The Fall of the JRPG

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There was a time when gamers, and not just fanboy types, waited with abated breathe for the new Final Fantasy game. When we got a hold of the newest game we’d talk about our newest strategies, secret levels, and how good the story was. Final Fantasy in the 90s is what Call of Duty is today.

My first experience with these games began in 1989 when my dad bought a game called Dragon Warrior. It was a difficult game even back then, a time when beating a game was not a guarantee, but after some time I had conquered the game and was hooked. The family ended up getting all the NES Dragon Warrior games (1-4), and we loved them, but I was about to discover something even better: Final Fantasy 6. (for brevity, Final Fantasy will be referred to as FF)

The Golden Years

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Outside of Japan FF6 was released as FF3 as a few of the games in between the first and sixth did not get released outside of Japan. I remember as I started to play the game I thought, “Whoa, there’s a story’. Yeah, Dragon Warrior kind of had a story, there were small narratives within the game itself, good ones too, but the main plot was always something like ‘Hey! This evil creature is going to destroy the world, just because, and only I can stop them!’. The characters in Final Fantasy were special too, and there were a lot of them. They all had their own stories and quests, and if there was a character you and your friends openly wished you could send on a suicide mission (looking at you Gau) you could tuck them away in the bowels of the airship.

On a side note: My friend Scott and I always did whatever we could to kill Gau. Before you recruit him to move along the story you find him after a random battle, but instead of giving him the tasty snack, I’d often have Sabin use his suplex move on Gau. Satisfying.

Second side note: The artwork which came with FF6 is still my favorite by a large margin.

I backtracked and played the older Final Fantasy games and loved them as well. Then came FF7. It would become the most famous and most liked Final Fantasy game of all time. Interestingly enough, it would also be the first Final Fantasy game to not be on a Nintendo console. This alone was the deciding factor for me to get a Sony Playstation instead of Nintendo’s console.

But as much as I enjoyed and as much time as I put into FF7 (a lot) I began noticing things that really didn’t seem right. The main character, Cloud, is this super elite combat soldier… who happens to be 17. I was 14-15 when the game came out, and even then I thought it odd that essentially a high school senior was an experienced super-soldier. But outside of this admittedly minor flaw I loved the game. Plus there was Tifa, so you know, bonus.

The Decline

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Final Fantasy 8 came out and I enjoyed it, but now it was becoming quite noticeable the game was becoming, well, younger. Almost every character in your squad was a high schooler, in appearance and behavior. Despite being in high school myself I couldn’t accept the idea of whiny 14-18 year-olds being so awesome. FF8 is what finally destroyed my suspension of disbelief.

It pays to point out that around the time JRPGs were getting more cute and youth oriented with each installment, western RPGs began popping up. There were a few released before it, but the first of the big waves of western RPGs was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR). KOTOR was an improvement in every way over its Japanese brethren. There were two improvements that were most noticeable: Writing and voice acting.

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Writing in JRPGs was never bad, but it was never great either; dialog often its weakest aspect. In the aspect of voice acting games coming out of Japan were never done well, some of the worst offenders were/are from Tri-Ace’s Star Ocean series. KOTOR is the first game I can remember playing were you can tell money and talent were put into the voice acting, and it really aided in immersion. I finally wrote off the Final Fantasy series after the ninth installment. JRPGs were going in a direction I couldn’t find engaging.

The Bottom (Today)

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One of the biggest problems Japanese developers face is their base, especially in Japan, wants the cute and quirky design. Phasing that stuff out could mean a loss of dedicated consumers. On the other hand the developers know that group is a shrinking portion of the market.

The worst part for me is I know most of the games are good and enjoyable, but the characters and how they react to different things are so off putting. I don’t want to play a game where a group of fifteen year olds with big crazy hair and who are socially awkward join forces and save the day. Not knowing anyone who is excited about the new Final Fantasy or Star Ocean release is one of the more radical gaming changes in my life. That’s how the world works though. If you’re not careful, or not paying attention, someone will come along and do what you’re doing better and cheaper. Right SimCity?

Andrew Koerwitz is a freelance writer and comedian. He has found publishing success writing about small furry things and his work can be seen in Guinea Pig Magazine.