RIP RPG: A Post Mortem on the JRPG
– AllAn CraiG 8/2/17 – 3:37Pm
JRPGs ruled the roost for years, but died a quick death.
Imagine walking into a feast, a banquet of considerable proportions spread out over a single table. All your favorite dishes are there, though some are a tad overcooked and, admittedly, there are flies on some of the plates, but just the same it is yours to consume! Once you’ve had your fill, another dish is brought out to you. There are so many you fear you may never finish them all. Eventually, you’re told to come back again, for another table will be presented with more of your favorite dishes. You leave this table, because the promise of what was to come has you salivating for more. Yet when you return, you find a new table, but instead of a buffet overflowing with sheer delight, you find a paltry handful of dishes. It will feed you, yes, but you yearn for the days when your cup overrunneth. Welcome to the abrupt end of the RPGs dominance in the gaming industry.
What the hell happened? Well…a lot, as it turns out. In my moderately lengthy column extolling the wondrous RPG library that graced the PS2 console, there was no denying through the tint of nostalgia glasses that there was a considerable amount of both quality and quantity when it came to the genre, yet there was a scratch over the lens of those rosy nostalgia goggles: the PS2 was a double-edged battle axe that was loaded with more RPGs than on any given system…but it was also the coffin that a vast majority of RPG series were buried in. There isn’t much to be done for it, either. Many of them are gone, likely forever.
Where to start? Let’s look at a few series that didn’t live past the era. Some of the series I mentioned previously started in the SNES or PS1 era and stretched into the PS2 era with the full steam of several installments behind them and legacies that became harder to live up to. One series in particular: Wild Arms. It’s a fun and unique series of RPGs with a Techno Western setting and puzzle-filled dungeons. The first two games were PS1 gems and this continued on PS2 with a third game that gifted the series better graphics, music, all the bells and whistles. Then came a fourth game and a reinvented battle system no one asked for. Then a Fifth one. Then a remake of the original PS1 game. That’s a lot of installments in the lifespan of a console (usually between 4-7 years, depending). While series creator Akifumi Nekiko met with Sony last year about continuing the series, nothing has been heard since. RIP Wild Arms How about Grandia?
Oh, this series was fantastic, innovating the tried-and-true turn-based battle system with a real-time element that made even standard battles required to have an element of strategy and attention. PS2 housed Grandia 2, an all-time classic. And Grandia X-Treme which was…not great. Then came Grandia 3, a gorgeous, fun game filled with a lackluster story and bored voice actors. I’ve yet to find much evidence as to why the company doesn’t want much to do with this top tier series. The last Grandia game to come out was Grandia Online, a Japan-Only release that was shut down in 2009. RIP Grandia. Suikoden III got rave reviews when it was released and subsequently became hard to find and expensive to buy on ebay. Suikoden IV, not so much. In fact, IV is widely regarded as the worst of the series.
Suikoden V fared slightly better, but by that point, few were interested in a sixth installment. Much of this could be because lead writer and series creator Yoshitaka Murayama left after the third game and sales plummeted. Not helping is that Suikoden is owned by Konami and Konami is just the absolute worst. These days they shill out their classic game series to be made into Pachinko machines. Joy. A side-story DS Suikoden game was released, but didn’t sell much or leave an impact. The games have gotten re-releases, thank Zod, but a new installment seems unlikely. RIP Suikoden. But surely there was more adoration for more well-known RPG bastions. Final Fantasy, who, like a beloved family Mastiff, is always there for you even if it drools a bit from time to time.
Yea, I say unto you, truly Final Fantasy doth deliver the goods…when it really tries. FFX is a great RPG that went through an odd period where people loved it, then the infamous Tidus laughing scene went viral and people hated it. Now people seem to love it again because the PS2 generation is nostalgic for its spiky haired Foosball players. FFXII was great according to the fifteen people who played it, but the switch from a turn-based battle system to an MMO-esque system that happened in real time put a lot of people off–including myself, at the time. Then the family Mastiff pissed on the couch and released Final Fantasy X-2, a title so ridiculous it sounds like it should be in the Kingdom Hearts series. This was a much-vaunted game leading to its release because up to that point
Square Enix had never bestowed upon the people a direct sequel to any of its games. And once the game was released, the formerly mentioned people wished that the JRPG gods had kept this particular gift to themselves, as the game highly reused areas from FFX, somehow made the already confusing last ¼ of FFX’s story make even LESS sense, and had a battle system that amounted to watching three girls play dress up. (Your mileage may vary). There was also FFVII: Dirge of Cerberus and it was about as well received as a fart in church. I can’t say RIP Final Fantasy, but the drop in quality that followed this is just heart-wrenching.
The warm reception for FF15 is a welcome sight that the old girl still has some gumption left. Oh, but hey! What about that old standby: Breath of Fire? There’s several people crying as they read this. You see, Breath of Fire may be quite the beloved series by many an SNES and PS1 owner, but when the series rolled around on to PS2 it…changed. Look, I’m not hard to please by any means and quite often even a mediocre effort will make me happy. So, while I didn’t fly into a rage over the changes made to Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter, I at least enjoyed it for what it was. And what it was, was different. And in many fans eyes, it was TOO different. Leaving behind turn-based battles for a quasi-real time/strategy build and a timer that only let your Ryu character change into a dragon if the counter wasn’t at zero turned out to be a losing combo for the series.
When the aforementioned dragon counter hit zero, game over. To add insult to this drastic change, the developer also implemented a bizarre leveling up system that required more than one playthrough. In no way were you able to beat this game the first time around, you were going to have to replay it repeatedly, carrying over experience, unlocking extra story bits and areas you couldn’t unlock before until you managed to finally level up enough to finish the game. Sound familiar? That’s because several of the developers who worked on Dragon Quarter would go on to design Dead Rising, where that same carry over of experience obtained a much more welcome response.
For Breath of Fire fans, though, it was a knife in the heart and the series has been dormant ever since, declared a “Resting IP” by the developer, Capcom. Japan did see the release of a game entitled Breath of Fire 6, but it’s a mobile only hack-and-slash affair disavowed by many BoF fans. Capcom announced this past week that it’s servers were being shut down. RIP Breath of Fire Those are some of the series whom had their legacies meet an end. Some series began and ended on the system. One day I’ll write a column extolling my unfettered love for Shadow Hearts. Three RPGs–two of which are stellar–born and died on the PS2. A sprawling tale that starts in the first game as an alternative history story with elements of Lovecraftian horror and ties to some real world historical figures eventually ends in the third game where you, a six-foot talking cat who does drunk boxing, a Mariachi with a flame throwing acoustic guitar, and a cigar store Indian who uses Gun-kata from Equilibrium at one point to help Al Capone rescue his sister from Alcatraz and buy supplies from gay bikers. And while I love off-beat bonkers wackiness, there’s a point where it goes a little overboard. And a lot of fans agreed. Not continuing the story of the first two games didn’t help. Rumors of the game’s director trying to get a spiritual successor have floated around, but nothing yet. RIP Shadow Hearts.
There was the Xenosaga trilogy, though initially this was conceived as the first three games in a six or seven game series with PS1 RPG classic Xenogears being the fifth game. It was a unique animal that changed somewhat from game to game and had a metric F-Ton of cutscenes. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but similar to eating cockroaches, I’m sure it has its fans. The second game sold so poorly that Namco pulled the plug on the ambitious series, though they let director Tetsuya Takahasi finish the third game just to give closure to the series. I theorize this turned out to be a good thing, because he went on to form Monolith Soft and, thereby, created Xenoblade Chronicles and that is no bad thing. RIP Xenosaga Kingdom Hearts won fans with its Disney and Final Fantasy infused universe.
Like an addled-brained moron who thinks he married too early, he gave two kids in his marriage to the PS2, then left abruptly to have kids with every wanton system it came across. Each installment since KH2 trails a progressive downward spiral of stagnation and names so ridiculous you’d think they were drunken bets to see how outlandish they can make them. There’s no explanation for this one. “Square Enix gonna Square Enix”.hack was beloved by people other than me, though admittedly I never had the chance to play it after dwindling supplies resulted in high ebay prices. By all accounts, the games were good for what they were, but after seven games the publishers at Bandai and the much beloved Baba declared that dwindling sales and lack of popularity all but doomed the series. Seven games inside the span of a single console generation is almost unheard of, but for as much as it’s hardcore fans loved it, that wasn’t enough to save it from the graveyard of RPG history. By the time the PS2 was done, so was the interest of a lot of fans.
Even if you take just the PS2 library, that’s an absurd amount of games in one genre. Not to mention that by this point, JRPGs had gone from a hardcore niche corner of gaming to mainstream beloved and finally to an over-saturated, bloated genre. Even as much of a JRPG fan as I was in the PS2 era with tons of time on my hands to play, I never managed to play as many as I wanted and some titles are still on my backlog to this day. I can only imagine others had a similar issue. Sometimes when you have too many choices, you end up not being able to choose at all.
The turn-based battle system, a staple of almost every JRPG, as much as I love it, was wearing thin. Tweaks to the formula help keep it fresh from time to time. Grandia and Shadow Hearts in particular stand out as games that helped break away from the genre standards with battle systems that required attentiveness in order to be used successfully. But even so, the formula was old. Just like Rock & Roll at the tail end of the 80s, it didn’t know how to evolve to the next level. So it died. Sort of. For a myriad of reasons–be it game’s original creative teams leaving, declining sales, game companies choosing to sit on a series rather than make a new installment–RPGs reached a point of over-saturation, lack of innovation, and consumer apathy. When the following console generation hit, the lack of notable JRPGs was jarring. It shouldn’t have surprised us, but it did. There was a silver lining, though, as the genre was upheld by a small number of standout titles and, thankfully, this current generation has seen the genre see a resurgence of interest and nostalgic love for the JRPG formula. And where the JRPG faltered, the Western RPG rose to prominence and MMOs held tens of millions of gamers in their grasp thanks to the increasing ease of a home internet connection. Necessity is the mother of invention. The lack of forward progress of the JRPG genre resulted in new genres cropping up to fill the void they left when the genre imploded. It’s sobering to think that an entire genre, once the height of popularity, could implode the way that it did. But look at the Musical Rhythm genre: Rock Band, Guitar Hero. Games that oversaturated their markets and couldn’t innovate enough to keep people’s interests. Most people’s plastic instruments are either sitting in a Gamestop warehouse or collecting dust in people’s closets. Let’s hope the same never happens to the JRPG genre. Consider the PS2 era a cautionary tale. And dust off that old PS2 and show it some love.
“The Iron Nurse”
Allan Craig, LPN