Here is a splendid video about where origins of the JRPG. It is handsomely produced and even I learned some new things.
The only error in it was to say the series of Wizardy and Ultima never produced the amount of money of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. It is forgetting Ultima Online which made more than the entire Ultima series combined and perhaps other JRPG series combined.
One amusing part of the video, that the producer mentions with great curiosity but continues on with the history narrative, is that despite the EPIC marketing push Nintendo gave Dragon Warrior in the West (free copy of the game with subscription to Nintendo Power), why did the sequels sell less and less? Was it due to Final Fantasy being awesome? Was it due to the Super Nintendo being out?
Those are all good suggestions. However, those were not the reasons why.
The problem is the business premise Japanese game companies used (this includes Enix, Square, Nintendo, and others). I do not doubt Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy made great impressions to ‘Japanese pop culture’ or whatever you want to call it. To the Japanese, Dragon Quest WAS their very first RPG. In the West, Dragon Warrior was the very first RPG to some gamers too. To whom? To children of the NES. Dragon Quest, in Japan, appealed to adults. Dragon Warrior, in the West, only appealed to adults who did not use the PC.
Gamers of the West owned a PC. It could have been an Apple II, a Commodore 64, a later IBM clone, whatever. To those who owned a PC, you played PC games. These PC games meant access to RPGs.
Dragon Warrior was released in North America in 1989.
Final Fantasy was released in North America in 1990.
I was a RPG fan then as now. To me, Dragon Warrior was an amazement on how it turned my Duck Hunt/Super Mario Brothers machine, which was used for mostly action and fast moving games, to playing a LONG and SLOW game even though Dragon Warrior was so extremely dumbed down. “Whoa, I’m playing a RPG on the TV!” Dragon Warrior did many things right such as the great soundtrack, the monster art, and the medieval charm (which we must give credit to NOA). Final Fantasy also stirred the same feelings except Final Fantasy seemed extremely mystical and cosmological compared to the stocky and medieval Dragon Warrior. Final Fantasy was literally out of this world in its fantasy (which I’ve talked about numerous times on this site. You have flying castles, airships, robot terminators, time travel, etc.). This was already done in Ultima I and II, (Ultima III onward it became medieval and more Tolkien). Final Fantasy was just very, very put together in all its parts.
The Japanese were (and maybe still?) very arrogant. They thought that they made all the advances to video games and that they birthed all video game phenomena. Since Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy did awesome in Japan, it should eventually do awesome in North America.
Except it didn’t.
The Japanese mindset was: “Those Americans (which is what they meant by North America. They weren’t targeting exactly Canada or Mexico) simply do not understand the complexity of our Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.” After all, from the Japanese perspective, their market had to have the RPG explained to them.
“Malstrom, Malstrom!” the reader cries. “You put words in the mouth of Japan.”
The existence of this game reveals this mindset.
Above: Japan thought Americans were too stupid to understand the JRPG so they dumbed it down even more!
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The year is 1989. Dragon Warrior comes out.
One year earlier, 1988, this game came out:
Remember that Dragon Quest 1 was a simplified version of Wizardry and Ultima III. It was like releasing Super Mario Brothers 1 clone while everyone is playing Super Mario Brothers 3 or Super Mario World. Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy’s charm, to the experiences RPG gamer, was only in CONTRAST to the later Ultima and Wizardry games. Now I’m not as familiar with the Wizardry games as I am with the Ultima, but you have to understand something: Ultima V craps all over Dragon Warrior. Dragon Warrior comes across as a baby’s toy compared to the grey world of Ultima V. It simply could not compete.
Also, Western RPG lovers were adapting to the Ultima and Wizardry console ports that did come out (some of the ports were crazy weird like the Ultima ones). Ultima III was playable on the NES as the title of ‘Exodus’. The truth is that Dragon Quest 1 had a Blue Ocean in Japan but a Red Ocean in North America.
To give you an idea of how crappy JRPGs were, in 1990, when the original Final Fantasy came out, this game came out for the PC:
Above: Seam-less continuous world [all towns and caves are integrated into the overworld], multiple conversation threads with NPCs, NPC schedules, item interaction, mouse support
Above: Non-continuous world, complete menu driven combat, towns are a joke, NPCs have one line, no items, no night, extremely simplified
Ultima required you to translate runic language. It could not compete for the advanced RPG gamer’s time then.
Here is another comparison I want to make in order to highlight the plight of the older RPG gamer during the 8-bit and 16-bit generation. Too much focus has been on the kiddies who grew up with the NES and SNES and so they first played those JRPGs.
What these games have in common is that they both came out in 1995. What was the gamer on the PC playing in 1995?
And many more. The big thing was that the PC gaming was embracing Internet multiplayer as well as GUI operating system (Windows 95!). The Internet was blowing up! And people wonder why JRPGs didn’t sell?
One of the reasons why Final Fantasy 7 succeeded in moving large numbers was because of lack of competition from PC gaming. Due to the Internet craze of 1994 meaning 1995 and 1996 games, it was declared that the RPG genre was dead. A group of game makers would later make Baldur’s Gate which showed the commercial viability of RPGs but that was in 1998. Final Fantasy 7 came out in 1997. As Baldur’s Gate’s popularity invited more PC RPGs, the Blue Ocean turned Red once again. It is why Final Fantasy sales numbers in North America continued to drop after Final Fantasy 7.
I still laugh at Mystic Quest. The arrogance of the Japanese! While Japanese developers were in an alternate dimension thinking that Americans thought their games were ‘too hard’, American gamers were playing RPGs that were running rings around the JRPG.
What was Mystic Quest? It was the JRPG dumbed down with catchy music and some tweaks in it to appeal to that culture (some action parts like jumping to instill ’empowerment’). As pathetic as Mystic Quest is, it is exactly what Dragon Quest 1 was. Dragon Quest is the actual Mystic Quest. Dragon Quest was the Western RPG dumbed down, had some catchy music added, and did some culture tweaks (manga!) to appeal to the culture.
This is why there exists continued JRPG resistance to this day in North America. The critical mistake of the Japanese game business was to NOT LOOK AT THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE OF RPGS. In Japan Land, the universe of RPGs was Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. But over the Pacific, the universe of RPGs was much, much more and was WAY ADVANCED and totally more sophisticated than anything Japan was doing.
When Final Fantasy V came out…
…was when Ultima VII came out.
Final Fantasy V is a menu driven game revolving around ‘jobs’ meaning stats and experience grinding. The characterization in the game is practically non-existent. Meanwhile, Ultima VII just blew up the RPG mold in so many ways.
Experienced RPG gamers like myself were entertained by the JRPG but only in the contrasting ways.
The JRPG was not an open ended experience which allowed better scripting. The JRPG had incredible music and character/monster art. The JRPG really told fantastical stories that went beyond the medieval realm. Chrono Trigger is a great example of these strengths which is why the game is so revered because it pushed those strengths hard. Dragon Quest games, however, did not push those contrasting differences which meant experienced RPG fans in the West had less reason to look at those games.
Above: Chrono Trigger’s scope is just nuts as the intro shows. Its music is on steroids. This is why we love the game. Yet, Skyrim it is not.
The existence of the term ‘JRPG’ and ‘WRPG’ is due to these contrasts in gameplay and style. The original Zelda was inspired in part due to the Western RPG. However, as time moves on, older developers have selective memories as well as being surrounded by people treating them as a genius in that something like Zelda originated all on its own and we liked it because it was Japanese. The truth is that Westerners liked it because it had similarities to their RPGs. The reason why Zelda Wii U is going to be open world is because of Skyrim’s huge sales numbers. This is not to disparage the Japanese gaming as the West also would adapt Japanese styles and strengths to their games (example: Ultima VII: Part 2 is an Ultima game with a Final Fantasy type scripting and ‘holocaust’ storyline).
In order for JRPGs to sell in the West, they need to be more than the best JRPGs. They need to be the best RPGs period. Japan needs to not forget about the rich RPG universe that has always existed in the West.