I Confess: Japanese Role Playing Games

It’s an awkward thing, writing for a video game website, expressing opinions and reviewing games with some level of competence and confidence and knowing, deep down in your soul, that you have never, ever, ever spent more than 20 hours playing a huge, influential segment of video games. It’s even more awkward when you realize that, to preserve your integrity and your readers’ trust in you, you have to come clean with them.

Sword of Vermillion

Hack and slash, baby! Die! Die!

So, here it is, folks: the closest I’ve ever come to making an investment in the subcategory of gaming now known as Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs, coined to differentiate them from Western RPGs like Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic and The Elder Scrolls) is beating Sword of Vermillion for the Sega Genesis and putting in 5 or 6 hours into Kingdom Hearts (before deciding I really didn’t like it all that much.) That concludes my active relationship with Square Enix – I watched a pledge brother plow through Final Fantasy VII, requiring him to take a week “off” from class and I’ve seen The Spirits Within and Advent Children (which I mainly found confusing).  For some reason, the guys at Square Enix just set my teeth on edge.

Ctrl +

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, because I’m not an illiterate meathead with the attention span of a goldfish. I love games with a lot of loot and inventory management (Diablo II, Borderlands and I was  little irritated about Mass Effect 2‘s removal of  customization options.) I don’t have trouble managing a lot of different tasks or party members (I love both real time and turn-based strategy games including Axis and Allies, the table-top version.) I don’t have trouble following in depth story lines with multiple branches. Once upon a time, I even played the old pen-and-paper granddaddy of them all, Dungeons and Dragons, so I’m not averse to dice-roll based damages, buffs, resistances and attributes.

How can I call myself a gamer without ever having spent hundreds of hours immersed in a critically important part of the fiber of the game universe? What is it that’s kept me away from knowing Cloud’s back-story?


I don't care how big your sword is, I can't take you seriously with that much product in your hair.

Coming up with this confession required a little bit of thought and analysis to figure out how it was that, over 25 years of gaming, I’ve never been tempted to really get into the genre, especially considering my love of science fiction and fantasy epics. At the end of the day, I think it’s about control. It’s not a neat explanation, as you’ll see, but it’s the closest thing to a real answer I can come up with. There are enough similarities between the sub-genres that I can see the draw (who doesn’t love the 2 L’s: loot and leveling?!) for others, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

Control seems to me to be the defining difference between JRPGs (as defined best by Square Enix) and WRPGs (best defined by Bethesda and BioWare.) Oh, sure, there are differences in the storylines due to mythological heritages and storytelling histories, but if I try to differentiate the two, I think that’s the key element: WRPGs let you have direct control and JRPGs do not. If my party gets into a battle, I want to be able to do something other than pick the action and let my character do the rest. I actually want to swing the sword, aim the gun or trigger the forcefield while circle-strafing the crap out of my opponent and leveling up for my skill.

Conversely, I think the fact that the WRPGs (which I’m defining somewhat liberally to include a spectrum ranging from very-RPG-ish games like Knights of the Old Republic to action-games-with-RPG-elements like Borderlands, Diablo II and even Rockstar Studios’ games) are built around direct action/control is what pulls me in. Even the turn-based KotOR put the action pretty front-and-center with its on-screen interface allowing you to bypass going into menus.


It's the interface that makes the difference.

This is where it gets messy

Unfortunately, even after really thinking about it, my theory’s still full of holes. While I don’t/never did have any interest in Mario RPG/Paper Mario, I really enjoy the Legend of Zelda games (which are, arguably, more action adventure than JRPG). I got a kick out of Quest 64, despite its undeniable heritage. Sitting around watching my minions do my fighting in Civ V or Warcraft 2 doesn’t bother me in the least, I disliked Fallout 3 even though I love questing, grinding, talking to random people and completing hundreds of random sidequests.

Regardless, my confession stands: it doesn’t matter if it’s Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, or Star Ocean, if it’s a traditional JRPG and/or from Square Enix? I haven’t played it and I’m not gonna’.

I Confess – We can’t get to every game, and even the one’s we get to, we can’t necessarily see them all the way through. Forgive us for we have forsaken these “classics.”


Giant Bomb (images)

9 Comments I Confess: Japanese Role Playing Games

  1. Drakkmire

    I’ve been thinking myself that these “classics” really don’t hold up for me like they used to. While its seemingly blasphemous to say anything negative about FF7 or Chronotrigger, the truth is that even though I’ve played through and enjoyed them (and many others) I get a lot more enjoyment these days out of games like The Witcher or Dragon Age. I feel more immersed in the action, there is more story and less grinding, and I feel more satisfaction out of being able to complete it without using some kind of loop trick and a rubber band to get to level 99.

    I think its okay to say that those games paved the way for the RPG experience we enjoy today. They deserve that honor. But it doesn’t mean I want to keep playing them today.

    I really enjoyed watching Teen Wolf back in the 80s, but it doesn’t really hold up that well these days either.

  2. Jake

    You should give Final Fantasy XII a try. The aesthetic is clearly influenced by Star Wars, and the combat has a lot more strategy. It’s actually similar to Dragon Age in that you can set a hierarchy of commands for your party members. Except I think it’s done much better than Dragon Age’s system is. And the English translation is superb.

    No one ever seems to mention XII among the great Final Fantasies, and it’s probably because it’s so different from the other ones, but I think it’s my favorite.

  3. Jeff

    You should also give FF III (the American FF III, not the import) a shot. For me it has held up really well and it’s such a genre defining and historically important game that I think if you play through that you’ll be set as far as understanding JRPG. Plus you can beat that in a sane amount of time (like 20-30 hours) instead of something like FF VII that takes upwards of 70. It’s older, so requires some more grind though. If you’re put off by grind, then you’re probably better off just staying away from FF.

  4. Jake

    I have to agree with Jeff about FF III (FF VI in Japan). It’s the quintessential JRPG (Chrono Trigger fans are deluding themselves). Sure the original Final Fantasy is more archetypal, and later installments like VII were revolutionary at the time for the cinematic elements they added, but FF III is the one you should play if you’re only ever going to play one JRPG.

    I would compare it to saying that you should watch the Godfather once even if you’re not into gangster movies.

  5. Justin Gifford

    The Herlii have spoken. I shall attempt to download it on my fiancee’s iPad this week on vacation.

  6. Jake

    The only warning I would give, if you’re planning to use an emulator, is that one of the characters requires the use of a controller D-pad to maximize his combat potential. But you can get by just using his easiest moves in the sections where his participation is compulsory, and then marginalize him later in the game due to the large cast of characters. Also, start thinking up cool names now, because you’re gonna have about 13 characters to name. And keeping the default names is lame.

  7. Jeff

    I cant believe I forgot about him. He was always my favorite too. But really some of his earliest moves are some of his best.

  8. JPizzle151

    While Kingdom Hearts is a Square title, I don’t consider it a JRPG. I think that Donald and Goofy have something to do with that. Your issues with Fallout are unjustified.

  9. Amber

    I’m hurt that everyone else was able to convince you to give it a chance, after our multiple conversations about it – but don’t forget, the game app for iPad is Japanese III. You want the American III/Japanese VI version. Which reminds me, I need to get back to playing mine…

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