Dragon Warrior ruined JRPGs for me
My friend brought over this NES game called Dragon Warrior. The title immediately grabbed me. Dragons? Sweet! Warriors? YES!
Then I played the game. All my hopes were dashed.
Where is my sword-slash button? No jump? Not even a spell button? What is this trash!?! This game took my favorite part about games (the playing) and turned it all into menus. Menus?!? I select some text and and then I’m treated to some crappy animation?
My friend got Dragon Warrior as a present. That made sense to me, because I couldn’t imagine paying for a game that was all menus and no action. Plus, you’d suddenly be fighting an enemy and there was no explanation why. I learned later that this was called a “random battle.”
If this was what RPGs were all about, I’d rather play the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for NES. The really sucky one. At least that game had a kill-things button.
Learning to love JRPGS – The Honeymoon
I was late to the RPG boon of the 16-bit era. While others were on Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger and Shining Force II, I was still playing Megaman games on my NES. I would dabble in RPGs. But I couldn’t understand why somebody would enjoy a quest without any action. And who thought that random battles were a good idea? Walk around in a room and suddenly you’re inexplicably fighting a second-rate monster? Why couldn’t I see the enemies before I’m forced to fight them?
Grandia 2 for Dreamcast changed all of that.
It dealt with a lot of the problems I had: on-screen enemies warned me when I was about to go into a fight, combat had clearly defined strategic parameters that made it feel more “actiony.” And voiceovers didn’t hurt. Plus, the story was kind of awesome. An epic quest to make things right in a kingdom where darkness lingered? I was completely won over. And I remained won-over for over a decade.
Waking up feeling drugged
I fell hard. So hard, that I was drinking the kool-aid and I didn’t even know it. My first wakeup call was when I was telling another gamer about how great the story was in Final Fantasy X. He looked at me. “Great story? Dude, none of it made any sense!?!” This guy was an idiot. “How can you not love the story? It’s so unique and original! And it has so much beauty!” I never questioned the character’s origins or motives. I never questioned how their world worked. And I was fine with that. I liked it and it was awesome.
I was really in danger of becoming a fanboy. Fortunately, I finally came to my senses.
It wasn’t all of the sudden. As games matured, they started telling richer stories where the characters and their world really made sense. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic took place in a far away galaxy with which we were all pretty familiar. Andrew Ryan built Rapture to show the world what was possible without Kings and Gods (and discovered that he paved a path to hell in the process). And even Halo seemed to know where it existed in the world of fiction – having many books written to flesh-out the universe. These stories took place in worlds that felt fleshed-out and remotely possible.
Then Final Fantasy XIII came out. It was supposed to be the fully-matured realization of the JRPG genre: realistic graphics, great combat, and an interesting world.
Then I played it. And I wanted to kick some poor pathetic animal. I tried to stomach it and just push through the turn-based battles. Yes, at least they weren’t random. And maybe there was some strategy to be had there. But the biggest issue I had was the disconnected story. It seemed to me like the worlds and storytelling in games had matured and Final Fantasy was still writing plots for the previous two generations.
Then I started paying a lot more attention to other contemporary JRPGs. And I noticed that the stories all seemed to lack any comprehension.
Maybe I just don’t get it?
I understand that most JRPGs borrow from the cliche’s and tropes of the anime genre. And it’s with that same genre of fiction at large that I have the issue: their stories don’t actually relate to me. They don’t seem grounded in the depths of themes and lives of those around me. I don’t understand how it relates to our world and how we do things.
With Star Wars: KoToR, Bioshock, and Halo, the plots and themes are pretty obvious. The character motivations make sense. Though they’re certainly a form of fantasy, we can connect with the hearts of the worlds their in. We understand their rules. They relate to us in some way, shape or form. I can get a sense of what God’s heart is about these worlds. I can get a sense of where his Kingdom is revealed in them. But Final Fantasy and most JRPGs? Not so much.
Maybe I just don’t get it?
That’s entirely possible.
Good “Japanese Role Playing Games”
God wants us to seek His Kingdom and Righteousness in all things (Matt 6:33). I believe that’s his heart for us as we play videogames, too. That’s why the stories and the gameplay are so important to me. I don’t believe that all Japanese videogames are bankrupt. And I know I haven’t played all of the ones worth checking out (Ys is on my list). But I will say that I can’t think of any tried and true JRPGs (based on the traditional definition) that I still have respect for.
There are, however, a few Japanese games that I would say are true “Role-playing games.” The three I would like to highlight are Shenmue, Okami, and Fire Emblem.
Shenmue came out in 2000 for Dreamcast. It followed a teenage boy and his pursuit of his father’s murderer. As he went on his quest in a realistic 1986 Japan, you learned a lot about the culture and customs of that world. It was exaggerated, for sure. But the heart of it was good. You played as a boy who wanted to find out why this has happened to his father. You had to get a job. You had to keep track fo time. It was deeply fascinating and completely alien to this American. A very rich experience with a fascinating story.
Okami, was a PS2 game where you played as the Japanese sun god in wolf-form. While God doesn’t want us to engage in paganism, the apostle Paul did use the pagan religion of Athens to point to the heart and soul of the one True God. So I think it’s okay to do so with this, too. The heart and soul of the experience is bringing light to a darkness-infested world. And despite the painted-cartoon style, it feels rooted and grounded in something rich and distinctly Japanese. This is the videogame equivalent of having really great sushi. (Sidenote: the HD version comes out this week for PS3)
And finally, we have Fire Emblem. This is one of the few Japanese games I like that is truly an “RPG” in a strictly Japanese tradition. It’s a grid-based tactics game (SRPG). The difference is that each of the characters you meet has a story and a real life. They have realistic needs and motives and deal with the problems of war and racism. Plus, every person in your squad matters. That’s why it sucks so much when one of them dies. Yes, this game has perma-death. That’s why I also feel that this game works as a great allegory for the church. Some of the people in your team are great at support and healing. Others are over-powered and are best used to train up the weak ones. While the strongest are usually the ones who have the greatest emotional burden for others. Plus, it all plays out on the battlefield like a real battle would. If somebody dies. The rest of the team grieves.
JRPGs are getting a lot of heat for a lot of reasons. But I come back to God’s desire for us to pursue his Kingdom: If you get that from JRPGs? I say giddyup!