The Squadron of Shame recently tackled the subject of Japanese role-playing games in the first of a new format show that we’re experimenting with. You can check out the show here, or if you’re on something Flash-enabled, you can use the fancy-pants player below. (If you’re not, you’ll simply see a white space, for which I apologise.)
If I had to pick a favourite genre of interactive entertainment, it would, without doubt, be the Japanese role-playing game. I came to the genre relatively late (yes, I was one of those people who discovered RPGs in general through Final Fantasy VII) so I didn’t really have the NES-era epiphany of realising that RPGs were the only genre of games that were attempting to tell a story — for a while, at least. I also didn’t discover the earlier Final Fantasy games until much later, though I have, to date, played every one of them (except XIV) and have finished most of them. I still have V and VI outstanding. Shameful, I know.
There’s something about the JRPG genre that has resonated with me ever since I first got off that train in Midgar and that awesome music started up, though. For one, I find the sort of over-the-top wackiness and melodrama that typifies the genre to many people to be entertaining and fun to get invested in. For another, I have absolutely no objection to a bit of moe in my games, and generally find anime characters of this type very appealing despite the fact that in many ways they’re just as generic and widespread as the bald space marine with no neck. And for yet another, I enjoy the creativity frequently on display in the genre, both from an artistic and a narrative perspective.
It’s a cliché to say that Japanese RPGs are clichéd, and a lot of people who accuse the genre of that probably haven’t played one for a while. Sure, there are certain thematic elements and tropes which many of them have in common, but all are unique in some way. I can remember pretty much every JRPG I’ve played over the years in great detail — contrast this with the fact that there are a whole bunch of shooters I struggle to distinguish from one another, and it’s pretty rare than I can even remember characters’ names from Western RPGs like The Elder Scrolls. Each JRPG has its own unique cast of characters who are (in most cases) well-developed and display plenty of growth and change over the course of the story. Sure, some of them start their journeys as unlikable arseholes (Squall from FFVIII and Neku from The World Ends With You spring immediately to mind) but having a strong emotional reaction to a character — “I really don’t like this guy” — is surely a sign that the writers have done their job well. It’s sometimes a difficult experience to play a game with a seemingly dislikable protagonist, but often this is a sign that he’s going to go through some experiences to soften that stony heart of his, and I’m a big fan of that particular narrative trope.
Leaving narrative aside, I’ve always been a fan of the often abstract, creative battle systems that populate Japanese role-playing games. This is perhaps best exemplified by the Final Fantasy series, which significantly shakes up its core mechanics with every single instalment. Don’t believe me? Here’s how the battle system and related mechanics differ from game to game:
- Final Fantasy — Traditional D&D-style turn-based combat without movement. Spells split into levels, like D&D, and characters have a limited number of casts per level that increases with their character level. Characters have set classes and, later in the game, may promote these to “prestige” classes.
- Final Fantasy II — Turn-based combat, but progression is tied to an Elder Scrolls-like system whereby using something makes it improve. Whack things with a sword and your sword skill will increase. Take a lot of damage and your hit points will increase. Use a lot of magic and your magic points will increase. This system proved rather divisive at the time, and predated Bethesda’s implementation of a very similar levelling system into its flagship Western RPG series by six years.
- Final Fantasy III — Turn-based combat, with progression tied to a “Job” system where characters could switch classes almost at will, allowing players to dynamically build a party to fit the situation at hand.
- Final Fantasy IV — The first appearance of “Active Time Battle”, the almost-real-time-but-not-quite system which has been present in most of the subsequent titles. Progression and skill unlocks were static and unique for each character.
- Final Fantasy V — The Job system returns in a much more well-implemented fashion. Players may develop Jobs at will, and may also equip certain skills that they have learned from another Job to build multi-purpose characters.
- Final Fantasy VI — Each character has unique special abilities but everyone has the opportunity to learn the same spells by fighting with “Espers” equipped.
- Final Fantasy VII — The Materia system allowed for deep customisation of characters with a slightly puzzly element — how best to fill the available slots in a character’s weapon and armour?
- Final Fantasy VIII — By drawing magic out of enemies and “junctioning” these spells to statistics, players could create powerhouses that made their character level practically irrelevant. A bizarre and abstract system that didn’t quite work.
- Final Fantasy IX — Characters learned skills from their equipment. Once they had learned the skill, they could use it any time, otherwise they had to keep the equipment in question in use to perform the action.
- Final Fantasy X — A brief break from the Active Time Battle system brought a clever turn-based system where certain actions could rearrange the turn order. Also saw the first appearance of a non-traditional levelling system in the form of the “Sphere Grid”
- Final Fantasy X-2 — A return to the Active Time Battle system and a variation on the Job system came with X-2’s Dressphere setup, whereby each of the game’s three playable characters could equip several Jobs and switch between them mid-battle.
- Final Fantasy XI — The first MMO entry in the series had another variation on the Job system whereby a single character had levels in every Job, but could only have one active at a time, with a “Sub-Job” becoming available after some progression had been made and allowing characters to use skills from this second Job.
- Final Fantasy XII — Taking the combat of XI and applying it to a single-player game allowed XII to have a real-time feel while still feeling strategic, as players were able to pause the game to issue commands to characters while battling without being sent to a separate screen. Progression was split between a traditional levelling system and the “License Grid”, whereby characters had to purchase licenses to use specific pieces of equipment and abilities, then purchase the equipment and abilities separately.
- Final Fantasy XIII — Active Time Battle on a separate combat screen returns, this time with players taking control of a single character in fights that focus more on carefully-timed Paradigm Shifts (effectively Job changes by another name) rather than using specific abilities. Had a distinctly unconventional levelling system whereby characters could gain levels and abilities from six different classes independently.
- Final Fantasy XIII-2 — Similar to XIII, but with only two characters available. Players could catch various monsters to fill the third party slot. Characters could once again develop down the six different paths, though monsters had a fixed class which could also be developed. Unlike XIII, where you were stuck playing as the party leader, in XIII-2 you could switch between the two characters at will, and one of them getting knocked out did not mean failure.
As you can see, Final Fantasy is a series which has evolved significantly over the years, and yet many accuse Square Enix of letting it stagnate. Sure, they’ve arguably made a few missteps over the years — XII, XIII and XIII-2 have all proven somewhat divisive in particular (though I enjoyed all three of them) — but one thing that the Final Fantasy team really can’t be accused of is sitting on their laurels and churning out the same old thing year after year. The same is true for many other JRPG developers. It’s one of the richest, most creative genres out there.
So why has it fallen from grace? A combination of factors. With the increasingly-busy lives people lead today, a 100-hour game is no longer necessarily seen as a good thing. Budgets for high-definition games spiral out of control, making the production of an HD JRPG an impractical prospect for many studios, particularly when they can’t necessarily count on huge sales numbers to recoup their expenditure. (This is perhaps why MonolithSoft and Mistwalker chose to release the gobsmackingly brilliant Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story on the Wii rather than the more popular/”hardcore” Xbox 360 and PS3.) And the eye of “the average gamer”, whoever that might be, has drifted towards the West these days for the majority of their gaming fixes, rather than the East as once was.
There’s still a rich back catalogue of excellent titles out there to explore in this deep genre, however — even more so if you learn Japanese. I’m making a point to go back and revisit some titles I missed the first time around at the moment — having recently played Shadow Hearts I’m now on to its excellent sequel, for example — and I’m having a great time. For the vast majority of these games, they’re a reminder of a simpler time — no “Your friend is online!” notifications, no party chat invites, no DLC, no controversy over endings even when they sucked — and they’re great.
So while the rest of the Internet yells and screams about each other about Mass Effect 3 (still!) I’m more than happy to immerse myself in a world of HP, MP, Attack, Magic, Item, Escape.