If you spend any time among video-game impassioned individuals, you may have heard the term RPG thrown around. Role playing games have been influential in molding this generation’s biggest franchises. Both Call of Duty and Pokemon transcend the industry with communities who do not categorize themselves as ‘gamer’ yet spend hundreds of hours playing either game exclusively. In both series you are asked to level up in some fashion, and use varying instruments (weapons or pokemon) to overcome different obstacles (maps or pokemon trainers). Though Pokemon is more of a rpg than Call of Duty, the latter still has rpg-mechanics fused into a first-person shooter experience. A short history on the rpgs will help you pick up on these trends.

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The first video game RPGs draw inspiration from pen and paper table-top games. Examples include early war games, or more contemporary equivalents, such as Warhammer.

However, you can find prior examples of games that rely on a continuous memorization of a player’s stats; most strategy and dice games can be listed. Many of the first supercomputers found at universities had a secondary use by people – for practices similar to rpgs. They kept track of each player’s acquired experience and statistics, without the need of paper and pen. There is a broad lineage of games to find further evidence for the spiritual origins of JRPGs. Keeping track of one’s progress ultimately begot the first RPGs, such as Dragon Quest, which then lead to the infamous Final Fantasy saga. From them we eventually received the aesthetic and texture to which we now categorize a JRPG by. A game can be categorized as one by inspecting its mechanics, aestheticism, and, most importantly, how it feels. 

Dungeons_and_Dragons_game
An early example of table-top role playing gaming at work

A role-playing game can be turn-based or real-time. The design can be grid, open, or action- based. They are all under the umbrella of JRPGs. Another important notation to make is that, in this day and age, it is essential for developers outside of Japan to create new JRPGs. Child of Light has all the qualities of a JRPG, even though it was developed in Quebec, Montreal. 

An example of the type of pixel-art traditional to JRPGs (taken from Final Fantasy II)
An example of the type of pixel-art traditional to JRPGs (taken from Final Fantasy II)

 Japanese role-playing games have particular design-choices. In light of globalisation, it does not rely on the nationality of the developers. It relies on the aesthetic, for it to have the look and feel of the early sprite-based experiences, such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Yet the first and second Zelda games can be classified as lighter action RPGs.

Game developers in the west were not interested in making non-linear JRPGs during the 80s.  They were busy developing dungeon-crawlers and first-person experiences

There are distinguishing features between the Japanese and Western role playing games. The Western RPG is technically older than the JRPG. The latter category did not begin until the mid to late 80’s (and role-playing experiences were available on P.C long before that). Developed for the Atari 2600 in the late 70’s, Adventure can be considered a RPG. This is one of the first games where the player is allowed to explore the environment in a nonlinear fashion.

Adventure is technically one of the first games in which nonlinear exploration is possible
Adventure (picture above) is technically one of the first games in which nonlinear exploration is possible

To further locate the features unique to the Western role-playing genre, you need to look at the developers who established themselves to create such adventures: Bioware, Obsidian, etc. Their games provide non-linear, open-ended experiences with no absolute directive. This is why Mass Effect is not quite the traditional Western RPG, when compared to Oblivion or Fallout; as you play through either game, you are never reminded – or pressured – into completing the main-story line. 

Nonlinearity helps categorize a RPG since story is not essential. Think back to the previous Dragon Quest and Zelda games: it does not matter what you are doing in light of the story. You are simply grinding to the next dungeon ( a recipe that is very similar to what Pokemon does: grinding till you enter the newest pokemon-gym, or till you are strong enough to capture the next pokemon). The reason for playing the game is not the story, instead you play for the atmosphere and the delight of exploring. The Western RPG seems to actualize the cliche: the journey matters, not the destination. It’s delightful to see Japanese developers design Western rpgs like Demon Souls, Dark Souls and Bloodborne.

An in-battle screenshot of Nu No Kuni: The Wrath of the White Witch
An in-battle screenshot of Nu No Kuni: The Wrath of the White Witch

There is a word that can be used either positively or pejoratively. It’s grinding. Grinding, when implemented correctly, will feel organic to the experience. What makes grinding unique is when it is used intelligently by the developer. You’re asked to grind yourself to success, put in dozens of hours and level up appropriately, before the end can be reached. There’s additional joy in grinding when a cleverly developed JRPG shows you the ‘end’ destination at the start. If you inspect the map of the original Dragon Warrior on the NES, you can see the last dungeon from where you start, a castle surrounded by mountains. The problem is: you cannot yet enter. There are numerous missions standing between you and the castle. Dragon Warrior made the countless hours spent levelling up meaningful. Once you acquire a dragon in Ni No Kuni, you can fly to the end destination but are unable to enter until you complete other quests.

Or rather, I remember in Final Fantasy, where I explored a cave with Summoners. Some readers may remember there is a way to trick the game into a continual enemy respawn before you kill the Summoners. You can do this for hours before you get rid of the Summoners, which allows you to level up ten times or so. However monotonous this may seem, it felt extremely fulfilling. And for the people who enjoy such statistical leaps, that is the hallmark of a role-playing fan. Gamers who enjoy RPGs want to spend dozens of hours grinding, as long as the pay off is there. And that responsibility lies with the developer.

Level Up Screen Ni No Kuni
An example of the continual rewards received after every battle in Ni No Kuni

Unfortunately, Square Enix has grown incompetent in this regard. Arguably, they have not produced a solid JRPG ever since Enix acquisitioned with Squaresoft. The last fulfilling Final Fantasy was its ninth installment, and that was in 2000. There is something to be said about the level of production ever since these two developers stopped competing and merged. What was supposed to bring an innovative new generation for JRPGs seems to have brought the opposite effect. Nonetheless, there are Japanese studios doing this form justice. Bandai Namco is well-established and flourishing with their Tales franchise. They have remained consistent with their level of production in this case. The franchise is loved by their growing fan-base. Tales of Vesperia (2009) sold almost half a million copies in Japan.

 Square Enix has been on a steady decline. They’ve treated their two prevalent franchises – Dragon Quest and  Final Fantasy – abominably, allowing others to take advantage of this branch of the market. This is why Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch felt so special, selling 1.7 million copies worldwide, an extraordinary accomplishment for Level-5 and Namco Bandai. Secondly, why the announcement of  a Ni No Kuni sequel was arguably the biggest event of PSX. Namco Bandai designed a meaningful JRPG, something that possessed both heart and intelligence. It is unlikely that Square Enix can fix their mistakes. They have been tone-deaf for too long. Bravely Default isn’t doing it for them either.

The responsibilities lie with up and coming developers who are passionate for this section of the interactive medium.

For people with an affinity for these games, know that the roleplaying genre is still alive but has shifted away from Japan in the last decade. A small Quebecois team in Canada created a masterful JRPG, as proven with Child of Light. Several Western developers are busy with similar projects. Zeboyd Games have Cosmic Star Heroine, which looks promising. Grimm Bros came out recently with Dragon Fin Soup. A sequel to Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is in development, named Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom. Track down the product you’re passionate for. Check forums dedicated to this branch of the medium to find new experiences.

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