Are JRPGs Primed for a Comeback? No; They Never Went Away

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.

It's nigh-impossible to get a good screenshot of The Hunt right now, so here's my character sporting one of the new hairstyles added in 2.3.
Final Fantasy is still going strong, though perhaps not in the way it was once known; second MMO incarnation Final Fantasy XIV is proving to be a consistently popular installment, albeit one that isn’t as well-known as its single-player counterparts.

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.

The excellent Ar Tonelico 2 from Gust is one of the most creative and interesting -- albeit, at times, flawed -- RPGs of the PS2 era.
The excellent Ar Tonelico 2 from Gust is one of the most creative and interesting — albeit, at times, flawed — RPGs of the PS2 era.

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.

The Hyperdimension Neptunia series is fast becoming one of the most well-known examples of "moe" RPGs, and with good reason: the strong characterisation and solid gameplay of the later installments in particular makes for enjoyable and memorable experiences.
The Hyperdimension Neptunia series is fast becoming one of the most well-known examples of “moe” RPGs, and with good reason: the strong characterisation and solid gameplay of the later installments in particular makes for enjoyable and memorable experiences.

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.

Time and Eternity: a lot more interesting -- and a lot better -- than mainstream reviews might suggest.
Time and Eternity: a lot more interesting — and a lot better — than mainstream reviews might suggest.

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.

Namco's Tales series has provided consistently strong characterisation in gameplay, and some of the most memorable characters in the genre, such as Milla Maxwell from the Xillia subseries, seen here.
Namco’s Tales series has provided consistently strong characterisation in gameplay, and some of the most memorable characters in the genre, such as Milla Maxwell from the Xillia subseries, seen here.

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.

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12 thoughts on “Are JRPGs Primed for a Comeback? No; They Never Went Away”

  1. Thanks for the great article Pete. I’ve been missing you at USGamer as well and I hope that you do indeed have more time to write more. Of all the video game press, your opinions match my own sensibilities the most. By the way, started on HDN: ReBirth 2 this past week after getting the Platinum trophy on ReBirth 1. Thanks for letting me know how good this series was. I’m personally loving it.

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    1. Glad to hear it! Neptunia is one of those series I took a chance on initially because I thought it sounded interesting despite its middling reviews by the mainstream games press. Now I will jump on any new Neptunia game without hesitation. Looking forward to Re;Birth2 and the Noire SRPG!

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  2. While the general gist of your article is totally correct, I think you’ve fallen victim to a Final Fantasy-centric view of the genre yourself. JRPGs as a definable genre predate the Playstation and FFVII by more than a decade, florishing on the Super Famicom and to a lesser extent the PC Engine and Mega Drive, and before that on Japanese PCs like the MSX2, X68000, PC98 and PC88. The SFC alone had something like 150-200 of them and the PCE 50+, covering a wide range of subgenres from foppish childhood adventures, gritty western-style first person dungeon crawls, moe breast-groping fests, Zelda-style top down hack and slashers, emotional coming of age stories, trashy anime/manga cash-ins, spaghetti westerns, gritty post apocalyptic cyberpunk and even a bunch of genre hybrids combining action-platforming, raising simulations, and even sport games, bomberman clones, shmups and racing games. It’s just that we didn’t hear much about them as kids in the pre-internet age because few left Japan and many were released on Japan-only computers and consoles.

    Most of the older RPGs don’t have especially big budgets, heck one of the appeals of the genre was the ability to reuse tile-sets and music, to palette swap enemies, and expand the play length with random battles to give the impression of a deeper game than was actually being made. It was only after FFVII and it’s 10 million units sold that we had Square and Sony throwing money at RPGs in the hope of making the next big hit (that never really eventuated), before the money stopped flowing and the industry basically reverted to the mean. There was a dip in output in the 00s as learning to reuse resources in a 3D space proved to be a big challenge for a lot of Japanese companies (Falcom only really got the hang of it with Sen no Kiseki, for example), but this was also a problem that makers of 3D platformers, fighters and beat em ups suffered from equally. Most remaining 2D companies have single gone portible, mobile or to F2P browser games and MMOs, which has reduced Japan’s output on home consoles across the board.

    Certainly moe games themselves are nothing new to Japan – they basically existed on every machine that had even barely enough graphical power to display pixel art, right back to the PC-6001 and FM-7, and were a common sight on the Famicom (usually with the sprite models changed or removed entirely for the western NES release, so we never knew it existed). While this certainly isn’t true for every (or even most) fans of Japanese games, I think there are quite a few people out there which quite like Japanese design aesthetics on some level, compared to the American style of chiseled-jawed space marine for example, and part of the nostalgia towards the golden age of western JRPG releases comes from the fact it was the one time in gaming where it was deemed (mostly) okay for a Japanese aesthetic to come through without publishers and the mainstream gaming media doing their best to tell other people what they don’t want in games.

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  3. It’s perfectly fine to like jrpgs with lots of fans service and “otome” elements. Those who claim that jrpgs are dead won’t deny either the existence of more underground series. There has always been a place for those and there always will be.

    But claiming that these are “good” jrpgs, this is were you are crossing the line for most poeple. As much as one can enjoy niche jrpgs, others have the right to be expecting something better. No, it is not true that those recent jrpgs just lack good graphics. Whatever you may think, series like Tales of, Atelier, modern shinning games and the games from Compile Heart, they don’t have very good stories, they don’t have good characters, they may don’t even have good musics. Even worse, they sometimes don’t event have good artistic direction wich is one of the most important thing in a jrpg. This is not a problem of graphics here, there is something else missing.

    Most of the time, jrpg devs will just take whatever is succesfull in the anime industry to construct boring visuals, simplistic stories and cliche characters. Characters with recognizable traits is NOT a good thing when you don’t do anything creative with those traits. Anime fans may like stereotypes, that doesn’t change the fact that this is precisely why most of jrpgs are boring for the rest of the world today. As Carl said, this kind of production is certainly not new but we westerners got the best part of the cake when publishers tried to export rpgs and boy this part was huge back in the golden age.
    You will say, there is still the gameplay and this is paramount. Sure Tales of and Atelier are great fun and its fine to like them for what tey are. I do sometimes…But aren’t jrpgs supposed to be also famous for great visuals (still not talking about graphics), great musics AND great narratives ? If those qualities are now frequently absent, it is understandable that former jrpg lovers are turning their back. What we are expecting is games with qualities on most of the important aspects, because, along with the core gameplay principles of jrpgs, this is what defined the genre in the SNES, PS1 and even PS2 eras.

    You are not the only one to claim that those niche rpgs are better than most poeple think. On some rare occasion you are certainly right. But seriously when the only “good” points are gameplays mechanics and sexy/moe girls with maybe a decent story at best, we have the right to complain and hope for better days.

    PS: I made a lot of wrong generalization and I apologize for that but this post is already sufficiently long and it would be ridiculous to go into more details.

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    1. I do hope you realize that Tales has been around since the SNES. It is not some new JRPG. It has legacy. In fact, the Star Ocean series was born from the Tales series. The first Star Ocean was considered a spiritual succesor to Tales of Phantasia. Sexy/moe girls are not what Tales is about by far. I don’t know where you got that idea. Tales tackles serious topics just like FF. Play Phantasia and some old Tales games. Tales is composed by Motoi(the same composer as Star Ocean, Valkryie Profile and other Tri Ace titles). Tales does not have good music? That is an opinion. The composer is a renown composer in JRPGs for fucks sake. And Tales does have a great narative. I honestly wonder if you have ever played a Tales title.

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      1. I concur with this. I’m not hugely familiar with Tales as a whole — my only experience to date is the two Xillias, which I loved — but to say they don’t have strong stories, characterisation and music is simply… well, I hesitate to say “wrong” as ultimately it’s a matter of opinion, but I certainly wouldn’t agree with that assessment.

        They’re very much a different beast to the more “moe” end of the market in that they (arguably?) have broader appeal and less in the way of “stigma” (stigma that I firmly believe is misguided and unreasonable in most cases, but I know not everyone agrees with me there!) that moe titles do.

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