Last week, I pre-ordered The Last Story, the newest game from Final Fantasy-creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his development studio, Mistwalker. I did it partly because I wanted to support Mistwalker and its staff – which includes composer Nobuo Uematsu, a man who must continue to make music until one of us dies – but mostly because I want another classic JRPG. This, despite my seldom-touched copy of Radiant Historia (which is fantastic, by the way) and unplayed download of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3. At this point, pining for old-school JRPGs is just as much an experience as actually playing them.
In fact, I think I spend more time pining for old-school JRPGs than I did actually playing them in the first place. Seriously, when I was a kid I played Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Pokemon Blue, and spent the rest of my time lamenting how the JRPG has fallen off and that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. How would I know?! I hardly touched any of them.
Not only that, there HAVE been JRPGs like they “used to make.” Atlus has been pumping them out almost non-stop for at least a decade, and JRPGs ruled the portable gaming roost since the Game Boy Advance (a phenomenon described by Game Informer’s Joe Juba in his excellent editorial, “The Incredible Shrinking RPG“). Hell, Mistwalker already came out with an old-school JRPG a few years ago for Xbox 360; it was called Lost Odyssey and I even bought it. Granted, it’s been sitting on my shelf for the past two years because I’m intimidated by how good it might be, but it’s still there!
My point, Billy, is that the JRPG is fine. Not exactly thriving, mind; we’re a long way from the days of the PlayStation, when sprawling, multi-disc JRPGs came out at least once every two weeks. But with stone-cold stunners like Radiant Historia, Tales of Vesperia, and Xenoblade Chronicles all coming out during the past three or so years – not to mention bunches of worthwhile PSP games I haven’t touched, and other pretty-good JRPGs like Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Blue Dragon - role-playing J-style can hardly be accused of being in any real danger.
Yet I still pine. I think it’s a combination of both rose-colored nostalgia and several excellent games released during quick succession during the Super Nintendo days. With games like Final Fantasy VI and Secret of Mana still living on in today’s gaming conversation, it’s easy to assume that sort of experience happened all the time on the SNES, as though new, convention-challenging JRPGs sprung up on retailer shelves like dandelions.
This notion was strengthened after Final Fantasy VII sold five quadrillion copies and developers started flooding the PlayStation market with JRPG after JRPG, trying to capture in a bottle the lightning Square used to electrify so many gamers. It was a bit like today’s glut of military FPS games chasing after Call of Duty‘s success, only with bigger hair, fewer sniper rifles, and far, far more ellipses.
It’s that prominence that JRPG fans like myself pine for. Yes, we get quality games like Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky and Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, but we want MORE! and we want them released front and center! No more being ghettoized to handhelds and curio-publishers like Xseed! Remember how they used to be everywhere? We want that!
Hate to be the one to say it, but that ain’t happening.
It ain’t happening because those sorts of games don’t move enough units in today’s gaming environment, and because the line between what is and isn’t an RPG is blurring like Damon Albarn*. It ain’t happening because the Japanese gaming scene isn’t as strong in America as it once was, and there’s no precedent for hugely successful JRPGs for developers to look to this generation. Mostly, I think, it ain’t happening because developers already *made* those games, and now they’re making something else. Granted, that something seems awfully like military-themed shooters, but bear with me.
Once we – we being those that stay awake at night hoping another Legend of Dragoon will drop out of the sky – realize that JRPGs have had their time in the sun, finding them becomes so much more joyful, like discovering a secret club. We can play them into the ground, because we are older, and though we do not have the time to play them as thoroughly as we once could, we can take our time and savor them without worrying that we’ll miss them in lieu of another JRPG coming out too soon. We can appreciate them for the unique, fun gaming snowflake they are. We can love them in spite of their scarcity – hell, for that, we can love them even more.
Quality JRPGs haven’t bitten the bullet yet, and The Last Story is just another stop along the way. With such a storied history in gaming, the JRPG will never truly die, not as long as there are still gamers who play them. Despite slowing in recent years (also, a few sub-par projects *coughTheLastRemnanthackcough*), JRPGs have been around and will continue to be around. As long as there are turn-based battles and princesses in disguise, JRPGs will be there for gamers.