Why the JRPG is Alive and Kicking

Just searching ‘the JRPG is dying’ will get you 280,000 hits from people across the globe seemingly reaching that conclusion. Most of them coincide with the period after FF13’s first game release—a telling bit of information that shows that it wasn’t the genre as a whole, but a game, that affected the sentiment towards JRPGs. For this reason, I’ll be using FF13 for many of the examples in the article. However, just because one company seems to keep making games wrong, that doesn’t mean that the entire JRPG genre is dying.

Square Enix, one of the major producers of JRPGs and the developer of the renowned Final Fantasy series, is facing pressures from Western audiences to ‘westernize’ their games—however, this is a high order that the company just didn’t seem to get. Instead of making their latest console installment more open and adventurous, they made the plot linear and cut down on backstory, streamlining the entire game.

The problem with this approach is that it takes everything that makes a JRPG good—the back stories, the side quests, the ridiculous number of characters—and throws all of that out. So, after seeing the prime developer of JRPGs do something like that, it was perhaps a natural reaction for both fans and spectators to herald the end of the genre. However, Square Enix isn’t the only JRPG publisher, and Final Fantasy is not their only series.

For what it’s worth, Square Enix followed up with a good sequel—FF13-2. It took out many of the faults of its predecessor and added in what it lacked. Along with that, several JRPG releases lie on the horizon—new installments in the Tales of, Dragonquest, Xeno, and Kingdom Hearts series, along with stand-alone games such as Pandora’s Tower and the Last Story are just a few of them. All are good games in their own right and show that the industry is still able to churn out high-quality JRPGs. The real issue plaguing the JRPG is not the quality of games, nor the way in which they are marketed, but in the way they are compared to western RPGs.

Western RPGs tend to be high-budget, open world, non-linear gameplay experiences—and while budgets vary depending on the developer, the opposite is generally true for JRPGs. The western games enjoy soaring economic success with each release, while JRPGs seem to lag behind. In the cases where JRPG developers attempt to mimic western themes and procedures, you get large commercial flops like FF13. In cases where they stick to their usual formula, the games obtain mediocre sales and stay under the radar.

There is an intrinsic difference between these two different styles of the same genre—JRPGs are an intimate way of telling a story, while western RPGs are an intimate way of exploring a setting. The stories in western RPGs tend to fluctuate greatly based on the player’s actions, while JRPGs remain linear—sometimes frustratingly so. But overall, the formula for JRPGs haven’t changed, so in spirit they remain strong. What about their sales? Despite lack-luster reception, FF13 was Square Enix’s fastest-selling title, and while it didn’t live up to their expectations in terms of revenue, it still did better in its first week than many of the company’s other games. Those sales never dropped off.

However, comparing those sales numbers to those of western RPGs reveals a disappointing discrepancy. While the RPG genre in general has soared, greatly increasing in revenue over the past few years, the JRPGs only have stable revenue. Ever since FFX, the sales of JRPGs haven’t been too spectacular. But they’re not dropping compared to their past—they’re holding steady. They’re continuing to put out good games. They might not be excelling, but the genre isn’t dying. It’s simply no longer in the spotlight. Many genres have had their turn being the ‘mainstream’ genre—arcade, fighting, RPG, FPS, and so on. It’s simply no longer their turn. Perhaps the fad that peaked at around 2012 will return, or perhaps it will remain a niche genre, as it once was. Either way, the JRPG has been around for several decades—and it’s not going to drop off any time soon.