One of this generation's most controversial JRPG trends might also turn out to be its best. When Team Kotaku first started planning out our Last-Gen Heroes feature, I started thinking about how JRPGs have evolved over the past generation — a generation that some would argue has been disastrous for the genre. Between a polarising 13th Final Fantasy, a number of forgettable slogs like Infinite Undiscovery and some alarming ventures in the world of free-to-play, the Wii-Xbox360-PS3 era seemed more than a little scary for JRPG fans.
This generation brought one trend I'd love to see stick around: portability. Gaming on the go. Thanks to Japan's quick adaptation to mobile and portable gaming, JRPG developers both big and small have found success making games for handheld systems: the DS, the PSP, smartphones, tablets, and so forth. Even as Japanese studios throw up their hands, looking at Puzzle & Dragons with envy for those delicious free-to-play profits, many are enjoying the fruits of Japan's love for portable gaming, topping the charts with RPGs for PSP and 3DS.
It works here in North America, too. A little anecdote: usually, while commuting to work, I'll pick up one or two new StreetPasses per subway ride. Often it'll be the same faces every day, playing the latest Mario or Layton. But over the past month, almost every single subway ride has maxed out my StreetPass count with Pokémon-feverish commuters who can't put down their 3DSes. Granted, Pokémon is a phenomenon for many reasons, but would it be nearly as successful if it weren't so easy to pick up and play on the go?
Some people have mourned the loss of big-screen JRPGing, and yes, there's always something special about playing a big-budget spectacle, but you can count me in camp Way OK With JRPGs Going Portable. When I'm dungeon-crawling in a Dragon Quest game, I like doing it in short bursts on the subway or while watching football on TV. I want to be able to tap a button or close a screen, then pick up right where I left off later. For multi-taskers, or those of us who don't have all that much time to play games anymore, portable gaming is a godsend.
Development and localisation costs are cheaper for portable games, too — voice acting is less common, the assets aren't as expensive to create, and small publishers like Atlus and Aksys can afford to gamble on bringing them outside of Japan, knowing that they won't have to recoup as much as they might with a game that cost $US50 million to make.
In other words, the benefits of portable gaming outweigh the coolness of playing games on a big screen. And as we look toward the future of JRPGs — something I'll be doing extensively here at Random Encounters in the coming weeks and months — one big question will be this: is the portable JRPG trend here to stay? Will we see more of these sprawling adventures, like Radiant Historia and The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, pick handheld systems over consoles? Here's hoping.
Last-Gen Heroes is Kotaku's look back at the seventh generation of console gaming. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, we'll be celebrating the Heroes — and the Zeroes — of the last eight years of console video gaming.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.