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The Archetypal Resonance of Classic JRPGs (hyperindexed.com)
105 points by hyperindexed on April 7, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 62 comments

Sometimes I play retro games, and I feel like nostalgia makes us excuse what is plain bad design. I have that feeling every time I play an old JRPG. Many of them feel slow, clunky, with painful mechanics... as opposed to current games, which had the experience from decades to get refined. The argument in favour of this is that the bad and boring parts make the good bits even better, in a sort of stoic way, they feel like a reward for the suffering. I leave as an exercise to the reader to draw their own conclusion.

What sort of conclusion is there to be drawn when you have already labeled the older games as slow, clunky with painful mechanics and newer games as refined? :-P

I've seen many people say (about games in general) that older games often have more depth in contrast of newer more "casualized" games that cater to the lowest common denominator as often as people say what you wrote. At the end is really about personal taste and if there is one objective thing that older games often do worse (apart from technical limitations, although with the popularity of retro-styled games nowadays often these limitations are seen through a stylistic prism) is their user interfaces. But even that divides people in how much they can endure it (and as Dwarf Fortress shows, a lot of people will endure the most obnoxious of UIs to get something they like).

As an example, there are many people who like grinding in JRPGs and some even consider it as a defining element of JRPGs (in that a JRPG is not real JRPG if it doesn't have grinding) whereas others are perplexed by the idea of anyone liking grinding and not seeing it as a cheap way to pad the game's length and something that developers should strive towards eliminating.

>As an example, there are many people who like grinding in JRPGs and some even consider it as a defining element of JRPGs (in that a JRPG is not real JRPG if it doesn't have grinding)

I am one such person who is happy to argue for the fact that ability to grind is one of the (maybe two?) defining traits of a JRPG. The option to meaningfully strengthen your player avatar that is not tied to story/game progression is the heart of JRPGs.

To add to this last comment, I would say that the entire point of early JRPGs was grinding. It was a simple formula:

Go to new area -> grind -> level up, buy gear -> defeat boss -> go to new area

Even in later 8-bit JRPGs such as Dragon Quest IV, that's pretty much all there was. Very minimal story/dialogue, rare puzzles ("get item A to proceed" type). Story was necessarily limited by the small ROM size.

I find that grinding has an almost calming, meditative quality that sets JRPGs apart from action-based games that require a lot of focus.

With recent JRPGs, the shift has been to lessen grinding and include a much larger emphasis on story and dialogue. The downside here for traditionalists is that more of the game is spent reading dialogue than fighting random battles.

Does any of this reflect bad game design? I doubt it. I would say that the gameplay of DQIV is highly polished for its time. But you must approach it knowing what it is (a game of turn-based random battles) and what it is not (a game of rich story and dialogue).

> > as opposed to current games, which had the experience from decades to get refined.

> in contrast of newer more "casualized" games that cater to the lowest common denominator as often as people say what you wrote.

If I had to summarize it, I'd say that the decades of refinement have led to them being streamlined at the expense of creativity.

I've given some thought to the grinding/no grinding issue and I think the true purpose of grinding is to allow systems learning of the game's economy and battle system. There is the more obvious reason of giving more weight (and a bigger dopamine hit) on every advancement, like when you save gold to buy a new weapon and suddenly start one-hitting enemies instead of needing 3 hits. But that also relies on learning, by feel, the underlying cost and value of each hit point as well as the tendencies and weaknesses from fighting the same enemies over and over.

Some people enjoy aggregating all of that information in their brain and getting mastery over it. Even mechanically dumb games can have interesting higher level tactics. People will make spreadsheets and argue over the best weapon or best combination of items or spells to fight certain bosses, even if the base game is mashing the A button to sword hit the enemy 5000 times in a row.

Some of them, not all. And of course it's just my opinion. You can rephrase it like this:

Slow, boring and clunky is actually good design that serves a purpose.

That resonates well with me. Unlike in my childhood, playing and replaying JRPGs in my late 20s felt like such a chore, and the often pastiche storytelling felt so distant, that I actually thought that I outgrew games in general up into my early 30s. In reality, it was just JRPGs that I outgrew, but me erroneously thinking that they would be "reference points" of good games led to wrong conclusions.

I got over it with newer games, and nowadays my Switch gets a lot of use.

Another thing that I realized, maybe related through my acceptance of not liking JRPGs very much anymore, was that I also actually just don't enjoy NES era games. I think I did at the time, but nowadays they are just too simple in structure, and too "arcade-y" in gameplay. Even allowing for the fact that I'm probably getting too old to be any good at that kind of "twitchy" games, I'm pretty sure that even if I was any good, the payout would still be disappointing. I think it's around the SNES-era that games get potentially interesting for me.

There are some exceptions like Link's Awakening on the Game Boy, but that always felt much more like an SNES-era game, and in fact it came out a year after SNES's A Link to the Past, and shares the almost same gameplay. I'm looking forward to the Switch remake coming out this year.

> I have that feeling every time I play an old JRPG. Many of them feel slow, clunky, with painful mechanics... as opposed to current games, which had the experience from decades to get refined.

It definitely depends a lot on what you're playing. Chrono Trigger has tighter, punchier pacing than practically any modern RPG. IIRC in the first couple hours you've visited two or three different areas, seen consequences of your choices, escaped a dungeon, had a cinematic fight against a boss with unique mechanics, and discovered a secret about one of the main characters.

It's not perfect; there are a number of "uh, wait, what am I supposed to do now?" moments, but it still feels fresh otherwise.

Final Fantasy VI and Phantasy Star IV similarly have brisk pacing and great presentation. Early 3D RPGs slowed everything way down, for whatever reason.

I agree on all of the above points, and your excellent choices in classic JRPGs.

Specifically on slowing things down in 3D RPGs, Final Fantasy VII was pretty fun, even if a little grindy, up until the endgame. But by this point, effective grinding consisted of summon spells, which meant watching the same 90 seconds of an unskippable cut scene over and over again. Like, I get how mind-blowing 3D was in that era, but it killed the pacing so much for me that I never bothered to finish the game. I hear some cool stuff happens with Sephiroth, or whatever.

JRPGs look like yet another piece in the puzzle that so many things in contemporary Japanese popular culture seem to peak around the same time in the 90s (anime, fashion, popular music, industrial design etc). I’d guess this too is related to what Masachi Osawa calls the “fictional era” when the national psyche kind of turned inward to escapism and fantasy. I don’t see this talked about much in English or even Japanese for that matter but would be interesting to try to figure out why a cultural output peaked and the stagnated.

Despite the financial collapse in the early 90s, throughout the decade Japanese youths still had one of the highest levels of disposable income in the world so that probably had an effect. You could be making the most obscure music, film, or fashion and you still had an audience willing to pay for it.

Also I remember people's attitudes shifting in some inexplicable ways, suddenly cultural capital seemed to carry much more weight than other forms of capital. For a while it felt like everyone in Tokyo was trying to one-up one another, not financially but through cultural connoisseurship. Strange times but I do miss the general atmosphere, Japan feels like a completely different country now...

It's probably not talked about much because I don't think many people agree that all those things peaked in the 90s, outside of some sense of nostalgia. Objectively, all of the cultural outputs you mentioned have continued to grow, so any sense of peaking is probably based mainly on subjective taste.

> outside of some sense of nostalgia.

I think there's a case to be made that WE changed since then and that it's not purely nostalgia. There weren't the same level of distractions in the pre-internet world (I understand that the Internet existed but it wasn't the attention economy driven behemoth that it is now). People could engage more deeply with things like Video Games and Anime.

People today are conditioned to jump from dopamine-burst to dopamine-burst as they quickly scroll through their social feeds. Those attention alternatives also fill a big part of free time and mental bandwidth, so the time left over that is dedicated to games and other entertainment is limited. Generally our engagement is much more superficial now.

Isn't the fact that societies change part of what nostalgia is?

Sure, the internet and social media has contributed heavily to changes in taste and modes of consumption, much like television and motion pictures (and video games!) before that.

Some of it comes down to taste certainly but I stil think theres an argument to be made that the kind of cutting edge stuff that was allowed to make it into the mainstream in Japan at that time represents distinctly identifiable period (if peak is too strong a word because $ and volume of output has gone up as you point out.) kind of like how in the us were seeing articles asking why hollywood made The Matrix in 99 and a million comic sequels today, Japan bloggers are wondering why One Peice and Idol groups dominate?

I agree with you that the output of the 90s represents an identifiable period in Japanese pop culture, but don't agree with the original sentiment of things having necessarily "stagnated" since then. There may be an argument, as you suggest, that the period was more progressive in a sense, but I'd have to see more examples of what you're talking about before I could agree.

The dominance of things like One Piece or AKB48 don't preclude the creation of "cutting edge" stuff, though they might certainly drown those out and make them less visible. I think something similar could be said for the 90s, with the popularity of Dragon Ball and Morning Musume, for example (though to a lesser degree). Still, the Internet has allowed for the creation and popularity of lots of interesting stuff, even if they may not be "mainstream."

I find this comment pretty confusing for a number of reasons.

One Piece started in 1997, and many argue that it's only gotten better with time.

The Matrix came out in 1999, but so did things like Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. I think there's a major survivor bias in your analysis.

I suggest that from any given person's POV, popular media peaked during the time they were aged 15-25.

Seeing the callout to Xenoblade's music drew me back to listening to that soundtrack again... whence I stumbled upon 8-bit Music Theory's channel, and analysis of Chrono Trigger's and FFVI's music... and that's to say nothing of Secret of Mana or a half-dozen other incredible JRPG soundtracks.

I'm probably weird, but the music, more than just about anything, is what brings me back to these JRPG games again and again. The mechanics may be clunky, the sound systems primitive, but those peculiar fusions of Western and Japanese musical sensibilities, played out over fantasy after fantasy, are timeless.

Google "City Pop"

I stumbled on to it a year or so ago, and it's pretty obvious how hard most classic video game music cribbed from it.

Reminds me a bit of how when I was a teen, Amiga demoscene and game music sounded like nothing else and contributed to my sense that the "computer world" was something apart. Then years later I found out about Italo Disco and Tangerine Dream.

I’m finding a lot of disco- and funk-influenced easy listening pop; am I listening to the wrong thing? Is there a particular song that would help me see the connection?

Most Castlevania games since playstation era: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ljSD1rZzUE

Pieces of Sonic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0g79mTyjE0

Bits of Xenoblade Chronicles (esp gaur plains): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8xfT4l2Gnw

UMN / cities in various Xenosaga installments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Cj8yrPSo_Q

That helps! I’ll keep listening, too. Thank you; I love finding out about something new like this.

If you're weird, than I am too. There's something truly mesmerizing about the best JRPG soundtracks...

Agreed. I have had weeks where I've just listened to the Chrono Trigger OST. It's not only great for working to, it's just great in general. Same with almost anything Nobuo Uematsu has composed.

FFIV, VI, VII, Chrono Trigger, and Zelda (not JRPG I know) music routinely gets stuck in my head. EVERY DAY.


> and that's to say nothing of Secret of Mana or a half-dozen other incredible JRPG soundtracks.

Secret of Mana had one of the weirdest soundtracks from the SNES era! So many interesting southeastern Asian influences. The sequels definitely took the music in a more generic direction, unfortunately :(

I share the sentiment about the amazing scores that many JRPGs come with. They really do help with the immersion.

Of somewhat recent JRPGs, I found NieR:Automata to be a superb masterpiece, both in the musical compositions led by Keichii Okabe and the underlying themes explored within the game itself.

Dragon Seeds' OST is also one masterpiece:


As a child, I would often play the FFVI OST on loudspeakers, adjust it to a medium-low volume, and go to sleep on it. It happened so many times that I would know what is the next track of the whole OST.

I played Lufia 2 recently and it felt really tedious at times but the characters, dialogue and ending felt realistic and wholesome that it kept me engaged and sad when it was all over. Maybe nostalgia helps us single out older games when surely there's many like it nowadays hidden among the oversaturated mess.

Lufia 2 is one of my absolute favourite SNES-era RPG's. I try to replay it every few years.

> I now feel compelled to work through the other great RPGs of the era. In addition to the mainstays (e.g., Final Fantasy 7-9), I’m especially keen to play through the other titles that have been forgotten or underrated, like Chrono Cross and Terranigma.

Interesting that he's going to barely miss Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger.

I love almost all the Xeno- games, but I think the first Xenoblade Chronicles is my favorite. You travel through a huge world one step at a time (no overworld map). Due the way the game was structured, I never used fast travel (I can't remember if it was even available). So at the end of the game, I had this amazing feeling of having actually taken every single step of the journey, a feeling no other RPG has given me.

Agreed. The sequel, Xenoblade X arguably did this even better by having everything be one continuous map which, after painstakingly exploring it by foot, you can eventually hop in a flying mech and suddenly have immensely satisfying freedom that you deeply desired before.

Xenoblade 2 went in the completely wrong direction. Lots of linear maps, completely separated worlds, some sort of weird tidal mechanic that supposedly blocked things off sometimes but was way too obscure to notice...

> Suffice to say, the average PS1 JRPG contains a very archetypal story.

I'm not sure how others feel but to me I've definitely noticed a much stronger emphasis on wowing visual effects in today's RPG's and a much weaker focus on the story and plot lines as was the case in past games.

>I've definitely noticed a much stronger emphasis on wowing visual effects in today's RPG's and a much weaker focus on the story and plot lines as was the case in past games.

This basically started in the PS3 era, where it appeared that the casual consumer's bar of visual graphics were raised high enough that pushed up development costs, to the point where developer couldn't cheaply churn out interesting, experimental titles.

Many people will cite the SNES and PS1 era as the golden age of JRPGs, but I think the PS2 era is under-appreciated. The SNES/PS1 era had a lot of classics, but the PS2 era was absolutely flooded with great, 8/10 JRPGs across all manner of series, benefiting from the gameplay/UI/UX refinements learned from the SNES/PS1 era and the improved hardware capabilities of the PS2. You had participation across all manner of series: from your popular Final Fantasies and Dragon Quests, to Tales, Persona, Star Ocean, Suikoden, Wild Arms, Breath of Fire, Arc the Lad and so on. You had a whole generation of new entrants like Radiata Stories, Shadow Hearts, Atelier, Dark Cloud, Rogue Galaxy, Xenosaga, .Hack, and many others. Not all of these were amazing, but most of these were at least very good, and in particular they were diverse while also being streamlined as some of the visual/gameplay "language" JRPGs become more firmly established. To me, this was the last great age of JRPGs.

Certainly agree, regarding the PS2 era! Having the chance to play a remastered version of Persona 4 on the Vita, for me, was justification enough for buying the handheld.

P4G is great. In terms of money per hour of entertainment I definitely got huge value. I never finished the game (really, I just can't dump 80ish hours into a game anymore), but I really enjoyed what I did play.

Very well said and 100% agree.

That seems just nostalgia / survival bias. There was plenty of garbage licensed trash through the history and you only remember the good ones.

Same now - we live in the era where games like Witcher 3, Firewatch, Pillars of Eternity, Sunless Sea, Banner Saga, Horizon: ZD, Alien: Isolation, Wolfenstein, Yakuza and many many more exist. Of course you need to actually look beyond the most advertised ones... but then again, you do go looking for the best thought provoking movies in summer blockbuster lists do you?

I strongly agree with you. We had a lot of crap in the past, but there were some gems like Chrono Trigger.

However, I seem to be the only Baldur’s Gate fan that didn’t like Pillars :)

Yeah I couldn't quite get into Pillars in the same way as BG or the other old infinity engine games.

I feel like the writing, quests and general world building was really quite good - but the overall gameplay was a bit of a let down.

They abandoned the traditional d20 system in favour of a custom model which really didn't feel right. For instance, barbarians needing high intelligence because that was the stat that extended area attacks. Or mages being fine with heavy armour and high strength, whilst your fighters were seriously hindered by armour...

Just felt like a really weird system that they never quite worked out. They were trying to be different just for the sake of it IMO.

In the case of the Final Fantasy games, I agree.

The latest one is just garbage, story-wise despite being absolutely beautiful.

AFAIK FFXV had a much better story planned out; but they were pushed to release it half-baked, so they cut out a bunch of content to make it smaller-but-semi-coherent, planning to add all the extra context back in the form of DLC. But then the first DLC didn't sell amazingly well, and the rest just got cancelled :(

(Pretty much the same thing that happened to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, also by Square Enix...)

I only just played this game last summer/fall (I guess once it showed up for PC). While there were definitely enjoyable aspects and I played through the whole thing, it really did feel like half a game.

I'd played most of the NES/SNES/PS1 entries (some all the way through, some partially before getting sidetracked) and while the stories were often convoluted or just poorly localized, they were lengthy and had a lot to do.

The latest FF game looked great and I could deal with the sketchy plot logic but right around when the pacing suggested that I was getting to the "meat" of the game, it went on rails (in some aspects, literally). I was used to the idea of a long setup with a false sense of conclusion, right before it "hits the fan" and the big bad shows up/you end up in the world of ruin/whatever.

When this game went from the peaceful storyline and fun time world exploration with your buddies to "oh crap wtf shit is going down!" it was followed by a series of simpler missions in a few locations, then the end.

I don't even care that the ending itself made little sense unless you had watched some movie or whatever. I was mostly just bummed that the exploration, discovery, dialogue, etc. ended so abruptly so you could fast track to the inevitable showdown with the big bad (who was disappointingly the guy you were led to expect, not the usual fake-out where he was just a pawn of the real ultimate baddie).

Later I read the same thing about how the game was cut short (which also explained all of the locations marked on the map that you couldn't actually visit). Made total sense.

It's a shame they put it out like this. As I said, I only played the PC version which came out two years after the initial release but I would've loved it if they just waited until 2018 and put out the full product. I hadn't played one of these since maybe FFX in 2002 so it was kind of a bummer.

FFX was the last one I really loved.

I've played a few since, but none quite sucked me in so much as VII and X.

Very interesting reflexions. JRPGs, there's just something about them.

I've noticed a formulaic approach in Japanese video game development, where most games within a genre seem to have very similar mechanics as opposed to western made games. The RPG genre seems to be the most obvious example. If you take a modern JRPG (like one of the new Pokemon games for example) and compare it to an old Final Fantasy game from the NES there are a lot of similarities in the mechanics, like random encounters & combat, the way NPC dialogue is implemented, inventory management etc.

Now I'm not saying that they are identical games or that there hasn't been no innovation but to me it seems that for different Japanese games within a genre, there's usually one or two features that are done differently to stand out from the mass and everything else is done "like it's always been done". It seems like the thought process is something like: "RPGs consist of these features so we must have these features in the game for it to be an RPG".

Also I'm not saying that western games can't be or aren't formulaic, but if you take an old Ultima game from the 80's and compare that to modern western RPGs like Skyrim or Witcher or Diablo it seems very different, mechanics wise. Or if you take the Mass Effect trilogy and look at just the inventory management in them it is very different in each game. It seems to me like western developers are more eager to (sometimes unsuccessfully) improve, replace and/or reinvent gaming mechanics and they also are not afraid to blur the lines between genres. Many games from different genres seem to have, for example, at least some RPG elements in them these days.

I'm not implying that one way is better than another, that's a matter of taste. It's just an interesting point that I personally have noticed. It's especially interesting when you think that when not "chained" to a specific genre, Japanese developers can come up with something completely unheard of like Katamari Damacy for example.

Has anyone else noticed this or am I just imagining things?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Another_Eden was recently released in English, from the same creator of Xenogears / Chrono Cross / Chrono Trigger.

I'd give it a skip unless you've already played his other stuff. What I saw of the plot seemed rather derivative of Chrono Trigger, with a much simpler battle system and long, meandering cutscenes.

This resonates quite strongly with me, and I would recommend Suikoden 1/2 for the same reasons.

Suikoden 2 is a master piece. It manages to include 108 party characters (most aren’t allowed to participate in combat), and you feel that you know every single one of them and that all of them have an impact in the story.

Also, it has aged well :)

I just started playing Xenogears last Friday and do agree with the first few paragraphs of the article.

Stopped reading before halfway through when I realized it was getting spoilerish, though.

Playing this and Kingdom Hearts 3 back to back makes me realize that the charm some of the classics have is not pure nostalgia, but I still can't put my finger on it. Saying that, Persona 5 is a recent JRPG that I thoroughly enjoyed like those I played as a kid.

Can I play Persona 5 without playing earlier games?

Yeah, there's almost zero connection between the games besides some background lore or easter eggs that are not important for the main story of each entry.

Every couple of years I replay Front Mission 3. It's not exactly a JRPG but it shares a lot of similarities with the genre. Every time it surprises me how such an outdated and simple game (by today's standards) can hook me.

Many times I've fantasized about making a modern clone...

There seems to be constant repetition of the idea that simple == outdated and complex == modern.

Many of those classic games may not have depth in complex mechanics or breadth of story narratives, but that does not mean they do not contain deep or significant meaning or underlying narrative constructs. At a minimum it does not mean that they lack strong and compelling game design.

I tend to view those (sorry, generalising a little) that dismiss 'classic' games by declaring them 'out of date' as projecting how clever they are by defining complexity == intelligent, regardless of the quality of design, depth of meaning or coherence in narrative.

I've never thought of it this way.

My biggest problem with older games is how clunky the controls can be. This is not the case with all games, but it is a very common one. Specially when video games started to move from 2D to 3D.

For example, the first Mario Kart for SNES is still an amazing game. Nintendo got everything right, specially the kart handling. I still play it from time to time and it is great fun. In contrast the first Wipeout game for PSX has terrible handling compared to the newer ones which are amazing in this respect (Wipeout HD, Fury, 2048).

I don't think this is just JRPGs. I feel no such connection with JRPGs, but I do I feel that way with idle games. There's a kind of meditative comfort with gradual, guaranteed progression, but where there's still a spark of discovery as well.

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