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In many ways, JRPGs are the definitive video game genre of Japan. After all, “Japanese” is right in the name! This might be because, despite their immense popularity worldwide, it’s a subgenre that is almost exclusively produced in Japan. But what distinguishes a JRPG from just your normal Role-Playing Game? On the surface, they are roughly the same, as they both feature stat-focused character progression, meaty game lengths, and a sense of grand adventure. Yet, for some reason we insist on making a distinction between just RPGs and RPGs that come from the Far East. Since they’re such an important part of otaku culture, we thought we’d take the opportunity to analyze what it is about JRPGs that makes them so distinct.
History Rooted in Tradition
You might take this as a roundabout way of saying “turn-based gameplay”, but that’s not actually fair. As a matter of fact, there are many classic JRPG franchises like Secret of Mana, Star Ocean, and Tales that are rooted in more action-based gameplay. Instead, it’s more like JRPGs follow more of a set of “rules” and make small adjustments to that formula to create a new experience. At the root of it, you have the base story, which is an evil force that is causing ruin to the world and bringing it to the brink of the world, and it is your task as the Chosen Hero of Fate to take up arms against the evildoer and bring peace to the world. In order to do so, you have to travel all across the globe, visit various different nations and cultures, and either find the proper legendary equipment or activate the mystic power found inside elemental-themed dungeons to acquire the power to finally vanquish the monster. You’ll find some rare exceptions to this rule, but almost all the major franchises will follow this mold to some extent, if not overtly. The fun is seeing how they change up this formula and subverting your expectations from the formula.
Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
- System/Platform: Super Famicom, Playstation 2, DS, Android & iOS
- Publisher: Square-Enix
- Developer: Chunsoft, Matrix Software (PS2), ArtePiazza (DS)
- Release Date: September 27, 1992 (JP), February 17, 2009
You’re not sure why, but your dad, Pankranz, dragged you away from your home as a child and you both set off for the town of Wheabrook. Apparently one of his old colleagues, Santos, lives there, and you find out that they’re both searching for something and they don’t want to really discuss what they’re doing. Thankfully, there’s a local girl named Bianca who’s willing to play with you, and the two of you become fast friends. One of your adventures brings you to some local ruins called Uptaten Towers, where you discover a mysterious golden orb. One thing leads to another, and you return to Wheabrook 10 years later, looking to finish the work your father had started years ago.
While technically it was Wizardry (a Western game) that began the push for RPGs to be developed in JRPG, Dragon Quest was the breakout hit that developers are still learning from to this day. Dragon Quest V in particular is the darling of the franchise because of how deftly it draws attention away from the tropes that it actually started. The story comes down to what we described in the first section: ultimately, there’s an evil monster that’s attempting to destroy the world, and the Chosen Hero must find all the pieces of the legendary Zenithian armor to finally bring them down. However, without delving too much into spoiler territory, the focus of the story is really on the familial bonds you both already have with your father, and the ones you end up developing with both your kids and your eventual wife. It’s a showcase of the sort of diverse storytelling that can arise from sticking with a set of general rules.
Dragon Quest V Trailer
Modern interpretation of Classical Fantasy
Most Western fantasy RPGs tend to be heavily inspired by Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. The worlds are set up like Medieval Europe; with a feudal government, weaponry being no more advanced than swords and shields; and the magical elements, like monsters and spells, being drawn straight from Dungeons & Dragons. Japan doesn’t really have any of that in their history, but they do like the part about fighting with magic and swords, so many developers just sort of ran with it and played it touch-and-go with the elements they drew from. You still get high fantasy elements like element spirits, using ancient weaponry to fight monsters, and what have you, but often times the setting is a strange blend of both medieval and modern sensibilities. Many towns and villages appear to have a democratic process where they have elected officials, but many times there’ll still be a king that rules over them all. Or somehow guns and canons exist but everyone as a collective just decided that swords and spears look cooler so they still just fight with that instead. It’s all about the style.
Final Fantasy VII
- System/Platform: Playstation 1, Playstation Portable, Playstation 3, Playstation Vita, Playstation 4
- Publisher: Squaresoft (original), Square-Enix
- Developer: Squaresoft
- Release Date: September 7, 1997 (US)
If you’ve somehow made it onto this site not knowing about the basic plot of what is inarguably the biggest JRPG of all time, let us fill you in. The Shinra Corporation effectively rules over Midgar, a sprawling metropolis that could be considered the capital of the planet. They have such a firm grasp due to how they power the entire city by harvesting Mako energy, which is also the lifeblood of the planet. An eco-terrorist organization called Avalanche, headed by Barret Wallace, sets out to stop Shinra from killing the planet by blowing up all 8 of Midgar’s Mako Reactors. You play as Cloud Strife, a former member of Shinra’s private military organization and work with Avalanche to bring down Shinra once and for all.
Just ignore the fact that most of the main enemies in Final Fantasy VII try and fail to fight you off with guns and explosives and you’re somehow able to fend them off with impossibly huge swords, boomerangs, and, uh, combs in the peculiar case of one four-legged team mate. No one who has played the game has ever once cared about the realism of the setting. In fact, Final Fantasy VII uses its impossible blend of classical fantasy elements and contemporary setting to set up its central conflict of mass industrialization vs the beauty and wonder of nature. Guns and machine weaponry are boring, a solution to a problem by the most efficient means necessary. Blasting robots with electric magic that’s granted to you by the power of orbs created by the power of life itself? It does what many considered impossible and makes environmentalism feel cool.
Final Fantasy VII Trailer
Simplifying Overly Complicated RPG Mechanics
As stated before, Western RPGs draw quite a bit of influence from Dungeons & Dragons. Because D&D takes place on pen and paper, much of the strategy comes from crunching numbers, figuring out the best way to distribute your skill points as you level up, and ultimately optimizing your character to be strongest they can be. While there is some of this in JRPGs, growth of your stats is handled by the internal systems of the game so you don’t have to number crunch. This means that the heart of the JRPG lies in the actual combat mechanics rather than meta-gaming the numbers. More recent JRPGs have been experimenting with giving more freedom to the player in how they distribute their stat spread, but for the most part, JRPGs try and make their constant barrage of numbers feel a little less daunting and confusing to their Western counterparts.
- System/Platform: Playstation 2, Playstation 3, Playstation Vita
- Publisher: Atlus
- Developer: Atlus
- Release Date: December 9, 2008 (US)
It can suck moving out of the glamorous city and into the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately though, since your parents have to go live overseas for a year for their work, and they can’t take you with them, you’ll have to go live with your uncle Dojima, a detective who works in the countryside town of Inaba, along with his daughter, Nanako, who seems incredibly uncomfortable with you. However, you couldn’t have arrived at a worse time, as a string of murders have shaken this quiet little town to its very core. Strange rumors are popping up that the victims actually showed up on the TV the night before they die. Maybe you can investigate into these with that other kid who moved from the city, Yosuke, and that weirdly perky Chie girl to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Maybe if you just stuck your hand inside the TV…
There’s so much to love about Persona 4, but what we’re going to focus on here is the battle system. Like many others that came before it, Persona 4 uses elemental weaknesses to incentivize skill usage. However, unlike in other games, hitting an enemy with their weakness also knocks them down, giving whoever attacked another free turn. Be careful though! Enemies can do the exact same to you, but you can shift around your own weaknesses by changing your equipped Persona in the middle of battle. This morphs the battle system from being your standard turn-based affair to a game of kill-or-be-killed. It rewards attacking swiftly and decisively, as holding back your SP for the next boss will almost assuredly get you killed. So, while leveling up and getting stat boosts is important, what’s really more important is keeping the right Personas on you at all times, making sure you can always hit an enemy in their weakness, as well as being able to resist whatever’s thrown your way.
Persona 4 Trailer
While we’ve attempted to describe the basic rules of the JRPG genre, this isn’t going to cover everything. There are so many sub-genres out there, like Tactical JRPGs such as Fire Emblem, or Action JRPGs like Kingdom Hearts and Tales, that we simply don’t have the space to write about everything! However, these three points cover most of the basics of what makes a JRPG, well, a JRPG. Have any questions? Suggestions? Please, comment below to let us know!