Players whose interest in the medium began in the last decade or so sometime take for granted the breadth and variety of titles that can be found in almost any genre. From tactical first person shooters to environmental exploration games, today’s games and genres and styles are easy to find if you know how to look. This, of course, wasn’t always the case. Every modern genre and kind of game, even the juggernauts of the industry, had to begin somewhere. Today, we will examine the humble origins of Japanese RPGs, a long time game staple that exemplifies the Japanese market while having distinctly Western roots.
To understand the rise of the RPG in Japan one must first understand just how omnipresent the Western Role-Playing Game was in the world of early 80s computer gaming. Two game series ruled the day: Ultima and Wizardry; both were dungeon crawling exploration games that took much of their inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons. These series were hugely successful in the West, but they didn’t have quite the same effect in the Japanese market. This was understandable, as the games were heavily text based and built upon the success of tabletop RPGs, which were not as accessible at the time in Japan. (Dungeons & Dragons itself did not see an official release in the country until 1985). That being said, demand for the genre was growing slowly but steadily in the East as well, so it was only a matter of time before the country began to experiment with RPGs themselves.
The first Japanese made RPG that legitimized the genre was actually made by the Dutch-born Henk Rogers in 1984. This game, titled The Black Onyx, released on the PC-8801 and ported later to the MSX and Famicom, was the best selling computer game of all time in Japan in 1984, and won various game of the year awards in the country as well. It was essentially a Wizardry clone, but just the fact that it was in Japanese made it far more accessible to the general gaming public. The Black Onyx introduced a lot of the staples of the Japanese RPG genre, as in it you took control of a party of five adventurers that must traverse monster filled dungeons in a quest to retrieve the mystical Black Onyx.
As mentioned previously, The Black Onyx received a port to Nintendo’s Famicom. This port proved to be a financial success, and it paved the way for JRPGs to find a home on Japanese consoles, an ecosystem where they would go on to find their highest level of success. The game that would really take the genre to the next level was Dragon Quest. Released on the Famicom in 1985, Yuji Hori’s classic title combined the random encounter first person enemy battles of Wizardry with the top down view of Ultima and in doing so created the first traditional JRPG. The game had dungeons, a world map, leveling, hit points, magic points…. Pretty much every staple one would expect from an RPG. A year later, Sqauresoft would further refine the template with Final Fantasy, a game developed by Hironobu Sakaguchi from the ground up for the Famicom. This game, named for the fact that if not successful it would be Square’s final game, featured multiple player characters with customizable classes, as opposed to the single player in Dragon Quest. It also featured a battery save option and detailed sprite work that would be seen from the side and not the from a first person perspective, another departure from the Dragon’s Quest formula. Not to be outdone by the Famicom, another seminal JRP franchise, Phantasy Star, launched just one month after Final Fantasy in 1987 on SEGA’s Master System. All three franchises would go on to spawn many sequels. Dragon Quest 3, released on the Famicom in 1988, famously resulted in the arrest of over 300 hundred students for truancy on the day of it’s release, a day in which it sold over one million copies.
The 8-bit era provided the building blocks for the future of the genre, not only with Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, and Dragon’s Quest, but with other long standing series such as YS and Shin Megami Tensei. It was during the 16-bit era, however, that the genre really began to diversify. It saw the rise of such series Star Ocean, Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana), Lunar, and many others. Sqauresoft and Enix, both separate entities at the time, created many marquee titles, such as Chrono Trigger and Terranigma, and video game godfather Mario even got into the action with Super Mario RPG on the Super Nintendo. While this is considered by some to be the golden age of JRPGs, the genre would not achieve mainstream acceptance until the following console generation. This is largely due to Final Fantasy 7 on the PlayStation, a game that would go on to sell over 11 million units worldwide. A little series called Pokémon debuted around the same, and has also done well for itself since.
While interest in the genre as a whole may have waned in recent years, Japanese RPGs still remain relevant in the market. You have to look no further than aforementioned seminal JRPG standouts Dragon’s Quest and Final Fantasy for proof. They are currently two of the best-selling video game franchises of all time, and both are still major players in the video game industry, with Final Fantasy XVI having been one of 2016 marquee releases and Dragon’s Quest XI being one of 2017s most anticipated.