Last Updated on April 1, 2020 by Zachary Brictson
The JRPG Definition
The definition of JRPG is in the name itself: Japanese Role-Playing Game. Simple, right? It’s a role-playing game that is Japanese. A Japanese made role-playing game, if you will. Easy.
But many don’t want it to be. At some point the JRPG meaning got complicated. It got contentious, even. No one seems quite sure anymore about what a Japanese RPG is, or why the term ‘JRPG’ is used.
Mere mention of the subject inflames any message board, forum, or comment section in an instant. It’s like someone group-cast the Berserk spell. People go on absolute rants:
What’s the confusion here? Has the JRPG meaning evolved from what it’s “supposed to be,” or was it ever anything in particular to begin with? Other than, of course, being Japanese.
What is a JRPG?
Let’s not be so boring as to analyze what a RPG in general is. Most are on board with that one. Stat sheets, equipment, damage numbers, character levels, yada yada.
Sure, one might look at various hybrids and ask questions. But that doesn’t rile anybody up. We’re all still friends (unless someone brings up Zelda).
Besides that, the concept of ‘RPG’ is well agreed upon. Yet the meaning of JRPG still manages to elude many. You put that ‘J’ in front and things get weird. Suddenly people are taking sides.
Where do you stand on the meaning of JRPG?
In an argument about the definition of JRPG, you can typically find two sides on the battlefield.
Side A is all “It’s just a Japanese made RPG maaan” and are content with that. They see the genre as a cultural export. It came from Japan and it’s an RPG. Great!
The other camp, Side B, has a more rigid ruleset: “A JRPG is a type of game design” like other subgenres.
There’s a lot of infighting occurring on Side B. And it’ll make sense why as this discussion deepens.
But first, a fun exercise.
The JRPG Definition Quiz
Top of your head, no thinking, JRPG yes or no?
- Dragon Quest?
- Valkyrie Profile?
- Nier Automata?
- Secret of Mana?
- Tales of Symphonia?
- Fire Emblem Awakening?
- Dark Souls?
Now, next part of the challenge:
- If a person you just met claimed they prefer JRPGs and wanted a recommendation, does that information help you narrow the above selection down in terms of game design?
- If that same person instead claimed they wanted a Tactical RPG, Action RPG, or some other actual sub-genre, would you feel better equipped to find them the right game from the list?
Thanks for taking the quiz! If you ever come across this subject in argument or conversation, share this article or video and see what others think.
Moving on, it’s time to dig into what these questions mean.
JRPG as a Type of Design. Does it Really Make Any Sense?
The JRPG definition quiz is fun to throw out there because it showcases an important point. That is, if you said yes to only half of the games or even just a few, it still stands that no two among them are similar in design.
Fire Emblem is a grid based tactical RPG. Dragon Quest is random encounter turn based. Secret of Mana is real time action and even has local co-op.
Nier Automata is also real time action, but it’s a 3D combo masher (and sometimes bullet hell). Which doesn’t play anything like a Tales game, for that matter.
Valkyrie Profile? That’s a side-scrolling platformer. And the Ys series? In the early Ys games you just banged your sprite against monsters until they died.
To recommend a JRPG from that list under the assumption that JRPGs are all designed similarly is frankly a lost cause. I’d probably just give them the entire list.
What About a Traditional JRPG?
When people say a game is a ‘typical’ JRPG or ‘traditional’ JRPG, does that actually help the conversation? More often than not, it just leads the discussion into the mess we’re in now.
Yes, we can pin down a lineage between games like Final Fantasy, Romancing SaGa, Suikoden, Breath of Fire, and many others. The random encounter turn-based templates are indeed faithful to one another.
They are also very popular, from Final Fantasy to Dragon Quest to Pokemon. It doesn’t surprise me that’s the first design that pops into anyone’s head.
But what about, you know, everything else?
If the entire JRPG genre is going to be shoehorned into a specific turn-based template from the 80s, it’s no wonder some people think they’re dying out.
Yet in the same breath: Dungeon crawler, tactical, and action oriented designs are also considered JRGPs without hesitation. So what’s this about specific designs mattering at all?
In what way could Final Fantasy XV be a JRPG by the “classic” standard? And what the hell is Kingdom Hearts?
This is why the quiz is great. Because there’s a curve ball in it I’m sure everyone recognized. It’s the elephant in the room and it adds important clarification to the meaning of the term ‘JRPG.’ I’m referring to Dark Souls.
Yes, Dark Souls is a JRPG
Dark Souls ruffles the most chocobo feathers in these arguments, bar none. Because if the JRPG meaning is claimed to be a specific and somehow ‘Japanese’ type of role-playing game design, Dark Souls isn’t any more controversial than other examples I just listed. There’s no logical reason to exclude it.
This starts the infighting among those that even agreed with each other initially on a JRPG meaning. Because now the personal rubrics come out to play. Everyone wants to better clarify what they personally think ‘Japanese’ means in terms of game design, and why it isn’t Dark Souls.
It has to be linear, maybe they say. ‘Character focused,’ whatever that means. It has to have a world map or towns to visit. It’s gotta have random encounters. Yeah, definitely. Random encounters are so Japanese.
Sometimes you’ll see that subset of ‘traditionalists’ form who are adamant about things being turn-based. The discussion becomes absurd.
An infinite count of rules and definitions appear until Dark Souls is removed from the JRPG conversation. Even though From Software and Hidetaka Miyazaki are undeniably Japanese developers. Even when Dark Souls itself is undeniably an RPG at its core.
What makes Dark Souls such an outlier? The answer is disappointing but eye opening. The answer is “Because it doesn’t look Japanese.”
Are Looks All that Matter?
Consider the following hypotheticals regarding the JRPG status of Dark Souls:
- Everything else staying the same, if Dark Souls was colorful and cel-shaded and had a typical manga art style, would people still hesitate on the JRPG label?
- If it had big anime eyes and a character design reminiscent of Sword Art Online, would anybody be uncomfortable calling it a JRPG?
- If the boss fights were replaced by different designs of Godzilla and the game opened with a j-pop musical theme, would Hidetaka Miyazaki finally be credited for making a JRPG?
I don’t believe for a second the argument over Dark Souls would even exist if any of those elements existed. Do you?
There’s a convenient example I’d like to use to further explore this point. It’s actually a game with anime characteristics and it plays just like Dark Souls. I’m talking about Code Vein.
Code Vein is a self-proclaimed Dark Souls copycat releasing later this year, and it looks like a great time. It plays just like a Miyazaki title in fundamentals, but the art style and character design are decidedly young-adult manga.
I can only speak from anecdotal experience, but I’ve noticed that in no JRPG community has the mention of Code Vein been met with “not a JRPG, please don’t post that here.”
But Dark Souls? Dark Souls is too “Western” in its current form. It’s too normal. You’ll be turned the other way for bringing Dark Souls up in a conversation about JRPGs.
The “Not a JRPG” Catch-22
Why does it matter? Well when new ideas — whether in style or design — aren’t allowed to fill out a genre’s potential, it stagnates. It becomes a running joke.
JRPGs are often mocked for their tropes. But when a Japanese developer leaves those tropes behind, their game isn’t considered a JRPG. Funny how that works.
In Dark Souls the storytelling is atmospheric. It has a European medieval fantasy setting. The characters look realistic and its all grimy. Great, something different!
Ah, but now it isn’t Japanese enough. Some people would actually say “It’s a Western RPG” (though you could hardly name a Western RPG that plays anything like it).
Does it really come down to superficial features like eyes and style of armor? That makes about as much sense as calling Jade Empire a Chinese RPG because Bioware made the premise around kung-fu gameplay and oriental architecture.
What it does show, however, is that Dark Souls is at odds with what is accepted as “looking Japanese.”
Maybe it could get away with its dull visual style if the main character was a blindfolded smoking hot android girl. Because that just feels more Japanese, you know?
This leads into insulting territory. Think about it: Telling a group of Japanese game creators that their RPG isn’t Japanese because there’s not enough androids? Because it has normal looking eyes?
Stereotypes can be helpful in casual scenarios when a point needs to be made quickly. That’s why when the JRPG label comes up in conversation, people have a series of images in their head aligned with popular anime art styles and famous Japanese RPG grandfathers like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.
But are those two classics and their designs the end all decider for a genre 40 years later? And is the anime style all Japan is allowed to do in order to stay…Japanese?
History of the JRPG
Backtrack a bit. In the early 1980s there were two groundbreaking American made computer role-playing games: Wizardry and Ultima. They were famous in the West, yes, but rose to even bigger popularity in Japan.
These games created a computer RPG boom in Japan. Eventually, clear lines of influence can be traced over to the first Dragon Quest and original Final Fantasy by Japanese developers a few years later. You can read more about this phenomenon in Japan in this article.
But this isn’t where JRPGs actually started.
PC Gamer’s article about the forgotten origins of the JRPG makes an important distinction. It explains how before Wizardry and Ultima, Japan was already doing its own thing with computer games and RPG concepts.
Japan already had computer RPGs built around character stats. Like in the 1983 title, Seduction of the Condominium Wives, where the main character sold condoms to women. Nice.
Of course, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were immensely more popular designs within the Japanese game industry. A trend so popular that many attribute them as the definers of the JRPG genre. But trends come and go. Final Fantasy today, for example, is unrecognizable compared to its precursors. So why can’t room be made for other types of ideas?
Isn’t that what Japanese developers have been doing all along?
Even during the alleged golden age of JRPGs on the Super Nintendo, there was healthy variety and experimentation. It’s not like anything is changing today by throwing in a Dark Souls or Yakuza title (which also catches a lot of flak). There isn’t any reason to fuss about it.
Problems with Both Sides
I’ve been hard on the side that likes their JRPG meaning specific. But let me pick apart my own definition as well. I’ll explain its flaws but also why I’m still standing by it. If you need a refresher, here is my Webster definition of JRPG:
The inevitable issue that will arise with this JRPG meaning is that of ethnicity and geography. As in, what if I were Japanese but created my RPG in Chicago. Or what if half my team is Mexican but we’re stationed in Tokyo. What if I have one foot in Japan and the other in the pacific ocean, etc…
It gets silly fast. And it gets sillier if I’m all existential about why ethnicity even matters in the first place. Or if I ask how much time exactly does it take to become a citizen and be considered part of a culture. And what is the meaning of life, anyway?
But this JRPG meaning can work well by itself because Japan as a country is a very special case study. It has arguably the oldest lineage of civilization of any nation on earth, and it’s widely stated how 98.5% of its populace is of Japanese ethnicity. That’s pretty unique.
Put simply, Japan is a fun country to place under the magnifying glass. That’s why my ears perk up when I hear ‘JRPG’. I’m excited to see what comes out of there next.
The significance of the ‘J’ in JRPG is that it identifies a genre for those who find Japan’s cultural exports fascinating. And who also like RPGs.
When an RPG Maker Game is considered more Japanese than Actual Japanese Games, Something is Wrong.
But many gamers just want a piece of a certain trend in Japanese RPGs. If you were introduced to JRPGs with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, maybe that’s all you want to see going forward.
For example, many Western indie game designers love old school Final Fantasy so much that we see that template recreated over and over again.
And that’s wonderful. But it doesn’t make any game out of RPG Maker ‘Japanese’ merely because it has random encounters and anime portraits.
The JRPG definition that acknowledges Japanese developers and their output as Japanese in origin simply works better in 99% of cases.
A Better Understanding of the ‘JRPG’ Meaning
In this analysis of the meaning of JRPG as a term, my main goal is to come to peaceful understanding.
I just want to be able to casually say in a comment section, “Hey fellow gamers, some of my favorite JRPGs include Final Fantasy VII, Bloodborne, and Vagrant Story” without getting railroaded by “your selection is invalid because X, Y, and Z don’t have big enough eyes on the characters.”
I’m kidding. But I hope you see the point.
In the end I like the simple definition that conveys the most information. JRPG means a Japanese made role-playing game. Boom. Done. I like that.
Maybe the term won’t last. Maybe Japan will become a globalized melting pot of game developers in the future. But I’ll gladly face those realities if they come.
It certainly beats the endless sets of rules, rubrics, and infinite personal criteria between every person out there who seems to know what “Japanese” really means in a JRPG.