The Long, Silent Death of the JRPG

Opinion by Kevin Tavore,
Once upon a time, the JRPG genre could only be described as magical. When Final Fantasy VII hit the market, we encountered a world unlike any game before. There was a mission, an enemy, friends, and even some heart-wrenching deaths. To this day, many call it the best game of all time, and they aren’t wrong to think so. The game established a niche genre as a monolith for storytelling and immersion. It set an expectation and understanding that JRPGs were something special, and for years they have been.

But sometimes being the highest genre in gaming isn’t enough. The Roman Empire established itself as a preeminent power for a millennium. No doubt it seemed like it would never end. How could something so great cease to be? But it did, and so too has the reign of the JRPG. And I know right now you’re asking how this could possibly be true. The short answer is a changing culture and a game that had to change with it. As for the long answer, let me tell you the story of the long, quiet death of the JRPG.

The West and a Gap in Culture

Two and a half decades ago, western gaming was in its infancy. While Asia, specifically Japan, had essentially created gaming at a mass market level thanks to Nintendo and Sega, the western world was initially content to take what it was given and call it a day. There were western developers of course, but with the exception of Rare they were mostly focused on PC gaming. JRPGs were a product of Japanese culture without a doubt, and that normally would have prevented the genre from gaining a foothold in western culture. But western developers weren’t successful in capturing the mass market with their RPGs. We had plenty of cult classics, but nothing that set the world on fire and nothing that established RPGs in general as a product of the west.

Japanese developers found that gap and filled it with their own. The culmination of this is the Final Fantasy series. While it’s not the subject of the article, I believe it’s fair to make an argument that Final Fantasy is the most important video game series of all-time. It told stories and lead us on adventures we couldn’t imagine in other games. And other JRPGs quickly followed its rise to prominence. Together these games established what an RPG was. A game like Planescape Torment was forgotten while Final Fantasy became a household name.

In a way, the JRPG genre was a hero in the 90’s. It gave the west exactly what we needed: a way to experience a story that we play and that we love.

Aerith brought many to tears in Final Fantasy VII.Aerith brought many to tears in Final Fantasy VII.

The Western Resistance

But the west did not sit idle while a foreign culture invaded our media. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what it was. JRPGs are filled with quirks and tropes that many westerners simply don’t understand, and that’s if they don’t outright dislike them. We needed JRPGs, and I want to be clear that there is a lot to love in Japanese culture, but there is a natural rejection to foreign cultures and western developers subconsciously could not, or maybe would not, emulate the JRPG.

Instead, they kept trying to tell their own RPG stories and, eventually they succeeded. Many developers paved that path, but it was BioWare and Blizzard that finally brought western RPGs onto the same level as JRPGs. They did it with Knights of the Old Republic and World of Warcraft. BioWare established a story-through-gameplay paradigm that the west could relate to. Combat was more like an action movie than the long strategy of a JRPG and the game itself was simply shorter. Meanwhile, Blizzard created the most successful MMO of all time which brought millions of westerners into the western RPG fold. These two games did two things that JRPGs really didn’t do: fully real-time combat and dynamic stories.

With Knights of the Old Republic and World of Warcraft, the west finally found its niche. It found a place to grow its own culture and the cultural empire JRPGs had built for over a decade began to slowly erode.

1It may not look like much now, but this game was one of the first to establish mainstream Western RPGs.

The Hero Becomes the Enemy

We all know gaming trends adapt to the culture of the time. Japanese developers knew that too, and they were in touch with the west even before BioWare and Blizzard released those two games. JRPGs were initially turn-based strategy titles where combat revolved around thought more than action. This may have suited Japan, but it did not suit the west and JRPGs evolved to suit the needs of the time. They had to in order to maintain their success.

And so JRPG battles became faster and faster. Strategy was always a hallmark of the genre, but JRPG developers began to implement it in varying degrees. While we did have extremes, such as the fully real-time Tales of series, most JRPGs were content to sit in the middle. In a quick snapshot, these games are still very much JRPGs with all the cultural quirks and tropes one would expect. But if you look at it over time, there is a clear progression toward a more western-oriented approach to battles and presentation.

JRPGs had to become more western in order to appeal to western audiences. The western market was simply bigger – it’s where the money was. JRPG developers understood that and they made sacrifices of the tried and true formula as they chased the hearts of westerners. Sadly, it was this chase that ultimately brought them to their end.

Countdown screen 1Final Fantasy XV is coming in a few days, but it will not arrive as a JRPG.

The Long, Silent Death of the JRPG

Today, JRPGs have all but been eradicated. The cultural gap in the west they once occupied has been filled by western RPGs. The cruel twist to this story is that Japanese developers are still here, alive and well. But they don’t make JRPGs anymore. The make western RPGs with a Japanese flavor.

A few months ago, Square Enix developed a game meant to be a celebration of the Final Fantasy series. It was called World of Final Fantasy and featured all of the fan-favorite characters in a new, classical-style JRPG complete with turn-based strategy and every JRPG story trope you can imagine. As a traditional JRPG, it’s really quite good. And you know what? I bet most of you don’t even realize it exists. A major Final Fantasy game released in 2016 to essentially no fanfare at all. That’s really all you need to know to see that it’s over.

But what about Final Fantasy XV? It’s an epic JRPG 10 years in the making. Except that it’s not. It’s a western RPG made by Japanese developers. The combat, what we know of the story, the world itself…it’s all western. That’s certainly no condemnation of the game. I’m excited to play it and I know many of you are too. It’s a big deal and it’ll make a splash. But I bet the splash isn’t nearly as big as some expect it to be because at the end of the day, it’s a game that doesn’t really have a place anywhere. That’s the sad truth.

JRPGs are dead and gone. What remains are only memories. It’s time to say goodbye.
Kevin Tavore
Written by Kevin Tavore
Kevin is a lover of all types of media, especially any type of long form story. The American equivalent of Aristotle, he'll write about anything and everything and you'll usually see him as the purveyor of news, reviews and the occasional op-ed. He's happy with any game that's not point and click or puzzling, but would always rather be outdoors in nature.
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