The Plight of the JRPG – From Genesis to Glory

January 17, 2017

Casey Moore, Host

 

(Oh look, Casey’s talking about JRPGs again)

In the pre-Famicom boom era in Japan, RPGs took off with titles like Black Onyx and Tower of Druaga, making a significant enough cultural impact to propel them into being mainstays on both consoles and the early gaming computers such as the PC-88.  Titles like Ultima and Dragon Quest were influenced in their gameplay and structure, as well as thematically, to reminisce about the Wizards of the Coast Dungeons and Dragons tabletop role-playing games.  Japanese developers were noting how profitable these games were; one popular hyperbole is the law that Dragon Quest games could not be released on schooldays because students would skip class to buy them, which while partially fabricated speaks to the profundity that these titles had in Japanese pop culture.

Nintendo noted both how much of a money-making titan RPGs were in Japan, and that the inspiration in Dungeons and Dragons was popular among American youth – plus, wouldn’t the same culture of people playing DnD be inclined toward those games on consoles?  Dragon Quest was localized under the title of Dragon Warrior and given away en masse with an issue of Nintendo Power in 1989, step one of Nintendo’s campaign to, perhaps artificially, generate an interest in console RPGs.

It went poorly.  Dragon Warrior wasn’t thought of as highly as Nintendo had hoped despite an art style provided by the mastermind behind Dragon Ball.  Americans simply weren’t inclined toward these slow, menu-driven games at the time, not after becoming accustomed to Super Mario Bros. and other fast-paced games.  Sure, there was a culture, primarily those of the college tech-savvy Rogue-playing crowd that developed a few years prior, but four years between the releases of Super Mario Bros. and Dragon Warrior had perhaps instilled a certain expectation in players of the NES console.  Americans liked Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden, not Legacy of the Wizard or Ultima: Quest of the Avatar.  The closest to a JRPG that Americans had any fondness for at this time was the 1987 The Legend of Zelda, a take on the genre from one Shigeru Miyamoto, who also shared an aversion to traditional role-playing.

1990 saw the US release of the first Final Fantasy, a game with a more storied history than some franchises have.  RPGs still weren’t quite popular, but they were on the radar now – the sprawling world, the difficult battles, and the (comparatively) profound story were unlike anything US console gamers had seen before.  Japanese developers saw their chance and took it.

The Super Famicom, or SNES in the US, became a godsend for fans of role-playing games.  Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy II (4) and III (6), Secret of Mana, and Illusion of Gaia are revered now as some of the best RPGs of all time, and compared to the ilk of their platform, they had plenty of competition to stand out from – I make no effort to disguise my love of Super Mario World and Super Metroid in addition to the deluge of quality RPGs available in the 16-bit era.

It would be irresponsible to not cite the titles on the alternative console, the Sega Mega Drive, the Genesis.  1992 gave us Shining Force, part of the burgeoning realm of strategy RPGs that were overlapping with that special ‘70s anime flair of early JRPGs. We also saw the then-unpopular Phantasy Star in 1988 from Sonic brain Yuji Naka, also noteworthy for its exorbitant retail price of $69.99, making it the most expensive console game at the time.  Beyond Oasis released in1994, a cross of the philosophies that created both The Legend of Zelda and Secret of Mana.

Not everything was golden during this golden age, however.  American JRPG fans mourn having missed some key titles in Live-A-Live, Bahamut Lagoon, and the SNES versions of Dragon Quests 1, 2, and 3.  I mourn Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo, Seisen no Keifu, and Thracia 776 – the latter a bit less than the others, but all the same.  Fortunately, some passionate gamers are morally gray and have created translation patches for these games, but you didn’t hear that from me.

I’ll spare you the tale of the Playstation RPGs and the exceedingly small library of RPGs available on the Nintendo 64 for now (that’s a piece on its own), and move into something a bit more modern.  Despite the love fans of JRPGs have for their genre of choice, it still is in a niche realm – most people are aware of Final Fantasy, but few know of the likes of Wild Arms, Atelier, and GrimGrimoire, and the lack of love for Falcom’s franchises in The Legend of Heroes and Ys is nothing short of criminal.  While the Playstation Portable was a bastion for these genres, seeing ports and remakes of everything from Disgaea to Star Ocean, it was lauded – to my confusion – as somewhat of a failure by a sizable portion of the gaming community, which bled into the legitimate failure of the Playstation Vita.

Nintendo all but abandoned the genre in the 64-bit era, seeing roughly five JRPGs of any note on each console to date, and Sony’s hub for JRPGs is struggling to stay afloat.  Microsoft never took an interest in them – though the Xbox 360 has a surprising amount of exclusive quality in Lost Odyssey and the oft-overlooked Blue Dragon.  Where do they go now?

It appears the answer is simple: back to their roots.  Steam has become an increasingly impressive host for JRPGs which, upon closer examination, seems like an incredible solution.  Translation costs aren’t small, so localizing a text-heavy JRPG is no small task, but moving them to a prominent digital platform removes the physical part of distributing product, which has brought (alongside the Playstation Network) the sequel to The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky after much, much too long, with the final installment on the horizon.  In late 2016, Falcom released Xanadu Next on Steam.  Last year saw ports of Disgaea and Phantom Brave.  Much of the Final Fantasy franchise, the Hyperdimension Neptunia games, and even Code of Princess found their way to the PC.  I Am Setsuna was a success on Steam.

Particularly, Falcom seems right at home on Steam.  To impose some of my bias, Falcom overshadows every other developer in regard to sheer consistent quality, and they’ve been overlooked since their inception into the US market, but Trails in the Sky began as a PC exclusive, and it seems to be snuggling in nicely on the digital marketplace of Steam.

Removing the distribution costs and being on a popular platform which guarantees an infinite supply of JRPGs lends heavily to increasing their popularity – classic JRPGs are fairly often among the more expensive titles due to the combination of their desirability and availability, and one needs look no further than Saturn’s Panzer Dragoon titles for proof.  Cutting out the availability issue and making them purchasable no matter when and where the consumer is will bridge the gap and, especially with ports of older, quality games like Final Fantasy IV and Disgaea being on the cheaper side, more people are going to be testing these once inaccessible waters.

I expect JRPGs to thrive on Steam, and I expect more fans to come from the woodwork.  Xanadu Next coming from left field may be strange, but it’s a very good sign.  Though I don’t care for it, Atlus publishing Code of Princess on Steam makes the possibility of seeing Persona and Shin Megami Tensei more plausible, and if Persona 4: Golden releases on Steam I can guarantee it’ll make best-seller margins and propel JRPGs that much closer to the mainstream.  By the end of 2017, it might not be odd to expect titles like .Hack//, La Pucelle Tactics, and Suikoden to make their way onto the Steam RPG pedestals.

Perhaps I’m being bold, but I’m anticipating a JRPG Renaissance with Atlus and Falcom as the vanguards.  Master race jokes aside, PC is the place to be in the next few years if you’re a fan of Japanese role-playing games, and there’s nowhere I’d rather them be.

 

(picture credit: Nihon Falcom official)

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