Meet some of the indie devs quietly pushing the JRPG genre forward
Over the past few years, it seems as though the breathless paeans enthusiastic fans have sung for the ‘90s “golden age” of JRPGs has finally reached the ears of their slumbering god, Square Enix, which has deigned to publish some newer games that strike at this once-depleted vein.
But while the gaming community has largely granted retro-inspired fare like I Am Setsuna and Octopath Traveler a warm reception, it can sometimes feel that the developers’ respect for their forebears skews a little too close to nostalgic idol worship, which in turn reflects a deep aesthetic conservatism that posits Chrono Trigger as the Last, Best JRPG, and jettisons two decades’ worth of genre development in the process.
As Japan struggled to find a way forward for one of its most celebrated exports in the post-FFX era of the aughts (which, to be clear, saw the release of many stellar but relatively-unheralded entries in the canon, such as Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, and the lately-resurgent Persona series) a generation of Western developers reared on the likes of Final Fantasy VI and especially the offbeat cult hit Earthbound have stomped onto the indie scene, producing a torrent of oddball output that takes the beloved raiments of these classic games and puts them through a spin cycle.
When slung side-by-side, these latter works cast light on the amnesiac protagonists and bucolic villages of, say, Lost Sphear, revealing the layers of dust that have gathered in the decades since their introduction.
Of course, when you so much as whisper the words “cult JRPG,” for many of us, a certain indie hit immediately comes to mind: the venerable Undertale, Toby Fox’s anime-tinged love letter to internet culture and the work of Shigesato Itoi. But while there’s no denying the mammoth influence that Fox’s tiny game has had on the whole of independent gaming - if you listen closely, you can still hear the old cult prepping their coordinated Sans and Papyrus cosplay for its release on Nintendo Switch - its unexpected popularity created a wave of lo-fi fervor that lifted a clutch of similar games in the process.
'It's gotta be interesting above all else'
"My design philosophy with LISA was, to be blunt, 'this genre inherently sucks, because its structure makes it easier to be boring than interesting, given the nature of mechanics and story delivery.'"
At a glance, Austin Jorgensen’s 2014 effort LISA seems to tick all the same boxes as its more-famous counterpart - a 16-bit RPG Maker throwback seeded with irreverent humor and pop-culture references that belie a grim core that thrums just beneath the surface. Though aspects of LISA reflect a deep knowledge of the ‘90s classics, by his own admission, Jorgensen didn’t actually grow up worshipping at the altar of FF and its ilk - rather, he became interested in the genre by watching his brother play through them.
He describes the exercise as a sort of bonding ritual, a way to connect with his older sibling, even though he personally preferred the likes of Mario and Sonic. In fact, when he started futzing around with entry-level game dev software in high school, he was trying to make something more akin to the classic RPG-brawler River City Ransom than, say, Lunar. It was only when he realized that his coding chops weren’t up to the task that he scaled back his ambitions.
“I mean, I didn’t even know how to do a variable,” he says. “I was working with Game Maker at first, but then I fell back to RPG Maker, just because I knew how to work it. It was more a limitation, which was a blessing in disguise, because now, working on my new game Ninja Tears, I have so much freedom that it causes something like choice paralysis.”
Compared to the danmaku-inspired bullet rain of Fox’s game, however, LISA hews a bit closer to the “RPG”-side of things, with a focus on proper party management and skill synergies rather than pixel-perfect dodging. According to Jorgensen, this approach didn’t spring from a deep love of JRPGs - rather, it was an attempt to rehabilitate a style of games that many enthusiasts view as outmoded, or even entirely deceased.
“My design philosophy with LISA was, to be blunt, ‘this genre inherently sucks, because its structure makes it easier to be boring than interesting, given the nature of mechanics and story delivery,’” says Jorgensen. “So, my goal was to push them as far away from a traditional JRPG as I could. I didn’t want it to be top-down, so I made it a side-scroller. I wanted to make battles interesting, so I made every character different, because not everybody likes turn-based combat. When I went into it, I thought, I don’t care if it’s good or bad, even if I want it to be good. It’s gotta be interesting above all else. And that’s why I took a risk with the mechanics.”
Despite its telltale genre trappings, Jorgensen endeavored to surprise the seasoned RPG player at every turn with particularly brutal mechanics culled from “choice and consequence” games like Gods Will Be Watching, often tuned to the clatter of random dice rolls.
For example, resting too often at a campfire will eventually incur an attack from bandits that will permanently reduce one of your stats, and several situations call for player character Brad to choose one of your beloved compatriots to permanently sacrifice for the good of the party. While these elements have proven controversial to purists, Jorgensen says he was experimenting with the binary “save the puppy/kill the puppy” choices that defined the Western RPGs of the mid-to-late aughts, like Mass Effect.
“You’re Jedi or Sith, or you're Paragon or Renegade,” he says. “I felt like people were always going to do the good choice, because they’re intelligent gamers, and they want the best ending or reward. They’re not making these choices because you moved them with your story, they’re making these choices because they want the best outcome. I didn’t have a blueprint, I was just trying my hand at it.”
Pay tribute to what works, and cut out everything that doesn't
In the nearly three-year interval since Fox made such a splash in the scene, the number of indie JRPGs has remained somewhat stagnant, even as the annual haul of games on Steam has ballooned to unsustainable levels. For Andrew Allanson, one-half of the two-brother design team behind the upcoming 3D JRPG YIIK - pronounced Y-2-K, not “yik,” as I swiftly learned - the popular history of JRPGs in the West elides many classics that influence his work, such as Lufia 2 and the original Shadow Hearts. “We’ve basically erased so many Japanese games,” he says. “We talk about FFVI, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, FFVII, and FFXIII as a cautionary tale.
“There’s a big problem in indie games where everybody is just trying to remake their favorite games. People make Metroid or Zelda or even Meat Boy over and over. It becomes a self-referential thing. There are a lot of amazing indie games right now, of course, but we try to fight against that. That’s why we went for the 3D, Mega Man Legends-esque art style, because we didn’t want to promote the fetishization of that classic 2D style.”
Ackk Studios' YIIK
Like Jorgensen, Allanson says that he tries his best to fight against the intoxicating lure of nostalgia, largely by continuing to play these aged games at the same time as recent raucously-acclaimed titles, like Nier: Automata and God of War.
“Mother 3 is a much better game than Earthbound,” he says. “Its charm carries it forward, but it’s basically aged as well as Dragon Quest 1, because it is essentially a Dragon Quest game.” From his perspective, anyone developing such a niche style of game in this day and age needs to be frank with themselves about the almost-universal shortcomings of the traditional model, especially if they want to stand out.
“For me and my brother, JRPGs were always our favorite kind of game growing up. By the time you finish playing through a Persona 4, for example, you feel like you know the characters, and you really feel like you live in that space. But, when you make a JRPG today, you need to think about grinding. If you don’t have a really compelling battle system and main gameplay loop, grinding isn’t going to work for most players. That’s why our game has no respawning enemies - they stay dead forever," Allanson says.
“The other thing is that almost all classic JRPGs have a ton of filler. In every FF game, there’s a sequence where you need to go to the castle, but before you can do that, you have to do a bunch of fetch quests for these people over here, so you can then talk to someone who will tell you who to talk to again so you can walk into the castle. It’s not just JRPGs that suffer from this, but most games that are 60 hours can probably be done in 30. That’s why we aimed for about 25 hours.”
As the calendar pages flip by and YIIK gets closer and closer to launch, Allanson says that he continues to have anxiety about the commercial potential of indie JRPGs in this hypercrowded era of gaming. Though Jorgensen largely concurs, he says that he doesn’t worry about the market too much, because his next game, Ninja Tears, will be utterly unrecognizable to fans of LISA, save for “certain aspects of its DNA.” (He’s joked on Twitter that he’ll come back onto social media when Ninja Tears finally comes out “in 2023.”)
For both of these game developers, pushing your dream genre forward can sometimes feel like an uphill climb, but they continue to hope that people will see the toolmarks and appreciate their handiwork when it finally comes out into the churning content mill that is Steam.
“The truth is,” says Allanson. “It’s a bit of a crapshoot for the most part. We make the games for ourselves, under the suspicion there might be more people like us.”