JRPGs: A Personal History

I have vague memories of my first console, or Japanese-style, roleplaying game. When I had a Super Nintendo, I often rented from the local video game rental and sword shop, Today’s Games. Their name was a lie, by the way; they never bought anything actually new, and I was still renting SNES games from them well into high school, right around the time the PS2 would be announced.

When I first started renting from there, maybe 11 or so, I found myself tiring of playing Bubsy again, so I wanted to try something different, and my eyes fleeted on the words Final Fantasy II. I took it home, slammed it in, and watched the opening airship scene with interest. Then I got to the first battle, and I was so lost. I figured out I needed to tell them with the words on the bottom what I wanted them to do, and since I had played mostly platformers for the past five years of my gaming life, obviously I wanted to jump. That’s how you hurt bad guys, by jumping on them. I told my guy, the dragoon, to jump, and then, he was gone. I was so confused! Where did he go? What was he doing up there? Was he coming back? Eventually he did come back, landing on the opponent and dealing a pitance of damage, but by then my mind has glossed over the details, and the urge to trade it in grew. I returned it shortly afterwards.

It took a couple years and a few more experiences, including finally delving into the world of D&D after numerous furtive attempts, I finally returned to the Final Fantasy series, skipping past the confusion of Final Fantasy II straight to III, which was a hell of an experience. I invited a friend over to play (still very unclear on the principles of CRPG, if you can’t tell), and we got into it, enjoying the Mode 7, and in a fit of weirdness, decided to name the first character we got to play after him. When we met the next character, well, we named her after a mutual female friend.

It spiraled from there; with each new character, a quick snapshot of their assumed personality, and then an assignment of a name. My name was assigned to Edgar Figaro, the inventor king, which I found flattering. Our tough friend became the martial artist, our wacky friend became the feral manchild, our hardass friend became the broken soldier. Eventually the names came harder to think of, luckily I never got far enough to name any of the non-human characters. But for me, each name we assigned was permanent; it was no longer about these characters, but rather the wacky not real adventures of my friends. I remember spending an hour telling the tough friend about the story of our group thus far, each twist and turn of the fairly well-known plot to Final Fantasy III, with us in the starring roles.

I eventually had to return it, and did rent it again only to find the save file wiped, so I had to start over, renaming everyone again. I did this a number of times, always frustrated about all the work I had to do after S*** and L*** left the mining town for the town of Figaro, all the level grinding that I absolutely had to do, because that’s how these games worked, damn it.

When I purchased the PSOne (finally) with my own money, the first game I got was Final Fantasy VII. I was fanboyishly devoted to the next three games, never quite passing but always replaying them. I remember getting quite far in Final Fantasy IX, only stopping because I just couldn’t stand trying to get through these four two-character fights one more time. I was friends with a guy who had the Final Fantasy X strategy guide, and I could not stop looking at that huge sphere grid map in the back, it was so beautiful. I even considered Bouncer a dark mark for Square because it was not like the Final Fantasy games.

When I got to college, I got a Playstation 2, and I played all of the roleplaying games. Roleplaying games were huge on the PS2, and I tried everything, renting from Blockbuster and Gamefly. Eventually my fanboyish attitude to Final Fantasy started to fade, and I gave an even shake to other things, finally discovering and loving the modern Persona games. But it was also then that I noticed that console roleplaying games as I knew them were fading. Real time combat was becoming more common. Less and less was getting translated. The general reaction to RPGs became more heated, and longing for the good old days was often repeated. The old school RPG, a lot of its signature elements being defined by limitations of the hardware, were being left behind now that the hardware was advancing.

The current generation has not been kind to JRPGs. In its six years, there have been no more than 25 RPGs, most gravitating towards the PS3, with a few stinkers released to the Xbox 360 early on and quickly forgotten. Even the franchises suffer, Final Fantasy XIII and XIV were very poorly received, and other proposed FF games seem to languish in development. There hasn’t been a new Tales game for years, and the Atelier games are always met with a whimper. And some, like the Persona series, still haven’t even gotten into the game, the team forgoing an initial RPG volley onto the next gen with Catherine, a mixed game at best. Only the Dragon Quest series seems to be moving at full steam, but has carved out most of its real estate on the Nintendo DS, away from the mainstream eye.

So I don’t play roleplaying games much anymore. RPGs are games for young men, people with a lot of time of their hand, and frankly, I need to hold down a job. I still feel the bite sometimes though, the drive to just dig in, watch a bunch of crappy cutscenes, and try to understand all the numbers that are being thrown at me, just hammering A at every environment element in case of them contains a treasure I totally need. But the only good games nowadays are at least ten years old, and I don’t want to hunt those down (it is really easy now, though. Most Square classics are now on the iPhone).

But I can see why people don’t like them, and that’ll be the topic of next week’s column, and a further delve into what makes a JRPG what it is: The Complaint.

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