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An Introduction to JRPGs

An Introduction to JRPGs

I’m a fan of JRPGs, or at least I was.  Video gaming is a rapidly changing medium, and many of its genres reflect that.  Action went through a radical evolution of single-screen score-builders (now called Arcade-style) like Donkey Kong and Pac Man; 2D Platformers, such as Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man; into the third dimension with titles like Super Mario 64; adding in Brawler elements and skill-building with games like Devil May Cry and God of War; currently residing in Sandboxes like Grand Theft Auto and a slew of other imitators, with a slight offshoot that became First Person Shooters.  RPGs have undergone a similar evolution, though much less radical.  That, along with the culture that surrounds them is what has largely alienated me from the genre.

The aim of this series is to delve into (a totally fair and unbiased assessment of) what I feel makes an RPG work, and what doesn’t.  I’m going to begin this with the disclaimer that this miniseries relates strictly to JRPGs.  I am aware that most JRPGs are not true RPGs at all, removing the role-playing element from the equation, but I do not care for the Western-style RPGs, and so my experience with them is too limited to include them in something like this.  Perhaps one of my fellow authors would like to follow up.

First, I’d like to divulge a bit about my gaming history in regards to RPGs.  My first encounter with the genre takes me back to my early gaming days.  I had loved Super Mario Bros. until The Legend of Zelda came along and totally blew my mind.  I loved it so much that I used to run around all over the place with a plastic sword and appropriate accessories.  In the entire state of South Carolina, I was the only kid on the beach decked out in full armor; unladylike, I know, but it shouldn’t surprise any of you who know me that I was an atypical child.  My parents, for whatever reason, decided to nurture this obsession, despite the fact that I’m sure they still hear the Legend of Zelda’s over world theme in their sleep.  Being somewhat into gaming themselves, they were more than competent in picking out games they thought I’d like, so they went out and picked me up a copy of Dragon Warrior.

I remember excitedly holding that shining new box in my hands on Easter morning.  Just look at that glorious box art; the hero standing majestically on a cliff, battling a massive dragon armed with only a sword, a shield, and unequivocal valor.  The castle rising in the background sealed the deal irrevocably.  After the longest egg hunt of my life, I popped that bad boy in my NES and went to town.  Seconds later, my juvenile brain was leaking out of my ears.  What was this!?  Thou!?  What’s a thou, and why are they talking about art!?  Where’s my sword button?  What’s going on!?  I continued to push on with a parent on standby doing his or her best as an interpreter of Elizabethan English until I was able to understand and even speak the tongue fluently.  While this was an incredibly help when I got to high school and perfectly understood every word of Shakespeare (though, like most anyone at that age, I was too young to fully appreciate it), it made for a lousy gaming experience.  A child of 4 or 5 doesn’t have the patience to sit and build up, which is what we used to call grinding back before RPGs became what they are today.  I wound up giving the game to my grandfather, which not only drew us closer than ever, but got him hooked on both the series and the genre, which, in turn, got me hooked on watching him play them.

I used to dream of the day that I’d be mature enough to play an RPG, admiring my grandfather’s prowess with the games.  The problem was that they were more about thinking and less about action.  That didn’t deter me, though.  As Pop picked up more and more RPGs, I’d try at each and every one of them with varying degrees of failure.  Final Fantasy was particularly staggering, even though I loved watching it; I still remember going over to their house after Trick-or-Treating (I was a ninja that year), and walking in on my grandfather battling a mind-blowing 9 pirates simultaneously; I was impressed.  Then, everything changed.  The Super Nintendo came out, and one of the launch titles was Final Fantasy 2 (4 in Japan, but you likely knew that already).  I remember thinking to myself, “The NES is the system for RPGs; I’m not sure how I feel about an RPG on the SNES.”  Of course, the sentiment is ridiculous now, but before the system ushered in the golden age of the genre, I had doubted its ability to deliver in that department.  Watching Final Fantasy 2 was, as absurd and possibly sad as it may sound, was one of the most influential events of my life.  Cecil Harvey was my hero; a man who, despite his many regrets (though mine had yet to be understood, so no parallel was yet drawn), was a good man always looking to do the right thing, even at his own expense.  This compelled me to struggle my way through the game, even though I’d already seen it to completion, and finishing it was a moving and life-changing experience for me.  Call it the nostalgia of looking back to that starry-eyed child blindly admiring a hero, but Final Fantasy 4 remains my favorite game in the series to this day.

It wasn’t long until I had the prowess to knock out RPGs left and right, and soon became the family expert on the genre.  I soon began to neglect my old favorites like Mega Man and Zelda, and by the time I got my hands on a copy of Final Fantasy 7 (at least a year after its release), I rejected almost all other genres.  I got swept up in the same flow as everyone else, touting RPGs as the one true genre; a shining golden deity standing over all else.  The above blurb might seem fairly irrelevant, but the point is that I didn’t play Final Fantasy 7 as someone drawn in by all the hype; I played it because I was already a fan of the series.  Even so, I became an RPG elitist for the entirety of my teenage years.  The problem with that is that patience isn’t one of my stronger virtues, and I quickly became tired of constantly grinding.  It got to the point where I didn’t play anything at all for long periods of time because each RPG was an overwhelming investment of time and tedium to me.  It wasn’t until an old friend and fellow RPG enthusiast picked up the Mega Man Anniversary Collection and came to me for help in getting through it, since I’d gotten him into the series in the first place.  Playing through those old games made me realize that I not only still possessed the skill to play such games, but I also enjoyed them quite a lot.  However, while I moved on from my RPG tunnel vision, I came to realize that many had and still have not.

It seems that we live in a time where if video games are alcohol, RPGs are regarded as the obscenely expensive kind of wine that’s been sitting in an old basement for centuries and everything else is the cheap kind that comes in a box.  Because of this, everything’s regarded as an RPG these days.  It started with Zelda, which had been an Action-Adventure since its inception, and has now spread to other things that were never considered even remotely RPG-like to begin with.  I’ve even seen a website that cites Super Metroid as an RPG.  I swear that sometimes people think that RPG just means “a long game where people use swords”.  Devil May Cry has RPG elements; why not call that an RPG?  From what I understand, some Grand Theft Auto games have RPG elements, why not call that an RPG?  Attaching the world Action and a hyphen to RPG doesn’t necessarily mean you can slap some elements from the genre into a game and call it an RPG, hybrid or otherwise.  It’s maddening, but I think I see the reasoning behind it.  If someone asked me to name the three most popular games of all time, I would, without blinking, rattle off, “Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy 7, and Chrono Trigger,” in that very order.  Notice what two of them have in common?  Mark of quality has been equated with popular, and popular has been equated with RPG; Ocarina of Time just gets dragged along with the other two.  Before you start grabbing your torches and pitchforks (whether you’re going to lynch me or those in opposition to my viewpoint), just let me say this: a game doesn’t have to be an RPG to be a very high quality game.

It’s just like the video games versus art debate.  I, along with many other gamers, was absolutely infuriated when Roger Ebert shot his big mouth off about video games being incapable of being art.  “How dare someone who devotes his life to a medium with just as much absolute tripe as any other look down on the one I enjoy most!?  For every American Beauty, there are at least 20 Transformers or Uwe Boll abominations!”  I was up in arms, just like the rest of the community, until I realized that video games don’t have to be art to be enjoyable or even to be great.  I know that might sound counterintuitive for my being an author for Gaming Symmetry (one of the founding authors, no less), but it’s true.  Are some video games art?  I’d certainly say so; Psychonauts is extremely artistic, and so are many other games.  Is Mega Man 10 artistic?  Well, unless you’re talking about visuals being pretty, I’d say not.  It has about the same level of story as Contra, and it doesn’t really tackle any major issues in any sort of depth.  However, that doesn’t make it any less of a blast to play, and that’s what makes it an excellent game.  Now, certainly artistic games should be treated as such and celebrated as works of art (if I didn’t believe that, then I wouldn’t be here), but games, like any medium, should be judged on their own merits.

For example, would you watch a Horror movie, like, say, The Grudge, and say, “That movie sucks; the relationship between Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character and her boyfriend is flat and just seems tacked on.”?  No, you’d judge a Horror movie by how scary or suspenseful it is, not how good the love story is.  I think that’s largely why the newest Indiana Jones movie was regarded as awful.  Back when the first three were made, suspension of disbelief was expected and people were actually capable of turning their brains off and enjoying a mindless Adventure flick.  People went into Kingdom of the Crystal Skull expecting a cinematic masterpiece with a deep story and gritty realism, because that’s what’s popular now, and freaked out when all they got was another Indiana Jones movie.  Any piece in any medium should be judged by what it has, rather than be chainsawed into a tiny grease spot for what it doesn’t.  If something sets out to accomplish a goal and fails, that’s something that could be regarded as poor.  On the other hand, if something has humble goals and meets them well, it shouldn’t be bashed for setting its sights too low.  Not everything has to be a masterpiece; on a scale of 1 to 10, there are numbers other than 9, 10, and 0; 5 is average, which is an okay thing to be.

So, I’ve wandered a bit; what does this have to do with the current RPG situation?  The point is, in a world where genres have intermingled so much that it’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly what a game is, we cannot and should not use genres as a rating system.  The scale is 1 to 10, not Browser Game to RPG.  It’s okay to like one genre and stick with it, but being an elitist about it isn’t impressing me (not that I’m worth trying to impress), and it shouldn’t impress anyone else, either.  Cliques are for high school, and they’re hurting gaming as an artistic medium, as well as a hobby.  You shouldn’t have to feel judged by what type of games you like, or pick “safe” choices as your favorites; every game should be judged on its own merits.  There are a lot of people who judge games, RPGs in particular, almost solely upon their story.  I have a problem with that because a game, even an RPG (or a Visual Novel, for that matter), can be great without having a particularly deep or even interesting story.  What I am suggesting is that RPGs should also (and perhaps even primarily) be judged by their gameplay, and that’s exactly where we’re going to start.  Don’t worry; there will be lots of pictures.

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