March 5, 2010 - The theme of "East Meets West" is one you hear a lot. In literature, film, and even music, there are huge cultural differences that are perceptible as you travel along the Earth's equator. One area where this has been especially noticeable is in the gaming world. The RPG genre has been suffering an identity crisis in recent years, and a split is emerging within the genre. But, instead of splitting the genre by battle system or visual aesthetic, the split seems to be occurring along hemispheric lines.
Last month, the video gaming world was treated to the first true AAA game of the year: Mass Effect 2. This title was released to near-universal acclaim, and it cemented the dominance of the western RPG in the current market. The game sold very well in the United States, as well as in PAL territories. However, Mass Effect 2 is not even scheduled for release yet in Japan, and if the poor sales of the first title in the region (it sold less than 20,000 units in its first week) are any indication, it is not likely to do well when (or if) it is released in Japan.
Conversely, Final Fantasy XIII, when it was released in Japan, set the country's sales charts on fire, selling nearly two million units in its first release weeks. However, import copies of the game didn't impress the western audience, and despite the added support of the Xbox 360 version, Final Fantasy XIII isn't expected to do as well in the western market. These two games represent what is becoming the biggest division in the modern gaming industry. When exactly did this split begin? And why are the "battle lines" seemingly so stark?
The console RPG genre had a pretty big beginning and was pioneered in the mid-1980's in Japan. The subsequent releases of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy on the NES in the mid-Eighties in Japan created a national phenomenon, and these two early titles were soon localized and released in the US to much acclaim. For the next 15 years, The RPG genre grew and spawned series like Shin Megami Tensei, Phantasy Star, Ys, and, to a certain extent, even Nintendo's heavyweight Zelda series. Developers like Squaresoft, Atlus, Koei, and Konami became superstars in this burgeoning genre, and it quickly caught fire, reaching an apex in the late Nineties and early 2000s.
However, in the middle of the decade, The US was hit with a barrage of early western RPGs. The Elder Scrolls III, Knights of the Old Republic, and Fable were all released between 2003 and 2004 for the Xbox platform, and they took the gaming world by storm. Though developers Bethesda Softworks and BioWare had been making RPGs for PCs for several years, the console platform had remained untouched until then by western developers. These three games all became instant classics, and helped to usher in the era of western RPGs as we know them today.
Other than development geography, what exactly are the big differences between western and Japanese RPGs? The answer to this question is actually a little less clear than you might expect. One of the first things that players are likely to point out is the differences in battle system. Western RPGS are most closely associated with active battle systems; focused on quick, timed movement and a decent amount of button-mashing. However, Japanese RPGs also have featured active battle systems, and JRPG heavyweights like Final Fantasy XII and critical darling Demon's Souls have both featured active battle systems.