Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The 90’s J culture

Since the 90’s and throughout the 2000’s, a number of the various subcultures of Japan have gradually become more domesticated trends. Teens listening to Western music are now the norm, and people who have an interest in foreign culture such as movies and literature are no longer considered to be in the minority. With the normalization of Western culture, there are a series of “J” words such as “J-pop” and J-culture” that have appeared. 

While some of the terms have been forgotten, some have become completely conventional. In industries where original Japanese products such as manga, anime, and also games have always been produced, however, the “J” character was never added. In other words, because items such as manga and anime are inherently “Japanese things” there is no need to deliberately call them “J-manga” and “J-anime”. However there is one exception to this example. That is “JRPG”.

Similar to the “J” series, in the JRPG industry it can have a derogatory, neutral, or positive meaning, depending on the situation. However, an interesting point for the word “JRPG” is that it gained popularity faster than any other “J” term, such as “J-pop” or “J-literature”. In other words, before the name arose many Japanese thought that, similar to manga and anime, “RPGs” were naturally a “Japanese thing”. In contrast, the popular term “JRPG” implied that “there is a difference between original RPGs and Japanese RPGs” and awareness of this began to sprout in Japanese gamers.

JRPGs flourishing in the niche market

What exactly constitutes a “JRPG”? This alone can be argued till daybreak when two or more gamers come together to discuss the topic. Historically speaking, before table-talk RPGs (derived from the English word tabletop role-playing game) were adequately introduced as the origin of RPGs in Japan, the fact that RPG video games became a major genre was a huge deal. From analog RPGs to the recent open world system, when grasping the flow of RPGs as a “natural evolution of history,” the “JRPG” seems to have become a branch that is undoubtedly in a difficult position.

However, the way of perceiving the trend of recent computer RPGs as being based on table-talk RPGs is nothing but a historical perspective. Actually, in the English version of Wikipedia, the articles “History of Western role-playing video games” and “History of Eastern role-playing games” explain the respective origins of each in two separate categories.

There are a lot of JRPGs that have been criticized for having anime-like visuals, unrealistic stories where young people (children) save the world, and a turn-based battle system that lacks dynamics. But on the other hand, Western RPGs are criticized for having weak stories, one-sided characters, and a seamless battle system that loses the strategic capabilities that a table-talk RPG has. Overseas there are also a lot of deep-rooted JRPG fans and people who defend the JRPG genre.

In fact, the difference between both the aesthetics and value has been strongly influenced by Japanese RPGs that found its success in console platforms and the Western RPGs that evolved in the PC platform. Recently, since console systems’ capabilities are approaching PC capabilities, the Western RPGs - which developed in the PC platform - reign supreme in the game market. For this reason, JRPGs and the Japanese game culture that was born are, if anything, outcasts, or tend to be treated like bastards.

In reality however, games that are released on high-performance consoles are restricted to AAA titles. If you focus on things like the indie games on the various platforms such as cell phones, smart phones, feature phones, and even PC platforms, JRPGs are much more popular and also have an abundance of new products. Even though Western RPGs’ open world system is dominating the global market, JRPGs in the niche market are continuing to flourish.
Particularly within recent indie games, the personality of a creator raised on Japanese games stands out and is strongly demonstrated in “foreign-made JRPGs.” Therefore in conclusion, we want to look inside the fan-funded Kickstarters and introduce a few projects, especially those that emphasize on JRPG components.

The expansion of overseas JRPG projects in Kickstarter

Rival Threads: Last Class Heroes

This is a side-scroller RPG created by Studio Kontrabida. Currently, this game is being developed for the Ouya console - which is based on the Android OS – as well as smartphones and PCs. Originally, the game was intended for a release on iOS and a sequel was also planned because on Kickstarter they managed to substantially surpass the target amount of $5,000 and actually acquired $20,000 in donations.

If you look at things like animation and artwork, you will be able to understand that it is a side-scroller game that is very conscious of its 2D visuals which, for recent RPGs, is an extremely rare thing. It seems to be heavily influenced by the popular Atlus series “Persona” since the game’s universe is set on a school campus where characters can manipulate marionettes and battle each other. Studio Kontrabida is expanding into multiple countries and is staffed by indie developers, but they have yet to show any major accomplishments. This project has been thriving in game media across the globe.

“Vacant Sky” is an indie game series that was created in the program known as “RPG Tkool”. Although RPG Tkool is popular in Japan, overseas it is popularly known as RPG Maker and is widely used by developers whose abilities vary from amateurs to indie. “Act I” and “Act II” of “Vacant Sky” have already been released to the public free of charge. Writers have also tried it to see what it’s like but the dark outlook of the world and the so-called “8th grader sickness” (a Japanese term meaning “immature, self-conscious, and pretentious, characteristic of junior high school-age children) setting really gives it the distinct feel of a JRPG.

In this Kickstarter project, table-talk RPG components are being adopted but the influence of the Japanese Persona series is also recognized and acknowledged. They exceeded their goal of $8,000 and successfully collected a total of $14,000. They also have international projects which will be released across the US and England, and setting off from amateur game production via Kickstarter, they will also be undertaking a commercial product as well. This project is set to be released on multiple platforms, including PC.


“CRYAMORE!” is an action-RPG project that contains steampunk components. Recently, on Kickstarter they are conducting a campaign to raise funds. For a project of this scale they are looking to raise over $60,000. They have already surpassed $10,000 in donations and afterwards it will be interesting to see how many additional donations they will obtain (in reaching $117,000 we know that a Japanese version will be released, and I myself contributed $120).

As expected, this project’s staff consists of pros from the game industry who have developed famous games such as Ubisoft’s “Scott Pilgrim: The Game” and the indie fighting game “Skullgirls” (which is finally set to be released in Japan) as well as animators Kinuko and Mariel Cartwright. The staff of Udon Entertainment, which publishes manga and art books in Canada, and illustrator Rob Porter are also participating in this project.

You can see from the video animation that the contents of this action-RPG have been strongly influenced by Japanese works such as the Legend of Zelda and the Legend of Mana. The characters also have a mix of anime-like design and a Disney-like flavor which provide the finishing touch of an extremely charming and eclectic Western-Japanese feel. They are currently looking for contributors and people that feel inclined to contribute to the cause.

Like the above-mentioned indie games, in the niche market JRPGs are gradually becoming more popular and this culture is by no means diminishing. Recently the presentation of 2D animation has been evolving into different forms (I still want to write about this), and I want to stress that this game is by no means being produced in only a retrospective sense.

The current problem for me, being that I am Japanese, is that although I wish to support these projects, generally there is little hope for a Japanese version release. It is extremely unfortunate that JRPGs, which are on the rise overseas, will not be available to Japanese gamers. I hope that in the future these games will be localized.

Below is a link to an interesting column about JRPGs.

They still like turn-based JRPGs.

What is a JRPG?