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The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of the JRPG

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FFXIII

The genre of games known as the Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) has been a dominant force within the gaming industry for over 30 years now. While essentially a version of the RPG genre from Japan, it grew to be so much more than that to the thousands of gamers who fell down the metaphorical rabbit-hole into the Japanese imagination. Cue the consistently silent, wild-haired protagonists, tragic romance, and heart-breaking plot developments that have become synonymous with the genre.

Many have differing views on JRPGs, some people seeing them as an awe-inspiring adventure through a series of fantastical lands, while others, a confusing fever-dream. However, it is impossible to deny the impact that this certain type of game has had upon the entire medium. JRPGs have ebbed in their popularity in recent years, and one can’t help but imagine the crescendoing symphonic orchestra accompanying the fall of the front-of-the-shelf titles to the bargain bins.

Persona-5 review

It really seems as if the late 1990s to the early 2000s was the golden age for the genre with classics such as the epic Final Fantasy VII, as well as fantastic titles such as Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. After a period of seemingly slim pickings for JRPG fans in the late 2000s to the early 2010s, 2016 seems to be the promised year for the genre once more, with so many new games being announced. Particular titles of note include Ni No Kuni II, Persona 5, and even Fire Emblem: Fates. Only time will tell if this signifies another burst of JRPG releases in the years to come.

The Good Times

The JRPG genre has its roots in the late 1970s but it wasn’t until the late 1980s when the genre saw a sudden surge in popularity as landmark titles such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy made their way to Western shores. An exotic break-away from classic Western RPGs, companies such as Squaresoft, and Enix, whom would later conglomerate to become Square-Enix, played a massive role in popularizing the medium.

Upon thinking about why these games were so successful, it becomes clear that there are certain similar aspects of these games that can be attributed to their success:

1. The sheer amount of content

Final-Fantasy-VII-e1460494663841

The content poured into each game was incredible and was enough to keep anybody preoccupied for months, if not years. This was the point in the lifetime of JRPGs where it didn’t matter either. It was fully expected for a gamer to pump 100+ hours of their life into pushing a character the size of a couple of pixels around a world that looks like it was created entirely using a two-tone colour palette, and it would not sway them from their purpose. The pacing of the game was reasonable and allowed the player to become well-versed in each aspect of the game before it threw you into something new. The amount of content was acceptable because the design of the games made sense. It never expected the player to suddenly become used to an un-introduced feature.

2. The most crucial component of the genre, fantastic characters

Chrono-Trigger

More often than not, the plot of the games themselves were long-winded and implausible at best. However, the characters are so individual and ‘alive’ in everything they say and do, it’s a struggle to find fault in their design. The characters of early JRPGs were each special unique snowflakes in their art and their motivations. There was a time when each character had such a deep development that their morals, values, attitudes, and beliefs were all identified to the player. The protagonist was usually silent in order to allow the player to impart their own emotions onto the character in order to enrich their involvement within the game. To counter-act this silence, the enhanced development of the supporting characters was essential in developing a close player-character connection. The extent of each game’s success in attempting to achieve this link varies, but the successful games find that their game is not only remembered more fondly but also the morals within the game will have a stronger effect upon the player.

3. Simple, intelligent gameplay

Link-to-the-Past

The gameplay of original JRPGs were fantastic. There was a good understanding of the fact that the gameplay, sensibly, makes the game playable. While a considerable amount of these games were turn-based in their formula such as Pokémon, games like Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past express this well in their simple but responsive combat, a factor that makes confronting enemies enjoyable.

It is these aspects that make these older JRPGs so successful. Unfortunately, it is also the attempts of the newer games to emulate and improve upon these factors that has ultimately lead to their failure.

The Bad Times

Then came the late 2000s to the early 2010s. While there were definitely still JRPGs being released into the market, there is a considerable decrease in the amount of games that the community can safely proclaim as being ‘well-loved’ by all. The successful games from this ‘era’ that have attracted ‘cult’ followings largely owe this to their idiosyncrasy from the norm.

This can be attributed to a certain range of factors. When looking at direct contrasts between the ‘90s to the 2000s, it becomes clear what some of these are:

1. A continued effort to produce an over-abundance of content within these games, with little to none of the original charm

The Witcher 3

Unfortunately, these later iterations failed to prevail against the greatest disappointment of all, monotony. Whether it be game systems, or complex mini-games, some JRPGs shove as much content as possible into the game in order to elongate play-time, at great risk of being tedious. Many of these games failed to understand that ‘kill x amount of y monsters’ and ‘Help find my brother/sister/mother/father/pet/lunch quests’ are not enjoyable. They are the bane of the genre that force you to waste your time back-tracking through areas that are lifeless and boring in order to gain a reward that is purchasable in the next town for a small fee anyways.

2. Use of character tropes

FFXIII

While characters are an essential part of creating an enjoyable JRPG, it is entirely ineffective if every character in the game is a re-hash of an old game character that was successful at the time. The character was successful at the time probably due to the fact that s/he was unique and interesting. By this point, it is almost a given that a JRPG will include an innocent, naïve protagonist, a jaded man wearing glasses, a younger sister figure and a strong, burly man or woman whose intelligence is consistently in question. Each of these characters will have different hair colors, ranging from obnoxious green to hot pink. The villain will have an androgynous tone and will wear such a radical costume that there is never any doubt to his evil. Because fashionable people can never be evil. A questionable message to put forward.

3. The inclusion of hopelessly complex game systems designed to ‘set the game apart from the rest’

Stats

There is nothing worse than being 20 – 30 hours through a game and still being force-fed tutorials about aspects of the game you’re yet unfamiliar with. The idea is to introduce the players to the systems used early on and then allow them to develop their understanding of the nuances of the game. It is NOT to slam forty pages of solid text explaining an alchemical crafting system in front of the player and expect them to have the patience to accept it. A further frustration in this is if the combat system of the game is particularly complex. If a gamer struggles to understand how to play the game, they will also likely struggle to understand how to enjoy the game.

It may be an over-simplification of the times to divide the success of JRPGs into two distinct time periods. After all, many good JRPGs were released in the late 2000s and early 2010s such as Persona 4 and Ni No Kuni. However, there is a clear trend to be observed in the concentration of ‘well-received’ games by the community within these times and the prevalence of annoying factors such as these described here.

The Hopefully Good Times

The next few years seem to be filled with many promising JRPG titles, mostly continuations of well-founded series. The headline act of 2016 is occupied by the next iteration of the most successful JRPG of them all, Final Fantasy XV. Accompanying this is Persona 5, the fifth iteration of a series that in some gamers’ opinion, is superior in its dramatic story-telling and character development. Furthermore, there is the long-awaited Fire Emblem: Fates (for PAL regions anyways), Ni No Kuni II, Bravely Second: End Layer, Dark Souls III, and (perhaps) Kingdom Hearts III to name but a few.

Dark Souls III, in particular is a further continuation of From Software’s ultra-hard frustration-athon. While lacking in heavy character development, it creates such an ominous atmosphere that one can’t ignore the beauty of its design and its rich lore to be discovered. It is exciting times for JRPG fans as developers seek to concrete their game’s own unique style within the continuations of their series.

Dark-Souls-III

While only time will tell as to whether or not these games will fill the void in many gamers’ hearts for a pure JRPG, there will certainly be enough content to be kept busy for a long while.

Japanese role-playing games are to video games, what fantasy is to books. It is clear from the very beginning if it is a good one or not. They are, more often than not, two times as large as the rest. And they will be accompanied by six further iterations to create a lore that even three hours spent poring over the Wiki page won’t help to decipher.

When somebody said a new JRPG was coming out, it used to mean something. It used to signal the coming of an emotional rollercoaster that would leave you physically and mentally drained with an inbox full of emails from concerned friends and family. Recently, it felt like it lost that meaning. There is hope now however, that the coming years will bring that back. For better or for worse.

Marcus Caravella, a self-proclaimed 'gamer' whom is atrocious at any game that requires actual skill. Loves anything turn-based or role-playing. Needless to say, most-loved genre is turn-based RPG. From Perth, Western Australia, he prefers to spell words like favourite and colour exactly how they should be spelt.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Belinda Brock

    December 8, 2016 at 10:03 am

    Simplified but very accurate. I love JRPGs for their stories and characters.

    One more factor that could be considered either good or bad, is that, unlike western RPGs, JRPGs have no replay value. They’re once-off masterpieces that throw our emotions around the room the same way Hulk threw Loki around in Avengers. If the story is weak, finishing the game even once is a mission. So one could criticize the lack of ‘choice’ (a modern western trend, which allows for, essentially, a new game every time you play), or you could praise the fact that a unique story should only be experienced once (I think this is the intention of most JRPGs).

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Games

PAX Online: ‘Unpacking’ and ‘Infernax’

Our PAX Online coverage continues with a game the calm and relaxing Unpacking and the not-so calm and relaxing Infernax.

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Unpacking and Infernax

Our PAX Online coverage continues with a game that takes a hated activity and somehow makes it relaxing and another game that will leave you clenching your buttocks.

Unpacking

Unpacking game

Platforms: PC
Release: 2021

As someone who is coming fresh off of moving just a little over a month ago, you couldn’t have blamed me for being a little skeptical going into what was dubbed a “zen puzzle” game based on the final stretch of the process. Unpacking is just that, though. It’s a calming, almost therapeutic exercise that happened to serve as a wonderful way for me to unwind at the end of a day.

Unpacking is exactly what it says on the tin. There are no scores, no timers, no leaderboards, just you, and a few boxes with various items in them that need to be placed somewhere. The demo starts with a single bedroom in 1997. There’s nothing in the game that tells you where something should go, only your own taste and intuition; a locked diary would probably go in a desk-drawer while a soccer trophy would probably be displayed on a shelf.

As I slowly unearthed items one-by-one, I gradually got a feel for what the room’s new inhabitant was most likely like. The endless supply of stuffed animals implied someone of younger age while the numerous art supplies indicated someone inclined to right brain thinking. It’s rather engaging to learn about this person’s life purely by their belongings.

Every item taken out was like a delightful surprise and would sometimes even make me feel a little sentimental such as when I took out a small device that was clearly a Tamagotchi. More importantly, Unpacking nails that sinking feeling of when you feel like you’ve used all your available space but still have boxes left. Reaching the point of just throwing stuff wherever it fits is such an immediately relatable feeling that I was almost offended. And that was only for a single bedroom!

Unpacking game

The demo’s second stage was a little more involved with a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen in the year of 2004. The hilarious moments of finding a boot in your kitchenware box or a bra with your toiletries also felt like a call-out to my own hodge-podge packing methods. It’s something I can’t help but let out an exasperated chuckle at.

It was also neat to see how this person has grown since their earlier abode. Much fewer stuffed animals but more art supplies and a brand new computer imply this character is maybe entering the working adult world. I’ve never actually seen this character, but I can’t help but feel a connection to them already, and that was only after two moves. The full game will have eight total moves to follow them through and I am genuinely curious to see how our nameless and faceless protagonist grows throughout them.

Now if only unpacking in real life could be this soothing.

Infernax

Infernax

Platforms: PC
Release: TBA

Some players may recognize Berzerk Studio for their excellent 2018 bullet-hell, rhythm game Just Shapes & Beats. Coming hot of the heels of that hit they immediately pivoted in the new direction with Infernax, a delightfully edgy 8-bit adventure platformer that takes cues from old-school Castlevania titles.

Our hero returns to his land after a successful crusade only to find it overrun by horrible monstrosities in every which direction. With nothing but mace in hand, he sets out on a quest anew to rid the land of the undead filth. Immediately apparent upon starting is just how tightly the game controls; anyone fond of earlier NES titles will feel right at home with Infernax. I quickly got a handle on my exact attack reach down to the pixel and began mowing down the zombies in front of me. It emphasized how much joy a game is possible of eliciting from simply a jump and attack button.

Getting to that proficiency is important too because the game doesn’t waste any time in taking off the training wheels! Even the base enemies shaved off half my HP if I got careless and that difficulty ramped up at a rapid rate as new enemy types were introduced at a decent clip such as flying evil eyes and jumping rodents. Not only do these foes burst into tasty experience points and gold to be spent on upgrades, but also into extremely satisfying fountains of blood.

Infernax isn’t particularly shy about turning up the gore factor, but it’s still impressive by just how creative they get with it using simple pixel art. Nowhere is this more apparent than when you are killed. Every single enemy type has a unique kill animation when they deal the final blow to our hero. From the chump ass pillbugs to the big bad bosses, all of them mutilate you in a different way and it’s honestly morbidly mesmerizing to witness. It made me want to suicide against every enemy I came across just so I could see what creative way they took my life.

Infernax

Depending on your playstyle you might not want to do this, though, as Infernax features two different ways to respawn when you die. Hardcore respawn sends you all the way back to your last save point, just like in those classic NES titles. Casual respawn lets you restart right where you left off with no loss in progress, but choosing to do so locks you out from Hardcore the rest of the game. It’s a sort of mark of shame that I was glad to wear during the demo after I came up against the final boss and promptly got my ass handed to me. It sounds a little cheeky on paper but is actually very consistent with the game’s overtly edgy tone.

Infernax feels like a game that was lost to time during the NES era and is just now being rediscovered. Those looking for for a game that harkens back to the simplicity of the olden days need not look any further.

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Games

Indie Games Spotlight – Going Full Circle

We’re featuring five exciting indie games in our latest spotlight, including the internship roguelike Going Under and the cozy puzzles of Lonesome Village.

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Journey of the Broken Circle

Indie Games Spotlight is Goomba Stomp’s biweekly column where we highlight some of the most exciting new and upcoming independent games. Summer may have come to a close, but that hasn’t stopped big announcements from rolling in. With events like PAX Online and the recent PlayStation 5 Showcase flooding the web with announcements, trailers, and gameplay footage, there’s been a constant deluge of news to keep up with. With so much coming on the horizon, we’re spotlighting five exciting indies that you’ll be able to play sooner rather than later. Whether you’re in the mood for a brutally addictive action game or a cozy adventure and social sim, there’s bound to be a game that speaks to you in this spotlight.

Moving Up Professionally in Going Under

Work is its own payment in Going Under. In this action game from developer Aggro Crab, you’re put in the shoes of an unpaid intern who must explore the endless ruins of failed tech startups while fighting off the monsters that spawn within them. It’s hard work to do without a single paycheck—but hey, at least you’re gaining valuable experience!

As a former unpaid intern myself, the writing in Going Under certainly resonates with me and it’s sure to strike a chord with anyone who’s ever felt underappreciated or overworked. Its vibrant and colorful 3D graphics, as well as its satirical story, only make it all the more enticing. It really should offer a great working experience when it hits all consoles and PC via Steam on September 24.

Animated GIF

Fill in the Gaps in Journey of the Broken Circle

Something’s missing in Journey of the Broken Circle. Like its name would suggest, this puzzle platformer follows a Pacman-like circle with a hole to fill. It wanders through a world that is whimsical and existential at once, searching for a companion to fill its gaps. As the circle rolls through ethereal environments, it encounters different shapes to use that allow for new gameplay mechanics.

Journey of the Broken Circle might be about an abstract shape, but in its quest to become whole, it strives to capture the human experience. It promises to be an intimate experience that clocks in at about five hours to complete. If you’re interested in getting this ball rolling, it’s already available now on Switch and Steam.

Prepare to Get GORSD

There’s a delicate balance between unsettling the player without being outright scary. GORSD treads the line here as a one-hit-kill shooter that stars humans encased in the skins of octopuses, dragons with human faces, and nightmarish environments. Something feels off about GORSD, but that’s exactly what makes it so interesting.

Brought to life with detailed pixel art, GORSD supports up to four players who can face off in chaotic matches in varied arenas. It also features a full-fledged single-player campaign with a vast overworld with dozens of unique stages. Its concept is inspired by its developers’ native Southeast Asian cultures, making for a unique gameplay and aesthetic experience. If you’re ready to dive in and see it for yourself, it’s available now on all consoles and PC via Steam.

Get Ready For a Foregone Conclusion

Saying Foregone is a 2D Dark Souls would be cliché, but accurate nonetheless. It’s a hardcore action game where you’ll fight against insurmountable odds to prevent monsters from overrunning the world. It has a brutally addictive gameplay loop—its difficulty may be excruciating, but because it offers a wide assortment of abilities to leverage, it’s immensely euphoric once you overcome the challenges before you.

This beautiful 3D/pixelated hybrid action game has been available on PC in early access since February, but at long last, it’s seeing its full console release in October. It’s been a promising title ever since its pre-release days, and now that it’s finally seeing its complete iteration, there’s never been a better time to dive in and give it a shot. It’s hitting all platforms on October 5, so there’s not long to wait!

Finding Good Company in a Lonesome Village

Mix Zelda with Animal Crossing and you might get something like Lonesome Village. This newly-revealed puzzle adventure game features Zelda-like adventure in a hand-drawn world populated by animal characters. Players control a wandering coyote who stumbles upon a strange village and decides to investigate its mysterious happenings by interacting with villagers, solving puzzles, and exploring its dungeons.

It’s more than a simple adventure game. In addition to puzzle-solving, you’ll interact with Lonesome Village’s eclectic cast of characters to forge relationships and unravel brooding mysteries. It’s showing plenty of potential with its cozy gameplay loop, and if you want to give it a shot, check out its official demo from its Kickstarter page! It’s already been fully funded in less than 24 hours, but if you want to help the developers out even further, consider contributing to their campaign.

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PAX Online: ‘Inkulinati’ and ‘Pumpkin Jack’

The PAX Online celebrations continue with the strategy game, Inkulinati, and spooky Halloween themed Pumpkin Jack.

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Inkulinati and Pumpkin Jack

The PAX Online celebrations continue with a strategy game whose tales are writ in ink and a game sure to put you in an early Halloween mood.

Inkulinati

Inkulinati

Platforms: Switch and Steam
Release: 2021

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Competitive strategy games stress me out. Chess? Stresses me out. Checkers? Stresses me out. Star Craft? Stresses me out. Managing that stress as a form of stimulation is what makes the best strategy games shine, though, and Inkulinati is so far demonstrating all the facets of such a game.

The titular Inkulinati are masters of a craft that brings their inked creatures to life on parchment, including a caricature of themselves. The two Inkulinati do written battle with each other until only one is left standing. The battles are carried out in a charming medieval art style that looks like it was taken straight out of a manuscript you’d find carefully stored in a library. These aren’t the masterpieces of Da Vinci or Van Gogh, but the kinds of scribbles you’d find the layman making on the edges of pages either out of boredom or mischievousness. The playful art makes for a playful tone and jolly times.

The core thrust of the gameplay is that each Inkulinati utilizes ink points to conjure units, or “creatures”, onto the parchment in a turn-based manner and sends them into the fray. There were a fair amount of creatures available in the demo — ranging from a simple swordsdog with well-rounded stats to a donkey capable of stunning foes with its trusty butt trumpet. Many many more creature types are promised in the full game, but I found even with the limited selection of the demo the gameplay was still able to be showcased well.

Your primary Inkulinati also has some tricks up its depending on the type you’ve chosen to take into battle. Instant damage to or healing a unit were the two shown off in the demo, as well as being able to shove units. Shoving is particularly useful as you can push enemies into the hellfires that encroach the battlefield as the battle wages on, instantly defeating them.

Doing battle with an opponent it all well and good, but what’s the point if it’s not immortalized for generations to experience down the line? Inkulimati understands this need and will record every single action of the battlefield in written word. It’s infinitely charming, and the amount of variations in how to say what amounts to just “X unit attacked Y enemy” is astonishing. How can you not chuckle at, “Powerful Morpheus killed the enemy and may those who failed to witness this live in constant pain and regret”?

Pumpkin Jack

Pumpkin Jack

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Steam
Release: Q4 2020

Halloween may be a little over a month away but that didn’t stop the 3D action platformer Pumpkin Jack getting me in the spookyween mood. The human realm is suffering from the Devil’s curse and have elected the aid of a wizarding champion to save them from it. Not to be outdone, the Devil also chooses his own champion to stop the wizard, choosing the despicable spirit Jack. With the tasty reward of being able to pass on from hell, Jack dons his pumpkin head and a wooden & straw body on his quest to keep the world ruined. The premise sounds slightly grim but make no mistake that this is a goofy game through and through, a fact only emphasized by a brilliant opening narration dripping with sarcasm and morbid glee.

The demo took us through Pumpkin Jack‘s first stage, a dilapidated farmland full of ambient lanterns abandoned storehouses. The visuals are compliments by a wonderfully corny soundtrack full of all the tubas, xylophones, and ghost whistles one would expect a title that is eternally in the Halloween mood.

We got the basics of traversal, like dodge rolling and double jumps, before coming upon a terrified murder of crows. Turns out their favorite field has been occupied by a dastardly living scarecrow and they want Jack to take care of it. One crow joins Jack on his quest, taking the form of a projectile attack that he can sic on enemies. Jack also obtains a shovel he can use to whack on the animated skeletons with a simple three-hit combo. There’s nothing particularly standout about the combat, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be this early on. More weapons such as a rifle and scythe are promised in the full game and should go a way towards developing the combat along with more enemy variety.

Pumpkin Jack

Collectible crow skulls also dot the map and seem to be cleverly hidden as even when I felt like I was carefully searching the whole stage I had only found 12 out of 20 by the end. Their purpose is unknown in the demo, so here’s hopping they amount to something making me want to find those last eight in the full version.

After accidentally lighting a barn ablaze and escaping in a dramatic sequence we came across the scarecrow in question. Defeating it was a rather simple affair that was just a matter of shooting it out of the air with the crow then wailing on it with Jack’s shovel. We were awarded a new glaive-type weapon as a reward but unable to give it a whirl in the demo, unfortunately. All-in-all, Pumpkin Jack shows promise as a follow-up to action 3D platformers of yore like Jak & Daxter, so here’s hoping to a solid haunting when it releases later this year.

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