The Final, Final Fantasy?

April 11, 2010

The Final, Final Fantasy?

By Jason Young

An introspective look on the past and
present state of the Japanese RPG industry

The genre that’s inspired millions of bad
cosplayers all over the world has a problem. One that isn’t so easily
fixed. However, before we explore that, let’s take a trip down memory lane.  For
you see the problem began long, long ago. During the early ’90s and the ’00s,
RPGs were once known as the home of Japanese developers such as Square and Enix
(pre-merger) where it was easy to sell a million of any given game based on
publisher name alone. Square’s Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII and Nintendo’s
Pokemon series provided endless hours of entertainment for gamers everywhere,
presenting some of the best elements of cinema with intense unbridled gameplay.
Who could forget about their first time walking in some tall grass, only to read
the sign “a wild Pokemon appeared!” or the heart-wrenching climax of Final
Fantasy VII? These games were a force to be reckoned with and titles such as
Xenogears and Final Fantasy Tactics proved to be the highlight of the genre; and
more importantly, no one cared that they were linear. 

This wave of excellence continued all the way through the PlayStation 2 era with
titles such as Namco Bandai’s Xenosaga to more niche games such as Persona and
Gust’s Ar Tonelico and Alterier Iris series. Where Final Fantasy X and Star
Ocean presented players with amazing graphics and innovative gameplay; many
developers began to carve out niche holes for themselves by combining newer
technology with classical turn-based style action. After all, with none of the
other two systems, the Nintendo Gamecube and Microsoft Xbox, as viable platforms
to sell their games on, many of these smaller developers found their home on the
PS2 riding on the curtails of Final Fantasy. Then came the problem: the rise of
the Western RPG developer and the HD era.

Persona 4

Beginning with BioWare’s award-winning Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on
the Xbox, people began to realize that they wanted more from their RPGs. Exploration,
multiple dialogue trees and action-style gameplay began to replace the old
stylish conventions of turn-based, linear storytelling that became a trite
characteristic of Japanese RPGs. The ripple effect was felt in the overall sales
of JRPGs to decrease as games no longer sold millions of copies just because
they were published by Square or Namco. “Most Western RPGs, they just dump you
in a big open world, and let you do whatever you like… [It] becomes very
difficult to tell a compelling story when you’re given that much freedom," said
Final Fantasy XIII producer Motomu Toriyama during an interview with Xbox World

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic


While Toriyama-san
may be correct, to an extent, it’s not impossible to tell compelling linear
based narratives with a degree exploration. Something that Final Fantasy XIII
lacks. BioWare does it with games such as Dragon Age: Origins and the Mass
Effect series, and to a lesser extent even Final Fantasy XII did. In fact, some
gamers may argue that it’s actually more compelling when you’re given a certain
degree of freedom. 


I’ll be the first
do admit that I love linear storytelling, after all I am a bishoujo gamer and
the only thing that visual novels have are stories. That said, I honestly have
to state that I found Mass Effect 2’s narrative to be as intricate and personal
as Final Fantasy XIII’s. Choices that I consciously made in Mass Effect 1
continued to have repercussions in the game’s sequel that I found to be amazing
and character development was just as immersive as in XIII. Was the game
linear? Hell yes. However, being able to explore dungeons and towns again in HD
were enough to warrant a second playthrough.  Final Fantasy XIII on the other
hand, I don’t see myself ever revisiting.


Although it’s a
great game with a compelling backstory, but where are my towns or my mini-games
such as the Final Fantasy VII snowboarding game and Triple Triad? It was only
after these little things were taken away that I realized that I missed them. If
this was Square’s attempt to ‘move the genre forward’ then I’m not sure whether
to laugh or cry as these mini-games usually tend to be just as fun as the actual
game itself. What developers need to do is find a balance. Innovate, but don’t
forget where your roots are. Keep your linear stories and art direction, but
don’t forget your charm.  After all, many of us are still willing to put up with
the silliness of a chocobo race. 


Oh, FF
mini-games, where art thou?


Truth be told
however, the real victims are not the gamers, but the Japanese developers
themselves.  With ever declining sales and ballooning development costs due to
hi-def, many companies are finding themselves in a strange predicament. Do they
continue to develop for the PS3 and/or Xbox 360, where sales may never reach the
same plateau as the PlayStation 2 or do they opt out to the Wii, where sales for
hardcore-type gaming has been extremely lackluster? Case in point, Nippon Ichi’s
profit margin has gone down by 97.5%, yet they continue to develop for the
PlayStation 3. Instead, a majority are opting to releasing their games on
handhelds, such as Sega with Valkyria Chronicles 2, as many big budget games
such as Lost Odyssey and Star Ocean: the Last Hope continue to underperform.


Is this a sign
that the JRPG genre that I’ve come to love is a dieing breed? It’s something
that I’ve begun to ask myself time and time again as this generation continues
to progress. Are the days of Japanese linear storytelling finally over? 


Not so fast. In a
recent twitter message to their club members in Japan, Square announced that
Final Fantasy XIII has become the fastest selling game in the series to date in
the West, despite the copious amounts of negative and mixed reviews about its
linear progression. As one of the first prime candidates forJRPGs to sell more
than a million copies domestically this generation, it’s definitely a welcome
sight. On the handheld front, Pokemon SoulSilver and HeartGold have continued to
carry the torch for Nintendo as one of their best selling IPs, showing no signs
of slowing down any time soon. While one-year old PS3 ports like Tales of
Vesperia continue to outsell their 360 counterparts, helping to earn a decent
profit margin after their original development costs. However, if that’s the
case then, why would Japanese developers create time exclusives in the first


The simple answer
of course is money. For you see, without the help of Microsoft’s development
funds/exclusivity contract many of these games would not be available
today. Through entering agreements with developers, not only are they able to
push games out faster, but games like Final Fantasy XIII, Vesperia, and Lost
Odyssey may have never come out which would have been a crying shame for
everybody involved. They key to remember is that gaming, like everything else,
is a business. As long as there is profit to be made with a target demographic
for JRPGs in mind then the games will continue.