The Birth and Death of the J-RPG

Sorry for not posting on Friday! This idea has been rolling around my head for a while, and it took me a lot longer than expected to get it down!

Kind of a dramatic title, but Japan has dominated the video game market for about as long as it has existed. That’s started to change in recent times, but certainly every big title in the early days came from Japan, from Tekken to Mario to Zelda to Final Fantasy to Bomberman to Street Fighter to Pacman to Poke’mon to… well, you get it! One in particular piques my interest more than the others: Final Fantasy. It is the epitome of the J-RPG (that is, the Japanese Role-Playing Game), and in a large sense has defined the genre of RPGs as a whole. Not much more I can say to make that clearer. You’ve probably heard of them even if you don’t play any video games at all. If you’ve played video games for a long time, you’ve probably worked your way through three or four of these games at some point, and even if you hate RPGs you probably at least had a soft spot for one of them.

They’re a big deal. One of the biggest deals in the whole industry, actually. Moving on.

This crappy montage courtesy of yours truly...

This crappy montage courtesy of yours truly…

So, crappy montages aside, where do we begin our J-RPG story? At the birth of J-RPGs? At the birth of Final Fantasy? To answer that question, we have to turn back our clocks and take a trip into the past (past, past, past…)

J-RPGs began as practically EVERY genre of game began: as a text-based adventure. Okay, so maybe only RPGs began as text-based adventures, but we’re talking about them today, so don’t question my logic! (For extra fun, think of games like Call of Duty, Minecraft, or Space Invaders as text-based adventures. The possibilities are endless and ridiculous!) The entire RPG video game genre stemmed from tabletop gaming like GURPS or more famously D&D. This meant that there were decisions a character could make, and a very well-thought-out narrative for the players to explore. This was also because computers were literally just text on a screen at the beginning of video gaming, so ogling a 3-D digital sword-wielding anime girl’s naughty bits while delivering sweet justice to enemies was kind of out of the question at this point. C’est la vie.

Gee, I can't imagine which audience THIS character appealed to...

Gee, I can’t imagine which audience THIS character appealed to…

Point being, they began as plot-driven adventures of the fantasy nature. There were also plenty of non-fantasy RPGs, but the fantasy ones have stood the test of time much more than their more diverse brethren. Also c’est la vie.

Cue Final Fantasy, the bad-boy video game that changed the rules. FF is the Kevin Bacon in Flashdance, it is John Travolta in Footloose… it’s– well, you get the picture. It came out for Nintendo, creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s last-ditch effort to make a video game. For anyone who’s ever tried to develop video games, that plight must sound preeeeetty familiar. Hence the name: FINAL Fantasy. (That’s irony for ya, isn’t it?) It had cool graphics, a nifty class system, great abilities that were both awesome and easy to understand, and a plot that was compelling without being too complicated to follow. These qualities ARE IMPORTANT. There WILL be a quiz later. You MAY scroll up if you wish.

Another quality of this game was its epic-ness. You felt powerful, the enemies felt powerful, it was awesome when you defeated them. You felt real progression and development throughout the game, and at the end of a long journey, you feel way more powerful than you did at the beginning. Awesome! Let’s also not forget that the journey itself is epic: Final Fantasy games are LONG, one and all. You didn’t rent these games from a Blockbuster (what’s that?) in the hopes of beating them in a week. You OWNED these suckers because you knew how long it’d take to get everything. Awesome again.

I’m telling you stuff you probably already know, but I want you to examine it a little more carefully. I’ve found that truly understanding video games involves taking a lot of “Duh.” statements and staring at them until they turn into an “Oh!” statement. These qualities come together and make this genre something that both has a good replay value (like a good book, you read it more than once) and a good PLAY value (like a good book, you can’t put it down!). It’s simple to get ahold of, it’s difficult to master, it provides the player with a surprising number of playstyle options so early in game development history, and it’s not over quickly by any stretch of the imagination! How appealing!

It all culminates, however, with Final Fantasy 7. Okay, maybe it doesn’t, because I’m not the hugest fan of FF7 anyway (cue the abuse). In the grand scheme of things, though, FF7 takes a HUGE step towards revolutionizing the genre. Once again, the graphics are flashy, after a couple of relatively stale-looking games (Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana and FF6[3] were great games, but graphics-wise they were not advancing very much).  You have a polished-looking 3D game with rich environments, awesome baddies, compelling characters and a plot that gives you shivers over and over. The graphics, however, were still aspiring to a level of realism which they couldn’t achieve (yet).

Then comes along FF8, and damn, does it look real. The transitions between the rendered FMVs and the unrendered gameplay are near-flawless, and the characters appear with such a polished perfection that you can see the emotion on their surprisingly real-looking faces. The plot is still pretty dandy and the gameplay, while really (frickin’) complicated, offers a wide range of options to the player for how they want to tackle the equally (frickin’) complicated fights. I won’t rave about this game like FF7 even though I do enjoy it, because the best thing I can say about it is that its graphics and music are on a higher level… as we’ll see later, that doesn’t really count for anything in the grand scheme of things.

Chrono Cross was also great-looking. That’s all I’m going to say about that one, as I’m not going to get into that punching-bag of a game right now.

Final Fantasy IX is my favorite for a number of reasons, and to me it represents the pinnacle of J-RPGs. I know I won’t convince you folks who love the other games, but allow me to rant a bit. FF7 tried to reach the top of the realism mountain and didn’t quite have the stuff to make it. FF8 got there but sacrificed the polished, clear plot and engaging storyline/characters that FF7 had. FF9 surpasses all that. FF9’s animation has a STYLE. Let me make that clear. FF7 and 8 (and the others, I suppose) may each have elements of their own style and certainly are unified in an art sense. But FF9 is the first that consciously says, “We’re not going to make this look as real as possible anymore. We did that already.” It’s like how Picasso began by drawing generic portraits and still lifes. Then he said at one point, “See, ma? I can draw reel good!” And then he proceeded to assert that faces really DO have 5 eyes and they all belong on THIS side of the nose! This is Square’s response to the success of their realistic art style, and the fact that the animation is as fantastical as the world in which the characters exist… that’s awesome and it makes for a totally engaging game. The characters are lovable (for the most part), the plot is clear and manages to get you all riled up against the characters you love to hate, and it is possibly the simplest battle/upgrade system in all of the FF series. Mix that with a ton of side quests, some pretty amazing dungeons and battles, and you’ve got yourself a helluva game. It was what J-RPGs were meant to be. Square flexed its muscles and showed the world what it could do.

Another crap montage. Three comments: 1. Yeah Cloud! You look so 3D! 2. I pick Quistis for my FF8 representation because screw you, Rinoa. 3. VIVI!!!!!!! <3

Another crap montage. Three comments: 1. Yeah Cloud! You look so 3D! 2. I pick Quistis for my FF8 representation because screw you, Rinoa. 3. VIVI!!!!!!! ❤

Then came FF10. Like FF7, it bridged a difficult gap between PS1 and PS2, and it stumbled a bit. The graphics were again amazing, and the storyline was pretty good. You know, the blitzball minigame was a little to central to the plot to suck as much as it did… But it was voice-acted, for the first time in Final Fantasy history. In my humble opinion, this is what marks the beginning of the end. The J-RPG has ascended to being king of video games, but already its evil adviser Wormtongue has crept in and started saying, “We should hire voice actors… yes, that will make it better, precious…”

Voice acting was bad for a number of reasons. It constantly throws you out of your suspension of disbelief. You see the mouths, you hear the words, they don’t match up. The translations were more based on making the words fit with the animation than creating a totally awesome, compelling dialogue like the other games had the opportunity of doing. Another reason this was bad was because it took away the freedom of naming your characters (with the exception of Tee-dus). If I want to name Cloud, Tifa, and Barrett Zidane, Ceres, and Tellah, then by god, I’m gonna do it. But no, we get stuck with Lulu and Kimahri, and we’d damn well better enjoy it! And Wakka? I’m pretty sure Pac-man had a thing for him. (Get it? Wakka-wakka-wakka-wakka…? Hahah…?)

And they didn’t get rid of it. The sound and graphical capabilities of the games took a dive off the deep end with FFX and kept going. First of all, although the turn-based combat of FFX was admirably strategic-feeling, there were enough invisible walls elsewhere to make you feel like they could have spent a little more time on level design and a little less time making the stuff you can’t interact with ÜÜÜÜBER pretty. The sound (including voice acting) was just their way of saying, “Well, we’ve got the data space, let’s fill it with this crap!” This also means they focused their sound efforts much more on a huge, flashy sound than creating music people actually enjoyed. There are a couple of exceptions to this, but overall the music of Final Fantasy from this point on trends towards an extremely polished, pop-sounding facade of audio that doesn’t move me to tears so much as it whacks me over the head with the fact that there’s a lot of processing power going into it. I don’t care about the processing power, I care about the music. In their drive to be on the forefront of technology, they sacrificed that a little bit (and progressively more with each consecutive game afterwards).

Now, you have a flawed, but still great game… what do you follow it up with? A sequel? How about a sequel AND an MMO?!? I facepalmed so hard I gave myself a concussion. That’s all I’m going to say about X-2 and XI, but if you doubt my “pop” assertion, just play the first 10 minutes of X-2. You’ll get it.

Around this time you’re also getting good games like Tales of Symphonia, Disgaea, Golden Sun, and the American release of Fire Emblem. I’m not going to consider the mobile platform to be one of the frontrunners in game innovation, but they were all new takes on the J-RPG genre and they used what capabilities they had to make convincing, fun games. Tales and Disgaea even had voice acting! It was used tastefully and in a more classic RPG sense that didn’t worry so much about the mouths moving as it worried about the words coming out of them. Both were quick-witted, quick-moving games that drew you in and gave you something to think about, laugh about, or play through. With Disgaea, Fire Emblem, and even Advance Wars, you also see the J-RPG genre branch out into a much more FF Tactics-style game, which is also something that Square (makers of Final Fantasy) innovated, but abandoned largely for their more traditional approach.

But action-RPGs are cool, too, right? Final Fantasy XII tried to capture the coolness and game flow of the 3D Action-RPGs before it, from Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Diablo onward. However, the game took turns being too complex and flashy and being too simplistic and boring. The focus was on nifty graphics and that too-thick orchestral/electronic fusion, and they abandoned plot, characters, and development altogether.

With XII and XIII, we see that there’s pretty much an enormous graphical capability, and it’s difficult to really know what to do with it. Americans (the largest video game consumers, even of J-RPGs) enjoy the cartoon aspect of anime more than the “realistic” aspect of it, which is why (to us) all of the live-action anime movies seem ridiculously bad. But in Japan, perhaps that’s popular? I can’t say. All I know is that from then on, the trend was to create as realistic-looking anime-style characters as possible. You know the ones I mean: strange-colored spiky hair, either androgynous or overly exaggerated body type, and unbelievably odd-looking asymmetrical outfits with a hundred little pockets, gadgets, and crazy bits that in all likelihood have no practical use (I’m looking at YOU, Tee-dus).

It’s not just Final Fantasy, either. I attempted to play through The Last Story, a relatively recent game for the Wii. The controls were awful, the tutorials were awful, the characters were boring and one-dimensional (except their hair), the concept for the game was boring and tired, and about 50 things totally unexplained by help or tutorial happened in the first 10 minutes of gameplay. Did I mention the random anime chick talking about drinking in a Scottish accent?

Lovin' that HDR effect. Also, the Scottish chick is the one without a back on her outfit.

Lovin’ that HDR effect. Also, the Scottish chick is the one without a back on her outfit. I also love the random eyepatch as well.

I see that the reviews for this game have been mostly positive, and I haven’t played Xenoblade (so maybe it could restore my faith in the genre), but what I see is reused dynamics that used to make games fun, but since these new games try so hard to be original that they make the game needlessly complex. I understand that the game is well-made, if we are still allowed to use that term on games that employ pretty much NO new ideas, but I can’t force myself to like it because I hold large-title video games to a higher standard. If it’s the best J-RPG out there right now, I still don’t feel the need to call it a good game, because I KNOW that the tutorials can be better, that the controls can be better, that the dialogue can be better, that the GAME can (and should) be better.

Maybe it’s not the end of the J-RPG as we know it. Maybe it’ll come back and we’ll get flashy, polished-looking artistic games with great soundtracks and plots and characters. Maybe it’ll embody that Wagnerian concept of the “total artwork,” but not today.

Jeez, this soapbox is getting a little worn out! Better get a new one. See you folks next week 🙂


P.S. Sorry for the long post! J-RPGs are one of the biggest genres and there’s a lot of ground to cover. Having said that, you understand why I focused on that specific facet and didn’t include games like Poke’mon, Zelda, Okami, Ninja Gaiden, Breath of Fire, Dragon Warrior… even games like Mario Bros RPG and Harvest Moon are J-RPGs in the literal sense, but they fill different niches! Maybe I’ll do a spinoff post… it worked for Cleveland and Family Guy! (Wait… no it didn’t…)


About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on August 18, 2013, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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