RPGFan Chapters is back again with a detailed look at what everyone is probably expecting to see in Bitmap Books’ upcoming A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games: Games! But first, for anyone who missed our earlier coverage or needs a refresher, here’s our story so far:
Two weeks ago, we provided an overview of the physical book itself (with some lovely photos) and discussed its scope. Spoiler alert: It’s ambitious, comprehensive, and covers many years, several publishers/series, and many many games.
Last week, we showed off entries from the introduction sections, which provide valuable background and context for the genre and, consequently, our favorite games. One note of revision to our previous coverage as well: the release date for the book is now June 18th.
Today’s adventure may be our most daunting and rewarding yet, as we get a look at how A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games approaches writing on individual games and how that expansive array of writing is organized. We’ve got excerpts from four major sections, so go cozy up in a study or library for some ambiance, because it’s about to get literary…in addition to the mysterious atmosphere so important in JRPGs.
Japanese PC RPGs
Let’s start chronologically, with an excerpt entry for the Arcus series in the “Japanese PC RPGs” section. It begins with some background on the notable developer Wolf Team (which went on to create a large portion of the Tales of series as Namco Tales Studio between 1995–2011):
Wolf Team began as a part of Telenet, before spinning off into a separate company. One of its first works was Arcus, a trilogy of RPGs with a relatively strong focus on story.
From there, we get an interesting comparison to Western PC games that may have inspired it, and some release information for the series:
As originally released on computer platforms, the first and third Arcus games are viewed entirely from the first-person perspective. The second, subtitled Silent Symphony, uses an overhead perspective, though battles are still first-person. It takes some inspiration from the Might & Magic games, in that your explorations are not confined totally to dungeons, as you’ll also visit forests, canyons and other areas. Combat retains the armour class system of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, though in other ways, it’s similar to Wizardry, though much simplified. There is no character creation; instead, other party members join you as part of the story. In the original PC versions, there is no experience or level progress at all – there seems to be a hidden stat such that repeatedly fighting a type of monster will eventually make you stronger against it, but that’s about it. There is no equipment, and gold is only found in treasure chests, but ultimately there’s not much use for it other than buying healing items. You do lose stamina, which weakens your fighting ability, though you can find safe places to rest and replenish it.
The trilogy was later remade and bundled together for a Japan-only Mega CD release, which standardises all three games into the first-person perspective. It redesigns all of the characters to make them consistent across the trilogy, and they look fantastic. It also adds a number of voiced cutscenes with fantastic animation – along with those in Annet Futatabi, another Mega CD game by the same developer, they’re some of the best-looking on the platform. This version adds in experience and equipment, making it feel a little more like a regular RPG, plus an automap function.
Arcus may be our representative example, but the Japanese PC RPGs section spans roughly 50 pages. Though there are several unlocalized titles and many that are less well known to Western audiences, the collection grants a look into the dazzling and messy early days of JRPGs.
Falcom, Namco, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest, oh my!
From PC RPGs, A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games transitions to one of the very first companies to specialize in JRPGs, Nihon Falcom, before branching out to specific long-running series like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest that popularized the genre. Check out this excerpt from the entry for the adorable NES Falcom title, Legacy of the Wizard:
Through its early life, Falcom was primarily a PC developer, opting to license other companies to make conversions. Dragon Slayer IV was their first console-focused game, with the only other versions being released on MSX platforms. It’s also the first in the series to receive an international release from Brøderbund, for which it was renamed Legacy of the Wizard. It features the Worzen Family (or Drasle Family in Japan, a combination of DRAgon SLAYer – it makes more sense in Japanese), whose house is right on top of a gigantic labyrinth. The goal, similar to that in previous games, is to find the four crowns and then the Dragon Slayer sword, then kill the dragon Keela.
There are five active members of the family, each with a different talent, mostly allowing them to enter certain parts of the dungeon. Xemn, the father, can equip gloves that allow him to move bricks; Meyna, the mother, has magical items that let her manipulate blocks; Lyll, the daughter, can jump very high; Pochi, the pet dragon, goes unharmed by normal enemy attacks (since he’s technically a monster too); and Roas, the son, doesn’t have his own section to explore, but is the only one who can wield the sword and defeat the final boss. Once you’ve chosen a family member, you can’t switch until you return to your house on the surface, and you can only carry three items at once.
Visually, it does look like the dungeons of Xanadu, complete with the square-sized sprites, but each area is much more visually distinct, plus there’s a much greater focus on action and puzzle-solving. Rather than using a separate combat display, you just attack enemies directly on the main screen, with each character wielding projectiles, fueled by a magic meter. Enemies drop restoratives or money (and in some cases, poison), while regular inns and shops will help you keep your supplies replenished. Each section of the dungeon is long and unforgiving, especially the boss fights, and defeat will send you right back to your home base to start over again.
You can see that there’s some gameplay, story, and development information all tied into a relatively short entry. This format is convenient to track the trajectory of a series or developer, as in the aforementioned sections, but it also serves the copious RPGs that are important but don’t have their own chapter like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest.
Those titles and series are in the “Other Franchises” section of A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games. To illustrate this section, we’ve chosen to represent RPGFan’s LunarNET roots and interject a little of our own personal site history here with information from the entry on Lunar: The Silver Star.
The first paragraph covers the main story premise…
Lunar: The Silver Star focuses on a young boy named Alex, bored of his life in the backwater town of Burg. Along with Luna, his lady friend, and Nall, his flying cat companion, he sets off on an adventure to explore the land. As they continue their journey, they learn that the Goddess Althena, saviour of their world, has been reincarnated as a human, making her power vulnerable to abuse. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Luna is actually Althena, and she is captured by the evil magician Ghaleon. Banding together with a group of heroes, Alex must follow in the footsteps of his long-departed role model, the Dragonmaster Dyne, to rescue the world and save his true love.
…but there’s plenty of specific information about development and different versions of the game as well.
The Lunar series began as a joint project between two companies: Studio Alex and Game Arts. Studio Alex was a production company started by Kazunari Tomi, a developer who had previously created the Mugen no Shinzou PC RPG series in the mid-’80s while working at XtalSoft, before moving onto a brief stint at Falcom to work on Star Trader and Dinosaur. Game Arts was previously known mostly for PC titles like the mecha action game Thexder and the space shoot-’em-up Silpheed, but had begun to dabble in console development with the NES RPG Faria and the Genesis action game Alisia Dragoon. The character designs were provided by Toshiyuki Kubooka, the animation director of works like Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water.
There are actually four completely different versions of Lunar. The initial SEGA CD version is subtitled The Silver Star. The 32-bit versions, released on the PlayStation and Saturn, are both called Silver Star Story, and have completely different graphics, complete with anime FMV, as well a new soundtrack by Noriyuki Iwadare, one of the composers of the SEGA CD game. There are many substantial changes, particularly to the story, with the main difference being that Luna stays with the party for quite a while, whereas she leaves the adventure fairly early on in the original version. Random battles are also replaced with visible encounters, plus there is level scaling for boss battles.
Lastly, A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games presents a series of shorter sections for the cross-genre RPGs — the ones that do things a little differently, like your action RPGs, strategy RPGs, and dungeon crawlers. We like the entries in this book that do things a little differently too, so here’s an excerpt from the SoulsBorne (series) entry discussing two of the five core tenets of those games according to the current FromSoftware president:
Learn By Doing. Like King’s Field before it, SoulsBorne wants you to explore, and it wants you to fail in doing so. Once you exit the brief tutorial zone, you’re on your own. Though this can make each SoulsBorne title incredibly difficult, they’re also rarely unfair: each adversary clearly telegraphs their moves and leaves themselves open; many attacks can be parried with the correct timing. Unlike in King’s Field, death isn’t a trip back to the last save point: die, and you’ll respawn at your last checkpoint, lacking all of your unbanked Souls (experience/currency). Taking inspiration from Rogue-likes, you’re given the opportunity to make a Corpse Run to retrieve your lost goodies; die again and they’re gone for good. While each SoulsBorne playthrough constantly autosaves, which makes each decision permanent, the chance to retrieve one’s corpse hammers home the point that it’s OK – indeed encouraged – to screw up.
Don’t Give Up. From its gigantic, screeching bosses, to its precarious walks across narrow ledges, SoulsBorne relishes overwhelming the player. Again, as per the first tenet, SoulsBorne is rarely unfair. Clear your mind and face your foe with calm determination. That said, there’s no shame in doing what you have to do to win. Unless you’re specifically using an external cheat engine, there’s no such thing as cheating within SoulsBorne. Trap a foe behind a door and go to town on it; plink at a dragon’s tail at a distance; watch a video tutorial or summon another player to figure out how to beat that flying centipede boss; or even just grind up a few extra levels. If you still find yourself beating your head against the same fight with no progress, you can usually go challenge another area and come back later. Or you can just stop for the night, and come back in the morning with a fresh set of nerves. Stick with it, play how you want to play, and don’t beat yourself up, and SoulsBorne is an immensely satisfying experience.
There’s clearly a lot to see in A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games and this is just a tiny fraction of what’s there. Be sure to check back at release time because we’ll be sharing our thoughts and impressions of the content in a review.
A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games will be available from the Bitmap Books website. It releases on June 18th, 2021, and Bitmap offers a sign-up to be notified when the book is available to order.
The excerpts used in this article and specific screenshots were provided to RPGFan by Bitmap Books, and have been re-printed with permission. Please do not re-publish this article or excerpts elsewhere without permission.