Dragon Quest may be one of the first Japanese Role Playing Games using mechanics still used today, but it’s certainly not the first. It was a trailblazer that inspired and led a charge by Japanese game designers. However, there were some interesting games before it.

The Dark Ages of Japanese Role Playing Games

The period before Dragon Quest came out is commonly referred to as the Dark Ages of Japanese Role Playing Games. The titles that tried something new were clunky and difficult at best and unplayable and crazy at worst. Let’s not forget that the Japan from the 1970s and early 1980s was populated by computers made in Japan. There were a few consoles, that is Pong consoles, manufactured by a wide range of companies, from Nintendo to Mitsubishi. However, experimentations, like the first few proto-JRPGs, were on computers and only some artifacts remain.

Among the first publishers to catch the role playing game train in Japan was Koei. Better known for their strategy games and Dynasty Warriors franchise nowadays, the Japanese developer played an active role in the creation and popularization of role playing game in its home country.

Moreover, Koei was accounting for half of the JRPG releases by the end of 1983. Their first attempt was titled The Dragon & Princess. A text-based game released in December 1982, it was later updated to incorporate graphics. Players typed their command on the keyboard in order to progress. The ingredients of the RPG were there: a team, a dungeon, monsters and equipment management.

Then a strange attempt happened with Danchi-zuma no Yūwaku or Seduction of Condominium Wives in June of 1983. As a condom salesman, you go door-to-door trying to seduce the lonely housewives. How more Japanese can it get? This one incorporated a first person view with vector graphics and colored character sprites. We can also include Spy Daisakusen (Mission: Impossible Japanese title) from Pony Canyon.

A first hit coming from a Dutch in Japan

The last pre-Dragon Quest game that marked Japan surprisingly didn’t come from a Japanese developer but a Dutch one. Henk Rogers, who would later gained fame securing the rights to Tetris for Nintendo from the USSR in 1989, was an avid tabletop role playing game player and had a knack for game design. Living in Japan for a few years, he noticed a gap in the Japanese market.

At a time when Ultima and Wizardry were all the rage in the West, there was nothing like this in Japan for Japanese players. Rogers therefore aimed to create the best game for them. The Black Onyx released in January 1984 and it bombed, big time. It sold only five copies for the first two months.

A first-person dungeon crawling, The Black Onyx was perhaps too different from what Japanese players were used to. Furthermore, the game relied heavily on Western fantasy aesthetics. But Rogers didn’t give up that easily. Indeed he insisted on meeting, along with a translator as he was not speaking Japanese, each and every PC Magazine editor.

He sat with them, demonstrated the game and hopefully would get some coverage. And it worked! Not only did journalists finally understood the interest for a game like this but The Black Onyx would go on to be the first RPG hit in Japan! It sold 10,000 copies the next month and would go on to sell a total of 150,000 units a year later.

A fiery Dragon

But then, it happened. After a contest held by the newly formed Enix, the development team was formed right then and there. A few months later a legend was born. Dragon Quest came out on May 27 1986 and was a game changer (pun intended).

Drawing its inspiration from other games such as Wizardry, Ultima or Dragon Slayer, Dragon Quest offered a rich, long and intense adventure. Random first person encounters established it as a rule for JRPG as many others would use following the massive success of Enix’s release. What made it so great was the fact that the developers chose the Famicom instead of the more obvious computer.

Nintendo’s system was on the rise and showing no sign of slowing which explain this choice. For the developers, it also meant fewer buttons. Therefore they had to simplify everything from the menu to moving the character using a top down view.

The result was crafted with such mastery that it sold over 2 million copies. The game eventually came out in the United States more than 3 years later in August of 1989 under the moniker Dragon Warrior. To this day, Dragon Quest, or DraQue as the Japanese called it, is more successful in its native land than any other video game series.

Revised and updated but not final

The next megaton in JRPG came out only one year after Dragon Quest. Hironobu Sakaguchi a Tokyo-based developer at Square was designing games for the Famicom. But he had enough of the fast-paced games and wanted to come up with something meaningful to him or he’d quit. Needless to say, he was impressed and envious of Dragon Quest success.

But he’d change of few things and that he did. After months of work with a small team of developers, Final Fantasy came out on December 18 1987. Like its counterpart from Enix, it was a huge success. Easy to use with a compelling time-travelling-based story, players loved Final Fantasy. It would eventually come out in North America almost three years later in May 1990. Then the rest is history and led to the best period in JRPG history.

Golden Age for a golden genre

Following those game changers, were a whole lot of titles from various publishers on as many platforms. While the West was coming up with ideas of their own but quickly faced a wall, Japanese developers used some western franchises that were losing momentum and applied some of their magic to make them popular I the land of the rising sun. This is how Wizardry saw a revival in Japan or how the Ultima series got Japan-exclusive episodes on the PlayStation.

Sometimes using an anime style, sometimes with turn-based battles, Japan perfected the rules and applied this recipe to a whole lot of games either original or not leading to the golden age of JRPG occurring between 1991 (Final Fantasy IV) and 2004 (Dragon Quest VIII).

The 16 to 128 bits era saw the best Japan had to offer in terms of role playing games. Most of them are now regarded as classics. Franchises such as Suikoden, Tales of, Star Ocean, Persona, or Grandia were born during those years. Some were short lived like Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, Baten Kaitos and Baten Kaitos Origins.

But as the 6th generation of consoles was drawing to a close, and development costs were rising, the Japanese game development scene took a dive that would take a whole generation to recover from.

Missed opportunities for Japanese Role Playing Games

The 7th generation of consoles or HD systems was a dark period for JRPG fans and developers alike. As the graphics were improving, the development costs skyrocketed. It was not uncommon to be in the double-digits millions of dollars.

Whereas the previous generation allowed for smaller teams to develop games, it was not true or viable anymore. The newer generation of systems namely the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 or even the Nintendo Wii, required more manpower. Teams needed to be bigger to tackle huge projects such as Final Fantasy XIII. It would go on to be Square Enix’s first huge multiplatform game in order for them to recoup the costs.

The world was changing, a faster internet was now available in most of developed countries. New parameters needed to taken into consideration. As the costs rose, it killed the medium-ranged projects, the so called AA games that were numerous on previous generations. It was survival of the richest. The fittest needed resources in order to be able to launch a high scale project.

Digital gaming was not there yet, nor were mobile games, although they started earlier in Japan. Few notable JRPGs were released on the 7th generation at least on the home console side. Among those are the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, NieR, Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey. Both of them were actually designed by Hironobu Sakaguchi and partly financed by Microsoft in exchange of a console exclusivity.

Revival of Japanese Role Playing Games

To the seasoned gamer and JRPG fanatic, it feels like since the release of the PlayStation 4, the Japanese video game industry was reborn. While we only had a handful of JRPG for the previous generation, this current one is almost spoiled.

Thanks to the rise of independent developers and mobile gaming, JRPG is back. Between Final Fantasy, Nier, Persona, Tales of, Star Ocean, there are numerous franchises aiming to bring the Japanese RPG to a wider audience. Even Square Enix launched a dedicated entity called Tokyo RPG Factory whose developers’ goal is to create Japanese role playing games.

Their first two games, I am Setsuna and Lost Sphear were charming. Let’s not forget all the remasters and remakes—whether we like them or not—that allow younger players to experience works of art in high definition such as Kingdom Hearts or Secret of Mana. The Japanese RPG is definitely back on track.

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