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Opinion: 2009 - The Last Days of the Japanese RPG?
Opinion: 2009 - The Last Days of the Japanese RPG?
December 28, 2009 | By Jeffrey Fleming

December 28, 2009 | By Jeffrey Fleming
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[Where have the vital Japanese role-playing games gone? If 2009 was a bad year for the game industry, it was even worse for the heart-sick JRPG fan. Game Developer magazine's production editor - and committed JRPG scholar - Jeff Fleming looks back at the past year of Japanese RPG releases in North America, and believes he sees troubling signs of a genre in decline.]

The post-PlayStation 2 era has not been kind to the Japanese role-playing game. At the start of the decade it was easy to imagine Japanese RPGs taking over the world. Titles like Final Fantasy X and XII, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Xenosaga, Shenmue, Shadow Hearts, Skies of Arcadia, Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Phantasy Star Online were just some of the highlights of time when another new JRPG was added to the stack faster than we could play them.

But as console hardware transitioned, JRPGs began to drift into the background. Some might say that no one except the hard-core aficionado is very interested in them any more. Sure, there are a few exceptions. Final Fantasy XIII will sell like crazy. Western-developed RPGs like Dragon Age and Fallout 3 are doing very well. However, the unique style of Japanese developed RPGs is in distinct abeyance.

But what makes a Japanese RPG different and worth preserving? Beside the obvious points that they are made by Japanese people and generally have something to do with magic and dragons, they can be tricky to define in concrete terms.

Linear narrative, turn-based combat, anime-style art direction are all good points of reference. Perhaps more than any other mechanical aspect, the defining characteristic of Japanese role-playing games is their unapologetic sentimentality. Feelings of nostalgia, wistfulness, and longing are the emotional currency of Japanese RPGs. Emotions that I struggle to conjure, as I look across the JRPG landscape in these last days of 2009.

Senescent Paedomorphosis

Nintendo's DS handheld has been the platform of choice for the bulk of this year's new JRPG releases, and it is this fact that I find most troubling. What was once a grand adventure of color and sound has shrunk down to a three-inch screen. This is what we have to sustain us.

Atlus published some of the best JRPGs of the year and their SMT: Devil Survivor for the DS was a terrific entry in the long running Shin Megami Tensei series. The publisher also brought over experimental titles to the DS such as The Dark Spire and Knights in the Nightmare that were less successful, but welcomed for their unique art direction that dared to step away from anime stereotypes.

Square-Enix brought a few original titles to the DS including one of tri-Ace's better efforts -- Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. The game deviated from the side-scrolling action/RPG play that the Valkyrie Profile series is known for, and instead presented itself as a tactical RPG. Although Covenant of the Plume stayed closed to genre conventions, its somber storyline was given extra weight thanks to a smart translation from Alexander O. Smith. For those who like spiky haired teens and Disney characters, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days was money in the bank for Tetsuya Nomura.

While not strictly a RPG (although it does contain a fully realized out Dragon Quest clone called Guadia Quest), indieszero's Retro Game Challenge was one of the year's best games. However, like so many games, the high critical praise it received in the press totally failed to translate into strong sales.

NIS America brought the kid-oriented titles A Witch's Tale and Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island to the DS. Sega revisited Ragol with Phantasy Star 0 and Nintendo gave us another finely polished Zelda game in The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. Media. Vision, the creators of Wild Arms tried something different with The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road but it was a hard sell, straddling the line uncomfortably between children's game and role-playing. Based just on its name, Nostalgia from Red Entertainment and Matrix had a lot of expectations to live up to. Unfortunately, it didn't quite hit the emotional mark that its title inspired.

Despite having been extremely popular, I suspect that the market for the DS is quietly eroding. The hardware will soon be in its fourth revision and there is no stated plan for what comes next from Nintendo. A quick look around on local public transportation will show that most Americans are far more likely to be fondling a cell device or an iPhone/iPod during their idle moments than a Nintendo DS.

Once the generous slate of announced DS games for 2010 clears the deck, it will probably be apparent that many of the developers who had previously been focused on the aging handheld will have already left the party. But where will they have gone?

PSPooped

Despite having the highest technical specs for a handheld, Sony's PSP continues to be under-utilized as a platform for RPGs. Marvelous Entertainment's Half-Minute Hero was one of the more interesting games of the year with its sly deconstruction of JRPG tropes -- but other PSP titles seemed less compelling. NIS America gave us two PlayStation 2 ports in Mana Khemia: Student Alliance and Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days.

Square-Enix dropped Dissidia Final Fantasy in our laps, which was about as welcome as Ehrgeiz was back in the day. Capcom had some success with Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, but the series has yet to really capture the North American imagination the way it has the Japanese. Sega kept trying with Phantasy Star Portable, a game that attempts to emulate Monster Hunter, which is itself inspired by Phantasy Star Online. Atlus published Class of Heroes but most buyers played hooky.

Wiither Thou?

It could be argued that Nintendo has done more than any other company to bring the Japanese RPG to worldwide attention. Nintendo hardware has been home to such touchstone games as Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest, Earthbound, and of course, Zelda. But that was a long time ago. Nintendo consoles have not been a significant platform for new JRPGs since the SNES days and the Wii is no exception.

This year Square-Enix brought two entries in its action-oriented Crystal Chronicles series to the Wii, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers. I'm not sure where the audience for this series is coming from but I'm increasingly reminded of Square's ill-conceived Final Fantasy Mystic Quest for the SNES. I doubt that any but the most obsessive Final Fantasy completionist will spend much time with them.

Little King's Story was an under ppreciated title from ex-Love-de-Lic staffer Yoshirou Kimura, who had previously produced the obscuro game Chulip. NIS America brought Phantom Brave: We Meet Again to the Wii, a remake of the original 2004 PlayStation 2 title. Those Wii owners with ken for radish farming interspersed with some light dungeon exploring can look to Rune Factory Frontier, part of the long running Harvest Moon franchise.

The Old Man of the Mountain

The PlayStation 2 continues to soldier on. NIS America brought Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy and a buggy version of Ar tonelico 2: Melody of Metafalica to the console but the real reason to keep the machine hooked up was to enjoy Atlus' Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon.

Released in an absurdly oversized collectible package, the game was overlooked by all but the most die-hard Mega Ten fans. Too bad, because it was as slickly playable as the more popular Persona 3 and 4 games but with the addition of Kazuma Kaneko's deviant art direction.

In Case You Missed It The First Time

Another sign of the declining Japanese RPG market is the proliferation of rereleases and remakes of the genre's classic titles. While it certainly helps maintain the audience's flagging enthusiasm and is invaluable for preserving the history of JRPGs, it can't be a healthy development for some of the best games of the year to be revisited classics.

This year the PlayStation Network got Final Fantasy VII, the 1997 PlayStation game that brought JRPGs to a mass audience. It's fashionable now to dismiss Final Fantasy VII as a jumbled mess of a game that hides an incoherent narrative behind visual smoke and mirrors. The game's memory is not well served either by Square-Enix's determined efforts to extract every last bit of emotional (and physical) currency from players with the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" project.

However, spend some time with Final Fantasy VII, and you'll find a game that is still as engrossing as you remember it. The next game in the series, Final Fantasy VIII, was a late December release to the PlayStation Network store. Perhaps I can finally figure out the "correct" way to play this game so that it is fun.

Square-Enix also brought Final Fantasy Tactics to the PlayStation Network. Designed by Yasumi Matsuno (Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII), Tactics is the art house alternative to Final Fantasy VII's blockbuster aspirations. Be warned however that this is a straight port of the original PlayStation release, with all of its garbled translation intact.

The PlayStation game Star Ocean: The Second Story was remade for the PSP by Square-Enix as Star Ocean: Second Evolution. Presumably so that players of Star Ocean 4 can discover just how little progress the series has made over the decade plus of its existence. The PlayStation Network also got Wild Arms 2, which was a solid, workman-like entry in a series that has never quite earned the love that its contemporaries enjoy.

Atlus is to be commended for bringing the first Persona game to the PSP in a remastered form that corrected many of the heavy-handed English localization cuts from the game's 1996 PlayStation release. However, the original Persona was the product of an earlier time and many of its awkward game mechanics will come as a shock to players who were introduced to the series by the smoothly playable Persona 3 and 4 entries.

Despite the lack of JRPGs on the Nintendo Wii, the console's Virtual Console service remains a compelling reason for RPG fans to embrace the hardware. This year saw a number of classic titles added to the list including Yasumi Matsuno's Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen, Phantasy Star, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and the original Final Fantasy. The Virtual Console was also home to Final Fantasy IV: The After Years (a cell phone port no less!), which presents a newly created sequel to the almost two-decade old game with a retro-style graphics.

The Nintendo DS was home to some nicely executed remakes. Atlus started the year off with a deluxe release of Legacy of Ys Books I & II. Nintendo revisited the very first Fire Emblem with Intelligent System's Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. Square-Enix gave us perhaps their best title of the year in Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride which marked the game's first appearance in North America, despite having been originally released almost two decades ago.

Letters To Santa Will Be Shredded

Conspicuously absent from under this year's Christmas tree is Final Fantasy XIII. For the past decade Final Fantasy games have traditionally been released in North America during the fall season but this year Square-Enix has decided to join the general publisher flight from Christmas by pushing Final Fantasy XIII to March of the new year, where it can the join a slew of other high-profile Q2 releases.

It will certainly be a big event when the game arrives in the spring, but I doubt that it will signal a flood of new RPGs from the company. Here we are, over four years into the current hardware cycle, and Square-Enix has been slow to commit its signature widescreen adventures to the new consoles. Instead, the company has largely traded on its past with RPG remakes for handhelds, and now seems more focused on action and strategy titles for the bulk of its future catalog.

The company's only big console release of 2009 was tri-Ace's Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope for Xbox 360 and that offering was a distinctly stale and soulless affair. I single Star Ocean out for extra vituperation for its ridiculous "Children are the future!" message, its shameless pandering to the recursive obsessions of anime fandom, and its reliance on tired game design modes that are long outdated.

The first Star Ocean was released thirteen years ago and one would imagine that the developers of the series (as well as the fans) would have undergone some life changes during the intervening years; moving through adulthood, taking on new responsibilities, experiencing love and loss. Absolutely none of these concerns are reflected in their work.

It's Over Johnny!

There are a variety of reasons why the JRPG has been diminishing in recent years and Japanese RPG developers will find themselves increasingly sidelined unless they begin to acknowledge the pressing need for change.

Everyone has a story. In the past, one of the key selling points of an RPG was that it had a fairly involved narrative; something that was usually lacking in most other action oriented video games. However, video games as a whole have become much better at telling a story. For example, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves tells a story that is at least as literate as the average RPG, better paced, and in a fraction of the time.

RPGs are labor intensive and expensive to create. The hardware transition to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hit Japanese developers hard. The demand for high fidelity visuals made asset creation an order of magnitude more difficult. In the West, sophisticated middleware solutions have sprung up to help mitigate some of this complexity but many Japanese studios have been slow to adapt to the new development landscape. Because of their large scale, RPGs have been particularly squeezed by the technological demands of the new consoles, resulting in only a handful of truly next-generation titles.

The anime and manga bubble has burst. The late 90s saw a tremendous surge in Western interest in Japanese pop culture. Book and comic stores rushed to create floor space devoted to vast piles of manga. Video retailers that had previously only carried the odd Akira or Ghost in the Shell tape suddenly embraced anime with shelves of outrageously expensive box sets and bizarrely titled movies, all delivered on the new DVD format. Kids were buying up anything sporting multicolored hair and big eyes and JRPGs benefited greatly from this hunger for all things Japanese. The current reality, however, is that the teens that were driving all this economic activity are now adults with different priorities and like all fads, anime and manga has somewhat run its course in the West.

Grown-ups don't like kids stuff. Despite the industry's fixation on serving a youth demographic, the audience for games is aging and it will age out completely unless developers create work that is relevant to adults. Western RPG developers seem to understand this but Japanese studios continue to target 13 year olds. From Software's Demon's Souls for the PlayStation 3 was one of the most successful Japanese RPGs of the year in North America, both critically and commercially, because it refused to conform to genre expectations. Here was a game that was serious. It demanded focus and attention and in return it gave players a meaningful experience that was refreshingly free from the adolescent cliches that are so prevalent in JRPGs.

The Sun Rises in the West

None of this is to suggest that the RPG genre is going away for good. On the contrary, North American and European developers are making some of the most compelling RPG experiences in recent years. Western developers seem far more willing to take creative chances and push game play in new directions. They also have the money and manpower to tackle big, ambitious projects.

While the future of RPGs is secure in the hands of the West, I fear that as the Japanese become less relevant to the genre something essential will have been lost. As more "badass biotic bitches" take center stage, the RPG will slip away from the world of dreams and longing. The fantasy will be gone.


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Comments


Isaiah Taylor
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Wow, this is an amazing article.

Sjors Jansen
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The argument that DS rpg's don't count because more people are fingering their iWhatevers instead seems a bit weak to be honest. iMean what's to stop japanese rpg developers from going to the other popular handheld devices and create rpg's there?



But I do share the fear. I was pretty dissapointed by some comments by Square Enix's president a while back:

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/20573/TGS_Square_Enixs_Wada_Ja
panese_Industry_Has_Lost_Its_Position.php



Maybe if the whole western tech adoption works out it will allow them to focus more on what they're good at.. but I'm not so sure a better handle on tech is the solution here.



But since games like infinite undiscovery, the last remnant, lost oddysee, blue dragon etc. didn't really do it for me it might be nice to have some stuff changed radically.



The remakes indeed didn't help much, didn't square use the not so stellar sales of the DS chrono trigger port as an argument as to why there wouldn't be a new chrono game?



I think the tendency for existentialist / idealist narrative used to be one of the strong points of these rpgs. Coupled with a strong atmosphere.



Strong atmosphere can be created. Though most western games seem pretty blunt about it imho. But as for the narrative tendency, I don't think that's something that can be contained :)



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrh5kaWfyMQ

Adam Bishop
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I think the fact that RPGs require so much labour to produce so much content is one of the main things that has sunk the JRPG, as it were. RPGs more or less by definition have to be huge, but in the HD era it's a huge risk to put in the money required to make a current gen RPG if it's not called "Final Fantasy". I think this is a major reason that JRPG development seems to have switched primarily to the DS.



I'm not sure I agree with the point about "grown ups don't like kids stuff". Suikoden V, which is my favourite PS2 game, had a mature, complex story about political machinations, but apparently no one played it. Suikoden III, which was also excellent, seems to have sold better, but still in pretty small numbers too.



I think a big part of the problem is the term "role playing game". In truth, most of the best received JRPGs weren't actually role playing games at all, they were turn-based strategy games. I'm thinking of games like the PS1 Final Fantasies, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, etc. These games have very little in common with pen and paper RPGs except that they have magic and hit points. They were actually strategy games on a very small scale. And no one really wants to make turn-based games anymore, RPG or otherwise, which is too bad because I think there are a lot of people like me who much prefer turn-based gameplay to twitch-based gameplay. The attempts to make JRPGs more "innovative" generally involved finding ways to make the combat real-time, but that actually eliminates one of the most appealing things about them, which is that they were more deliberately paced and less frenetic.

John Gordon
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JRPG's aren't really in decline. They are simply moving onto handhelds. The home console market in Japan is what is really in decline. In Japan the money is on handhelds, so that is where most JRPG's are being made.



But it's not really accurate to say JRPG's are in decline. This year Dragon Quest IX was the top selling game in Japan by a good margin. How can a genre be in decline when it has the top selling game?

Joe Elliott
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Someone should make a AMJRPG (american-made-japanese-rpg)

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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Alan Youngblood
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My 2 and 9/10 cents (adjusted for recent inflation):



JRPGs are what made me love video games. JRPGs are why I now have made game dev and production my career. I speak for many people when we say that the genre holds a special place in our hearts. If only for the SNES and PS1 era titles, Japan produced so many games with so much awesome that a strong contingent of my generation will be forever endeared.



I have to agree totally with this great analysis of the decline. One thing I might add is that JRPGs now rely more on cliches and formulaic stuff than heartfelt emotions and thought provoking stories.



Another problem is the lack of opportunity cost in gameplay mechanics combined with a lack of difficulty. This alone must be what creates the abhorred by Westerners 'grinding.' If all my characters can do everything and it's just a matter of grinding out battles, gameplay lacks fun. I want games like the original FF that let you choose whatever specialties you want and stick you with em. You can't have that magic spell cause you already have the max of 3 spells! These days you can have you cake and eat it too...so what fun is there in doing anything? That's the unknown curse of 'having it all.' Things get boring.



@Adam, I (shamefully) haven't yet finished Suikoden III or V yet, but I really loved playing through both titles.



What's next? IMO, Western developers must reach in their inventory for a proverbial 'Phoenix down' and revive the genre. We owe it to Japan, and to ourselves. I'm not talking revive it by continuing our bethesda/bioware style stuff (we can have that too, but my point is we need something else). I think Western studios need to take an honest crack at the JRPG again, it hasn't really been done since Septerra Core.



Also, it would be nice to see people give up on their obsession with epicness. JRPGs do not have to be epic by definition. If you want to make hi-def current gen stuff, make it a short game. If you make it 10 hours with no fillers and awesomeness, it's ok.

Joseph Cassano
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I think Alan Youngblood and Joe Elliott are on the right track. It is probably safe to say that there are game developers out there who actually are JRPG fans, and new blood entering the industry in the coming years will include fans as well (those who grew up with SNES/PS1 era JRPGs, for example). As such, I would not be surprised if quite a few JRPG styled games are made by such people in the future. I know they're presently called "J"RPGs, but that doesn't mean they can only be made by Japanese developers.



The market for JRPGs in the West may be somewhat niche at the moment, but it's quite an active niche, one that should not be neglected. And who knows, with a possible influx of "Western JRPGs", that market may become less and less niche as time goes on.

Chad Metrick
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@ Dave Smith

I think JRPGs are distinctive enough to at least be considered a sub-genre of RPGs. I look at it the same way as "spaghetti westerns" and "westerns."



As for them being in decline, John Gordon makes a good point about the shift from home consoles to handhelds that seems to be taking place right now, but I also think it reflects a change in the western audience. We'll see.

Jonathan Gilmore
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The fact that all of the top selling JRPGs were on the DS is a sign of their decline. The DS is almost like the direct to dvd of the game business due to the absolutely drastic disparity in production values between current-gen consoles and the DS. I'm a 360 owner and a DS owner and the only time I play the DS is on an airplane. The DS lends itself to awkward game mechanics and things like traditional turn based rpg combat systems that have grown extremely stale.



The most compelling experiences in games today are on PC and consoles, because they have the hardware to pull them off. Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars is a good game-for a DS game-but it, or any other handheld game, can't hold a candle to the impact of games like Gears of War or Uncharted 2 or Mass Effect, etc. Units sold alone don't cut it, since iPhone games sell like hotcakes. I like that Mr. Fleming highlited Demon's Souls since it seems to be a bright spot in JRPGs. Not necessarily my cup of tea but it sounds quite innovative.

Robert Boyd
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I agree that 2009 was a weak year for JRPGs. JRPGs are my favorite genre, but when I was coming up with my top 10 favorite games of the year, I only came up with 3 - SMT: Persona, Half-Minute Hero, and Devil Survivor. One of those is a remake and one of those plays so differently than the norm that I've heard some people say it doesn't qualify as a JRPG even though it's a parody of the genre.



On the other hand, 2010 looks stronger. Just in the first quarter, we're getting FF13, SMT: Strange Journey, and Sakura Wars 5.

Andres Castro
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Part of the issue what once was a relatively competitive landscape of companies making RPGs [Squaresoft, Enix, Tri-Ace, Namco, Capcom, and others] is now essentially Square-Enix, and Bandai-Namco.



S-E is not the same company that Squaresoft was. Squaresoft took a ton of risks and developed a lot of games that struck out from the games that FF was. Obviously not every one of those was a good game, and many of the good games never got the praise it deserved(Dewprism or Einhander for example) but they took risks. S-E hasn't taken those same risks instead, just like the article mentions, delivering remakes or capitalizing on big names. The other day someone inside S-E made a comment that there needs to be more risk taking, which is at least a bit hopeful in that regard.



The other issue is that there has been a backlash against many of the JRPG mechanics that I at least find endearing. Things like random encounters are seen as an instrument used due to a lack of hardware capability, which ignores games like Seiken Densetu 3 that had enemies you could sneak pass way back on the SNES. Or like Mr. Bishop above posted, the movement away from turn based combat to real time, frantic movement games. Complexity, it seems, is now added for the sake of complexity.



The last issue is, like the article points out, the video game industry's fascination with high fidelity graphics. While its great to look at for sure, I think too much is placed on those graphics. In the end what made FFVII great was not that it was the 1st FF in 3d, but that there was so much character and fun in the gameplay that did not limit itself to using combat to progress. FFVII probably had more minigames than any RPG to date which did a lot to keep the game from getting stale.

radomiro tomic
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Ive been hearing speeches like that jrpg are doomed from at least six or seven years.

I suspect that is not that occidental developers dont want to include emotions in theirs characters, what happen is they CAN'T do it.

I believe that jRPG has a very good health .... IN JAPAN!

Just look at the sales of FFXIII right now!!!

they dont care what USA'ers have to say! ha, ha...

Anthony Charles
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i think what you're trying to say is that a specific type of japanese story telling is no longer popular in america. i would argue, it was never popular in america. most video game were developed in and for japan during the SNES/PS1 days. japanese rpgs sold terrifically, not because americans loved the sentimentality, but because there were no other options. americans chose to play games created for their sensibilities as soon as they were available. similarly, many games developed for american audiences do relatively poorly in japan, i.e. modern warfare 2.

Joseph Cassano
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@Anthony Charles



I think that viewpoint is very flawed. If it were true that Japanese storytelling was never popular in America, then the anime boom of the 90s would have never existed, and you wouldn't have Westerners who, to this day, are still interested in JRPGs and other forms of Japanese storytelling. The numbers may not be as large as in the 90s, but the market is still there and viable.



I will concede to the fact that, in the SNES/PS1 era, JRPGs were really the only RPG choice on consoles, but if anything, that only created more fans that are still fans now.

Luis Guimaraes
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The facts that there aren't many JRPGs for Xbox 360 doesn't mean they are in colapse... JRPGs are far more strategic and allows for clever play than any western one. Western RPGs are more like action games with the so-called "RPG Elements" (i.e. Grinding System). They're easy and fullfilled with time wasting.

Ted Brown
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The market has been flooded by titles that match or exceed the quality of what we were used to back in the day, because thousands of developers who grew up with JRPGs are making their own, like they dreamed of doing, and are releasing them in freeware, shareware, indie, flash, and console formats.



It makes sense that, in this era of plenty, people gravitate towards the AAA releases which other people are playing, esp. if those titles include ways to interact with other players (such as Pokemon or Dragon Quest).



Also, JRPGs nobody plays is nothing new. Even back in the NES and SNES days, games of this genre would be released and immediately forgotten. (my own personal example is 7th Saga). A massive time investment to complete these games, and little or no innovations in game play and story, means less of them get played.



It's really quite sad: these innocent auteurs are crafting good games that will be left by the wayside. Their forgotten titled are saddled with retro aspirations, aimed at the children they once were.



I don't even have an impulse to share these games with my kids: as a medium, games learned a lot from the JRPG genre, and have moved on. I mean, I'd rather them grind XP and loot in Odin Sphere than FFVII.

E Zachary Knight
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As a huge fan of JRPGs, I would have to say that any loss of the sub-genre is a huge loss. I echo the sentiment raised above that my love of JRPGs from the NES and SNES days are what started me on my path to game development.



Unfortunately, I must say that my ability to fit JRPGs into my gaming schedule has declined considerably. In my youth, I was able to play JRPGs for the 40+ hours they needed to be completed in a relatively short amount of time. I beat a good deal of them. As I grew up, went to college, got a full time job, got married and had kids, my game tiem has been reduced considerably. I have sitting on my game shelf well over a dozen games (not all JRPGs) that I have yet to play and/or beat. I just can't sit down and play like I used too. I am currently working on finishing Metroid Prime 2 which I got for Christmas in 2008. It has taken me well over a year to beat it and Metroid Prime 1.



Any game time I get now is often spent gaming with my kids and wife. I can't really tell them that they can't play because I want to play this single player game that takes 40+ hours to beat. So my gaming sessions have switched form those games to anything I can find that is co-op. The Lego games, racing games, party games, rhythm games etc. If I could find more co-op RPGs I would be more inclined buy and play those as I would be able to play them with my family.



So maybe that is it. Multi-player is the problem. Westerners want Multiplayer games not single player games. Games they can play with their friends and families.

Josh Green
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The reduction in number and quality of JRPGs is less to do with hardware and more to do with Japan's dismal market for video games in general. Games simply aren't selling as well as they used to over there. Note the sudden interest in the creation/acquisition of western studios for Japanese companies, including the publishing of western-made titles in North America and Europe.



Some of the reduction of Japanese games in the Japanese marketplace is probably cultural. Japanese media in general is becoming less and less Japan-centric. Plus games were at one time considered much more universal and culturally relevant in Japan than they ever were in places such as Europe and North America. Everyone, adults and children alike, played video games. Games were about as successful as films, television, and other media of the time. However, the internet has changed all of this.



Where the internet (via mass communication and the ability to play each other online) has increased western interest in video games, the internet has decreased Japanese interest in video games. Japanese youth find video games to be an out-modded medium that is less compelling to them than the things they can do and experience directly online. As such, you'll see heavy hitters like Monster Hunter, Dragon Quest, and Final Fantasy sell out to the increasingly marginalized crowd of video game enthusiasts. But you'll see less games sell well overall to a steadily decreasing demographic.



The games industry in Japan won't die out, but it will take a long while for games to find the cultural relevancy they once enjoyed during the 80's and 90's. And considering that I grew up playing the first Final Fantasy on NES and a huge number of JRPGs following it, I think it would be nice for a western developer or two to create Japanese-style RPGs. One of my dreams is to have a western developer and a Japanese developer work hand-in-hand to develop a major RPG. I know that's a tad difficult given the language barrier and huge disparity in company cultures. But one can dream. ;)

Erik Carlson
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@ joe elliot



Anachronox didn't sell very well despite some serious critical acclaim.

Joseph Cassano
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"In fact I can tell you right now that no JRPG date(from the 90's up to now) aside from Final Fantasy have sold above 200K."



@Andre Thomas



I think it's very convenient that you are taking Final Fantasy out of that consideration. Sure, it's one series, but it still does well in the west. Also, aside from each game having similar thematic elements and throwbacks (chocobos and the like), most games in the series are quite different from one another, especially when it comes to setting (future sci-fi, sword and sorcery, a mix of both sometimes, etc.)



Final Fantasy alone shows us that the demand is there. So if you include Final Fantasy with other JRPGs, then yes, that niche IS important.

Adam Bishop
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I really don't understand all the FFVII bashing that seems to go on whenever JRPGs are discussed. I still try to play it once every couple of years, including a playthrough this past summer, and I still find it to be one of the most satisfying experiences I can have on a console.

Adam Bishop
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Based on what I've read of Demon's Souls it's a game I have pretty close to zero interest in. I play games to relax, not be frustrated.

Ted Brown
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@Joseph: I think by roping Final Fantasy in with the rest of the JRPGs, you are badly skewing expected results. Final Fantasy is the only "household" name in JRPGs in America (a distant second is Dragon Quest). I say that because it garners attention regardless of its content or quality.



This might cause some facepalms, but bear with me. In the movie industry, they are realizing that a plurality of choice does not mean the average viewing per release goes up. In fact, margin titles are competing with each other for scant attention time, and getting less, while major releases continue to attract more and more mainstream dollars.



Read A World of Hits at the Economist [ http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14959982 ]. Replace "Sci Fi Action Films" with "JRPGs", and "Avatar" with "Final Fantasy", and you'll see the reasoning behind my point: single player JRPGs that stick to the formula, with no community or online interaction, will never attain greatness again. And maybe they never really did, and are simply towering achievements in the mind of a fractured few. Myself included. =)

Stephen Chin
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I'm indifferent to JRPGs in general though I recognize that they have played a big part in the gaming landscape insofar as consoles are concerned.



That said, I think that very reason is the reason for their 'decline'. JRPG developers, quite frankly, are relying heavily on nostalgia and sentimentality, targeting an audience that isn't old enough to -have- a connection to that. To someone just picking up FF7 today, they're not going to care that it's a classic - they're going to compare it to the titles and trends of today. Likewise for new franchises that bank on 'classic' gameplay.



And with that though, one also needs to realize that JRPGs are niche titles. With the proliferation of developers, audience, and ease of entry, that is apparently. This doesn't mean it's dying - on the contrary, it as a niche is probably well good and alive. However, with the greater choice and volume of genres of RPGs, JRPGs are simply no longer the dominant form of RPGs.



I don't think JRPGs will die or that they necessarily need to 'evolve'. However, I don't think companies can afford to bank on them as their sole source of income anymore.

Stephen Chin
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Append: One also needs to be aware of the nostolgia effect on past fans too. FF7 may be good - however, fans may be seeing it as far better than it was and overlooking it's flaws. As the JRPG fanbase grows with fewer new fans (potentially), this effect greatens - people start dismissing perfectly valid JRPGs because they're not as good as seen through skewed perceptions.

Stephen Chin
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Append Two (yeah, shoot me): Perhaps too the 'death' of JRPGs, at least in the west, is a result of the same reason adventure games 'died'. One, it's cyclical - they're merely in a downward swing as trends are want to do. Two, and perhaps more significantly, as far as the mainstream west and even most of the gaming west, for a very large chunk of the past few years, the only name in JRPGs is/has/was SquareEnix and any companies related to it by staff. Square's expansion into other genres, roles, as well as milking of old products means that the only real name people know is getting out of the JRPG game. I expect that as other companies take prominent, as fans become devs, JRPGs will make the same sort of quiet return that adventure games have. Perhaps no longer the mainstay of gaming, but return nevertheless.

Ciger Chen
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JRPG for me, in my mind, it always reminds the cute-faces, loli-style girl and all the cute staffs. Seems JRPG developer is not good at making some serious dark style RPG like Fallout/Manhunt for adult players. (Except for their H titled games.)

Sjors Jansen
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@Ciger Chen:

True, true. Cute lighthearted stuff has pretty much always been present. But the mid 90's games generally pull an evangelion on you and tell stories of angst, depression, suicide, pretty upsettings psychological problems etc.. The Joker in the batman dark knight movie had a lot in common with Kefka from FF6 for example. In my opinion, that was a reasonably serious character. Even though his looks are mostly super deformed anime style.

But there are some jrpg's that also look the part. Vagrant Story, Koudelka, Shadow Hearts for instance, Shin Megami Tensei games used to have some pretty dark / demonic looks as well.



Modern JRPG's, I wholeheartedly agree, look way too 3d and way too cute :) At least pixelart leaves room for the imagination.

Sjors Jansen
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US Released JRPGS (360 & PS3):



Blue Dragon (Mistwalker)

Cross Edge (Compile Heart)

Demon's Souls (From Software)

Enchanted Arms (From Software)

Eternal Sonata (Tri-Crescendo)

Final Fantasy 13 (Square-Enix)

Folklore (Game Republic)

Infinite Undiscovery (Tri-Ace)

Last Remnant (Square-Enix)

Lost Odyssee (Mistwalker)

Magna Carta 2 (Banpresto/Softmax)

Star Ocean 4: The last hope (Tri-Ace)

Tales Of Vesperia (Namco Bandai)



Upcoming:



White Knight Chronicles (Level-5)

Atelier (Gust)

Ar Tonelico (Gust)

Nier (Cavia)

Far East of Eden (Hudson)

Resonance of Fate (Tri-Ace)

B. Alexander Newton
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I think its the incredible expansion of JRPGS that did the genre as much harm as any other concern.

If the defining quality of JRPG's (like a good bit of anime) is wistfulness, remembrance, and similar emotional experiences, then the well can be plumbed dry pretty quickly. Only the most dramatic of people will enjoy experiencing the same woe for a lost whatever time after time with only the set dressing changed.

"Romeo Romeo wherefor, art thou romeo?"

"Jimmy Jimmy, wherefor, art thou Jimmy?"

Reiteration tends to make things lose their punch.



Some of the shining bits of JRPG history are those with unique points, or at least were the first to do something really well.

Personally, whenever the great hero who is the world's only hope starts whining about his/her childhood/pet cat/inability to get a girlfriend, it doesn't make me sentimental or sympathetic. It makes me angry at the utter selfishly blind mindset this "hero" apparently has, especially since said dialogue usually happens after its extremely apparent to everyone (the hero included) that they are the hero of this story.



The ageing of the gamer market has something to do with it too. I find myself far more engaged by the storyline and characters of Mass Effect, than I do any of the Final Fantasies. Mass Effect's cast is and story are far more human.

Sjors Jansen
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Kind of off-topic



@B. Alexander Newton:

Nice comments. I'm pretty much the complete opposite as far as story subjects are concerned, but I can understand what your saying here :) Saving the world, being a hero etc. doesn't move me in the slightest. I thought it was pretty cool that Cloud from FF7 turned out to be a liar and a weakling. And I'm not particurlarly fond of FF7.



I'd like your opinion on Lost Odyssee, and what would be good jrpg's in your opinion?



I'm asking because you seem to be comfortable with western rpg storytelling and I'm not. Fresh perspective and such. Thanks!

Chris Chiu
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Some comments indicate that one of the problems is JRPGs targeting younger audiences.



I think that might be the problem actually, but in a different way. Most visuals in JRPGs are rather colorful, and to the westerner seem like aimed at children. However, this can be a misconception that comics (and as the article mentions, anime and manga) also suffer from.



The Persona series is definitely an adult/older teen targeted series, despite its colorful visuals. Children won't be able to appreciate the fine psychological themes (related to Carl Gustav Jung) in the series.



Furthermore, even games that for a large part include comical relief may actually include some more serious themes. I'd like to particularly mention the Tales series here. While story-wise, it's definitely one of the more traditional (or "stagnant") series, gameplay-wise it always chose to do things a little differently with its action-based combat system, and defying genre conventions by getting rid of random encounters, allowing setting the difficulty at any time, and things like that.



However, the Tales series' narrative, despite the rather generic fantasy stories, always revolve around themes of racism and xenophobia, sometimes better told (Tales of Rebirth), sometimes a bit shallow (Tales of Symphonia). And it does this in a way (mostly) that takes the theme quite seriously.



I think one of the ways to rescue JRPGs might be the same as to "rescue" comics targeted at older audiences: making it happen so that "mature" stuff doesn't always have to be gray, brown, and completely desaturated (like many western "mature" RPGs, or other types of games that claim to be "mature"). There can be a serious, mature core inside a lush, colorful wrapping.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Chris Chiu



That's exactly the point, western audiences judge games quality and maturity by graphics. Also, asian culture don't have the "Good vs. Evil" mentality of the western cultures. And japanese games are not made to "make the player feel empowered", which is the case in most succesful games targeted at the US.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Andre Thomas



Thanks for the tip, I'll take a further look at this. PS.: I wasn't make critics about jRPGs, but at mainstream western gamers and their "beat the game" and "pwn" things.

Josh Green
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@Andre

Actually, arcades are on the decline in Japan. People are finding more stuff to do on their mobile devices while waiting for crowded trains than they are spending large sums of money at the local arcades and pachinko parlors. The industry in full (arcades, consoles, hand-helds, etc) is in decline throughout the country. And it's more about availability of new (non-gaming) technology and declining cultural relevance than it has to do with simply having another place to play games. If you notice, the arcade machines that have come out more recently in Japan tend to be a tad bit more gimmicky than they used to be even in the 90's with the invention of Bemani.



Also, I never said games in Japan were going to die. I think there'll be a resurgence of them at some point. But for now, the Japanese public is more interested in the newer, shinier toys out there than they are about the latest video games. Look at it this way... things are so bad over there that even Modern Warfare 2 broke into the top 10 on the PS3.



EDIT: That last comment about Modern Warfare 2 isn't to suggest it's a bad game. It's an indication that the lack of sales volume has propelled an American first person shooter into the charts.

Argent Reivich
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For those calling for western-developed JRPGs, what do you make of the Penny Arcade Adventures games?

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Tom Newman
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The JRPG will return. It is certainly much bigger now than a few short years ago, and as noted, the popularity of the genre is still huge. I do recognize that the current gen of consoles aer a bit weaker in the jrpg arena, but I think this will reverse itself. Look at fighting games - many blogggers were calling it a dead genre in recent years, but this year we saw not only new entries form most of the major franchises, we saw some new outstanding titles like Blaze Blue.


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