JRPGs are dead to me

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Wow… This is my first real blog post on my new, real blog. Bear with me here.

Anyway, I've come to the conclusion that JRPGs (Japanese RPGs, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the acronym) as a favorite video game genre, are dead to me. Well, not exactly dead — it's just that the the newest ones on the latest consoles just don't seem to appeal to me as much as the old ones (which I'm still playing via various methods). This doesn't mean I'm giving up video gaming completely as there are other genres I also love (for example, I can't wait to get my hands on Duke Nukem Forever). So what is it about the newer JRPGs that turn me off compared to the older ones?

In my opinion, there were two great eras of JRPGs. The first was what I call the "Silver Age," AKA the 16-bit age. This was ushered in by Phantasy Star II on the Sega Genesis (the first 16-bit RPG) and goes through all the other games that appeared on both major 16-bit consoles, including LUNAR on the Sega CD and Square's releases for the SNES. The other era is the "Golden Age," which consists of the games on the 32-bit consoles as well as some that appeared on their followups like the PS2 and the Dreamcast. This would include Final Fantasy VII (which I partly blame for the later downfall of the JRPG, but more on that later), the LUNAR remakes, the Wild ARMS series, the Grandia series, and Skies of Arcadia. These terms are arbitrary (I can see someone arguing that the 16-bit era was the true Golden Age, for example), but these eras contain the pinnacles of the JRPG as a game genre.

However, it was during the late PS2 era that JRPGs started morphing from the genre I loved when younger to what they are now. Is it a case of me just not liking them as much as I aged? I doubt it, since I still enjoy going back and playing the older ones from time to time (and yes, this may be partly nostalgia, but I don't think nostalgia can be all of it). No, I think it was a case of the genre changing to reflect what the developers feel modern gamers want while losing the "magic" the older games had. So what happened to the magic? Well, I feel that by trying to go for more "mature" storylines with more "character development" (I'll explain why I'm quoting them later), they ruined what I enjoyed about the games due to poor execution.

So let's start with making more mature storylines. Having mature storylines (by which I mean stories more sophisticated than just "teenage kid saves the girl/world and/or defeats the evil king/god/etc.") is nothing new. Phantasy Star II had a core storyline that I think is as mature and serious as any of the more recent RPGs (albeit, given its early state, it wasn't quite as developed as more recent ones, but the core plot elements were pretty sophisticated). However, the first JRPG I can think of that really had a well developed, sophisticated, and mature plot was probably Xenogears. When I first played it, I was blown away by how sophsiticated elements of its story was (even though I originally got it cause "holy crap! giant robots!") — I can't think of any other game before that blended theology, philosophy, and psychology in quite the same manner. In retrospect, I can see all the holes and weaknesses in its plot, but at the time it was definitely a refreshing change of pace from the standard "teenage kid saves the girl/world" storyline. Unfortunately, it seems like many later JRPGs try to emulate it and often do even worse than the original. Now it seems like every JRPG storyline is written by someone who took a semester of theology, philosophy, and/or psychology in college and thinks it makes them enough of an expert in the subjects to write a compelling story. No… it just means you can write a crappy slow-moving story with lots of big words in it.

Besides, you don't need a "mature" story to make a good JRPG story anyway. Some of my favorite JRPGs are from Game Arts, including the LUNAR series, and all of them tend to be variants of the "teenage kid goes on an adventure and ends up saving the girl/world/etc." plot. However, the stories and characters are so charming and well done that they are very, very entertaining. Phantasy Star IV is another game that's a variant of "teenage kid saves the world," but the characters are great (if not really developed much during the story), the plot moves briskly, and it's just plain fun to play. Some of the newer games seem to eschew "fun" for "seriousness" and it hurts them severely.

The other main thing people want in their JRPGs is character development. You can have a game with a great story, but people will still ding it for lacking much in the way of character development these days. Phantasy Star II is a classic example of this — it pre-dates modern notions of character development in an RPG despite having a base plot that holds up well. Even so, the plot gave hints into the deep backgrounds of the characters that gives plenty of leeway for a modern rewrite to give it the character development people expect these days. On the other side of the spectrum are the Game Arts games — their stories were pretty simple, but their amazing character development is what helped elevate them to classics in my opinion.

Unfortunately, most modern JRPGs seem to take their character development ideas from the "Dr. Phil's School of Personal Growth." Now, overcoming personal demons is certainly a valid way to develop a character. Those demons could be anything from not knowing your origins, trying to live up to the expectations of others, or overcoming mental instability. However, it seems like modern JRPGs only seem to focus on the mental instability part (hence the "Dr. Phil" quip). I blame this on Final Fantasy VII, which I think was the first JRPG to feature a mentally unstable lead character. Now it seems like being borderline insane and overcoming said insanity is the only way modern JRPGs can think of to create a character that can develop. I mean, it seems like every recent JRPG has some bit involving exploring the psyche of the characters in the game, which is something that was novel in the PS1 days but is ridiculously cliche now while being less entertaining than a well-done "teenage kid saves the world" cliche. Oh, and every character is an ass that I couldn't give a flying bleep about. At least I cared about the characters in Phantasy Star IV, despite them not having much in the way of "development" relative to more recent games.

Okay, so we've touched on plot and characters. The last bit is game mechanics. Let's start with all the superflous stuff they want to throw into JRPGs these days. <old-man-voice>Why, back in my day, we could only acquire items at shops, in treasure chests, or if monsters dropped them and we liked it!</old-man-voice> While I may be exaggerating somewhat, what the hell is the purpose of some of the crazy systems these days where you need to combine exotic materials found in random spots of the game via some bizarre form of alchemy in order to create new weapons, medicines, etc.? It doesn't add anything of value to the game and just makes it more annoying to play. If I want to stock up on healing potions before a dungeon, just let me go to the nearest item shop and buy them. I don't want to waste time gathering herbs and minerals in the wilderness and experimenting with alchemical concoctions just to be able to heal myself later. Mandatory minigames are another thing. They're okay if you want to do something extra to get a bonus item, more money, etc., but they are annoying as hell when you need to complete one in order to advance to the next part of the game — especially since most of them are so poorly done they aren't worth playing on their own.

The last bit is changes in combat systems. Old school JRPGs are purely turn-based. While probably mandatory given the limitations of the hardware they first appeared on, it's still a valid design option in my opinion if you come up with a well-designed turn-based system. Later on came more modern systems like Square's Active Time Battle and Grandia's real-time-with-pause. Personally, of the two newer ones, I prefer the latter since JRPG menus aren't designed for quick navigation during the heat of battle. However, both are better than the action-oriented system most JRPGs seem to be going for these days. Now, don't get me wrong, a well done action-oriented system can be fun provided the developers of the system do it well and know its limitations. Sword of Vermillion on the Genesis, despite being a so-so RPG overall, actually had a very solid action-oriented combat system. Sure, it was limited in that you could only do physical attacks, cast a single type of spell, and not use any items during combat, but it worked very smoothly. If done well (as many FPSes seem to do), you could even have an item inventory and multiple weapons/spells/etc. accessible through an action-oriented system. However, most JRPGs don't implement one very well. First, when dealing with multiple character parties, you're still going to have to do a turn-based system in effect as you can't control more than one character at a time without at least some AI assistance (and those AIs tend to be pretty dumb). Second, FPSes tend to give you greater control over your character and give opportunities for you to take cover or find a safe area to monkey with your inventory, something I haven't seen in JRPGs. Last, but not least, the typical action-oriented JRPG combat system just feels clunky when compared to a pure action game. Basically, given how most JRPG developers aren't experts in action-style gameplay, they are out of their element when it comes to implementing an action-oriented combat system.

So, how would I make a modern JRPG that holds up to the older ones I hold so dear? Here's a list:

  • Ditch the philosophical/psychological mumbo-jumbo. It's become cliche and you can't do it right anyway. Instead, either come up with something really original or that pays homage to a classic trope that's underutilized in JRPGs. If you can't do that, then try to make the best damned "teenager saves the world" story you can. Those are nice to play every once in a while as they make me feel like a kid again.

  • Get rid of superfluous game play elements like mandatory minigames and alchemy-style item creation. Everything you actually need to complete the game should be available via shops or treasure chests. You can keep the minigames and alchemy as optional gameplay elements you can use to get extra stuff, but nothing mandatory should result from them.

  • Unless you're doing a single character RPG, ditch action-oriented combat. Go with pure turn-based or real-time-with-pausing instead. Your programmers can't do action right anyway, so don't give us a crappy combat system as a result.

  • Even if you are doing a single-character RPG with action-oriented combat, hire someone who knows how to do action games to program the combat engine and give him/her the time and resources necessary to do it right (Sword of Vermillion was done by same same folks who later did Virtua Racer and Virtua Fighter at Sega, so they know action games).

  • Games with action-oriented systems need minimal grinding, even more so than others. This is because I find it much easier to get gaming fatigue from repeatedly doing the same hack-and-slash actions over and over again as opposed to just a few quick menu clicks in a turn-based system — especially one with some sort of macro system like Phantasy Star IV or LUNAR after Eternal Blue came out for the Sega CD.

  • Don't use funky level building mechanisms. Keep the classic experience points = levels system, at least for core statistics. You can augment this with other systems (magic experience, etc.) for traits that you want to give some ability to customize.

  • Grinding should be optional, but possible. If I just complete all the required portions of a game using the shortest path possible and fight only the minimum number of monster mooks and bosses I can encounter on that path, the game should be beatable, if challenging. However, if I find it too challenging to go that short route, I should be allowed to optionally level grind to get past the hard bits. Frustration is even less fun than grinding.

There may be other changes I would make, but those are the ones that come to mind.

Anyway, until modern JRPGs return to the form I enjoyed most, I'll just stick to playing older ones (I do have a bit of a backlog from the PS1 and early PS2 era I can go through) and other genres of games. Oh, and for other roleplaying fixes, I'll stick to tabletop-style gaming.

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best college essay 1 year, 9 months ago

That's funny. I always thought motivating writers was like herding cattle, but although I live in Wyoming, I know little about the subject other than what I learned years ago in a high school western history class.

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