By PSM3 UK
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
There was a time when JRPGs were widely renowned as the future of storytelling. “It’s the first RPG to surpass, instead of copy, movie-like storytelling,” said Electronic Gaming Monthly of FFVII in 1997. Several factors made them unique when compared to Western role-players. Turn-based combat, engaging melodrama and vibrant, exotic worlds flirted shamelessly to create an experience that absorbed you into its universe. Tales of revenge, loss and redemption became hallmarks of the genre. They offered a flamboyant, unconventional take on the dreary realism of sci-fi and high fantasy that Western RPGs seemed obsessed with.
The ’90s brought with them a ‘golden age’ of JRPGs. Games such as Earthbound and Final Fantasy VI on the SNES and Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Cross and Xenogears on PSone went on to take a place in history as some of the most memorable games of all time. Developers such as Square Enix (then, Squaresoft) became household names. JRPGs became a dependable source of quality gaming.
But as young JRPG die-hards have grown, so has the industry. Modern videogames treat engaging plotlines as key aspects of the package – fighters, platformers, puzzlers, and shooters take their cues from RPGs, implementing many of the same themes and elements. Think COD’s EXP system, or character progression in Borderlands. Outlandish character designs and exotic worlds are more common than ever – we’ve become emotionally attached to characters outside of JRPGs.
Western JRPG fans are increasingly turning to developers on their own doorstep. Dozens of games offer the same freedom and customisation of JRPGs, but they aren’t hindered by the stale settings, themes and characters. These include Fallout, Mass Effect, Oblivion, Knights of the Old Republic, Deus Ex and Dragon Age.
“Western RPGs have evolved and embraced the next-gen consoles, developing and experimenting with new gameplay mechanics and story ideas (such as Good/Evil character choices, dialogue wheels, etc.)” says Kim Richards. “Few JRPGs break the mould. The slew of identical games and ports of classics is turning people off.”
Is it just Western gamers that are growing disillusioned with the genre? The top ten best-selling games in Japan in 2009 include Dragon Quest IX (3.2 million), Pokemon Gold (6.5 million) and Monster Hunter 3 (960,000) – all rooted in JRPG sensibilities. While these are headline success stories, suggesting publishers don’t need to take risks, the overall market is still dwindling. Dragon Quest VIII sold 6 million in 2005, but FFXIII’s sales currently stand at 2 million. Research suggests that Japanese gamers fear experimentation, but their numbers are shrinking – in a poll by Japanese games mag Dengeki, their readers’ favourite games of 2009 were Dragon Quest, Tales of Vesperia, Phantasy Star and FF XIII. Western titles barely got a look in.
Failed attempts at recreating the magic of the classics have included The Last Remnant and Infinite Undiscovery – both by Square Enix, but both lack the personality and originality we’ve come to expect. So if the Japanese fear change, but the West craves innovation – how should JRPGs move forward?
Rejecting traditional character archetypes and recycled storylines would be a step in the right direction. As would straying from established ideas. Focusing less on awe-inspiring visuals and making each experience original and memorable is crucial. Decreased popularity should not be equated with failure, mind, and it’s possible JRPGs could continue to plow the same furrow to great financial success. The real issue might be with us. Perhaps the popularity of JRPGs in the West was a phase, and we’re now experiencing the hangover.
“The JRPG feels like one of those dead film genres, like westerns or film noir,” says Patrick Gann of RPGFan. “It’s clear we reached the point of saturation a long time ago”. Either way, the tension between the old world and voices of dissent – often the premise of any great RPG – promises to lead the genre to a new and intriguing place.