What Actually Makes For A Good Old School RPG?

Octopath Traveler, a JRPG for Nintendo Switch.

Octopath Traveler is out now, critics are receiving it well, and it’s even doing well commercially, as Nintendo Switch owners wax nostalgic about Japanese RPGs and hail the coming of them to another Nintendo handheld. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the genre. Some of my favorite games are JRPGs, but it’s actually been some years since I’ve played one to completion.

The common criticisms some people levy at JRPGs might center on things like turn-based combat being obsolete, or shounen anime tropes, but my issues with them are a little more complex. There are games where those things will get on my nerves, but at the same time some of my favorite JRPGs feel very old and traditional. I think it’s less about specific features and more about a general feeling each game tries to impart upon players.

The closest things to JRPGs I’ve finished from this decade are the Dark Souls games, which many people don’t like to count because they have real-time combat and an art direction people arbitrarily describe as “western,” despite the games having many Japanese visual influences (like manga). Final Fantasy XIII might be the most recently released “traditional” JRPG I’ve finished, and I sort of forced my way through it around 2009 or 2010. In that time I have spent hundreds of hours, probably over 1000 hours collectively, on western RPGs like Mass EffectFalloutThe Witcher, and most recently Kingdom Come: Deliverance.

On the surface I would say that’s because these games’ emphasis on making everything real-time and seamless makes it easier to get absorbed in their massive worlds. That sounds like a dig at turn-based combat and 2D worlds, but I’ve tried games that convinced me I can still enjoy “old school” JRPGs… if they’re the right kind of “old school.”

I don’t like to drag FFXIII this much, but the widespread criticism of it is characteristic of what pushes me away from JRPGs sometimes. Its story is verbose, coining its own lexicon of confusing nouns and adjectives without actually saying a whole lot. The combat system in that game is good, but taking 30 hours to explain it is the extreme end of what I dread every time I start a new JRPG. The story and gameplay are both convoluted for the sake of trying to feel deep.

I tried out the recent demo for Octopath and I think it’s fine. The main characters’ origin stories are’t bad, I found one in particular pretty shocking for how it tackles certain subject matter. The mix between old-style character sprites, a 2.5D perspective, and modern lighting effects is an interesting look. I guess I just don’t have that gushing nostalgia for the specific kind of game Octopath wants to evoke — the 1994 Final Fantasy VI basically.

I’d never played Dragon Quest — the ur-JRPG, until I tried out Dragon Quest IX. That game mostly holds onto gameplay and stylistic tropes established in the 80’s, but I really enjoyed it for some reason, and want to get back to it. I think the reason is because within minutes of starting a new game I was already staring at a huge world map full of undiscovered locations. Yes it has turn-based combat, but the system is fast and easy to understand. If the other Dragon Quest games are like this, then it’s as if the franchise’s developers consistently resisted the temptation through the years to add florid cut scenes and other frills to create more “depth.” That looks like a supreme sense of confidence to me, probably borne from Dragon Quest’s decades-long absolute dominance of the RPG market in Japan.

The game that really piqued my JRPG nostalgia though was the first Ni No Kuni. It also tries to recreate the JRPG of the 80’s and 90’s, but more importantly renders it in fully modern graphics while generally not letting modern trends get in the way of its pace of play and exploration. Exploring Ni No Kuni’s world map feels just like exploring the world map of FFVI, except it looks like what FFVI wanted to look like but couldn’t because of the technological limitations of its time. Ni No Kuni recreates the classic JRPG not by recreating the classic JRPG but by getting closer to the vision the classic JRPG was trying to be.

This is actually how I feel about the Dark Souls games. Those games are totally unique from other RPGs in most ways: their combat, level design, and approach to storytelling. But Dark Souls treats players in a way very similar to action games and dungeon crawlers of the 80’s and 90’s, forcing them to hit the ground running and find their own ways to tackle monsters. The sense of mystery in each new environment in Dark Souls feels like exploring a new dungeon in those old school games.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may in fact contain almost everything I like about JRPGs (even though I don’t count it as an RPG). Its art direction is a realization of what classic JRPGs were trying to evoke, it hammers player curiosity in a way many old games did, and the game’s dynamic systems make for really deep gameplay.

Actually, the one major recent JRPG I do want to get back to is Persona 5. It contains just about everything I just said I didn’t like in JRPGs but works because it has well-written characters and dialogue, and conveys them in a way that feels more interactive than a bunch of cut scenes. Persona 5 also carries the Shin Megami Tensei combat system which, after 20-plus years of refinement, manages to have depth without being obtuse.

There’s a lot else I could put down here about what specific JRPGs I’ve liked in the past and which ones I’m looking forward to, but the general gist is I prefer RPGs that maintain a certain sense of wonder and don’t take too long to get going, no matter how modern or old-school they look.

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3 thoughts on “What Actually Makes For A Good Old School RPG?

  1. Chris James says:

    Think about JRPGs is they rarely advanced past the Wizardry/early (pre 4) Ultima stage of design. The answer to every problem is still combat (and tons of it), and that combat, outside of the tactical/strategy RPG subgenres, lacks things like movement and positioning, any kind of significant implementation of range/reach, etc. Your party is still abstracted as a ‘blob’ and combat is still conducted on a separate layer than exploration, i.e. you can’t separate off your thief to scout ahead, or your mage to torch a room of unwitting adversaries (a common approach I took in Baldur’s Gate 2). Little to no skill usage outside of battle. Overall lack of player agency.

    The way I see it, JRPGs have lived or died by their presentation/style and personality, and sometimes interesting combat gimmicks (combos, rhythm game elements, etc.). Very few complain that X-Com/Com are turn based, or Fire Emblem, or Divinity: OS2. We don’t remember Chrono Trigger or FF6 for [lack of] in depth role-playing mechanics, but their charm, colorful casts, lively storytelling, epic scenarios, things I’d say the majority of western made RPGs have lacked. The dream for many RPG fans has been the fusing of the best of Japanese and western sensibilities. Planescape: Torment was kind of a vision of this, but it’s combat was neither anywhere near as developed as XCom (tb) or Dragon’s Dogma (rt), and didn’t have the polish of mainstream JRPGs. Imagine Persona with Fallout (namely 2 and NV) quest design, skill checks, NPC interactions.

    • RedSwirl says:

      I think the main difference is JRPG developers don’t build upon each other as much because each of their games is its own specific set of rules, sort of like a tabletop mentality. Western RPG developers meanwhile kept trying to use technology to make worlds seem more “real,” a recent example being Kingdom Come.

      Another thing is, in the old days there was a lot of contact between JRPGs and CRPGs. Many CRPGs came out in Japanese back in the 80’s and early 90’s, but I think that contact broke off in the mid or late 90’s, which is when the two really diverged. It was around the time you got FF7 on the Japanese side and Fallout on the western side. I think contact was re-established with Oblivion, and the western influence in JRPGs is starting to pick up again.

      Dark Souls is an odd case — a distant cousin of the immersive sims if you trace its influences all the way back to Ultima Underworld.

  2. Machocruz says:

    *Thing about

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