What is a JRPG? And Does It Matter?

“Japanese” is the obvious answer – but if that was the only answer, why would this article be here? Is “Japanese Role Playing Game” really all there is to it? Of course not!

If you’ve lurked around any geek-occupied forum long enough – including our Discord, which you should totally join – you’ve seen folks quibble about whether Thing X falls into Genre Y. You may have even been one of the people arguing over topics that never seem too die:

Is Star Wars science fiction, or fantasy wearing a space-flavored hat?

Is a hot dog a sandwich?

What is a JRPG? What exactly makes something a JRPG? Is Zelda a JRPG?

And while a lot of those are up to personal interpretation, the last one is especially weird. It throws a whole category of games into question. Or, rather, that particular “group” has always been more “a bunch of items that kinda look similar”. The term has been vague for so long that nobody can really agree on how to bundle the category together.

So what’s the harm in one more person trying?

Surely one of these books must hold the answer!”

Can I Get a Source on That?

The first thing I’d do if this was an eighth-grade English paper is to cite the Merriam brothers and their good pal Webster for a good old-fashioned hard definition. And I’d do that right here, too, because (as Beej and Austin have shown) having authoritative sources is important. Two problems with that:

  • A: Those guys super-dead now, and
  • B: The dictionary under their names – perhaps unsurprisingly – has no concept of a “JRPG”.

JPEGs they do have, so it’s not as though the dictionary is excluding phrases. It’s just… not defined. The absence of “JRPG” in a system made explicitly to define terms is an early flag that the moniker may be a teensy bit arbitrary. Even other curated dictionary sites will only go as far spelling out “Japanese Role-Playing Game”, and no further.

So let’s take this more modern initialism in a more internet-y direction:

To the Wiki!

…except that good ol’ Wikipedia notably also does not have a page for “Japanese Role-Playing Game”. It has one for History of Eastern Role-Playing Video Games, and a List of Best-selling Japanese Role-Playing Games. But both shy away from being declarative. Rather, the closest we get is:

For the purpose of this article, a JRPG is defined as a franchise which: (1) is considered a role-playing game by reliable sources and was made in Japan, or (2) made in another country, but otherwise the franchise would be difficult to differentiate from a JRPG due to having common traits found in JRPGs such as: anime/manga character designs, RPG elements, fantasy setting and widely considered as being inspired or influenced by a JRPG.

Wikipedia Editor “Dissident93” [1]

Even that’s not perfect, considering that the phrase “reliable sources” is every bit as nebulous and subjective as “JRPG”. We can track it back to all being written by a single user, to boot. A fairly prolific user, but it’s just one writer’s definition nonetheless, and not a community consensus. But hey, it’s a start.

Let’s break that down.

Not to pick on this guy – far from it! Instead, we’re starting here because that blurb covers a lot of ground that always seems to come up with the topic. So, piece by piece, the components are:

“Considered a role-playing game by reliable sources”

The idea that a role-playing game is one just because people call it one sure is compelling enough. Words derive power and meaning from how people use them, so in a sense, definitions should come from usage over it being strictly the other way around. But it’s also kind of circular logic, which doesn’t help move us in any direction.

“and was made in Japan,”

This is the point where a lot of people clock out: it’s an inherently Japanese genre. Role-Playing Games made in Japan are Japanese Role-Playing Games. And, a majority of the time, that’s a slam-dunk answer. The most indisputable, “JRPG-est” franchises ever are all distinctly from Japanese creators like Square Enix, Atlus, and Nintendo.

And some of the time, you have to weigh that against something like the Souls series. They were absolutely made by Capcom, who are decidedly based in Japan. It’s not hard to argue that they’re Role-Playing Games, with their level-up-and-build-your-character structure. But moment-to-moment, the player interacts with them like they would an action game:

Straight from the horse’s mouth FROMSOFTWARE’s official YouTube

While “Action RPG” and “JRPG” aren’t mutually exclusive (see the widely-agreed-on Secret of Mana, Kingdom Hearts, and Star Ocean), the heavy western influences and chunkier, reaction-focused playstyle make Dark Souls feel a cut apart.

So is a Japanese pedigree always enough to override the experience that the game provides? And, in an increasingly cross-cultural industry, what about projects like the not-very-RPG-like Far Cry and Spider-Man, developed in part across multiple continents? Nationality is sometimes a hard thing to ascribe to a thing that can’t talk.

“or”

This one word is carrying so much weight. Let’s come back to it later.

“made in another country, but otherwise the franchise would be difficult to differentiate from a JRPG due to having common traits found in JRPGs such as

This gets even muddier – here we’re using the word to define itself, which is a big ol’ no-no in most dictionaries and encyclopedias. The gist is that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then we’re calling it a duck, doggone it. So the next parts are crucial: what does this duck do?

“anime/manga character designs

What counts as anime and manga is the same kind of can of worms that we’re upending here. It’s hard to pin down; even within “we all agree that this is anime” production, art styles can vary wildly (and in ways that overlap with Western animation). Another “if it feels right” qualifier, which isn’t anything stable enough to rest your hat on. It is enough of a baseline to help, though; it’s hard to argue that Pier Solar, a game whose developers are ostensibly from Iowa, isn’t deliberately evoking shows like Record of Lodoss War.

If the character art isn’t a giveaway, the foreign text sure is.

“RPG elements

…which is the biggest elephant in the room, because it’s yet another another wiggly pile of knick-knacks that people squabble over. Are all role-playing games necessarily derived from the grandpappy Dungeons and Dragons? By how much, and which of those elements matter? And is this even helpful, since definitively Western Role-Playing Video Games will sport these in equal measure?

The clearest example of this is understandably one of the bedrocks of the genre. The core battle gameplay in the original Final Fantasy has a character-class-based party taking turns to use skills on enemies, who do the same. The monsters are even ripped straight right out of Gygax’s bestiary. In fact, most early video game RPGs in Japan were very openly inspired by imports of the Player’s Handbook.

The Grandpappy

So which of these “elements” really matter? Is it the class system? Its story-forward nature? Leveling up and experience points? The fact that the game is primarily played politely, in alternating turns? These are all things that Final Fantasy itself abandoned at one point or another within the “core” series. Does that mean that certain seminal Final Fantasy games aren’t even JRPGs? You can (and we do) tell stories about baseball teams, who train (“grind”) in the off-season and then “battle” each other by taking turns on offense. Is baseball one big JRPG LARPing league?

(Obviously not, but I do want to play a baseball video game on a certain style now.)

That’s not even getting into how Eastern and Western developers have largely developed different approaches to how they approach that “story-forward” element. Does a blank-slate, self-insert protagonist make an RPG more or less “JRPG-y”? What about branching narratives and “skill checks”, as emphasized in American Bethesda and Bioware titles but rarely seen in big-name Japanese-made titles like Dragon Quest and Pokémon?

The vibrant lead and single-narrative-path of Ara Fell definitely push that game toward the storytelling styles of Final Fantasy VI and Breath of Fire, but what makes those traits inherently Japanese in a Role-Playing Video Game context? The pure fact that those elements more prevalent in games produced in Japan? So when did they start defining JRPGs?

“fantasy setting

This is something of a matter of flavor and preference as to whether it should count. Even a lot of the top franchises that people don’t argue as edge cases don’t use a “fantasy setting” – at least, not always. Possibly the most recognizable JRPG title of all time – Final Fantasy VII – is set in what looks more of a diesel-punk low-science-fiction world than a fantasy one. The long-running Shin Megami Tensei series (including the breakout spin-off Persona) are overwhelmingly set in modern Japan, if not slightly in the future.

An awful lot of JRPG settings are fantasy worlds, certainly. But an awful lot of comic books are about superheroes, and you can’t convince me that Giant Days isn’t a comic book just because it focuses on normal college students instead.

“and widely considered as being inspired or influenced by a JRPG.”

And here we’re back to our talking in circles – “if it’s like a JRPG, it’s a JRPG”. Cosmic Star Heroine looks and plays a lot like Chrono Trigger, so for most it gets a pass. But how do you quantify “widely considered”? By players? By journalists and scholars? And how much of the game has to be influenced by a JRPG? 2018’s God of War features experience points, skill progression, equipment shops, the works – and a defined character with a linear story. But “God of War is a JRPG” is a hard stance to take with its action-heavy combat.

But honestly?

Influence isn’t a bad definition.

Every single one of the qualifiers listed above is either itself hard to define or only applies some of the time. Even more noticeably, almost all of them implicitly refer back to past JRPGs to define current JRPGs.

You have numerical stats in the Japanese-developed Monster Hunter, and it reeks of low fantasy. At the same time, you don’t gain experience points, there’s functionally no story, and you’d have to really stretch to call the battles “turn-based”. Is it role-playing game, let alone a JRPG?

I wouldn’t say so, and I also wouldn’t point to any one of those reasons as to why. Paper Mario: Origami King seems like a JRPG, but doesn’t feature experience points or character levels. Most Etrian Odyssey games have no story, but most would certainly count them as a dungeon-crawling JRPGs. And none of the Tales series’ core games are turn-based, but it’s hard to argue that they’re not JRPGs.

The character designs, the various interfaces, post-battle victory screen, the… none alone cinches it, but they all add up.

So we circle back to that big, bold-faced “or“.

So…what is a JRPG?

JRPGs are all of these things. And sometimes, they leave things out where they don’t fit. Just like not all horror films have a monster in them, and not all chili recipes contain meat. It’s all flexible and interpretive.

But words and acronyms still have to mean things, and we have to agree on that meaning. What do we have language for if not to communicate clearly?

It’s a big task to cram all that we just laid out back into one sentence. But here’s a very imperfect swing at it:

A JRPG is a video game that, moment-to-moment, provides the same player experience as other JRPGs”

And I’m doing that very thing I called out as bad form before: using the term to define itself.

But with a term used almost entirely by fans? You kind of have to.

When we’re talking about JRPGs – or any genre – what most of us are really trying to get at is a category of games that make us feel a certain way. Games where it’s comfortable to slay monsters by scrolling through menus, just like you did in Final Fantasy and Megami Tensei. Games that evoke that charming, kinda-hokey sense of style and take you on an adventure, like Dragon Quest and Earthbound. Or games that see you grow and gather a party to take on any challenge, like Suikoden and Pokémon.

But JRPGs won’t always be this way. They themselves have already grown and changed with the times. As noted, there are exceptions to every hard rule and qualification you might pin to “JRPG”. So letting the term define itself is an inclusive kind of future-proofing, too. JRPGs don’t need to follow any formula.

They just need to feel right.

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