Role-playing games have been an incredibly popular form of entertainment since long before video games (or even personal computers) were a thing most people knew or cared about. In the West, the invention and release of Dungeons and Dragons by Gary Gygax and his companions caused quite a stir. Here it was possible for otherwise ordinary people to create fantasy characters and then embody them as they went on adventures. These characters would grow in strength and ability as they solved problems or defeated enemies. Such tabletop role-playing provided the mechanics and overall structure for the “CRPGs”, or “computer role-playing games”, that would be very popular on the various personal computers that took the world by storm.

Games like the Bard’s Tale, Ultima, Baldur’s Gate, and Fallout cemented these grand adventures as a cornerstone of video gaming. In the East, the Japanese were also getting into video games in a big way. However, just as with so much of their other media, this was created through a very particular lens. The “JRPG” or “Japanese Role-playing Game” needs that little “J” for a very good reason. Role-playing games from Japan tend to gravitate to a number of unique conventions that make them both very different from Dungeons and Dragons-inspired fare, and a cohesive thing all by themselves.

In this article I want to take the time to outline what it is about JRPGs that make them special. We’ll look at both the positive and the negative aspects of these games. Before we do any of that however, I have to answer one very important question.

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Why Should Anime Fans Care about JRPGs?

That’s a very fair question and I’m glad you asked. Since this is a site aimed at anime, it’s a subject worth explaining. To me, JRPGs are just as much part of the anime phenomenon as manga and light novels are. They broadly share art styles, stories, and tropes, which means many anime fans are going to feel right at home while playing a JRPG.

Of course, if you are an anime fan but don’t care for video games in general, there is not much for you here. If you are an avid player of Western games and are now getting into anime for the first time, there’s a good chance that JRPGs will scratch both itches at the same time.

Console Yourself

Unlike WRPGs, JRPGs are products of consoles such as the Nintendo NES. Dragon Quest and the first Final Fantasy both got a start on controller-based gaming hardware. I think this has had a major impact on their design and focus. Much of what makes a JRPG distinct comes from those concessions needed to play with a two-button controller from a couch.

You Play Roles Differently

One of the most striking differences between JRPGs and WRPGs is how they approach characterization and role play. Western role-playing games tend to give you enormous control over your character. You can choose their appearance, often down to silly levels of detail. Don’t be surprised if you spend thirty minutes adjusting the angles of an eyebrow. Their class, powers, back story, weaknesses, and much more can be determined by the player. Narratives in WRPGs tend to be very dynamic. In JRPGs, on the other hand, the only thing you can change about the characters in your party are their names. One of the best JRPG traditions is to give truly goofy or really dirty names to the characters and then have the game play them straight for laughs.

Regardless of what your character is named, their personality and story tend to be pretty fixed. JRPGs have never really been about making your own tales, but rather about playing the role of a pre-made character working through a rather on-rails story.

Funnily enough, we’ve started to see more of that in WRPGs of late. The Mass Effect series does let you change the face of your character, but their backstory choices are limited and things are much more on-rails than you might think. One of the most highly acclaimed RPG series, The Witcher, also casts you in the role of Geralt of Rivia. His identity cannot be changed; it is central to all that happens in both the game and the books from which it’s adapted.

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Packed to the Brim

This limited role-playing can create the impression that JRPGs are more shallow, but actually if you do wander off the beaten path in a JRPG you tend to find amazing details and secrets tucked into every corner. Sometimes, for example, getting the best sword in the game requires a set of steps that would make the most devout fan of headscratchers and puzzles throw in the towel.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t get much scope to role-play within the lines that have been drawn to you. The choices presented to your character can have a profound effect on how the game plays out. Multiple endings are a staple of JRPGs and the branches can be dense and complex. It’s not even always clear what you did to get a particular ending in the first place. There are also often mini-games, secret items, paths, and so much more. People still discover stuff in JRPGs decades after they’ve come out.

Taking Turns

A turn-based battle system is one of the most iconic game mechanics associated with JRPGs. Basically this means you don’t hack and slash your way through enemies, but take turns like in chess. The specifics of this mechanic differs from one JRPG to the next, but these games are very strategic during combat.

Of course, D&D-based WRPGs are also turn-based in principle, but computer adaptations of these games have either turned them into action-RPGs or used invisible dice rolls and an in-game timer to keep things going. In most JRPGs you can wait as long as you want to choose your next move. Some JRPGs have experimented with “active time bar” hybrid systems. Here a character or enemy can make a move as soon as their individual timers have filled up. This also brings new stats such as “speed” into the mix. The higher a character’s speed, the faster their time bar fills up.

A turn-based design is one of the main reasons modern gamers have started to feel that JRPGs are a little outdated. After all, one of the main reasons a turn-based system was chosen back in the day was due to console limitation. Getting a dinky 8-bit processor running in the single-digit megahertz to calculate all those stats in real time is a tall order. That being said, there’s is a definite charm to playing turn-based battles. Not everyone is a twitch gamer and there’s a special kind of satisfaction in winning some of the tougher battles in a turn-based game.

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The Grind

A big part of any role playing game is gaining experience and using it to shape your character into something that fits your play style and is devastating to enemies.

Western RPGs tend to strike a keen balance between combat and other elements such as exploration and progression. WRPGs also award XP for doing things like talking your way out of a bad situation, for example. In most JRPGs your source of XP is exclusively combat-based monster killing. The basic game loop is essentially fighting wave after wave of cannon fodder until you are strong enough to beat the next boss encounter. If the boss is kicking your butt then you usually have little choice but to go back into the field and keep fighting the same monsters over and over again until you can brute force your way through.

Grinding is something I consider a throwback from the days when console cartridge space was limited and developers needed to find a way to stretch the total game time. Often this was achieved by making the games incredibly hard, but you could also just loop some of the same content, slightly changing enemy colors and stats for some variety.

Depending on the type of gamer that you are, grinding can either be a lot of fun or a total pain in the behind. Funnily enough, however, most JRPGs have ways to avoid grinding that you can usually figure out yourself. It might be a specific item or combination of techniques that let you punch way above your weight. Modern JRPGs and re-releases of older classics tend to de-emphasize the grind or let you tone down the difficulty in the settings. Still, grinding your way to the top can be very satisfying. Just ask anyone addicted to World of Warcraft.

I Just Met You and This is a Crazy Random Encounter

Another common and rather unique feature of JRPGs is the so-called “random encounter”. When you are in a dungeon or exploring the overworld, a battle will start every so many (randomized) steps. You’ll be happily walking along when suddenly the screen gets all sworly and the battle music starts up. Some people find this really annoying, but random encounters have been a part of many JRPGs for decades. Some games have had alternative takes on the system. For example, you may see single monsters roaming the overworld, but if you touch them with your character a separate battle screen will start up with multiple opponents. The chief difference here is that JRPGs that let you see encounters may give you a way to avoid them.

It Can Be Complicated

JRPGs have a tendency to layer a lot of different systems into their games, which can seem convoluted and overly complicated. The best JRPGs don’t make every system mandatory, but let you decide where to focus your efforts. There might be item and weapon crafting, cooking, magic systems, character enhancements, and way more. Even within the same JRPG series each iteration might overhaul the way things work completely. Final Fantasy is a good example of this. From numbers one through fifteen there have been massive changes to the game’s battle system and RPG mechanics. It’s not even really a turn-based game anymore!

If you like things simple then most JRPGs will not be for you, but if you’re the type of person who geeks out about complex mechanics and deep mastery, then you’ve just reached gaming nirvana.


Giant Tutorials

As a result of these complex and layered systems, many JRPGs have absolutely massive tutorials. These also generally serve as the prologue to the game. As the early parts of the story go on, each of the systems are introduced one by one, easing the player into the full-fat experience. Just how long are these tutorials? Well, it varies. But don’t be surprised if you’re eight hours into the game before the training wheels are finally taken off!

Epic Stories

You’ve probably figured this out already, but the games themselves tend to be absolutely monstrous when it comes to completion times. Even when you’re trying to run through the game in a straight line it’s typical for a JRPG to take as much as 50 hours to complete.

I’ve always found that JRPGs gave the best bang-per-buck as a kid. Did I want to spend $60 on a game I could beat over a weekend or one that would take me weeks or months to finish? I think you can see why JRPGs were such a big part of my own childhood.

The stories themselves are almost always grand affairs. Beautiful artwork, interesting characters, and usually some of the best visuals for each respective generation. Some people complain that JRPG plots are melodramatic or contrived but, really, they hew closely to much of the storytelling style seen in anime and manga. So if you are really into either of those mediums the average JRPG is going to be just as appealing.

Everyone Has Their Part to Play

I think as a genre JRPGs have a lot to offer. Their popularity has somewhat died down of late, but there’s a massive catalog of past titles to try and still more than enough new JRPG titles coming out to keep new and old fans happy.

If you’re thinking of trying out a JRPG for yourself, be sure to check out my article about some great JRPG titles for beginners.

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