Podcast: What counts as a JRPG?

podcast-jrpgs

You’d think we could agree on four simple letters. But nothing is ever straightforward on RPS podcast, the Electronic Wireless Show. This week the gang are talking JRPGs, or Japanese role-playing games to use some real words for human people. Does a game have to be made in Japan to be defined as an JRPG? Or does it just need some bright colours and lots of turn-based battles? Maybe it only needs a boss behind a boss (and then another boss behind that one)? Come with us into the petty world of the genre bouncer, as we examine the shoes of dozens of games and decide whether or not they’re allowed into the JRPG nightclub.

We seek to understand the true meaning of the genre. Katharine reckons if it isn’t made in Japan, it can probably take a hike. Adam thinks the cult classic Anachronox counts, despite being made in the US by the late developer supergroup Ion Storm. And Brendan is happy to apply the label to Undertale, or simply anything with lots of townspeople who say things like “The Crusty Falcon has been with us for centuries. They say it came from the mountains.” But there’s also plenty of Final Fantasy XV chat, as is to be expected when the game is only a couple of weeks from its PC release.

You can listen above, or go straight to Soundcloud where you can download it for later.

You can also get the RSS feed here or find it on iTunes, Stitcher or Pocket Casts. Epic battle music is by Jack de Quidt.

Want to write in with questions or suggest a theme for a future episode? Now you can, to podcast@rockpapershotgun.com.

Links:

Spawn point – The best JRPGs for beginners

Have you played… Anachronox?

It’s on GOG if not!

Final Fantasy XV is coming to PC soon

Part I of Katharine’s Final Fantasy XV interview

The trailer for Kingsglaive, the film you need to watch to understand FFXV

Final Fantasy XV will have co-op multiplayer

Have you played… Final Fantasy VII?

Kotaku’s Found in Translation for Final Fantasy VII

Space Funeral is the best IJRPG

What’s Hyperdimension Neptunia?

Recettear (it’s pronounced racketeer) review

The Secret of Mana remake is out

Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 2 is definitely a JRPG

40 Comments

  1. Zanryu says:

    I would say, that the main difference between JRPGs and RPGs is the perspective of the player.
    In RPGs you play as yourself or another character you made up, with your own personality, etc.
    In JRPGs you control other people who make their own decisions and have their own personalities. It is very rare that you make choices for them, and if, those choices aren’t naturally against their own personal points of view.

    There can easily be RPGs made in Japan, like Dark Souls. And there can also be JRPGs made in other countries than Japan, like Ultima.

    • kud13 says:

      By that definition, Witcher games are JRPGs

      Edit: except you make loads of choices… but Geralt’s moral compas tends to sway throughout the moral grey zones, so it’s still usually something “the character would choose?”

      Thinking about this is hard.

    • Pich says:

      by that metric Shin Megami Tensei games aren’t JRPG, which i can’t approve since they’ve been around always.

      • Artea says:

        There’s no character creation in Shin Megami Tensei, no non-combat skills or other way to interact with the world around you (besides killing enemies), and what dialogue choices there are are very shallow and sporadic, so no. They’re JRPG’s through and through.

    • killias2 says:

      I’d say I’m in broad agreement with you, but a few notes:
      1. Ultima is an CRPG series, with certainty, not a JRPG series. For a western developed JRPG, I’d cite Cosmic Star Heroine or Secret of Evermore.

      2. I think genre needs to be seen more.. biologically. Modern games like Persona 5 and Nier Automata may differ considerably from one another, but they are both rooted in the same style of ‘tight narrative + heavy emphasis on characterization + progression mechanics’ as Dragon Quest V and Final Fantasy 4. As you say, Dark Souls just isn’t rooted in this tradition. It is consciously not a JRPG. Nier Automata lacks turn-based combat, but it’s still a JRPG. When you see the developers discuss the ‘RPG elements’ they always bring up a mixture of narrative and progression elements (though they were also inspired by the new wave of sandbox titles).

      Witcher 3 has a lot of core fundamental similarities to Nier Automata, but that this has resulted more from “convergent evolution” than a real shared lineage. In general, I think that a defining trait of JRPGs is their style and aesthetic. JRPGs tend to draw a lot from anime, manga, JPOP, and are heavily stylized. Even Earthbound, a JRPG set in present-day U.S.A., has its own look and sense, very distinct from CRPGs.
      Contrast games like Earthbound or Chrono Trigger or even Final Fantasy 6 with the likes of Rings of Power or Drakkhen or the various Might and Magics that hit consoles, and I think you’ll understand my meaning.
      It’s not just the “look,” but also the sound, the themes, the tropes. Witcher 3 just.. isn’t a JRPG. It’s not heavily inspired or rooted in JRPG traditions, and it lacks the aesthetics or themes that tend to be genre signifiers. Even western developed games, like Cosmic Star Heroine, consciously play into those tropes and JRPG expectations, which is why they still operate as JRPGs.

      **pants**
      I’m rambling and calling it here, haha

    • milligna says:

      What nonsense. More like Japanese companies spent decades ripping off the early Ultima and Wizardry games.

  2. malkav11 says:

    To me for it to be a true JRPG it does actually need to be made in Japan. But there are certainly games (e.g. anything made in RPGMaker, Zeboyd’s stuff, etc) from the West that deliberately emulate that style, and conversely there are Japanese RPG games that are not JRPGs in the classic sense. For example, assuming one is willing to stipulate that Dark Souls is an RPG (I am, but it’s been controversial in these comments), that is pretty clearly miles away from your classic JRPG model, the Final Fantasies and Shin Megami Tenseis and Dragon Quests, that sort of thing. Is it really useful to stick it with the same label just because it’s made in Japan? I don’t think so.

  3. Colthor says:

    The most important defining feature of a JRPG is lots of blue textboxes containing only ellipses.

  4. Justin says:

    I think another major difference is that thematically Western RPGs (see Bioware for example) tend to emphasize the strength, importance, and exceptionalism of the individual, while JRPGs are more about the importance of the group.

    • Thomas Foolery says:

      I’d take that a bit further and say that a JRPG definitionally must include a party, even if some of the members are controlled by the AI during combat.

      • Zelos says:

        I don’t know about that. Nier automata is brought up a lot and that doesn’t really have a party.

        It definitely seems to be the case in the vast majority of JRPGs, but I wouldn’t think of it as a defining mechanic. It’s more of a trope that is typically present.

        • malkav11 says:

          In at least two of three runs of Nier: Automata (I can’t speak for the third yet) you are followed at most times by an AI-controlled teammate. It may not be a very big party, but I’d call that a party.

        • Thomas Foolery says:

          I would consider Nier to be a character action game,like most Platinum games are, not a JRPG.

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        Waltorious says:

        The original Dragon Quest, which is widely regarded as the first JRPG, featured a lone hero. The 7th Saga also has players pick a single character, at least at first. And while it’s true that parties are usually emphasized in JRPGs, Western style dungeon crawler RPGs also emphasize the party over the individual.

        Also, I’ve always used JRPG to mean “Japanese-style role playing game” to avoid specifically restricting them to Japan. That seems like saying someone can’t make techno if they’re not from Detroit; it’s always struck me as a silly restriction. But, I don’t have time to listen to the podcast to hear Katharine’s argument. Maybe it’s a good one!

    • Artea says:

      “I think another major difference is that thematically Western RPGs (see Bioware for example) tend to emphasize the strength, importance, and exceptionalism of the individual, while JRPGs are more about the importance of the group.”

      Spoken as someone who doen’t have a clue of what he’s talking about. Western RPG’s pioneered and popularized party-based RPG’s. Wizardry and Ultima predate any Japanese RPG’s, and they laid the foundation for the entire JRPG genre.

      Prior to that foundation, the earliest JRPG’s were actually action-RPG’s where you controlled a single character.

  5. sporkife says:

    there’s no transcription available so i can’t check myself, but i assume yall arrived at the correct requirements:
    1: progression
    2: fixed story
    3: fishing

  6. dangermouse76 says:

    I have filtered anime and jrpg from steam results. Having said that, I should give one a go.

    Any recommendations on a noob going into JRPG territory.

    • abstrarie says:

      I think RPS recently wrote an article on this and there are loads of good recommendations in the comments on that article. But I am pretty sure the consensus in the comments was:

      1). Newcomers to JRPGs shouldn’t bother with any of the new stuff. So basically nothing on Steam is a good jumping off point.

      2). If you are just going to stick with legally released games on PC, then you also might as well not bother. The best stuff is still stuck on old consoles. Specifically: SNES, PS1, and PS2.

      3). Just find a way to play and beat Chrono Trigger. It is the JRPG stripped down to its bare essentials and is pretty short. First hour or two can be kind of slow (as opposed to most JRPGs where the first 10 hours are slow), but stick with it!

      • dangermouse76 says:

        Nice thanks I’ll check those out.I have a PS2 actually, cheers.

        • abstrarie says:

          PS2 I would try to track down Breath of Fire V (requires no knowledge of previous games) or the PS1 game Valkyrie Profile (since PS2 was backward compatible…though VP was kind of rare so it might be expensive). But for Chrono Trigger you would probably just be better off emulating it if you can’t track down an SNES. VP should be easy to emulate too at this point.

      • malkav11 says:

        There was actually a fairly strong counter-contention that folks should check out Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky.

        Not by me, you understand – I haven’t tried those games yet. But definitely present.

    • OmNomNom says:

      I think everyone I know has at this point, Steam has become a cesspit of JRPG / anime / hentai ‘games’ that fill up every recommended list.

  7. geldonyetich says:

    Great podcast as usual, guys. A few comments:

    * Honestly, you can’t nail the JRPG definition. It has become as fuzzy as “roguelike” (virtually everything with procedural generation and/or permadeath) and “role-playing game” (which is now more about stats and progression than role-playing).

    * If I were to ignore the futility of the endeavor and try to define it based off of sure genre composition, it would be a combination of abstract stats (e.g. ATK and DEF numbers which soar ever higher with no real limits), a Wizardry-style menu (attack/item/magic), a turn-based combat system or the real-time combat system that spawned it (like every other game), and possibly some JPOP multimedia (art, music, sounds). If you know the origins of Undertale’s development, it’s definitely more JRPG than not, as if checking most everything on this list was not reason enough.

    * Enjoyed the Final Fantasy XV talk. Am hyped, as you well know. Saw the Brotherhood shorts, will see Kingsglaive soon.

    * Final Fantasy in general is indeed an odd pedigree when it comes to stories being sometimes rather hard to follow. However, I feel the developers are trying to push the genre of storytelling in RPGs, such a path is fraught with danger of being hard to understand, and I applaud them for trying. That said, Final Fantasy XV’s story is actually quite easy to understand, you’re a magical prince with equally magical buddies who end up looking a bit like a boy band, and you’re getting back at foreign invaders, what more need be said?

    • abstrarie says:

      Once you get into the star scourge nonsense, the stuff about the old kings and their powers, and the background of the main baddy I would say the plot goes pretty far off the rails.

  8. juan_h says:

    Sometimes I think that people overstate the differences between western and Japanese RPGs. Here’s a description of the first two RPGs that I ever played. In each game, you guide a party of characters through an overworld and some dungeons. At any moment, you may be ambushed by a group of random monsters. Unless you choose to flee, your party and the monsters will take turns attacking until all of one group is dead. It is generally optimal for each of your party members to use his, her, or its strongest attack in each combat round unless some other character needs to be healed. The games are The Bard’s Tale III by Interplay and Breath of Fire by Capcom. On a moment-to-moment basis the difference between the two games is largely in the user interface. In Bard’s Tale you navigate the world from a first-person perspective and combat plays out in a scrolling text window. In Breath of Fire you navigate the world from an overhead perspective and combat plays out in a special combat screen. There are other differences, to be sure, but I can’t seem to think of anything else that Breath of Fire does that I haven’t also seen in some western RPG over the years, other than perhaps “look a bit anime”.

    • Zelos says:

      Aesthetically, mechanically, and narratively there’s a pretty huge divide between JRPGs and WRPGs. The most notable divergence is that JRPGs tend to focus on telling a story to the player, WRPGs try to let the player make a story.

      JRPGs also tend to lean more on turn-based gameplay than WRPGs.

      There are obviously exceptions to every generality, but they’re just that. Exceptions.

    • malkav11 says:

      Both early JRPGs and early western CRPGs owe a great deal of inspiration to D&D and its immediate successors, and early JRPGs postdate early western CRPGs by a bit so they also took direct inspiration from those, particularly Wizardry. So there are definitely shared roots. They have diverged a ton since then, though. That said, certain styles have persisted in JRPG form (Wizardry in particular got a bunch of JRPG followups long after the series died in the US) in a way they mostly haven’t in western CRPGs.

      • Artea says:

        It’s not just that Wizardry persisted in Japan, it’s that the entire combat system is present in almost every JRPG ever made. It’s just presented differently: in Wizardry it’s first person, in something like Final Fantasy enemies stand on one side and the player party on the other. But mechanically it’s the same.

        I would also argue that JRPG’s were not in fact heavily influenced by D&D. D&D was translated/published in Japan relatively late, and by that pont many computer RPG’s had already been produced. This lack of influence is evident in the games themselves. Unlike their western counterparts, JRPG’s typically lack things like character creation and non-combat skills. JRPG’s were mostly influenced by Wizardry and Ultima.

  9. E_FD says:

    Lemur eyes.

  10. Zombiwan Kenobi says:

    JRPGs have always been some kind of imposture since they pretty much lack of choices. In fact you endure the story more than you really affect it, usually through some highly repetitve grind. In fact the lack of choices and the massive grind is mostly what JRPGs have brought to western games, well that and emo characters with oversized weapons.

    Quite funnily players are now so influenced by JRPGs (MMOs too) that they think they have to grind everything in every game. Some people were farming money in The Witcher which was really weird since exploration alone was giving you everything you need to play the game…

  11. OmNomNom says:

    JRPG vs RPG?
    One has an obsession with being white, playing a schoolgirl (or a boy that looks like a girl), annoying squeaky voices and noises and a lot of sexual repression with as much breast bouncing and revealing clothing as possible.
    The other one is a game where you get to play a role.

    • geldonyetich says:

      My punchline would have been, “The other is more specifically limited to being inspired by Japanese influences.”

      Sneaker punchlines FTW.

  12. abstrarie says:

    I don’t think the difference can be scientifically quantified. But 99% of people can look at a game and come to an agreement on if it is or isn’t of the J variety, so there is some kind of intrinsic identifier that no one seems to be able to describe. It is just something you feel in your heart I suppose, which is coincidentally the main driving force of 99% of JRPG’s protagonists. And friendship. And harems. Can’t forget those.

  13. KDR_11k says:

    Recette is pronounced as reset. At some point the rival girl actually says her name.

    The three phases of JRPGs seems like a good description of the genre. Some people keep insisting that Dark Souls is a JRPG because it’s from Japan and has stats but I really don’t think it fits the feel that JRPGs usually have.

    People who try to call Zelda a JRPG are just plain wrong though.

  14. TotallyUseless says:

    RPGs tend to put more emphasis on mastery of combat, environment, and strategic thinking requiring you to plan way ahead of combat. They also have compelling and relatable characters without weird engrish dialogs. Witcher 3, Fallout, Mass Effect 1-3, Divinity, heck even the Japanese made game Dark Souls is an RPG.

    JRPGs tend to focus more on excel stat sheets and even greater emphasis on repetitive and boring grind as could be reflected from their culture. And those weird Engrish dialogs that no native English speaker would utter ugh. Still they’re fun when they drop those complex weird convoluted stories and just focus on fun like Senran Kagura and Hyperdimension Neptunia, or on non cliche stories like Berseria.

  15. Ejia says:

    Recettear is a portmanteau of the characters Recette and Tear, so it’s pronounced “reset-tear”, but I do remember them actually making a “racketeer” joke in the game.

  16. Ethalis says:

    I think another important aspect of JRPG is accessibility : you don’t spend hours in the character sheet min-maxing numbers like in a classical CRPG, you don’t create your own character, you don’t have to make a lot of choices …

  17. plugmonkey says:

    JRPG to me pretty much just means turn based battles where the combatants stand opposite each other in lines, so movement is restricted to a single forward/backward axis.

    And that’s about it.
    ARPG = RPG with live action fights I directly control.
    WRPG = RPG with TBS or RTS fights where I move around the world.
    JRPG = RPG with turn-based fights where I stand in a line.

    It’s all about the fights. Everything else is negotiable.

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    phuzz says:

    Any classification of JRPG that doesn’t include the Type 4 70mm is wrong.

  19. DoktorD says:

    this is Computer Game:

    or video game, played exclusively by using a computer system that manages the rules and displays the necessary information. It can be board games, reflexes, strategy, puzzles… or any form of simulation game. Interactivity can be limited to options left to the player by his or her computer, or allow multiple players to connect in a network to play simultaneously and interact with each other.

    Some games claim a role-playing game (RPG) label if they have a fantastic theme, if you play as a single character, if you figure out the size of a character, or if you can play it in a network, which has far-reaching links with the role-playing game. It is true that the theme and situations (stretched exploration, unsurprising investigations, insipid puzzles and mechanical struggles in stereotypical fantasy worlds) are based on elements from the first role-playing games. The confusion is fuelled by the fact that some brands decline products in role-playing and computer games. The only form of video game that takes over some of the features of role-playing games is the massively multiplayer online game.

    Some standards: Tetris, Doom, Tomb Raider… World of warcraf, Seconde life, Virtual life, final fantasy

    How is that not role-playing?

    The absence, in general, of real personal contact, the choices limited by the fact that the game is animated by a computer system, the absence of distancing between the imagined and the represented on screen, the fact that a game can only be played a limited number of times before losing its capacity for renewal, the existence of a precise objective to be achieved in order to “win”, the frequent indexation of the character’s successes.

    Translated with link to DeepL.com