Spending a childhood playing JRPGs has given me a great respect for them, but I'm not a child anymore and the games haven't grown up with me. I can't help but feel let down by almost every new game that fails to evolve and consider something new - say, having a hero who doesn't use a sword (gunblades count as swords).
Through the years, I've become mature, wiser and incredibly good looking, while JRPGs still have the same happy-go-lucky idiots running headlong into the same obvious fortresses of evil. Before you start moaning about how a great formula is great because it can endure the test of time, read my reasons that JRPGs suck. After that, go ahead and gripe if you think fixing these concerns wouldn’t make JRPGs even better (babies).
The only time it's appropriate to find 12 gold coins and a potion after a battle is when you’ve just defeated a group of potion-sellers. But does that ever happen? No, but take down a pack of wolves or an alligator and you're bound to find leather armor, a gem of fire magic and enough gold to start a college savings fund for the little alligator orphans you've just created. The obvious question is: what were the animals going to spend that money on? When you figure that out, ask yourself: where were they hiding those 12 gold coins?
Quick fix: This one's not very hard to figure out. If you're fighting a guy who fights by throwing fish at you, he should drop some fish. If you fight a fish, it should drop nothing but scales and fish meat. Fish don't carry manufactured goods.
In a perfect world: Instead of collecting gold from enemies, I'd like to be able to saw off the heads of everything I kill, tie them all together in a long chain and drag it around to freak people out. This is better than collecting gold from dead animals, because it at least makes sense in that everything I fight has a head. Well, except the things that don't.
Worst offenders: Outside of an MMO or two, if you can get loot from fighting, the game does this. Go ahead, think about it for awhile and see if you can find more than one exception.
Using strategy to win battles is great, but why is it always this: cast ice spells at the red enemies, shoot fire spells at anything made out of ice and use lightning on anyone whose name ends in "The Robot." If a villain could somehow create a robot that has the ability to not explode after rubbing its socks on the carpet and touching a doorknob, I wouldn't have a chance. JRPGs need to get rid of the idea that it makes a difference if your sword is warm or cold, and that smashing a giant crab with a big block of ice is going to make it any less dead than zapping it with lighting.
Quick fix: Start thinking of spells that aren't powered with colored mana or named with made-up suffixes.
In a perfect world: Pretty much any spell with the suffix "-exploder" is guaranteed to be a winner. Head-exploder, brain-exploder, eyeball-exploder, butt-exploder; each of these spells is better than the last and has nothing to do with any kind of elemental attack. Given the choice between learning a big fireball spell and the ability to even very slightly explode butts, I think the choice is obvious.
Worst offenders: Ice spells.
Watch this video and ask, is it really the sudden onset of cold weather that's doing damage or is it the physical ramifications of being impaled on a gigantic column of ice?
Just because you can't see a 100-foot bone dragon, doesn't mean that there isn't one three steps in front of you, poised to poof into existence and immediately chomp your face off. Random encounters are a feature that date back to when RPGs were written for technologically primitive game systems. Today's consoles and PCs are powerful enough to render enemies while also showing the rest of the world at the same time. To keep up with steadily advancing technology, since its creation, the JRPG random-encounter system has been tweaked and carefully molded in no ways at all.
Quick fix: Just drop the whole concept of snapping into "battle mode" and out of… "regular mode?" Games that take place in a world with consistent laws of physics and clearly established rules of invisibility tend to make more sense than other games.
Above: There is nothing in this screen
In a perfect world: Let's get some on-screen enemies that actually ambush you. After all, if they're just sitting around a dungeon, waiting for heroes to walk by, they've probably cooked up some well-planned ambushes with all that free time. I'd love to see a game that not only gets rid of the jumps into "battle mode," but pits you against enemies who actually move and hide in clever and realistic ways.
Worst offenders: Every Final Fantasy game prior to FFXI. This is so ingrained into the series that FF is actually known for the random encounters.
There are only two types of people with the emotional stability and time-tested leadership it takes to head a group and confront the challenges in JRPG stories.
1. The dark brooding quiet type with a mysterious past and a penchant for not responding to direct questions.
You'll know you're playing with this type of a hero when the character you're playing isn't blonde (Though Cloud in FFVII is still blonde. Maybe he bleaches?). Anything he says reminds you of your favorite Good Charlotte song lyric and beautiful women are inexplicably attracted to him despite his lack of humor, sensitivity, positive attitude and usually memories of the past.
2. The spunky optimistic kid who wears his heart on his sleeve and really wants to help. And is usually obnoxiously cocky.
Above: Would you really want to hang out with a guy who enjoys playing the Kithara with his grandpa?
You'll know you're playing this type of hero if he's been raised by a kind-hearted grandpa and begins the game by oversleeping. The weirdness of old people will have rubbed off on him causing the kid to jump at any chance to deliver anything to anyone. His eagerness to please is only matched by the emotional intensity of your actual cringe when Gramps tells you to take a bushel of tomatoes to all 25 villagers. Oh yeah, and all young heroes grow up in small isolated villages. Duh.
Quick fix: It's pretty obvious the world needs a young, enthusiastic, quiet-type willing to wear black and help bake pies for senior citizens.
In a perfect world: All heroes would be of legal drinking age. Unless there is no legal drinking age (it is a fantasy, after all). After that element of game design is taken care of, create characters with some emotional depth beyond the occasional gruff grunting or extreme eagerness to help the elderly.
JRPGs will force you to team up with an animal, a stuffed animal or an anthropomorphic household appliance at some point. Even when things are as dire and bleak as they can possibly be: you're the last hope for the world, overpowering malevolent forces are climbing the blood-drenched steps to the last haven for good and the list of dead heroes is longer than the list of people still willing to fight. Even in those moments, JRPGs still can't resist tossing in a seven-foot-tall talking marshmallow with a cat on its head or something. Getting the "don't dishonor the dead by making their sacrifice be for nothing" speech from an oversized, delicious looking breakfast pastry tends to put a damper on my willingness to buy into the "serious" stuff going on.
Quick fix: Limit party members to things that actually have a soul.
In a perfect world: If I've got to team up with something wacky, why not make it a giant pair of boobs? Characters in the game will be astonished at the giant pair of sentient boobs following my party around, and at appropriate intervals, say "WTF? Those sure are some nice talking boobs you're adventuring with." To which I'll say, "You're damn right" in my best Barry White voice.
Worst offenders: Cait Sith from Final Fantasy VII. First, the game makes it clear that he's just a robot being controlled remotely by an unseen person. When he bites the big one, after volunteering to stay behind in the shrinking temple, FFVII cues up the sad music anyway. So I'm sitting there trying to figure out when the robot got its wish to become a real boy, and before I can finish, Cait Sith 2 has found his way to the remote island and joined the party. Good thing there was a spare lying around.
Sometimes JRPGs tell me that there's no more room in the party. Doesn't it stand to reason that if I've got ten friends and I'm going to lay siege to an Air Fortress, it would be a good idea to bring along all ten - not just my three favorite party members? Standard JRPG strongholds, such as Air Fortresses, Deserts of Thirstiness and Mountains of Very Large Icy Rock Monsters Live Here are all notoriously difficult to attack. If it were up to me, I'd bring all the help I can get.
Quick fix: Logic dictates that if the game wants to put 20 characters in the group, then it should let you use all 20 characters. If having 20 teammates unbalances the gameplay, there shouldn't be 20 controllable characters in the game in the first place.
In a perfect world: Instead of arbitrarily cutting monster-smashing power, start killing off unwanted characters. If your favorite ninja is bitten in half to make room for Spunky the New Guy, the tension level and desperation to succeed goes up. But being able to leave the ninja back at base to eat scones and polish his lucky shuriken destroys the illusion that the world is in real danger.
When we get the message that "there's no more room in the party" it would be great if the sentence could end with "…because nobody wants to bring along the damn Moogle." That's the best reason we can come up with for leaving part of the team behind.
Worst offenders: The Suikoden series. 108 characters who will join your army and six party-slots mean just about everyone gets left at home.
The problem with turn-based combat is that when it isn't your turn, your characters don't do anything. I get that it's supposed be a representation of real combat. And I get that who goes first is mostly likely determined by some obscure statistic buried under tons of relevant but ignorable menus. But what's the point of having a 60" 1080p flatscreen TV if I have to imagine what's happening on it?
Instead of watching a battle, I'm left flipping through menus, while my guys stand in place, caught in a looping four-frame animation that lets me know they're ready for me to hit the attack button.
Quick fix: Rather than represent an actual battle by using a set of turn-based combat rules, wouldn't it be even better to just show a real-looking battle?
Above: Good thing there's enough time to have this lengthy conversation before anyone can make a move
In a perfect world: Let your opponents watch you flipping through the menu. I'd like to see an imp's terrified expressions go from "bad" to "oh shit!" while flipping from Ice 2 to Immolation 3 to Imp Dissolver 5. Let him wallow in fear as I run to the fridge for a drink, then finish him off with a leisurely button-tap that was five minutes in the making.
Worst offender: Final Fantasy Tactics' battle screen. To keep from having characters doing nothing while waiting their turns, the battlefield is populated with 10-20 characters walking in place. That's right, to keep things exciting everyone walks in place.
I don't think I'm alone on this - although I might be the only one mature enough to admit it - but I have no idea what I did at the end of FFVII. Since 1997 my confusion has only grown. Plots have gotten so out of hand that each new game is desperately trying to one-up the pack by adding even more extra twists and extraneous plot devices. There's always an evil puppet master revealed towards the closing act, the main character will discover at least one brother, someone will discover their mother was a robot and their father was a potato. Nothing is surprising, because no one knows what the hell is going on anyway.
Quick fix: Instead of trying to win the player over with ever-more-ludicrous plot convolutions, just storyboard out a classic struggle with interesting characters and an antagonist who acts like a jerk because of a character flaw. Of course, that's all easier said than done.
In a perfect world: There would be a game that doesn't end with the hero saving the whole world from an unstoppable evil. If a game really wants to do something new, how about having the hero fail? Not in a "we'll get 'em next time, kiddo" kind of way. I'd be amazed if everybody dies, the credits start rolling and someone says "isn't this sad?" It would be believable, simple and something I haven't seen 100 times already.
Worst offender: Eternal Sonata, which explains away its nonsense by making the entire game part of Chopin's dream. In the future all JRPGs will have intros that explain that all subsequent events are [insert dead celebrity here]'s dream. The dream factor is totally enthralling and totally not just an extra layer of fiction between the game and the game player.
Before playing my first JRPG, I never though of myself as the type of person to sport pants with a tail-hole in the back. Now that I've done it, there's something that just doesn't sit right about playing a cross between a studly hero in top form and a cute little bunny rabbit. What's worse is that it always seems completely unremarkable to anyone in the game. If I've got all my facts straight, there's only one way to produce a man-rabbit, and frankly, I'm disgusted that it's such a common practice in JRPG worlds.
Quick fix: When making a game about people, just stick to using human body parts. If there's any uncertainty, just ask this question: "is this body part found on members of my species?"
In a perfect world: To appease animal lovers and normal people, try giving the hero a thick lumberjack mustache, a beard, rustic Burt Reynolds chest hair and a penchant for cooking outdoors. I've never seen a JRPG hero with facial hair.
Worst offender: Final Fantasy IX's Zidane. He's a double-knife-wielding womanizer who makes his way in the world as a member of a group of sky-pirates. Also, he has giant eyes, pointy ears and a monkey tail.
You'd never know it from seeing them, but JRPGs are actually written completely in Japanese. By the time most of them arrive on our shores, though, they've been completely rerecorded by 100 percent English-speaking talent. The "talent" being whoever happened to be standing closest to the microphone after the interns finished translating with Japanese-to-English high school dictionaries. No thanks, I'd rather just hear it in a language I don't understand.
Quick fix: Leave the original voices and add some subtitles. If a game wants to get fancy, write the subtitles in a funky font. Do nothing else.
In a perfect world: We'd all speak the same language, the language of love… or maybe math.
Worst offenders: Enchanted Arms - although this is also an example of how to fix the problem, because it lets you switch from awful English to acceptable Japanese. And in terms of raw, written translation weirdness, Legend of Heroes III's "Sworder Sword: Master it and you're a full-fledged sworder" still makes us giggle.
A big reason I play RPGs is for the chance to pretend to be someone that I'm not. Nothing ruins that faster than when the game actually forces me to stop being that character and watch a short film showing what "I" am doing. As gaming systems evolve, the extra processing power is being used to make longer, prettier cutscenes. Wouldn't it be better to incorporate more things that used to require a cutscene into actual gameplay? Recent games, such as Lost Odyssey and Eternal Sonata, have exactly the wrong idea and it's entirely possible to spend more time watching than actually playing the game.
Quick fix: Take a storytelling lesson from action games. Games like BioShock and Portal use the environment to tell a story without interrupting the continuity of the world.
Above: In this scene we learn that everyone has their own face
In a perfect world: Real life would have cutscenes. Then it wouldn't be as jarring when games do it. Imagine switching to a third-person perspective every time you have to open a stuck jar of peanut butter. The drama would never end.
Worst offender: Lost Odyssey nails you to your chair with nonstop movies. Opening a door often earns you an elaborate "door opening" scene. Uncovering the next memory from your mysterious forgotten past earns a screen full of text to read. Apparently Japanese gamers would secretly rather be watching TV or reading, but just play games for, you know, the chicks