I was having a conversation with a co-worker today about how it seems that dominance in video game development has shifted from Japan to the West. This is not a particularly new idea. But it does leave me with a somewhat unsatisfied appetite for one of my favourite genres which is very well-represented in the PS2’s library: Japanese RPGs.
My love affair with JRPGs started with the purchase of my Playstation and a copy of Final Fantasy VII. It was the first disc-based epic in a series that I’d largely ignored to that point. I bought it because it came highly recommended by the owner of the video game shop where I purchased my system. I hadn’t been an RPG fan previously (at all) but I trusted the man’s opinion and decided to give it a chance. Well, it goes without saying that I was incredibly impressed at the game and the ball just started rolling from there.
But looking at the current generation consoles, it seems that the Japanese RPG is becoming an endangered species. The Wii library has very little in JRPGs, though based on the mass exodus of third-party RPG developers from Nintendo after the jump from SNES to N64 — to say nothing of the jump from N64 to Gamecube — that was to be expected. While the PS2’s library is filled with many JRPGs, the genre has much less representation in the PS3 library. There are a few notable titles (which is more than I can say for the Wii) but in particular Final Fantasy XIII has left a rather sour taste in my mouth. The Xbox 360 is not even on my radar largely due to my seething hatred of almost everything Microsoft but also due to the fact that I see the library as basically an extension of PC games, which I’ve had little to do with. Apparently improvements have been made here, but I wouldn’t be able to say for certain.
(If you’d like to prove me wrong, I would love to see an annotated list of your favourite Japanese-developed RPGs for each of these systems, but I think the point still stands that none of the current generation systems have as plentiful a selection as the PS2. And for the record I’m willing to admit the Strategy RPG genre, too.)
So what was happened to this fan-celebrated genre?
The video gaming market has shifted significantly. The Japanese used to rule the industry with an iron fist but looking at some of the best titles of the current generation, more and more of them are being produced by Western studios. Nintendo has had a great deal of success handing some of their franchise titles over to a Western studio but the one they developed in tandem with a Japanese studio got some terrible reviews over the pond. Some of the best titles in PS3’s library are developed by Western studios. There has been a shift and Japanese developers are finding themselves scrambling to catch up on the world stage.
Why the sudden shift? Co-worker and best friend @maplealmond offered a very interesting theory: while Japanese developers have definitely ruled in the console market (which they also largely created), Western developers have always done better in PC gaming. As gaming consoles are now very close to PCs, those PC game sensibilities translate over to console gaming much better. Consoles have incredibly powerful graphics and processing power, Internet connectivity, and even hard drive storage. While Fallout 1 and 2 couldn’t have possibly been ported to the NES or SNES due to the large amount of storage needed just to save, Fallout 3 stands as one of the very best titles in the PS3 library and has won a number of “Game of the Year” awards, leading to a special “Game of the Year” edition with all of the downloadable content bundled in. The games are now being made on Western turf, so to speak.
Also, it is possible that the tastes of the market have changed, too. While I do love Valkyria Chronicles and the Disgaea series, I haven’t finished any of those games yet. Why? They all take way too long to get through, and it’s not even all the fun stuff. Japanese RPGs suffer from a “grinding” problem, sometimes requiring a great deal of repetition and administration to train your uber squad of heroes to own that boss who keeps on handing you your spleens on a silver platter. That might’ve been quite acceptable to me when I was young but as I’ve accumulated more responsibilities and obligations, it has become harder and harder to justify allocating precious leisure time to killing the same group of monsters over and over again to farm experience points.
(Valkyria Chronicles 1 suffers from a different problem: it won’t give me enough game to play, so I get inclined to switch to something else for shorter gaming sessions. If I’ve got an hour to spend gaming, I’m sure as hell not spending 30 minutes of it watching cut-scenes.)
Grinding is so endemic to the Japanese RPG experience that Disgaea’s main selling point is that it places almost no limits on how much you can grind to create the ultimate killing machine. Level 99? Try level 9999! Much of the “fun” of playing Disgaea is finding new and interesting ways of “cheating” the system (i.e. exploiting loop holes that developers purposefully left in the game) so that you can achieve your ultimate killing machine in 70 hours instead of 100. Really? I’m lucky if I can squeeze an hour or two of gaming into my day now. Games I want to play are released at a rate much higher than I can actually finish them and that means I’m inclined to play games that give me much more for my commitment. Is it possible that has the audience has grown up, they’ve also grown tired of the grind?
There are probably many more factors at play here. What do you think has affected the success of the JRPG in North America?