The Outdated Regional RPG Terminology

Have you ever noticed how you have to clarify what you mean when you say you like playing RPGs? Do you like Fallout or Shin Megami Tensei? Dragon Age or Final Fantasy? Mass Effect or Dragon Quest? The question always divides by nationalities. Western produced RPG games are given the name WRPG, and the Japanese produced ones are called JRPGs. Sometimes. Dark Souls, a series made by a Japanese developer, is not commonly seen as a JRPG. Meanwhile, some indie RPGs made in the west, like Cthulhu Saves the World, tend not to fall under the WRPG banner. If you're at all familiar with the debate, you may have some understanding of how these differences are made, but the reasoning only further shows why the labels are losing whatever meaning they had. Really, the terms of JRPG and WRPG are quickly becoming meaningless as the Japanese cast away established genre structure, and the west embraces more action focused mechanics. The JRPGs and WRPGs of today are absolutely nothing like they were just a decade ago.

First, it's important to establish that these terms used to have meaning. Japanese and western developers quickly became interested in transplanting the skeletons of tabletop gaming into their own games, but each focused on different elements. WRPGs really grew on PCs and had access to better hardware, allowing for all sorts of experimentation and mountains of text that could never fit on a console of the era. The major WRPG darlings, like Ultima, Fallout and Planetscape, all benefited from being able to store tons of text and dialog, and they used that to build structures where players could express themselves through choice. WRPG developers early on were mostly interested in creating stories with multiple paths, where a player could leave their own imprint on the world. Or, they simply practiced using a very open ended structure where a player could tackle quests however they wished, usually with little restriction. You could even solve some problems or fights entirely with dialog. What the player did usually became core to what the stories wanted to say or convey (while Ultima just enjoyed the open structure more than anything else).

JRPGs, on the other hand, propagated more on consoles, and visual novels became more significant on PCs. The PC scene became more focused on a focused narrative than player expression, even launching the careers of famously cinematic focused developers like Hideo Kojima. On top of that, most Japanese PC games remained in Japan and never got the same financial success as games made for consoles. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy basically helped establish the structures for the classical JRPG and got the international acclaim, stripping away player agency for telling a linear story with challenges the player had to overcome. The tabletop structure was still there with the use of concepts like health points and stats, not to mention some borrowed monster types, but the design of them gave players simple goals to complete, possibly due to how limited console hardware was. By chance, it was these games that became popular and influenced RPGs in their country most. The likes of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Shin Megami Tensei, and others helped established that oh so important core structure.

WRPG and JRPG refer to these early structures, along with general mechanical make-up of said games. WRPGs and JRPGs were generally simplistic in play style, focusing entirely on menus and memorizing information like status effects and skill uses. WRPGs would add in a greater array of dialog options, while JRPGs were made famous with their simple turn structure. However, even in these early days, there was already experimentation and genre pushing in these genres, with games being made that didn't fit so neatly in these labels.

In the world of WRPGs, we started seeing games plant WRPG trappings on different genres and play-styles. Dungeon crawlers are the earlier example, a series of first person games that relied more on graphics than their top down contemporaries. Some of the earliest WRPGs had elements of this style of game before evolving, but the rise of the FPS resulted in more experimentation with the genre. This eventually lead to the likes of System Shock, a series of exploration and survival focused RPG style games, and Deus Ex, a combination of FPS action and WRPG status and experience systems. Eventually, these experiments became the norm, with companies like Bioware growing more into an action bent with their Mass Effect series, and event in more traditional games like those in the Dragon Age franchise.

JRPGs, on the other hand, had series like Ys and Tales. Ys can be best described more Zelda than Final Fantasy, but the series has constantly struggled with how it should define itself. It introduced a simple action combat system with JRPG experience systems, making it unlike anything else out there. Namco's Tales series has also always stood out for its real time battle system playing out more like a beat-em up or fighter, letting you control a character in real time and create combos in combat for bonuses. There was also more experimenting with traditional JRPG narrative structures with turn based strategy, resulting in games like Fire Emblem and Disgaea fitting nearly alongside more traditional games. The PC scene also saw more visual novels add in elements of JRPGs, though not to much fan fair. These early experiments may have played a role in visual novel elements being more common in JRPGs later on however, like Persona 3 adding in VN style social links to create new elements for the game's dungeon crawling.

The classic WRPGs and JRPGs exist mainly as indie titles these days, and many of them still experiment with the structure, like Helen's Mysterious Castle's surprisingly layered combat system. But what's stranger is that traditional RPGs are mainly coming from the west now, as players of classics like Chrono Trigger and Earthbound have decided to make their own spins on the themes and game systems of these titles. You can see this in the work of western developer Zeboyd Games, who have made a career making traditional style, sprite based RPGs in the style of Japanese classics. Even if you move out of the indie scene, you can still find many games of unexpected origin, such as everyone's favorite example of the meaninglessness of these labels, Dark Souls.

From Software's Dark Souls has absolutely none of the trappings of a traditional JRPG, despite being a RPG made in Japan. Hell, I've seen many mistake it for a western developed title. It doesn't have any sort of traditional Japanese art styles common from the genre, choosing instead a grim, dark age/horror style that has served it incredibly well. Its mythology and trappings contain a lot of western basics, which is somewhat expected from the JRPG due to it being heavily based in western tabletop games, but they're presented more like you'd expect in a particularly grim PC title (does anyone remember Hellgate: London, or is that just me?). Plus, action game base with RPG elements added. The fact that Dark Soul exists kind of negates the traditional genre terminology.

We're reaching a point where the people who still use these terms regularly either do so out of habit, or in order to slag one country's projects as inferior. Game reviewers love doing this with Japanese developed RPGs, in particular, and games like Dark Souls are actually given points for not being like “JRPGs.” I've actually seen this with the likes of Final Fantasy XV, one of the most anime things I've ever seen, because it has open world elements and is therefore now more similar to Ubisoft sandbox games through some sort of ridiculous logic. It's becoming clear that these terms are starting to mean very different things.

There's still a place for them in the likes of smaller titles like Wasteland 2 or Cosmic Star Heroine (both very faithful to their roots, even if one doesn't match up with the expected country of origin), but WRPG and JRPG have become meaningless, and sometimes derogatory, terms for larger, more difficult to define releases. I mean, most modern RPGs in the west are sometimes insulted for not being enough like RPGs (see Mass Effect). I think we've reached a point where major releases can just be called RPG, because so many of them have taken ideas from one another, or from entirely different genres. If a game is trying to be like a classic style JRPG or WRPG, that's fine, but your Final Fantasy XVs, Dark Souls, Mass Effect: Andromedas, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divideds have moved so far beyond those old labels that using them on them feels suspect or just inaccurate. The gaming world is becoming more and more global, so think on your terminology a bit more.


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