The Great RPG Debate: My Perspective

This post may contain some facts, but mostly my opinions.

I am proud to be a female gamer, and even more proud to say that the RPG genre is my favorite game genre of them all. Being an aspiring writer and fan of general literature, I appreciate well-developed characters and epic storylines. As a gamer, I appreciate well-developed gameplay and that triumphant feeling of accomplishing something after working so hard at it (anyone who has ever played an RPG knows that feeling of finally beating a boss after fighting it, losing, and then returning after hours of grinding. So, so satisfying). So it makes sense that I would take to RPGs as well as I have. However, the term ‘RPG’ has changed over the years.

When I think of an RPG, I think of what is known as a Japanese RPG, or JRPG. In the past several years, we have seen the advent of Western RPGs, or WRPGs, which include games such as Fable and the Elder Scrolls series. American game designers took some strong elements of JRPGs and applied them to their games in a way that completely split the genre.

Once again my good friend Jon over at JANAiBlog inspired me to speak out about this via his own recent blog on the topic. He specifically referenced an article from IGN that all but floored me when I read it. This article claims it has the top 10 ways to ‘fix’ JRPGs. In my opinion (although the article claims this is not its intention), this list should more appropriately be titled ‘Top 10 Ways to make JRPGs Just Like WRPGs’.

That, my friends, completely defeats the purpose. They are two completely separate things for a reason, and the 10 things this article claims needs to be ‘fixed’ are old-school trademarks of JRPGs and, in many instances, those trademarks are what makes them so much fun to play.

In his blog, Jon specifically spoke about the way towns are laid out in JRPGs versus the ‘open-world’ format that is so popular in WRPGs where the player can literally wander around everywhere without any map borders. While WRPGs have lots of houses, stores, and other things you would typically see in a town, JRPGs usually just have a weapons and/or armor shop, an item shop, a magic shop (if magic exists in the game), an inn, and maybe 2-3 houses filled with relevent side-characters, NPCs whose words can help flesh out the story and enrich the game experience, or are just chock full of goodies to steal. The IGN article referrs to this as a ‘static’ world and complains about the oddity of prices getting higher on items the farther you venture from your starting point.

What this article seems to fail to acknowledge is that those things are what make an RPG feel so satisfying. As you continue on the story, monsters get stronger, so they drop better items and more money, and so the items offered in those areas increase in quality, and so their price goes up. Is it unrealistic? Sure. I want to move down south some day, and I guarantee you that most places down south are cheaper than where I live in New York. Not every place you venture to in real life is going to offer better-quality stuff and higher prices. However, this slope of increasing difficulties and rewards is what makes you really feel like the game is evolving, and it shows that you are making progress. I know I’m doing well when my crappy dagger gets upgraded to a long sword and damn it, that’s the way I like it!

Given, the things mentioned on this list do seem ridiculous nowadays when back in the day they didn’t seem so weird, and I think there is a reason for that. A lot of focus on games, especially in America, has turned to realism. American gamers want to play a game that feels like they’re really there, like it could really be happening. The advent of things such as motion controllers is also indicative of this.

In the times we live in where the economy is crumbling and people are losing jobs, a lot of people are turning to video games as a form of escape and, in fact, I have seen several articles pop up in the past year or so claiming that video games are very good for dealing with these kinds of stress (This desire to ‘escape’ also bleeds into non-gamers, which led to the boom of casual gaming, but that is a whole other discussion, so I will digress on that point). I think it is largely because of this that a lot of those not-so-sensical JRPG clichés, like walking into a strangers house and taking his secret stash of potions, were disposed of and are now being seen as bad game design by some people and that just isn’t fair to say, if you ask me.

Sure, maybe someone wouldn’t be seen as a ‘hero’ if they survived their journey by using items they stole from strangers’ homes. Clearly towns don’t just consist of 3 homes, an inn, and a few stores. No, people don’t have genetically blue hair. So what?

Long story short, these JRPG cliches may seem stupid to some, but they make sense as far as gameplay is concerned, and they are part of the JRPG culture. It’s like being a fan of cheesy horror flicks; yes, some of the devices used are old and worn-out in some people’s opinions, but thats what makes the genre so great. They’re defining marks of what makes that genre what it is, and while everyone has a right to say they like or don’t like something, I get very irked when people equate their dislike of a game mechanic to poor gameplay or bad game design. That just isn’t right, it doesn’t always work that way. This article does acknowledge this to a point, but it still says that current JRPGs are bad for, and I will quote this:

conform[ing] to the standards that were acceptable on consoles that are now two or three generations old.

I think this is just horribly unfair. Take a look at an excerpt directly underneath the quote above:

Don’t be mistaken: we love JRPGs — we want them to do well. But when games on the PS3 and 360 are following Super Nintendo rules, something just has to change.

Does it have to change, really? The Castlevania series still produces 2-dimensional sidescrollers where you collect different items, fight the same kinds of monsters, and eventually kill Dracula in the end. Are you going to tell me they’re bad because they ‘conformed’ to the same formula that the series used on the NES? That is just blasphemy. In fact, in Castlevania‘s particular instance, I would say the opposite is true, because whenever the series attempted to deviate from this motif and tried to update the series by making a 3D game, it bombed. Hard.

I understand where this article was trying to come from, and it does raise one or two promising points (I would most certainly love to be able to save anywhere, but I also enjoyed the race of making it to the next save point before I had to go to bed, it’s a classic JRPG component) but I think that it either wasn’t thought through properly or just wasn’t executed correctly.

I realize that this post turned into more of a rant/review of the article itself, but I think this also pretty much covers my general feelings on the JPRG/WRPG debate, which is simply this: They’re both different animals, trying to compare them is fruitless, and the modern inventions of the WRPG do not make JRPGs bad.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Final Fantasy VI to go play.


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    moritheil said,

    Well, gameplay has been changing with newer generations of consoles. However, those changes are not always for the better.

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