Nowhere else was the influx of solid game design during the 1990s more evident than among Japanese role playing games (JRPG). Scores of superb titles such as Wild Arms, Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy Tactics, Dragon Quest VII and Vagrant Story forged a legacy of quality; an era arguably unrivalled by any other genre era in gaming history.
It really was an extraordinarily good run, with most of these brilliant games releasing just months, sometimes weeks apart; each offering top notch gameplay, a quality narrative and significant 100+ hour adventures. Indeed, Japanese game studios could hardly put a foot wrong as a new generation of developers expanded on the successful gameplay concepts pioneered during the early 16-bit era titles such as Chrono Trigger. Players were lapping it up, too, especially in Japan, where role playing games dominated commercial sales. In the west, titles such as Final Fantasy VII on PSOne and Pokemon on Nintendo’s Gameboy were hugely successful, exposing the genre to the mainstream.
The 1990s was a golden age for the genre. JRPGs had an identity, a blueprint, which had been honed and perfected over years. Yet, in the face of action oriented western RPGs and the increasing popularity of action adventure titles outside of Japan, publishers began to lose their nerve. Faith in the style that had given the genre its unique identity evaporated.
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Frightened by a steady decline in the interest of JRPGs, the consensus was a collective movement toward more action oriented combat. JRPGs suddenly lost their mantra; faster systems threw away a lot of the tactics and strategy that had previously defined the genre, and JRPGs of the mid 2000s seemed distracted by innovation for innovation’s sake. It all felt a little forced and confused; new systems were being shoehorned in where they weren’t necessarily welcome.
The mainstream success of JRPGs in the 1990s has never been replicated again. Largely niche published games such as Hyperdimension and Mugen Souls have amassed cult following in the West, but the quality of these games is lacking by comparison.
In fact, for years, JRPG fans have largely endured somewhat of a dark age. Sure, there’s been some diamonds in the rough with titles like Persona 4, Valkyrie Profile, and Ni No Kuni moving the genre in a positive direction, but there’s been no consistency, and for every decent game, there have been ten mediocre ones either side. Inklings, however, of a brighter and more positive JRPG scene – a future where the spirit of quality JRPGs might once again become the norm – seems to be a sentiment that is rapidly gaining traction. Hell, we’ve even got a new developer called Tokyo RPG Factory with a mission statement to match.