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The Roots of Japanese Strategy RPGs

The following piece is neither thorough nor polished. Essentially, over at Brad Hates Games, there was some discussion about the importance of Shining Force for the Japanese strategy RPG genre. I argued that Fire Emblem was more central (outside of the U.S., I mean, where Shining Force was one of the few games in the genre to get released), but I decided to look more into this. What are the roots of strategy RPGs? Why are they called "simulation" RPGs in Japan?

Here's what I've found!

First, if there was any question, I looked into Japanese sales figures for Fire Emblem versus Shining Force. Though I can't find -anything- about the first two Fire Emblem games' sales figures other than vague statements, Famitsu seems to put the third Fire Emblem game, for the Super Famicom, at about 700-750,000 sales in Japan. Shining Force 1-3 all see about 100-200,000 sales each. The clear winner here is Fire Emblem.

However, the truth is more complicated. It turns out that, while Fire Emblem was almost certainly central in the genre's early days, that it probably wasn't the key game for the genre. In order to get beyond simple sales figures, I decided to try to track the roots of influence for "major" games in the genre.

First off, since we're already talking about it, what about Shining Force? Shining Force’s creator Hiroyuki Takahashi seems to have played Fire Emblem but directly rejected it as a major inspiration. He criticized the game's pacing and cites the older real-time strategy game Silver Ghost as a more central influence on the strategy aspects. Perhaps more importantly, for the narrative I develop below, he essentially says that the goal was to clone Dragon Quest but make the battles more fun. On one hand, this seems absurd, as the two games seem to have much in common. In fact, of the first couple generations of strategy RPGs, I'd say Shining Force and Fire Emblem share more in terms of interface and basic setup than most other games in the genre. On the other, Shining Force does have some major differences with its peers. The ability to explore towns, for example, and the world map both set this game apart. In fact, neither option has ever really become standardized in the genre. This may add meaning to his claim to be copying Dragon Quest more than Fire Emblem.

In terms of other series, I've had some trouble tracking influences. I can't really find much for Disgaea or Vandal Hearts, for example. However, I have found some interesting information about Yasumi Matsuno's (creator of Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre/Final Fantasy Tactics) influences. Considering that Tactics Ogre (which is in the Japan's Top 10 Games of All Time according to Famitsu) and Final Fantasy Tactics are perhaps the two most important games in the genre, I think this is particularly notable. For his part, Matsuno also fails to cite Fire Emblem as an inspiration. He cites Master of Monsters, another early strategy with RPG elements. Interestingly enough, Master of Monsters is from SystemSoft, which also made Daisenryaku. For those unaware, Daisenryaku is an early Japanese computer wargame with a close attention to detail. It was central in the early days of Japanese wargaming, and the series still survives to this day. Why is this important? Well, not only did Matsuno directly cite Master of Monsters, which was sort of a fantasy Daisenryaku, as an influence, but Quest, the company he worked at, actually started by porting Daisenryaku to the Famicom. Needless to say, there's a strong connection between SystemSoft's work and Quest's own.

However, Daisenryaku's influence does not end there. It also served as a major.. *ahem* inspiration for one of Nintendo's own titles: Famicom Wars. If you aren't familiar with the series, you're probably familiar with its Game Boy Advance sub-series Advance Wars. Not only is this notable in its own right, but Famicom Wars developer Intelligent Systems (owned by Nintendo) would later take the Famicom Wars structure, add RPG elements and a fantasy setting and make... Fire Emblem.

There's more Daisenryaku's influence. The “10 unit” health standard established by Daisenryaku (and which was also used by Famicom Wars/Advance Wars and Military Madness/Nectaris) was also used by Langrisser, another prominent early simulation-RPG in Japan. This "10 unit" standard I refer to represents games where all units have 10 total hit points. The variance between units takes place in attack and defense values rather than hit points, and each hit point corresponds with a unit-within-a-unit. This means that, if your tank or soldier unit has 9 instead of 10 hit points, they can only inflict 9 damage maximum instead of 10. With this mechanic, the Langrisser games tend to feel closer to Famicom Wars and Military Madness than to the JRPGs of the era. For example, it's the only simulation game with RPG elements to keep this Daisenryaku-sourced 10 unit health standard. Fire Emblem, Master of Monsters, and the Ogre series all took a less standardized approach. This is probably because of Langrisser's use of both generic and non-generic RPG-like units. In any case, the fingerprints of Daisenryaku and the early simulation-RPGs are all over Langrisser, adding to Daisenryaku's importance. Langrisser also utilized the permanent death mechanic pioneered by Fire Emblem but that's neither here nor there.

In a weird way, the breakthrough game for the console fantasy strategy-RPG genre was not a console game, a fantasy, or an RPG. Daisenryaku influenced Famicom Wars and then Fire Emblem; Master of Monsters and then Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre, and Final Fantasy Tactics; and almost certainly played a direct or indirect role for Langrisser. From this perspective, I think I finally understand why strategy RPGs are often called “simulation” games in Japan: because they’re directly descended from, essentially, hardcore computer wargames.

For its part, Shining Force comes across, in some ways, as quite a bit different. It’s not really built on Daisenryaku in any but the most indirect way. You can explore towns, you have a world map, there’s more of an emphasis on RPG mechanics and tendencies, and terrain, IIRC, only effects mobility. In almost all of these other games, terrain directly impacts combat capability, which is almost certainly a holdover from the military sim sources of the genre. The only thing that tempers my view on this is that Fire Emblem Gaiden, the second game in the series, also had explorable towns and a world map. Oddly enough, Fire Emblem Gaiden came out the same week as Shining Force! However, that was basically seen as sacrilege among the Fire Emblem faithful, and town exploration has yet to return to Fire Emblem.

If anyone has additional information to add here, such as the influences of the creators of Disgaea or other prominent strategy RPGs/simulation RPGs, feel free to post. I'm particularly interested in direct quotes, although obvious mechanical similarities could be interesting as well. Also, if anyone disagrees with the story above or has more information on these series, please enter the conversation. I haven't exactly done a great or thorough job here, but I think what I've discovered is somewhat interesting.

Companies Discussed Above, Their Relevant Games, and Relevant Release Dates
SystemSoft: Daisenryaku (Genda Daisenryaku: 1985, Famicom Daisenryaku port by Quest: 1988), Master of Monsters (1991)
Enix: Dragon Quest (1986)
Intelligent Systems: Famicom Wars (1988), Fire Emblem (1990), Fire Emblem Gaiden (1992, same week as Shining Force I), Fire Emblem Monshō no Nazo (1994).
Quest: Famicom Daisenryaku port (1988), Ogre Battle (1993), Tactics Ogre (1995). Also, major talent associated with Quest went on to make Final Fantasy Tactics for Square in 1997.
CareerSoft: Langrisser (1991). They were also responsible for the older, related turn-based tactics series Elthlead (Original: 1988). However, that series is fairly different and not as obviously related to any other strategy or simulation series.
Climax Entertainment: Shining Force (1992), co-developed with Camelot Software Planning
Camelot Software Planning: Shining Force (1992, same week as Fire Emblem Gaiden), Shining Force II (1993), Shining Force III (1997)


Daisenryaku (Pictures actually of 1986's Daisenryaku 88)
Dragon Quest

Famicom Wars
Famicom Daisenryaku port

Fire Emblem


Shining Force I
Fire Emblem Gaiden
Shining Force II
Ogre Battle
Fire Emblem Monshō no Nazo

Tactics Ogre
Final Fantasy Tactics
Shining Force III

All pictures from MobyGames.
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About killias2one of us since 10:58 PM on 06.03.2008

Favorite Games:

Mega Man series (This includes the Original Sub-Series and the X Sub-Series. I have no interest in any of the EXE/Network games, and I have little experience with Zero and ZX. Zero and ZX seem cool, but I just haven't played them that much yet.)
Zelda series
Final Fantasy series (2j, 8, and 12 are terrible though. No interest in 11 or the Crystal Chronicles Sub-Series)
Starcraft (!) (stay tuned for SC2!)
Warcraft series (Yes I played WoW for a while, but I prefer the RTS's)
Super Mario series (this includes all the Mario side-games like Kart, Tennis, Smash Bros.)
Paradox Grand Strategy Series (Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron, Crusader Kings, VICTORIA, etc.)
Civilization series
Galactic Civilizations 2 (and expansions)
Total War series (I'm still divided on the last two though. They seemed so much more.. arcade-y than STW and MTW)
Street Fighter series (especially Street Fighter Alpha 3)
Castlevania series (but not the 3d ones.. they're all terrible)
Ninja Gaiden (The NES ones! The new ones are good too, though!)

Basically, I like strategy games, some fighting games, RPG's, and old school platformers. I like JRPG's less and less though. I play some FPS's, but I wouldn't say any of them are favorites of mine.

Other games I play often:
Devil May Cry series
Guilty Gear series
Time Crisis (I actually own TC 1, 2, 3, and Crisis Zone for the PS/PS2)
Shinobi series
God of War (Only played the first, but I'm guessing the others are sweet too)
Streets of Rage series (Where is a modern beat'em'up when you need one?)