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Are JRPGs dead?

Over ten million people own a copy of FFVII. Released in 1997, Square’s iconic RPG is still regarded with reverence by RPG die hards and casual players alike. FFVII sold 2.3 million copies in its first three days on sale in Japan alone. To put this in perspective, Metal Gear Solid 4 sold 77,000 copies in its first week, growing to 5 million copies worldwide.


Above: FFXIII has been a divisive game with both fans and critics

Thirteen years on from FFVII’s glorious debut, Japanese RPGs are losing their luster among committed, and casual, fans alike – and, poetically, it’s Final Fantasy XIII that’s the most iconic, if polarising, symbol of the genre’s perceived stagnation. FFXIII’s critical reception has been unusually mixed, veering from Japanese games bible Famitsu’s near-perfect 39/40 to Hong Kong Magazine’s 4/10 review, in which they described it as an ‘insult’ and ‘the biggest swindle in gaming history’ because of its linearity. “It’s little more than an amusement park ride.” They said, scoring the gameplay 1 out of 10.

“The hype machine is to blame,” says RPGFan.com reviews editor Patrick Gann of the game’s mixed reception. “When I first saw the trailer for XIII, I nearly lost control of my bladder. But that was at E3 2006. If the eye candy is the best thing about this game, then Square played their trump card about four years too soon.”

Even die-hard fans are turning, condemning a loss of the values that made the series great, namely: freedom, interesting characters and challenging storylines. “Why don’t they make a 20 hour movie and save me the trouble of playing it?” says disgruntled fan OnyX on YouTube. “The battle system is too narrow. There’s little room for trying new things”, says another. While on the Final Fantasy Online forums, an entire thread is devoted to slating the game. “They’ve taken the things that make FF special, and got rid of them,” voices one poster. 


Above: FFVII is still seen by many as the best RPG ever made

Once a symbol of global success, Final Fantasy is now being held to account for the wider failings of the Japanese games industry. Some of its biggest names have been outspoken about the industry’s slump. “Japan is over. We’re done. Our games industry is finished.” says Capcom’s Keiji Inafune. “The industry in Japan is a modern form of sakoku,” says Ninja Gaiden creator Tomonobu Itagaki, referencing an ancient Japanese government policy of closing its doors to and rejecting foreign culture. “There’s no point in traveling the same path Japan did 400 years ago.”

In 1997, when FFVII was released, the Japanese software market was worth 537 billion yen. But in 2009, it slumped to 326 billion. A significant drop. The decline might be linked to Japan’s reluctance to adapt, suggest industry voices, with publishers selling and re-selling barely evolved sequels to previous hit games, only to a dwindling audience. Final Fantasy is on its fourteenth chapter, while Dragon Quest is welcoming a tenth instalment. It isn’t so much the dependence on sequels, but their inability to surprise that strikes many pundits. “The developers just don’t seem interested in taking risks any more,” claims PSM3 UK’s JRPG expert Kim Richards. “Recent games like Star Ocean: The Last Hope and The Last Rebellion are all using the battle systems, the themes and the dialogue boxes from ten years ago.”
 
Above: Xenogears was another classic on the original PlayStation

For many Western RPG fans, the thought of another cookie-cutter adventure has little appeal. “Developers have mired the modern JRPG in unoriginality,” claims Brittany Vincent, contributor to RPGFan.com, “It’s harder to empathise with characters we’ve met a hundred times before – the shrieking, hyperactive schoolgirl (like Star Ocean’s Welch), and the quirky oddball (archetyped by robot mind reader Cait Sith in FFVII).”

“It’s hard to feign concern for imitations of worlds we liberated years earlier,“ Vincent continues, “With every new orphaned amnesiac protagonist, these universes blur into one”. Tales of Symphonia, The Last Remnant, Enchanted Arms, Star Ocean, Tales of Vesperia, Lost Odyssey, Phantasy Star – all conform to Vincent’s theory. Decent games for sure, but ones that gamers outside of their fanbases will know little about, unlike the universally popular Final Fantasy series. A key problem is a fear of change, pinpoints Square Enix’s CEO Yoichi Wada: “Internally and externally, I feel there’s an expectation for us to offer something new. I really think that the Final Fantasy team could create something completely different, but at the moment they’re strictly catering to a particular audience.”


Above: That's SquareEnix's Yoichi Wada on the left

“These days, EXP grinding – fighting hundreds of identical random battles to increase stats – make the games feel like an archaic remnant of the past,” adds Brittany Vincent, “We’re looking to recapture the magic of the ‘old days’; the giddy feeling of a world of unknown possibility opening up before you. Now many gamers see a new JRPG, and think of the toil lying in wait; the effort and time sacrifice required to get the most from it”. While its visuals have huge universal appeal, and the plot intrigues, FFXIII takes 20 or 30 hours before reaching its potential. For FFVII fans, now 13 years older, and staring at jobs, mortgages and kids, it’s a formidable obstacle.

51 comments

  • Jikininki - July 14, 2011 5:48 p.m.

    I don't know about everyone else, but I love the idea of fighting the same monsters over and over for hours to reach "my full potential." And I love to beat a game with every piece of gear and max damage even if it took me 60 hours to do so. I remember completely the sphere grid for everyone in FF-X. It took me over 60 hours, but it was definitely worth it! Who's with me?
  • Burningblade04 - October 14, 2010 8:54 a.m.

    No JRPG aren't dead you ignorant twat, Final Fantasy is. There' tons of good series like Shin Megami Tensei, Valkyrie Chronicles, etc get of your damn Final Fantasies it's not the only JRPG in the world. And if you think cliched story and characters are what keeps you from playing a game, then something is very wrong with you.
  • Hendetta - June 5, 2010 8:13 p.m.

    JRPGs are definitely not dead. Anyone who would say otherwise has obviously never looked beyond Square Enix' games. Please go and play Atlus' amazing Persona series, two of which are quite recent, and tell me JRPGs are dead. Other recent JRPGs that are great are Valkyria Chronicles, Odin Sphere, Eternal Sonata and many others. Mind you, all of therse games have their flaws (except for Persona 4), but having played recent (and also great) American RPGs like Fallout 3 or Mass Effect, I can say that the amount of flaws and their weight on the game as a whole are equal.
  • TheHiFiJedi - March 18, 2010 5:50 p.m.

    Great article
  • oreomonkey - March 18, 2010 6:33 a.m.

    wow this crap looks gay, Final Fantasy has never appealed to me...
  • Styrophoamicus - March 18, 2010 2:14 a.m.

    I've never played many JRPG's (the only one I ever beat was FF VII... last month), so when playing FF XIII I'm pretty much playing as a relatively unbiased gamer. Personally, I think it's a wonderful game. The Battle-System is very enjoyable and keeps things interesting; much better than the wait... attack... wait... attack method. I don't really give a toss if " OMG! there's no towns!?", as long as the story is good and the game is fun, and XIII does all that well. Fanboys need to realize what's a good game, and what's good nostalgia.
  • Zeipher - March 17, 2010 8:14 p.m.

    I laugh when people complain because FF13 too linear. Final Fantasy 7 is totally linear until you get the airship, which is...3/4 through the game? Sure you can backtrack, but you can't accomplish anything new. FF13 is linear until about halfway through...it has a superior leveling system, a superior storyline, and a superior battle system (I love the pre-established control, the lack of MP and postbattle healing, and the reward system for a well-fought battle). Sandbox gameplay isn't everything. Oblivion and FF13 are in entirely different genres. Some people appreciate how FF is linear because it establishes a storyline. What characters were you attached to in Oblivion? You pay the price one way or another. Basically, appreciate the game for what it is, and not for what you thought it would be.
  • fanboyhunter - March 17, 2010 4:54 p.m.

    Big shout out to GR for mentioning Xenogears!!! But yeah JRPG's need to step it up.
  • PrierAdmirer - March 17, 2010 4:10 p.m.

    The problem with JRPGs is that they are so reluctant to change. But for a good reason. Change doesn't alway works. Take Ar Tonelico for example, it is a brilliant JRPG, with diverse characters and an intriguing gameplay. It is so different from the regular cookie-cutter JRPGs but what does it get in return? A small fanbase. And people want change in FF. JRPGs aren't the only problem. We are also at fault, there are many other JRPGs that was produced by relatively unknowns yet we ignore them. We want change in JRPGs but we ignore it, complaining about a franchise for following what it does best(although FF1-6 is FF's best because they stick out so much). I think Okami is a JRPG, and see what originality got it! Hypocrites are us. Originality, ignore. Franchise, blame that it is not original. Every other genre is like that, Rock Band and Guitar Hero, Shooters, Fighting and JRPGs are failing? If lack of originality is the problem, call the entire Game Industry dead. Megaman 9 and 10 are highly praised, why? BECAUSE THEIR THE SAME AS OLD-SCHOOL MEGAMAN. So in conclusion, Final Fantasy should try something new once in a while, that is true, but we can't blame them because we are so depended on them for change.
  • ichigoame - March 17, 2010 3:29 p.m.

    yeah, I liked the ATB battle system, now instead of being in control of all the people you fight with you have very partial control..i don't know if they're trying to make it more mainstream or something but i really wish they'd keep VIII or X's battle system, i'm playing VIII at the moment even though I've got xiii..i found XII dissapointing and didnt even bother finishing it, I might finish XIII..but right now i couldn't give a shit about it. and on thought exluding towns and city's just makes you less intamite with the world you are (most of the time) trying to save,what i hated in XII was running past all those boring fields..at least with VIII you got a FRICKIN' AIRSHIP!!! AND A CAR! versus looks intriguing though if that's crap, i don't think i'll care about FF anymore unless they change it to it's oldskool
  • Tacobob - March 17, 2010 2:42 p.m.

    The battle system is decent, but the game itself? Watch boring 10 min movie with generic JRPG characters. Fight short battle. Repeat till end of game. How the heck is this "game" getting such good reviews?
  • philipshaw - March 17, 2010 1:47 p.m.

    Read this feature in PSM3 like a month ago and have to agree with some of the points but I'm really enjoying FFXIII right now
  • absolutemarc - March 17, 2010 1:24 p.m.

    @Nocturne While SMT is a great series that does its best to innovate, Atlus is just as much at fault as Squenix. How many games a year do Atlus put out that are just the same strategy JRPG with different coat of paints? Don't get me wrong, love Atlus and all but SMT isn't their only series. A company that would be a good example of trying to advance the JRPG line, at least in my opinion would be Tri-Ace; Resonance of fate, Valkryie Profile, Infinate Undiscovery- none of them may be considered as great as some of the older final fantasies but at least they are trying to innovate the genre. What we need is a new Grandia. by that I don't mean we need a new game in that series (which we do) but what I mean is that we need a new game that just completely changes the way we look at battle systems the same way we did way back when the first grandia game was released for the PS1. Tri-Ace has been trying to do that each time it releases a new JRPG and even Squenix tried it with Last Remnent (though we all know how that turned out)
  • Nocturne989 - March 17, 2010 7:03 a.m.

    They bring up good points about the decline of the classic JRPG but 99% of their examples of JRPGs are from Square. There are plenty of JRPGs that imo bring new innovations that separate themselves from these straight cut FF games and create their own unique identity. Shin Megami Tensei anyone?
  • CH3BURASHKA - March 17, 2010 6:45 a.m.

    Persona 5 still hasn't come out yet, so no, they're not dead... yet.
  • sepirothpk - March 17, 2010 6:37 a.m.

    I think some of it is bull though. Especially when people go on about innovations of western games. Most of them feature the same character (marine/soldier/mecenary)and feature lots of guns. When there is an innovation, every other company makes it cliche. And western RPGs are largely set in similar environments with similar stories. There is a need for change in JRPGS, but I don't think the problem is that dire. And how is the teenage character thing common> I have only seen it in 2 of the JRPGs I played and 2 i haven't. And before anyone claims I'm biased, I like to point out ALL opinions are, that is why they are opinions and not facts
  • Tygerclaws - March 17, 2010 5:52 a.m.

    "People complain about games rather than enjoy them, and now this article proves that people just suck." Couldn't have said it better. Everyone loves to bitch. "This game sucks, I haven't loved a JRPG since Final Fantasy VII! It has the best characters and story and blaaahhh!" Well, you know what? To hell with you. Not every game is tailor-made for your moronic one-note ass. Not every game is going to be "teh greatits gam evar mayd". On that note: JRPGs as a whole. So what if they stay the same? They have an audience that is willing to pay and enjoy what they offer, just the same as any generic shooter or grand racing extravaganza. Why should JRPGs get flak when every single other genre does the exact same thing? Hypocrites (HIPPOCRATES!), the lot of you. Everyone has different tastes. Some people like the stoic anti-hero (Cloud). Some people like the happy-go-lucky confident hero (Zidane). Hell, some people even like the generic no-face dudebro hero (Master Chief). Just because the game doesn't have the hero you want doesn't automatically make it a horrible game. Just because you like open-world when this particular game is linear doesn't automatically make it a horrible game. Condemning a game simply for its ASPECTS is idiotic and naive. It's not what makes up a game that makes or breaks it, it's how well those aspects work. Sure, XIII is a tube. Get. Over. It. You. Asshats. If you don't like it, play Fallout. There. Have an orgasm. There's a game for you, here's a game for me. Everyone's happy. If I went on a tirade for every game in which I didn't like an aspect or two, we would be here all year. And, honestly, how narrow-eyed are you if you see every character as each other? If that's truly how you see things, never meet anyone. Ever. People are similar, that's the way things are. Point to ANY city. You will find thousands of: Jocks, squealing schoolgirls, "emo" kids, nerds, goody-two-shoes, bullies, quite types, EVERYWHERE. THAT IS WHY THEY ARE STEREOTYPES, BECAUSE THEY EXISTS. Duuurrrrr. On the surface, they are the exact same person. The differences lie in the details. Selphie likes trains, Rikku is afraid of lightning. Cloud is a jerk and a liar, Squall is really a softie with dependency issues. Aerith is a two-faced manipulator, Rinoa is a bossy, pushy go-getter. *gasp* Differences? Oh nozorz, I must be a fanboy! Everybody call the wahmbulance! Gah. I hate people. Pure and simple. In closing, JRPGs are what they are, shooters are what they are, and so on and so forth. They're here to stay, regardless of what a small percentage of the (obviously paying, if they have the game) populace says. If a game doesn't fit your narrow-minded agenda, don't play it. We don't need your two cents on the internet.
  • AKALMoumen - October 27, 2013 8:24 a.m.

    You said exactly the right thing...
  • maximvs - March 17, 2010 5:34 a.m.

    But with great RPGs of today, the KOTOR, Oblivion, Fallout, Mass Effect - linear gameplay is unacceptable. There aren't supposed to be "choices" in GOW III, it's an action game
  • FoxdenRacing - March 17, 2010 5:32 a.m.

    Since people seem to be getting offended: My comments weren't aimed at FF13, but rather at the genre (and the latter half of the series) as a whole. I haven't played 13, it's not right for me to judge. Some games have to evolve or die and the traditionalists decrying it for the sake of change look silly, but not all evolution is good evolution. Dynasty Warriors 6, Devil May Cry 2, and CnC3 all proved that. I dig RPGs, but you very rarely find a truly good one anymore...and by good, I mean ones where you don't know the instant they show up on screen who will eventually join your party, you don't know the instant they show up on screen what their role in the party will be, you can't see plot twists coming a few chapters away, etc. I mean ones that are new, refreshing, something that hasn't been done before, and even if it has (it's hard to have an epic plot without saving the world), doing so differently from the competition. Just like there's thousands of stories about medieval fantasy, or science fiction, or even murder mysteries, the limit for RPGs is nonexistent; unfortunately since the late 1990s, many modern RPGs play like a Mad Lib instead of a game, with characters and plots a few word substitutions away from being one another. I miss the old days, where nobody thought twice about making a bloodsport football game with all the stereotypical movie monsters as teams, or a puzzle game about stereotyped caricatures of a long-gone civilization trying to get home, or starred a knight that just happened to be a zombie, or a fighting game where the camera was over-the-shoulder and each limb of a ginormous robot was controlled separately. (Kudos to anyone that can name all 4 games). IMHO it's getting to the point where too many games try too hard to be realistic, when they'd benefit from a little creativity...not only in standing out from the crowd, but also in the budget...I can't imagine paying for permission to create a digital version of a famous weapon/vehicle/etc is cheap. Perfect example, look at Team Fortress 2. Imagine how little it would have stood out if it was realistic like the Call of Dutys and Battlefields and all the other dime-a-dozen 'lovingly rendered in exactly 5 colors: dirt, concrete, gore, gun, and stubble' shooters; where would Halo be if it had Hummers in place of Warthogs? Where would Unreal Tournament be if it didn't have never-before-seen gadgets to blast one another to comically-bouncing chunks of meat with? F-Zero, if the vehicles were forced to strictly obey the laws of physics? Mass Effect, if the laws of thermodynamics applied? Borderlands, if it tried to look photorealistic? Armored Core, if bringing a sword to a gunfight was a dumb idea? Gaming is all about escapism; if you want realism that badly then turn the games off and go outside. LOTS of reality out there.

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