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A conversation with Aidan Moher, author of Fight, Magic, Items (part two)
Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West is available now, and I spoke to the author about it and JRPGs (again).
If you happen to follow the two of us on Twitter, you’re probably aware that Aidan Moher and I like to talk video games, especially JRPGs. Given that his book, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West is available for purchase now, we had an excuse to take those conversations to the newsletter.
Below is a conversation we’ve been having over email about the book, which uses the author’s own JRPG-playing history as well as that of the industry that produces them to detail where the genre came from, where it’s been, and where it’s going. This is part two of two; you can find the first part of our conversation here.
Marc Normandin: I want to give you some space to tell the audience why Pokémon games (which receive time in the spotlight in Fight, Magic, Items) are JRPGs, and without us pointing a finger at the person who got very mad about this idea after your book was first published. I imagine more than one individual (wrongly) believes otherwise, so, let’s produce some Google-able evidence against that case.
Aidan Moher: Oh, man. You're gonna make me talk about genre classifications, aren't you? I'm a big bucket person when it comes to genres — I feel like they're most useful when we consider them as portable and flexible influences, rather than objective labels that a game has to defend with specific choices/structures/gameplay elements. So, I think we can easily look at something like Pokémon and call it a JRPG without hesitating. First, because it's an RPG made in Japan, but also because the influences of things like Dragon Quest (grid-based movement, squat characters, fun monsters, one-on-one turn-based combat, etc.) are very obvious in the early games.
As video games mature, we're seeing genres merge in the AAA space — with series like Final Fantasy veering closer and closer to character action-style adventure games with heavy western narrative influences — and blend together elements from lots of various genres. But, then you look at a game like Forspoken — an RPG made in Japan by the company that created both Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest — which fits the definition, but has much more in common with western open-world games than small-c conservative JRPGs like Dragon Quest XI. And then, we're seeing the indie space release very archetypical JRPGs based on the 16-bit golden age — Chained Echoes, Sea of Stars, etc. — that are made by westerners, but are undeniably JRPGs in tone, structure, and appeal.
So, I think Pokemon is a JRPG, but it's also lots of other things—just like Forspoken, Final Fantasy XVI, and Chained Echoes.
MN: It’s been fascinating watching Square Enix try to make completely new RPGs and innovations in the genre like the ones you mentioned, while also diving so much into their past alongside it. Between remakes (Final Fantasy VII), remasters (Live A Live), and brand new games that seem like they time traveled from a distant past (Dungeon Encounters), Square obviously still has a thing for their golden age, but they also don’t want to seem entirely defined by it, either. Which is good, because when they were trying very hard to emulate the early to mid-90s in the middle of last decade… well, let’s just say Chained Echoes was far more successful at understanding that period of Square’s history than the publishing giant itself seemed to.
This all actually leads right into another question I had in mind. We've seen the genre take on elements of so many others over the years, from action to MMO to deck-building to rhythm, and as you mentioned above, Japan is once again looking to the west for role-playing inspiration. What do you see as the possible next fusion that'll take off in a similarly wide fashion, rather than as a one-off?
AM: Funny enough, I think we're actually seeing the success of western indie games like Chained Echoes and the excitement around Sea of Stars proving that Japanese RPGs don't have to be huge AAA experiences to find success. In the wake of this, as you've mentioned, we've seen companies like Square Enix experimenting with smaller scale titles (The DioField Chronicle, Triangle Strategy, Live A Live) and Konami reviving Suikoden. Since the very beginning when Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii created the genre on NES, Japanese RPGs have thrived in environments that kept scope in check due to technical limitations, small teams, and limited budgets. I hope we see a genre that becomes more comfortable not having to be the biggest genre out there anymore.
On the wider end of the spectrum, I expect we'll continue to see major AAA releases like Final Fantasy XVI merge with the action-based gameplay and lighter RPG mechanics found in so many western franchises—Assassin's Creed, Horizon, etc. In that way, AAA blockbuster almost feels like it's becoming a genre of its own: huge world, astounding graphics, action-based combat, light roleplaying in a mostly linear story, light-to-moderate RPG character building, rinse, repeat. We're seeing this in games like Final Fantasy XVI (with Yoshi-p specifically saying they're trying to target younger fans with its action-based combat), Forspoken, etc.
So, I think the "fusion" you're talking about will be a similar pattern of big AAA action-based RPGs serving as the mainstream face of the genre, but then smaller, crowdfunded indie studios experimenting and exploring more traditional Japanese RPG structures, systems, etc. and the big studios recognizing that the success of games like Chained Echoes, or the hugely successful Eiyuden Chronicle Kickstarter, not to mention their own smaller successes, like the Live A Live remake, have proved smaller Japanese RPGs can (as they always have, going back to their proliferation on handheld consoles during the start of the HD era) exist and thrive without having to sell nine million units.
MN: I think a lot about that period of time when the switch to HD was first happening in console game development (which you wrote about in Fight, Magic, Items), and there were all the concerns about how Japan’s publishers would deal with the rising costs. Would it kill JRPGs, would smaller games just cease to be? That sort of thing. Obviously, this was all handled in ways that cleared those hurdles, and in some cases shortly after the questions were answered, too — studios like PlatinumGames formed and immediately made big, splashy, titles, smaller developers and publishers found their way to Wii and portable development where they’d be showcased instead of focusing on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 out of the gate, the rise of digital distribution helped changed pricing and the costs of releasing something into the market, etc. — but JRPGs, as a whole, did suffer for a time in terms of quantity (and in some cases, quality).
We do seem to be completely over that period at this point, yeah? As you said, not only do publishers and developers have time for JRPGs that have figured out how to exist alongside modern AAA releases, but there’s also plenty of space out there for smaller and more niche JRPGs, and somewhat reclusive developers like Falcom have made an effort to get everything they’re doing to release internationally these days. We’re not quite in the world we were in when Atlus was focused on making sure every weird idea out of Japan made it onto the DS, but things are at least trending back in that direction after something of a lull. And without needing an Atlus to do it, either.
Speaking of re-releases and remasters and the like, which JRPG do you want to see get that treatment the most, and why?
AM: The big thing for me is always accessibility. The games industry has historically been poor at preservation and access of old titles, with many companies infamously losing/deleting source code for games, so a lot of games — great, popular games! — have been inaccessible for a lot of gamers if they don't own original hardware and the physical games, some of which are prohibitively expensive. (Emulation is a hugely useful tool for accessibility and preservation, which I've written about previously for Lifehacker, but I'm going to stick to commercial stuff for now. Anyway, Internet Archive is a magical place.)
Sony and Nintendo put a lot of energy into re-releasing older games via PlayStation Network and Virtual Console on their older consoles, making the Playstation 3 (or PSP/Vita) and Nintendo Wii/Wii U brilliant consoles for retro gaming… until they started shutting down those services, making it difficult or impossible to access those libraries for new gamers. So, I just want to get back to a place where someone can think of a game, hop onto their favourite storefront, and quickly, cheaply, and easily purchase a copy of the game.
However, we're seeing more of a push towards monetizing older titles through remasters and re-releases — some of which vastly modernize the experience, like Tactics Ogre Reborn, Legend of Mana, and Live A Live, and others are painfully inadequate, like Chrono Cross. At the end of the day, I'm glad these games are available for new fans, but I'd like to find a more consistent and affordable way to access these old games. Stuff like Chrono Cross and Legend of Mana were available on the PS3/PSP/PSV for, like, five bucks. They lacked new features, but for five bucks you got to play the game in its original form, and that's a pretty good deal. I wonder if a poorly remastered game like Chrono Cross — which featured nice quality of life upgrades, but awful upscaled backgrounds (or the original resolution textures, which looked bad in their own way) — is really worth $25? So, ultimately, I'd rather see games released in their original form, just so they're accessible, or given high quality remasters like Live A Live. I'm glad the Chrono Cross remaster exists, so people can experience one of the most interesting and divisive games of all time, but I'm also skeptical that its awkward style of "remaster" is really ideal for anyone. It's more expensive than the old straight-up re-release, and you're not really getting an experience that's improved enough to justify the cost. (And, just to be clear, this is coming from someone who paid for the digital version AND bought a physical import copy for his Switch, so.)
For example, I think the Steam version of Chrono Trigger is pretty much a perfect modern release. It's affordable, has a ton of great modern QoL additions, and, famously, Square Enix put a lot of effort into making the experience feel tidy and polished. It takes the classic experience and makes it feel like it was designed for modern hardware without compromising what made the game great in the first place. You're not distracted by some assets being nicely upscaled and others being pixely and blurry. It's widescreen, but you'd never know the original was 4:3, etc. (All the more interesting because the original Steam release was an absolute mess, making it a good case study for good remasters vs. bad remasters.)
So, what games do I want to see more accessible? I'd love to see Pixel Remaster-style releases of the first six Dragon Quest games. There are bad remasters of the first three games available on a lot of devices, but they're based on the mobile releases and look awful. Square Enix re-released them on the Nintendo DS, introducing many people (myself included!) to the series, but now even those cost a fortune and aren't available for official digital purchase anywhere.
I'd love to see a Breath of Fire collection with new translations for the first three games, and for Square Enix to pull a Trials of Mana-style surprise release of their lost Super NES JRPGs like Treasure of the Rudras, Treasure Hunter G, and Bahamut Lagoon. I've got access to all of these games, because I've spent a lot of time, effort, and money on setting up an environment where I can play old games on original hardware, but lots of fans can't do that. I want those people to be able to experience these older games!
MN: Please don’t get me started on the closure of digital marketplaces and the push towards subscription models that create even more distance between access to games and the people who might want to play them. I have a column here titled “Re-Release This” for a reason (the reason is that things are not getting re-released nearly enough). I know I’m an extreme case in this regard of wanting everything available always, but there would be more people who enjoyed older games and realized they had something to offer in the present, if only those older games were available. And not at $60 a pop, soon to be $70. It’s hard to prove to people that the GameCube was absolutely stuffed with classics and should-have-been classics if we all sound like the grandma half of the “let’s get you to bed” meme whenever we talk about the games that haven’t been around for decades now.
AM: Your recent series on titles to grab from the Nintendo Wii U and 3DS eshops before they close permanently has been an absolute treasure trove. It's not just the old, old games we're losing access to, but recent stuff, too. People not being able to buy and play Attack of the Friday Monsters! or Crimson Shroud? Blasphemy. Not being able to pick up a random Atlus JRPG for $15 when the physical copy costs $100+ on Ebay? Unforgivable.
MN: I am very much team “re-releases and remasters should include the original version of the game as well,” which is not a team that most publishers care to ever hear from, but you have my sword and all that in this arena. Some do, though: it’s pretty great that something like Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap has the original everything a press of a button away, but even the decades-old version of the game has modern niceties included in it. It’s a lovely balance, and better than what we see happen sometimes, like when the original NieR gets memory-holed so the Automata-style remake of a game that isn’t all that old can take precedence. No offense to Replicant intended there, just… where’s the original NieR, Square? What have you done with it? There’s room on those discs for both versions (or for you to pack a free download voucher in, like Platinum and Nintendo did for Bayonetta 2 and Bayonetta on both the Wii U and Switch, since the first game had not been previously available on Nintendo consoles), and we all know it.
AM: I mean, I'm team Dad Nier, but the remake is better in pretty much every other way…
MN: It does feel like we’re going to end up shifting nostalgia from the 16-bit era to the 32-bit one without coming anywhere close to mining the former for what it’s worth, huh? These HD2D remasters are excellent, and more of them should exist (including in the forms you mentioned above), but I wonder if Square will move on from them at some point because they decide it’s time to start revisiting the other half of their golden age. And if they move on, the other giants probably will, too, which leaves indies and smaller publishers to pick up the pieces of things and keep the 16-bit renaissance going some more. Or people like us will just keep on figuring out how to play the stuff that’s getting unofficial translations, like we always do, and everything official will move on without it.
AM: I think a huge factor here is that a lot of the folk actually working in the Japanese games industry (it feels like western games are a little easier to access?) are so heavily focused on what's next, rather than understanding that as the medium ages, those older titles have value. Just the same way that it's absolutely worth reading The Lord of the Rings or A Wizard of Earthsea nowadays, even though the genre has evolved and changed significantly since then. I hope the success of retro-inspired modern games like Chained Echoes, Octopath Traveler, etc. will continue to convince the big corporations that providing access to those old games is worth the bandwidth and maintenance costs (licensing negotiations are a whole other story, of course…) You see people like Yoshitaka Murayama (creator of Suikoden) have to create whole new spiritual successor series to keep exploring the space created by his older work, only to have Konami notice its Kickstarter success and revive Suikoden after a decade plus of neglect. Hopefully that's a sign of improvement.
MN: We’ve talked about the past, the future, the present, so now let’s throw them all together into one. Is there a particular style or era of design in JRPGs you’d like to see get its revival? Chained Echoes has been great, and it’s got me thinking about what other kinds of JRPG styles I’d like to see represented in new games that aren’t necessarily coming from big devs and publishers.
AM: The 16-bit revival still has a lot to give, I think. Chained Echoes shows how you can build a modern game on that foundation and have something that still feels fresh, innovative. It's an homage, but it's also something that deeply understood why those older games worked. Once you move past the Super NES, the genre evolved in a lot of interesting ways — but I think it also went through a real awkward age. The games got super long, for one thing. A lot of the classic Super NES JRPGs can be completed in 20-25 hours, even Final Fantasy VI is only about 35 hours for a near 100 percent playthrough if you're familiar with it. My recent replay of Final Fantasy VII took 45+, Xenogears was 60, etc. I'd love to see an exploration of 32-bit style Japanese RPGs that are designed around tighter narratives and shorter runtimes.
I think we lost a lot when pre-rendered backgrounds went out of fashion, since they gave artists the ability to hand design environments down to the smallest detail, and no screen looked alike. A lot harder at 4K than 240p, of course, so I think pixel art like Chained Echoes and Zeboyd's This Way Madness Lies is a sweet spot for smaller development environments. Or, take it the other direction and give me stuff like Trails From Zero, which is hardly impressive from a technical perspective, but leans heavily into character, world, and lore building. It feels like we're reaching a time when all of these are viable foundations for new crowdsourced games because we have multiple generations of gamers who are each looking to revisit modern versions of their childhood favourites—but even that's reductive. Chained Echoes doesn't work solely because it taps into my nostalgia. It works because it recognizes the best aspects of the genre's golden age and takes all the lessons learned since then to create a rock solid game that feels right at home in 2023.
MN: Deck13 Spotlight is going to have to cut us a check if we keep this going any longer, so, let me take the opportunity to say thanks for chatting with me again! And I look forward to seeing what other classic or lesser-known JRPGs you dig up in your search for original copies on original hardware.
And that’s a wrap on my conversation with Aidan Moher. You can find Fight, Magic, Items for sale at bookstores and online retailers such as Bookshop.org, keep up with Aidan’s writing at his own newsletter, Astrolabe, and follow him on social media like Twitter at @adribbleofink.
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