This week I found myself in a heated conversation about video games (Go figure?). The topic of this particular conversation was something that I don’t talk about very often these days: JRPGs. JRPGs were basically how I spent my middle school years. From Chrono Trigger to Final Fantasy, Suikoden and Valkyrie Profile, I played through these games with feverish enthusiasm when I was younger. However, I don’t so much anymore. Wondering why that is, our conversation hit on one topic in particular that I found myself rather unhappy with.
It’s come to my attention that JRPGs have been getting a bad wrap recently. Claims of genre stagnation, and even fundamental inferiority (when compared to Western RPGs), are all too easy to come across these days. However, I’m not even here to debate whether or not JRPGs are worse or better than WRPGs. That’s all up to the individual, and I can go in to my opinion at a later date. If you want some food for thought on that topic right this instant , go see the guys are Extra Credits. They’re pretty smart people.
I’ll even give you a link: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/western-japanese-rpgs-part-1
What I’m here to say is that the criticisms that I hear frequently touted about by anti-JRPG advocates are largely unfair and unwarranted. Allow me to throw out a list of the ones I hear most often:
- Turn based battle systems are unengaging and uninteresting.
- Random sidequests that do not in any way pertain to the over arching plot in a genre where games are defined by their primary narrative.
- Not just overly dramatic stories, but meandering stories. Stories where the end goal shifts several times before the end.
- Specific character tropes: such as The Secret Princess, The Naive Hero, or the Solitary Soldier
- Implausible weaponry and costumes.
And you know what? I’m here to tell you that all these things are totally, 100%, true. One can perhaps, make an argument that turn-based battle systems serve to provide more of a “thinking man’s game”, emphasizing what you choose to do, and when, rather than how well you do it. The rest of those, however, would be pretty hard to argue against.
I’m also here to tell you that none of these things are a bad thing, and it’s certainly not fair to criticise JRPGs for them. Tropes are something that all genres, across all mediums, possess. They’re recurring features that pieces utilize to achieve certain results. They perpetuate themselves because they’ve been shown to add to the experience, and are usually core to the fan bases enjoyment of the title.
I’m sure many of people are familiar with this site: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HomePage
Tropes are a thing that exist across all artistic mediums. From novels, to movies, and games are no exception. Hell, “The Hero’s Journey” we all learned about in middle school is a trope that we’ve seen a hundred times across all of these platforms.
Take WRPGs for instance. You think JRPGs are a stale genre? How many times have you seen an “Elf” in a western fantasy RPG? Not only that, but how often has the elf looked exactly like this?
Even the subsets of tropes in WRPGs, are themselves, tropes. Who decided that elves had to have pointy ears? Be a mystical or mysterious race of people, one whose civilization is very old, but often past its prime, as they’ve retreated to live far removed from human society?
Who knows. But it’s a thing.
I’m also not just talking about world setting. The protagonist in almost every WRPG is the same guy. Namely “you”. But it goes a bit beyond that. Not only are almost all WRPGs designed so that you have the ability to customize yourself, but almost every WRPG has the hero “destined” to save the world. They also do so virtually by themselves. There is no one else that could have possibly saved us from this inevitable world destroying disaster, and they don’t even need any help to do it.
This means that we get no character development of any sort of protagonist. You’re the same guy at the end of the game as you were at the beginning, and you didn’t even make any friends along the way. Hell, even the characters you come to care about aren’t really characters, they’re icons.
The whole point here is that WRPGs aren’t condemned for their staggering similarity like JRPGs are, even though they resemble each other just as much as one JRPG resembles another JRPG. Probably even more so.
This isn’t even an issue with RPGs in general. Look at First Person Shooters. The games are much more about their mechanics, and less about their narratives, so the tropes seen in this genre usually revolve around gameplay. Incredibly often you’ll find FPS games include track shooting segments, limit players to a small number of weapons at a time, regenerate health after a brief pause, and incorporate some sort of cover based defensive mechanics.
The FPS genre is actually a good example of one that did make a large shift in their running themes. Older FPS games like DOOM or Duke Nukem let players carry as many guns as they wanted. Health was regenerated by picking up power-ups. Cover wasn’t a thing.
This not only demonstrates how any genre can utilize the same features across a wide array of titles, for long periods of time, but that when new features _are_ developed, and replace old ones, they’re quickly adopted by all other titles in that genre, because they’re beneficial to their audiences enjoyment.
FPS games are certainly not alone in their ability to innovate their genre, and create new features that are perpetuating down to further generations. Look at the likes of The World Ends With You. Clearly a JRPG, and yet clearly branching off from several familiar gameplay features, while retaining narrative styles. While TWEWY stuck to a classic narrative format, while trying to innovate JRPG gameplay, it’s just as reasonable to expect a game that strives to make narrative innovations to retain to solid and proven gameplay mechanics.
In fact, since it’s been so prevalent in the media recently, I’d like to point out that Mass Effect is a beautiful fusion of Western and Japanese RPGs. While it retains the customization and fast paced, execution dependent combat of WRPGs, its team based narrative that focuses on the growth of characters and the relationships they share (including the protagonist! Who is not a blank slate, but rather a character in and of herself) is a very traditional JRPG approach. Mass Effect can be seen as an innovation for either genre, and definitely shows that JRPGs are not at all a frivolous contribution to gaming as a whole.
In the end, JRPGs serve a purpose as a game-novel mixed with gameplay that doesn’t involve much imminent pressure. The tension is provided, by and large, by the story. There are people that like the interesting characters you meet, the “growing up” that happens in almost every iteration, and the fact that gameplay revolves around exploration and decision making, as opposed to precise execution. They fill their niche and don’t deserve to be criticized for a “fault” that every genre makes.