How to make a modern game that feels like a classic JRPG

Last Updated August 22nd, 2016

The JRPG is having something of a renaissance. The genre was largely drowned out by popular open-word ARPGs last generation, while notable JRPG franchises like Final Fantasy became stuck in a cycle of constant failed reinvention. It was arguably Bravely Default, a small side project by Square-Enix, that showed there was still a market for the traditional JRPG. This was only reinforced by the astounding success of indie-game darling Undertale, and the development and release of I Am Setsuna, a game specifically modeled after the 90s JRPG classic, Chrono Trigger.

I Am Setsuna’s release felt strange. While it shared so much in common with Chrono Trigger it didn’t feel anything like it. Or at least, it didn’t feel nearly as much like a classic JRPG as Undertale did, and arguably Undertale strayed further from the formula. It had barely any equipment, few stats, a battle system that shared more in common with bullet hell games, and only one party member.

So why did a near clone of Chrono Trigger feel so detached from what made JRPGs great in the 16-bit era, while an experimental indie-game felt so nostalgic? What lies at the core of the JRPG and how can we create a modern game that feels like a JRPG classic?

The Origins of the Genre

The RPG video-game genre was built to mimic pencil-and-paper RPGs, but the ARPG and JRPG converted these storytelling games in two different ways.

The ARPG is focused on the experience of being a player. It sets out to provide a huge world with tons of options. It employs character creation systems to allow you to customize your character’s name, appearance, and abilities. It tends to focus on just one party member that you can project yourself onto. ARPGs tend to be open world so that you, the player, can tell a unique story of your own. Each side-quest you do, place you visit, and treasure you collect says something about your individual character’s identity.

JRPGs look at the pencil and paper RPG from the experience of a GM (Game Master.) For those unfamiliar with the pencil-and-paper roleplaying experience, the GM’s job is to create an interesting world for the players to interact with. They play every NPC, plan every encounter, and craft the metaplot around the characters that they are given by the players.

In a pencil-and-paper RPG, the GM and players work together to craft an ever-changing story based around the GM’s plot and the characters infinite actions. But video games can’t replicate this. There isn’t a GM having a conversation with the players, only the software taking its place. As a result, concessions had to be made.

The ARPG created games with almost as much player choice as a pencil-and-paper RPG, but since the plot needed to fit every choice the player could make and every character they could play, it tended to be generic. Demons are a-comin’. Go and kill them. Simple as that.

The JRPG created plots with as much depth as you would see in a pencil-and-paper RPG, but had to restrict the player as a result. Since there was no GM to write the plot around the characters they were given, the game designer had to step into that role, and simply made the characters that best fit the story they wanted to tell. The options these characters could take were limited in scope, as were their abilities, equipment, and even personality. These characters weren’t you. You just stepped in to control them as the final piece of the GM’s grand narrative.

The Paradox of Story

Because the JRPG was essentially designed around telling a story, it quickly became synonymous with storytelling. Early video games had technological limitations that limited their storytelling ability. Essentially, the more mechanically complex a game became, the less room there was for text, cutscenes, graphics, and anything else that would allow for a complex narrative. The relatively simple nature of the JRPG, with its primarily menu-based combat, allowed developers to devote more space to storytelling.

But as technology got better, storytelling ceased being exclusive to the RPG genre. Now, every game has a story, voice acting, and amazing graphics. These were the elements that defined the JRPG in the old days. Without dominating this technological space, what do JRPGs have left?

Simply put, we don’t know. That’s why so many attempts to reinvent the RPG have failed. Developers are now re-examining the JRPG to figure out what actually made them fun. Here are just a few things we have discovered.

JRPGs Are Better When Short

We love to conflate length with quality, but often that’s just not the case. Chrono Trigger was about 12 hours long. Earthbound was 15. Undertale was about 5-8 hours long, depending on what path you took through the game. I Am Setsuna, on the other hand, was well over 20 hours. There are some exceptions to this rule. The Persona series, for example, does a fantastic job at retaining your attention for 60+ hours. But in general, a JRPG should last no longer than it needs to tell a story, because that’s what we’re here for in the first place.

JRPG Combat Should Be a Puzzle

Menu-based combat might seem boring, but in our favorite JRPG classics it never was. That’s because the best implementations of menu-based combat were barely combat at all. They were puzzles. Granted, they were puzzles with swords and damage numbers, but they were puzzles nonetheless.

Most of us remember how Chrono Trigger asked us to focus on particular parts of a boss in order to avoid counter attacks. Many of us were giddy when we figured out Earthbound’s Mondo Mole could be paralyzed, preventing it from doing any damage whatsoever. How about when we fought the Phantom Train in Final Fantasy VI and found out that we could just use a phoenix down on it to kill it instantly. How many RPGs in the past asked us to ration our MP to the single point to get through a tough boss battle?

This is why Undertale, and other indie games like Off, scratch the old-school RPG itch so well. Even though their battle systems seem at worst simplistic and at best totally bizarre, they all retain the puzzle elements that classic JRPGs had. Undertale’s battle system had puzzles in its social act menu, defending from attacks, and even the item menu. Who would have thought that throwing a stick would instantly defeat any dog enemy?

Most modern day attempts at the JRPG focus on the math before the puzzle. They give us a ton of abilities, equipment, spells, and other customization options, but strategy never evolves beyond “use your best stuff”, rendering all these options meaningless.

JRPGs Should Be Breakable

If JRPG battles are a puzzle, JRPG equipment menus should also be a puzzle. Once again, we shouldn’t simply be asked to use our best stuff. We should be asked to combine our equipment in ways that create interesting and overpowered effects.

I can hear some of you shouting, “But wait! Wouldn’t that unbalance the game!?”

Of course it would! That’s the point. We aren’t playing these games against other people, and being overpowered feels good. Granted, this shouldn’t remove all challenge from the game, but if combat is set up like a puzzle, it shouldn’t.

Give us equipment that lets us attack four times in one turn. Give us an accessory that reduces our MP consumption by 3/4ths. Let us stack spells that make our defense nearly impenetrable. Let us turn our healing spells into damage, cast life immediately when we die, and steal the best equipment in the game from bosses with an actual chance of success.

This is the sort of system that makes random battles fun. Random battle should be a testing ground for your overpowered equipment setups and farming grounds to create them. Without the ability to break the system wide open, random battles become little more than roadblocks, time wasters before your next boss encounter.

JRPG Sidequests Should Be Clear, Completable, and Compelling

The JRPG sidequest is a formula that is so simple yet so rarely perfected. First of all, they shouldn’t take you too far out of the way of the main storyline. Second of all, they should have clear goals that don’t involve you running around blind for hours. Third, they should grant you items that are far more powerful than what you could get otherwise (see my previous two points). Finally, they should have something to do with the main story.

Modern day JRPGs tend to mimic ARPG sidequest design, in that they barely relate to the main plot. But the reason ARPGs design their side-quests this way is because they ask the player, “What would you do?” It’s a character building exercise.

But as I said before, JRPGs aren’t written from the character’s perspective, but the narrative’s perspective. So the best JRPG sidequests feed us information about our favorite characters. Thinking back to Chrono Trigger, everyone’s end of the game sidequest wrapped up each character’s unfinished plot threads while providing some of the best equipment in the game. They provided both a mechanical and a narrative reward.

Some modern day RPGs try to get by with no sidequests whatsoever, but this also doesn’t work. I Am Setsuna suffered from this. While you could fly around the world talking to people in order to get each character’s best tech, this was barely a quest. Not to mention the player was given little direction and had to go far out of the way of the main plot to complete them.

In short, never make sidequests a chore. Make them their own reward.

JRPGs Allow You to Experience Old Stories in New Ways

So many classic JRPGs messed with storytelling conventions. In fact, nearly all of them did.

  • Chrono Trigger told a story atemporally.
  • Earthbound broke the sword-and-sorcery convention by putting you in control of a child in modern day civilization.
  • Terranigma put you in the role of the bad guy for most of the game.
  • Live a Live had you experience 7 different related stories, spanning from prehistoric times to the far future, each with a different set of game mechanics.

Just about every RPG had some moral about the meaning of existence, the role of the player as an omnipotent being, or the morality of good and evil. SNES era RPGs dealt with hard to tackle topics such as religion, emotional abuse, and corruption in government.

So I ask you, where is this bravery in storytelling these days? Why aren’t modern day JRPGs trying to push the envelope?  Final Fantasy XIII was about as cookie cutter as it gets. “Some big bad monsters want to destroy the world. Also they cursed us. Let’s kill them.” Meanwhile, Tokyo Mirage Sessions combined the dark storytelling of the Persona series, the fantasy elements of Fire Emblem, the anime pandering of many Atlus games, and the Japanese cultural phenomenon of pop idols to create an experience I guarantee you haven’t seen anywhere else. Undertale just made you a character in the narrative and pretty much called you a horrible person for your JRPG tendencies.

That’s why I’m so lukewarm on games like Final Fantasy XV. Despite their shiny graphics, new battle systems, and huge open worlds, they aren’t exploring their narrative in any interesting way. Remember, this is a genre that sold itself on narrative innovation. If your modern day JRPG isn’t doing anything new with it’s narrative, most of the fanbase won’t be interested.

Looking to the Future, Understanding the Past

This list is nowhere near exhaustive, but it should illustrate some traditional aspects of JRPGs that most of us never thought about. When we play a modern day take on the genre and feel something is missing, we should be taking notes. Did it feel empty and dry when I Am Setsuna led you through the fifteenth snowy mountain range? Maybe classic JRPGs benefitted from their varied landscapes. Was it annoying when Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithless sent you on your fiftieth fetch quest? Maybe side-quests need to be more focused, or the pacing of the central story shouldn’t be interrupted.

It behooves us as players and designers to go back and appreciate the JRPGs of old, and compare them to more modern day games. We should ask: “What is still fun and what needs updating?” This is what the I Am Setsuna team did, and they got oh so close. But they copied a little too much, and innovated in the wrong places.

We won’t ever create a modern day JRPG classic by copying another JRPG formula, nor will we do so by overlapping gimmicks on the same tired tropes. We need to understand what made JRPGs fun in the first place. Because it’s not just story and it’s not just shiny graphics. There is a soul to JRPGs, a soul that is missing from many modern day games. If we could come to understand what this soul is, we might be able to finally recapture the magic that JRPGs had in eras past.