Thursday, 28 December 2017

RPG Reload Glossary: The "Death" of the JRPG, or JRPGs in the 2010s

Hello, gentle readers, and welcome to the RPG Reload, the regular feature where all good things must come to an end. To be specific, welcome to the RPG Reload Glossary, where we sift through the piles of historical debris and messy semantics to try to make some sense of it all. This time around, we're finishing our look at the history of the JRPG sub-genre. In the last part, we looked at a decade which could charitably be referred to as a hangover from the massive success of the genre in the 1990s. Square, the biggest name in JRPGs, over-extended itself in spectacular fashion and ended up merging with their rival, Enix. The Japanese market lost its taste for home consoles, focusing instead on the convenience that handheld consoles brought to the table. Development on two of the three most popular JRPG series had slowed down considerably, and as the first decade of the new millennium came to a close, you didn't have to look far to find people proclaiming the death of the JRPG genre had come.

As in most cases of such proclamations, there was quite a bit of exaggeration going on. Still, it's safe to say that the JRPG genre as it was traditionally known went through a pretty rough patch for several years. A lot of that was tied in with the many problems Square Enix was having. One of the reasons why I've put such a heavy focus on the two-giants-that-became-one is that for a very long time, Square, Enix, and their associated IPs might as well have been the JRPG genre as far as public perception was concerned. It's no surprise that the frequency of articles lamenting the passing of JRPGs seems to increase hand-in-hand with the number of public problems Square is having at any given time. Final Fantasy was in a bad way from almost every angle in the late 00s, and for many people, that meant JRPGs were, too.

But the problems were bigger than that, of course. I'm going to take a stab at explaining things as best as I can. First, we have to consider that when it comes to JRPGs, the Japanese market and the Western market might as well be two different planets. The genre had some struggles in both markets, but those issues were quite different in severity and nature. With most JRPG-style games originating in Japan (obviously), the genre's health is more strongly tied with that market, but it's impossible to deny the importance of the overseas market, particularly post-Final Fantasy 7. On a basic level, both markets became challenging due to increased competition from related genres and some of the major players in the JRPG genre fumbling.

As mentioned, home consoles were on the wane in Japan. That's not to say that they weren't still selling decent numbers even in decline, but after the releases of the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable, it wasn't hard to see the differences in the size of each hardware platform's audience. The advent of HD consoles dramatically increased the budget of home console development, the PC gaming market was practically non-existent, and Japanese customers just weren't that thrilled with any of it. Depending on how much of your potential market was in Japan versus the rest of the world, it would probably make a lot of sense to put your game on handhelds. They had a larger, more diverse audience, and the budgets for games were quite reasonable. Dragon Quest's main audience is in Japan, so it was easy enough to move the series to Japan's console of choice, the Nintendo DS. Final Fantasy, on the other hand, depended on Western support, so such a move wasn't really feasible.

In Japan, JRPGs had always had fairly wide appeal across a variety of demographics. The explosion in popularity of Capcom's Monster Hunter series with 2008's Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G on the PlayStation Portable lured a large portion of the lucrative teen and young adult audience away from the traditional JRPG genre. The wide adoption of smartphones as the decade came to a close was initially seen as a boon to the genre, given that JRPGs can adapt to touch controls better than many traditional genres. And for a while, it was. Then, in 2012, a new kind of RPG became popular with the release of Gungho's Puzzle & Dragons on mobile phones. JRPGs had barely gotten used to being second fiddle, and now they were demoted down to third. Pretty much everyone with a smart device was now playing these new social RPGs.

What did this leave for the JRPG? Well, there were still quite a few dedicated fans of the genre who still showed their support. Enough to fuel smaller companies that played to their preferred niches, anyway. But the biggest remaining audience for the genre ended up being elementary school kids, surprisingly enough. Proportionately few of them owned smart devices, at least at that time, and the nature of the genre had always been a good fit for those with developing (or declining) motor skills. Pokemon remained the game of choice for this crowd, of course, but another franchise managed to reap the rewards as well.

You might recall Level-5 as the co-developer of Dragon Quest 8 for the PlayStation 2. They also co-developed Dragon Quest 9. But they were increasingly becoming a company looking to invest in its own properties rather than contracting out to others. They did so with a canny (some would say cynical) eye towards promising potential markets. Their biggest success on the Nintendo DS was the Professor Layton series of puzzle games, but they had found a solid back-up in their soccer RPG series Inazuma Eleven. It's hard to go wrong with sports anime and manga in Japan, and the extreme popularity of Captain Tsubasa decades earlier paved the way nicely for soccer stories in particular to find an audience.

When the Nintendo 3DS launched, Level-5 put out some entries in their previously reliable franchises and found people weren't quite biting in the same way. Fortunately, Level-5 was a big fan of the classic method of throwing mud against the wall and seeing what stuck, and the next sticky clump would become an out-and-out phenomenon in Japan for a few years. In 2013, Level-5 released Yo-Kai Watch for the Nintendo 3DS. It hits a lot of the same appeal points as Pokemon, but with more of an emphasis on Japanese folklore. The games are even more accessible than Pokemon, if you can believe it. Like most of Level-5's attempts to appeal to kids, Yo-Kai Watch came with a TV show, toy line, and everything else you can imagine. Japanese kids bit hard, and for a few years, Yo-Kai Watch was everywhere in Japan. In the moment, it seemed like the first credible threat to Pokemon's crown, though time has proven that it lacked Pokemon's stamina.

For JRPG lovers in a slightly older age bracket, their needs were largely served by companies like Atlus, Namco, Falcom, and Idea Factory. Atlus had always been that weird kid that was a little too interested in the occult, but the successful re-styling of Persona 3 and Persona 4 demonstrated the value of appealing to a more mainstream anime crowd. They were still making games on a ridiculously low budget, but the resulting efforts were selling beyond their usual demographic. Even Western gamers were starting to pick up on the company's efforts thanks to Persona. The company knew that Persona 5 presented a great chance for Atlus to break into the mainstream, and they got to work on it after doing a successful console test run with the puzzle game Catherine.

For their part, Namco more or less kept right on doing what it always had been. The Tales series of JRPGs had always had a relatively consistent audience, loyal enough to buy new hardware when it was necessary. The general style of the games meant that more powerful hardware didn't necessarily require an exponential increase in development resources the way that Final Fantasy's more realistic style did. In the years-long absence of new single-player Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest entries, Tales quietly became one of the meat-and-potatoes dishes of JRPG fans around the world.

Another beneficiary of that absence was Falcom, whose Trails series of JRPGs nicely scratched the itch many players had for big, woolly stories in the classic style. Trails became Falcom's most popular franchise by a good stretch, easily out-pacing Ys. Unfortunately, the series wouldn't catch on much at all outside of Japan until its PC version got an eventual English release on Steam and GOG. But the Japanese sales were more than enough to keep a relatively small company like Falcom healthy.

Finally, there's Idea Factory. The company may not get a lot of respect from the masses, but they saw the rise of a trend and have done an amazing job of serving it for a long time now. A couple of parts before this one, I talked about how Evangelion heralded a rise in nihilistic and/or deconstructive media in Japan. Well, like all phases, that eventually burnt out. You can only be down for so long, after all. The next big trend was not entirely an unfamiliar one, but it's rarely been so concentrated. Moe anime, a style that focuses on cute, lovable girls and their typically light-hearted adventures, became the dominant form of media in Japan in the new millennium. The audience for such shows and comic books was a diverse one (as with any sufficiently mainstream success), but it included at its core a particularly valuable sub-group of young adults that loved to splurge on merchandise.

Idea Factory and developer Compile Heart aimed directly at that burgeoning market. They had largely been known for making overly-complicated and somewhat mediocre TRPGs with the occasional JRPG release, but they had their fans. Their Agarest War series had been reasonably successful, but not so successful that they felt shackled to it. One of their releases between Agarest games was a moe-styled parody of the game industry called Hyperdimension Neptunia, which imagined the console wars as a battle between goddesses, each representing a hardware platform. It was a great concept, and the industry is certainly ripe for parody. The game itself was... well, it wasn't outside of their usual quality. It was acceptable enough that a lot of people who bought the game for its clever concept were willing to give the developer another shot. Which is just what they did, turning Neptunia into a little cottage industry. Fans of the company are quite loyal, so even Compile Heart's games released between Neptunia releases fare well enough at this point.

So it went for the JRPG business in Japan. The gaps left by the struggling major players were filled in by smaller, more agile publishers. The ones I've mentioned are some of the bigger ones, but there were many others as well. It was hardly the salad days of old, but provided you didn't mind the step down in production values, it wasn't hard to find a good JRPG to play at any given point. If anything, the lack of sizzle meant that developers had to work even harder to come up with unique systems and settings. When combined with the lower budgets that handheld projects carried with them, some genuinely unusual JRPGs were released during this period.

Over in the West, a different yet similar problem was occurring. For the first few console generations, most of the greatest RPG publishers in the West stuck to home computers. Microsoft's entry into the console market, the Xbox, started to change that. Notably, they managed to lure both Bioware and Bethesda, two of the bigger CRPG developers, into releasing RPGs for their platform. They both apparently liked what they tasted, and when the next generation of consoles brought even more computing power with it, they and others from the PC scene were there with bells on. Between these tested developers and stunning new faces like CD Projekt and their Witcher series, RPG fans in the Western market suddenly had a surplus of great choices without even needing to glance at Japan's output. Indeed, since many console players had only dabbled in PC gaming, these games also enjoyed the benefit of feeling fresh and unusual when compared to previous console RPGs.

Due to a variety of social and cultural circumstances, handhelds weren't nearly as popular with young adults in the West as they were in Japan. The Nintendo DS sold to a lot of older players, but few of them were interested in RPGs. With severe competition on the home consoles, a general lack of a presence on PC, and the shape of the age demographics gaming on handhelds, the primary market for JRPGs in the West was... elementary school children. Funny how that worked out. And of course, also as in Japan, there was a reasonably good-sized group of hardcore genre fans who were sufficient to support carefully-budgeted efforts. The gaps were again filled mostly with mid-level Japanese publishers, though Square still tossed out the occasional high-quality effort like Bravely Default on the Nintendo 3DS.

When Final Fantasy 13 failed to ignite the console JRPG market, it seemed to deflate hopes that things would ever get turned around on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Nevertheless, there were some console successes. Level-5's Ni no Kuni put to rest the notion that it was too difficult to create huge open worlds in an HD JRPG. Star Ocean developer Tri-ace put out a handful of games, and a couple of them even sold reasonably well. Namco's Tales games were solid performers worldwide, too. JRPGs were no longer the "it" genre on consoles in any region, but there were still games to be had if you looked carefully enough. Most of the action was on handhelds for several years, though.

It took the success of the PlayStation 4 to really wake things up on the console front. Japanese developers seemed invigorated by the new platform, and it certainly didn't hurt that Western-style RPGs no longer had the "new puppy" feel for console gamers that they enjoyed in the previous generation. Square Enix seemed to start getting a handle on their issues, and even nailed down a date for the beleaguered Final Fantasy 15, which had first been announced alongside Final Fantasy 13 as Final Fantasy Versus 13. Persona 5 was nearly a victim of some unrelated nonsense with Atlus's parent company at the time, but it too got on track. It also seemed as though the latest Dragon Quest was on the horizon, this time splitting the difference and releasing both a handheld and a console version.

As for all of the mid-level developers and publishers who had held up the previous generation, they also stuck around. At the same time, the Nintendo 3DS started to wind down, and with no one at the time quite sure of how Nintendo's next platform would fare, there was really nowhere to go but to the wild west of mobile or the safe confines of the PlayStation 4. Most chose the latter, as social RPGs were (and are) still eating almost all of the RPG lunch on mobile platforms. The success of a few test cases on Steam encouraged many Japanese publishers to give the Windows platform a go for the first time, too. If you were the sort of player who didn't touch handhelds, the last few years probably looked like a humongous renaissance for the JRPG genre. In some respects, it certainly was.

It's interesting to note the direction these new console JRPGs are taking, though. Lessons were clearly learned from the previous generation, as having large open worlds, action-based combat, and lots of extra add-on content and post-release expansions seemed to become a priority. In the classical sense of the genre, is Final Fantasy 15 even a JRPG? Is Nier Automata? How about Dark Souls? And what of games like Cosmic Star Heroine that are made in the West but in the distinct JRPG style? Trying to answer these questions will only ruin polite dinner conversation, so I don't recommend thinking too hard about it all.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to put a pin in this tale. This history wasn't as thorough as I would have liked it to be, but I think it would take a book to do the topic with full justice, and we have already been pushing it here already. We won't be revisiting this topic here on TouchArcade, but I may get back around to it again on my own personal blog, Post Game Content. If you like my history articles and retrospectives, you should probably keep an eye on that site. As for me, I'll be back next week with the very last Reload column. Yep.

Next Week's Reload: The 2017 Golden Pancho Awards

 

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Solve A Mystery In 1920s San Francisco In Adventure Game A Case Of Distrust

distrust1.jpg

On the hardboiled streets of 1924 San Francisco, danger, suspicious characters, and mystery lurk, and in minimalist narrative adventure A Case of Distrust, private detective Phyllis Cadence Malone has to navigate this sprawling city of lies, misdeeds, and secrets to uncover a dark truth.

Armed with only clever deductions and astute eye, Malone moves through this vibrant, minimalist, and historical representation of the era's San Francisco, from seedy speakeasies to barbershops, collecting evidence and dealing with both lying suspects and 1920s social issues that impede her investigation.

Stylish screen transistions and colorful art gives A Case of Distrust a unique aesthetic compared to the typical detective noir tone, as you question people of interests and make decisions that mold the narrative.

A Case of Distrust is available to wishlist on Steam, and you can follow the game and developer Ben Wander on Twitter and TIGSource.



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Solve A Mystery In 1920s San Francisco In Adventure Game A Case Of Distrust

distrust1.jpg

On the hardboiled streets of 1924 San Francisco, danger, suspicious characters, and mystery lurk, and in minimalist narrative adventure A Case of Distrust, private detective Phyllis Cadence Malone has to navigate this sprawling city of lies, misdeeds, and secrets to uncover a dark truth.

Armed with only clever deductions and astute eye, Malone moves through this vibrant, minimalist, and historical representation of the era's San Francisco, from seedy speakeasies to barbershops, collecting evidence and dealing with both lying suspects and 1920s social issues that impede her investigation.

Stylish screen transistions and colorful art gives A Case of Distrust a unique aesthetic compared to the typical detective noir tone, as you question people of interests and make decisions that mold the narrative.

A Case of Distrust is available to wishlist on Steam, and you can follow the game and developer Ben Wander on Twitter and TIGSource.



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Platinum Games' to self-publish original titles in the future

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PSA: Unity Student Scholarship for GDC 2018 submissions close this Sunday

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Mikhail's 10 Best Games of 2017 - Best iOS Gaming Year Ever

2017 has been the best and busiest year in gaming for me in a long time. While the Nintendo Switch is the focus for most people for 2017, I’ve been consistently blown away by how much fantastic stuff we have seen on iOS this year. In fact the last few weeks have probably been the best in iOS gaming history with fantastic ports and big name releases dropping on the App Store out of nowhere really. 2017 is also a year that has seen loads of great releases on each platform and picking just 10 has been super hard. I’m just glad I always get the highest capacity iPhone and iPad for times like this where I want to keep loads of new games installed at all times. The games below are my favourite and are in no particular order.

FEZ Pocket Edition

FEZ Pocket Edition, $4.99 FEZ finally released on iOS in the form of FEZ Pocket Edition and the port is fantastic. FEZ is one of the games that got me back into gaming properly when I borrowed my friend’s Xbox 360 and replaying it on iPad with a controller over the last weeks has been fantastic. I still consider it one of the best puzzle experiences ever with super music and great pixel art visuals. It is full of brilliantly designed puzzles and a ton of secrets with some feeling impossible without a guide. If you have a controller, this is an easy recommendation. The touch controls aren’t the best way to experience this.

Hidden Folks

Hidden Folks, $2.99 I love when developers take a tried and tested formula but work on it enough to make things feel fresh but still have the traditional hook. Hidden Folks is exactly this. It takes the Where’s Waldo? idea and makes it way better in every way. The hand drawn monochromatic visuals and the excellent attention to detail with interactions made this one of my favourite games of the year. It is wonderful on iPads and I can’t get over how well done the sound feedback is when you tap around like a mad man trying to find something super small in a crowded screen of activity. This is another one of the multiplatform releases like World of Goo that I think plays best on iPad.

To the Moon

To the Moon, $1.99 Freebird Games’ beloved To The Moon came to mobile this year and it gave a huge audience the opportunity to experience one of the most emotional and well written stories in gaming n recent times. This retro styled experience plays like an old school adventure game that looks like an old school RPG. It is short but the way the music and story tie in together makes this very memorable. There’s some humour but mostly just a great story about granting the wish of someone who is dying and figuring out why he wanted to go To The Moon.

Technobabylon

Technobabylon, $4.99 The point and click genre has seen quite the resurgence over the last few years with many new studios trying to recreate what made this genre so special in the 90s. We’ve even seen some classics remastered or new games from the creators of classics this year. Wadjet Eye Games are one of my favourite publishers and they brought Technobabylon to iOS this year. It is easily my favourite of their games and a true point and click adventure with a great sci-fi theme and cyberpunk setting. You play as multiple protagonists seeing different sides of a story and the character designs are superb. It is rare to play a new point and click game that doesn’t annoy me with bad pacing or poor puzzles. Technobabylon gets it all right.

The Witness

The Witness, $9.99 Apple’s been interesting with their promotions of games on the App Store and how things have changed after iOS 11. A video showcasing some great indie games leaked the announcement for The Witness on iOS. The Witness is Jonathan Blow’s (as a part of Thekla Inc) first new game since Braid and it is superb. You are on an isolated island with hundreds of puzzles spread out and get to experience a sandbox that is both thought provoking and mind numbing at the same time. I have no hesitation to call The Witness the best puzzle game ever and I’m glad that it is on iOS as well. Get ready to literally start seeing puzzles outside the game after spending a few days on the island inside it.

Full Throttle Remastered

Full Throttle Remastered, $0.99 Double Fine brought Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle to modern platforms with lovely remasters over the last few years. The third and final remaster they were doing was none other than Full Throttle. I’ve definitely gotten into a point and click adventure hole this year and Full Throttle is the best of the three remasters in both story and gameplay. The iOS port lets you switch between a nice full screen original look and a widescreen remastered look with a pinch on the screen at any time. When I think of Full Throttle Remastered, I think of asphalt, Maurine, one stupidly annoying puzzle, and a kickass soundtrack. It is what a ZZ Top point and click adventure game would be.

Little Red Lie

Little Red Lie, $4.99 I’m a big fan of visual novels and interactive adventure games. Steins;Gate is one of my favourite games ever but I also love narratives that hit close to home or ones that feel real and hook you in right from the get go. When I played Actual Sunlight on Vita, I was blown away by how well the story unfolded and how real things felt while playing it. Little Red Lie from WZO Games is another visual novel like experience with a focus on how lying affects you and the worlds around you. I’m impressed by how well the delivery is for the story and how it has remained with me ever since I completed it. Will O’Neill has once again managed to successfully discuss things that few forms of media will touch let along fully embrace.

Cat Quest

Cat Quest, $1.99 The Gentlebros’ Cat Quest is simply put, fantastic. It is going to be the most featured game on the site through staff lists for sure and I’m still blown away at how well it plays and feels on a touch screen. Cat Quest is a cat RPG that is full of influences from RPGs of the last few years but with a healthy dollop of cat puns. It is available on consoles as well as mobile and the touch controls are brilliant. It is also a great game to play on a portable because of the lenient save system that lets you get a bit of game time in on the go. It is one of the few games this year that I’ve ended up buying on multiple platforms. Not owning Cat Quest on iOS should be a crime at this point.

A Normal Lost Phone

A Normal Lost Phone, $2.99 Accidental Queens’ A Normal Lost Phone is a no brainer for my top 10 of the year. I love how it handled certain topics that most games are unable to even touch while still being engrossing and unique in narrative delivery. I’m a big fan of playing a game about finding someone else’s phone and exploring said phone while playing on a phone in real life. There’s definitely some fourth wall stuff happening and this game gave rise to a few more and created a little niche genre of phone based games for smartphones. Even though this is on iPad and PC in addition to iPhone, it is best played on an iPhone.

Darkest Dungeon:Tablet Edition

Darkest Dungeon:Tablet Edition, $4.99 Owning multiple platforms usually means I end up getting a few games multiple times. Games like Stardew Valley only managed hooking me in on the Switch despite trying and failing at getting into it on PC and then PS4. Darkest Dungeon is one of these games. After the massive praise it received on PC, I bought it there and barely touched it. The PS4 and Vita port had me playing it for longer but still not getting hooked. Thankfully the iPad version that released earlier this year showed me how fantastic this game is. Darkest Dungeon is an RPG with permadeath and a difficulty that makes most people cry themselves to sleep. The aesthetic is amazing and the in game systems have me coming back for more to manage a variety of things and somehow spend more time in the world of Darkest Dungeon. The iPad port is mostly great and it finally let me properly play this gem of a game.

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Come and level up your VFX coding skills at GDC 2018!

At GDC 2018 veteran dev Christina Coffin will show you how particle emitting surfaces and shaders can transfer material attributes and other properties to various spawned particle types! ...



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Best of 2017: 20 things I've learned about game development

Thinking about what it means to be over fifty in game development prompted me to make a list of what I consider the twenty most important things I've learned over the years. ...



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