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ASK WHEELS
A Quick One
September 7th, 2012

09/07- 12:00PM EST

Welcome to a special brief Labor Day week edition of Q&A! We've got some more Nintendo Power memories and an interesting look at why we play JRPGs.

Let's jump right in!





The Letters
Nintendo Takes Our Power

Hi Wheels!

Your readers have shared so many wonderful memories of Nintendo Power. I suppose quite a few of us classic gamers who were much younger back then still have fond memories of the magazine. To me, it represented a time when you really felt like you could connect with the company. It seemed far less monolithic... if that makes any sense?
Maybe I was just being naive, but I have fond memories about that magazine. I can still remember writing in as a "Classified Info" "code agent", and remarkably, finding the little glitch I had discovered published in issue 55! That would be the Zelda Link's Awakening Screen Warp glitch.


Wheels

That makes perfect sense. Nintendo Power made them seem more like our buddies who just happened to publish all the amazing games we loved. It helped breed a gaming culture that still lives on. Plus in the pre-internet days it was a great way to find out about all kinds of new games. I think I even remember that issue talking about the Link's Awakening glitch! A lot of what Nintendo Power did has now been replaced by the internet, but I still think the magazine had a place.

Yeah, Nintendo removed the little screenwarp trick after it was discovered that it could break the game from the inside out, but at the time, I felt as special as a kid could be.


Wheels

I'm sure you did! I wish I had taken the time to write into Nintendo Power. Seeing your name in there must have been an amazing feeling.

It's truly a shame that Nintendo has decided to end the magazine and sever such a tangible link to its fanbase.

-Shademask


Wheels

They have they internet to do that to some respects now, but with so many print magazines dissapearing there's no dount it was cool to still have Nintendo Power around providing that outlet. Heck, there were still plenty of people writing into it. I don't think Nintendo will see any financial problems from this, but it's a piece of their history I think they should have revamped and kept going.

Why Do We Like JRPGs?

This is a question that I think anyone who plays Japanese role-playing games should ask themselves at least once.  Understanding why you like something is a key to understanding when you won't like something, and that is a very important thing when it comes to choosing which games you will purchase and which ones you won't.


Wheels

It sure is a good question, and too often people just buy every JRPG they can and end up dissappointed in many of them.

My big reason for loving jrpgs originally came from my love for a good story.  At the time I encountered the jrpg that addicted me (the original Breath of Fire on the SNES), I was a huge Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance fan.  To be blunt, if it had swords and sorcery in it, I was willing to at least give it a try.  The reason I fell in love with jrpgs back then though... was that unlike the video games I'd played up until that time, I felt there was some kind of meaning to what I was doing (an illusion of course, but illusions are part of playing any video game).


Wheels


I think we all felt that way back in the day, we got sucked into the epic quests these games presented to us. We wanted to take down the bad guys as much as the heroes in the games. These epic RPGs offered a depth of experience we weren't really getting in other games. It didn't matter that we didn't have any effect on the story, we enjoyed it anyway.

However, that is a reason to like rpgs in general, rather than jrpgs in particular.  Indeed, I think most people who have a need to play at being someone else will actually prefer western rpgs, simply because of the tendency to leave more of the choices that shape the adventure in the hands of the gamer.


Wheels


Well there are now many JRPGs that do offer plenty of choice, and of course some WRPGs that are more linear, so there's plenty of options. I don't think all people like the choose heavy ones though, some prefer a more linear experience with a fun story. That said, we all enjoy RPGs in general for similar reasons.

Traditional jrpgs tend to have rigid styles of storytelling, with a set plot (this allows for the game to play out as a 'story' with less effort and cost on the part of the game makers, in general), battle systems that can be played by just about anyone (turn-based battle systems have the advantage of being easy to use for anyone with half a brain, as an example), and a minimal sense of discovery in the form of environmental exploration while fighting off monsters (this provides mild thrills, as the player discovers items that are useful to their adventure, further involving them in the game).  Furthermore - and this is an aspect of Japanese games that is almost universal - jrpgs have a tendency toward heavy usage of surrealism, both emotionally and in terms of plot developments that makes them easy to enjoy when you are young.  This tends to make it easier to become emotionally involved with the characters than in western rpgs, where most characters are never really presented in a manner that would earn the emotional investment of the player.  This also makes the times when they step out of the surrealism (as an example, when a beloved character dies in a brutal manner) have all the more impact on the player, creating an even heavier emotional investment in the game.


Wheels


I can see what you mean, but at this point in games I think it's tough to make broad generalizations, especially with fewer RPGs out of Japan following the old formulas. For example the Shin Megami Tensei feels like a perfect mix of Eastern and Western RPG ideals. Anyway, I wonder if JRPGs are just aimed at a younger audience in general? Certainly that audience tends to trend older in the West, so that could be where some of the disconnect comes from when we don't like these kinds of games as we get older. That said the cure for all those issues is Shin Megami Tensei.

I use the term 'emotional investment' when referring to jrpgs because it is the one thing that jrpgs unequivocally do better than western games.  If you can suspend your disbelief of the weird plot twists and occasionally wacky humor that infests the genre like termites, it is really really easy to fall in love with characters in many games in the genre.  Yes, the characters have become ever more archetypical with time, every plot twist has been used before, and you've killed the Dark Lord of Whodunnit a thousand times... but that doesn't really significantly decrease the ability to involve yourself with the characters as long as those old plot elements are used properly.


Wheels


This is exactly true. People love games like Fallout and Skyrim, but many don't and I think the reason is they're looking for the kind of emotional investment that those games don't provide. Sure the world is deep and you have lot's of choice, but what's the point if you don't care that much about saving the world's citizens? Games like Mass Effect and Persona 4 are the perfect bridge between these two ideals. Lots of choice, but also lots of character interaction and an emotional investment in the proceedings.

The main reason that a lot of older gamers find they can't get into dungeon-crawler and the borderline jrpgs that are becoming ever more common is that that element of emotional investment is so much thinner when the focus of the game is on killing monsters, getting items, and getting farther into dungeons.  It's sad, but the trend that began with the 'collector' spirit infesting the Pokemon side of things has been steadily burying traditional jrpgs beneath layer after layer of dungeon-slogging and item-making. 


Wheels


Let's not forget the slog of Monster Hunter clones as well. Really though, Western RPGs have seen the same issues with Diablo clone after Diablo clone. With games like Mass Effect doing well in the West, and games like Dragon Quest and Trails in the Sky doing well in Japan, I don't think we'll see these kinds of games disappear completely by a long shot. Heck some dungeon-crawlers have even tried to incorporate more story! Sometimes people need to search for the right games instead of just trying the big titles.

Final Fantasy is a perfect example of this trend... there is a distinct tendency in the most recent games in the series for storytelling to take a back seat to the gameplay and visual aspects.  What it results in is games that are easier to understand for someone who has yet to bury themselves in the genre but alienate those who prefer the older style of storytelling and gameplay.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing... except that most new jrpgs seem to be designed for an ever younger audience just looking to kill time.  (jrpg stories always tended to appeal to those in their early to late teens, but most newer ones seem to be appealing to those who have yet to encounter the horrors of hormones or the usefulness of their own brains)


Wheels


Well, not counting the MMOs it's hard to say there's any kind of trend in recent Final Fantasy games since we only have XII, XIII, and XIII-2 to look at, since Final Fantasy X is pretty much a classic at this point. Now those problems are certainly in the narrative of XIII, but I thought XII took a more interesting approach even if it didn't really come together like due to Matsuno leaving in the middle of that project. I mean there are troubling trends to be sure, but not enough Final Fantasies to know if they'll be following those heavily or doing their own thing.

What all this means... is that as the genre expands ever outward and changes its direction, a gamer has to step back and consider 'Why do I play games and what do I really want out of them?'  Playing every jrpg you can get your hands on just because it is a jrpg is an incredibly wasteful course of action, if you aren't fulfilling your own desires.  The same goes for any type of game... examine your reasons for playing and make sure the games you buy are matched to those reasons, otherwise you'll make a lot of purchases you'll regret later.

Sincerely,
Travis Lucius


Wheels


I agree with you completely. Just playing any game because it's a Japanese RPG is silly, and you'll often be left unsatisfied. At the same time, there's people who do the opposite and don't try enough of them, assume they're all awful and ignore many games that they might have absolutely loved. Part of this is due to many of the titles moving to portable platforms that we don't pay as much attention to here in the West. Many of these titles are from Atlus, who I really hope becomes the model of JRPGs in the future. While they can use some annoying tropes at times, their games are always interesting mechanically.
IN CLOSING

That's it for this week folks, Q&A is going to take an "almost end of summer" break next week (unless I get a deluge of questions!) so I'll see you all in two weeks!

-Wheels


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