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Chances are if you have been playing games for a while, you have come across a game that falls into the Role-Playing Game (RPG) genre. These types of games have been around for a long time since the pen and paper days of Dungeons and Dragons. The popularity of RPGs in video games rose during the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System with the release of Dragon Warrior (or Dragon Quest) and Final Fantasy. The genre has its original roots in Japanese developers such as Square Soft, Enix, (which eventually combined to form the juggernaut that is Square Enix, developers of the acclaimed Final Fantasy series), Nintendo, Atlus, and Tri-Ace. Japanese developers continued to have a monopoly over the genre until the western developer and publisher Bethesda broke onto the scene with The Elder Scrolls: Arena in 1993. Since then the genre in the West has branched drastically from the genre in the East.
What are the differences between the two different sides of the RPG? What differentiates RPGs from the East and West? I’ll give you my thoughts.
RPGs from the East (aka JRPGs)
Archetypes – Characters in JRPGs tend to fall neatly into stereotypical character sets. Check out number fifteen on this list and then keep it for reference on one of the next traits.
Turn-Based Combat– The majority of JRPGs until recently have relied on turn-based combat. People knocked Final Fantasy XII when it was released, but it innovated in one very big way: the gambit system. This was the turning point. Since then turn-based combat has been in a decline in JRPGs. The exception to this is on handheld systems. The handheld will be the last bastion for turn-based combat systems (look no farther than the Pokemon series).
Set Path – In the JRPG there is almost always a linear narrative. There are notable exceptions of course, like Chronotrigger, but on the whole there are generally no choices that alter the main storyline. This is not a bad thing. It allows the game developer to craft a very successful story since the developer controls where the player can be at any given point in a game. Look at Final Fantasy X or Lost Odyssey. Both great games with phenomenal story telling that probably wouldn't have been as good if they had branching story paths. It is enormously hard to write a successful game that can end ten different ways with different characters living or dying. I can’t even begin to imagine how frustrated the writers of Mass Effect 2 became near the end, and how insane the writers of ME 3 will be after they have finished writing it. The set path makes the JRPG unique in a world where developers seem to want players to define their own experiences.
Art – The art style of JRPGs draws heavily from anime and manga art styles; which is not surprising given the popularity of those styles in Japan. Spiky hair, oddly colored hair that everyone takes for granted, the hilarity of comparing NPC character models with PC character models (I always have the sarcastic thought pop through my head “hmmm… I wonder who will be joining my party?” when the obvious party member makes his/her first appearance), the oversized eyes, these are all traits characteristic of the JRPG.
I think that this picture makes my point.