The terms “RPG” and “JRPG” are generally well known among the gaming community. However, the terms have different meanings for different people and they are not always properly understood. I recall that in highschool, a friend of mine recommended Bioshock and described as a “great RPG.” Those two words are generally enough for me to get excited about a game, and I rushed to the store to pick the game up. As I started playing, it became clear to me that Bioshock is in no way an RPG. I was scratching my head, how can my friend think that Bioshock is an RPG?
At first glance, JRPG seems like a pretty easy genre to define. After all, it stands for Japanese Role Playing Game. But that raises the questions, what exactly is an RPG and what aspect of it makes it Japanese? Therefore, to fully understand what a JRPG is, we must first look at the RPG genre as a whole and the traditional Role Playing Game. According to Google, a Role Playing Game is one in which players take on the roles of imaginary characters who engage in adventures. This definition is commonly used and while it is technically true, it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story and it’s definitely misunderstood and misinterpreted. Take a look at this game for example:
In Blazblue, you are playing the role of an imaginary character that is fighting another character, and the story definitely does involve an adventure. So it’s an RPG right? Of course not.
So why is the term RPG inaccurate for a game like Blazblue? And why are most of the Zelda games, Tomb Raider, and Uncharted not considered to be RPGs? The reason being is that Role Playing Video Games originate from Tabletop RPGs, a genre that started with dungeons and dragons in 1974. To put it broadly, there are two major aspects of a traditional tabletop RPG: role playing and mechanics.
- The role playing aspect involves the player having complete freedom over their character: from creation, to personality, to upbringing and development. This is all done in a world created by a designated dungeon master. The player has the ability to write their character’s backstory and personality within the dungeon master’s world. In addition, during the campaign, the player has can have their character say whatever they would like and the dungeon master can have NPCs respond in a free flowing conversation. The player can also have their character doing virtually anything that comes to their mind so long as it is within the rules of the world that the dungeon master created. Therefore, a tabletop RPG allows for much more freedom than any video game due to the presence of a dungeon master that can respond to the player and control NPCs. Once the player has requested an action, whether it is in combat or outside of combat, the mechanical aspects of tabletop RPGs come into play.
- Every single RPG has a system, which is an algorithm that combines luck with the character’s stats to determine whether the action they requested goes through. It frequently involves the roll of a 20 sided dice that is modified with the character’s stats going against the enemy’s stats and rolls. For example, if the player wants their character to lie, the result of their roll may be added to their deception stat, and the result of the enemy’s roll may be added to their insight. Should you beat their roll, the lie would go through. And this applies to combat as well, the character’s roll is weighed against the enemy’s armor class to determine whether you land a hit.
These tabletop RPGs inspired developers to create several role-playing games for computers, dubbed CRPGs or WRPGs. Of these computer RPGs, two major series known as Ultima and Wizardry rose to prominence in the early to mid 80s.
These games featured extensive amounts of choice, alignments, dialogue options, in depth plots and strategic turn based combat. For the first time, players were able to get a DnD like experience right from their computer, and these two series really got people into RPGs. One of these people was a man named Yuji Horii, who created a game known as Dragon Quest. It drew heavily from the battle systems of the Wizardry and Ultima series and has a lot of the elements that we associate with JRPGs today, such as random encounters, towns, weapon shops and grinding. It also popularized the genre on the Nintendo Entertainment System, which created a lasting presence of JRPGs on consoles that still exists today.
To be clear, Dragon Quest was not the first JRPG, there were several Japanese made RPGs in the early 80s for PC. For example, in 1984 Falcom released a game known as Dragon Slayer, which was an action-adventure game with light RPG elements that served as an inspiration for the Ys series. But it was Dragon Quest that established a template for all future JRPGs and popularized the genre on consoles. Following the release of Dragon Quest, a struggling company known as Squaresoft put out what they thought would be their last game, Final Fantasy. It featured a vast overworld to explore, several different races of characters and a battle system that borrowed heavily from Ultima and Wizardry. And as we all now know, Final Fantasy was not Square’s last game, not even close. Instead, the game spawned the most popular JRPG series outside of Japan, a title that it still holds today, whether you like it or not.
In the late 80s, we saw a shift in the genre, and it started with a game known as Phantasy Star. At the time of its release, Phantasy Star was something special. It blew both Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest out of the water from a technical and graphical standpoint. But even more important than that what was the game’s plot. While Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest featured self-insert protagonists and minimal storylines, Phantasy Star featured a relatively complex plot with in depth characters that had defined personalities. Instead of having a blank slate as a protagonist, Alis from Phantasy Star was a well defined character. And from here, we start to see a divergence between JRPGs and Western RPGs. Western RPGs continued to emulate the role-playing aspects of tabletops, and over the years, they have expanded on the foundations set by Wizardry and Ultima to provide ever more complex options, multiple endings, personality mechanics and much more.
On the other hand, JRPGs followed the precedent set by Phantasy Star, and games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV & VI, Earthbound and the Quintet Trilogy established JRPGs as a genre with fixed stories and tabletop like combat. So in a sense, you can make the argument that JRPGs are not RPGs in the traditional meaning of the term since they focus on fixed narrative over personal choice. And that’s ok, the fixed narrative is one of the reasons why I love JRPGs, I prefer to see the developer’s vision and what they intended with their story and characters. Now there are obviously some exceptions to this. For example, the Shin Megami Tensei series features very important choices that will drastically change the direction of the plot. But as a general rule, JRPGs feature fixed narratives with tabletop RPG combat mechanics. They are RPGs in a mechanical sense, but not in a role-playing sense.
Now let’s go into some of the other common elements of JRPGs and come up with criteria as to what constitutes a JRPG. Now just remember that this is ultimately my opinion, and other fans of the genre will have different criteria. Also keep in mind that a game doesn’t have to include every single one of these things, there are plenty of JRPGs out there that definitely do not have all of these characteristics. Here is my criteria of what constitutes a JRPG:
- Anime influences
- A progression system
- Turn based, action or strategy gameplay
- A party of characters that join the hero
- Side quests
- A fixed plot
- Made in Japan (Debatable)
The first and most important point that I would like to mention is that JRPGs are deeply rooted in anime. Even as the pioneers of the genre were being influenced by Western RPGs, they were also being influenced by anime and manga. The original Final Fantasy’s lead character designer was a manga artist known as Yoshitako Amano. And of course, the Dragon Quest series is drawn by the renowned Akira Toriyama. In fact, it’s very difficult to find JRPGs with no anime influence whatsoever, the two genre are directly tied together. That being said, you really don’t need to be huge anime fan to appreciate JRPGs. I myself wasn’t a big anime fan when I started playing JRPGs, and it wasn’t until several years later that I started getting into anime a bit more. But just know that you will find anime tropes and anime cliches in JRPGs, and you should at least be ok with them. In addition, there’s a huge range of JRPGs when it comes to their anime influences. The Final Fantasy series for example is relatively light on anime influences, the Tales series is a bit more over the top and something like Hyperdimension Neptunia is really out there. As long as you don’t outright despise everything even remotely anime, you should be okay.
Now one of the most important aspects of JRPGs and RPGs in general is that there is some form of progression system. That is to say, that as your character fights and defeats enemies, they become stronger and more effective in combat. This improvement in combat should be gradual and continuous. And this is why I don’t consider most Zelda games to be JRPGs, the exceptions beings Zelda II and possibly Breath of the Wild. While Link does occasionally get stronger throughout a Zelda game, it’s generally a large jump at a fixed moment, such as getting the master sword. There’s no gradual improvement in a Zelda game. You can spend all the time you want fighting skeletons in Hyrule field, but Link isn’t going to get any stronger. So how does a progression system look like? Most JRPGs simply have a level up system: you fight enemies, gain experience, level up and boost your stats. But it doesn’t have to be a level up system. For example, in the Dark Cloud series, your character becomes stronger through weapon upgrades. You fight enemies, gather materials and use it to gradually improve your weapon. In Final Fantasy X, you improve your characters by fighting enemies, gaining ability points, and spending them on the sphere grid. So in general, JRPGs involve gradual improvements in character strength through levelling up, but there are certainly other systems that work just as well.
Another major component of JRPGs is their combat, which can be divided into turn-based, action or strategy. Turn based RPGs have historically been the most popular type of JRPG and can be divided into traditional turn based and active time battle. A traditional turn based system is exactly what you would expect, your party has a round of turns and then the enemy has a round. Some examples of this includes Dragon Quest, Shin Megami Tensei and Pokemon. Active time battle is a hybrid turn based system where your character attacks when an action bar is filled up, and this includes the PS1 Final Fantasy games, Chrono Trigger and Grandia. Now in the past 10 years or so, JRPGs have generally been moving towards action battle systems. Like you would expect, these games allow you to attack enemies in real time, chain combos together and allow the player to control the character on the fly. You generally need to be able to read the enemy’s attack patterns and launch your own attacks at the right time. Examples of action based JRPGs include the Tales series, my beloved Ys series and even Final Fantasy XV, which was a very controversial departure from the series’ turned based roots. And finally, there’s the strategy RPG, which generally involves the player taking control of an army and using said army to systematically take out an enemy force. They usually involve some sort of grid system, although they don’t necessarily have to, and they generally have some form of class system. The most well known example of a Strategy RPG is the Fire Emblem series, although there are many many incredible SRPGs like Shining Force, Stella Glow, Valkyria Chronicles, Final Fantasy Tactics and Jeanne D’Arc. Definitely check some of these games out, you won’t regret it.
Now as I mentioned earlier, one of the trademarks of JRPGs is that they usually have fixed plot that allow the player to experience the game as the creator intended. On top of this, there’s generally a party of characters that play a key role in the plot and can also be controlled by the player during combat. Moreover, JRPGs have plenty of sidequests and a lot of towns to explore, with a few exceptions. And by exceptions I mean Final Fantasy XIII.
The last topic that I would like to mention is an ongoing debate on whether JRPGs are simply “Role playing games made in Japan” or whether they are a specific style of game. The series that exemplifies this debate is the Souls series. On one hand, you have people who claim that the Souls games are JRPGs since they’re made in Japan and have some anime influences. But some people claim that Souls is not a JRPG due to its character creation, it’s minimal storyline, its lore and its combat, all of which have a more Western feel to it. I tend to be in the camp that the Souls games are not JRPGs, but I am malleable on this issue. And on a broader scale, I believe that while most JRPGs are made in Japan for obvious reasons, they do not have to be in Japan at all. A good example of this is Final Fantasy IX, which was developed in Hawaii, and some more modern games like Cosmic Star Heroine and Child of Light, which can debatably be called JRPGs despite being made in the west.
So to put it all together, JRPGs are a genre of games that were originally influenced by Westeren RPGs and tabletop RPGs, but they slowly developed into their own genre of games. They typically have fixed plots with a party of playable characters and lots of towns and sidequests. They always have some sort of progression system and have turn based, action or strategic combat. And finally, they’re usually made in Japan and are heavily influenced by anime. I believe that this is an accurate description of what a JRPG is, but of course, it is a highly subjective topic and I am open to changing my mind. Leave a comment below on what you criteria is for a game to be considered a JRPG!