There are different views on which game was the first JRPG. Some will tell you that it was The Black Onyx, but that was developed by a Dutch guy living in Japan at the time. Others will tell you that Falcom's (makers of Ys) Dragon Slayer series started it all. One thing that is for certain is that for the average JRPG player it almost certainly started with Dragon Quest. One thing all of these games had in common was their desire to copy either Wizardry or Ultima. Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior here) is very, very similar to Ultima but more linear. Phantasie Star is even more similar to Ultima, even copying the 3D view dungeons and the sci fi elements. The JRPG owes a lot to Wizardry and Ultima, even though they have largely shunned the non-linear elements from the Ultima series JRPGs are still presented in a very similar style even today.
Two systems stand out as high water marks for the JRPG in America, the SNES and the PS2. Final Fantasy II and III (IV and VI) opened the floodgates here for the JRPG. The PS2 hosted an unbelievable amount of RPG games, in fact they still are being released for the system two years into the next gen cycle. The PS2 hosted some new takes on the genre like the MMO inspired Final Fantasy XII, some old school style greatness like Dragon Quest VIII, and some just plain fun takes on the genre like Rogue Galaxy.
It is the current generation cycle that concerns me. The JRPG is not doing well on the anchor consoles. The PS3 is basically devoid of any worth mentioning, the XBOX only fairs a little bit better with Blue Dragon and Star Ocean (neither got rave reviews), and the Wii is practically RPG free. In fact the ega Genesis compilation probably has as many RPGs in it as you can get outside of the compilation on the XBOX or PS3. To be fair the 32 bit generation suffered from crap (Beyond the Beyond) to decent (Wild Arms) RPGs until the release of Final Fantasy 7. Final Fantasy 7 may not have aged well but it was good at the time and the RPGs that followed were significantly better than those that came before. We have not seen the release of a Final Fantasy yet this generation which could be part of the hold up for good JRPGs. It is possible that the other companies are holding out to see what direction Square goes in, where Square goes the American audience for JRPGs follows, and let's face it none of the consoles are setting the world on fire in Japan.
Well none of the next gen consoles are anyway. The handhelds are a different story. Both the PSP and the DS have a healthy amount of JRPGs. In fact you could say that the DS is the current home of the JRPG. However many of these are retro in style if not actually retro in fact. Just in the last few months the DS has seen the release of Dragon Quest IV and Dragon Quest V. Dragon Quest VI is coming soon. A Ys compilation released this week. Retro Game Challenge has a Dragon Quest II inspired game in its collection.
This has been steady throughout the life of the DS, and the retro fever goes even further back than Dragon Quest. It goes all the way to Wizardry and even a step further. The two Etrian Odyssey games are Wizardry/Might and Magic/Bard's Tale clones. The Dark Spire and Class of Heroes are on their way and are both Wizardry type games. But in a step even further back on the RPG evolutionary change the DS is crammed with roguelikes. There are the Unemployed Ninja games, the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games, the Chocobo Dungeon games and even a re-release of Shiren the Wanderer. All of these games are enjoyable. I love roguelikes so I am not complaining, and I have been lapping up the Wizardry clones. The Etrian Odyssey mapping system is great. I am also looking forward to the old school Dragon Quest style 7th Dragon that is on the way.
But old school love aside, I am a bit concerned, there isn't a lot of forward motion here. There have been some hints. The Japanese seem to be embracing a new type of RPG with some mixed results. They have started to mix RTS with RPG. So far we have seen a Mana game (not good), FFXII Revenant Wings (OK) and Blue Dragon Plus come out in this style. On the PSP Final Fantasy Crisis Core and Dissidia seem to show some willingness to expand the format. But the fact is that no one has brought out the big guns yet, these have all been spin off games.
Are the makers of JRPGs struggling with the sudden shift to portable consoles in the Japanese market? Do they feel that things got stale and are searching for a new way to push the envelope? The handhelds are a safer place to try out the weird stuff because the install base is high and the games are cheaper to make. They seem to be going all the way back to the roots of the genre to see if there was another path they could have taken from the beginning (obviously there was Western RPGs developed along totally different lines). It is going to be interesting to see what happens next.
Hopefully we won't have to wait too long. The first shot will be fired on the DS. Dragon Quest IX will be the first numbered entry in a big series released since the move to next gen. The follow up will be Final Fantasy XIII and then finally Dragon Quest X on the Wii. Traditionally Dragon Quest has been the conservative series and Final Fantasy has been the envelope pusher. Most JRPGs will tend to fall between the two somewhere. Hopefully we will see entries from Wild Arms, Suikoden, Grandia, and if we are really lucky a real Phantasy Star game (don't hold your breath) on the next gen consoles. It is going to be interesting to see what happens. Will there be first person dungeon crawlers on the PS3? The last step based crawler on a console I can think of was Shining in the Darkness on the Genesis. Will the Wii be the home to a host of Roguelikes? Will the action RPG elements we saw in FFXII and Rogue Galaxy take over in the JRPG genre? Is small party RTS the future of JRPGs? Will we see a return to random battles and turn based combat?
Hopefully we will actually get some games soon so we can find out....
Anyway, I actually have some time to play again. Over the next few weeks I'll be hunkering down with my DS, the Sega Genesis Collection for PS3, the Ultima Collection, and some old gems on Game Tap.