Over the past several years, since the fall of the PS2 era, JRPGs have been on a noticeable decline in almost all aspects, from their general quality to their market impact. As a big fan of the genre, I have wondered many times what it could be and this little article of mine is an attempt to order my thoughts. Perhaps an epiphany will emerge, but most likely, like many others, I will simply continue to wonder about what has happened.
To find where the problem began, it’s probably best to look at the peak of the JRPGs: the first two Playstation consoles. Now, that’s not to say there weren’t fantastic ones before. In fact, one can argue that the SNES was the highpoint of JRPGs, with games like Final Fantasy IV and VI, the Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger being the most fondly remembered.
I say it is the Playstation era consoles though specifically because of one game, one that may inspire anything from grins to groans: Final Fantasy VII. Without question, FFVII is the most popular JRPG of all-time, at least from a western standpoint. Of course, there are other popular games as well, but it’s VII that is continually brought up, revived, and reviewed when talking about JRPGs.
Personally, I like VII. I don’t think it’s the best one (I’m one of the few that think Tactics is the best Final Fantasy), I’d say it’s in the top 5 games in the series. But more than anything within the game, it was the impact that it made culturally and financially that cements its place in history: its infamous 100 million dollar ad campaign, its development team that numbered in the hundreds, and its blockbuster sales, which made the game a Greatest Hit title within months of its release.
Final Fantasy VII was the first modern-day blockbuster JRPG, the one that sold out store shelves and made the Final Fantasy name a franchise rather than just a pantheon of notable games. The point is, it made the JRPG the most popular genre in America for a brief time.
That point in time was augmented for a couple years by the release of a rash of other Square and Square-lite franchises: Chrono Cross, the Legend of Dragoon, Final Fantasy’s VIII and IX, Xenogears, Parasite Eve, and so on. There seemed to be a never-ending flow of these games, some of which are still remembered today as classics in their own right.
The Playstation 2 era continued this trend, though not to the same degree. Tales of the Abyss, Final Fantasy X, and the Shin Megami Tensei games all came and made their mark. But it’s around this time, nearing the end of the PS2 lifecycle, that JRPGs began to simply tread water instead of make the splashes they’d become known to make. Other than some cult hits like Disgaea and the Persona games, the JRPG began its decline.
The next-generation consoles (now the current generation) is what caused this. Whether it’s the shift of power from the east to the west in game development, the rise of FPS games, the demand for leaps in technology, or anything else, it seems that the coming of the PS3 and Xbox 360 especially did the most damage simply because of how different gaming had become since the last cycle.
Final Fantasy XIII is the sign of this, a game that is generally agreed to be one of the weakest Final Fantasy games in the franchise (which I consider to be just plain bad). The game was financially successful but critics and fans alike derided it for its plot, characters, gameplay, and linearity, all of which are very reminiscent of past games.
Maybe it’s fans finally realizing the franchise has been in sharp decline since X, but if XIII was released on the PS1 or 2, it would probably be fondly remembered. It’s a Final Fantasy game through-and-through, but the fact that such an archaic mess came out in 2010 is what makes it so hard to accept. Final Fantasy and JRPGs in general have yet to adjust to the climate of the current generation.
You can see it in the shift of power from the JRPG to the WRPG, with big names like Fallout, Deus Ex, and so on switching their perspectives, their gameplay, their storylines and so forth to fit modern expectations: non-linear progression, character creation, high replayability, and fast-paced, action-oriented gameplay. JRPGs are about set characters with a linear story, which is progressed through by very specific means. While there are novel ways to do this (the Persona series, Trails in the Sky, etc), there are simply too many games that are crashing and burning because of their specific and antiquated nuances.
Maybe it’s something else. If you ask me, I’d say time itself is the worst enemy to JRPGs. The farther away we move from the glory days, the harder it will get to return. Frankly, I thought the Final Fantasy series had been dead since X. Really, the only JRPGs doing anything useful are the Shin Megami Tensei games, some throwbacks, and the occasional good indie release.
JRPGs may not be dead, but they sure are getting there. Until Japanese developers find a way to appeal to a wider, more sophisticated audience, JRPGs will be what they once were; a niche style within a niche genre that will simply exist thanks to a few hardcore fans.