[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.
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?
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.
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.