How JRPG and Western RPG Genres Differ

With Christmas less than a week away, I want to talk about one of my favorite genres of video game: the RPG, or Role-Playing Game.  The holiday season always puts me in the mood for RPGs.  The childlike sense of wonder I feel during this time of year makes me crave the kind of exploration and mystery that only a deep fantasy RPG can provide.  But I got to thinking about what ‘RPG’ even means for a video game.  The discussion is everywhere from the forums of GameSpot to YouTube by people like Trailer Drake.  This is a hard question to answer, but I figured I’d give my two cents.

A statue of the man-god Talos from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. (Photo: Flickr)
A statue of the man-god Talos from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. (Photo: Flickr)

The way I see it, the main characteristic of an RPG is freedom of choice.  This is where the line is drawn in determining whether a game is an RPG or not.  Think about it, the RPG is one of the oldest genres of video game, but it didn’t start electronically.  It has its roots off the screen and on the tabletop with cultural phenomena like Dungeons and Dragons.  In these games, players would get together, create their own characters, and spell out their own fantastical adventures together.  It was literally a game of playing roles, and this tradition of crafting your own story has made it to the digital age.

As a contrast, look at games like Super Mario, or Sonic the Hedgehog, or even Battlefield.  These games are fun because each time you play is different and unpredictable.  But they essentially consist of lots of little experiences.  In each of the many matches, levels, stages, or what have you in games like these, there’s a set goal in mind.  Success is binary: you either win, or you don’t.  Winning is the end goal.

This isn’t a bad thing, of course.  Linear games are very fun provided they aren’t repetitive.  It’s just easy to look at something and know it’s an RPG.  These games have an entirely different flow.  They tend to take place in larger worlds of some sort, and goals are rarely obvious.  You can follow the “main story” or you can go build something, or fight something.  RPGs are worlds apart from reality.  Player agency is king.

If you try to go deeper than freedom of choice, though, things begin to diverge.  For example, consider two of the most popular RPGs of all time: Final Fantasy VII and Skyrim.   One might guess they’re similar — after all, they’re part of the same genre.  They both last for hundreds of hours.  But these games approach the same genre in two different ways.

These videos by the phenomenal YouTube channel Extra Credits lay it out pretty well.  They point out the same idea of an special divergence in the RPG genre.

Skyrim is experienced from an individual perspective.  It has a single, player-customized protagonist.  It contains many, many quests, with no particular need to complete any of them.  Completing the main story isn’t the end of the game, because there’s lots of other content.

 Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, is more story-oriented.  It has seven different protagonists, met over the course of this story.  Its overworld is explored differently, and combat has completely different mechanics.  Clearly there must be some reason for the difference, right?

As it so happens, there is a big difference.  The differences seen from one RPG to another almost always come down to region.

This is why we hear terms like “Western RPG” or “JRPG,” (J is for Japanese).  In fact, this is basically the only instance in which a genre of game has been divided by region.  That’s unheard of, but it has good reason.  The difference basically emerged because the west and the east came up with separate schemes for role-playing video games.  We ended up with different interpretations of the same idea.

Western companies like Bethesda Softworks, Mojang, and Blizzard have famously created games like Minecraft, Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, or World of Warcraft.  They have no clearly defined “goals,” but tend to focus more on exploration and questing.  The idea of “role-playing” is more broad, leaving more room for the whims of the player.

Japanese companies like Nintendo, Square Enix, and Monolith Soft, on the other hand, have seen series like Mother, Xenosaga/Xenoblade, or Final Fantasy.  These are more goal driven, and focus more on storytelling, often with many playable characters with certain specializations, and detailed management of stats.

Of course, these definitions are far from concrete.   We see a lot of overlap with MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) RPGs like WoW or Guild Wars that are largely unrestricted in terms of goals, but have myriad amounts of playstyles, equipment, weaponry, and so on.  There’s also the hit Nintendo Legend of Zelda series (a personal favorite) that blends playstyles.  It focuses on a single main protagonist and has equipment mostly for exploration, but also focuses on the completion of a main quest.

This kind of overlap makes perfect sense, because RPGs all have their roots in the Gygax-esque tabletop format.  Both involve decision making, encounters with enemies, and stat management.  Where they differ is in mechanics and style.

“Western” styles meet with a lot of popularity worldwide because they involve a very broad range of cultures.  They’re also more accessible in a lot of ways.  Combat is natural, leveling isn’t as crucial, and grinding is rarely necessary.  This isn’t to say that one type of RPG is better.  It’s just a testament to the point of this post: RPGs and JRPGs are different beasts.  This is why it’s interesting to see them interact.

The reason I bring up this whole question is that many people point at games like Zelda or Minecraft and say they aren’t “real” RPGs.  My argument is that the question of whether a given game is an RPG or not depends quite a bit on your point of view.  And in fact, I think it’s a good thing that RPGs come in all shapes and sizes.  “RPG” serves as a sort of banner for various different games from all over the world to unite under.  In my opinion, that’s just how it should be.

Why Shovel Knight in Smash Bros. is Still Possible

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Shovel Knight released in 2014 to immediate critical acclaim, and has since been featured on every major current-gen platform.

With Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS getting its final dedicated broadcast on December 15th, the game’s entire community, including myself, is convinced that it will focus on the Smash Ballot, a poll running through the summer and ending in October that let the fans vote for who they most wanted to see added to the game.  One of the most popular picks for this Ballot, as well as my first choice for a new character, is Shovel Knight, the main character of his eponymous game made by the small indie developer team Yacht Club Games.

Early on in the voting, Shovel Knight’s inclusion was almost a sure thing as he took the ballot by storm, but recently, we’ve been given indications that with the ballot’s close, there have been no movements toward Shovel Knight’s inclusion.  Now, although I fully acknowledge that my opinion may be biased towards hope for my man Shovel Knight, I genuinely feel like he still has a shot at being included.

First of all, people have discounted the possibility based on Yacht Club’s Twitter page, where seemingly every mention of the ballot by eager fans has been met with the tone of a gracious loser, with the company saying that they haven’t been contacted by Nintendo in any capacity.  I think this may have been true for a while, but I feel that at this point, it’s unlikely.  Yacht Club continues to make this same denial over and over, but this can’t be taken as concrete evidence because if indeed they were involved with Smash in any way, they would not make any suggestion of it on social media.  Total denial is the only true way for them to preserve the mystery, so I would not be surprised if Yacht Club ultimately chooses to say “Grass…I lied about the wheels.”

Secondly, Yacht Club would have a definite stake in Shovel Knight’s inclusion in Smash; not only are they constantly developing new downloadable quests for the original Shovel Knight game, they’re also developing the first ever third party amiibo figurine of Shovel Knight to be compatible with the game.  People were, of course, eager to find out if the amiibo had any compatibility with Smash Bros.  It didn’t, but since then, we’ve seen the amiibo delayed again and again – the North American release date has been moved to January 8th according to VineReport, with the excuse being things such as refining the prototype or ensuring ample supply.  I have no doubt that they are indeed developing the amiibo for the original game, and considering the tension over amiibo supply failing to keep up with demand, it’s understandable that they want to nip that issue in the bud.  However, the prototype is no indicator of the figute’s final capabilities – who’s to say they aren’t implementing compatibility with Smash Bros. software?  All things considered, I think this is perfectly likely.

I understand if anyone wants to disagree with me, but after Cloud Strife’s inclusion in the game, it’s about time for us as Smash fans to start singing Who Can Say Where the Road Goes.  There is very little room to draw conclusions about exclusion or inclusion of even the most improbable characters at this point.  Personally, I think an indie rep like Shovel Knight would mean incredible things both for Smash Bros. and for gaming in general, but I don’t know.  I just think it’s still a definite possibility.

Final Dedicated Super Smash Bros. 4 Broadcast Scheduled for December 15th

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, released in 2014.
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, released in 2014. (Photo: Flickr)

In an announcement from Nintendo, the final Nintendo Direct Broadcast dedicated specifically to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS has been revealed to be taking place on December 15th.  While this likely doesn’t mean the end of all new content and updates to the game, this will represent the last game-changing set of content added to it.

Reportedly, the major highlight of this broadcast will be more details on Cloud Strife, the main protagonist of Final Fantasy VII, who was recently revealed as the newest third-party addition to the game.  If you’ve seen Cloud’s reveal trailer, however, you can see that he appears mostly complete – every one of his moves was showed off, suggesting that development of the character is done, beyond possible debugging to prevent possible issues with downloads and online play.  Given this, I have zero doubt that we’ll be getting a release date for the character, and I’m betting it will be soon – possibly right after the Direct, if we’re lucky.  I do wonder, though, about the fact that Cloud is seemingly touted as one of the highlights of this Direct when there isn’t a whole lot left to talk about anymore –  it seems as though the two main possibilities are that Mr. Sakurai will take the opportunity to discuss Nintendo’s relationship with Square Enix, creators of Final Fantasy, which is apparently much better than we thought, or that there won’t be as much time spent on Cloud as we’re being led to believe.  Personally, I wouldn’t mind the latter possibility, because this will leave more time for the meat of the Direct – especially the new characters.

What we really can’t guess for sure is how many new characters will be revealed, although we can be sure that there won’t be none revealed.  My expectation is two, since detailed examinations of the game’s code by some talented data miners have shown three available unnamed character slots, one of which was presumably taken up by Cloud, leaving two wild cards.  Yet, plenty of rumors and speculations have gone around predicting everything from one new character to five, which goes to show how little is known for certain.

What we do have is a pool of characters who are most likely to be included – chances are that the top three candidates based on unofficial polling are Shovel Knight, the outbreak indie icon and star of his eponymous game that got its start on Nintendo consoles, Shantae, the half-genie hero of Nintendo handheld fame for the past decade, and King K. Rool, the oldest and most well-loved Donkey Kong villain.  Other names have been tossed around recently like Wolf O’Donnell, Super Smash Bros. Brawl veteran and Star Fox villain, Isaac from the Golden Sun series, Rayman from…well, Rayman, and Banjo-Kazooie from…well, you get the idea.  Whether or not a character is more or less likely to be included considering being from a third party is hard to say – third parties are often highly requested, but Nintendo has already said that popularity doesn’t guarantee inclusion – corporate barriers can still stand in the way of our wildest dreams at the end of the day.  Yet, with Cloud’s inclusion, many preconceptions about a certain addition being “possible” have gone out the window.  For me, I hope Shovel Knight and Shantae are our new stars of the show, but anything can happening, and I’ll be happy to see new faces in the mix.

Apart from these, there may be other major changes incoming – some fans have speculated about the possibility about the addition of an equivalent of the Subspace Emissary singleplayer campaign from Brawl, where characters from the game teamed up and/or butted heads through beautiful CGI cutscenes and a lengthy series of story missions.  Given the magnitude of such an undertaking, though, I wouldn’t expect something like this – if anything, I would expect a few more stages, probably brought in along with whatever fighters are revealed.
Whatever happens, the one thing I know is that I am extremely excited for Tuesday, and I’ll be right there with everyone watching at 5PM EST to see how the landscape of gaming changes that much more, compliments of the great Masahiro Sakurai and his merry band of developers.  To quote the great Desmond Amofah, better known as Etika of EWNetwork, let’s get ready to ride this hype train to the sun!