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A Japanese RPG Primer: The Essential 20

March 19, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 15 of 21 Next

Final Fantasy X

Developer: Square

Publisher: SquareSoft (2001, PlayStation 2)

Ever since the early days of interactive fiction, game developers have been wondering -- how does one tell a story using video games as a medium? The advent of the laserdisc -- and later, the CD-ROM -- gave developers the wrong idea, by churning out full motion video titles that, while cinematic, had limited user inputs.

For a long time, Western developers favored the graphic adventure as a means of storytelling, while the Japanese preferred role playing games, which replaced the mind-bending puzzles with battles and character building. At the forefront of this movement has been Final Fantasy, which has been consistently impressive, partially because of the huge budget and manpower put behind them.

At the pinnacle of JRPG storytelling is Final Fantasy X. It was voted in 2006 as the best video game of all time by the readers of Famitsu, the premiere Japanese video game magazine. At the core of the story is Tidus, a young athlete whisked away to another world. This land, dubbed Spira, is a gorgeous tropical paradise, yet is under the constant threat of a giant monster named Sin.

Tidus eventually join a pilgrimage to stop it, joining along with a young summoner named Yuna. Final Fantasy VIII told its love story two years before FFX, but hiccups in execution -- including a divisive main character -- allowed room for improvement. Tidus is much brighter and friendlier, even if he is a bit whiny. He joins the pilgrimage mostly because Yuna has something of a crush on him.

It actually tells a compelling story this time around, and the romantic climax -- featured on the cover of the American manual -- is far more involving than the similar scene in FFVIII.

Spira is one of the most gorgeously realized worlds yet rendered into a video game. While Square's mediocre beat-em-up The Bouncer was meant to show off what kind of graphical tricks the PS2 could pull off, Final Fantasy X was Square's first real RPG on the system, and they didn't spare any expense.

The world is loosely inspired by the Okinawa region, which is why this game feels more Japanese than any of its culturally neutral predecessors. One of the reasons Final Fantasy stands out from its peers is the way its game worlds refuse to be pigeonholed into genre classifications -- none can be defined strictly as "medieval" or "sci-fi". Although some inhabit the nebulous zone in between those descriptions, Spira defies pretty much everything and is by far the most unique of all.

It's a strange world, filled with its own culture, religion, and even metaphysics, and the whole game is about how these clash with not only Tidus' feelings, but the player's as well. At the very least, Final Fantasy X's world gives some context to Tetsuya Nomura's occasionally outlandish character designs, even if some, like the goth girl Lulu, still seem to exist more as a fetish object than a true inhabitant of the land.

Most of this involvement comes from the narrative, which is far more involving than any game before -- or, arguably -- after it. Before Final Fantasy X, major plot points were handled by squat little sprites or awkwardly constructed polygonal models, both with very limited ranges of emotion.

Almost everything here is represented with a fully animated, fully voiced cutscene. Even the dialogue boxes of the non-voiced sections are gone, replaced with subtitles. Whereas many of the previous Final Fantasy games were games with story elements, this is a story with gaming elements

However, sometimes the narrative pushes just a little too hard. It's hard to say there are any real dungeons in Final Fantasy X -- most of the adventuring requires walking in a straight line, with an occasional branch that leads to treasure. It takes a few hours before the game loosens its reins and stops giving tutorials. This ensures a well-paced story, but it also drastically limits the sense of freedom, an element which is already pretty rare in most JRPGs.

There are also tons upon tons of cutscenes, all of which are unskippable. It also highlights another problem -- if the player doesn't like the story, there's very little of worth here. The battle system, which ditches the Active Time Battle system of the previous Final Fantasy games, is fast and fun, but the character development system -- the Sphere Grid -- is pretty lacking. Even if you didn't care of Squall or Rinoa's antics in FFVIII, at least you had the Junction system to play around with.

In Final Fantasy X, the most interesting parts of the Sphere Grid don't open up until the later portions of the game, far too late for those who aren't immediately drawn in by the tensions between Tidus and Yuna. It doesn't help that, like many of the Final Fantasy games, it tends to devolve into ludicrousness -- the monster that terrorizes Spira is actually Tidus' drunken father, the kind of wholly absurd metaphor for filial tension that would potentially get one laughed out of their high school creative writing class.

But again, like most JRPGs, once you accept it on its own terms -- silly melodrama and all -- it remains a completely original, fascinating, even emotional tale. As a piece of video game storytelling, Final Fantasy X doesn't quite reaches the heights of, say, Metal Gear Solid 2 or BioShock, both of which use the medium in ways that other kinds of fiction can't.

But as a cinematic experience, featuring interesting characters and a beautifully realized alternate world, it walks an agreeable line between narrative and gameplay, even if it tends to err too far from the gameplay side.


Article Start Previous Page 15 of 21 Next

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Shaun Huang
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What about Star Ocean? Tales of Phantasia? The hentai RPGs? the horror RPGs? The intro talks big about "studying" the japanese rpg primers but the content seem more like one person's list of favorite rpg instead of a comprehensive overview.

Tom Newman
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Great article! FF heavy (I disagree about FFXII, and definately disagree about Chrono Cross), but my top 5 made it in including the much overlooked BoF:Dragom Quarter and SMT:Nocturne)

Aaron Lutz
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There's a reason it's called an "opinion" piece... it's this guy's "opinion" of the top 20 JRPGs. And he did define the requirements to be included in the list early on.

To the Author,

Thank for this illumination. Sadly, I don't play as many RPGs as I would like, and Gamasutra continues to inform me about games that I never knew existed. This is no different. I agree and disagree about a few choices, but all-in-all it's a good read. Thanks!

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I agree with Zero Punctuation's view on JRPGs. They all look, sound, talk, feel smell the same.

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If you're going to say that all JRPGs are the same, then I think it's pretty clear that you haven't explored the genre much.

Also, this list needs some Disgaea on it, or just any sort of recognition towards Nippon Ichi Software.

Hayden Dawson
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The inclusion of titles such as Dragon Quarter and the Shin Megami's do a strong job of showing how varied the genre is. For places such as g4 and other US sites that have been the most vocal in bashing JRPGs lately, I find it so humorous that they hold FPSes up to some gold standard when if anything, such titles even more guilty of the same old same old.

i would agree that the most obvious series not covered (as he did specifically define JRPG for the article) is something from the Tales series.

Nicholas Karpuk
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I found this article really insightful, since the world of JRPGs is often intimidating, since a bad investment can mean a dozen hours of grinding and plots that don't really satisfy.

It really highlights the benefit of the genre, which is an almost absurd level of depth when it comes to atmosphere and a sense of a larger world.

The main frustration of this article is that the games I was not already familiar with are by in large titles that I can't purchase legitimately without throwing down a large amount of cash.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

David Deeble
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Great article. Within the context you stated at the beginning of the piece I agree with many of your selections (the others I just haven't played).

I haven't played a JRPG for quite some time (Dragon Quest VIII was my last), the reason being that I find the genre may have already past its best, recent titles just don't seem to have the edge that made many of the games on your list so memorable - though I suppose it could just be a bout of nostalgia kicking in.

Still, one thing's for sure: The article's made me fall in love with Skies of Arcadia again...oh and I had my weekend all planned out. Curse you and your eloquent words!

Roberto Alfonso
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When teen, I could never decide whether Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger was the best role playing game ever made. Over 10 years later, I still can't decide.

By the way, isn't Pokémon a JRPG? And I would have mentioned Lufia instead of Final Fantasy VIII. The game starts in the final tower, with your characters at level 70. Back in 1993, that was revolutionary.

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No Super Mario RPG. No Lunar. No Lufia. No Secret of Mana. No Vagrant Story.

Could have dropped FF all but Final Fantasy VI and replaced them with the above.

Final Fantasy V is far from essential.

Jon Burke
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Secret of Mana and Vagrant Story aren't traditional JRPGs, which is what this list is.

Really the only one listed here that I don't agree with is Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Didn't care for the ring system much. It makes every action a gamble when things like using items and doing basic attacks shouldn't be.

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Lack of the Saga series is surprising. Not to mention Tengai Makyo Manji Maru for the PC Engine that lived on Famitsu's Top 20 best games ever list for years beyond its release. Then again, these 2 series are far more essential to Japan JRPGs.

Paul Rooney
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Fantastic article, very glad to see Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Persona 3. I couldn't agree more.

I'm a huge SMT fan for many reasons and Nocturne had many small but key elements that made it by far my favourite game. One of which having a demon that can cast estoma and riberama for exploration and levelling up. Took a lot of the frustration from random encounters right out but kept a huge level of tension due to the brilliant difficulty level because you always had to be on the ball, and if you were even flicking on 'Auto' was a great feature.

The plot(s) also grabbed me more because not only was it complex, it was dark and sometimes optional. For me a guide is essential for this game because its absolutely huge.

Devil Summoner was also great as it had a fantastic and distinct atmosphere that almost felt tangible at times.

Anyway a fantastic list, some of which I havn't played. You can use this list as a must play quality RPG list.

Ryan Barrett
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Kurt, where oh where is Crystalis!?!?

AND Vagrant Story!?!? OMG and Secret of Mana and oh i'm sure everyone above me said something too that you didn't have. You really shouldn't have combined 4, 6 and 7 into one. And 5, 8, and 12 are HARDLY worth playing. Sorry Kurt, but your list fails.

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Ignore the haters, Author. This was a great read.

Tawna Evans
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Too much to read! I ended up just scanning titles, and I read only the pages of games I am familiar with. It would be nice if the article were shorter... maybe provide one paragraph per game instead of a whole page.

The author seems heavily biased in favor of Square Enix games. I saw multiple Final Fantasies and such.

Aaron Gingras
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I think the inclusion of an abundant of Square-Enix RPGs was to be expected, considering they've been the primary developer of some of the best J-RPGs out.

Still more into Computer RPGs myself, though.

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I liked the list a lot, it was the most accurately critical and praising the various underlying "segments" that make up each rpg and it's gameplay that I've seen! And while I feel that a few did get left out, and for me final fantasy is vanilla meh, I thought it was a pretty comprehensive list of the mainstream JSRPGS also. Kudos, mebbe now I will finally try Phantasy Star IV my friend has recommended.

PS you left one thing out -- its a bigger mystery than not releasing FF V, another Chrono, etc etc combined that Earthbound II(Mother 3 if you prefer) was indefinitely delayed, then pissed away on a Japanese Cell Phone.

Shame on you, NIntendo!!

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Good list all in all, though like many above me I'd take issue with many of them. For one I found Chrono Cross' battle system anything but friendly to an rpg veteran like me. I'm all for new systems in rpgs, but seriously having to melee attack to charge up to use a HEALING item was something that made me wanna be violent. Spells I could see doing such with but items always made me annoyed.

Other than that I don't have much of a problem with the list at all. I would have grouped all the final fantasies together to make room for some others (yes I know a lot of FF games are very diffrent from each other, so sue me it's still the same name they should be together) but it's a minor gripe.