Why My Favorite JRPG Isn't Even JapaneseNeal's end-of-year editorial.12.29.09 - 3:23 PM
My favorite JRPG is not even Japanese. Seriously. Sure, the scores accompanying my library of reviews may tell a different story, but if asked what my favorite JRPG is, I would say Anachronox
(by defunct US developer Ion Storm) without hesitation. If I had a gun to my head and was forced to get rid of every JRPG I owned except for one, I would keep Anachronox
. You read right, I would keep Anachronox
over even Chrono Trigger
or a Persona
game. Read my review
, and you'll see why I love the game so much.
I know it is difficult to believe that my favorite JRPG is not Japanese, especially since non-Japanese JRPGs don't exactly have the best track record. Secret of Evermore received massive backlash. Shadow Madness was atrocious. I did not enjoy Magi-Nation at all. Septerra Core was criticized for its tedious gameplay. Back then, those were the token American JRPGs, and none could compare to JRPG fans' gold standards like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII.
But we've come a long way since then. Yes, there was a time when the thought of an "American JRPG" elicited a knee-jerk reaction of "total garbage," but there was a time when Japanese and Korean automobiles in the United States were essentially tin cans, and now they're paragons; better made, more reliable, and higher quality than the automobile offerings from the US and even Europe. So perhaps it is time to look past our prior perceptions regarding a game's country of origin, even if that style of game is tightly associated with a specific country. I often used to ask, "Why can't a decent JRPG come from a country other than Japan?" Now, I think it's becoming safer to say, "Yes, decent JRPGs can, have, and will come from non-Japanese countries."
A lot of players complain that JRPGs and Japanese visual novels are growing a tad stale; that Japanese developers are playing it safe and giving audiences the same old product time and time again, only with prettier packaging and arbitrary gimmicks. These sentiments have been hashed out and debated on RPGFan's forums more times this year than I can even count, and they were definitely a source of heated contention during the 2007 staff roundtable feature about JRPGs vs. WRPGs. Yet, we still stick with the genre because that's the kind of gaming we probably grew up with, enjoy best, can see amazing potential, and where we beg with frustration to see that potential realized. I myself have posted on the RPGFan forums time and time again about what I'd like to see happen in JRPGs and visual novels to get them out of the stagnant rut they're in and realize their potential.
I like to think that the growing cache of underground game developers in North America and Europe who love Japanese gaming think along those lines as well. I'm willing to bet that a fair amount of the new breed are people around my age who've been playing video games for most of their life and are also frustrated by the stagnancy, or perceived stagnancy, of mainstream offerings out there and want to offer a product that offers a viable alternative.
I have had an opportunity to play a healthy amount of non-Japanese JRPGs and even some non-Japanese visual novels lately, most from independent developers in Europe and North America. And you know what? There were many surprisingly good games that I enjoyed more than their comparable Japanese counterparts. For example, one of my favorite JRPGs this year was Millennium: A New Hope, by French developer Aldorlea Games. Sure, it was a throwback JRPG made with RPG Maker, but it was well-executed and had a je ne sais quois that felt distinctly non-Japanese to me. The area outside the protagonist's village made me think "French countryside" rather than "JRPG environment," and was my favorite location in the game. One of the freshest visual novels I'd played in a long time was Fading Hearts, by Canadian developer Sakura River. It showcased the quirkiness of Japanese anime conventions through a distinctly foreign lens, offering a surprisingly unique experience in a genre that generally does not stray far from its self-imposed norms. There are more examples like this out there; it’s just a matter of looking for them.
Although I've played a lot of great throwback-style JRPGs from independent developers, I would like to see them go beyond refining standard JRPG conventions. I'd like to see them also reinvent, redefine, reinterpret, rewrite, and/or just plain shatter those age-old conventions. One trait that made me love Anachronox so much was that though it played like a Japanese RPG, the storyline, character archetypes, writing, and visual style were distinctly American. In these key areas, Anachronox did not try to copy or emulate Japanese conventions, making the experience feel genuine rather than being the equivalent of that "weeaboo" kid in school who acts like an anime character in order to "become" Japanese.
I am sure there are scenario writers who love JRPGs, but are tired of JRPG character relationships never going beyond the level of superficial kindergarten crushes. I would like to see them write a script where the character relationships are more fleshed out, mature, and believable, with teenage and/or adult characters that speak and behave like believable teenagers and/or adults respectively. Maybe an artist tired of the glut of stock fantasy trappings can create a vibrant modern, contemporary, or post-modern setting; a setting not used often enough in RPGs. Maybe a composer who thinks certain genres of music are underrepresented in these kinds of games can create a soundtrack that fills those voids. The potential is endless. It goes beyond what has been done before, and if mainstream Japanese developers aren't going to realize that potential, then it's a ripe opportunity for some of these underground, non-Japanese developers to step up and put those fresh or underutilized ideas into a new breed of J-style games.
So will this growing underground trend of good non-Japanese offerings in a typically Japanese style eventually shake things up via a new perspective? Will gamers eventually be able to shed past perceptions of failed non-Japanese JRPGs and see that there is, and potentially will be, good non-J J-stuff out there? Will the next great JRPG not be Japanese? Only time will tell, but like Maya Amano in Persona 2: Innocent Sin, I say, "Let's positive thinking," because I see plenty of potential, and with potential there is always possibility. Maybe one day I will not be looked at as insane for saying that my favorite JRPG is not even Japanese.