Note: this post follows on from an earlier post about the DS and RPGs.
Many of the geeks programming computer games in the early 1980s would have grown up playing paper-and-dice Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1970s, so it isn't entirely surprising that roleplaying games proved so influential in the early home computer era. There was no equivalent for console gamers, though, a group who didn't need to be as technically adept as computer gamers of the time.
Being a fan of those very computer RPGs, Yuji Horii, a designer at Japanese publisher Enix, decided to create a simplified roleplaying game for Nintendo’s Famicom (known as the NES in the West), one that was designed to appeal to the mainstream Japanese console audience and provide them with the kind of experience enjoyed by players of Ultima (1980) and its like. And so Dragon Quest, the first Japanese console RPG, was released in 1986 (in the US as Dragon Warrior in 1989) and marked the beginning of both a new genre and a schism in RPGs that continues today. Not long after, Hironobu Sakaguchi produced what he thought would be his last game before leaving Squaresoft, Final Fantasy (1987, in the US 1990), and together these two series have dominated console RPGs, long one of the pre-eminent genres in Japan. Since their merger in 2003, Square Enix is probably the largest publisher of JRPGs, although other companies, notably Atlus and Sony, have also bestowed localized versions of JRPGs on the US and occasionally the UK.
East or West?
No longer can you assume that a console RPG comes from Japan: computer RPGs have been encroaching on this territory, perhaps most significantly when Xbox gamers were given their own version of PC stalwart The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind in 2002. Other features may have begun in one genre before crossing to the other (in both directions), but still the role of the player, the characters in the game and its storyline remain distinct.
Character: One obvious difference is the JRPG's distinctive character design. Even when they’re reasonably life-like, rather than the deformed avatars of the past, they retain some level of anime/manga styling. In most Western RPGs character appearance is less idealized, but this attempt to emulate real life can sometimes make them rather repellent in a way that more stylized character forms avoid. (This is the Uncanny Valley in action – see the Rough Guide to Videogames for more.)
Story: More fundamental than looks, however, is the Japanese RPG’s core concern with story: the characters are ready-made for the story in which they star and there’s little room for player invention. But this is part of their appeal; since they don’t rely on the player for cues, JRPGs tend to feature more epic tales, with an emotional power that’s absent from many Western RPGs.
By the same token, there's not as much freedom to explore the game world: as the characters only exist through the storyline, there has to be a prescribed (if not strictly linear) route through the game – you can't ignore the plot, as you can in some Western offerings. That world is often the same traditional fantasy setting (essentially medieval Europe), although JRPGs frequently adopt alternative backdrops, such as modern-day Japan, a steampunk theme, or even post-apocalyptic space.
Role of the player: In a Western RPG you may well be able to determine your character's appearance and career - choosing to be a fighter, spellcaster or thief, say - and, just as importantly affect their relationship with NPCs (non-player characters) by choosing from limited choices of dialogue in a given situation. In JRPGs the demands of the story put this kind of freedom out of the question. While fighting battles is almost always down to the player, the story will be told either in cut scenes or as text bubbles, making the player very much a spectator. All of which means that any identification you feel comes not from a sense of ownership but has to be achieved by the story's emotional pull.
Why play a JRPG?
Their detractors bemoan the stereotypical angst-ridden heroes, the restrictive plot and the insane number of items and bizarre monsters, which in Japanese translation represent a whole new terminology to be learned. They also invariably take a long time to play, but that's true of all roleplaying games, whatever their origin. It can be hard to find enough time to devote to epic journeys in fantasy land and even harder to remember what happened last time you played. But something Japanese RPGs do offer is an involving storyline, clichéd though it may be, and one that's often remarkably well written and effectively translated (no wonder it takes so long). So you're able to develop a satisfying connection with the characters much as you would if reading a book or watching a movie; something that's not so easy in a game where your character doesn't come with a predetermined personality and role in the plot.
Coming soon: a bit more on Western RPGs, followed by a top ten favourite titles.