“Innovation is dead” is a common call you hear from the more jaded consumers nowadays, and there is some truth to the statement. Every genre of video game from the lowliest puzzle game to the might MMO is full of genre tropes. In reality, it is these tropes that help us to define the genre and it allows developers to create an identity for their game by mixing and matching tropes from various similar games. Post E3, there is often a dearth of news, so for the next couple of posts we are going to be talking about JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing games), not because they are heavily reported on in the media, but simply because I want to. JRPGs have taken some serious flak this generation, and, for the most part, the genre deserves it, not because they are outdated, but because few studios are willing to take chances on the genre as the price to create games has gone up considerably, and so have expectations. People have a certain image in their heads about JRPGs that is built around tropes. How often have you heard talk about spiky-haired heroes, massive swords, saving the world, and hypersexualized little girls (All of which only describes Final Fantasy VII by the way… well not the last one). For all the derision that JRPG tropes get, I think its time to look at some common ones and showcase how they are actually really good things.
|Don’t worry, I’m sure in the remake Cloud will be a 7 year old girl and complete the circle|
Last Dungeon First
Some games will have your characters or other characters like in Lufia and the Fortress of Doom, start out in the final dungeon without realizing it. This is an excellent way of opening a game. Firstly, you get all of the grandeur and excitement of a final dungeon which helps to hook players on the game before settling them into the smaller scale routine. Secondly, it creates immediate recognition at the end of the game. Circular design is praised because it works. Bringing the player back to the beginning at the end helps to give more closure and generate more catharsis. There are also some great variations on this trope. Some games, like Final Fantasy I have you go to the last dungeon at the beginning without realizing it, making what seemed like an insignificant dungeon much more important on subsequent playthroughs. Other games, like Breath of Fire 2, give you glimpses of the final dungeon in places like during the opening, and the player isn’t really in the position to appreciate this fact until much later. It is smart game design and something we should see more of.
|Good opening or best opening?|
This has got to be the most heavily criticized trope that is going to be on this list. It is common in JRPGs to run up against some major enemy and be wiped out entirely. This serves the purpose of showing your party how above you the monster or antagonist is. It is heavily criticized because it means that the battle your party in cannot be won so you should just suicide your characters, which ruins emersion. However, it serves a very useful purpose. What is worse than being totally destroyed by an enemy is destroying them completely, then being told in a cutscene that you are totally outmatched. This happens repeatedly against the antagonist of Final Fantasy XIII-2, and it gets old. Deride the convention all you want, but it works. Establishing that you are useless against an enemy early on is a great way of making a later battle seem like more of an achievement. It is true that you shouldn’t overdo this or it loses all significance like in Final Fantasy IX, but it can be used to great success, especial if done very early on against an opponent you wont face again until the end of the game.
|Breath of Fire 2 takes first bosses very seriously|
Most WRPGs (Western Role Playing Games) have a very set mythology in place going in. The vast majority of them basically use Dungeons and Dragons inspired worlds with all of the mythology that comes with it. This pretty much restricts it to European Mythology in a very bare sense. Fairies, goblins, trolls, and of course dragons are very much par for the course. Many JRPGs aren’t as limited, however. The Shin Megami Tensei meta series is based upon a major crossover of religion and mythology, but it isn’t limited to games that use it as a main game mechanic. The entire Final Fantasy series is full of mixed mythologies. Having weapons like the Masamune and Excalibur in the same game as a weapon called the Ragnarok, is commonplace for the Final Fantasy series. The reason that this is a good thing is that many WRPGs are far too limited by their over-reliance on European mythology. Generic fantasy RPGs are a dime a dozen nowadays and branching out with their mythology references would definitely help differentiate them. I mean, it is hard to be excited about dragons when I’ve killed millions of them in countless games.
|Not just for Arabs anymore|
Static Character Models
Whether you put him in Gold Armour or Leather Armour, Locke is going to look the same in Final Fantasy VI. Helmets won’t show up no matter how hard you try, and you better believe that you aren’t changing pants. JRPGs have always been criticized for this aspect and many JRPGs have gone the other way.. Nevertheless, static character models are a really good thing. One of the most important things for a developer to do in any game is to make the characters recognizable at a glance. Most games don’t have to worry about this as their characters will never get a change of clothes, but it is a serious concern in RPGs. Games like Dragon Age: Origins allow you to dress your party in identical clothes, removing any uniqueness of the character. While it not make any sense, giving each of your characters a constant set of clothing and armour allows for much better and recognizable character design. There is nothing worse than a bunch of anonymous characters all wearing the same generic thing.
|He’s wearing women’s underwear in like three of these.|
Yes, insanity is a trope. JRPGs are often criticized for being completely insane, but that is one of their greatest strengths. Uniqueness is at a premium and craziness will give you far better results in this category than playing it safe. In what game other than Earthbound can you “tame” a hippie with a baseball bat? What series has its entire bestiary made up of the cutest creatures ever like Dragon Quest? Even the most mundane JRPG is full of so much craziness that it is a testament to how popular the genre used to be that so many people don’t even notice the insanity anymore. In today’s gaming environment where most RPGs play it far too safe, I think that JRPG-style craziness should come back in a big way.
|Yeah, good luck with that|
I am not trying to incite some ridiculous JRPG vs. WRPG war, as both genres have so much to give to the industry. However, there are things that JRPGs do, even if they can be annoying, or make no sense, that are really smart decisions. Tropes are the identification markers for genres, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of overlap. Undefeatable bosses do not only exist in JRPGs, and they shouldn’t. Some of these tropes are what is considered “tired” and “out of date” about the JRPG genre, but, if anything, these tropes need to be held onto strongly if JRPGs are going to gain any re-acceptance into mainstream gaming.
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer