In Defense of JRPGs

Lucas DeRuyter
Games Xbox
Games Xbox Nintendo PlayStation

Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) are some of the best in the medium. Despite being one of the oldest types of games around today, JRPGs routinely lead the field in terms of music/sound design, artistic style, and sustained success. However, many gamers criticize and outright dismiss JRPGs for a myriad of reasons. A fair amount of this criticism is valid. However, there are quite a few popular complaints that don’t hold up under scrutiny.

It’s important and beneficial to criticize JRPGs when appropriate. That’s how games in this genre improve. But we should also point out unfair criticism — along with the things JRPGs do well. After all, the genre has definitely gotten better over time.

Why JRPGs Suck

From long-standing fallacies to solid critiques.

JRPG criticisms often fall into two categories: weaker arguments from those less than familiar with the genre and stronger arguments that come from a deep familiarity with these kinds of games. Some of the weaker and more unfair criticisms of JRPGs tend to stem from superficial comparisons to popular Western RPGs, like Skyrim or the Far Cry games. These arguments paint the genre in pretty broad strokes and label JRPGs as linear, graphically inept titles with boring combat systems.

The more valid criticisms come from individuals who routinely play them. These players argue that JRPGs tend to reward time spent playing (a.k.a grinding) over the player’s skill level. There is some truth to all of these arguments. However, many recent JRPGs dismantle these stereotypical views of the genre.

Countering Superficial Criticisms

JRPGs and Western RPGs aren't that different.

Many gamers claim that JRPGs aren’t as fun or enjoyable as their Western counterparts. Western RPGs tend to focus on open-world mechanics that emphasize player freedom, graphics that push consoles to their limits, and knuckle-whitening gameplay. However, many of the best JRPGs utilize these same ideas in ways that the gaming community still celebrates today.

Chrono Trigger — perhaps the best JRPG ever made — is a very open game that takes full advantage of the Super Nintendo’s hardware. Despite its age, the game still receives praise for allowing players to fight the final boss at almost any time. Similarly, the Persona series allows players to proceed through each game at their own pace. The popular series also offers a plethora of content that players cannot fully access in a single playthrough.

Think JRPGs are easy? The Dark Souls franchise promptly rips that myth to shreds. Easily one of the most difficult series in gaming, the Dark Souls series is also firmly rooted in many of the tropes common in the JRPG genre. (Like the familiar plot of a world nearly brought to ruin by the actions of the gods.) Clearly, there’s a ton of variety in JRPGs. Criticisms based only the most superficial elements of the genre simply don’t do these games justice.

How JRPGs Have Gotten Better

Long overdue innovations.

Up until recently, JRPGs didn’t respect a player’s time and failed to move away from outdated user interfaces. There are countless examples of JRPGs that require excessive grinding to progress in the game, force players to scroll through multiple menus to complete simple actions, and explain their mechanics so poorly that an auxiliary guide is needed. There’s no defense for these design choices, and their presence makes it difficult to play many older JRPGs.

However, thanks to innovations made over the past few years, the genre is improving. In 2014, right as JRPGs were all but dead in the West, Bravely Default reinvigorated the genre with quality-of-life features such as encounter rate sliders, a new spin on the classic turn-based combat structure. It also has one of the most satisfying job systems ever designed, allowing players to simply pair jobs in a way that results in complex strategies previously unseen in JRPGs.

Following Bravely Default’s success, other JRPGs also shook up tired formulas. Persona 5 is the most new-user friendly JRPG ever made. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy XV continually updates the game to keep it fresh. Then, there’s Monster Hunter World. The graphically impressive title explains its mechanics well, bringing the series into the mainstream. While the criticisms of JRPGs are completely valid, it’s undeniable that these games are finding new and innovative ways to improve the genre’s oldest ideas.

Why JRPGs Are Awesome

Despite all these issues, these are some great games.

JRPGs push the video game medium forward in ways other styles of games don’t. The genre features some of the best music and sound direction in the industry. Not to mention, the genre’s focus on graphic style over realism has given us the most enduring and beloved characters and worlds in gaming. It also hosts some of the best and oldest franchises in the medium, such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Pokémon, and Kingdom Hearts.

Regardless of the scope of the story, JRPGs are deeply emotional and compelling pieces of media that blend fun and challenging puzzle solving with strategic combat. If you’re now convinced to try out a game or two in this genre, there are plenty of great places to start. Bravely Default for the 3DS is one of the best JRPGs ever made, Persona 5 for PlayStation 3 and 4 is as fun as it is stylish, and Nier Automata for PlayStation 4 expertly blends great writing and music with addictive gameplay.

If you give any of these titles even the smallest amount of your time, there’s no way you’ll be disappointed.

Lucas DeRuyter
University of Wisconsin Madison graduate with a deep interest in media, writing, and storytelling.