If IGN’s Colin Moriarty is to be believed, then Japanese role-playing games have been in a “steep decline” since Final Fantasy VII.
You and I, as fellow enthusiasts of Japanese gaming, both know that this is perhaps a somewhat questionable claim to make, but it’s also worth examining, particularly in light of the fact that Moriarty doesn’t stray very far from the Square Enix comfort zone during his ponderings of this supposedly fallen genre.
In fact, the genre has been extremely healthy for many years now; it’s simply undergone some fairly significant changes from how we knew it in the mid-’90s. And why shouldn’t it? Stagnation isn’t fun for anyone, particularly in the fast-moving realms of technology and entertainment — two fields that are notorious for fashions and trends changing, at times, overnight.
So, with all that in mind, let’s ponder the changing face of the JRPG over the last 15 years or so.
One mistake a lot of people who aren’t particularly immersed in Japanese games and the role-playing genre make is assuming that Square Enix’s Final Fantasy is the beginning and end of the genre. And while it’s fair to say that Final Fantasy is still an enormously influential series, not to mention still the biggest-budget example of the genre, role-playing games have diversified considerably over the course of the last few console generations.
Role-playing games have diversified considerably over the course of the last few console generations.
This has happened at least partly as a result of the lengthy hiatuses that Square Enix’s iconic series has taken over the years. As these gaps got longer and longer with each passing generation of consoles — it was a whole five years between Final Fantasy X and XII, and another three between XII and XIII — spaces opened up in the release schedule for developers and publishers to start catering to the needs of role-playing game fans who wanted something new to hit with an oversized sword.
What actually happened, then, is that over the years, other JRPG developers have grown to prominence — relative prominence, anyway; we’re talking about prominence among fans of the genre, rather than the prominence in the mainstream that Final Fantasy has enjoyed at various points over the years. We’ve seen strong titles from developers like Level-5, Falcom, Gust and Nippon Ichi Software; we’ve seen the rise (and fall, and in some cases rise again) of series like Atelier, Ar Tonelico and Shadow Hearts. And we’ve seen a shift in what fans expect from a JRPG: rather than big-budget spectacle — a desire which is now more than adequately served by the excesses of Western triple-A — your average JRPG fan is now looking for something that is memorable.
Exactly what constitutes memorable varies from person to person, of course, and I have a strong suspicion that the concept of “your average JRPG fan” is something that simply doesn’t exist. For some, over-the-top spectacle makes something inherently memorable. But for others, it might be a deep exploration of individual characters and the realistic depiction of recognisable, relatable traits. For others still, it might be a highly creative battle system; others still might prefer a well-crafted world to explore.
We still have the heady excesses of the Final Fantasy series, but also the strongly character-driven stories of Ar Tonelico and Tales; the enjoyable, imaginative mechanics of Nippon Ichi games; and serious, surprisingly dark outliers like Nier.
The wonderful thing about JRPGs is that they’ve diversified over the years to cover all these bases according to your tastes. We still have the heady excesses of the Final Fantasy series — whatever you thought of the XIII subseries, there’s little denying the sheer spectacle it offers, for example. We have the strongly character-driven stories of series like Gust’s Ar Tonelico and Namco’s Tales. We have the focus on enjoyable, imaginative mechanics seen in Nippon Ichi games. We have the unusual, small-scale, crafting-centric approach of Gust’s Atelier series. We have serious, surprisingly dark outliers like Cavia’s Nier, published by Square Enix. And, hell, with the relatively recent Bravely Default, we even still have PS1-era-style Final Fantasy games for those who pine for the good old days.
But there are side-effects of the JRPG genre’s shift away from the mainstream towards niche status — the main being that they’re now seen as a much more inherently risky prospect for developers and publishers. This has two knock-on effects, in turn: one, development of these games is given to smaller teams with much more limited budgets, in many cases limiting the scale of vision that these titles can explore and even their technical proficiency when compared to their contemporaries in other genres on the market; and two, some developers or publishers simply won’t take the chance on them at all in the first place.
Point one above in particular causes many modern critics and players alike to dismiss modern JRPGs out of hand purely for the fact that, in many cases, they’re assembled on a shoestring budget and, consequently, can’t match up to the multi-million dollar budgets of your average triple-A title. Idea Factory and Compile Heart’s titles provide some of the most notorious examples of this, despite them being some of the most prolific and passionate proponents of the genre throughout the outgoing hardware era; many reviews of these games from the larger commercial sites spend more time bemoaning their lack of budget and technical shortcomings than explaining anything about the mechanics, the story or the characters at all.
It’s easy to write off something like Ar Tonelico as a low-budget game of little consequence purely by virtue of its inferior appearance to Final Fantasy X, but you most certainly shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or indeed the quality of materials from which that cover is made.
This is nothing new, either; even in the PS2 era, there’s a stark contrast between the beautifully rendered polygonal world and characters of the big-budget Final Fantasy X and the low-res backdrops and sprite-based characters of the original Ar Tonelico — and you probably don’t need me to tell you that the former got considerably more press attention than the latter. It’s easy to write off Ar Tonelico as a low-budget game of little consequence purely by virtue of its inferior appearance, but as any Ar Tonelico fan will happily tell you — probably at great length — you most certainly shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or indeed the quality of materials from which that cover is made.
Budgets aside, there’s also the matter of fanservice. Love it or hate it — and hoo boy, do a lot of mainstream critics hate it — fanservice is a part of the modern JRPG, much as it’s present in a great deal of modern, popular anime. While there’s little denying the true reason it’s often there — a rather unsubtle example of “sex sells” — in many cases fanservice is used as a means of injecting a little light-hearted humour and cheekiness into proceedings, and in others it’s even used as a means of character development.
Take something like Time and Eternity, for example, a game roundly panned by many for its low-budget production values and (actually rather infrequent) use of fanservice. Take the time to look a little deeper, though, and it should be abundantly clear that Time and Eternity’s fanservice is used to reflect the character of the male protagonist: while you don’t actually control him directly (he’s been cursed with the rather useless form of a baby dragon) and instead command his split-personality fiancee(s) Toki and Towa throughout the game, the story does unfold from his perspective, and this means both acknowledging and exploring the fact that he is a sexually frustrated young man with the libido of a 15-year old boy and, owing to his current physical form, a seemingly total lack of genitalia.
Fanservice isn’t the enemy; it can provide an interesting perspective that many game-makers typically shy away from.
More than that, though, he is someone who is both deeply and genuinely in love with and strongly sexually attracted to Toki and Towa, and to suggest that he never has any lewd thoughts about the woman (women?) he is soon to marry would be, shall we say, somewhat disingenuous. Particularly since the core narrative hook of the game is that he sees his own wedding day — with all the promise of wedding-night hanky-panky that comes with — horrifically disrupted by his own murder. Several times. It’s a wonder the poor boy doesn’t explode.
Fanservice isn’t the enemy, in other words; it can actually provide an interesting perspective — acknowledging sexuality — that many game-makers typically shy away from. But that, I feel, is a discussion we could have at much greater length another day. So let’s save it for then and move on.
To summarise: a lot of the fundamentals of JRPGs may have changed over the years, but that doesn’t mean that their core appeal elements are any different than they were back in Final Fantasy VII’s day. They still tell epic stories of heroic fantasy and derring-do. They still feature creative, abstract mechanics that allow combat to be a far more interesting affair than simple button-mashing. They still feature the pleasure of characters that gradually grow in strength until you’re in a position to flatten pretty much anything the game will throw at you — apart from that one secret boss, of course. And they still have a strong focus on giving you a party of characters that are at the very least memorable and interesting, and in many cases personally relatable.
Both target audiences and budgets may both be a fraction of what they once were — at least proportionally, when compared to the rest of the industry as a whole — but the JRPG is far from being dead. Far from it.
In fact, it’s possibly never been in a healthier position worldwide thanks in part to the tireless efforts of enthusiast niche-centric publishers like NIS America, Xseed, Aksys and Idea Factory’s new International branch. And, as we head ever further into the next generation of console hardware — a generation which promises new installments in the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, original, new IP like the intriguing Omega Quintet and, of course, Final Fantasy finally moving beyond Lightning’s saga — the future is indeed bright for those of us who enjoy hitting things and seeing numbers, not blood, bursting forth.