JRPGS: A Retrospective
From small village to flying fortress in the sky, RPGs have really come a long way.
For many gamers, the term "JRPG" evokes the classic, story driven, random encounter packed, turn based combat, hundred hour plus, bang for your buck that was so prevalent in the 1990’s. Franchises such as Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana , Chrono Trigger, Lunar, Phantasy Star, Zelda and Earthbound are among the assorted gems that appear to becoming a dying breed. To clarify, the gameplay that we remember: traversing a dungeon, praying you don’t run out of MP for your healing spells because you ran out of potions fighting the mid-boss, magic ropes no longer function and when save points were welcome are long over. Grinding is about as arduous as buying a sandwich, and your characters seem to have more belts than a thrift store.
I have to ask, are JRPG’s becoming extinct?
This is a running debate I've been having with myself. My curmudgeonly self wants to wave my fist and shout “YES, GAMES ARE TOO SHORT, TOO EASY, AND TOO FORGETTABLE!” But then, I have to remind myself that I am comparing a distillation of nearly two decades of RPGs to the current era. More than that, it stands to be said that upon revisiting, the plots of many of these games are just too shallow, the characters equally forgettable and they seem to also be wearing an exorbitant number of belts. Which makes me wonder, do people really struggle with keeping their pants up in Japan?
It's clear that many games today strive to bridge the gap between game and cinema. It's a noble goal as a point of artistic expression, but you have to wonder: are we taking it too far? In my opinion, I feel as if JRPGs have been guilty of this for longer than many of the hardcore would care to admit. Final Fantasy VII felt like I was legally blind watching a Pixar-based production, and I can think of many examples of games employing cinematic techniques to tell a story that ultimately ended up feeling like a drawn-out narrative iterating how to save the world from some great faceless evil that undoubtedly begins at the nearest inn.
Today’s games offer greater consistentcy that excel in higher quality voice acting and localizations that make cutscenes more enjoyable by and large. Mr. Drippy in Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch comes to mind, with his boisterous, Welsh/Scottish accent adding humor to an apt depressing moment. This is where modern games come into their own, as the cutscenes and dialogue are more prevalent (and in my opinon, higher quality) which helps create a feeling of connection to characters beyond plain white text on a backdrop as evident in the case of Tales of Xillia, which is loaded with skits and side conversations. But, very often we see games that are all cutscenes, all the time and pivotal quick time events lack any legitimate gameplay elements. Final Fantasy XIII (and XIII-2) are wonderful films, featuring a remarkable level of voice acting and visuals. However, it feels as though Michael Bay wanted to make rock candy all over the latest installments of the Final Fantasy franchise. In my opinion, they're solid enough games, just too easy for the average gamer. The level of exploration is very sparse, so it's unlikely you'll encounter an area that will make you feel stuck before advancing. The design is also rather linear; just go forward and you’ll eventually find your way.
Unfortunately, a lot of games are like this though. Fable. Mass Effect (which I feel owes a great debt to Phantasy Star Online for aesthetic influence), and Secret of Mana (for the ring menu.) Quibbles notwithstanding, ask yourself this: were older games better because you the level design felt more intricate? Were dungeons deliberately designed to be confusing and force you to get lost, thus spending more time running through hallways toward nothing?, To some that sounds like tedium and a waste of time, but to me, that was all part of the charm of JRPGs, shambolically meandering through a crudely drawn/rendered world hoping to find whatever trigger you need to move forward to the next ungodly confusing and difficult area. I think that games today are more polished, characters seem more developed (when the writers take their time), but I don’t know, I feel that by lowering difficulty and shortening games (an unavoidable reality in a world where games cost more than movies/some budgets of small countries), it's harder to upstage some of the games that people look back with those rose colored glasses and fawn over. Even so, perhaps these games might not be as great as we make them out to be in the first place.