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21 Jan 2015

What Makes JRPGs and Western RPGs So Much Fun To Play?

I had such a good time writing about what makes city builders fun to play yesterday, I had to write about another genre that has been on my mind lately: RPGs – specifically what makes JRPGs ‘tick.’ If you have been a lifelong gamer and are a certain age, you probably already know that JRPGs are a genre in and of themselves. They’re also starting to see a resurgence on mobile devices as well, so if you have ever wanted to develop an RPG that’s a bit of an homage to the JRPGs of yore, now is your chance.

But that’s another topic for another time. What makes these games such a joy to play for so many people around the world? Let’s take a closer look.

The story

Don’t get me wrong: Western RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate and even the newish Wasteland 2 have awesome stories. The more you play those games, the more you feel like you are actually making a difference in the world. JRPGs are no different; except in the types of stories they tell. Recently, I picked up the original Dragon Quest for my Android device, and it’s the perfect comparison. The tales told in JRPGs feel more abstract and fanciful rather than the realistic and serious tone most Western RPGs exhibit. It’s the difference between watching an American drama and a dramatic anime: both have the same dramatic tone, yet the way they entertain you is vastly different.

They’re also willing to be a bit silly. For example, amidst Final Fantasy VII’s dark tone and story, the developers still found a way to make players laugh out loud via a side quest that forces protagonist Cloud to dress up like a woman. This is one of Japan’s crowning RPG franchises, but it’s one of many examples of how unafraid JRPGs are to get a little goofy. You’re not going to see this level of silliness in an RPG like The Elder Scrolls.

Pleasing aesthetics

It’s easy to spot a JRPG based on screenshots alone. The aesthetics are always colorful and bright, and the overall tone of the aesthetics is usually quite playful and fun. Compare that to the dull, darker aesthetics of Western RPGs, and you have one of the biggest differences between Western and Japanese role-playing games.

A great comparison is how well certain superhero films perform in Japan and North America. For example, The Dark Knight was one of the most successful films in history here in North America, but in Japan? It bombed massively. It seems that most Japanese moviegoers want their superhero films to be bright and vibrant, which is why The Avengers and The Amazing Spiderman killed it in Japan.

While I can’t speak for Japan as a whole, it’s clear to me that when it comes to entertainment, North Americans have a soft spot for entertainment that is darker in tone and aesthetic, while the Japanese embrace the opposite. Now it suddenly makes sense why JRPGs use so many bright colors…

Combat systems and parties

This is one of the biggest differences to me. Western RPGs typically are all about choices. Which dialogue option should you select in a conversation? Should you venture around the area to find a bigger sword to slay that dragon, or can you use your magic to kill it now?

Throw the same situation into a JRPG, and you would find yourself either grinding to level up to go toe-to-toe with the dragon, or battling the dragon automatically via a turn-based combat system. Moreover, you would also be joined by a few other characters as well, ensuring you that you do not have to battle alone. It’s two very different philosophies on how to tackle the RPG formula, but they both work.

Which do you prefer: JRPGs or Western RPGs? Do you enjoy both equally? Whatever the case may be, tell us about it via the comments below!

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