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The First Law of JRPGs

Michael A Cunningham

I'm no scientist, but I know the first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but is actually transformed from one form to another. Over the last generation of consoles, I often heard people proclaim that JRPGs were dead. That statement always gave me pause, because I was still enjoying a good number of Japanese RPGs. If I was still playing these games, they couldn't be dead, right? I could have just dismissed those people as wrong and moved on, but instead I decided to dig deeper to determine where this sentiment was coming from. What I found was that while the JRPG was still very much alive, for some people it had changed into something they were no longer familiar with.

From the days of the NES and SNES, Squaresoft was a heavy hitter in the JRPG arena. If you say the name Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, or Secret of Mana, most people know what you're referring to. If you were a Sega fan, you likely knew of Shining Force, Lunar, or Phantasy Star. These early days of console RPGs were very formative for many RPGamers. Those who came to love JRPGs during the PS1 or PS2 era were met with more Final Fantasy games, but also series like Persona, Suikoden, Kingdom Hearts, and Wild Arms. These games are just a few of those that highlight nearly two decades of fantastic JRPGs.

Moving into the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era, there were no Chrono games or Kingdom Hearts titles on consoles. The PS2 era ended with the back-to-back hits of Persona 3 and 4, but despite their success, no Persona games or even any Shin Megami Tensei RPGs were even scheduled for this past generation of consoles until it was announced that Persona 5 would hit Japanese PS3s in the winter of 2014, nearly a decade after the system's launch. In terms of single-player content, Final Fantasy fans only received FFXIII and its two direct sequels, but very little on consoles outside of that. Suikoden, Wild Arms, and many other series that had been standouts during earlier generations were no-shows on consoles this time around. The big names that many had associated with JRPGs for years were nowhere to be found. At least, not on consoles.

During this era, the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable took off in Japan, and development of JRPGs shifted in that direction. Thanks to the cost of development for consoles ramping up along with elongated development times, that often stretched out beyond reason (I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy XV/Versus XIII), JRPG series like Dragon Quest, Suikoden, Wild Arms, Kingdom Hearts, and Persona all wound up on handheld systems instead of consoles. Other lesser known RPGs also appeared on handhelds during this time, with games like Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, Etrian Odyssey, and the continuation of the Mario & Luigi RPG series really shining, too. While these games were often fantastic, they were no longer in the same form that many fans had once known. JRPGs had changed form into something portable, and for gamers that strictly play on consoles or who don't follow the industry closely, it seemed as if the genre they'd come to love over the past two decades was vanishing. They weren't.

Japanese RPG development wasn't completely shifted to handhelds, as there were still plenty of JRPG released for consoles. In fact, some fantastic JRPGs were released in the last generation. Games like Nier, Xenoblade, and Lost Odyssey are just a few of the standouts. Out of those, Lost Odyssey was the closest to the traditional style that many fans were seeking. Many of the others great RPG of this era were simply different from what had come before. Xenoblade was a very progressive title featuring open-world exploration and real-time menu-based combat. Nier was a hodgepodge of multiple games that somehow wound up being fantastic thanks to its outstanding story and masterful soundtrack. Other titles like Valkyria Chronicles took turn-based RPG elements and combined it with real-time strategy to create something completely unique. And other games like The Last Story took JRPG story conventions and added a whole new gameplay style to it. Just because the PS3/360/Wii generation had a dearth of well-known brands didn't mean that it lacked fantastic JRPGs.

Many RPGamers are still looking for the next console Kingdom Hearts or a new entry in the Final Fantasy series as the savior of Japanese development. However, having spent the last generation enjoying plenty of fantastic RPGs, I don't feel like they need saving. JRPGs simply changed form. The handheld market is still thriving and there are plenty of consoles RPGs out there, but they are just not the big names people are pining for. The reality is that the many of the brands I mentioned earlier either don't exist anymore or are stuck in development ruts. In reaching for the mainstream success many Western RPGs found this past generation, many JRPG developers lost their way with their long-running series. Thankfully, there are still plenty of games around to fill that void. You can't ignore an entire genre just because a couple series that you miss are no longer around. If you think JRPGs are dead, you're likely just looking in the wrong place.

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