Thursday, October 2, 2008

Nintendo's DS: a new home for the old JRPG

The DS has famously attracted hordes of new gamers with easy to master titles like Brain Training, but with rather less fanfare it’s also been providing for older hands, not least in the genre of Japanese roleplaying games. This type of game found its first home on the NES in the late 1980s, but in recent years several titles have been revised to fit one or other of Nintendo’s handheld machines. When new titles can take years – and many millions of dollars – to produce, it’s hardly surprising that the industry has picked up on a rich resource of smaller, graphically less complex games that suit the DS perfectly.

There’s an interesting review of the latest rehabilitation, Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen, at Wired.com’s Game|Life blog, in which Chris Kohler puts the game into its original historical perspective. Even on its release in Japan in 1990, Dragon Quest IV was challenging the accepted forms of the genre with its unusual characters, while its pace is noticeably faster than that of more recent games in the genre. It was a couple of years before an Anglicized version would reach North America (retitled Dragon Warrior), but it never made it to Europe, so for many this game, and others like it, will be a new experience.

To date I’ve played just one Dragon Quest title: despite it being by far the most popular series in Japan, the first game to be localized for Europe was 2006’s Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King for the PS2. On the other hand, I've long been a fan of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest’s main rival in Japan, whose flourishing in the UK must be partly down to a lack of heavyweight competition (the two companies responsible for the series merged in 2003). But even with Final Fantasy there are some unfamiliar games to get to grips with in diminutive form, as even that series didn’t get here until 1997.

So what is a JRPG you may be wondering? Roleplaying may itself be a familiar term, but these games are a breed apart from their Western, computer-based relatives (like Oblivion, Baldur’s Gate, or the massively multiplayer World of Warcraft). Although they began from the same tabletop roleplaying roots, JRPGs have pursued their own, distinctive path. And while the first JRPGs were intended to be a simplification of Western RPG rules, they have since evolved their own equally complex systems.

For more on the hows and whys of JRPGs, check out my next post.

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