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Do JRPGs Really Need to Innovate to Survive?

April 24, 2013

Japanese RPGs are, to many people, a thing of the past these days. Many an article has been written about supposed reasons for their falling in the eyes of many gamers today. Everyone has an opinion…and you know what they say about opinions. However, the vast majority of these opinions are focused around why the writer thinks this sub-genre has collapsed this generation.

I, personally, don’t believe Japanese RPGs, as a whole, have gotten any worse throughout the years. The problem is that everything else got better. During the good ol’ PS1/2 days, JRPGs ruled as king. Very few Western titles held a candle to the grandiose stories, deep characterization and otherworldly fantasy realms that this sub-genre provided. This generation, there was a shift, and I’ve written about this before, so I don’t want to go on the same holy crusade here.

Frankly, innovation is overrated. The word “innovation” seems to be put up on this high and mighty pedestal as something that games in general – not just JRPGs – need to do to be relevant. The problem here is perception and expectation. If you perceive innovation to be needed, then you come to expect it. But, we really shouldn’t perceive it to be needed at all. Why?

If you’re like many gamers my age (mid-30s), you will likely have found JRPGs of the PS1 era and before the best things since sliced bread. In fact, many games during that time period still hold up today. Why else would they continue to remake and/or re-release them over and over? Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, the single-digit Final Fantasy titles, Xenogears – these are all considered still to be the pinnacle of their sub-genre. So, I ask again, why do we need to innovate to be considered relevant in this genre?

First, what exactly is “innovation”?
I want to define what I mean by “innovation”. I’m talking about huge changes to the genre, large leaps and bounds ahead of the status quo. Attempting to add a Western influence to tried and true JRPGs would be considered innovation for the genre, even though the tropes that are being added have been present for years in the genre they’re attempting to emulate.

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General features typically contain smaller “innovations” between installments. For example, between Persona 3 FES and Persona 4 (the PS2 games, not the portable remakes), the battle system was tweaked to allow you to control all the characters. This is something you couldn’t do in Persona 3 (or its FES version). That didn’t change the battle system, it simply was a tweak to make it more user-friendly. That is not what I mean by innovation in the scope of this article. I’m pretty sure most people don’t intend to mean smaller changes when they claim that JRPGs must innovate to survive. I’m pretty sure they’re looking for large, sweeping changes to the genre.

So, with that being said, let’s look at some interesting and possibly even contrasting titles that have been released from 2005 until now (broadly considered the “current generation”) and see what we find.

Lost Odyssey, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Persona 4: Golden, Tales of Vesperia
These four titles prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you do not really need to make gigantic, earth shattering, out-of-left-field innovation to make a great JRPG. This combination is by no means the only set of great JRPGs with more traditional tropes to be released this generation, however, it is a grouping that shows a diverse segment of the JRPG lineage through the last eight years and have a combination of praise from both critics and gamers alike.

Lost Odyssey and Persona 4: Golden both have pretty standard turn-based battle mechanics. Sure, they each add their own unique flair to the base, and you could consider those little touches “innovation” if you really stretch things. However, that isn’t the point. The point is they both take the “outdated” turn-based system and turn it into something really great – they both do it very, very well.

Both Tales of Vesperia and Ni no Kuni also deliver a fairly standard action-pause battle system that has been around practically since the dawn of time. Nothing new to see here, folks. Then, why is Tales of Vesperia considered the best game in its franchise to be released in the West to date, and why does Ni no Kuni have such a high Metacritic score compared to others in its genre? If innovation is what is needed, wouldn’t things be the other way around?

Battle system aside, it isn’t what moves these games and what endears them to their audience. No, it’s the story and the characters, and these four games deliver. This generation has seen a surge in great Western RPG characters, such as Commander Shepherd, and compelling stories on top of that. The problem is, those now influencing video game development (through being a target audience for certain genres) would, in general, rather have the shooter-based gameplay that is Mass Effect or the no-pause, spur of the moment action that is Skyrim.

None of this means the genre is dying, none of this means that the games are horrible. It just simply represents a shift in the industry’s target audience. As proven by the four examples above, you do not need to innovate to produce a great game with great stories and characters. There’s no reason a JRPG can’t have similar story directions as the Western titles that people seem to clamor about.

Now, what happens when you do try to innovate?

Final Fantasy XIII, The Last Remnant, Resonance of Fate
Now, here are three titles that it’s likely no one can argue the lack of innovation. We all know the story behind Final Fantasy XIII, so I don’t rehash it here. With The Last Remnant, the developer tried to mix things up by throwing in some more Western strategy-type gameplay with the battle system, positioning groups of units together for battles instead of just a small part of a few characters.

Then we have the abomination that was Resonance of Fate. I do not know what kind of drugs the developers were on at the time, but the narcotics didn’t do them any favors based on the horrible, convoluted battle system that resulted from their night in the clouds. While the setting and characters were pretty neat, the “innovative” battle system completely ruined that title for me, and many others.

Again, there are more than this, but please note the track record of JRPGs that try to heavily innovate. While FFXIII did sell millions of copies, it was undoubtedly on its name alone, and certainly not the linear gameplay or the lackluster story and characters. I personally didn’t think the game was horrible, and I liked a few of the characters and the more personal interactions they had throughout the course of the game, but it’s hard to argue the fact that, in their desire to innovate and be more “Western”, they completely forgot was it is that JRPG fans love about that genre.

The Exception to the Trend – Valkyria Chronicles
Now here, Sega has a masterpiece on its hands. I have to mention this in an article about innovation and how it figures into the position JRPGs find themselves in because it signifies the best of both worlds, it seems. In it, you have the strong characters and story that is unique and holds interest, as well as generating emotional attachment. But, you also have a strong grasp on innovation in the 3rd person, strategy-type gameplay.

There are always exceptions that break the mold, however, the trend I noted above with the very obvious separation of “JRPGs that don’t innovate” and “JRPGs that do innovate” seems to be a solid and procedural happening across the industry.

Portable JRPGs tend to be “old-school” and still are critically praised.
Taking portable JRPGs as a large group, not only on the dedicated gaming systems such as the Vita and the 3DS, but also mobile platforms like iOS and Android, JRPGs seem to flourish. In fact, Square-Enix and other developers are making retro-style games just for these systems (Final Fantasy Dimensions, for example), which tend to do very well for themselves.

Why, if the genre needs to “innovate”, do people purchase these games in droves? I’m not saying these games sell millions of copies, but…what exactly is bad about them? Why do so many gamers and critics talk highly of games like Crimson Gem Saga and Half-Minute Hero, or re-makes like Persona 4: Golden and Lunar: Silver Star Harmony? Why are people so quick to download Chrono Trigger or Secret of Mana on their mobile devices? Why do people still love these games? Why do people still care?

Thought-provoking questions, indeed.

Putting the “nostalgia factor” to rest.
Yes, there is a certain sense of nostalgia in playing these games. A friend of mine, who used to be a pretty sizable gamer in her younger days, no longer considers it a hobby. However, she downloaded Final Fantasy III onto her iPhone and has logged dozens of hours on it. You don’t play dozens of hours of a game for nostalgic reasons, you play it because you truly enjoy it. ‘Nuff said.

As sort of icing on the cake, I have downloaded and/or re-played many “retro” JRPGs, thinking something will spark in me and I would enjoy them as much as I once did. Don’t get me wrong, many nostalgic JRPG are still amazing today (thus my point), but there have been some that I have re-played for the nostalgia factor and they didn’t catch me like they once did. This in itself doesn’t mean the genre is bad, it just means there are still great classics, but just as many that don’t age well. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Today there are many classic games (both JRPGs and not), and there are just as many that aren’t going to age well (Last Rebellion, anyone?).

Beyond the retro-style, to the modern.
I’ve talked a lot about how popular new or re-made retro-style JRPGs are, but we’re talking about innovation in new games in the genre, right? While the retro games aren’t new, they do illustrate a point. That point is that JRPGs are not dead and they do not need to innovate. People still flock to them in droves.

What actually needs to happen is, in my opinion, two-fold. Gameplay mechanics are not the issue here. Like I said, and like the above examples prove, you don’t need any sort of outstanding innovation in the gameplay to sell JRPGs and, in fact, when developers do go crazy, it tends to backfire.

First, the stories themselves need to improve. When you look at the positive games I mentioned above, such as Persona 4 and Lost Odyssey, the stories were great and they weren’t “kiddy”. Even a very stylistic and animated game like Ni No Kuni contains some rather dark story moments that really grip at your soul. JRPG story writers need to get beyond the idea that they have to stick to certain clichés and tropes in their games, and, indeed, look at Western games for inspiration for story ideas. What if we had a JRPG-style game like Skyrim? What if we had a Star Ocean title like Mass Effect? (We’re talking story, narrative structure and characters here, not game design. Well, ok, I have to admit, I’ve always wondered what an open-world Skyrim-like game based on Square-Enix’s Luminous Engine visuals would look like.)

I wouldn’t necessarily consider writing more mature, darker stories, and deeper characters in a JRPG “innovation”, either. (I know some of you are going to say it.) In a way, taking risks with the story and the characters is “innovation”, but, is it really? We’ve seen JRPGs with these types of stories, and they’re typically great. However, this is nothing new. I mentioned many of them above. This also doesn’t mean you have to lose what makes the sub-genre special, either. I suppose it’s all a matter of doing it right and making that risk pay off. How do you think Mass Effect became so big? Was it the gameplay? I doubt it, because it’s pretty standard shooter fare. It was the story and the characters. If wrong moves were made in the writing (see Dragon Age 2), things could have gone downhill fast.

Secondly, JRPG publishers need to start bringing more games to the West, not letting them lag behind the Japanese release and market them better. I will admit, some publishers are getting better at bringing titles over here (Namco Bandai, as of late, for example). There are even specialty localization studios like XSEED and NIS America that excel at bringing niche Japanese titles to the West.

One of the big things that needs to improve, however, is the disparity in release dates. I praised Namco Bandai a second ago, now I’m going to run them through the ringer a bit. There is no reason on God’s green earth why Tales of Xillia is taking so frakking long to come out in the West. None. End of story.

Now, I’m not saying I’m not grateful that they are bringing the Tales franchise back to North America after four years of inactivity, but c’mon. Tales of Xillia released in 2011 in Japan, and it is coming out here in early August, so it is going to be nearly two years difference between the Japanese and U.S. releases. In this day and age, that’s just ridiculous.

What else is ridiculous is not supporting franchises that companies have brought to the West in the past. In a way, it feels like an affront to fans of Valkyria Chronicles to see the second game released under the radar and the third game completely ignored for any sort of Western release (even a digital one). Then again, Sega are the ones who picked up the train wreck that is Resonance of Fate, so it doesn’t really surprise me.

If the stories improve and the games are actually brought to the West in a timely manner and given some life, sales will also improve. But, it’s taking that first step that it seems most developers and publishers don’t want to do.

The video game industry is a risky business, and it isn’t often that the risk pays off in spades. Yet, I’m pretty sure the developers of JRPGs and the localization studios that bring them over don’t expect them to sell millions of copies, but, then again, that does not make them successful, either. It’s all a matter of perception.

I delved into this subject because I was tired of hearing the word “innovate” every time I turn around. Innovation is not necessarily what drives this industry, from my perspective – making great games is. Now, those great games most definitely can innovate a genre or make us think differently about what a video game is, but do they all need to? Do all genres need to? My conclusion is no, they don’t. A good game is a good game, whether it innovates or not.

Play games and love games for what they are. Embrace the differences and don’t expect, or even perceive, that things should be any different. We all love tweaks to our games here and there, no doubt about it. If some mechanic is wrong, we like to see it streamlined down the road, don’t we? Innovation will happen. There isn’t a doubt about that. However, in this writer’s humble opinion, it isn’t something that needs to happen for JRPGs to survive.

If we can work to adjust the perception a large portion of gamers have today toward JRPGs, that will be a first step. The games are still outstanding when they work – and they work well fairly often, more often than the gaming press would like you to believe. The problem is, no one is playing them because of the perception that they are dying, not because they aren’t as good as they once were. Unfortunately we, as the collective of both press and gamers, have failed the genre and even the industry to some degree by perpetuating that perception. When we make comments in JRPG reviews that we dislike the tropes that make the genre what it is, we unknowingly whittle away at the precipice that these games we grew up on are now sitting on. It’s unlikely the genre will fell into a chasm – very unlikely – but, at the same time, that doesn’t make the situation any more desirable.

Can it stop? Sure. Will it? That’s up to us.

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Chad Awkerman

Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.

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