Guest blog by Luis Gonzalez
When gamers heard the words Final Fantasy in the late 90s/early 2000's, most associated it with large scale, grand and epic video games. Games that immersed the player in a large world and a story full of intrigue, adventure and wonder. They contained characters we loved and some we hated. Areas and scenes we'll never forget, battles that had us at the edges of our seats and music to wrap it all into one almost perfect package. And it wasn't just Final Fantasy that allowed us to feel this way. There were dozens of games being developed at that time who, while not reaching the levels of success as Squaresoft did with Final Fantasy, still managed to keep things fresh in a genre many people hold dear to their gaming hearts: the Japanese Role Playing Game.
But what happened since then? How do most gamers react when they hear the same two words (Final Fantasy) nowadays? Most think of it as a joke, a relic of the past. However Final Fantasy games are still being released. FFXV is due out relatively soon and the hype isn't really there. Not like how it used to be. Not to mention Final Fantasy XIII was released to very mixed reviews. It was criticized for being extremely linear (a complaint not normally associated with FF games of the past) and its sequels saw relatively low sales. Especially Lightning Returns. Would it be fair to compare the old games to the new? I think so.
Squaresoft, after the merger with Enix, began to pump out less and less traditional, turn based RPGs. With the exception of Bravely Default on the 3DS, you just don't see the type of games that made the company soar to the top in the late 90s/early 2000's. It's difficult to pinpoint why exactly this is. Was it because many of the original development teams and big names left the company (Hironobu Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu and to a lesser extent Yoshinori Kitase having a less hands on position)? Was it the shift in focus in the company? Publishing more than developing? Square-Enix's focus on mobile games is apparent and it may very well be a leading cause.
When it comes to the heavy hitters that are due to come out (FFXV, Kingdom Hearts 3), both games are or were originally brainchilds of Tetsuya Nomura, a character designer who climbed the ranks in the company after his influential designs in FFVII, Kingdom Hearts, Parasite Eve, The World Ends With You, etc. The problem with Nomura nowadays is that many gamers are now growing tired of his, plainly speaking, overused designs. You'd be hard pressed to differentiate the designs of Cloud Strife (FFVII) and Prompto (FFXV). Sure the same can be said about an artist like Akira Toriyama (of Dragon Ball, Chrono Trigger and Dragon Quest fame), but there is a certain undeniable charm to his designs and it's not normally a complaint made by many gamers due to the differences in personalities in his characters.
I want to talk about other series now besides Final Fantasy that have unfortunately been neglected or declined in quality over the years:
Suikoden - Here's a series introduced just before the FFVII hype that was so amazing in terms of story telling and combat. 108 characters to recruit of which 6 can fight at once in a fast paced and turn based combat system. Suikoden was a bit of a niche title at the time, but later grew in popularity with the release of its sequel, Suikoden 2 in 1998. But by the time the series jumped to the Playstation 2, I felt it started to stray from what made it popular among fans. The fantastic lore was still there, but the gameplay shifted to a paired battle system. The story was told through the viewpoints of three different characters and the overall artistic direction changed. I personally wasn't a fan of the game and resorted to just reading about the events that took place. Suikoden 4 went deeper in the change with a four character to a battle system and the setting taking place primarily surrounded and in water. The game was met with relatively less than average reviews. Finally, the Suikoden team sought to reverse the changes made with the third and fourth installments and brought back a six player battle system and a single silent protagonist. And while it was an overall good game, the awful loading times and very short print run could not lift the series back to the height of popularity the original two set. The Suikoden series (sans a tactics game and a spinoff on the DS) has since been abandoned. Fans still yearn for a proper sixth entry.
Breath of Fire - A very popular series in the late 90s in Japan and the West alike, BoF was adored for its tale of a hero (normally named Ryu) who can shapeshift into a dragon and Nina, a winged heroine who always helped Ryu in his quest. The first four games held true to the original formula of turn based combat, 2D visuals and mini games like fishing. When Dragon Quarter came out for the PS2, so many things were cut. No longer was the game turn based, no more 2D graphics and fishing was absent. It made a drastic change and the series never recovered. Recently, news of a sixth BoF game began to surface, but much to the dismay of the original fans, it was announced the game was to be web-based, online and optimized for tablets and mobile phones.
I can go on and on with series that have been abandoned or changed completely to cater a different audience and it's sad really as I think if developers went back to what made these games succeed, they would find an entirely new fanbase. However, it's worth mentioning that there are still some games keeping the old school feel alive. The Tales of series is still going strong. Never truly straying from its original style of telling stories through skits, exciting action combat and strong anime visual influence. Persona is a series currently at its height of popularity with each iteration receiving incredibly positive reviews and selling astronomically. Finally Dragon Quest is the prime example of a series that never attempted to stray from its roots. Even while making its tenth game a massively multiplayer online RPG, it is still very much at its core a Dragon Quest game. No matter what console it comes out on, fans of the series can expect a very long, turn based adventure akin to its original release on the NES in 1986.
Have we witnessed the decline of the JRPG? Yes. Can it resurge? Most definitely. All it takes is a massive outcry from fans (something to the lengths the guys and girls over at Operation Rainfall accomplished a few years back). People are quick to complain, but don't do much about it. Starting petitions may seem absurd and futile, but to get the word out is power in this day and age. Writing an article displaying passion goes a long way.
What do you think on the topic? Do you think the genre has declined? Has it died? Can it ever be revived?"
Thanks to Luis for his awesome insight in to the JRPG world. You can follow him here: Twitter & Instagram
Mana Series (photo of Secret of Mana) - There's no denying the impact the original Secret of Mana (and to a lesser extent Seiken Densetsu or Final Fantasy Adventure for the Gameboy) had on the success of JRPGs for the Super Nintendo. Fun multiplayer combat, fantastic music and incredibly vibrant and colorful sprites and graphics. The same can be said for its sequel, Secret of Mana 2 (sadly never released in the west) which in my opinion does everything better than the original. Sword of Mana for the Gameboy Advance was a remake of the original and was very fun to play, though it wasn't perfect. After these though, the series started its decline. Average at best games for the DS and Playstation2 that didn't push the series forward at all. Some of these games did have ambition, but yet again its departure from what made the series succeed ultimately led to its failure. Its recent games were released for, you guessed it, mobile platforms.
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