INTRODUCTION TO JRPGS
Recently, we received an influx of inquiries from students in our online game development course about JRPGs. Rather than responding to each inquiry individually, we thought it would be wise to put together an introductory blog post about what JRPGs are, and why they are important. So let’s jump in.
In ‘80s and ‘90s, the Western part of the world experienced a sudden influx of the Japanese culture. Tons of manga and anime found their way onto the store shelves and managed to reach a wide audience in a short span of time.
Apart from the regular means of pop culture, including a film and a book, it was also a time of a budding gaming industry. This is how players around the world first heard about Japanese Role-Playing Games, also known as “JRPGs”. For many decades, this genre of games dictated boundaries of the gaming world, influencing development of many game studios in the West.
Today, after all these years and the popularisation of video games, a glimmer of JRPGs dimmed and they are merely a shadow of their former glory. However, the spirit of the gems of the past era, including Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts, endured, and forever carved their warm spot in the hearts of players all around the world.
In this article you will learn of some of the best JRPGs of all time. Before we will get into the list, however, let’s check a quick introduction of what JRPGs are, how they differ from the regular Western RPGs and why they gained such a wide recognition in the gaming world.
WHAT ARE JRPGS?
Apart from a set of features common to any RPGs, such as a levelling system, deep narrative and quests, JRPGs are known for a particular set of characteristic of their own genre. These are turned-based combat, random battles that you trigger when walking on the world map and distinctive (sometimes even considered as overdrawn) NPCs.
Ok, but what about all these Western games that share the same elements to JRPGs and are made nearly in the same style as cult-classics, such as Final Fantasy VII and Persona? We feel a presence of JRPGs in South Park: The Stick of Truth because it features a turn-based combat and has distinctive characters, but do we have a right to call it a JRPG? Not really. Labelling SP as JRPG, after seeing Eric Cartman farting on gnomes, just doesn’t seem totally right.
Not every game made in a JRPG style can be named as a JRPG. Apart from elements common to the genre, such a game needs to have a Japanese culture inscribed into its core. But why then so many Japanese games bear so many elements common to the products released in the Western world? The mechanics and gameplay of Dark Souls, a game created by a Japanese developer, indicate clearly on resemblances from the Western RPGs, whereas a team that created Yakuza game managed to develop their own version of Gears of War.
All in all, we must remember that we live in a cosmopolitan world and that fact creates certain shifts in global cultures. What was once considered a one country product, now is a joint work of many cultural worlds. If game developers were to limit the production of JRPG only to the country of Japan to how it was before, they would hinder their own productivity and what is more, stop the development of their games, which is so needed especially now in the rapidly evolving game industry.
WESTERN RPGS VS EASTERN RPGS
Even though there is a growing tendency of incorporating ideas of JRPGs into other games, there is still a visible distinction between Western-styled RPGs and Japanese RPGs. Both of these RPG branches for many years developed on their own without influencing one another in any way. At the first glance, both of these genres share many similarities with each other. Both have a levelling system, quests and similar characters. If you take a closer look, however, you will notice some differences.
JRPGs focus on presenting a thought-through story and the drama of a given group of heroes. These games cherish a sense of unity of the team rather than glorify deeds of a one-man-army, just like Western RPGs do. This comes most likely from the cultural differences between Japan and the US. Whereas during the times of the American dominance in Japan, there was a need of solidarity and the importance of the family amongst the people, residents of America grew up on the stories of lone Wild West cowboys that usually handled things by themselves.
Another and probably the most important difference between RPGs and JRPGs is that the latter feature premade characters with predefined characteristics, whereas in the Western RPGs we are usually the ones to create our own hero according to our own vision. JRPGs make us puppet masters, or guardian angels if you will, of the main heroes. We are meant to guide them on their predefined adventures rather than weave our own destiny and make ground-breaking choices. Western RPGs on the other hand allow us to become a hero through and through, though usually for the price of a handicapped game narrative.
MAKING INDIE JRPG – WHY SHOULD YOU?
Since you know now what are JRPGs about, perhaps you might want to try yourself at making such a game, especially that the engine you will most likely work on is easy enough for you to try your hands at. If you’re a fan of JRPGs, a budding indie game developer or simply someone who loves games and wants to try something new and daring, here are several reasons why you should make a JRPG yourself.
First of all, JRPGs managed to stand the test of time and are still highly regarded amongst the veteran gamers throughout the world. Despite their rudimentary graphics and simplistic gameplay, you have a certainty that many people will enjoy your work.
Next thing, the mechanics. It’s almost impossible for any veteran gamer not to know how to play a JRPG, since these games are very similar to each other. Apart from the regular RPG elements, such as a levelling system, item collecting and quests, almost every JRPG features a world map, battle map and a turn-based combat mode. Because of the simple mechanics, you don’t have to worry that your players won’t know how to play your game.
You don’t need a team of experts to create a JRPG. After all, Final Fantasy was designed nearly by one person. Of course, the more people, the sooner you will get your project going and also its quality will be much better. However, if you accept certain setbacks in regards to the mechanics, scope of the world and gameplay as a whole, you will be perfectly fine to craft yourself a JRPG using a simple engine, such as RPG Maker (Learn how to make games using RPG Maker here).
And last but not least, once you will have your project ready and if you realise that it has a potential of earning some money, you might want to put it on one of the game platforms, such as Steam and GOG. And if you think that’s a good idea, you can also think about releasing your game on Android and iOS.
A LIST OF SOME OF THE BEST JRPGS OF ALL TIME
And here’s a promised list of some of the best and most memorable JRPGs of all time. Let’s take a look at some of the most innovative and creative products that have been released on a number of available platforms, and learn of the reasons of their tremendous popularity!
Undertale is a JRPG developed by an indie game developer named Toby Fox. The game was released on Windows and Mac in 2015 and in the next years on a number of other available platforms. At the first glance, the game may not seem super advanced, for instance as in regards to 8-bit graphics, but if you delve deeper into the rabbit hole, you will quickly realise that you have found a true gem.
The game can easily surprise you with its unpredictability, and encourage you to experiment with the gameplay. A true surprise comes to you in the combat mode. Your hero can fight the monsters not only by stabbing and killing them in the process, but also by using various social skills. In other words, you can cheer up a sad and depressed ghost and avoid combat, of course if you play your cards well. Remember, however, that every choice you make will have a significant impact on the later game. Apart from the innovative solutions regarding the mechanics, Undertale features well written dialogues and atmospheric music that bring you a one step closer to the imaginary, fantasy world.
Undertale tends to play with you on multidimensional levels. The fact that you have so many options to go through the game makes it highly repeatable in a good way. What is more, Undertale easily makes up for its rudimentary graphics with super innovative mechanics both in combat and world map mode, as well as simple yet charming animations. It gained 92/100 points on Metascore by the critics and 8.7/10 by users. It’s definitely worth a try!
KINGDOM HEARTS II
Released by Square EnIx studios on December 2005 in Japan, March 2006 in US and September 2006 in Europe and Australia, Kingdom Hearts II constitutes as one of the most recognisable series of JRPGs of all time. Despite our knowledge of the first game, KH II throws us into the world we know completely nothing about, since the main protagonist of the first part of the game is a completely unknown hero. Only after going through the beginning, Sora comes back and the story increases its pace.
Speaking about the story of Kingdom Hearts II, we all can agree that it’s far from simple. It’s complex enough to make us ponder about connecting all the given dots together and not get lost at some point on the way. If we never played the first game, it will surely be a drawback for us, however, the old players seem to cherish this enhancement, knowing that otherwise bigger games, such as Final Fantasy, would easily take over its potential players.
The game developers’ main goal was to recreate numerous films, their characters and memorable scenes. During the game we will meet a number of Disney characters, such as Mickey Mouse, Simba and Hector Barbossa. Some of them even have been recreated in accordance with the looks of particular film actors. Their presence proves that the developers of KH II had no limits when creating their game and were open to breaking boundaries and employing never seen before solutions. What is more, the experience is deepened due to the use of the original voice actors of the particular films, including a timeless paragon of the film industry Christopher Lee.
As in every game, there are of course certain drawbacks, such as the inability of opening chests when the enemies are around you, or as said before the convoluted storyline that may cause headache to those unacquainted with the series. The music, however, is definitely an asset. It features rearranged tracks from Disney films with a specific, original feel of the game. They greatly enhance the intensity of the moments in the game and blend perfectly with the theme and the story throughout the game.
Even though the popularity of Final Fantasy series to this day seems to be unbeatable, KH II managed to sell over 4 million copies in 2007 and gained a score of 87/100 points on Metacritic and a whopping 9.1/10 by the users. Despite that the game features a whole “cast” of different characters from the films, the complexity of the plot and the scope of the story, the main value of Kingdom Hearts II remains the same as in the first game of the series. It emphasises love, friendship and sacrifice – everything that is or should be dear to our hearts. Despite its multiple technical and gameplay assets, it is the meaning behind the game that makes Kingdom Hearts II a truly memorable gaming experience.
FINAL FANTASY VII
Final Fantasy VII by SquareSoft is considered one of the best if not the best JRPG ever made, and not only by the fans but also by the critics. The game gained the score of 92/100 points on Metacritic and a tremendous 9.2/10 by the users. The beginnings of coming up with Final Fantasy VII were turbulent and uncertain. The truth is, nobody knew what to expect from a game made with the use of innovative 3D graphics. Despite the odds, SquareSoft took that risk and in 1997 released probably the most expensive and the most successful game at that time.
After testing new possibilities of 3D graphics, SquareSoft decided to employ them to the game. This meant, however, that the game could not be handled by the platform it was meant to be released on. In such a way, a long relationship between Nintendo 64 and SquareSoft was suddenly over and the developers joined forces with Sony Playstation. It was meant to be a massive project and massive it was. The scope appeared to be truly electrifying. The idea was fresh, new and there was a risk involved, but nevertheless, SquareSoft took that opportunity.
The story of Final Fantasy VII is definitely not the easiest one to understand. It will take you a lot of time to go through the cutscenes and get into the lore of the game to understand every twist and every little detail of it. But it’s worth it. Despite the complexity of the story, it’s compelling and coherent.
Everything else in the game, also seems to be just on the right spot. The astonishing, timeless soundtrack made by master Nobuo Uematsu, the landscape that tells the story just as good as dialogues do, and the diversity of memorable, likeable and relatable characters you have a chance to meet on your path, despite their fantastic appeal, make the whole concept of the game truly genuine.
Final Fantasy VII is a great game. It took bold actions to plan and execute the whole development process and deal with the risk of utterly failing the idea of introducing a 3-CD big game fully supported by 3D graphics. It is also probably the only game that brought JRPGs to the forefront of the Western market. Despite its drawbacks here and there, it is probably one of the most inspiring piece of art ever created, not only because of the innovative mechanics employed, but also due to the passion that fuelled and finalised the process of its development.
A DWINDLING POPULARITY OF JRPGS
With the development of many popular Western RPGs, such as Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate, Diablo series and many MMORPGs, the popularity of JRPGs deteriorates year after year. Many Westerns games, seeing a chance for their success, incorporated features that were once common only to the Eastern RPGs.
JRPGs may seem to be on the wrong path now, but that doesn’t mean this tendency will keep up forever. Seeing a number of budding indie game developers appearing on the market with their ground-breaking games, such as To The Moon and Cthulhu Saves The World, we can only hope that this neglected genre will sooner or later regain its former glory. And now, all we can do as consumers, is support these little companies that bring back the glimmer of the old-fashioned Japanese Role-Playing Games.