If you love it, change it: JRPGs

[Editor’s note: naia-the-gamer takes a look at a genre that is very near and dear to her heart. Read on to see how Naia would change the JRPG genre as part of May’s Monthly Musings. — CTZ

This is hard for me. This editorial means that I am willing to admit it. It’s like admitting your children have flaws. However, this is necessary to write down and admit it: JRPGs need help. I love them dearly, and my fondest memories as a gamer stem from JRPGs of yore.

They are now at a turning point where they need to evolve or perish. Many gamers no longer have the patience to handle the quirks of JRPGs. The genre grows to become even more of a niche genre compared to the relative total of those who play videogames. How many people have played JRPGs that don’t have the words “Final” and “Fantasy” in them? I’ve thought long and hard about the games I love and come to terms with the obvious flaws present in the genre. I present my wish list of things that need to change to keep the life of the JRPG to thrive in today’s world. Read all about it after the jump.

Improve turn-based battles

Some people find turn-based battles to be cumbersome and monotonous. While I actually like them, there are ways they can make the mechanics more efficient for less patient players. The Dragon Quest series has implemented tactics the party members can default to and make their moves accordingly. A defensive tactic results in more status enhancing or healing techniques. Offensive tactics result in powerful techniques or spells. By making this method standard, it will allow players who don’t want to go through menus every turn.

Another option that worked extremely well was Phantasy Star IV with the use of Marcos. The player could hold a certain number of “macros” that plotted out which moves each character would use. The player picked exactly what skill or item each player used and saved it in a list. This was handy if a player favored certain skills that they used over and over. A click of one button allowed the players to execute many common moves without wasting time.

I took advantage of this frequently in PS IV. I’m actually disappointed that this hasn’t been implemented in more JRPGs. Anything that would allow players the option of shortening the time spent on picking moves would help attract players previously turned off. At the same time, those who want to take the time to plan out every move may still do so.

Random Battles

This is the subject of much debate among all gamers. Many old-school RPGs have excessive random encounter rates. While I had the patience when I was twelve, I no longer have the patience nor the time at twenty-seven. However some modern games have come up with a few ways to fix the problem. What needs to happen next is to identify what those are, and make sure they are implemented in every JRPG.

The first solution is to make the enemies themselves be present on the screen. Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker, and even Blue Dragon did this. Other titles like Earthbound had the enemies react to you differently depending on how strong the characters were. Once their levels excelled beyond the enemies, they ran for the hills. It made it much easier to avoid the simple monsters when having to backtrack places. This solution works well because the player gets to see what he or she is fighting in advanced and adds immersion to the game.

A second solution that has been a staple in the Wild Arms series is the use of a counter system. When an enemy approaches a white exclamation point appears over the heads of the player. Wait a second or two and the battle commences. Don’t want to fight? Press the cancel button and the counter rate goes down. The player is given a certain number of times they can skip the battle before they are forced to fight. As the players get stronger the exclamation point will be green and won’t count against the counter level. This way the player can avoid weak enemies and manage the rate of battles against normal opponents. Despite the occasional unavoidable surprise attack (red exclamation point) this method is great for dealing with enemies without having to deal with battles every five steps. Plus as the game progresses the player can find ways to increase the gauge so the player can avoid more battles over time.

Enough with the clichés

This one is tough because some clichés are unavoidable, due to the nature of the limited types of storytelling that exist. However, it seems like many JRPGs (nowadays the more mediocre ones) suffer from the same kinds of plot devices or character archetypes. While they don’t need to be completely different, (not every game can be BioShock) some variety on the old plot devices would be welcome. Here are some examples of clichés, plot devices and characters, along with examples that I would like to see tweaked:

Brooding Hero: He’s got no memory of his past, the girls love him, and he likes to whine. Example: too many Square Enix games from the last ten years

Stereotypical Empire: The empire is always corrupt, divided into two sections, which always have the poor people planning a rebellion. Examples: Skies of Arcadia, FFVI, FFVII, Saga II and Final Fantasy Legend II.

Waif-female: She’s usually a magic user, may have gotten kidnapped and is ALWAYS in love with the hero. Why can’t she love one of the supporting characters? Or maybe she could be a lesbian? Examples: Skies of Arcadia, Chrono Trigger, FF IV- infinity, Phantasy Star II-IV, All of the Legend of Heroes games.

Gotta catch them all: Ever notice the prophets predict something catastrophic will happen when X number of Y item is brought together, but it is meant to be? Otherwise the bad guys will steal it for the power. Example: Every Zelda game (I know they’re not JRPGs), Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker, every Final Fantasy game that involved crystals, Enchanted Arms.

Romance: Awww young love. Why do JRPGs have to pair everyone up? Does saving the world make everyone so horny? How come they never break up either? Example: Half the Final Fantasies, Wild Arms II, Wild Arms IV, Skies of Arcadia, every game in the Lufia series, Chrono Trigger, Suikoden II, Blue Dragon (Zola was sooo much cooler than Kluke. I don’t get it).

Some of the examples I listed above are unavoidable, but could at least diverge from the tried and true formula. What if the bad buys already got X number of Y item and the mission for the player is to steal them back? What if the “waify female” was a mercenary who took shit from nobody? What if the hero would stop whining all the time?

Some aspects of plot, gameplay and character development are what make a JRPG after all, a JRPG. I wouldn’t want to see a complete overhaul of the genre by any stretch of the imagination. The problem is that not much has changed in the last ten years. I love 2D platformers, but I can appreciate the importance of taking the next step to 3D. If anything, it helps the continuing evolution of what 2D platformers have done today.

The same rings true with JRPGs. The same methods of strategy can still exist but in a more efficient and streamlined way. More options should be given to the player to customize his of her experience in how in depth they want the battles to be. The same stories aren’t bad, but they could use an update. Spice up some of the clichés I mentioned to make them more modern and more creative! Something that has revitalized genres in the past has been to combine aspects of one genre with another. Why not add some features present in Platformers or Fist Person Shooters? If it fits in the spirit of the game and isn’t forced it could be a nice addition.

I close with one final additional thought on the improvement of JRPGs. Stop hiring terrible voice actors. Disney got it right with Kingdom Hearts. Why can’t the rest of you? Keep the original Japanese voice acting or no voice acting at all. Videogames are more mainstream than ever, convince real actors your games are worth it!

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