When I first saw a TV commercial for Final Fantasy VII - this commercial, to be precise - there was part of my young gamer mind that couldn't even grasp how you were supposed to play a game like this: What button would you press to mournfully lay a girl to rest in a pool of water, anyway? (Whoops, spoilers.)
I was so fascinated by this game that looked wholly indistinguishable from a movie that I would have given anything to get my hands on it. Alas, as we were an N64 household, it seemed my quest was fruitless - until I learned one of my friends had the PC version of the game. Nowadays, Eidos' PC port of the classic PS1 title is considered rather shoddy, but hell, I didn't care: It didn't make the experience any less mind-blowing.
How could games get any better than this? There was this rich story that went so far beyond "save the princess to get cake," with flawed and interesting characters, who had their own hopes and dreams. It felt like a true game for adults, from its gritty pseudo-cyberpunk setting to the way it wasn't afraid to portray grown-up concepts like romance and death. And boy, were those cutscenes ever astounding! It was, in all senses of a now-overblown word, truly epic.
From that day on, I was a JRPG devotee. I borrowed a friend's old SNES for 16-bit legends like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III (which I insufferably informed everyone was actually Final Fantasy VI). I scoured the internet for grainy low-resolution videos of cutscenes from FF8 and FF9. When the day came for me to jump ship to Sony and buy a PS2, I went to the cash register with FFX in hand and spent all night exploring this wondrous fantasy world of Spira. I borrowed and played games like Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story - if it came from Squaresoft, I wanted it.
Then one day I found that I didn't really care anymore. I played Kingdom Hearts II, and found the character drama in the last act of the game - where it was almost all Square-Enix and very little Disney - silly rather than moving. I lent Final Fantasy XII to a friend when I was two-thirds through the game, and never got around to asking for it back so I could finish the story. Had I simply outgrown the JRPG, or had the JRPG outgrown me?
Curiously, it seems like the games industry as a whole has had the same relationship arc with the JRPG as I have. We fell in love with the genre around the launch of Final Fantasy VII. For five or so years, it reigned supreme - and then it slowly, quietly seemed to fall out of favor, and nobody exactly knows why.
Perhaps the classical turn-based gameplay doesn't hold up as well anymore. Perhaps it's that we're tired of the same old plot arcs and archetypes - though that's hardly just a sin of the JRPG. Perhaps we want to play our own role rather than step into the shoes of a character whose every movement and thought has been written ahead of time by the game's writers - but that's still the case in almost every genre that isn't an RPG, and we don't have a problem with it there, do we?
Maybe it's simply that the luster has worn off. Final Fantasy VII rocked our collective worlds because it was so hugely cinematic, and it felt so very grown-up. Nowadays, every game calls itself "cinematic," and there is no shortage of games aimed at an adult audience. If those were the selling points of a JRPG once upon a time, and every other genre now lays partial claim to those same qualities, then what remains for the noble Japanese RPG?
Though it seems weaker than it's ever been before, the JRPG is not down and certainly not out. With its likable characters and stellar writing, Persona 4 rekindled the spirit of many a soul who thought they'd never play a JRPG again, and - though certainly flawed - this year's Final Fantasy XIII ended up striking a high chord in the end.
We've dedicated this issue of The Escapist all to those other RPGs from across the Pacific Ocean: What do we like about them? What do we hate about them? Can they ever recapture the dominance they once enjoyed?
In this week's issue, Ed Moore speaks with the demon designers of Atlus Japan in an extremely rare interview with Western press, Eileen Stahl deconstructs the all-too-common JRPG character trope of the saintly and meek princess, Joe Myers examines the differences between Western RPGs and JRPGs in the light of cultural individualism vs. collectivism, and Brendan Main shines the spot on the cult-beloved SNES title Earthbound.
Grab your hair gel and your nearest airplane-wing sword. Happy reading.