There is a huge debate when it comes to what defines the borders of a specific video game genre. Many games seem to cross into other territories, and to this day are still argued among fans as to what the right genre label should be for them. However, the way I see it is that video game genres still have a very distinct foundation and characteristics that separate one from another. The one which will be covered here is the Japanese Role-Playing Game or the JRPG. If we were to look back to the origins of it, it stems off from the much larger PC RPG genre from the West; which in of itself is an adaptation of the popular tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons.
The JRPG officially got its kickstart when two employees of Chunsoft, a Japanese game development studio, Yuji Horri and Koichi Nakamura, played Wizardry, a PC RPG. They were so impressed with the visual style and mechanical depth, that they wanted to bring RPGs to the Japanese audience. This lead to the year-long development of Dragon Quest, released in 1986 for the Japanese Famicom, published by Enix.They borrowed aspects from two of the most popular PC RPGs at the time, Wizardry and Ultima. The first-person battle perspective from Wizardry, and the overhead overworld from Ultima.1 The Famicom only had a direction-pad, start/select, and two face buttons, so simplifying the complex PC control scheme to fit on a simple gamepad, was a huge priority. Their answer was the command window, which allowed for multiple actions, with just a press of a single button. With the genre still being very foreign to Japanese players, they decided to save multiple party members for the sequel, and just have them control a single protagonist, in one-to-one combat. The story itself for the first game was quite simple, the Hero, who is the descendant of a legendary hero, is tasked with saving the Princess and defeating the Dragon Lord. By modern day standards, the game is very primitive mechanically and in-terms of technical prowess, but back then this ushered in a new form of gameplay for players. One that continued to evolve into something truly unique.
Back when games were still very much arcade style games, Dragon Quest introduced a game that was meant to be completed over multiple plays, with progress saving. Something the original The Legend of Zelda introduced on home consoles just months earlier. Though Dragon Quest wasn’t the overnight success it is now, it however did change video game development in Japan. First of all, it made developers fans of RPGs, which resulted in many different type of JRPG games to enter the market by using the conventions Dragon Quest introduced as a basis. Nintendo’s own, Shigeru Miyamoto, stated that “the success of Dragon Quest changed the nature of development by making scenario writers more important.”2
There are many characteristics that are attached to JRPGs, which can be traced back to the original Dragon Quest, such as grinding. Grinding is the concept of doing the repetitive task of fighting enemies over and over to gain experience points, or item drops, before moving on to the next area. Many players in the West absolutely hate the idea of constantly grinding, because of this they tend to stay away from JRPGs. However, according to Dragon Quest series creator, Yuji Horri on his philosophy on grinding
“Yeah in Japanese style, you have to try, try, try, try — and then at the end you can finally get a reward… It’s like climbing up a steep mountain — you have to keep climbing, climbing, climbing, climbing, and then at the end you finally get to the top of the mountain, and you see the beautiful view.”3
Due to this philosophy of wanting players to feel a sense of reward for their efforts, it has become a staple characteristic of the genre.
Another pillar of the genres that helped shape the foundation alongside Dragon Quest, was late 1987’s Final Fantasy, published by Squaresoft; which came out several months after Dragon Quest II, which had introduced multiple party members, but beat Dragon Quest III by three months when it came to class customization. Squaresoft employee, and series creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi along with his team, Square development team “A-Team”, were fans of Apple II RPGs Wizardry and Ultima. They too wanted to create a RPG with a deep narrative for the Japanese Famicom. At the time, Squaresoft were in deep financial trouble, and needed one mega-hit to save the company. Sakaguchi’s idea for a RPG was consistently rejected by higher ups due to not having enough faith in such a foreign idea. However, with the release of Enix’s Dragon Quest, becoming a hit, and normalizing the idea of RPGs in the East, he used that as his chance to convince the company to give his idea a chance. Squaresoft placed their last remaining funds into the development of the aptly titled, Final Fantasy. It would either save Squaresoft, or be their final nail in the coffin. All of Sakaguchi and his team’s efforts paid off, as Final Fantasy became an instant hit, selling four-hundred thousand copies.4 Not the overwhelming two-million that the original Dragon Quest went on to sell5, but second place would solidify the franchise for years to come and immediately prompt Squaresoft to start working on a sequel.
The team at Squaresoft knew they had to differentiate their RPG from Enix’s, so they made sure Final Fantasy was a complete contrast from Dragon Quest. When it came to artstyle, Dragon Quest used famed mangaka of the Dragonball series, Akira Toriyama. His clean manga art lent to the series a sense of adventure. Sakaguchi, on the other hand, chose Yoshitaka Amano as the artist. Amano was a famed illustrator for animation, comics, novels, and so on. His more surrealistic style made Final Fantasy feel more mature, when compared to Toriyama’s cartoony designs. In terms of music, Dragon Quest series’ classically-trained composer, Koichi Sugiyama, is known for his bombastic compositions. Whereas Final Fantasy series’ composer, Nobuo Uematsu, does more harmonic compositions, mainly focusing on the melody. On the more technical-side regarding level ups, each level up in the Dragon Quest games has the characters’ stats increase; meanwhile in Final Fantasy, character stats stay static, and are only affected by the multipliers of equipment. Every JRPG series that came afterwards, used either one or the other stat progression system. While the first entry in Enix’s behemoth of a series had a simple plot about saving the princess, Final Fantasy made you do that in the first fifteen to twenty minutes.
Now that the JRPGs subgenre had its grasp on the Japanese player-base, it quickly became a favourite among developers too. The ability to tell deep, emotional stories over a thirty to sixty hour period, captivated player’s minds. Multitude of developers have since tried their hands at crafting narrative and character driven role-playing games. Many of them experimented with different types of gameplay, more specifically the combat system. Though the popular style were turned-based games, it didn’t take long for action-RPGs, or ARPGs, to arrive onto the market. These games used real-time combat, rather than having players take turns. Series such as: Namco’s Tales of series, Quintet/Enix’s Gaia series, Falcom’s Ys series, Tri-Ace’s Star Ocean series, Square’s Mana series, and many more. Even Square’s very own Final Fantasy decided to shake things up by the fourth installment, by introducing the Active Time Battle system, or ATB; which persisted all the way to the ninth installment. Other popular Squaresoft games ended up using the ATB system as well, such as Chrono Trigger. Some Japanese developers
incorporated RPG elements into different genres, essentially creating new hybrid subgenres. These include Simulation Role-Playing Games, or SRPGs, such as: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, Sega’s Shining Force, and Square’s Final Fantasy Tactics. The subgenre, of a subgenre, mixes turned based strategy gameplay, with RPG stat progression for characters. Another popular hybrid subgenre of the JRPG, is the Metroidvania genre. The name was coined by fans for “Igavania” Castlevania games, which is derived from combining the names of Metroid and Castlevania together. The reason for this is, because in the mid-90s when Koji Igarashi was given the helm to Castlevania, he created 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It took the 2D platformer roots of the series, and placed the player in a giant, seamless, Super Metroid-like map. Even though platforming was still necessary to the game, the main emphasis became level progression through: experience points, stat gains, items, weapons, and armour. The term “Metroidvania” in modern definition is a bit more broad, as it encompasses any 2D platforming game that has a very Metroid or Castlevania style map, regardless of RPG elements. The type of video games that follow Symphony of the Night’s template are now labeled Igavania-type games, named after the innovator of the subgenre himself, Igarashi.
As immensely popular JRPGs were in their native region, the trouble a lot of publishers found was gaining a strong following in the West, this is known as the “Western barrier”. The Western barrier is a term coined for the sole purpose of summing up the struggles of JRPGs in the west. Late 80s saw both Nintendo and Sega push out JRPGs on their respective consoles in the west market. Be it Dragon Quest, renamed Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, or Sword of Vermilion. Through the early 90s, during the 16-bit generation of home consoles, JRPGs were starting to gain a bit of traction in the market. Despite spotty localization efforts, and the expenses that came with translating and marketing sixty hour JRPGs, Squaresoft was starting to make a name for itself. At this time, Enix’s presence in the West had dwindled, as they closed down their North American branch. Squaresoft was pulling right ahead, with one semi-hit Super Nintendo release after another. It began with Final Fantasy IV, renamed to FFII, as it was the second installment in the series to make it to the West. Right after that they launched Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy III (FFVI in Japan), and Chrono Trigger. The later two getting a lot of recognition among fans.
With JRPGs starting to gain traction in the West, the video game industry adopted 3D polygonal graphics, with the move to the 32-64 bit era. Squaresoft jumped ships from Nintendo hardware, to the new powerhouse in the market, Sony’s Playstation. Square spent roughly forty-five million US dollars6 on the development of its next entry in the Final Fantasy series. At the time, it was one of the most expensive video game development projects in the industry. Utilising state-of-the-art 3D rendering tools, and full-motion videos (FMVs). It was shaping up to be one of the most ambitious titles ever to be released. Sony, who was new in the market, with only their first hardware, pushed for an aggressive one-hundred million US dollar marketing campaign behind Square’s title.7 Final Fantasy VII released to months worth of hype build up, on January 31, 1997 in Japan. And being able to retain its correct roman numerals, released in North America on September 7 of the same year. Final Fantasy VII went on to sell two-million during the first few months in North America alone, and eventually eleven-million copies globally in its lifetime. The aggressive marketing, and media hype payed off, as the game finally broke down the Western barrier for JRPGs, as games started to pour in. Many fans call the late 1990s the golden age of JRPGs, and the golden age of Squaresoft RPGs. The abundance of quality JRPG titles resulted in the Playstation stomping its competitors in both hardware and software sales; making Sony a dominant and mainstay of the video game industry, even to this day.
After the late 90s, and into the early-2000s, the genre went through both ups and downs. After the release of Final Fantasy VII, fans couldn’t get enough of the narrative-driven JRPG genre. This momentum continued into the early-2000s on new generation hardware. It wasn’t until after the mid-2000s, that the genre saw a huge decline in popularity in the West. The Western audience began gravitating towards different genres, most prominently the first-person shooter. Going towards the late-90s, the Western PC RPG genre, began a renaissance of its own. Where they were finally able to evolve, and regain their former glory; this momentum only grew stronger in the 2000s. However, at the turn of the recent decade, 2010 and onward, the JRPG genre began a slow rise back up with the release of more high quality triple A games. Both Pokèmon, and Final Fantasy remain at top globally, while Japan’s cultural phenomenal, Dragon Quest is beginning to pick up steam. Both the Tales of franchise and the Persona series have strong and growing fanbases with each new entry in their respective series. Many of these ongoing series are celebrating their twenty-fifth or 30th anniversaries.
If I had to describe why the genre has such a strong fanbase, who love many of these games compared to other genres, then I would say there are a few reasons for this. The priority on telling a narrative, and world building with a lot of great and iconic characters. Interesting, experimental gameplay and the various battle systems that resulted from it. Developers are always trying different things with gameplay, that allows flexibility for players, and gives them the freedom of choice, that perhaps the more linear progression style doesn’t. Lastly, many players find the aspect of seeing their characters get stronger through grinding, cathartic. With how broad the genre is, and its many subgenres are, there is always a type of JRPG for everybody.
References: 1. Kurt Kalata, “The History of Dragon Quest,” Gamasutra, February 4, 2008, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3520/the_history_of_dragon_quest.php?print=1 2,5. Chris Kohler, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life. (BradyGames, 2004) 84-89. 3. Christian Nutt, “25 Years of Dragon Quest: An Interview with Yuji Horri,” Gamasutra, May 27, 2011, www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6390/25_years_of_dragon_quest_an_.php?print=1 4. Ed Fear, “Sakaguchi Discusses the Development of Final Fantasy,” Develop Online, December 13, 2007, http://www.webcitation.org/60hMl5q2z?url=http://www.develop-online.net/news/28960/Sakaguchi-discusses-the-development-of-Final-Fantasy 6,7. Rich Stanton, “Final Fantasy Retrospective,” Eurogamer, February 6, 2013, http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-06-02-final-fantasy-7-retrospective
Image References: Castlevania Symphony of the Night: https://vignette4.wikia.nocookie.net/castlevania/images/9/95/Lvl-up-Sotn.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20150714134319 Dragon Quest Famicom Box Art: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/dragonquest/dragonquestj.jpg Final Fantasy Japanese Box Art: https://img.atwikiimg.com/www26.atwiki.jp/gcmatome/attach/3460/1645/0009-1.JPG Final Fantasy North American Box Art: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/c2/Final_Fantasy_VII_Box_Art.jpg Yoshitaka Amano's Final Fantasy Art: http://yoshitaka-amano.kouryu.info/images/final_fantasy_01/ff1_02.jpg