Defining the JRPG Genre

Over the last few days I have been considering undergoing a personal project. To play every JRPG that has ever come out. There are a number of reasons for this… I have always wanted to have a specific niche on my youtube channel… largely Minecraft, RPGs and Strategy, and I have strayed from that. Moreover, I haven’t been playing many RPGs over the last few years and RPG really is my favorite genre. And while I do enjoy a number of older WRPGs (Older Bioware games,  Gold Box, Might & Magic, Ultima, etc), JRPG has a very special place in my heart and I do love the genre slightly more than WRPGs.

This train of thought has got me considering what exactly is a JRPG? If I am going to play all of them, I feel like this needs to be defined straight up. I have looked up a lot of info on what makes a JRPG and there actually is a fair amount of confusion on the genre. Many think it simply means that it is just an RPG made in Japan and that is the only requirement, but this definition just doesn’t seem quite right. JRPGs and WRPGs FEEL different. Sit down and play Final Fantasy 6 and then play Skyrim and tell me how the two are similar outside of there being magic and levels. Same with FF6 and Dark Souls… yet you can actually sit down and compare Dark Souls and Skyrim and these two games hold within them many similarities. Dark Souls, though it was made in Japan, has more in common with Western RPGs than JRPGs.

There are certainly a number of similarities between JRPGs that I don’t entirely feel define the genre, but are certainly common features.

  • Turn-Based – The average JRPG is turn-based, but this isn’t always true. Like many genres, once games started coming into the world of 3D, action JRPGs started becoming more of a thing. Though to this day, many JRPGs remain Turn-based, this isn’t a requirement for the genre.
  • Cute Art – Since the inception of JRPG, art has been on the cute/overemphasized eyes. The art direction generally has a lot in common with the art style of anime and manga in Japanese culture. I don’t know if this is a requirement or not for JRPGs to be honest. I can’t think of any examples of a non-cute nature, but I feel like there is no reason that a JRPG could not have a realistic art style instead.
  • Random Encounters – This I consider a more newish feature. As old games all had random encounter regardless of if it was WRPG or JRPG.  At some point, WRPGs went away from the random encounter (and subsequent grinding) whereas the JRPG has largely embraced it. I actually feel like at this point in time I could consider this a rule to be a JRPG, however I think moving forward many JRPGs are going to try to experiment with non-random encounters a little more often and I don’t see why they can’t so I don’t want to make this a rule.

So with those non-requirements but regular features out of the way,  I wanted to go into some things that I think make a JRPG. For this, I wanted to look at really what is different almost universally between the JRPG and the WRPG.

  1. Focus on Linear Plotlines – All RPGs have a plot, and to some extent, all RPGs have a linear plot. After all, there is a general beginning and ending to the story which the designer wants to tell whether it is a WRPG or a JRPG. A JRPG differs in that their story is usually much more linear, oftentimes being almost completely on rails. You go from point a, to point b to point c, etc. Until you reach the end. WRPGs generally will give you a starting point, and then let you go on your merry way, choosing how you want to get to the end. The focus on a WRPG is much more exploration based. A JRPG may have a few forks in the road, but the path is pretty well ordained, the designer has a story to tell and they want you to see it.
  2. You Control a Character – This seems odd to say, after all this is common amongst all RPGs really. But what I mean is that you are controlling a character that the designers created in a JRPG. They created the name, personality, background, class, skills and stats. You play that character in order to tell their story, you are experiencing someone else. In WRPG, they leave everything open to a blank slate and essentially let you create who you want, be it yourself or some character concept you enjoy.
  3. Group Oriented – JRPGs tend to be group based, not solo efforts (this isn’t always true but I feel it is true enough to warrant a rule for it). There may not always be a group in an RPG, but there are almost always more than one character.
    3.1 – Exception – Dungeon Crawlers are WRPGs and almost always contain a group. Outside of this subgenre, WRPGs tend to focus more on the solo protagonist.
  4. Focus on Relationships – In addition to being group based, JRPGs focus on relationships between protagonists, between protagonists and NPCs, and between protagonists and antagonists. WRPGs have relationships but that isn’t the focus. The focus is more on your interactions with the world, the setting and your equipment and stats.
  5. Stat-Hidden, Luck-Based – WRPGs are very much stat-based games. You create your character, give it stats, put weapons and armor on that have many stats each, enemies have stats, what you can do is often based off skill stats, how much damage is based off stats… etc… JRPGs however rely more on the die roll. There may be stats that enhance the die roll, but by and large stats are minimal and/or hidden from the player. They are considered more to detract from the immersion of the player into the world and so are largely ignroed by the player.
  6. Elements of an RPG – This is true for both but obviously needs to be there to be considered a JRPG, otherwise you end up with Super Mario 64 being a JRPG or something. So as an RPG, a JRPG does in fact need to have levels, items used for something other than quests, quests, foes, experience, NPCs, Stores,  a campaign setting, etc that one would come to expect with an RPG.
  7. Linear Leveling – **Added 4/4/17** Leveling occurs within a class by killing monsters and/or completing quests. You don’t raise skills. It’s rare for crafting to exist.

I think that using the above 6 elements, whilst keeping the “not necessary but likely” elements in mind, we can get a good idea of what constitutes a JRPG when making a list of what games to play.

As an example, I was actually considering Final Fantasy 1 while writing up these requirements and came to the realization that Final Fantasy 1 may actually be a western RPG which seems really odd. There is a potential that games before 1995 had different requirements than games after 1995, but I kind of want to have a single ruleset for all. So Let’s look at it…

In Final Fantasy 1, I kind of want to say the story is linear, but it really isn’t for the time. You start outside the village and you can move on to the first boss without going and seeing the king first. It is  a fairly open world game and late in the game once you unlock all the ocean parts, you really can take whatever dungeons you want to take and don’t really even have to go to all. If you want to go straight to Chaos, you certainly could. You did have a group of adventurers but they were generic,  you could give them whatever names and classes you wanted,, much like an WRPG, and they didn’t interact with each other, or really anyone that much. I will say that the game was more luck based than stat based, but 2.5 out of 6 is not gonna cut it for the JRPG genre.

That realization seems odd to me, because you would think that Final Fantasy would in fact be a JRPG. At the time I would say that it probably did have more to do with region to be a JRPG… Final Fantasy 1 did a lot of things that we might see now as stepping stones to the genre. It used the WRPG as an influence and then the JRPG evolved from there, but because of its earliness, it really wasn’t what we come to think of as a JRPG now.