Nobody likes the act of moving to a new house. Perhaps the most terrible part of moving to a new place involves rummaging through your possessions in your old apartment and deciding what goes with you and what gets thrown out. As you pick up each item, you ask yourself, "Do I really need this?" Items that get the nod get to make the trek to the Promised Land — a nice brown box, a trip in a U-Haul, and the new house. Unfortunately, some items — things like old magazines and wire hangers — are not as lucky. They usually end up on the curb inside of a big, black Hefty bag.
A similar phenomenon happens in the video game industry. As years pass and more consoles are released, it becomes more apparent that some genres either relocate or become obsolete. Where are our puzzle games, 2D platformers, and on-rail shooters today? For the most part, they're restricted to hand-held consoles, DLC, and arcade cabinets.
We're knee deep in this current generation of consoles, and I'm wondering if the Japanese RPG has a similar fate.
"This house is too big for us"
The JRPG, as well as the pen-and-paper-RPG, is something that had to exist. That is, they're games that people would have had to invent at one point or another. It all comes down to imagination and doing what you can with certain limitations.
As technology progressed, the pen-and-paper-RPG evolved and was made available in the form of a video game, the JRPG. The convenience of these "ready-made" RPG campaigns is that they provided visuals, a story, and rolled the dice for you. When the earliest JRPGs were released, the imaginations of both gamers and developers far surpassed what technology could accomplish. Therefore, things like world maps, battle screens, and dialogue boxes had to be used as tools to help convey the complex stories that had to be told. Characters became party members and injuries were produced by random number generators.
One can argue that the golden age of JRPGs occurred sometime during the PSone/PS2-era. At that time, we hit a "sweet-spot" where world maps and battle screens were presented beautifully, in better detail. Unfortunately, battle screens and world maps were still required — huge, open worlds that have been simplified due to limitations. During this time Japanese developers, well-known for peppering their games with computer-generated cut scenes, released many titles, each with their own spin on the genre.
But what happens when the line that separates cut scene and gameplay footage becomes blurred? What if that line were to become non-existent?
Today, Sony and Microsoft set the bar when it comes to visuals. Nintendo continues to innovate by allowing us to interact with our video games in new, exciting ways. With this technology, mechanics that are usually implemented in JRPGs become archaic. Battles take place on the world map; the player fights battles in real time; text boxes are replaced by Nolan North.
Will future consoles become too "big" for the genre?
The Current Situation
Video game genres have evolved towards more life-like representations. The Madden and NHL franchises make it look like you're actually watching a sports game on television. Mirror's Edge has allowed gamers to platform in first person. As our consoles improve, many things that make a JRPG what it is may become unappealing.
Let's take a look at the battle systems in our typical JRPG. Success in battles takes some deliberation and requires the player to be able to manage their party members well. Giving orders to party members usually involves navigating through a series of menus which may stop the action if we're talking about a turn-based RPG. The stop-go action during these battles doesn't seem to lend itself well to the age of gaming we're in.
Recently, it seems like Western game developers have been out-RPG'ing Eastern developers. Game developers like Bioware and Bethesda Softworks have truly exemplified what it means to give players a role-playing experience. Western developers have done a great job of engulfing players in the worlds they create by providing meaningful dialogue trees and (more importantly) allowing the player to make decisions that change the experience. Western developers seem to spread their efforts evenly across characters' conversations, providing different scenarios for different choices players make, and cut scenes, thus putting a console's capability to good use.
Unlike most of the decisions players are prompted to make in a JRPG, some decisions in a game like Mass Effect 2, for example, have a lasting effect on the storyline. Today, there are high standards when it comes to "role playing" in video games. The term, "JRPG," seems like a misnomer since Japanese RPGs tend to provide players with shallow consequences for the decisions they make.
Can JRPGs do more with current-gen consoles than provide fancy CG sequences?
Playing through a JRPG is a very nostalgic, comforting experience for many gamers who grew up playing them. However, when I think of nostalgia in games, I think of old technology. By checking out upcoming releases at RPGamer, it's clear that there are more than two times as many RPGs in the works for the PSP and Nintendo DS than there are for the PS3, 360, and Wii.
Are JRPGs more suited for hand-held consoles?
Moreover, when you click through to see the profile of each game, you'll see that the ratio of Eastern developers to Western developers working on games for hand-held consoles is much greater than that of the ratio for the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii. Based on RPGamer's list, I found that there are about 10 Western-developed RPGs in the works for the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii, while there are 28 Eastern-developed RPGs in the works for these consoles.
The numbers for hand-held consoles are more telling. Out of the 44 RPGs in the works for the PSP, none of them are being made by Western developers. Out of the 63 RPGs in the works for the DS, only two are being made by Western developers. If we pool these numbers together, we get a ratio of 2 to 107 for Western-developed games to Eastern-developed games in production for hand-helds. In summary, about 73.6% of the RPGs that are in the works for PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii are being made by Eastern developers while about 98.1% of the RPGs that are in the works for hand-held consoles are being made by Eastern developers.
There are a few ways to interpret this data. This could indicate that Western RPG developers are just not interested in making games for hand-helds. Since there seems to be a greater variety of developers working on hand-held RPGs, this could also indicate that Eastern developers are more interested in making games for hand-held consoles since it's cheaper. Smaller developers have less to lose in doing so. Either way, the percentages say that there are more JRPGs being made for hand-helds than there are for the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii. It's also worth noting that the the PSP and DS are closest to the PSone and PS2 in terms of capability and technology. Perhaps when it comes down to consoles, JRPGs tend to gravitate toward that level of graphics and power.
Do hand-held consoles provide a "safe neighborhood" for JRPGs?
Suitcase or Heftybag?
Today, the JRPG genre seems to be stagnant since popular (and good) titles are released few and far in between. As a once-avid fan of the genre, I'm not sure if what I've written about here worries or comforts me. A piece of me would like to see innovation take JRPGs to the next generation of consoles. Another piece of me would just be content with playing Breath of Fire III on the PSP.
In writing about this once-beloved genre, there are a few questions that are worth thinking about. Since no meaningful innovations have truly come out of the JRPG genre aside from different battle systems and level-up mechanics, what kind of changes are needed for this genre to thrive on current-gen consoles? What characteristics of games in the genre need to be left behind in order for JRPGs to be appealing to the masses (again)? When these changes are made, are you still left with a JRPG? Moreover, what happens to the JRPG when the DS and PSP become obsolete?
As I post this, I think about how I've recently put $10 down to reserve a copy of Final Fantasy XIII. The Final Fantasy series has always set the bar in terms of what a JRPG should represent and "strive to be" for current consoles. In a way, the genre's relevance is riding on its reception.
It's a silent battle that the JRPG has to fight, and it's a matter of staying relevant. With every release on the PS3, 360, or Wii, JRPGs have to show that they too "have a use"; they need to earn a spot to move on with us to future consoles. It's either that or be confined to the comfortable hand-held gaming market where JRPGs have remained plentiful.
[Upcoming RPG releases via RPGamer]