Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 1: Dorakue!

17 Nov

Fair warning: this article includes some plot spoilers of Final Fantasy I through VI.

The videogame industry has always run on hype, but the amount of it that surrounded Final Fantasy VII in 1997 was unparalleled in its time. This new game for the Sony PlayStation console was simply inescapable. The American marketing teams of Sony and Square Corporation, the game’s Japanese developer and publisher, had been given $30 million with which to elevate Final Fantasy VII to the same status as the Super Marios of the world. They plastered Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Sephiroth, and the game’s other soon-to-be-iconic characters onto urban billboards, onto the sides of buses, and into the pages of glossy magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Spin. Commercials for the game aired round the clock on MTV, during NFL games and Saturday Night Live, even on giant cinema screens in lieu of more traditional coming-attractions trailers. “They said it couldn’t be done in a major motion picture,” the stentorian announcer intoned. “They were right!” Even if you didn’t care a whit about videogames, you couldn’t avoid knowing that something pretty big was going down in that space.

And if you did care… oh, boy. The staffs of the videogame magazines, hardly known for their sober-mindedness in normal times, worked themselves up to positively orgasmic heights under Square’s not-so-gentle prodding. GameFan told its readers that Final Fantasy VII would be “unquestionably the greatest entertainment product ever created.”

The game is ridiculously beautiful. Analyze five minutes of gameplay in Final Fantasy VII and witness more artistic prowess than most entire games have. The level of detail is absolutely astounding. These graphics are impossible to describe; no words are great enough. Both map and battle graphics are rendered to a level of detail completely unprecedented in the videogame world. Before Final Fantasy VII, I couldn’t have imagined a game looking like this for many years, and that’s no exaggeration. One look at a cut scene or call spell should handily convince you. Final Fantasy VII looks so consistently great that you’ll quickly become numb to the power. Only upon playing another game will you once again realize just how fantastic it is.

But graphics weren’t all that the game had going for it. In fact, they weren’t even the aspect that would come to most indelibly define it for most of its players. No… that thing was, for the very first time in a mainstream console-based videogame with serious aspirations of becoming the toppermost of the poppermost, the story.

I don’t have any room to go into the details, but rest assured that Final Fantasy VII possesses the deepest, most involved story line ever in an RPG. There’s few games that have literally caused my jaw to drop at plot revelations, and I’m most pleased to say that Final Fantasy VII doles out these shocking, unguessable twists with regularity. You are constantly motivated to solve the latest mystery.

So, the hype rolled downhill, from Square at the top to the mass media, then on to the hardcore gamer magazines to ordinary owners of PlayStations. You would have to have been an iconoclastic PlayStation owner indeed not to be shivering with anticipation as the weeks counted down toward the game’s September 7 release. (Owners of other consoles could eat their hearts out; Final Fantasy VII was a PlayStation exclusive.)

Just last year, a member of an Internet gaming forum still fondly recalled how

the lead-up for the US launch of this game was absolutely insane, and, speaking personally, it is the most excited about a game I think I had ever been in my life, and nothing has come close since then. I was only fifteen at the time, and this game totally overtook all my thoughts and imagination. I had never even played a Final Fantasy game before, and I didn’t even like RPGs, yet I would spend hours reading and rereading all the articles from all the gaming magazines I had, inspecting all the screenshots and being absolutely blown away at the visual fidelity I was witnessing. I spent multiple days/hours with my Sony Discman listening to music and drawing the same artwork that was in all the mags. It was literally a genre- and generation-defining game.

Those who preferred to do their gaming on personal computers rather than consoles might be excused for scoffing at all these breathless commentators who seemed to presume that Final Fantasy VII was doing something that had never been done before. If you spent your days playing Quake, Final Fantasy VII‘s battle graphics probably weren’t going to impress you overmuch; if you knew, say, Toonstruck, even the cut scenes might strike you as pretty crude. And then, too, computer-based adventure games and RPGs had been delivering well-developed long-form interactive narratives for many years by 1997, most recently with a decidedly cinematic bent more often than not, with voice actors in place of Final Fantasy VII‘s endless text boxes. Wasn’t Final Fantasy VII just a case of console gamers belatedly catching on to something computer gamers had known all along, and being forced to do so in a technically inferior fashion at that?

Well, yes and no. It’s abundantly true that much of what struck so many as so revelatory about Final Fantasy VII really wasn’t anywhere near as novel as they thought it was. At the same time, though, the aesthetic and design philosophies which it applied to the abstract idea of the RPG truly were dramatically different from the set of approaches favored by Western studios. They were so different, in fact, that the RPG genre in general would be forever bifurcated in gamers’ minds going forward, as the notion of the “JRPG” — the Japanese RPG — entered the gaming lexicon. In time, the label would be applied to games that didn’t actually come from Japan at all, but that evinced the set of styles and approaches so irrevocably cemented in the Western consciousness under the label of “Japanese” by Final Fantasy VII.

We might draw a parallel with what happened in music in the 1960s. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and all the other Limey bands who mounted the so-called “British Invasion” of their former Colonies in 1964 had all spent their adolescence steeped in American rock and roll. They took those influences, applied their own British twist to them, then sold them back to American teenagers, who screamed and fainted in the concert halls like Final Fantasy VII fans later would in the pages of the gaming magazines, convinced that the rapture they were feeling was brought on by something genuinely new under the sun — which in the aggregate it was, of course. It took the Japanese to teach Americans how thrilling and accessible — even how emotionally moving — the gaming genre they had invented could truly be.

The roots of the JRPG can be traced back not just to the United States but to a very specific place and time there: to the American Midwest in the early 1970s, where and when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, a pair of stolid grognards who would have been utterly nonplussed by the emotional histrionics of a Final Fantasy VII, created a “single-unit wargame” called Dungeons & Dragons. I wrote quite some years ago on this site that their game’s “impact on the culture at large has been, for better or for worse, greater than that of any single novel, film, or piece of music to appear during its lifetime.” I almost want to dismiss those words now as the naïve hyperbole of a younger self. But the thing is, I can’t; I have no choice but to stand by them. Dungeons & Dragons really was that earthshaking, not only in the obvious ways — it’s hard to imagine the post-millennial craze for fantasy in mass media, from the Lord of the Rings films to Game of Thrones, ever taking hold without it — but also in subtler yet ultimately more important ones, in the way it changed the role we play in our entertainments from that of passive spectators to active co-creators, making interactivity the watchword of an entire age of media.

The early popularity of Dungeons & Dragons coincided with the rise of accessible computing, and this proved a potent combination. Fans of the game with access to PLATO, a groundbreaking online community rooted in American universities, moved it as best they could onto computers, yielding the world’s first recognizable CRPGs. Then a couple of PLATO users named Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg made a game of this type for the Apple II personal computer in 1981, calling it Wizardry. Meanwhile Richard Garriott was making Ultima, a different take on the same broad concept of “Dungeons & Dragons on a personal computer.”

By the time Final Fantasy VII stormed the gates of the American market so triumphantly in 1997, the cultures of gaming in the United States and Japan had diverged so markedly that one could almost believe they had never had much of anything to do with one another. Yet in these earliest days of digital gaming — long before the likes of the Nintendo Entertainment System, when Japanese games meant only coin-op arcade hits like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong in the minds of most Americans — there was in fact considerable cross-pollination. For Japan was the second place in the world after North America where reasonably usable, pre-assembled, consumer-grade personal computers could be readily purchased; the Japanese Sharp MZ80K and Hitachi MB-6880 trailed the American Trinity of 1977 — the Radio Shack TRS-80, Apple II, and Commodore PET — by less than a year. If these two formative cultures of computing didn’t talk to one another, whom else could they talk to?

Thus pioneering American games publishers like Sierra On-Line and Brøderbund forged links with counterparts in Japan. A Japanese company known as Starcraft became the world’s first gaming localizer, specializing in porting American games to Japanese computers and translating their text into Japanese for the domestic market. As late as the summer of 1985, Roe R. Adams III could write in Computer Gaming World that Sierra’s sprawling twelve-disk-side adventure game Time Zone, long since written off at home as a misbegotten white elephant, “is still high on the charts after three years” in Japan. Brøderbund’s platformer Lode Runner was even bigger, having swum like a salmon upstream in Japan, being ported from home computers to coin-op arcade machines rather than the usual reverse. It had even spawned the world’s first e-sports league, whose matches were shown on Japanese television.

At that time, the first Wizardry game and the second and third Ultima had only recently been translated and released in Japan. And yet if Adams was to be believed,[1]Adams was not an entirely disinterested observer. He was already working with Robert Woodhead on Wizardry IV, and had in fact accompanied him to Japan in this capacity. both games already

have huge followings. The computer magazines cover Lord British [Richard Garriott’s nom de plume] like our National Inquirer would cover a television star. When Robert Woodhead of Wizardry fame was recently in Japan, he was practically mobbed by autograph seekers. Just introducing himself in a computer store would start a near-stampede as people would run outside to shout that he was inside.

Robert Woodhead with Japanese Wizardry fans.

The Wizardry and Ultima pump had been primed in Japan by a game called The Black Onyx, created the year before in their image for the Japanese market by an American named Henk Rogers.[2]A man with an international perspective if ever there was one, Rogers would later go on to fame and fortune as the man who brought Tetris out of the Soviet Union. But his game was quickly eclipsed by the real deals that came directly out of the United States.

Wizardry in particular became a smashing success in Japan, even as a rather lackadaisical attitude toward formal and audiovisual innovation on the part of its masterminds was already condemning it to also-ran status against Ultima and its ilk in the United States. It undoubtedly helped that Wizardry was published in Japan by ASCII Corporation, that country’s nearest equivalent to Microsoft, with heaps of marketing clout and distributional muscle to bring to bear on any challenge. So, while the Wizardry series that American gamers knew petered out in somewhat anticlimactic fashion in the early 1990s after seven games,[3]It would be briefly revived for one final game, the appropriately named Wizardry 8, in 2001. it spawned close to a dozen Japanese-exclusive titles later in that decade alone, plus many more after the millennium, such that the franchise remains to this day far better known by everyday gamers in Japan than it is in the United States. Robert Woodhead himself spent two years in Japan in the early 1990s working on what would have been a Wizardry MMORPG, if it hadn’t proved to be just too big a mouthful for the hardware and telecommunications infrastructure at his disposal.

Box art helps to demonstrate Wizardry‘s uncanny legacy in Japan. Here we see the original 1981 American release of the first game.

And here we have a Japan-only Wizardry from a decade later, self-consciously echoing a foreboding, austere aesthetic that had become more iconic in Japan than it had ever been in its home country. (American Wizardry boxes from the period look nothing like this, being illustrated in a more conventional, colorful epic-fantasy style.)

Much of the story of such cultural exchanges inevitably becomes a tale of translation. In its original incarnation, the first Wizardry game had had the merest wisp of a plot. In this as in all other respects it was a classic hack-and-slash dungeon crawler: work your way down through ten dungeon levels and kill the evil wizard, finito. What background context there was tended to be tongue-in-cheek, more Piers Anthony than J.R.R. Tolkien; the most desirable sword in the game was called the “Blade of Cuisinart,” for Pete’s sake. Wizardry‘s Japanese translators, however, took it all in with wide-eyed earnestness, missing the winking and nodding entirely. They saw a rather grim, austere milieu a million miles away from the game that Americans knew — a place where a Cuisinart wasn’t a stainless-steel food processor but a portentous ancient warrior clan.

When the Japanese started to make their own Wizardry games, they continued in this direction, to almost hilarious effect if one knew the source material behind their efforts; it rather smacks of the post-apocalyptic monks in A Canticle for Liebowitz making a theology for themselves out of the ephemeral advertising copy of their pre-apocalyptic forebears. A franchise that had in its first several American releases aspired to be about nothing more than killing monsters for loot — and many of them aggressively silly monsters at that — gave birth to audio CDs full of po-faced stories and lore, anime films and manga books, a sprawling line of toys and miniature figures, even a complete tabletop RPG system. But, lest we Westerners begin to feel too smug about all this, know that the same process would eventually come to work in reverse in the JRPG field, with nuanced Japanese writing being flattened out and flat-out misunderstood by clueless American translators.

The history of Wizardry in Japan is fascinating by dint of its sheer unlikeliness, but the game’s importance on the global stage actually stems more from the Japanese games it influenced than from the ones that bore the Wizardry name right there on the box. For Wizardry, along with the early Ultima games, happened to catch the attention of Koichi Nakamura and Yuji Horii, a software-development duo who had already made several games together for a Japanese publisher called Enix. “Horii-san was really into Ultima, and I was really into Wizardry,” remembers Nakamura. This made sense. Nakamura was the programmer of the pair, naturally attracted to Wizardry‘s emphasis on tactics and systems. Horii, on the other hand, was the storytelling type, who wrote for manga magazines in addition to games, and was thus drawn to Ultima‘s quirkier, more sprawling world and its spirit of open-ended exploration. The pair decided to make their own RPG for the Japanese market, combining what they each saw as the best parts of Wizardry and Ultima.

Yuji Horii in the 1980s. Little known outside his home country, he is a celebrity inside its borders. In his book on Japanese videogame culture, Chris Kohler calls him a Steven Spielberg-like figure there, in terms both of name recognition and the style of entertainment he represents.

This was interesting, but not revolutionary in itself; you’ll remember that Henk Rogers had already done essentially the same thing in Japan with The Black Onyx before Wizardry and Ultima ever officially arrived there. Nevertheless, the choices Nakamura and Horii made as they set about their task give them a better claim to the title of revolutionaries on this front than Rogers enjoys. They decided that making a game that combined the best of Wizardry and Ultima really did mean just that: it did not mean, that is to say, throwing together every feature of each which they could pack in and calling it a day, as many a Western developer might have. They decided to make a game that was simpler than either of its inspirations, much less the two of them together.

Their reasons for doing so were artistic, commercial, and technical. In the realm of the first, Horii in particular just didn’t like overly complicated games; he was the kind of player who would prefer never to have to glance at a manual, whose ideal game intuitively communicated to you everything you needed to know in order to play it. In the realm of the second, the pair was sure that the average Japanese person, like the average person in most countries, felt the same as Horii; even in the United States, Ultima and Wizardry were niche products, and Nakamura and Horii had mass-market ambitions. And in the realm of the third, they were sharply limited in how much they could put into their RPG anyway, because they intended it for the Nintendo Famicom console, where their entire game — code, data, graphics, and sound — would have to fit onto a 64 K cartridge in lieu of floppy disks and would have to be steerable using an eight-button controller in lieu of a keyboard. Luckily, Nakamura and Horii already had experience with just this sort of simplification. Their most recent output had been inspired by the adventure games of American companies like Sierra and Infocom, but had replaced those games’ text parsers with controller-friendly multiple-choice menus.

In deciding to put American RPGs through the same wringer, they established one of the core attributes of the JRPG sub-genre: generally speaking, these games were and would remain simpler than their Western counterparts, which sometimes seemed to positively revel in their complexity as a badge of honor. Another attribute emerged fully-formed from the writerly heart of Yuji Horii. He crafted an unusually rich, largely linear plot for the game. Rather than being a disadvantage, he thought linearity would make this new style of console game “more accessible to consumers”: “We really focused on ensuring people would be able to experience the fun of the story.”

He called upon his friends at the manga magazines to help him illustrate his tale with large, colorful figures in that distinctly Japanese style that has become so immediately recognizable all over the world. At this stage, it was perhaps more prevalent on the box than in the game itself, the Famicom’s graphical fidelity being what it was. Nonetheless, another precedent that has held true in JRPGs right down to the present day was set by the overall visual aesthetic of this, the canonical first example of the breed. Ditto its audio aesthetic, which took the form of a memorable, melodic, eminently hummable chip-tune soundtrack. “From the very beginning, we wanted to create a warm, inviting world,” says Horii.

Dragon Quest. Ultima veterans will almost expect to meet Lord British on his throne somewhere. With its overhead view and its large over-world full of towns to be visited, Dragon Quest owed even more to Ultima than it did to Wizardry — unsurprisingly so, given that the former was the American RPG which its chief creative architect Yuji Horii preferred.

Dragon Quest was released on May 27, 1986. Console gamers — not only those in Japan, but anywhere on the globe — had never seen anything like it. Playing this game to the end was a long-form endeavor that could stretch out over weeks or months; you wrote down an alphanumeric code it provided to you on exit, then entered this code when you returned to the game in order to jump back to wherever you had left off.

That said, the fact that the entire game state could be packed into a handful of numbers and letters does serve to illustrate just how simple Dragon Quest really was at bottom. By the standards of only a few years later, much less today, it was pretty boring. Fighting random monsters wasn’t so much a distraction from the rest of the game as the only thing available to do; the grinding was the game. In 2012, critic Nick Simberg wondered at “how willing we were to sit down on the couch and fight the same ten enemies over and over for hours, just building up gold and experience points”; he compared Dragon Quest to “a child’s first crayon drawing, stuck with a magnet to the fridge.”

And yet, as the saying goes, you have to start somewhere. Japanese gamers were amazed and entranced, buying 1 million copies of Dragon Quest in its first six months, over 2 million copies in all. And so a new sub-genre was born, inspired by American games but indelibly Japanese in a way The Black Onyx had not been. Many or most of the people who played and enjoyed Dragon Quest had never even heard of its original wellspring Dungeons & Dragons.

We all know what happens when a game becomes a hit on the scale of Dragon Quest. There were sequels — two within two years of the first game, then three more in the eight years after them, as the demands of higher production values slowed down Enix’s pace a bit. Wizardry was big in Japan, but it was nothing compared to Dragon Quest, which sold 2.4 million copies in its second incarnation, followed by an extraordinary 3.8 million copies in its third. Middle managers and schoolmasters alike learned to dread the release of a new entry in the franchise, as about half the population of Japan under a certain age would invariably call in sick that day. When Enix started bringing out the latest games on non-business days, a widespread urban legend said this had been done in accordance with a decree from the Japanese Diet, which demanded that “henceforth Dragon Quest games are to be released on Sunday or national holidays only”; the urban legend wasn’t true, but the fact that so many people in Japan could so easily believe it says something in itself. Just as the early American game Adventure lent its name to an entire genre that followed it, the Japanese portmanteau word for “Dragon Quest” — Dorakue — became synonymous with the RPG in general there, such that when you told someone you were “playing dorakue” you might really be playing one of the series’s countless imitators.

Giving any remotely complete overview of these dorakue games would require dozens of articles, along with someone to write them who knows far more about them than I do. But one name is inescapable in the field. I refer, of course, to Final Fantasy.

Hironobu Sakaguchi in 1991.

Legend has it that Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, chose that name because he thought that the first entry in the eventual franchise would be the last videogame he ever made. A former professional musician with numerous and diverse interests, Sakaguchi had been working for the Japanese software developer and publisher Square for a few years already by 1987, designing and programming Famicom action games that he himself found rather banal and that weren’t even selling all that well. He felt ready to do something else with his life, was poised to go back to university to try to figure out what that thing ought to be. But before he did so, he wanted to try something completely different at Square.

Another, less dramatic but probably more accurate version of the origin story has it that Sakaguchi simply liked the way the words “final’ and “fantasy” sounded together. At any rate, he convinced his managers to give him half a dozen assistants and six months to make a dorakue game.[4]In another unexpected link between East and West, one of his most important assistants became Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian who had fled his country’s revolution for the United States in 1979 and become a game-programming rock star on the Apple II. After the heyday of the lone-wolf bedroom auteur began to fade there, Doug Carlston, the head of Brøderbund, brokered a job for him with his friends in Japan. There he maximized the Famicom’s potential in the same way he had that of the Apple II, despite not speaking a word of Japanese when he arrived. (“We’d go to a restaurant and no matter what he’d order — spaghetti or eggs — they’d always bring out steak,” Sakaguchi laughs.) Gebelli would program the first three Final Fantasy games almost all by himself.


Final Fantasy I.

The very first Final Fantasy may not have looked all that different from Dragon Quest at first glance — it was still a Famicom game, after all, with all the audiovisual limitations that implies — but it had a story line that was more thematically thorny and logistically twisted than anything Yuji Horii might have come up with. As it began, you found yourself in the midst of a quest to save a princess from an evil knight, which certainly sounded typical enough to anyone who had ever played a dorakue game before. In this case, however, you completed that task within an hour, only to learn that it was just a prologue to the real plot. In his book-length history and study of the aesthetics of Japanese videogames, Chris Kohler detects an implicit message here: “Final Fantasy is about much more than saving the princess. Compared to the adventure that is about to take place, saving a princess is merely child’s play.” In fact, only after the prologue was complete did the opening credits finally roll, thus displaying another consistent quality of Final Fantasy: its love of unabashedly cinematic drama.

Still, for all that it was more narratively ambitious than what had come before, the first Final Fantasy can, like the first Dragon Quest, seem a stunted creation today. Technical limitations meant that you still spent 95 percent of your time just grinding for experience. “Final Fantasy may have helped build the genre, but it didn’t necessarily know exactly how to make it fun,” acknowledges Aidan Moher in his book about JRPGs. And yet when it came to dorakue games in the late 1980s, it seemed that Sakaguchi’s countrymen were happy to reward even the potential for eventual fun. They made Final Fantasy the solid commercial success that had heretofore hovered so frustratingly out of reach of its creator; it sold 400,000 copies. Assured that he would never have to work on a mindless action game again, Sakaguchi agreed to stay on at Square to build upon its template.

Final Fantasy II, which was released exactly one year after the first game in December of 1988 and promptly doubled its sales, added more essential pieces to what would become the franchise’s template. Although labelled and marketed as a sequel, its setting, characters, and plot had no relation to what had come before. Going forward, it would remain a consistent point of pride with Sakaguchi to come up with each new Final Fantasy from whole cloth, even when fans begged him for a reunion with their favorite places and people. In a world afflicted with the sequelitis that ours is, he can only be commended for sticking to his guns.

In another sense, though, Final Fantasy II was notable for abandoning a blank slate rather than embracing it. For the first time, its players were given a pre-made party full of pre-made personalities to guide rather than being allowed to roll their own. Although they could rename the characters if they were absolutely determined to do so — this ability would be retained as a sort of vestigial feature as late as Final Fantasy VII — they were otherwise set in stone, the better to serve the needs of the set-piece story Sakaguchi wanted to tell. This approach, which many players of Western RPGs did and still do regard as a betrayal of one of the core promises of the genre, would become commonplace in JRPGs. Few contrasts illustrate so perfectly the growing divide between these two visions of the RPG: the one open-ended and player-driven, sometimes to a fault; the other tightly scripted and story-driven, again sometimes to a fault. In a Western RPG, you write a story for yourself; in a JRPG, you live a story that someone else has already written for you.

Consider, for example, the two lineage’s handling of mortality. If one of your characters dies in battle in a Western RPG, it might be difficult and expensive, or in some cases impossible, to restore her to life; in this case, you either revert to an earlier saved state or you just accept her death as another part of the story you’re writing and move on to the next chapter with an appropriately heavy heart. In a JRPG, on the other hand, death in battle is never final; it’s almost always easy to bring a character who gets beat down to zero hit points back to life. What are truly fatal, however, are pre-scripted deaths, the ones the writers have deemed necessary for storytelling purposes. Final Fantasy II already contained the first of these; years later, Final Fantasy VII would be host to the most famous of them all, a death so shocking that you just have to call it that scene and everyone who has ever played the game will immediately know what you’re talking about. To steal a phrase from Graham Nelson, the narrative always trumps the crossword in JRPGs; they happily override their gameplay mechanics whenever the story they wish to tell demands it, creating an artistic and systemic discontinuity that’s enough to make Aristotle roll over in his grave. Yet a huge global audience of players are not bothered at all by it — not if the story is good enough.

But we’ve gotten somewhat ahead of ourselves; the evolution of the 1980s JRPG toward the modern-day template came in fits and starts rather than a linear progression. Final Fantasy III, which was released in 1990, actually returned to a player-generated party, and yet the market failed to punish it for its conservatism. Far from it: it sold 1.4 million copies.

Final Fantasy IV, on the other hand, chose to double down on the innovations Final Fantasy II had deployed, and sold in about the same numbers as Final Fantasy III. Released in July of 1991, it provided you with not just a single pre-made party but an array of characters who moved in and out of your control as the needs of the plot dictated, thereby setting yet another longstanding precedent for the series going forward. Ditto the nature of the plot, which leaned into shades of gray as never before. Chris Kohler:

The story deals with mature themes and complex characters. In Final Fantasy II, the squeaky-clean main characters were attacked by purely evil dark knights; here, our main character is a dark knight struggling with his position, paid to kill innocents, trying to reconcile loyalty to his kingdom with his sense of right and wrong. He is involved in a sexual relationship. His final mission for the king turns out to be a mass murder: the “phantom monsters” are really just a town of peaceful humans whose magic the corrupt king has deemed dangerous. (Note the heavy political overtones.)

Among Western RPGs, only the more recent Ultima games had dared to deviate so markedly from the absolute-good-versus-absolute-evil tales of everyday heroic fantasy. (In fact, the plot of Final Fantasy IV bears a lot of similarities to that of Ultima V…)

Ever since Final Fantasy IV, the series has been filled with an inordinate number of moody young James Deans and long-suffering Natalie Woods who love them.

Final Fantasy IV was also notable for introducing an “active-time battle system,” a hybrid between the turn-based systems the series had previously employed and real-time combat, designed to provide some of the excitement of the latter without completely sacrificing the tactical affordances of the former. (In a nutshell, if you spend too long deciding what to do when it’s your turn, the enemies will jump in and take another turn of their own while you dilly-dally.) It too would remain a staple of the franchise for many installments to come.

Final Fantasy V, which was released in December of 1992, was like Final Fantasy III something of a placeholder or even a retrenchment, dialing back on several of the fourth game’s innovations. It sold almost 2.5 million copies.

Both the fourth and fifth games had been made for the Super Famicom, Nintendo’s 16-bit successor to its first console, and sported correspondingly improved production values. But most JRPG fans agree that it was with the sixth game — the last for the Super Famicom — that all the pieces finally came together into a truly friction-less whole. Indeed, a substantial and vocal minority will tell you that Final Fantasy VI rather than its immediate successor is the best Final Fantasy ever, balanced perfectly between where the series had been and where it was going.

Final Fantasy VI abandoned conventional epic-fantasy settings for a steampunk milieu out of Jules Verne. As we’ll see in a later article, Final Fantasy VII‘s setting would deviate even more from the norm. This creative restlessness is one of the series’s best traits, standing it in good stead in comparison to the glut of nearly indistinguishably Tolkienesque Western RPGs of the 1980s and 1990s.

From its ominous opening-credits sequence on, Final Fantasy VI strained for a gravitas that no previous JRPG had approached, and arguably succeeded in achieving it at least intermittently. It played out on a scale that had never been seen before; by the end of the game, more than a dozen separate characters had moved in and out of your party. Chris Kohler identifies the game’s main theme as “love in all its forms — romantic love, parental love, sibling love, and platonic love. Sakaguchi asks the player, what is love and where can we find it?”

Before that scene in Final Fantasy VII, Hironobu Sakaguchi served up a shocker of equal magnitude in Final Fantasy VI. Halfway through the game, the bad guys win despite your best efforts and the world effectively ends, leaving your party wandering through a post-apocalyptic World of Ruin like the characters in a Harlan Ellison story. The effect this had on some players’ emotions could verge on traumatizing — heady stuff for a videogame on a console still best known worldwide as the cuddly home of Super Mario. For many of its young players, Final Fantasy VI was their first close encounter on their own recognizance — i.e., outside of compulsory school assignments — with the sort of literature that attempts to move beyond tropes to truly, thoughtfully engage with the human condition.

It’s easy for an old, reasonably well-read guy like me to mock Final Fantasy VI‘s highfalutin aspirations, given that they’re stuffed into a game that still resolves at the granular level into bobble-headed figures fighting cartoon monsters. And it’s equally easy to scoff at the heavy-handed emotional manipulation that has always been part and parcel of the JRPG; subtle the sub-genre most definitely is not. Nonetheless, meaningful literature is where you find it, and the empathy it engenders can only be welcomed in a world in desperate need of it. Whatever else you can say about Final Fantasy and most of its JRPG cousins, the messages these games convey are generally noble ones, about friendship, loyalty, and the necessity of trying to do the right thing in hard situations, even when it isn’t so easy to even figure out what the right thing is. While these messages are accompanied by plenty of violence in the abstract, it is indeed abstracted — highly stylized and, what with the bifurcation between game and story that is so prevalent in the sub-genre, often oddly divorced from the games’ core themes.

Released in April of 1994, Final Fantasy VI sold 2.6 million copies in Japan. By this point the domestic popularity of the Final Fantasy franchise as a whole was rivaled only by that of Super Mario and Dragon Quest; two of the three biggest gaming franchises in Japan, that is to say, were dorakue games. In the Western world, however, the picture was quite different.

In the United States, the first-generation Nintendo Famicom was known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, the juggernaut of a console that rescued videogames in the eyes of the wider culture from the status of a brief-lived fad to that of a long-lived entertainment staple, on par with movies in terms of economics if not cachet. Yet JRPGs weren’t a part of that initial success story. The first example of the breed didn’t even reach American shores until 1989. It was, appropriately enough, the original Dragon Quest, the game that had started it all in Japan; it was renamed Dragon Warrior for the American market, due to a conflict with an old American tabletop RPG by the name of Dragonquest whose trademarks had been acquired by the notoriously litigious TSR of Dungeons & Dragons fame. Enix did make some efforts to modernize the game, such as replacing the password-based saving system with a battery that let you save your state to the cartridge itself. (This same method had been adopted by Final Fantasy and most other post-Dragon Quest JRPGs on the Japanese market as well.) But American console gamers had no real frame of reference for Dragon Warrior, and even the marketing geniuses of Nintendo, which published the game itself in North America, struggled to provide them one. With cartridges piling up in Stateside warehouses, they were reduced to giving away hundreds of thousands of copies of Dragon Warrior to the subscribers of Nintendo Power magazine. For some of these, the game came as a revelation seven years before Final Fantasy VII; for most, it was an inscrutable curiosity that was quickly tossed aside.

Final Fantasy I, on the other hand, received a more encouraging reception in the United States when it reached there in 1990: it sold 700,000 copies, 300,000 more than it had managed in Japan. Nevertheless, with the 8-bit Nintendo console reaching the end of its lifespan, Square didn’t bother to export the next two games in the series. It did export Final Fantasy IV for the Super Famicom — or rather the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, as it was known in the West. The results were disappointing in light of the previous game’s reception, so much so that Square didn’t export Final Fantasy V.[5]Square did release a few spinoff games under the Final Fantasy label in the United States and Europe as another way of testing the Western market: Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Adventure for the Nintendo Game Boy handheld console, and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest for the Super Nintendo. Although none of them were huge sellers, the Game Boy titles in particular have their fans even today. This habit of skipping over parts of the series led to a confusing state of affairs whereby the American Final Fantasy II was the Japanese Final Fantasy IV and the American Final Fantasy III was the Japanese Final Fantasy VI. The latter game shifted barely one-fourth as many copies in the three-times larger American marketplace as it had in Japan — not disastrous numbers, but still less than the first Final Fantasy had managed.

The heart of the problem was translation, in both the literal sense of the words on the screen and a broader cultural sense. Believing with some justification that the early American consoles from Atari and others had been undone by a glut of substandard product, Nintendo had long made a science out of the polishing of gameplay, demanding that every prospective release survive an unrelenting testing gauntlet before it was granted the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” and approved for sale. But the company had no experience or expertise in polishing text to a similar degree. In most cases, this didn’t matter; most Nintendo games contained very little text anyway. But RPGs were the exception. The increasingly intricate story lines which JRPGs were embracing by the early 1990s demanded good translations by native speakers. What many of them actually got was something very different, leaving even those American gamers who wanted to fall in love baffled by the Japanese-English-dictionary-derived word salads they saw before them. And then, too, many of the games’ cultural concerns and references were distinctly Japanese, such that even a perfect translation might have left Americans confused. It was, one might say, the Blade of Cuisinart problem in reverse.

To be sure, there were Americans who found all of the barriers to entry into these deeply foreign worlds to be more bracing than intimidating, who took on the challenge of meeting the games on their own terms, often emerging with a lifelong passion for all things Japanese. At this stage, though, they were the distinct minority. In Japan and the United States alike, the conventional wisdom through the mid-1990s was that JRPGs didn’t and couldn’t sell well overseas; this was regarded as a fact of life as fundamental as the vagaries of climate. (Thanks to this belief, none of the mainline Final Fantasy games to date had been released in Europe at all.) It would take Final Fantasy VII and a dramatic, controversial switch of platforms on the part of Square to change that. But once those things happened… look out. The JRPG would conquer the world yet.

Where to Get It: Remastered and newly translated versions of the Japanese Final Fantasy I, II, III, IV, V, and VI are available on Steam. The Dragon Quest series has been converted to iOS and Android apps, just a search away on the Apple and Google stores.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

Sources: the books Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World by Matt Alt, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life by Chris Kohler, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West by Aidan Moher, and Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts by Mia Consalvo. GameFan of September 1997; Retro Gamer 69, 108, and 170; Computer Gaming World of September 1985 and December 1992.

Online sources include Polygon‘s authoritative Final Fantasy 7: An Oral History”; “The Long Life of the Original Wizardry by guest poster Alex on The CRPG Addict blog; Wizardry: Japanese Franchise Outlook” by Sam Derboo at Hardcore Gaming 101, plus an interview Robert Woodhead, conducted by Jared Petty at the same site; Wizardry‘s Wild Ride from West to East” at VentureBeat; “The Secret History of AnimEigo” at that company’s homepage; Robert Woodhead’s slides from a presentation at the 2022 KansasFest Apple II convention; a post on tabletop Wizardry at the Japanese Tabletop RPG blog; and Dragon Warrior: Aging Disgracefully” by Nick Simberg at (the now-defunct) DamnLag.


1 Adams was not an entirely disinterested observer. He was already working with Robert Woodhead on Wizardry IV, and had in fact accompanied him to Japan in this capacity.
2 A man with an international perspective if ever there was one, Rogers would later go on to fame and fortune as the man who brought Tetris out of the Soviet Union.
3 It would be briefly revived for one final game, the appropriately named Wizardry 8, in 2001.
4 In another unexpected link between East and West, one of his most important assistants became Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian who had fled his country’s revolution for the United States in 1979 and become a game-programming rock star on the Apple II. After the heyday of the lone-wolf bedroom auteur began to fade there, Doug Carlston, the head of Brøderbund, brokered a job for him with his friends in Japan. There he maximized the Famicom’s potential in the same way he had that of the Apple II, despite not speaking a word of Japanese when he arrived. (“We’d go to a restaurant and no matter what he’d order — spaghetti or eggs — they’d always bring out steak,” Sakaguchi laughs.) Gebelli would program the first three Final Fantasy games almost all by himself.
5 Square did release a few spinoff games under the Final Fantasy label in the United States and Europe as another way of testing the Western market: Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Adventure for the Nintendo Game Boy handheld console, and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest for the Super Nintendo. Although none of them were huge sellers, the Game Boy titles in particular have their fans even today.

Posted by on November 17, 2023 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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65 Responses to Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 1: Dorakue!

  1. PlayHistory

    November 17, 2023 at 5:29 pm

    “He called upon his friends at the manga magazines”

    Not quite. It was a mutual connection that led him to Toriyama, they were not acquainted beforehand.

    “When Enix started bringing out the latest games on non-business days, a widespread urban legend said this had been done in accordance with a decree from the Japanese Diet”

    It wasn’t a decree, but I believe there was a comment made by the Diet about the Dragon Quest III situation which likely influenced their decision.

    Obviously I was much expecting the roasting of the JRPG format in here and I’m not fool to try and convince you to like what you don’t. As someone who’s been absorbing Japanese media since childhood, I’ve bought into bombast and hyper emotions of their cultural lens. It’s not “spectacle” in the same way as American media – it’s more about a focus on character that amps up absolutely everything to allow for a powerful, emotional release.

    In terms of the systemic versus defined (sandbox vs. rollercoaster, etc.) I think Japanese games are starting to swing a new way in recent years. Standout examples like Dark Souls, Breath of the Wild, and Fire Emblem are more than willing to let the world be more reactive to decisions and consequences. There will always be a divide between different cultures’ gaming understandings, and sometimes that will strike a cord. Tomb Raider did so for British game design and doesn’t invite nearly the same kind of criticism as Japan.

    The 90s were a nuts time to be a media fan. We’ve certainly climbed some mountains since then, but the release of Final Fantasy VII in the US I think will legitimately be discussed in the pantheon of huge media events in the future.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 17, 2023 at 6:35 pm

      I think “friends” and “friend of a friend” can safely be elided together. ;)

      Was this a roasting?

      • Dan Mastriani

        November 19, 2023 at 7:49 pm

        I have to say, I am a bit surprised you didn’t mention Akira Toriyama by name. Considering how popular Dragon Ball was and still is, he’s kind of a big deal.

        The game’s composer, Koichi Sugiyama, was also something of a big name prior, but he wasn’t brought in specifically for Dragon Quest.

      • Michael Russo

        November 21, 2023 at 2:11 am

        I don’t think so. You recognize the importance and influence of these games and in terms of storytelling it’s right up the alley of this blog. I’ve definitely gotten into a few JRPGs lately like FF10, Earthbound, and Xenoblade Chronicles (my 9-year old son watched playthroughs of all of them). They’re a bit over the top, but that’s hardly uncommon, and they’re quite fun to play, though as a middle-aged dad I need save states, I can’t be grinding for months at a time!

    • Gwydden

      November 21, 2023 at 8:15 pm

      “As someone who’s been absorbing Japanese media since childhood, I’ve bought into bombast and hyper emotions of their cultural lens. It’s not “spectacle” in the same way as American media – it’s more about a focus on character that amps up absolutely everything to allow for a powerful, emotional release.”

      I’ve watched and read plenty of Japanese fiction that isn’t particularly bombastic or hyper-emotional–some of it is fairly understated, actually, and an issue I have with Japanese prose is that, at least in translation, it reads very cold–, so I don’t buy this “Americans are from Mars, Japanese are from Venus” narrative. I think a specific subset of Japanese children’s media is being taken as culturally representative here.

  2. David

    November 17, 2023 at 5:38 pm

    Asteroids is from Atari. Do you mean Space Invaders?

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 17, 2023 at 6:29 pm

      Yes. Thanks!

  3. Buhzim

    November 17, 2023 at 5:54 pm

    Dragon Quest I-VII have Android/iOS versions, for the easy and legal way to currently play them.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 17, 2023 at 7:00 pm

      Great! Thanks!

  4. Alex Smith

    November 17, 2023 at 6:04 pm

    A few things to note here;

    “Legend has it that Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, chose that name because he thought that the first entry in the eventual franchise would be the last videogame he ever made.”

    “Assured that he would never have to work on a mindless action game again, Sakaguchi agreed to stay on at Square to build upon its template.”

    This is the legend yes, but we also know it is not true. Sakaguchi wanted an easy shorthand for consumers similar, but not identical in kind, to Dorakue and decided an alliterative abbreviation was the way to go. Sakaguchi chose “FF” because he thought it looked cool, kinda like “F1” racing. He decided “Fantasy” was a logical choice for one of the words and settled on “Fighting Fantasy.” Then he was made aware of a certain series of popular British RPG books, so “Fighting” became “Final.” He was never planning to leave the company. Sakaguchi has come clean about all of this in more recent interviews. Amusingly, he expressed exasperation at the legends about the name origin even though it was his own words that started many of them!

    “it was renamed Dragon Warrior for the American market, probably due to the conflict with Sierra’s large lineup of Quest adventure games ”

    No, actually, it was a copyright issue. In 1980, SPI released a D&D competitor called DragonQuest. SPI was, of course, purchased by TSR in 1982, and we all know how litigious they were around their copyrights and trademarks.

    “With cartridges piling up in Stateside warehouses, Enix was reduced to giving away hundreds of thousands of copies of Dragon Warrior to the subscribers of Nintendo Power magazine.”

    Neither Enix nor Square released Dragon Warrior nor Final Fantasy in the United States, as neither had a North American arm at the time. Instead, they were both published by Nintendo. According to Nintendo Power editor Gail Tilden, Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa was convinced that American youth would fall for RPGs just as their Japanese counterparts had and pulled out all the stops. One issue of Nintendo Power had an insert guide to the early stages of Dragon Warrior, while Final Fantasy received feature articles in three straight issues of the magazine, an unprecedented amount of coverage for a single game, plus a strategy guide issue devoted entirely to the game. These initiatives did not work of course, which is why Nintendo, not Enix, gave away Dragon Warrior to its subscribers in one of the most amazing video game promotional deals ever for those of us who liked this sort of thing (this is how I got my copy, though I had already played it at a friend’s house).

    • IJMC

      November 17, 2023 at 6:37 pm

      I also acquired my Dragon Warrior cartridge through a Nintendo Power subscription. It came with a full overworld map, maps of most of the dungeons, a stat chart for most of the monsters, and a step-by-step walkthrough book. Talk about “living a story that someone else has already written for you” ! Looking back, it’s amazing how much time we were willing to spend grinding to progress through a rather thin plot line. Though I played the game for dozens or hundreds of hours, the experiment was ultimately a failure: I’ve never purchased nor played through another JRPG since.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 17, 2023 at 6:51 pm

      Thanks as always!

    • Sniffnoy

      November 17, 2023 at 7:10 pm

      > No, actually, it was a copyright issue. In 1980, SPI released a D&D competitor called DragonQuest. SPI was, of course, purchased by TSR in 1982, and we all know how litigious they were around their copyrights and trademarks.

      Pretty sure the problem here was with the trademark on DragonQuest, not any copyright. You kind of suggest it could be either here at the end, but almost certainly it would be the trademark. The two are pretty different and are worth keeping distinct!

      • Alex Smith

        November 17, 2023 at 8:31 pm

        Yes, it was a trademark issue; that was a typo on my part. Thankfully, Jimmy used the right term in his correction!

  5. M. Casey

    November 17, 2023 at 6:23 pm

    I am one of the weirdos who played Final Fantasy 1 at the time and quite liked it (all the Nintendo Power reference material sure helped), but never got around to playing any of the sequels. Looking forward to how this series develops!

  6. John

    November 17, 2023 at 6:48 pm

    I’ve played many of the previously-covered games, but they were generally “old” to me at the time I played them. The past few entries have really gotten into what I played at release time in my childhood: Diablo 1, Mechwarrior 2, Warcraft, Command and Conquer/Red Alert. Even Microprose’s Magic the Gathering game, which I feel like wasn’t anywhere near the popularity of those others.

    And of course, Final Fantasy VII. Not that it’s quite really covered here yet. It’ll be interesting to read what I’ll call the… skeptic’s/outsider’s perspective. Doubly interesting since it has a bit of a reputation for being “style over substance” even as compared to its predecessors among some series fans.

    It may end up appropriate that the player in your Dragon Quest screenshot seems to have named the character “aaaa.”

  7. Sniffnoy

    November 17, 2023 at 7:17 pm

    The increasingly intricate story lines which JRPGs were embracing by the early 1990s demanded good translations by native speakers. What they actually got was something very different, leaving even those American gamers who wanted to fall in love baffled by the Japanese-English-dictionary-derived word salads they saw before them.

    Of course, Final Fantasy VI (and a few other games by Square) had their translations done by Ted Woolsey, an American who could certainly write perfectly good English! His translations are sometimes controversial for engaging in a fair bit of rewriting, which can annoy people who just want a straight faithful translation, but they’re certainly written fine on their own terms…

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 17, 2023 at 7:23 pm

      Fair enough. I qualified it a bit. (I’m still traumatized by the unbelievably awful Final Fantasy VII translation, such that it’s had a spillover effect…)

      • Dan V.

        November 17, 2023 at 10:59 pm

        When you have the time, digging into the history of those localizations and Square’s up-and-down-again relationship with their partners would provide a lot of context. Woolsey in particular had a very tough job to do with FFVI given the circumstances. Between Nintendo’s censoring, ROM limitations, the limited amount of time he had to do it, and the way the text was provided to him out of order we’re lucky that FFVI turned out as well as it did. Even with its warts FFVI is more readable than FFIV and FFVII in textual quality. And yes, the GBA translation is better, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for “Son of a Submariner!”

        And then Square backslid with FFVII, but all the mistakes and problems actually got them to get their act together (well, mostly) for Final Fantasy VIII and Xenogears.

        Double also, Square did consider bringing over FFII, FFIII, and FFV, but cancelled the projects for various reasons. I’d say “not bothering” is a bit harsh, because there are prototypes of FFII NES out there and there were multiple attempts to bring over FFV that all failed in one way or another. But those were different times, so I don’t exactly blame Square for cancelling those projects.

  8. Andrew Pam

    November 17, 2023 at 7:21 pm

    The image caption “Box art helps to tell the demonstrate” looks like a case of forgetting to delete one of the two alternatives.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 17, 2023 at 7:24 pm


  9. John

    November 17, 2023 at 7:24 pm

    Once upon a time, I really liked JRPGs. This was back in approximately the SNES era. Mechanically, they weren’t all that different from the CRPGs I played on my Apple II. I still maintain that the combat in Breath of Fire is not meaningfully or substantially different from combat in The Bards Tale III. Go to combat screen. Spam strongest attack. Heal as necessary. Repeat until combat ends. Expect another random encounter in five to ten tiles. The fact that I created the party in The Bards Tale III while Capcom created the party in Breath of Fire honestly didn’t make much of a difference. Presentation-wise, the JRPGs were obviously superior. They had better graphics, of course, as you’d expect from games for a system from 1991 versus a system from 1983 like the Apple IIe. They also had vastly more engaging stories.

    In the following years, however, I discovered first tactics games–though I believe that they were then mostly being called strategy RPGs or SRPGs–and then contemporary CRPGs with extensive character customization. The first had much more interesting combat and both offered much more replayability. A pre-determined story has only so much replayability, no matter how engaging it is. Without significant branching, there’s really no point in playing the game more than a couple of times. (You might well go back to the game again later, in the same way that you might go back again to a favorite book, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.) With character customization, however, you can replay the game again with a new set of abilities and consequently experience what are in many ways entirely new mechanical challenges. The more customization on offer, the more times you can replay the game.

    I think it’s interesting that so many contemporary CRPGs seem to be aiming for a sweet spot between, on the one hand, the old blobber-style “you create and control the entire party” and, on the other, the JRPG “the developers picked everybody’s name, attributes, and abilities already”. There’s usually a single character whom the player creates and controls completely while the rest of the party consists of pre-generated characters who occupy fixed roles in the story and whose attributes and abilities the player may or may not be able to influence as the story progresses. You get a fair amount of replayability while also getting, at least potentially, a specific and character-driven story.

    • Gordon Cameron

      November 23, 2023 at 2:18 am

      On the Bioware side of things, at least (e.g. Dragon Age) this design concept goes back at least as far as Baldur’s Gate; I wonder if JRPGs were any more of an inspiration than, say, Ultimas IV/V, which as far as I am aware inaugurated the “collect party members as you go” style in Western CRPGs. Granted, the story implications of characters in those early examples were pretty minimal compared to the Bioware fare of decades later.

  10. stepped pyramids

    November 17, 2023 at 10:37 pm

    > these games were and would remain simpler than their Western counterparts

    I don’t think this is true at all. There are some very mechanically complex JRPGs, and many Western RPGs are not particularly complex. Final Fantasy VI is mechanically more complex than Ultima VII, for instance, and FF6 isn’t even particularly crunchy as JRPGs go.

    > [In FF2] their strengths and weaknesses were otherwise set in stone

    The party has slightly different starting stats, but every character has the exact same growth potential, so there’s really no meaningful difference between them. You can develop any character any way you like and the game won’t throw up any obstacles. It’s really not until FF4 that different characters got locked into roles.

    > Final Fantasy V [was] something of a placeholder or even a retrenchment, dialing back on several of the fourth game’s innovations

    I’m not really sure what you mean by this. V was certainly mechanically innovative and an improvement on IV. The plot is a little less twisty and more light-hearted but I’m not sure I’d call that a step backwards, just a thematic variation.

    > The heart of the problem was translation…

    You might touch on this in your next article, but one big difference is that anime had started to break through into the US mainstream by the time FF7 came out.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 18, 2023 at 9:28 am

      On the subject of simplicity or the lack thereof: I qualified this slightly, but I think the general tendency holds up. Ultima VII is an unusually simple Western RPG for its era; I believe I called it “a Britannia walking simulator” in my article. And even here, there are different ways to measure simplicity versus complexity. Ultima VII is very open in a player-directed “go anywhere and do anything you want whenever you want” sense, while Final Fantasy VI is quite linear and designer-directed. And Ultima VII does have some fairly intricate, map-spanning, “go forth and figure them out” puzzles to solve. I don’t believe that Final Fantasy VI challenges its player in this way.

      Note that I do not consider the word “simple” a pejorative. I’m far more likely to ding a game for being too complex than for being too simple.

      On the subject of Final Fantasy II: Point taken. Thanks!

      On the subject of Final Fantasy V: The differences I was thinking of were that you have a single, fixed party again, instead of having characters moving in and out throughout the game. These characters are generally less fleshed-out, without so much in the way of backstory or moral dilemmas as we saw in the previous game. Tellingly, the game reverts to the “job system” of Final Fantasy III — something I judged a little too deep in the weeds for the article proper, but I’m sure you know what I mean. And then, as you noted, the story just doesn’t aim for the same gravitas.

      • Gnoman

        November 18, 2023 at 10:25 am

        The “Job System” was alive and well in IV and VI as well as in I, III and V – you just couldn’t pick them. Even VII had vestiges of it, with all of the characters being very strongly thematically linked to one of the classic Jobs, up to having that job’s role as their starting Materia.

        I’m not sure what sources you’re using for the last portion of the article (beginning with “Likewise, it took the first Final Fantasy title three years after its…” to the end), but it is kind of dubious. The biggest reason II and III were not sent over here was that the first game took so long – FF1 made it over here in 1990, and it was already confirmed that the SNES was going to be launched in 1991. So if they spent all the money to translate FF2 (which was, as you mention, an extremely wordy game, meaning that the translation would be very expensive), it wouldn’t reach the US until after the SNES launched. So you’d be hoping that people would buy a game, at a very high price (the large ROM size, extra RAM, battery-backed RAM for saving, etc made cartridge-based RPGs far more expensive than the typical console game – last time I looked up vintage ads FFIII for the SNES was literally triple the cost of anything else Toys R Us was selling at the time for the system), that didn’t work with the shiny new system and looked positively ancient.

        The other issue is that translation ran into severe technical issues, not just cultural. The structure of the Japanese language means that one you bite the bullet and include the entire character set (which takes a non-trivial amount of space, hence why a number of simpler games were in English even in their native Japan), you can put all the later text into a much smaller space – which mean that all the item names, all the dialogue, character names, and every other bit of text has a very small amount of memory allocated to it. Translating to English thus required extreme amounts of abbreviation and abridgement. This effect is still relevant into the PS2 era – much of the English voice acting is spoken fast and cuts out abruptly, because the lines had to fit in exactly the same time as the original Japanese one or the game would crash.

        To make things even more difficult (and this is where your earlier comments on there being a “Japanese culture” issue that hurt sales falls flat) the games were crammed full of references to European and other cultures that got mangled by the translators into nonsense text. The most obvious example is drawn from FF7. As FF7 draws from Norse in a number of ways, the World Serpent Miðgarðsormr was introduced as a powerful enemy. This was transliterated into Japanese as ミドガルズオルム, or “Midogaruzuorumu”. Whoever translated that segment of the game into English did not recognize the mytholgical reference and simply transliterated the Japanese phonemes directly, resulting in “Midgar Zolom”.

        Square was quite aware of these difficulties, so it wasn’t as simple as “they didn’t bother translating the first two sequels due to low sales” – there were massive barriers.

        Moving on, FFIV was simplified somewhat when sent over here as FFII, but it wasn’t (despite legend) because they assumed Americans were too dumb to understand it. It had more to do with conforming to Nintendo of America’s draconian censorship policies combined with an awareness that the US market they were trying to reach skewed much younger than the native Japanese one, because in the US console gaming had acquired a “this is for kids” assumption in a way that didn’t happen at home. The simplifications also weren’t super drastic – you may be conflating it with Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, which was created for the US market as a very simple RPG to serve as a gateway into the concept.

        You may be planning to expand on and address much of this in the next segment – the ludicrous degree to which the Playstation’s CD format made the games cheaper to buy and eliminated the need to carefully ration text feels like a natural part of where you’re heading with this summary, and that would be the obvious point to talk about the technical limitations – but commenting still felt worthwhile.

        • Jimmy Maher

          November 18, 2023 at 10:39 am

          I’ve actually just rewritten the principal paragraph about Final Fantasy in the United States. ;) Thanks for your insights on the translation issues. That’s very helpful.

        • Lumfan99

          November 19, 2023 at 12:20 am

          Typically, people only use the term “job system” to refer to games where you can choose a character’s class, not games where each character has pre-set capabilities. That might be where the confusion is coming from.

    • killias2

      November 19, 2023 at 9:24 pm

      Let me start by thanking Jimmy for another great article. This is a great topic, and I’m glad to see you tackle it. Let me also add that Chris Kohler is a great source for this kind of discussion. Also, I’ve been meaning to mention him forever, but you should check out some of Tim Rogers’ work. I only mention it here because he did a full video series of playing FF7 in Japanese and explaining the differences in the translation, but I honestly think you’d get a lot from his reviews of, most especially, Boku no Natsuyasumi (a Japanese slice-of-life summer vacation adventure game) and Tokimeki Memorial (a Japanese high school dating adventure game).

      Okay, back to the topic:
      Are JRPGs simpler than CRPGs?

      My general view here is a qualified yes, but that CRPG folks are mostly talking from a lack of experience. To summarize, I think JRPGs tend to be (much) more similar to each other, (much) more linear in terms of world exploration (with exceptions), and generally more forgiving with more anemic progression systems.
      HOWEVER, if a given JRPG -does- give depth to its progression system, these can get pretty insane! If anything, JRPGs tend to have (much) more variety in terms of progression systems and the like than CRPGs, and a lot of these more experimental and exploratory systems become surprisingly intricate. Even in just the Super Famicom Final Fantasy games, we have:
      FF4 – With an anemic, pure leveling based progression system. You get stronger (and access to new spells) simply by leveling.
      FF5 – With the second iteration of the Jobs system (the first was in FF3). There are dozens of different jobs available, including typical Fighter/Mage/Healer-types, but also Pokemon-style monster trainers, Ninjas, dancers, hybrid classes, and so on. I have more to say on FF5.. I’ll come back to that*.
      FF6 – It seemingly starts with an FF4-style system, where Classes are pre-set and leveling makes you stronger. It’s still more interesting here than FF4 because of the greater variety, but you eventually unlock.. Magicite, which allows you to mix and match abilities and stat growth from different class archetypes.
      So you might draw considerably difference conclusions on how the FF games deal with progression based simply on -which- Super Famicom FF you played. (Ditto if you choose among the three Famicom entries, as they also greatly differ from one another).

      I mention all of this because it feels like CRPG-only fans tend to only see JRPGs as leveling/grindfests without interesting progression mechanics, when JRPGs actually tend to have more variety and experimentation there than CRPGs.

      Even in terms of linearity, there can be a lot of variety. FF6 starts as a very linear game, but the World of Ruin is entirely nonlinear after you get the airship. You can beat the game with just the four characters you have then without rebuilding your team or going through all the sidequests and world exploration. Alternatively, you can do everything.. in just about any order you can imagine? Both of the main characters at the beginning of FF6 (Locke and Tera) are optional in the ending, which is pretty telling. And that’s just within FF6! If you visit the Romancing SaGa games (as a side-note: FF Legend 1/2/3 are actually SaGa titles), these tend to be purely nonlinear (and with complete bizarre progression mechanics). Or take a game like Valkyrie Profile: the overall trend of the game is linear, but the decisions you make will greatly impact the route, the characters, the story, and the ending.

      In short: I don’t necessarily disagree with the overall perspective, but CRPG fans are often wearing huge blinders when discussing this stuff. The truth is, not surprisingly, much more nuanced.

      *To return to FF5, I did want to point out that Jimmy’s main Take Away Point about FF5 is that it was less ambitious than its predecessor, and I think this still remains a popular view even among JRPG fans today. However, I feel that it’s wrong, and that it also speaks to the bigger discussion here. FF5 is far simpler than FF4, FF6, or FF7.. -narratively–. However, with the Jobs system, it’s probably the most interesting progression system yet developed in FF as of its release. Not only has the Jobs system gone on to be a huge influence in the rest of the series (especially Tactics, X-2, and 14, but also the Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler lineage), but it was a huge deal at the time. Chris Kohler actually wrote a book just about FF5, and one of his main arguments is that FF5 is HUGELY beloved in Japan. In polls and in interviews with creators and the like, it’s no doubt that FF5 is THE classic Final Fantasy game in Japan, the way FF6 is in the United States.
      I emphasize this because FF5 is sort of the opposite of the JRPG cliche. It has much less emphasis on story and characters and much more on gameplay and progression mechanics. It’s interesting that we devalue its importance in the West, while it’s still discussed frequently in Japan. There actually an interview with the creators of FF16 where they were asked about their three favorites in the series:
      Almost everybody lists FF5, often in first place. FF3 comes up a lot too, which was basically FF5 Jr. FF6 comes up.. once. FF7 also comes up just once.

      • Jimmy Maher

        November 20, 2023 at 3:17 am

        I actually do have Tim Rogers’s videos on my list of sources to have a closer look at…

  11. Michael

    November 17, 2023 at 11:33 pm

    “Even if you didn’t care a whit about videogames, you couldn’t avoid knowing that something pretty big was going down in that space.”

    I’m one of those rare folks who managed to avoid it for quite a few years, despite exposure. I recently realized that one of the ads on an old vhs I’ve watched probably hundreds of times was, in fact, promoting Final Fantasy VII. But it didn’t take, I had no context for it; if you said the phrase “Final Fantasy VII” to me at the time, I’d have given you the same blank stare I gave to people who said “Internet.”

  12. Jaina

    November 17, 2023 at 11:44 pm

    Fun fact: In Dragon Quest 1, you don’t actually need to save the princess. But if you do, thou must marry her.

    Minor quibble: “Although they could rename the characters if they were absolutely determined to do so — this ability would be retained as a sort of vestigial feature as late as Final Fantasy VII — ” I’d probably change that to something like ‘vestigial feature in at least FF7… ‘ I believe you can do it in all the PS1 games, including 8 and 9… and amazingly enough, the PS2 era, with FF10 and 11 (11 is a MMO so I included it for the lols)

    • Sniffnoy

      November 18, 2023 at 1:41 am

      FF8 and FF10 only let you rename some of the characters, IINM. FF10 it was clearly awkward to fit in due to the introduction of voice acting. They let you rename Tidus, the protagonist, but to do this they had to make sure he’s never referred to by name in any voice-acted scenes! No other characters are renameable.

      I dunno offhand why FF8 would have only some characters renameable, but that’s what I’m seeing looking things up quickly? FF9 had full renameability, of course, since it was meant as a throwback to the pre-FF7 games.

  13. Zed Banville

    November 18, 2023 at 3:48 am

    “to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in the early 1970s, where and when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, a pair of stolid Midwesterners who would have been utterly nonplussed by the emotional histrionics of a Final Fantasy VII, created a “single-unit wargame” called Dungeons & Dragons.”

    Dave Arneson was a native of the Minneapolis – St. Paul metro area, where he created Dungeons & Dragons with his Blackmoor campaign that started in 1971. Gary Gygax, a native of Lake Geneva, was introduced by Arneson to D&D in early 1973, following which he initiated his Greyhawk campaign, created draft rules with the assistance of Arneson’s notes, founded TSR with his childhood friend Don Kaye (soon joined by Brian Blume as co-owner), and finally published the original Dungeons & Dragons three-booklet rules in January 1974. Naturally, you aren’t going to explain the history of D&D here, but Arneson didn’t leave Minneapolis for Lake Geneva until late 1975, and he returned before the end of 1976; a simple fix would be to mention both locations.

    “Likewise, it took the first Final Fantasy title three years after its own appearance in Japan to reach the United States, where its performance was underwhelming enough that Square didn’t even bother to export the following two games in the series. They did try again with Final Fantasy IV for the Super Famicom — or rather the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, as it was known in the West.”

    I’m not sure why you think sales of the original Final Fantasy in the United States were “underwhelming” and linked to the decision whether to release the other two Famicom FF games. The original Final Fantasy was released in the United States in 1990, and the following year Squaresoft released Final Fantasy IV, its first Super Famicom/NES RPG, in both Japan and the United States. Although Squaresoft refrained from releasing Final Fantasy V in the United States in 1992, it did release a game called Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest in the United States that same year. You seem to have missed this black sheep of the Final Fantasy series, created specifically for the American market, which has a justifiably bad reputation. Thus, there were Final Fantasy releases in the United States in three consecutive years. Final Fantasy VI released in Japan in early 1994 and in the USA in late 1994, just about two years after the FF Mystic Quest release, making four FF American releases in about four-and-half years.

    “Square released a simplified version of this game in the United States, reflecting a suspicion that, as one undiplomatic employee put it, American console gamers might just be too stupid to play the RPGs that the Japanese enjoyed.”

    Squaresoft released two versions of Final Fantasy IV in Japan, one of them (“Easy Type”) simplified in both text and gameplay, aimed at a younger audience. The American version called Final Fantasy II is a hybrid of both, though probably closer to the simplified version.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 18, 2023 at 9:59 am

      Thanks! I had a look back at my sources and found that the first Final Fantasy sold 700,000 copies in the United States, 300,000 more than in Japan. Reworked that paragraph.

  14. Alex

    November 18, 2023 at 7:17 am

    I already wrote some things about Final Fantasy 7 in another comment section, so I won´t repeat myself. All I want to say is that to this day there has been nothing in my life as a gamer that came close to the excitement of purchasing and playing Final Fantasy 7 for the first time on the PC. While I totally lost my interest for JRPGs in the last year, I still would call myself a fan of the whole Final Fantasy-Franchise. Something of the magic I felt when playing FF VII just kept stuck inside of me and made every part I played special (Part II, VI – X and XIII), even though the latest one was something of a mess gameplay-wise and Part X just had a bland main character.

    To be objective, the main strength of the franchise, in my personal experience is the “magic” it delivers (The combination of the world, the characters, the story and the soundtrack), not the actual gameplay itself. Which of course is the whole point of the article and the main difference pointed out so many times when speaking about the difference between Western RPGS and JRPGs.

  15. Leo Vellés

    November 18, 2023 at 12:59 pm

    Hi Jimmy. In the text below the picture of Yuji Horii, when you click on it, there is a double “inside'”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 19, 2023 at 8:14 am


  16. fform

    November 19, 2023 at 1:01 am

    Worth pointing out that the GameBoy ‘spinoffs’, Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Adventure did have a massive impact, because they were rebadged-in-translation (as was so often done at the time) games that kicked off two other popular RPG series. Final Fantasy Legend and the two sequels constitute the first three SaGa games, a series which continues to this day – SaGa: Emerald Beyond is scheduled for release in 2024. Final Fantasy Adventure was known as Seiken Densetsu 1 in Japan, the first game of the Mana series and predecessor of Secret of Mana for the SNES, although the series isn’t nearly as prolific as SaGa or FF.

    When FFVII came out, I was a PC gamer and had grown up several years behind the curve on consoles. I think I was still playing SNES games at the time on the rare occasion I played with a console. My friends had Playstations but most of them were PC gamers too, and when FFVII came out for PC they all jumped on it and tried to get me into it, but I balked at the graphics. Even on a powerful PC, it suffered, and gave a preview of what we see now with emulation of the first two or three generations of 3d consoles (or even just playing on HD LCDs): The resolutions were designed for fuzzy CRT TVs and do NOT upscale well.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 19, 2023 at 8:21 am

      I changed the wording a little, but I’d prefer to stay out of those weeds as much as possible. ;) Thanks!

  17. Feldspar

    November 19, 2023 at 6:38 pm

    Thanks for the article, was curious how this series would turn out.

    Final Fantasy in particular is really focused on the idea of putting players inside of an epic-feeling “cinematic” story with flashy graphical presentation. Especially from FF 7 onward, the games are generally designed to be simple and easy enough that all players can experience the story to the end.

    While it’s a hugely influential series, there’s a lot of other JRPG series that put a greater emphasis on deeper and more challenging game mechanics, like tactical battles, dungeon crawling, monster collection/raising, etc. Non-linearity, branching storylines, and multiple endings might be uncommon in the genre but they’re not entirely unheard of.

    I think that Japanese developers not having the same proximity to D&D as (especially early) Western developers had is an advantage really. Especially in the early days, Western RPGs felt too overly inclined to copy D&D’s rules and Tolkien-esque setting to a fault, while JRPGs have always been more experimental in terms of settings and especially game mechanics. Pretty much every new game, or new installment in a long-running series is expected to introduce new set of game rules and systems to shake things up. In particular, for the last 25 years or so every Final Fantasy game has been practically in a different game genre than the one preceding it.

    As a little aside, not only did the Wizardry series have a ton of Japan-only installments, but there’s still a small niche of Japanese commercial developers making Wizardry-inspired old-school first person dungeon crawlers, while the genre has pretty much completely disappeared in the West. For anyone curious to try out a modern take on a Wizardry style game, I recommend the Etrian Odyssey series (starting with III or IV), which goes so far as to have a feature for hand-drawing the dungeon maps built into the game.

  18. Copyrighted Name

    November 19, 2023 at 10:32 pm

    “For that very first Japanese Wizardry of 1985, along with those two early Ultima games, happened to catch the attention of Koichi Nakamura and Yuji Horii, a software-development duo who had already made several games together for a Japanese publisher called Enix.”

    This is not quite right. Horii and Nakamura originally encountered the game at a trip to AppleFest in 1983 after winning a contest. Horii then bought an Apple II to play the game. Apparently, other gamers had played the game on imported Apple IIs as well, enough so that many of the Japanese releases include an English text option to accommodate those players.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 20, 2023 at 3:22 am

      Thanks! Fixed it by the simple expedient of providing fewer details. Sometimes less is more anyway in a high-level overview like this.

  19. Captain Rufus

    November 19, 2023 at 10:39 pm

    When getting to FF7 I would strongly recommend looking up Phantasy Star 2 first. It’s practically lifting things wholesale from the latter. Including not entirely human female character death by another not entirely human. Objects from space hurled at planets. Gun toting guy with family issues. Main character part of government organization then eventually on the run.

    I’m not saying it was intentionally lifting stuff from a 1989 game to this 1997 one but there are so many similarities it’s not even funny. (Tbf a lot of FF1’s beats are practically Ultima 1. Get 4 magic doohickeys via killing big monsters to go back in time to kill big bad.)

    There is a lot of Me Too tropey stuff in Jrpgs as there is in Anime as there is in most media world wide. Japan just seems to go harder in on it. (See the current Isekai fad that is hopefully soon to die like Hollywood’s superhero movie glut.)

    Ps to anyone who claims to be have cried at that part of FF7 which had happened in dozens of other RPGS by then: When y’all say that I want to shove you into a school locker after giving you the most atomic of Atomic Wedgies because that’s cringe. (But I was in my early 20s when 7 came out and had been playing RPGS for a good decade at that point. There is some thing about stuff one encounters in Middle School becoming GREATEST THING EVER.. it’s just Ultima and Phantasy Star never had a huge marketing push whereas FF7 did. )

    • Mateus Fedozzi

      November 25, 2023 at 2:30 am

      It’s also interesting to note that Phantasy Star was the first “dorakue” series to arrive in America, before either Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. Problem is it wasn’t a NES game, so it got commercially handicapped from the beginning. Still, I don’t think lots of people will disagree if I say the first entry is technically and narratively superior to the first entries in the more famous franchises.

    • stepped pyramids

      November 26, 2023 at 8:55 pm

      I don’t know that there were “dozens” of RPGs available in the West that even had characters with enough weight to permit for a scene like that. Phantasy Star II is a solid comparison, sure. Serpent Isle, too, although I think that game completely whiffed the drama of the scene and failed to give it any real impact. Certainly none of those games delivered the impact in the form of a prerendered 3D cutscene.

  20. mycophobia

    November 20, 2023 at 2:57 am

    For footnote 5: It’s “Mystic Quest”

    Dragon Quest in its original form is a bit of a hard sell these days due to its grindiness but the Super Famicom remake that enhances the graphics and doubles the exp and gold gain is delightful if you’ve got 6-10 hours to spare.

    A specific issue I have with this article is the comparison of Final Fantasy to DQ1, saying that it “blazed a trail” by having a multi-character party when DQ2, which had a multi-character party, had already been out for almost a year.

    A broader issue is that this feels much more like a digest of an assemblage of secondary sources than any other article I’ve read on this site, it doesn’t feel like you have any kind of personal history with these games. Not to knock the overall quality of your articles, which is very high on average, just that your sudden coverage of Japanese console games makes me shift in my seat a bit.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 20, 2023 at 3:42 am

      Thanks for the corrections!

      I understand your complaint, and it’s by no means entirely unfair. My focus with these histories has always been computer games, for the very good reason that they are what I know and understand. But Final Fantasy VII did get a computer port and makes for an interesting contrast with contemporaneous CRPG design trends in the United States and Europe. Nor was it without influence on computer-first RPGs; the companion system of Baldur’s Gate, for example, was quite directly inspired by Final Fantasy VII. For all of these reasons, I thought it worth my time.

      However, I also thought that, if I was going to write about Final Fantasy VII, I needed to provide a modicum of backstory and context. It wouldn’t do just to say, “And then this weird thing from Japan showed up which for some reason had a ‘VII’ on the end of it,” even if that was how it was perceived by some computer gamers at the time. As you surmised, I had no experience with this strand of games, and didn’t have hundreds of hours to spare to play all of the big names to exhaustion. I was indeed forced to rely a little more than usual on secondary sources, YouTube playthroughs, etc.

      I do like to think that my lack of experience might be an advantage in some ways when I write a more experiential account of Final Fantasy VII proper: sort of, as some have already put it here, a curious outsider’s perspective. But we haven’t gotten there yet, and right now it just kind of is what it is. I learned a long time ago that, no matter what game I’m writing about, there will always be someone out there who feels more passionately about it than I do. While I’m not known for pulling my punches as a critic, I do try always to respect that person, in this article as everywhere else. (If anything, I’m being a little more cautious than usual with this topic, given how keenly aware I am of my own ignorance.)

      In my experience, JRPG fans are both incredibly passionate and a little bit defensive about their favorite genre, such that I was a bit nervous how this article would be received. Thanks for being gentle with me, everyone, and please continue to do so!

      • Gnoman

        November 20, 2023 at 6:45 pm

        The “defensiveness” you mention comes from the tendency for a lot of people who are more focused on the computer side to take a very contemptuous attitude. There’s a lot of “Computer RPGs are the True RPG, the stuff on consoles is a watered down version for babies too stupid to play the real thing”. There’s a lot of reasons for this, ranging from an internalization of the “Consoles are For Kids!!!” attitude that’s to a real degree uniquely American, to an incoherent hatred of “anime” aesthetics, to a stubborn insistence that the fundamentally terrible and overcomplicated interfaces that were hallmarks of many classic CRPGS are the right way and anybody who prefers something more streamlined is pathetic and weak. Some of that comes across in this article, but in a way that feels more like something you’ve been filtering out of your sources rather than something you’re injecting, if that makes sense.

        One thing that does crop up, however, is the assumption that the Japaneseness of the games was important to the reception, and I don’t think that’s true. When I was a kid, the fact that so many popular video games were Japanese never really came up in ordinary conversation, and I don’t think a lot of my peers (including myself) really grasped that these were Japanese made games. They were just video games. The people who got really Japanophiliac over it were the insufferable ones who managed to get import (or modded) systems so they could play inscrutable things nobody understood, it wasn’t a factor for a lot of people. This, mind, is in the Ninja era when half the kids running around would be able to rattle off a bunch of half-understood facts about feudal Japan at the drop of a hat, it wasn’t some mysterious country nobody had really heard of.

        I can’t think of any “mainstream” jRPGs where Being Japanese had a fundamental impact on things in a way an American would immediately see as “this strange element is from Japan” instead of “So, this is how things work in this game world”. That’s more part of more niche series that didn’t even make it over here until a later era.

        • Busca

          November 23, 2023 at 10:23 am

          @Gnoman: You appear to be much more knowlegeable than me in these matters, so please take my following comments with a grain of salt.

          Your remark about the “Japaneseness” of these games not really being a factor in the general (initial) reception made me curious and led me to a bunch of articles on different sites, ending up at – once you’re on that page, it shows you a list of similar publications there and that’s quite a rabbithole to get lost in. These being articles and papers of all kinds means their content and ‘quality level’ are very diverse, but I still found a few things interesting.

          One aspect to keep in mind appears to be localization. When exporting Japanese games to e.g. the US, I understand content was often changed in different ways (also due to the infamous NoA censorship policies): not only images, but also names, references, dialogue and exposition text, usually specifically to make a game more palatable to and better understandable for the respective Western audience (that intended public’s main age range being a factor as well). So the games most people in the West got to play – at least in the earlier initial releases – often were somewhat different from the originals in certain details and I understand part of what got excised was related to “Japaneseness”. Given that (J/C)RPGs by their nature in general have more text, story, context than say a straight-forward platformer, I assume the impact was stronger there.
          (Not focused on that aspect, but I found this 2012 university paper on the localization of Japanese video games an interesting read.)

          Nevertheless, there are games which I would not qualify as niche (which series were you referring to?) that to me carry certain elements relating to their source with them, e.g. from the (Shin) Megami Tensei universe including Persona. So far I’ve myself only played SMT 3 to completion (and yes, it’s a later generation, from 2003), so again, please take this limited experience and perspective into account. There is the setting (often modern-day or post-apocalyptic Tokyo?), there are aspects of the places and NPCs showing up (some demon mythology, clothing, style of temples and shrines, …). Not sure to what extent Persona games maybe reflect typical Japanese high-school elements, but e.g. this paper (pdf download) has a title that suggests some specific Japanese background.

          There are other examples mentioned in this interview with a Rachael Hutchinson who wrote a 2019 book titled “Japanese Culture Through Videogames” – you can see an abstract and the table of contents of the latter e.g. on this page.

          Combining the two preceding points, this article on gamesradar states that “Persona 2: Innocent Sin […] didn’t make it to the West until the PSP remake finally got localized in 2011. Before that, the story was deemed too dependent on an understanding of Japanese culture […] to work for Western audiences.”

          And then apparently there are more ‘hidden’ references which would have totally flown by a teenage me and in many cases still do, such as allusions to Japan’s history and relationship with (World) War (II) and nuclear power & weapons and the developers’ stand on it, among others also in the Final Fantasy series. See Hutchinson’s interview linked above.

          I’ll just add two more links to articles on JRPGs and video games in general as part of the Japanese media mix I also stumbled on here and here for anyone interested.

          @Jimmy: This one sounds like it could be potentially interesting for your next instalment, though maybe a bit on the academic side.

          • Gnoman

            November 24, 2023 at 12:33 am

            Shin Megami Tensei and all spinoffs, including Persona, are “niche” in this situation. No games in the franchise were released in the US until the first Persona game in 1996, and that release was heavily blandified to avoid excessive cultural “foreigness.” The US audience at the time Jimmy’s talking about had no idea it even existed.

            • Busca

              November 24, 2023 at 8:17 am

              Ah, sorry, that was a misunderstanding. I initially thought your comment “I can’t think of any “mainstream” jRPGs where Being Japanese had a fundamental impact” in the last paragraph wasn’t limited to the late 80s/early 90s which is indeed what Jimmy is writing about here. And I also took ‘niche’ as referring to a series’ importance in general seen from today, not the US market at that time only. Should have read that sentence about “a later era” more carefully.

              So what else besides DQ and FF which Jimmy mentions would you include as ‘mainstream’ from a US perspective in the early 90s – Phantasy Star, Dragon Slayer, Ys, … ? Is there a good overview somewhere on the publication history/timeline of JRPGs in the West? If only few games of JRPG series had been localized yet at that time, I guess everything else would then indeed be considered ‘niche’ ;-).

              (Hope this does not come across too provocatively – I honestly enjoy learning a lot not only through Jimmy’s articles, but also many comments on this blog.)

        • Ross

          November 25, 2023 at 7:38 am

          I wouldn’t personally say that all jrpgs are fundamentally culturally Japanese. Many of the big early ones – final fantasy, dragon quest, etc, are clearly drawing on the same medieval European tropes as western RPGs of the time, and yet there is an obvious “otherness” to them, the sense of sword-n-sorcery being written by someone with an outsider’s view, who did not grow up steeped in those settings. Ultima is clearly the produt of someone who has gone to a Renaissance Festival in a way that Final Fantasy is not

          • Gnoman

            November 30, 2023 at 5:47 am

            Different, yes. So different that they would feel uncomfortably foreign to an American audience? Not so much. A big part of the appeal of both sci-fi and fantasy genres is a world that’s fundamentally Not Here, and most people are going to take the “outsider” effect as part of that.

            I’d give examples to support that, but I genuinely can’t think of anything to point to – the few things that are explicitly Japanese don’t really stand out against the general sprinkling of samurai and ninjas and katanas in Western games of the period, and none of the obvious odd things like “in this universe they ride giant birds instead of horses!” feel distinctly culturally different to me.

            • gamer indreams

              December 26, 2023 at 2:23 pm

              Not a JRPG but this thread put me in mind of playing Ace Attorney with the dubious place localization where they tried to make it seem like we were not in Japan


              That really felt Japanese regardless of how “American” they tried to make it

              Thankfully later they just leaned into the place and Great Ace Attorney where they are actually in 1900s Japan is much better.

  21. Steph Cherrywell

    November 21, 2023 at 5:01 am

    I was one of those kids who ended up getting Dragon Quest (or “Dragon Warrior”) through the Nintendo Power promotion, and it was a revelation – my first experience not only with JRPGs, but with pretty much any RPG at all. As crude and simplistic as that first Dragon Quest was, I could immediately see that there was something magical there, unlike anything I’d ever played before. Funny to look back on it with the knowledge that something so personally life-changing came about because the company was just trying to offload a bunch of excess copies of a flop!

  22. Matt Krzesniak

    November 21, 2023 at 10:20 pm

    Right before I read this I happened to be listening to an old Retronauts about the music of Nobuo Uematsu featuring none other than Chris Kohler.

  23. Matt Krzesniak

    November 22, 2023 at 5:32 am

    I was a sucker and both already subscribed to Nintendo Power and had a copy of Dragon Warrior which I had asked for for Christmas. I liked it so much that when it came time for my birthday I asked for and received Final Fantasy 1.

  24. Korp2

    November 27, 2023 at 8:11 pm

    Your article is quite in-depth, but it seems to rely on a number of popular myths, probably supported by the sources you cited at the end.

    Creating extremely linear and cinematic stories was not unknown in the West, nor was it ground-breaking, it was simply present in another genre on PC; Adventure games. From Zork, to King’s Quest, to Gabriel Knight, adventure games were where PC gamers got all of their story and character development in, while RPG’s were relegated to being more immersive world-building games, almost in line with simulations. I would argue that the translations of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest had nothing to do with their popularity state-side, it was simply an aversion to cultural differences in story-telling and aesthetic that distanced people in the West from them. Even you yourself state that Dragon Quest was “indelibly Japanese”.

    The JRPG also did not “Save” gaming, contrary to what a lot of pop-historians might like to claim. The same year of the “Great Gaming Crash”, PC titles were having resounding success with the likes of Ultima 3, which was the equivalent of a blockbuster in sales, and the game-changing Elite, which released the following year in 1984. The video game crash was decidedly exclusively for the console market, while video games were thriving on PC’s, perhaps more than ever before.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 27, 2023 at 10:45 pm

      Okay… but neither of the “myths” you wish to refute is a claim made in the article. ;)

  25. zeffir

    November 28, 2023 at 12:12 am

    If someone would like background on why successive Final Fantasy games seemed to contradict each other mechanically, this, along with deeper analysis of the game’s designs, are summarized by a series retrospective created by NeverKnowsBest. I highly recommend it.

  26. Lhexa

    December 3, 2023 at 4:30 pm

    “The emotional histrionics of a Final Fantasy VII.”

    I’m offended by this denotation, and I think it’s healthier to speak up. FFVII’s main character is deeply traumatized, for reasons you explore in detail in the lategame. He hides his trauma behind nonchalance, and his friends express frustration with his emotional closure, each in different ways. He eventually breaks down and lashes out at his friends, literally attacking the one who came closest to him. Instead of getting the chance to mend the friendship, she dies at the hands of his manipulator. And you call this histrionics?

    • Gnoman

      December 4, 2023 at 4:14 am

      Much of FFVII is theatrically overdone, in the tradition of opera or true tragic theatre. Which is the kind of storytelling that “histronics” was coined to describe.

      • Lhexa

        December 7, 2023 at 10:35 pm

        “Histrionic” refers to Histrionic Personality Disorder. Like other psychiatric terms, it tends to be misused. The term is often used to belittle behavior associated with trauma, mental illness and neurodivergence, which is why I took issue with it.

        • stepped pyramids

          December 20, 2023 at 6:27 am

          “Histrionic” dates back to the 17th century. The personality disorder was named later.


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