs one hell of an emotional wallop. Its characters are subtle, interesting, and hilarious. And that music.

Suikoden - A fast-paced, game that places you in the shoes of a rebel out to fight against a nasty, oppressing empire. It's a little rough around the edges, but that's part of the charm. And it'll help you segue into my favourite game of all time, the illustrious masterpiece Suikoden II.

Mother 3 - Charming, easy to get into, and poignant as hell.

Lost Odyssey - Old-school sensibilities in a new-school package. If you can get past the awful voice acting (and a few annoying characters), you might really enjoy this console JRPG. Worth playing if only for the dream sequences, which make up some of the best writing I've ever seen.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - About as awesome an adventure as you can find nowadays. A little too text-heavy for some peoples' tastes, but I love it to death.

Final Fantasy VII - You might as well see what all the hype is about.

I loved Final Fantasy VII. But I haven't played a single good JRPG since then. What game should I play?

Check out Radiant Historia, a DS game that is something of a spiritual successor to Chrono Trigger. Or Persona 3, an addictive (albeit way-too-long) dungeon crawling high school simulation. (It's better than it sounds.)

Or spend some time with the dark, surreal, sometimes-repetitive Nier.

I find JRPGs to be slow and plodding. Is there a JRPG that's awesome before its third hour?

There are many. Try an old action-JRPG like Soulblazer or Illusion of Gaia. Or a new one, like the bizarrely awesome The World Ends With You.

Okay, seriously, I can't find a single JRPG story that keeps me engaged. Why are they all so awful?

Because you have no soul. Also, maybe you just haven't found the right story for you. Check out Final Fantasy Tactics, a Shakespeare-inspired tactical RPG with a plot that rivals Game of Thrones in betrayal and medieval badassery. Or Xenogears, a sci-fi masterpiece that's up there with the most ambitious (and strongest) RPGs ever.

Why are JRPGs so afraid of innovation?

They're not.

Are JRPG creators consciously recycling tropes?

In some cases, yes. The Tales series, which is particularly popular in Japan (and has its own loyal fanbase out here), is purposefully designed to be built around stereotypes and fantasies and nostalgia and all that jazz. It has its pros and cons.

Why are the swords so big?

To overcompensate.

Any awesome JRPGs coming out in the near future?

Yes indeed. I have yet to spend a significant amount of time with some new releases like Gungnir, Unchained Blades, and Ys Origins, but they all also seem very cool.

Well... thanks. I sure have seen the error of my ways. I love JRPGs now.

You're welcome.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.


    Persona 3 is not way too long. It's probably standard, it took me 60 hours whilst JRPG mainstays like Final Fantasy take 45-55+ hours.

    That's beside the point, If people really still are thinking JRPG's are old news they should pull their thumb out. The genre is still alive.

    The only thing that annoys me (and I mean REALLY annoys me) is that the men are always clueless idiots when it comes to the inevitable romance. There is always at least 1 girl who likes the main character and of course he is oblivious to it until the last few hours of the game. Doesn't this annoy anyone else? I don't think i've played a jrpg where the main male character was aware of his female counterparts feelings early on in the game, and returned them so that the story wasn't just stock standard "they deny their feelings for 90% of the game and then admit they like each other at the end".

    Maybe this is just a culture thing but I want a guy who doesn't make me tear my hair out during the scenes where the lady is CLEARLY hitting on him and hinting that she likes him and he is like.... uh... wut?

    Besides that I just adore the genre.

      Yeah, Tales of Graces f is a huge offender with the clueless Asbel.
      "Asbel, I am clearly throwing love at you and EVERYONE can see it!"
      "Huh? Oh, alright then. Not sure what you're doing, but okay."

      The men are always clueless, emasculated weirdos who are so socially inept that you wonder why the females like them at all. Speaking of females, they're always in the Betty and Veronica flavour. One's totally cheerful and happy-go-lucky (probably the squeaky voiced schoolgirl) while the other is a stern, humourless but loyal (usually uniformed and in a position of power... like an army general or schoolteacher). Then the male has to make an incredibly transparent choice between them by the end and get married.

      My issue with JRPG romance is that it's over-simplified to a childlike, Twilight-esque absolute.

      They need more suave characters like Balthier in FFXII. :P

    Sorry but turned based JRPGs with a psuedo anime art design are not my thing. I prefer Japanese games like Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, Dragon's Dogma etc. All the turned based anime games are the cliche, laughably themed crap around. Seems like the writer is saying anyone who dislikes his fav genre is an idiot.

    Sorry bud, but I hate them and always have.

      I'm not sure how old you are, or if there's a language barrier (I'm being serious, not facetious, just in case it's a real problem) but the ending to the article was pretty clearly tongue in cheek.

      Soooo.... let me get this straight... you're criticizing the writers opinion by stating your opinion is the correct one?
      Calling a gaming staple, and still one of the best and most successful genre's in the world "cliche, laughably themed crap" is ignorant and makes you come off as an idiot.
      Anyone who is older than 16 knows without a doubt that these games hold up better than 95% of games made in the last 10 years.
      The stories are always better, the game-play better, the scripts better, pretty much just all round greater.
      sure Demon/Dark souls are decent, but don't have the staying power or greatness of a good JRPG, in 10 years, I'd still go back and play Crono trigger, FFVIII or Alundra purely because they are better than almost anything that has come out in the last 10 years.

        So let me get this straight, you're criticising the above comment for stating his opinion is the correct one by stating your opinion is the correct one?

    Glad you mentioned Mother 3. It's a pity people can't look being their own machismo sometimes to see where an excellent tale is told with flair and heart.

      *beyond. Stupid Swyping...

    Greatest JRPG ever? Terranigma. Looking back makes me realise that it was pretty far ahead of it's time.

    I love JRPG's.. My favourite genre, end of story. I still haven't found any on PS3 that I really really enjoy though.. Most of the ones i've played seem too busy trying to show off, and not enough time spent on the things that engage the player..

    So I picked up a cheap PSP after the Vita came out, grabbed Final Fantasy I, II, IV, Tactics, Breath Of Fire 3, Trails In The Sky, Crisis Core, Valkyria Chronicles 2 (Okay, Valkyria Chronicles was a JRPG that I really enjoyed on PS3, and guess what.. it obviously didn't try to look 'pretty', but came across so amazingly anyway).. etc :P

    I'd love it if anyone could recommend any other good JRPG's for PS3 :D (I still have Star Ocean: The Last Hope sitting there waiting to be played.. haven't found time, but I LOVED Star Ocean: Till The End Of Time.. Oh Albel Nox >:D)

      SO4 was pretty disappointing. Generally the PS3 has had quite a few JRPGs but not much of the caliber of the PS1 or PS2.

      Do you like Tales? Tales of Graces is pretty solid. Plot's very conventional and nothing too remarkable but the characters are reasonable and have a pretty good dynamic with each other (one of the main strengths of the Tales series) and the combat system is awesome.

      Disgaea 3, Enchanted Arms, Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2, Tales of Graces, Cross Edge, Trinity Universe, Eternal Sonata, and soon tales of xillia 1 anyway there are two new ones in japan but we are getting them next year.

    I used to like JRPGs... then I grew up and realised there was nothing cool about spiky-haired, leather-strapped, angsty heroes and their downdressed, exploited female companions.

      I used to like FPS... then I grew up and realised there was nothing cool about gratuitous gore, online trolling and seeing the same pixels explode over and over and over again. Plus there was barely any female avatars!


    So you can't handle other peoples opinions huh? You criticise me and then proceed to do the same thing. Who's the idiot here? LOL

    Yes I must be an idiot because I don't like JRPGs. Give me a break, nerd cheese.

      No you are an idiot for posting such inane posts in a trollish manner.Why else would you be reading and commenting on a genre you hate so much?

      Give us a break and leave us be to enjoy chatting about jprg. Also look up wit in the dictionary

    You know, just once, I'd like to see an article about the pros and cons of JRPGs that isn't written by the local representative of the JRPG Defence Squad.

    I wish there were more available on PC that I didn't need to fiddle around with fan-based translation patches for (not that there are a huge number of these, either). I'm tempted by the Ys-series games on Steam, but they look like they play somewhat... arcadey? I -really- want FFTactics on PC, so I can finally play it! ><

      do you have an iphone? get it on that.

    Anyone else play The Last Remnant? It was a little rougher than Lost Odyssey, but there was a lot of innovation.

    and NO ONE has mentioned the grind. You know, the thing you do to level up in these things. For me, White Knight Chronicles 2 with it's 900 + hours to reach top level takes the prize. Not everyone's cup of tea, but it rarely ever gets mentioned when talking JRPGs for the PS3.

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