There and Back Again: A Look at Japanese VRPGs VS American CRPGs

RPGs are one of the most beloved genres of games for hard-core console or PC gamers, yet each platform provides very different gaming
experiences. Many readers of this site might have lost their RPG cherry with a Computer Role-Playing Game (CRPG) such as Ultima or Wizardry. My experience started out with Video Game RPGs (VRPGs). This is a brief look at differences between the two mixed with nostalgic memories of playing a variety of RPGs growing up.

The very first VRPG I ever played was the original Dragon Warrior for the NES, when I was 7 years old. In the game your avatar was Edgar,
a knight for the King that had a whopping two quests to complete: save the Princess and slay the DragonLord. You could buy new weapons, learn new spells, navigate through dungeons, and fight adorable monsters, all to the strains of Koichi Sugiyama's classical music
with a chiptune twinge.

Despite being the first VRPGs that set the mold for most Japanese VRPGs to follow, not much has changed in gameplay style since Dragon Warrior (known as Dragon Quest in Japan). The gameplay boils down to a fairly simple flowchart of Town-->Quest-->Dungeon-->Town. The avatar recieves a main quest from a town and is told to complete it by going to a dungeon. After completing the quest, usually by retrieving a special treasure or defeating a nefarious boss monster, the avatar returns to the town to gain a reward and a clue as to what village to go to complete the next quest.

Inbetween each step of the flowchart is a boatload of cut-scenes, which are customary in Japanese VRPGs. They help propel the plot and flesh out party members and NPCs in the game. Instead of generating characters from scratch, you are given party members with predetermined roles and a bit of quirk. This leads to endearing characters and help turn more modern VRPGs into an interactive anime-- the reward for completing a quest in a VRPG is a cartoon cutscene. Later on I played several VRPGs on the SNES such as Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals, Earthbound, and Final Fantasy III (Final Fantasy VI in Japan) enjoyed their similar style of gameplay and increasingly complicated plots (though Lufia has a party member who was obsessed with cinammon pie?!).

Much later, I was in middle school and got more into PC gaming. I was a big fan of retro-compilations even then and was sampling some
titles from Interplay's 10th Anniversary Collection. One of these was an early CRPG, The Bard's Tale. The title screen had a charming image
of a Bard sitting at a bar spinning stories of derring-do like no other. 20 minutes later, I generated a small party, equipped their
default weapons, and set out to explore the village of Skara Brae. A few steps later, my party encountered a small group of Orcs. I barely
made it past the first battle and hobbled back to the Bar for rest. This was clearly a different kind of creature than Dragon Warrior.

I was familiar from party generation from what few tabletop RPGs sessions I played with friends. The sheer difficulty is what was such a turn-off initially, as was the first-person perspective. Later on, I grew to enjoy mapping out dungeons on a sheet a graph paper because it added to the sense of discovery, but it was a huge difference from the Japanese VRPGs I grew up on. The lack of narrative was a bit dissapointing, but that the game was almost pure combat made it feel much more primal and raw to its tabletop roots.

VRPGs were like being given a tour of a village with a guide holding your hand, pointing out interesting spots along the way. CRPGs were like being thrown into a dark cave with nobody holding your hand, like a lamb preparing to be slaughtered.

Anyone else have any memories or preferences of the classic CRPG VS VRPG debate? I decided to keep things simple to prevent this article from reaching epic length. :) I feel a good blend of American and Japanese RPGs was found in Baldur's Gate 2 or Fallout for the PC-- you had some sort of a plot, but had enough freedom where you weren't locked in such a linear game progression.

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yakumo9275
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nice

Japanese CRPGS are like Choose Your Own Adventure books, only with one choice all the time. Far too much handholding, clue giving and sheer lack of openness.

I remember playing Sorcerian from Sierra and thinking why couldn't the design team decide if it was an action game or an rpg? (given, sorcerian is pretty different from most vrpgs).

Recently Ive been trying to play Phantasy Star II/III/IV on the psp with the sega classic pack. I feel like, as a player, I don't do squat, your basically told where to go and what to do all the time. The hand holding is tedious, the dialogue is boring and insipid. The combat system is awefull (that seems pretty standard, its either final fantasy like or its dragon warrior like). I quickly lost interest after talking to A, being told to go to B, talk to C, go to D, talk to E, i felt like there was no progress but going round in circles. As soon as you realise that from talking to C and going to D, your just going to have to rinse and repeat forevery, its like, why bother...

plus, blue slimes are unappealing monsters. VRPGS had some crazy ass names that didnt make much sense.

-- Stu --

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Weefz
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JRPGs don't let you choose your role
yakumo9275 wrote:

Japanese CRPGS are like Choose Your Own Adventure books, only with one choice all the time. Far too much handholding, clue giving and sheer lack of openness.
-- Stu --

I agree with you there. I don't like calling them RPGs at all, because you don't actually get to choose a role. You play the path you're given. The same applies with TLJ and Dreamfall.

The only customisation you really get to make is in the type of damage you do. I enjoy the Final Fantasy games from a storytelling and world-building perspective but I do have trouble immersing myself in the characters. They're more an interactive movie than actual role-playing.

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Bill Loguidice
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WRPG versus JRPG - My thoughts

For my preferences and tastes, having first come from a background of paper RPG's (mostly TSR, early on, with some variances like Steve Jackson stuff, and later moving to more diverse publishers) and with the first CRPG that I purposely went out and bought and then specifically played 100% to completion myself being Phantasie (SSI, 1985) on the C-64, the whole concept of what such a game should be are heavily biased.

I believe you should be able to create your own character, or preferably characters, to form a unique party. Choice is key, with different races, classes and sexes. Some of those you may have to use your imagination on, but the basic concepts of creating who you want, and PRE-strategizing about your parties makup is key. Part of the fun to me is reading the manual, getting a sense for the game, then figuring out ahead of time what a basic party should consist of for maximum success. Of course you may not always guess right and most likely that party will get killed off early on, but the idea is that you should need to put some thought into who and what you want your character or group to be. To me, this is a major difference between Western and Japanese RPGs. Western you can usually create your own character or party, while Japanese usually gives you exactly who you're playing. If you don't like the character you're playing in the Japanese RPG, tough luck.

Naturally there will some type of linear play and/or areas that you can't yet reach in just about any RPG. However, you should never feel guided or overly restricted. Again, generally speaking, you have this freedom in Western CRPGs, where you usually don't in JRPGs. In JRPGs you're generally guided by the confines (and needs) of the so-called story telling, whereas in CRPGs story elements do not necessarily have to be uncovered in order, as you sort of have to piece together the overall arc.

The end goal. This to me is the failing of most RPGs, regardless of origin or design. It's the rare title where your goal is not to kill the big baddie at the end. There are some exceptions though and for those games we should be thankful. What can be jarring is when the game just ends. I actually kind of like those games where after the big end battle and your "victory", you can still tool about the world a bit as the conquering heroes. There's nothing much left to do, but the reality is, the evil is gone. In any case, in JRPGs, generally the ending is pre-determined and fully scripted - there is a "proper" ending. When playing with characters of your own creation as in Western RPGs, the ending is often more free form. Again, it's the difference of playing to a heavy handed script or playing to a loose script. Obviously, I prefer the latter.

Finally, it comes down to one's taste in aesthetics. Having been first weened on Pong, Atari VCS, Vic 20, C-64, etc., and exposed to mostly Western cartoons and what-not (save for Star Blazers) in my early formative years (as well as classic D&D art) and being a conisseur of realistic art, I have a hard time being immersed in the anime/JRPG aesthetic, which can often involve super-deformed or exagerrated characters, with often effemiate males and demure females. It's a cultural thing for me. I wouldn't mind so much if it didn't permeate every Japanese game and it fact I might find it refreshing, but too much is too much. On the other hand, I don't really tire of the Western style and aesthetics. Probably a cultural thing and what I was brought up on.

Again, with my own biases in mind, I can't rightly say one class of games is better than the other - there are great games and stinkers in both paths - but I believe we MUST treat them as entirely different genres, even if we use "WRPG" and "JRPG" to distinguish the two different design philosophies. Bottom line, there's just no way they're the same type game when you really look at it and that's not a bad thing.

======================================
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
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Matt Barton
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Japanense vs. US CRPGs

I might remind new readers to check out my older look at this subject, Kawaisa!, in which I naively tried to compare the two genres (Mat has done a much better job here, I think).

What interests me about the Japanese CRPGs is how much they borrowed from the early Ultima games, particularly 2-4. In fact, there's a fun story in which Garriott went to Japan to work out a deal for the licensing, and was approached by one of the lead Ultima-clone developers. The guy started showing Garriott their game, but it soon became obvious that it wasn't just a clone--it was a downright copy. Whole sections of the artwork had been ripped. The book that tells this story (Official Book of Ultima) doesn't identify exactly what game this was, but the name Xanadu pops up. Instead of getting the license, they agreed to an out of court settlement with Origin!

At any rate, it's certainly possible to detect a certain "cuteness" in some of Origin's Ultima and some of there other CRPGs, such as Chuckles' 2400 A.D. But I think the key difference between Japanese and American CRPGs are the target age groups. The Japanese seem to target the 7-12 year old group, whereas American games seem to assume you're at least 15 or 16 (i.e., old enough to play the tabletop D&D game, read Tolkien, etc.). If you're dealing with a 7 year old, you know you have to keep it simple and fast-paced. What always stuns me is how much inane dialog you're expecting to sit through in these games. For the most part, it's mostly stuff culled from what seem to be fairy tales. As we might expect, the main character is usually an adolescent boy...A bit younger than I usually want to play!

What's funny is that some of the later Japanese games try to seem more adult by adding in cuss words and sexual material. Try as I might, I can't get past the style of the graphics and see anything but a kid's game with some "mature stuff" grafted on.

I'll confess, though, the only VRPGs I've played through are the first Final Fantasy (NES) and Chrono Trigger (SNES). Of the two, Chrono Trigger was definitely the best, with a polished storyline, good ambiance, and excellent overall timing. Although it's a Disney-esque kid's game, it is highly entertaining for all ages. The first Final Fantasy was extremely repetitive with wave after wave of pretty much meaningless random encounters. It was torture. I still need to go back and play the Dragon Warrior games and Zelda, as well as Phantasy Star.

I think a more disturbing trend in all CRPGs is away from strategy and tactics and more towards "action" games." This began in earnest with Diablo and has carried on since, and now it's impossible to find a new CRPG that indulges in turn-based combat. In fact, the last ones I can remember making the attempt were Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor (HORRID), and Temple of Elemental Evil (decent).

I think the "perfect" mix would be to have a way to switch between modes, so that you could run the "busywork" encounters in real-time, but slow down to turn-based for the big battles. This was implemented to some degree in Baldur's Gate and NWN, where you could pause the game to give orders, but it still wasn't as "sit back and think" the way the Gold Box games were.

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Bill Loguidice
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Paradigm shifts in gaming
Matt Barton wrote:

I think a more disturbing trend in all CRPGs is away from strategy and tactics and more towards "action" games." This began in earnest with Diablo and has carried on since, and now it's impossible to find a new CRPG that indulges in turn-based combat. In fact, the last ones I can remember making the attempt were Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor (HORRID), and Temple of Elemental Evil (decent).

I think the "perfect" mix would be to have a way to switch between modes, so that you could run the "busywork" encounters in real-time, but slow down to turn-based for the big battles. This was implemented to some degree in Baldur's Gate and NWN, where you could pause the game to give orders, but it still wasn't as "sit back and think" the way the Gold Box games were.

I think this is a disturbing trend in ALL genres on all platforms. The only major turn-based strategy game released of recent vintage that I can readily recall is Civilization IV and its various expansions (latest expansion just released), and even that is hinting at moving to more real-time stuff with the next iteration for consoles and handhelds. It's interesting, but it's almost like the shift we saw from text-based games to all graphics games in the mainstream, and from 2D to 3D. It seems like another shift can be seen from turn-based to real-time or modified real-time. It seems as technology continues to progress, there is more focus - or need if you will - on/to "flashier", more "motion-based" elements. Just like the other shifts, this almost complete shift away from any type of turn-based play is not true progress, not fully a good thing. And also as with the other shifts, some things just work better the "old" way.

I'd love just once, regardless of genre, for a major publisher to create one uber mainstream game in an old style, be it a 2D turn-based CRPG with an epic scope, a 2D platformer with an epic scope, a ultra-intelligent text-based game, etc. Go all out with the art, sound, writing, advertising, etc., as applicable, and really see what happens. Costs would at the very least approximate or in some cases come in lower than equivalent 3D epic games and the uniqueness would probably move product, at least the first time. And yes, I know that indie developers and publishers still do this, but frankly they'll never match the reach or the name recognition of an EA or Activision, as just two examples. It will also never happen, regardless, but I'd still like to see it.
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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
======================================

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Matt Barton
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Old is New
Bill Loguidice wrote:

I'd love just once, regardless of genre, for a major publisher to create one uber mainstream game in an old style, be it a 2D turn-based CRPG with an epic scope, a 2D platformer with an epic scope, a ultra-intelligent text-based game, etc. Go all out with the art, sound, writing, advertising, etc., as applicable, and really see what happens.

I've often had this thought as well. Take the basic gameplay of a game like Pool of Radiance (or Phantasie), vamp up the graphics, sound, interface, etc., but keep the gameplay intact. We're starting to see this (to a limited extent) with the old adventure classics, though it's always a grassroots/hobbyist effort and never (at least to my mind) a commercial enterprise. I'm still holding out for XLA or something similar to get very serious about updating classics without marring the gameplay. It's critical not to much around with the basic mechanics, though this seems to be all too common ("Let's make this 2D classic 3D! Let's make this turn-based game real-time! Let's get rid of the challenge and spoonfeed the gamer!")

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Weefz
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Autopause in NWN?
Matt Barton wrote:

I think the "perfect" mix would be to have a way to switch between modes, so that you could run the "busywork" encounters in real-time, but slow down to turn-based for the big battles. This was implemented to some degree in Baldur's Gate and NWN, where you could pause the game to give orders, but it still wasn't as "sit back and think" the way the Gold Box games were.

I thought at least one of the BG and NWN games had an option to pause after each turn, or at least after every round. I know I set it to auto-pause after every death and I'm sure that was pretty close to the fully-automated end of the spectrum.

I quite liked the faux-real-time aspect of those games. I felt that it really made you pay attention to the battles, whereas pure turn-based fights can get a bit... casual. The atmosphere just feels a little too relaxed for me.

--
The Average Gamer

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yakumo9275
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the other view

were there any translations of say BG or PST to japanese? Id be curious to know how they see western crpgs'

-- Stu --

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Bill Loguidice
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WRPG/CRPG influence over in Japan
yakumo9275 wrote:

were there any translations of say BG or PST to japanese? Id be curious to know how they see western crpgs'

-- Stu --

Good question. Obviously Wizardry and Ultima were hugely influential over there, but once JRPG development got fully underway in the late 80's, they seemed to diverge onto their own paths. You almost wonder if they consider WRPG or CRPG games their own class of game as well...
======================================
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
======================================

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Matt Barton
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American Exports
yakumo9275 wrote:

were there any translations of say BG or PST to japanese? Id be curious to know how they see western crpgs'- Stu --

As far as I can tell, many games were exported, and were huge hits in Japan. The ultima series in particular comes to mind, but Wizardry, Phantasie, and other series certainly made it over. Indeed, much with American rockstars, these games seem to live a new life over there, and some new games were made that were released only in Japan (I'm thinking here of Phantasie IV, but there are many others). I'd be very curious to know if these games were considered better over there than the Japanese-originals, or how they fit into that lineup. Surely not EVERY Japanese CRPG fan preferred the anime-style art and cuteness of games like Zelda and Final Fantasy. There must have been a group that preferred Ultima and Wizardry style.

I'm sure we could see the same thing in Germany, which could be rather interesting. I wonder how many German CRPGs migrated to Japan and vice versa?

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