The recent run of releases on the PSN's PSOne Classics line has been, simply put, orgasmic. Xenogears, Alundra, Vagrant Story, and very recently Parasite Eve...I'm banking on at least Legend of Dragoon and Vandal Hearts before it's all said and done but the point is those games are some badass, classic RPGs...they dominated the genre during their respective times and now...now that's not the case.
Western RPGs are here in force (Fallout 3, Mass Effect series, Dragon Age series, Borderlands, Fable series) and the recent run of new, non-redeux AAA JRPGs (Final Fantasy XIII, The Last Remnant, White Knight Chronicles) and we just don't see the same kind of showing.
The question, true believers, is what's so special about Eastern vs. Western RPGs? What does it say about us as gamers today?
This article is called "Sign Of The Times" because I feel that the essential RPG experience has changed. It changed once in the early 90s when the Eastern RPG took over, and once again in the early 2000s when the mega-hit rpgs became more spaced out Western releases. This change was not for the worse, but it happened. There was a way that an RPG felt fifteen years ago, and there's a way RPGs feel now. Was it technology or subject matter? Was it the audience or the pop culture? There is really only a few macro-definitions we use for RPGs. Turn Based vs. Real Time. East vs. West. We use these terms in broad, sweeping ways ("All Western RPGs are X, Y, Z! Unlike Eastern RPGs!"),
I quite iike doing these little breakdowns, let's have another.
We used to call all these JRPGs, and back in the late 90s they were the games we called gods. For example:
- Final Fantasy IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, Tactics
- Vagrant Story
- Legend of Dragoon
- Vandal Hearts
- Lunar: The Silver Star
- Megami Tensei
Most of these games followed some conventions of design, it made them feel almost formulaic: Turn based combat, linear storylines with minimal side questing, set narratives with set plots. The plots were by far the most imaginative part of these games (aside from the odd system that really rocked the boat, a good battle system goes by unnoticed if it's doing its job). Say what you will about the spiky haired hero, the hero of the 90s JRPG was a hero with many faces and many challenges. Through it all you're finding items to improve your character, saving your game at save points, meeting other characters to fight alongside. There will be dungeons, some with random encounters and some you can just avoid. The game will take a substantial time investment to beat, and truly devoted players maybe able to find and unlock tons of secrets, extra bosses and easter eggs.
The JRPG as we know it embraces an authored narrative, one that the player is along for the ride on. The role of the player in a JRPG is the manage and create the most effective system possible for defeating monsters and progressing the story. At its best a good JRPG party will seem to run itself. You'll be able to balance the unique abilities of each character across the difficulty curve of the battle system and succeed, succeed, succeed. The story progression in a JRPG is slow by our current standards, with text boxes and speech bubbles predominating the market and only a select few games featuring voice work (and even then, only in specific places. More modern games have higher amounts of voice acting thanks to bigger media). But the stories never lacked in richness or world development. We recall fondly the stories of the 90s JRPG like they were events we witnessed yesterday. There is a long standing joke that nerds still cry when they hear Aeris' Theme from Final Fantasy VII. Heck, Final Fantasy VI's Celes-on-the-cliffside scene made me tear up! The narrative of the JRPG was most of the reason you were there. Dominating the system was something you had to do to progress, and the truly strong would crush the numbers, destroy Ruby Weapon, defeat Lavos and so on...but the ride there was rich.
Recently the company responsible for defining the JRPG, SquareEnix, has been trying to redefine the working definition of "Final Fantasy" At its core we've been shown that Final Fantasy is a linear affair, best enjoyed without interruptions by things like overworld maps, town and dungeons exploration and menu navigation. Final Fantasy XIII was a Hollywood Movie version of the Final Fantasy style of game, highlighting what they learned from games like Mass Effect (Your partners are mostly AI but easy to control, there's a very straight forwards "main quest", with slight branching options, its cut scene heavy) and what they prioritized as JRPG elements (Menu based battles, Japanese culturally influenced storyline and characters read: cosplayable, high production quality, series tie-ins...etc). The modern AAA JRPG has an active battle system (Star Ocean, Eternal Sonata, Magna Carta 2, Tales series). The classic JRPG experience is still happening...but on the PS2 and Nintendo DS (Persona series, Devil Summoner series, Ar Tonelico and most of the Atelier series) for the most part. The big titles are missing out on the golden days, while the ports and technology hold-outs are keeping it real. in conclusion, Western RPGs success has poisoned AAA Eastern JRPG development for the time being. We'll see if there's a way out of the mire but for now I will be turning my attention towards the PS2, the PSN and my DSi for that good ole nostalgia.
I did some research on the Megami Tensei series, and I found some footage of the first game in the series: Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei on the NES. Looking at it now, it's quite unique for it's time. This clip is from a port of the original game to the SNES:
It has some hallmark elements of Western RPGs from around that time, and the Wikipedia article suggested the Wizardry series. Other games like The Bard's Tale, Dungeon Master and more would go on to use the first person style of play popularized by Wizardry, and Digital Devil Story perfectly rides the crest of that wave. Fast forwards to now as Strange Journey hits the DS...with exactly the same experience...
...tweaked only enough to make it ready for the platform its on. The JRPG listens to the western RPG, and when first person rpgs were big news here, the JRPG was getting its sea legs. Soon the transition into the 90s left JRPGs on top...but when that surge ended in the early 2000s the American RPG market was coming back in full swing, once again defining the market for the next decade.
The goal of most Western RPGs can be summed up with this idea: Play Dungeons & Dragons on a computer. The earliest western RPGs attempted to do this at first by maintaining the look and feel of D&D. YOU are the Hero. YOU (The Player) take charge of the situation, decide where to go and what to do. Quests are usually short term goals strung together into arcs (Deliver this to this guy, go kill that thing). Your game is usually in a fantasy setting. Your game will usually do its best to approximate the sensations of a table top role playing game. Examples.
- Elder Scrolls I, II, III, IV
- Fable I, II, III
- Neverwinter Nights Original, Remake, II
- Knights of the Old Republic I, II
- Might and Magic I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX
- Dragon Age Origins, Awakenings, II
- Mass Effect I, II
- Diablo I, II
- Baldur's Gate I, II
Western RPGs are a little more egotistic than the JRPG formula. Why? Because we love ourselves. It's true. The Western audience wants to see themselves as the hero and not someone who exemplifies heroic qualities...they want to be in direct control of his fate, with multiple ways to solve puzzles and situations based on decisions in dialog and combat. More recently the genre has begun to blur lines with the Action-RPG (Mass Effect, Dragon Age II, Elder Scrolls, Fable) but it still has the basic tenements of the Western RPG: you the player craft the hero's intention, and you have a lasting impact on the world of the game.
Dungeons & Dragons is a table top role playing game in which players create their own characters with skills, feats, spells and equipment who go out into the world and follow a path called a "campaign" from objective to objective using a dice system to regulate difficulty and chance. The campaign represents the overall goal of the game defined as a narrative. It will end the game if completed, and so the goal of some D&D campaigns can become "How can we best avoid saving the world before the Dungeon Master gets pissed?" The reason Weston RPGs are like D&D, however, is that in D&D you can do anything you can say. There are rules in place governing opening treasure chests, disarming traps, talking to kings, using a rope, casting a spell...you name it. The d20 system allows for any action to exist in the game world, with just some quick and well practiced difficulty number adjustments by the DM. This is a really tall wall to climb, but it was something worth trying to do in the digital medium. The people playing computer games when games were debuting were the same nerds playing D&D, so the crowd was ready and expecting to be the central figure in the story. Companies like Blizzard, Bioware and Bethesda all used the D&D model in their story telling and narrative development. It's a popular way of getting the player into the situation of the game, without having to write a main character that's too unique (and possibly lose a percentage of your players that don't feel a connection to them). The uniqueness of the main character, then, comes from the player's decisions in the game world, and in the character's development.
Western RPGs began to dominate the popularity curve in the 2000s, once again reclaiming a throne they'd had from the incept of video games to the early 90s. Elder Scrolls and Fallout started it off, and Baldur's Gate sealed the deal. Baldur's Gate was Bioware's gift to 1998, and was as much a cultural moment in Western RPGs as Final Fantasy in Japan. Based on the "Forgotten Realms" campaign setting, Baldur's Gate was built around Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (D&D 2.0) rules and had players choosing a class, building a character up with gear, gold and party members until they saved the day and all was well. Looking now at modern Western RPGs we find that a large portion of the console market is still dominated by Bioware (in terms of number of AAA RPGs released with widespread popularity) with the well-respected Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. Dragon Age: Origins campaigned by promising to offer that old school experience again; The same thing that made Baldur's Gate great would be in the new series. Dragon Age is to Baldur's Gate what Final Fantasy XIII was supposed to be to Final Fantasy VII. It's a distillation of what we love about the Western RPG, what is essential to calling it a Western RPG. But where Square was just left of center with their aim on Final Fantasy XIII, it's easy to see what Bioware was promising and how well it was delivered*.
*Yes, Dragon Age 2 has let that slip...but that's another article.
Here's some game play footage from Baldur's Gate:
There's a large consideration on how time and technology was involved in the JRPG evolution. As the PC was a reliable early development platform Western RPGs found an early home there, and could focus on getting the D&D experience just right on that platform...while across the pond Eastern technicians are getting the tools in place to build the greatest console RPGs possible. Dynamic camera angles (Xenogears), amazing orchestrations (Final Fantasy series) and incredibly mature storytelling (Shin Megami Tensei) were all supported by the technology that was big in the mid 90s: the new consoles. The PSOne had enough good RPGs on it to make it stand out, the Super Nintendo had three numbered Final Fantasy games, all of which were highly rated as well as the Secret of Mana series). It wasn't until the Western development houses started making some serious in-country progress with hardware (the Xbox) that the Western RPG tackled developing for the console, and thus, getting their momentum together to roll back onto the market they created: the video role playing game. So history say it'll happen again. Technology from the East will revolutionize something about the RPG (Look closely...Demon's Souls, Kingdom Hearts...) and the West will have to catch up with a little innovating of their own. With the West entering the Motion Wars with Kinect, it'll be hard to guess who'll tackle the motion RPG first, and who will get it right. Regardless, technology and time. They play a big part in the fate of the RPG,
Recently I've seen the impact of the popularity of Western RPGs on the Eastern/JRPG market. Final Fantasy XIII is a great example, and the fact most of the "JRPG" style games coming out are either re-releases of classic, or only on the PS2 is very telling. The heyday of the Eastern RPG is in recession, and Western style RPGs rule the market right now. Will we see another moment when the Eastern RPG learns the West's tricks? Will we get another Megami Tensei, or a proper Final Fantasy? Time will tell. In the meantime let's let it be enough that we get to reap the benefits of competition in an amazingly deep genre, filled with the kind of quality you expect from something we'd call "the good old days".