It was with a sense of awe that I booted up RPGs back in the day. These games felt so new, so fresh, so full of depth and exciting possibilities. Growing up, my dad was an engineer who always happened to have a great PC, and thus I was introduced to a lot of Western RPGs like Ultima and Wasteland. However, it was the RPGs on the NES, SEGA Genesis, and SNES that really captured my imagination, games like Shining Force II, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest (known as "Dragon Warrior" back then), and Phantasy Star. These games married excellent music with solid game design, while throwing in enemies that were a far cry from the "Dungeons & Dragons" themed creatures found in most western RPGs of that time. We didn't call those games "JRPGs". In fact, I don't even remember calling them "RPGs". They were just really, really cool adventures.
Fast forward to today. The videogame industry is booming, yet the JRPG market is becoming more insular than any time before, with the exception of the NES/SNES era (more on this comparison later). I love JRPGs. If you're reading this, you probably do, too. Why, oh why, has the number of JRPGs headed to the West dropped so much in recent years?
I think it stems from three main problems: bad marketing, bad management, and bad design choices. I'll tackle each of these issues with my own solutions, and I'd be happy to hear any ideas or solutions in the comments below. Why am I bothering? Because JRPGs are awesome. Pound for pound, they're far more interesting and unique than their Western counterparts, but recently this creativity has gotten way out of hand.
First and foremost, the publishers of JRPGs are terrible at marketing. On the high end, there are companies like ATLUS who do a great job of keeping their fanbase in the loop, and then on the low end we have companies like Namco Bandai who release an enhanced Atelier Totori for Vita without any prior announcement at all. Both of these companies (and everyone in between) seem to be unable, however, to expand beyond their devoted (yet shrinking) fanbases. Can you think of any JRPGs that are popular outside of the devoted gaming community? I can only think of one: Pokemon. What does Pokemon do? It advertises the piss out of itself. And before anyone says it, Pokemon also did this back during the initial launch of Red/Blue with a trading card game, a cartoon, toys, plushies...the whole nine yards. I'm not implying that EVERY JRPG should (or could) follow Pokemon's example, but JRPG companies are being lazy. They're leaving money on the table by not trying to expand. Yeah, I understand that "The West" is what they would consider the expanded audience for some of their games, but if Pokemon, Final Fantasy, and Dragon's Quest could break the mold and become popular, surely a modern JRPG could at least make the attempt. Marketing is not the sole reason why a game fails or succeeds, but when the general public doesn't even know a game exists, you can't really sell to them, now can you?
The next problem in need of addressing is bad management within the developers and publishers. What do I mean? Well, when I read stores about such-and-such company losing money, or cutting back on a certain JRPG series, or not wanting to localize a game, or something like that, I grind my teeth. JRPG developers are incredibly wasteful! I mentioned toward the beginning that the JRPG market is becoming very insular like it was during the NES/SNES days. Do you know why Final Fantasy VI was called "III" back then? It was because Squaresoft didn't think us dumb Americans could handle these newfangled RPGs (quite ironic, since Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest were inspired by Western RPGs like Ultima and D&D, not the other way around). The Japanese RPG companies were arrogant. A lot of people praise the RPGs from this time period. RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III (VI), and Secret of Mana are all revered today, but "back in the day" these sort of games were largely ignored, believe it or not. It wasn't until Final Fantasy VII on the PS1 that JRPGs really skyrocketed in the West. But in the meanwhile, there were dozens of RPGs that Japan kept to themselves, essentially cutting off any opportunity to make more profit and gain more marketshare. The cost of localization is fractional compared to the cost of developing an entire game. It is bad business to create a game for just one market. Does Activision only make its games for the West? Are Bioware RPGs unavailable in Japan? What about Bethesda's games? Yet, there are dozens and dozens of Japanese RPGs that are unavailable here, simply because upper management decided it wasn't worth it.
Well listen up, idiots! You're driving your business into the ground with too many projects! Either concentrate on making a few games and releasing them worldwide (which is how Nintendo and SEGA and Sony each put themselves on the map back in the 80s and 90s), or stop making games altogether. Okay, it's no big deal (to me) if you don't localize all of your games. Japan can keep it's really quirky ones, but there are some games tat seem like ideal candidates for the West, yet they never see the light of day over here. If you insist on making JRPGs, then tweak your business model a bit to allow for other regions.
Below is a list of just a few of the games that have failed to leave Japan's shores in the last few years. At your leisure, Google some of them and tell me if you'd want them localized in your native language:
- Final Fantasy: Type-0
- Valkyria Chronicles III
- Front Mission 5: Scars of War (and yet we get the terrible FM: Evolved?!?)
- Monster Hunter Portable 3rd
- P2: Eternal Punishment PSP remake
- half a dozen Ys and "Tales of..." games
- Grand Knights History (a Vanillaware game, no less)
- Zangeki No Reginleiv (Wii combat that looks superior to Skyward Sword)
To be perfectly fair, there ARE a lot of localized JRPGs that seemed very unlikely to come West-ward, games like Time and Eternity, Tales of Xilia, and Project X Zone. But that isn't my point. What seems odd is that we get plenty of very...*ahem*...Japanese JRPGs like Hyperdimension Neptunia, Disgaea, Tales of, and the aforementioned Time and Eternity and Project X Zone, yet very Western-friendly games (at least, in my opinion) like Grand Knights History or Final Fantasy Type-0 receive no Western localization. Or, to dip into the past a bit, how do franchises with very Western-friendly aesthetics (like Fire Emblem) not get localized? It seems bizarre that a company would devote time and money to a game that will only see the light of day in a marginal market. And that brings me to my third point...
JRPGs these days suffer from a lot of bad design choices. Let me explain further: JRPGs are way too Japanese. I'm fond of turn-based battles and/or quirky battle systems. I have no problem with that, and I don't think that is holding back the genre. What is holding these games back is poor taste and poor design in terms of what stuff will appeal to a worldwide market. The vast majority of JRPGs that started the genre in the first place were designed with a worldwide market in mind, especially in terms of their content. Final Fantasy VII never felt very "Japanese". It simply felt unique. It wasn't until we started getting more Japan-centric games like the Tales Of series, Disgaea, Ar Tonelico, Atelier, etc. thrown into the mix that I began seeing a rise of very "Japanese" games. Before you fly off the handle at me, all I ask is that you at least respect my perspective, since I have been playing JRPGs since...well...the very start of JRPGs. I feel that I have a well-rounded opinion on the matter. JRPGs these days are far more "Japanese" than they were. In fact, gamers only recently began calling them JRPGs. When the West makes a game like Skyrim, the game doesn't feel "American" nor "British" nor "German" nor any other sub-culture of the West. DE: Human Revolution doesn't feel "Canadian". The Witcher 2 doesn't feel "Polish". Yet games like Time and Eternity or The Witch and the 100 Knights most certainly come across as "Japanese", and that's because the developers aren't thinking of a worldwide audience. They are alienating a worldwide audience in favor of a quick, dependable, local audience on their home shores. Or, take a game like Ni No Kuni. This goes back a bit to my complaint about bad management. Why would you give priority to localizing a game like Ni No Kuni? I own the game. It's a fantastic game. I'm not saying it shouldn't have been localized, but it's the sort of game that can only appeal to a very marginalized segment of the market. Kids aren't going to play it, due in part to it not being on a handheld but also due to the game's complexity. Yet, the majority of adults aren't going to play it after taking one look at the graphics and assuming it's a children's game. AGAIN, I am NOT saying that Ni No Kuni should have been scrapped. What I'm pointing out is that companies are choosing to design and localize JRPGs with limited worldwide appeal whereas developers in the West are always keeping a keen eye on how their games can perform in the worldwide market.
Granted, I understand there's a charm to this style, and certain fans would be heartbroken if this design disappeared entirely. I'm not proposing that JRPGs should lose the "J". However, in our shifting videogame market where free-to-play tablet and smartphone games are becoming the norm while $60 retail releases are becoming less attractive to the general public, JRPG developers can't afford to hide in their shell and keep making the same games they always have. It is time to evolve. There are plenty of Japanese companies - like Capcom and From Software - who have brought their games to the West and were met with success. While Dark Souls and Dragon's Dogma are certainly Japanese games with plenty of Japanese quirks, they don't feel "Japanese" in the sense that you aren't bombarded with anime still-shots accompanied by shrill pre-teen female voice-overs. There are companies like ATLUS who are still preserving the Japanese feel to their games, but they are bringing their games to more and more audiences through ports, remakes, and re-translations.
Does it make sense that these three games are localized in the West...
...and yet these three are not localized?
You be the judge.