It’s been a while since the JRPG has been on the gaming throne. Back in the days of the SNES and the PS1, the JRPGs constituted some of the most powerful and artful works of fiction gaming had to give us. Our Chrono Trigger s, Secret of Mana s, Final Fantasy 7 s, and Breath of Fire 3 s made us laugh, cry, and more importantly analyze our games the way we would analyze a good book or movie. But now they have been reduced to little more than repeating sequels and franchise bait. There are few JRPGs on the market and the ones that do come out have been getting mediocre reviews at best. So I’m here to ask a question, is it true that the great JRPG developers have lost their mojo, or have we just outgrown the genre and formula? Let’s take a look at both sides.
We Have Outgrown the JRPG
When video games were young, few had anything reminiscent of a story. Most were platformers where the goal was “get to the end.” Many games still operated on the concept of “points” having you chase some arbitrary number that was bigger than all other arbitrary numbers. So even the tiniest of stories was a huge leap forward, but when we look back on it, Dragon Quest 1 and Final Fantasy 1 , weren’t really Pulitzer prize winning novels.
And when looked at through the lens of modern day games, the same is true for a lot of our gaming classics. Chrono Trigger is a game that jumps from plot to plot very quickly and features a totally mute protagonist. Final Fantasy 7 obfuscates the identity of its antagonist, makes cross dressing jokes, and basically front and backloads it’s plot with a whole bunch of nothing but wandering and grinding in the middle.
These games were revolutionary for their time but, when looked at through the lens of history speak of a medium that was still trying to figure out how to express itself. A lot of the plots and plot conventions of these games wouldn’t even be looked at twice in today’s world. In fact, they AREN’T looked at twice. Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t really all that different from any other Final Fantasy , in terms of its plot at least.
Maybe we have simply learned better ways to tell our stories. Games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted have managed to blend gameplay and mechanics in order to tell a story. Cinematic games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us , boil down the interactive narrative to its most basic concept and address deep issues about morality and society, issues our most beloved classics don’t even touch on. In fact, even our most beloved JRPG classics always boil down to “spikey haired kid embarks on a trip to save the world from evil, go level up!”
If all of this is a part of what the JRPG is, maybe we just grew up? Maybe we want to see more complex stories told through a more expert use of mechanics. Maybe stats and a character sheet simply aren’t the tools needed to tell our award winning narratives of today.
Current JRPGs just suck
JRPGs were applauded as one of the greatest advancements in gaming of their time. That, my friends, is the key statement “of their time.” All game genres could only be so advanced. Platformers were only so advanced. Shooters were only so advanced. Every game was only so advanced. No one would say that Doom could hold a candle to current day incarnations of Call of Duty or Battlefield . So why compare Chrono Trigger to games like The Walking Dead ?
Instead, Chrono Trigger should be compared to games like Final Fantasy XIII and Tales of Xillia , supposed advancements of the JRPG genre. But… what advancements are these? When you examine these games you see that they are doing pretty much the same thing that SNES RPGs did. You are still going around, grinding, leveling up, as a story is told to you. Gameplay and story are kept separate in almost all instances, and all you do is battle your way to a trigger that shows you more story and then you battle again. That’s all the genre is.
When you examine other genres, you’ll notice that a lot of different advances have been made to the formula. Platformers, for example, have differentiated themselves wildly from classic NES platformers. 2D platformers play with perspective, stealth, or narrative, like FEZ, Mark of the Ninja, or Limbo . 3D platformers introduce a whole host of new controls to navigate a 3D space, like Super Mario Galaxy . Shooters also have a lot of new advances. Doom had limited health, a huge inventory, and armor pickups. Call of Duty operates off of cover, regenerating health, and loadouts. These are the marks of a genre evolving.
JRPGs really haven’t undergone this evolution. Perhaps that’s why they aren’t topping the charts these days. JRPG developers just aren’t analyzing their formula the way other developers have iterated on other genres. So of course we wouldn’t regard them well.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the formula of the JRPG. NES JRPGs evolved into SNES JRPGs which had better graphics, better stories, and more complex systems. SNES JRPGs evolved into PlayStation JRPGs, which once again had better graphics, better stories, and more complex systems. But around the era of the PS2, this formula stopped evolving. Systems stopped getting more complex. Stories stopped getting better. The only thing that improved was the graphics, and that alone won’t carry a genre.
What do you think? Have we outgrown JRPGs or do current JRPGs just suck? Or maybe you think JRPGs are just fine right now! Let us know in the comments.