I read this thread off a gaming message forum, and I could only laugh. I am reminded of Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ series where Humanity keeps expanding in the stars so much that they lose the location of Earth. Younger gamers, even if they are old now, do not realize the origin of things. People are shocked when I say there is a link between, say, Ultima and Dragon Quest/Zelda/Final Fantasy. They are shocked when I say that the creator of Master of Orion is a main guy who crafted Metroid Prime (have I talked about that? Oh, I haven’t. Perhaps I should).
Gamers are losing their history. And when gamers lose their history, they cannot see the future business waves since they do not see the waves of the past. The post in that thread, despite being absurd essay over a VIDEO GAME (doesn’t he have something better to do like go outside?), misses out completely on the cool compression Japan gave to gaming.
Japanese gaming has always been around. The big arcade hits were split between the West and Japan. Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man came from Japan. However, the hardware was very limited so the differences between the West and Japan wouldn’t be so pronounced until later on.
After the Atari Crash, the West was dominated by Western styled games. There wasn’t as much as a PC market in Japan so Japanese developers didn’t make PC games. While we had the Atari crash in 1983, Japan had the Famicom.
When the NES came over in 1985 (1988 was really when NES fever was in high pitch), Japanese gaming blew everyone away. Games on Atari or Colecovision weren’t that great. The Commodore 64 games could be interesting, but they got blown away by the NES.
The Japanese invented ‘Concentrated Coolness’ in gaming. This is why the NES games had such heavy impact and were so damn cool. The ‘Concentrated Coolness’ warped every game genre and changed how we experienced gaming.
Consider the shmup. You have Asteroids. It looked like this. Behold:
Like Space War, Asteroids is an arena based game.
The above is Uridium, published in 1986 for the Commodore 64. There was scrolling, but you scrolled left and right to blow stuff up.
The above is Raid on Bungling Bay published in 1984. There is scrolling. This game was made by Will Wright of Sim City and Sims fame. However, the game revolves around the arena… of the map.
There is no ‘concentrated coolness’ going on in the above games.
The above is Gradius. Oh, those Moa heads! Yes, there is a *map* that the ship flies through, but the difference between this game and the above is night and day. It is due to ‘concentrated coolness’. The Japanese, perhaps most of East Asia, are craftsmen and love beautiful drawings. A game like Gradius looked beautiful and sounded beautiful. The music was beautiful. The cost was less freedom. But with less freedom, the developers could ‘concentrate the coolness’ and create something really impacting.
The above is R-Type. Again, there is so much concentrated coolness going on in this game. There is a reason why shmups were big sellers then.
But, dear reader, let us address the RPG.
This is an RPG.
It is Ultima III. It helped define your RPG traits such as the high fantasy, the party system, and so on that Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Zelda are indebted. Wizardry too is another example.
If you play an old Ultima game, you will be horrified at how uncool it is. The graphics suck. The music is nonexistant. The sounds suck. Everything sucks… except for the vast, vast, open world gameplay.
The above is the overworld for Dragon Quest 1. The game is very simple to Western standards. To the Japanese, it was their very first RPG. And yet, the music of Dragon Quest is beautiful. The sounds are great. The monsters are graphically cartoonish and interesting. Concentrated coolness is here… at the cost of the massive open freedom of the Western RPG.
What is this!? Why, it is Final Fantasy 1’s overworld. Final Fantasy 1 is an extremely linear game. The Overworld is more like ‘chunks’ you play though a sequence. But Final Fantasy 1 looks great, sounds great, has great graphics, and has beautiful music. It has that Japanese craftsmanship. It has concentrated coolness.
Japan would keep going their way and created this lovely game:
Final Fantasy IV is a shining example of Japanese ‘concentrated coolness’. Beautiful graphics, sound, and music, at the cost of open world and open decisions. Is it worth it? I thought it was awesome then, and I think it is awesome now. I do not want every game to be the same. If Final Fantasy IV was open world as vast as Western games, it would not be able to pull off the concentrated coolness.
Listen to the coolness, reader.
As Japanese development went this way, they made some interesting innovations. Final Fantasy IV has a very strong plot which would be impossible to do in an ‘open world’ RPG at the time. It also explains why the plot of Final Fantasy VI falls off a cliff once the world ‘opens up’ in the latter half of the game in the ruined world.
“But Malstrom,” you say, “Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy…. JRPGs in general…. were failures in the West.” They certainly didn’t sell much until Final Fantasy VII and that didn’t even last long. So what explains this?
“The West couldn’t handle the Japanese difficulty!”
Now that’s a laugh. So deluded the Japanese were that they thought their games didn’t sell in the West because the West found them to be ‘too complex’! The JRPG was always seen as the RPG for children. The adults were off playing Ultima, Wasteland, Wizardry, and the rest. Mystic Quest was made for the West, and it bombed because it was the wrong product.
The right answer is that the West did not value what the Japanese valued: beautiful craftsmanship. As the OP from that gaming thread shows, the Japanese gaming could only be loved by children because children had not been corrupted by what a ‘proper RPG is supposed to be’. Kids fell in love with the concentrated coolness. It was cool!
The best approach was a fusion of both styles. Nintendo mastered this, and I think Nintendo knew exactly what they were doing. In fact, I can prove it.
If you look in the #3 issue (I believe) of Nintendo Fun Club, it is the issue with Legend of Zelda on it. Nintendo introduces Zelda as a game that is combination of two styles: the fast action of the arcade and the open-world western RPG you find on PCs. Legend of Zelda is a great example of the fusion of open world arena type gameplay with the concentrated coolness. Zelda 2 practically personifies it. Metroid, highly influenced by the West, is ‘open world’ yet is very Japanese in its concentrated coolness.
Another such game was Super Mario Brothers.
Super Mario Brothers had the ‘concentrated coolness’ but had an open world type feeling. After all, you could see the blue sky. You were not limited to one path. You could even take warp zones. You could go around enemies, avoid them altogether if you like, or travel through a pipe to get to the end of the stage.
Western game makers, being fans of games, were definitely fans of the concentrated coolness and incorporated it into their own games.
Ultima 7 Part 2: Serpent Isle copies the Final Fantasy style of tight narrative plot with additional beautiful craftsmanship (look at those photo quality pictures for the dialogue! This was 1993!
Young Western game makers caught on to the ‘concentrated coolness’ style and adopted it as their own creating a new breed of Western game makers. While not swinging too far to the Western style, they, like Nintendo, created a very high quality experience by adopting both styles. ‘Concentrated coolness’ while keeping some of the western gameplay style.
One such young gaming company was Blizzard.
Concentrated coolness comes from the Blizzard games. They are beautiful in both art and sound. In fact…
World of Warcraft is a fusion of both Eastern and Western philosophies which makes it such a juggernaut. While too many MMORPGs focused on being ‘more Western’, meaning more open world and more choice, WoW brought the MMORPG into a more beautiful art and music direction with fantastic looking landscapes… at the cost of much freedom. Gamers loved it. What you call the ‘Theme Park model’ is the concentrated coolness the Japanese popularized.
When I look at the OP in that thread at the top of this post, I wonder how a gamer can ask why someone is asking why a JRPG is not behaving like a WRPG? It is like someone dissing Gradius because their ship only flies in one direction.
Nintendo is being crushed by moving too far to the Eastern influence. Their games are hitting the anime ‘barf’ of the West. Their games won’t be seen as mainstream. I remember when Mario and Zelda used to be cool. I remember Metroid being cool. Other M was bad in many ways, but its worst sin was totally shedding the Western gameplay influences and going full-core manga.
Blizzard also seems to be sinking in that direction. Everything is so controlled, controlled, controlled.