Just Really Poking the Goblin (JRPGs)
“HOW Many Side-Quests?!?”
Welcome back to our look at the graphic design and evolution of games. Today we’ll be taking an in depth look at the graphics and gameplay of Japanese Role-Playing Games.
To the layman, having the differentiating titles of Japanese or Western role-playing games might seem strange. They are all RPGs, why not just call them that? Well, we do, at least in casual reference, but there are distinctions to be made with typical themes and tropes in both JRPGs and western RPGs, and thus we have these subcategories. Typically, JRPGs are strongly influenced by Japanese culture, some of them even based in Japan itself, tend to be very over the top, and are stylized as “high fantasy”—meaning lots of magic and fantastical creatures. Without further ado, let’s explore these classic game titles.
Final Fantasy (1987, NES)
The first outing for JRPGs is by the now titan of games, Square-Enix (formerly SquareSoft). This game was called Final Fantasy. It spawned a franchise of games that have captured the imagination of gamers from every generation. Its beginnings were humble, as the name was, at the time. Final Fantasy 1 or FF1 was the sink or swim title for Square, who would have gone bankrupt without its amazing success.
Final Fantasy tells the story of the four prophesied Warriors of Light, each carrying one of the darkened elemental Orbs of the world, as they set out to restore these orbs and bring back peace to the world [ 1 ]. The Warriors of Light are not all “warriors,” but start out the game as four different classes which you choose from a total of six. These being Fighter, Thief, Black Belt, Red Mage, White Mage and Black Mage. Appearances are static for these classes, meaning that if you have two Fighters, they will look the same. Thankfully, you can name each character to avoid too much confusion about who is whom. Animations for these characters are all basic, which is expected since we are on the NES. Your party leader, regardless of who it is, will have simple walking sprites, which are the same for the world map and for local area maps. Their combat animations are simple as well, but revolutionary for the time. Having an RPG battle screen that showcased both your party and its enemies side-by-side was a new concept, and this made combat in FF1 much more exciting than earlier RPGs. The visceral satisfaction of seeing the Black Mage using Fire on an enemy for the first time is hard to convey for modern gamers, but it remains an important milestone in graphics and gaming history.
The game’s interface is astoundingly complex for such an early title and limited system hardware. You have full party management screens, including inventory, equipped items, equipped spells, consumable items, and party stats. You can also switch out who leads your party and general party positions by pressing Select and swapping the characters around. While these sorts of things are standard practice for RPGs now, FF1 paved the way. Still, the classic title is not without its irritating bits, as you need to purchase or sell items at any shop one at a time, which is very tedious. Still, given all the allowed complexities, one could hardly be allowed to complain at the time.
The map colors are bright and pleasant and, perhaps more importantly, informative. Passable grasslands and forests are as clear and plain as the impassable mountains and walls. The world map is expansive, featuring three whole continents ripe for exploration. Corneria and the surrounding lands showcase many wooded areas, marshes, and several towns and castles. When the map opens up via sea and sky ships, they will find a mountainous continent to the northeast and a massive desert in the northwest. While the over world map is generic in its detail, the many dungeons of FF1 have plenty of texture palettes and variety to keep things interesting.
The foes of Final Fantasy are somewhat standard fare for the fantasy genre. Monsters like Goblins, Wargs, Zombies, Skeletons, Ogres and Trolls make regular appearances. The 8-bit sprites are simple, and animations for combat are limited, but these classic pieces of pixel art showcase just how much can be done even on such limited hardware. Bosses especially have an exceptional amount of detail put into their sprites, making their encounters much more memorable. Garland, the first boss, appears as the epitome of a dark knight, with a long cloak and horned helmet. Astos, king of the dark elves, has a gangly body with wicked claws. The Earth Fiend, Lich, floats as a crowned skeleton among a shroud of magical energy. The dedication of Square’s game artists really shows through here. By today’s standards of graphics, these foes don’t look quite as imposing, but for the time they were amazing and sometimes terrifying, particularly if you came across a particularly deadly group and knew you were in trouble.
As I mentioned, this game was supposed to be Square’s send off, but ended up being one of its biggest hits, and saved the company from bankruptcy. This success can be attributed to many things: its innovation in design, which showcased a complexity yet to have been seen on the NES, with a plethora of programmed sprite animations, spell effects, and artwork. Its storyline, which was far more in depth and better presented than most RPG games that came before it. Even something as small as being able to name all the characters in the party allowed for players to become more invested in this title. While there had been RPGs before this, Final Fantasy brought the genre into mainstream gaming.
Final Fantasy has had several remakes for newer systems, which updated the graphics and dealt with several coding issues the original game had. True hardcore nostalgia fans may wish to stick with the original, but I’d personally recommend the remakes, as having the game function correctly is much more desirable. While it has obviously aged regardless of the applied fixes, Final Fantasy can still be fun to play for an afternoon. Visiting the origins of the series was certainly entertaining for me.
Dragon Warrior/Quest (NES, 1986)
Another storied franchise that continues to this day, Dragon Quest (or Dragon Warrior as it was known in North America until 2005) was first brought to us by Enix (which would later merge with Square). It is the tale of a nameless hero who embarks on a quest to defeat the evil Dragonlord and reclaim the Ball of Light, which will eradicate all monsters and restore peace to the kingdom of Alefgard [ 2 ].
The nameless hero does, in fact, get a name, as you decide what that name is when you start a new game. I use the trope of the nameless hero because no two people will name their hero the same way, and so he represents everyone and no one. While later titles in the series feature more party members, the original simply has the one hero. His sprite appears as a warrior armored in blue, with a sword and shield, and a tasseled helm. While he is not much to look at, his little blue sprite serves its purpose well. Unfortunately, you don’t get to see this sprite much apart from navigation, as the combat screen only shows the enemy, as if it were from a first-person perspective. This style of RPG combat remains prevalent, and while I don’t find it technically flawed, it is less exciting than some of its same-day counterparts in this case. This is also a matter of personal taste for me, as the sort of “one hero against the world RPG” isn’t really my style. I enjoy the dynamics of having a group with different skills and abilities more than being an all-powerful destroyer of monsters, at least in an RPG setting. If this were an action game or platformer? I’m all for it. Even so, my personal preference doesn’t delegitimize it.
In terms of interface, Dragon Quest’s is a little more old-fashioned. It’s styled somewhat after the earliest home computer RPGs, with a simplified look. The hero’s stats are on the left, and the command menu, that has several actions on it, is on the right. Your options are “Talk,” use a “Spell,” check your “Status,” check “Items,” use “Stairs,” use a “Door,” “Search” a chest or other container, and “Take” items. Already you might notice this style of interface brings a certain level of tedium along with it, as you must stop at every closed door, chest or stairway, open the menu, and choose the correct command. I have to fault Dragon Quest here, given that just a year later, Final Fantasy had a much more improved interface and built-in map transitions on the same hardware. We also have the persistent early RPG issue of having to purchase items from shops one at time. It can get rather annoying, especially for players used to more modern interfaces.
The game world itself is extensive, as RPGs tend to be. The kingdom of Aelfgard spans a whole continent, primarily made up of forests and grasslands, with mountain ranges dotting the landscape and small patches of desert and swamps. The overworld is brightly colored and easy enough to navigate, though it becomes slightly dull to look at over long periods of time. Dungeon locations are simple affairs, having red brick tiles for floors and gray block tiles for walls. Towns follow a similar pattern, having red bricked roads and gray bricked buildings, with a few trees and rivers here and there. Overall, this lack of visual variance doesn’t hinder the game, but it also doesn’t help it [ 3 ].
There are many enemies to encounter in Dragon Quest, some comical, some menacing, but all following the same line of generic fantasy monsters that are typical of these games. Slimes provide an early easy foe to grind levels on, though the rare Metal Slime is quite dangerous. Drakees may look harmless with their goofy smiles but can become quite dangerous as you encounter their stronger cousins. Stonemen look imposing and are indeed difficult to fell with their high hit points. Of course, what would a game called Dragon Quest be without dragons? These mythical beasts are presented in the Japanese style, with no wings, long bodies and pronounced horns, and each one is very deadly [ 4 ]. The one exception to this visualization being the Dragonlord himself, who takes on a more European style dragon form during the final confrontation. Though enemy variety is a little sparse, and consists mostly of different chromas, the amount of detail in the enemy sprites is high, even higher than those in Final Fantasy. This is partially due to famed manga artist Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame being tapped for character design for the series, as opposed to illustrator Yoshitaka Amano handling Final Fantasy’s character design instead; their art styles are night and day, after all. Needless to say, it’s impressive to see such a display from these earliest gaming titles.
Dragon Quest is a different flavor of RPG, focusing on one central, powerful hero rather than an adventuring party. Singular hero RPGs have an appealing quality in their simplicity. You don’t have to manage equipment, stats, magic and so on for an entire party. On the development side, you can devote your focus to one protagonist, allowing for a deeper development of that character’s story, animations, and customization options. Granted, early titles like Dragon Quest don’t quite have all of that, but what they do have solidifies the idea that an RPG of this kind can thrive among the rest.
In terms of interface, Dragon Quest has not aged well, but thanks to its short length and wonderful enemy artwork, it remains a solid game for any fan of retro titles.
Breath of Fire (1993, SNES)
Bringing us into the land of 16-bit is the fantastic Breath of Fire series. Developed by Capcom, the first Breath of Fire tells the tale of Ryu, a boy who, due to his ancestry, can shape shift into different kinds of dragons. After his village is attacked by the Dark Dragon clan, Ryu sets out on a quest to stop their Emperor, Zog, from collecting the six Goddess keys [ 5 ].
The character of Ryu is a blue haired young boy of perhaps 16, and by all indications has lived his life peacefully until the events of the game. While the only thing about Ryu that can be customized is his name, this style of RPG storytelling is typical—you are not the main character, but instead an onlooker/commander as their story unfolds. It also allows the game designers to take a more direct approach in character design. As Ryu journeys he will meet many companions—Nina, Princess of the Wind Clan, a girl who has wings and can later transform into a bird; Bo, a wolf-man hunter from Tantar, who joins up to defeat their common enemy; Karn, a young thief from Bleak; Gobi, a merchant fishman; Bleu, an immortal sorceress with a serpent’s tail; Ox, a massive ox-man who is a skilled builder; and Mogu, a moleman who can dig through anything [ 6 ]. Each character has their own special art designs, made by the legendary Keiji Inafune, that give them their own style, and each one simply oozes personality. Each character’s combat sprites move differently, whether they are performing weapon attacks, using items, or casting spells. These further give life to each character, showcasing how both art and animation come together to create a unique gaming experience.
BoF’s interfaces are good, if a little confusing at first. This is a game where reading the control scheme will come in handy. Y brings up the menu screen, with icons at the top to represent the various sub-screens, and party portraits below that indicate level, HP, and Ability Points remaining. The top row icons show a bag, which represents items, a helmet for weapons and armor, a wand for magic, the letters ST for a more comprehensive status, then Up/Down and Left/Right arrows for party positioning, the letters OP for the options menu, and finally End to exit the screen. It should be noted that you can also exit the screen via the Y button, the same one you would use to open the screen. In combat the interface shows all party members on the bottom, or patterned templates if the party is not full. It also uses symbols to represent actions. From left to right we have a sword to represent normal actions, which opens a sub menu for regular attacks, defense, magic or items. Next to this is AB, short for Auto Battle, something you may use from time to time to have your party just attack constantly. After AB is Run, which is self-explanatory. Next, we have ST, which shows full status of party members. Finally, we have the Up/Down and Left/Right arrows again, to represent repositioning the party. Overall, this is a simple interface that looks nice and clean, but it lacks the intuitive nature of its RPG contemporaries. This interface is, unfortunately, clunky in its attempts to be comprehensive. The desire to include a comprehensive list of options is understandable, but difficult to achieve with the tools of the day. Later BoF titles improved on this greatly, having a more intuitive design and artwork.
The world in BoF is another large one, though it is a singular continent. Players are in for a long journey across the land, as Ryu and the rest of the party only have one speed—walking. Later, the party will sail on a ship, and later still Nina will be able to transform into a giant bird, allowing the party to fly on her back across the globe. The land itself has no name, but it is filled with settlements of the various esoteric races. Much of the world is forest and grasslands, though there are a few mountain ranges. The first few villages look a bit similar, recycling the same sorts of houses and other buildings, but the later settlements add a good deal of variety to their appearances, showcasing the different cultures of the world at large, and keeping things visually interesting. Dungeons and caverns have a decent range in tile sets and designs as well, so you never feel as though you’re going through a re-skin of an older one. If the set design falls anywhere, it’s in the combat screen. There are only a few backgrounds when engaged in combat, so you only get your variety from party composition and enemies. I don’t mark this as too much of a downside, however.
Speaking of combat, there’s lots of it in BoF, and many enemies to face. There are the typical fantasy foes like zombies, evil knights, gargoyles, ghosts, mages, slimes and so forth, but there are also some interesting and unique enemy designs. The Tentacle, for example, is a combination of squid and snail, a maw of teeth surrounded by tentacles inside a curled shell. The Beak is a blue bird shaped like a sea mine, though it doesn’t explode. Bullas are large purple bull-like monsters that have draconic faces and horns. Bosses range from the expected to the esoteric, each one displayed in gloriously detailed sprites. One of the earliest bosses, the Wizard, looks more like a typical fantasy Lich would, with tattered robes, skeletal hands and face, and a crown. A later game boss called Mote first appears very pixelated, like it’s out of focus, but becomes clearer after taking damage, its visage of a purple and red squid-like entity coming into view. Eyespy, as the name might suggest, is composed of many eyeballs with a few spongy or vestigial limbs that dangle from it. The dragon emperor Zog, despite his simple name, is massive in size, so much so that only his head and neck fit on the battle screen. The designers made an impressive effort to add their own artistic flare to the enemies of this game. The fights are also a lot more entertaining than those of the earlier systems. Watching the impact of weapons and spells on foes brings that visceral feeling of joy, while suffering damage and falling to low hit points shows the heroes faltering, kneeling, or grasping wounds as they resolve to fight on, infusing the player with a feeling of desperation.
Any RPG fan would easily enjoy this game series. Even its first iteration has incredibly fun gameplay, and it is nearly an artistic masterpiece. Surprisingly, this series was not as popular as other titles (like FF) in Japan. Even so, the artistic direction of this game series is superb. Every main character and enemy is beautifully detailed, even by the standards of the SNES. While its menu system gets a bit clunky, this can be overlooked thanks to the fantastic storytelling and compelling cast of characters.
Ys: The Vanished Omens (1987 PC-8801, 1988 Sega Master System)
This is perhaps the most obscure series on this list, but none the less, Ys is another long running RPG series created by Nihon Falcom. It is one of the earliest RPGs to ever be released on the home computer, rather than console, though it was later ported to the Sega Master System. This story follows a young man named Adol Christin, who has been told of a coming evil by a fortune teller named Sara. He must find the six Books of Ys, which contain the knowledge he requires to defeat this evil [ 7 ].
The game start is rather abrupt. There is no character creation screen or even a real start screen to speak of—you simply put the game in, watch the title screen come up, hit start. and you’re in it. The hero Adol appears on screen as a short, red-haired lad wearing blue armor. The pixel art for this game is simple, with most sprites having only a few frames of animation, and Adol is no exception. There aren’t really any combat animations for Adol either, as fighting in this early title is done by moving into or past enemies close to their side. While this does make Ys essentially the first RPG to feature real time combat, it can get a bit boring due to the limitations of the system. Anyone playing it today would feel the age on it.
The interface is sparse. You have player health and enemy health always displayed on the bottom of the screen; though it’s not a very intuitive health bar system, it can be learned quickly enough. Both bars display as blue with yellow on top of them. When you hit an enemy, their yellow bar appears and starts dropping into red as they take damage. Your health bar also becomes redder the more damage you take. The in-game menu appears in the top right, with Exit at the top; Status, which displays stats, gold, and items currently equipped; Equipment, Read Book (for reading lore books in the game); Load Data, and Save Data. It’s simple and streamlined, which it would need to be for such limited hardware, and it works well.
The game world, despite the limitations, is still large and decently diverse. You won’t quite travel an entire continent, but you will visit forests, dungeons, and castles as you might expect. While locations are few, you’ll end up spending a decent amount of time in each one, defeating enemies to level up, gathering various treasures and finding your way forward. The various backgrounds and props have simple designs. Water has limited animation to represent some movement of waves and reflective light. Trees, grass, sand, bridges, buildings, and mountains are all well presented with bright colors and recognizable shapes. One of the more interesting aspects of the game’s graphics are the portraits presented at shops and with certain interactable NPCs. The level of details in these portraits is rather impressive. Faces have clear expressions, hair, clothes, and lighting on par with some comic books. It’s interesting that the artists were able to put this much detail, even in still portrait form, into the game.
The game does have some variety in enemies. Your first encounters are generic warriors with armor and swords, which are soon followed by seemingly clay spear men, and wolves. These first few take little effort to fell, but the difficulty spikes up quickly as you progress. More heavily armored swordsmen appear, as well as giant spiders, lionmen, flaming skulls, and more. While fighting the regular enemies can become tedious, the boss fights are somewhat challenging, and an interesting sight to behold. The first boss, Jenocres, appears as a wizard of some sort, constantly teleporting around the room as fire blasts out from the sides, making him hard to hit and a danger to pursue. Vagullion, a massive demonic bat, divides itself into many smaller bats and swarms around, requiring the player to maneuver through them and wait for him to reform to attack. The final boss, Dark Fact, will summon exploding fireballs from all areas of the screen, and the platform on which the hero stands will slowly be erased, making his fight both an endurance round in dodging and a race against the clock.
Factoring in the age of this game, it’s impressive how detailed the graphics are, and how much story information they could fit into the cartridge. The regular combat isn’t super engaging, but the boss fights are wonderfully inventive, providing both a fantastic visual spectacle and demonstrating how much complexity could be squeezed out of these earlier consoles. The way in which the designers integrated these bosses alongside their “jousting” style of combat is quite impressive.
There have been a few remastered releases of this game as well. As much as I am a fan of the classics, and how impressed I am by certain aspects of the art design, I’d recommend playing the remastered version of Ys 1, simply for its smoother gameplay.
Chrono Trigger (1995, SNES)
One of the biggest cult hits of all time, Chrono Trigger is an RPG masterpiece brought to us by Square. It follows the adventure of Crono, a spiky red-haired young boy who gets caught up with runaway princess Marle, who is transported back in time due to a magical mishap with his friend Lucca’s experimental teleporter. What follows this is an exploration of time, and the discovery of Lavos, a world-ending entity from the stars who causes the apocalypse in the future. Crono and his friends decide that they will stop Lavos and save the future [ 8 ].
While there isn’t much in the way of character customization, you can name each of the seven potential party members whatever you wish, within a five-character limit. I’d personally recommend sticking with the set names, however, as each character has their own personality to bring to the adventure and naming them something else just feels off. Each member of the party has their own unique animations for walking, running, combat, and other random world functions like climbing ladders, dancing, and drinking. As was the case with Dragon Quest/Warrior, he famous Akira Toriyama was the art designer; his iconic style is apparent in both sprites and character portraits. As far as interfaces go, it’s hard to complain. The in-game menu has a foreground selection box with icons for the various sub menus, of which there are Party/Status, represented by a portrait icon; Items, Tech, which tells you how many tech points you need to learn your next skill or spell; Game Configuration, represented by a TV screen icon, Party Swap, and Save. It’s an elegant design, and I’d expect nothing less of a company as storied as Square.
The environments and world map change as your time period changes, and there are some truly interesting interactions as you travel across time and change certain historical events. Visiting 1000 AD is relatively peaceful and bright, apart from a few monsters in the forest, but travel to 600 AD and things become a lot foggier and monsters a lot tougher. In 2300 AD, post apocalypse, the landscape is a wasteland haunted by giant mutants and renegade robots. Going to 65 million BC, the landscape changes entirely, the continents having not yet broken up, being one super continent, and dinosaurs run rampant. The last time period visited is 12,000 BC, the age of magic, where islands with great cities float in the sky, and powerful mages plot to harness the dormant power of Lavos. Adventuring through these various time periods is a long journey, but the wonderful art design of every area makes each one a joy to explore.
Coming to enemies and combat, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chrono Trigger’s unique encounter system. Rather than going into a separate combat screen, enemies appear on the current area map, and the heroes draw their weapons, ready for a fight. Both friend and foe move deftly on the area map, executing their various attacks in glorious 16- bit animation. The game also features double and triple techniques that the heroes learn after some time fighting together, making the switching of the party roster much more interesting, as no two characters have the same double technique.
As far as variety goes, you have your fill in Chrono Trigger. Various classic monster races make an appearance, like goblins and orcs, giant bats, and the like, but there are also several unique villains. The mutants of the future are strange looking creatures, like an eggplant fused with a flower and sprouted limbs. The Diablos of the monster faction look like skinny gargoyles with tiny purple wings. The intelligent Reptites of the past are as various as the dinosaurs they reflect. Boss battles are quite epic as well. While some bosses look the same, such as Yggdrasil and his descendant, the art designs for each are none the less amazing, and each fight contains their own challenges. The Dragon Tank, one of the earliest bosses, has several moving parts that must be destroyed to defeat it. Nizbel of the Reptites only takes high damage from Lighting magic. The giant skeleton, called Zombor, has two separate body parts, torso and legs, that must both be slain. Magus, the evil archmage, resists all forms of magic unless struck with the legendary sword, the Masamune, which you will quest to rebuild. For those unfamiliar in Japanese history, the Masamune is a reference to a legendary sword smith of that same name from the Kamakura Period [ 9 ]. This legendary swordmaker’s name is often referenced in several games by Square. The final boss, Lavos, comes in several stages, each one presenting its own attacks and damage resistances, as well as stunning, somewhat psychedelic visuals.
This game is my personal favorite among all JRPGs and holds a special place in the annals of RPG history. Its storyline is incredibly memorable, its combat is fun and challenging and is presented in a unique way. The art style, while graphically dated, is still fantastic for its time, and the perceived effect the player’s actions have on the game world is something rarely done so well. It’s a game everyone should play.
Persona (1996, PlayStation)
A more modern but none the less long running series, Persona (or Shin Megami Tensei) comes to us from Atlus. This isn’t a traditional fantasy RPG, instead taking place in modern day and focused on several high school kids who discover they can summon Personas, multiple selves from within themselves, which grant them supernatural powers. These high schoolers use their Personas to fight against various evil forces of the world [ 10 ].
After a brief introduction to the classmates, you are brought to the character creation screen by Philemon, the spiritual guide who advises you on how to use your Personas. The “creation” is just naming your character what you like, as you can’t customize his appearance in any way. Your character is a typical silent protagonist, who will journey along with his classmates battling the various supernatural evils of the world. Regular sprite animations of this title are relatively simple. While this is a PlayStation title, the full extent of the hardware had not yet been mastered, so sprites and animations were still limited. Characters in rooms appear as pseudo-3-D sprites of students in traditional Japanese school uniforms, though they each have different heads so that they can be more easily identified. It should be noted that one of Persona’s more unique aspects is in its party recruitment style. To recruit members, you must fulfill certain requirements to unlock them. Each character has its own story, so this adds a certain level of re-playability to the game to learn about every character.
The game’s interface design is somewhat complicated and might be overwhelming to first time players. Firstly, you always see what phase the moon is in on the top right of the screen. These phases affect various things in the game, including combat, conversations, and item and spell effects. A lot of the game involves navigating through the various area maps. The inside-a-building interface shows a first-person view of whatever hall or alleyway you are traversing, as well as a top-down map and compass to help keep you from getting lost. The overworld map shows your party with a simple icon that you use to navigate through various streets and different buildings or outdoor locations. This overworld navigation takes time, changing with the phase of the moon. The in-game menu screen has the typical setup of Skills, Items, and Equipment. The unique to this series Persona menu is where you change which persona is equipped to which person, Status, Battle configuration, and System options. These designs are functional and fashionable, having a pleasing modernized style to them [ 11 ].
The game world, being set in modern times, is within a city called Mikage-cho. The player will navigate through the various locations of this city, including the high school, police station, clinics, the mall, a shrine, a museum, the subway, a factory, and the SEBEC building. The city itself, despite having only a few locations to visit, is big and takes some time to get around. “Dungeons,” if they can be called that, are just long stretches of these basic city locations. The detail put into these city and dungeon maps is rather basic, especially for the city map, which is a top-down view of your icon moving along the streets between buildings. The dungeons unfortunately aren’t whole lot better in terms of looks, being office hallways, locker rooms, subway areas and the like. That’s not to say they lack in detail, as they don’t, it’s just that they are a bit dull because they represent real-world areas, but devoid of activity.
The enemies of Persona, despite the modern setting, are drawn from typical fantasy monsters. They consist largely of different types of spirits or demons, though some of them look humanoid in appearance. There are the classics like Incubus and Succubus, the female and male demons of temptation. Nightmares, which appear as small children with knives, reminiscent of Chucky. Tengu, bird men spirits that wield swords. Rusalka, the spirits of drowned women who lure people in with song and beauty, not unlike the mythical Sirens. Although there are supernatural foes aplenty, you’ll also end up facing off against humans, in particular the thugs of the SEBEC corporation, who are working to bring demons into the world. In fact, Takeda of the SEBEC Corp. is your first game boss, though he doesn’t fight alone and doesn’t present too much of a challenge, being a mere mortal. There are far more interesting bosses, both visually and in terms of challenge, such as Tesso, a giant robotic rat with a large gun mounted on its back; or Mr. Bear, who is literally a giant possessed teddy bear that looks incredibly creepy. While the pseudo-3-D sprites of these enemies have the unintended effect of limiting their animations, the art style employed is none the less superb.
This game changed the mainstream thought about typical RPG structure, bringing in a combination of modern day and the mythological, which matches up with a lot of Japanese manga series of the era. The Persona series has grown quite popular, capturing the imaginations of gamers around the world. Newer iterations of this series explore deeper notions of dreams and what they mean. While the first outing of Persona is great for its time, it hasn’t aged particularly well. The map dungeon navigation can get frustrating at times, and the grinding can also be tedious, but the game can still be enjoyable for hardcore fans. There has been a remastering of this game released for the PSP, which I would personally recommend playing over the original, as it greatly improves on the graphical fidelity.
The influence of Japanese media and culture has been felt throughout the entire video games industry and beyond. Even from the humblest of beginnings, these games have had a massive influence on overall gameplay and art design of future RPG titles. From a storytelling aspect, the earliest of these titles weren’t particularly bold, sticking to tried and true mythos of the great hero or heroes triumphing against an evil force, a la Dragon Quest or Ys, though Final Fantasy’s time loop created by the main villain was an interesting twist on this old trope. Breath of Fire took a slightly different track, telling of a rebellion against evil rulers who had all but subjugated the entire world. Chrono Trigger is still based upon the fight against the “big evil,” but it holds back that discovery till later, and in this case, no one tasks the heroes to do anything at all. There’s no quest given by a king nor a prophesied hero, just young people taking up a cause they can’t ignore. Persona follows more of the “great destiny” track of sorts, as only a few people have the power to manifest a Persona, making them quite special. The more modern JRPG titles also deal with themes of prejudice, the idea of choice and free will, and meanings of morality. While they entertain us with wonderful gameplay and graphic designs, they also make us ask hard questions of ourselves.
- “From its humble origins, Final Fantasy has come a long, long way.” Final Fantasy. SquareSoft. 1987. NES. Final Fantasy XV. Square-Enix. 2016. Windows Version.
- “For only getting one sequel, the Chrono-Trigger franchise took a massive leap forward.” Chrono Trigger. 1995. SquareSoft. SNES. Chrono Cross. Square-Enix. 1999. PlayStation.
- “Despite massive evolutions in graphics, on its surface Dragon Warrior’s playstyle hasn’t changed much.” Dragon Warrior 2. Enix. 1987. NES. Dragon Warrior 7. Enix. 2006. PlayStation.
- “The Persona series, on the other hand … has been through some STUFF.” Shin Megami Tensei:Persona. Atlus. 1996. PlayStation. Persona 5 Strikers. Atlus. 2016. Steam version.
A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.
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