WJRPGs

Why hasn’t the JRPG been revived as part of the recent retro movement?

It’s a curious question. God knows every other popular genre from back in the day has been revived in the name of warm nostalgia and easy money, but the RPG has not. Final Fantasy VI (nee III) and Chrono Trigger may not have been sales smashes in their times, but they were and remain beloved games. Why haven’t the people who grew up loving those games begun making modern homages to them, the way games like Mario and Mega Man have?

I kind of miss those games, really. Today’s RPG can be divided into three rough camps: First you’ve got retro RPGs, which are games that are trying to recreate the punishing difficulty and sense of exploration that characterized most of the primitive, pre-FFIV era RPGs. Most of these have little in the way of characters or plot; they’re vehicles for experiencing the game mechanics. They tend to be dungeon hacks, unforgiving and requiring a mastery of systems to survive.

Next you’ve got modern JRPGs, which are nearly extinct these days because making them with modern technology isn’t cost-effective for most Japanese publishers. These are mostly FFX-derived, being linear and story-driven without a lot of room for exploration. They tend to take you on a straight line from beginning to end, with optional content being either nonexistent or clustered at the end. In the absence of resource management and sometimes even dungeons, the gameplay challenge in these games usually comes from their strange and usually unique combat and character-development systems. Their stories are almost universally derived from anime.

Then you’ve got Western RPGs, which I don’t have a lot of experience with, but which I understand are mostly attempts to bring the Dungeons & Dragons “create your own adventure” experience to video games. Very non-linear and sandboxy — Grand Theft Auto: The RPG. Frequently in such games the protagonist is user-created and as such is a blank slate.

One genre that’s been lost in recent years, though is the 16/32-bit era RPG, which exists at kind of the midpoint between retro and modern RPGs. These games had more story and better characters and worlds than the excuse-plot ancient RPGs, but they were still more focused on creating an enjoyable player experience than the “movies with gameplay” modern RPGs that have become so prevalent in recent years. What happened to them? Common wisdom is that their more linear brethren kicked them out, but the failure of such games in recent years should have opened the door for a throwback, yes?

What I’m really wondering is why western studios have let this market lie fallow. I’ve lamented the domination of western studios in recent years, but not because I’m a Japanese fanboy or because I hate western development or whatever, but rather because western studios tend to focus more on genres I don’t particularly care for. Most of the genres I like have moved into decline as the Japanese video game industry has, and if some creative western studio could pick up the slack, I’d lick their feet.

In particular, I’d like to see a western take on strong, character-driven storytelling in an RPG. I have no real interest in reading yet another Japanese take on Star Wars or Evangelion, and their tropes and cultural mores (especially with regards to female characters) grow increasingly irritating, especially as their usage of them becomes more and more pandering as the audience shrinks. Western RPGs, on the other hand, are so disjointed and unfocused that it becomes difficult to construct a compelling narrative out of one. I want to see a marriage between the two schools: fun characters, a good story that doesn’t devolve into pseudo-philosophical nonsense, and retro gameplay. This shouldn’t be difficult. So why has no one tried it?

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