The World of Asian RPGs

Brief History of Japanese RPGs

The origin of the genre was Japan. It gradually developed into a sub-genre with its own distinct traits, but the first RPGs made in Japan were still very dependent on their Western prototypes. The first role-playing game made by a Japanese company was Black Onyx. It was released in 1985 for the MSX computer and was very similar to the Western RPGs of its time, particularly Wizardry series. There was nothing about it that would strike you as typically Japanese.

The game was quickly overshadowed by Dragon Quest, released a year later for multiple platforms, which was later translated into English (under the title "Dragon Warrior") and gained world-wide popularity as the "first Japanese RPG". In reality, the first Dragon Quest was also conceived entirely in spirit of Western RPGs. The only feature that made it slightly different was the top-down view for dungeons (most RPGs of that time had first-person dungeons).

Final Fantasy appeared a year later, and had a unique system of its own, which allowed you to experiment with parties and different character classes. However, its characters had no personalities, and the plot was as abstract as in most Western RPGs of its time. The sequel was already a true Japanese RPG, but it was released after the genre was already defined by another games.

The first real breakthrough was Phantasy Star for Sega Master System, released in the same year. It was this game that defined the new genre, introducing such familiar features as a strong plot that involved quest for revenge and corruption by power, background stories for party members, individual spells that required magic points, a setting that merged fantasy and science fiction, and more.

Together with "Phantasy Star", another game that can be considered a true pioneer of the genre is Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei, also from 1987, which was set in modern-day Japan and involved cyberpunk elements and references to mythology. While not being as influential as "Phantasy Star", the game was at least as original in concept, and its demon-summoning system, which allowed you to recruit enemies into your party, was way ahead of its time.

The final cornerstone of the genre was Tengai Makyou: Ziria, released in 1989 for the Turbo CD platform. It was the most Japanese of all Japanese RPGs, done completely in animé style, and set in medieval Japan. It was also the first humorous RPG, and the first one that had voice acting. It concluded the 8-bit era and opened ways for new technological achievements.

Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei, and Tengai Makyou: Ziria gave birth to the four most famous, long-running, and influential Japanese RPG franchises. Dragon Quest became the most popular RPG series in Japan, Final Fantasy gained the biggest international popularity, and Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei ( for short) spawned the largest of all Japanese RPG franchises, with many sub-series and games beyond the genre of RPG. Phantasy Star also had a large following, but the main series ended already in 1994.

After the birth of these mega-franchises, there were hardly another series of Japanese RPGs that would be able to compete with them. Most games between 1989 and 1995 either belonged to one of those series, or were stand-alone games. A certain exception was Cosmic Fantasy series, with five games released for Turbo CD console, and erotic RPG series such as Dragon Knight and Rance.

This so-called 16-bit era, named after the 16-bit consoles most Japanese RPG were released for (primarily SNES), was otherwise a very prolific one, resulting in very powerful contributions from the five great franchises, as well as highly original independent creations such as Live a Live. Games like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, or Shin Megami Tensei belong to the most revered Japanese RPGs of all times. There were many games with unusual settings, plots, and gameplay mechanics. Stories, characteristics, themes used in games got a tremendous boost.

Several popular series like Lunar and Breath of Fire started their life during this period. However, this was also a time where Japanese RPG suffered most from isolation. Most Japanese RPGs were not released in the West, including even such important ones as the Dragon Quest installments of the time.

The next generation (1995 to 2000), presented by the Playstation and Saturn consoles, began with a certain break in creativity, although its beginning was marked with Suikoden, a game that started an own series with a cult following, resulting today in a franchise with increasing size and popularity. After the developers adapted themselves to the new technical capabilities, the production of Japanese RPGs returned to its normal pace. New creative devices were introduced to Japanese RPGs, most importantly extensive usage of cinematics, which since then became one of the genre's trademarks. Various effects helped to enrich the atmosphere.

But in terms of original content, this time period was perhaps not as strong as the previous one. Despite outstanding offerings such as Persona sub-series within the Megaten franchise and several high-quality stand-alone games like Xenogears, Chrono Cross, or the hybrid RPG Koudelka, there was a general tendency to neglect the actual role-playing, character-building element for more linear gameplay with reduced difficulty level. Original settings and themes also seemed to fade away. Final Fantasy became the absolute leader at that time, with Megaten concentrating on sub-series, and Dragon Quest delivering only one new game. New series such as Arc the Lad could not compete with Final Fantasy in popularity or importance.

The current period (which is about to end soon, with the release of next-generation consoles), was overall an interesting and productive time for the genre. Most games were developed for Playstation 2, which became even more dominant than Playstation was during the previous period. Two tendencies were apparent this time: reduction of game world and exploration in favor of cut scenes, and refinement of gameplay and customization options. Games like the new Xenosaga series successfully manifested both these tendencies. The four great franchises and Suikoden series delivered finely crafted and interesting installments. New series such as Shadow Hearts came with their own original ideas for setting and gameplay. It was also the best period yet for bringing the Japanese RPGs to the West. The greatest breakthrough in this field was the localization of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga games of the Megaten franchise.

Continued: Dragon Quest

Table of Contents: The World of Asian RPGs