Before we start, let us make one thing clear: Japanese Role-Playing Games are not dead. The genre never died, its games are everywhere around us in portable machines, mobile phones and in-home consoles. The word ‘demise’ in reference to the JRPG genre is more a description of the genre’s current state in comparison to its golden age during the mid to late 90s, than a proclamation of defunction for the once popular gaming genre.
The Never Ending Realm got its start as a JRPG oriented website in 2003. The gradual decline of the genre did affect the site’s content production for years, until a decision was made to turn the site into a general gaming website with a strong focus on retro gaming (and role-playing games).
JRPGs, and their importance to our site’s brand remains palpable in our work. More importantly, the genre is very dear to me, as I still collect the games and consider myself a historian of sorts when it comes to discussing it. A fascination with the rise, and decline of the genre has occupied my mind since the later part of the 00’s, and this article will shed light into the genre, from its beginnings, to its peak, and finally, to today’s current state of affairs.
The genre, including the western RPGs had its origin (partly) in the Dungeon and Dragons tabletop RPGs. The world might have the 80’s personal computers to thank for the proliferation of the role-playing genre in the video game space.
Out of the early pack of western RPGs it was Ultima and Wizardry that achieved the most success. It wouldn’t be until 1986 that a company called Chunsoft would develop the first ‘traditional’ Japanese RPG in the form of Nintendo Entertainment System’s Dragon Quest.
Dragon Quest was heavily inspired by the aforementioned Ultima, and Wizardry games. Yuji Horii’s creation was extremely important because it set the basic template that every other traditional, turn-based JRPG would follow (even to this day). The basic template of playing as a hero in order to save the land from ‘great evil’ brought about by a powerful villain. The hero is always accompanied by a supporting cast (party members) of characters that help during the turn-based battles. Said battles are randomly generated (save for boss or story related fights), and are necessary in order for the hero and the party members to gain ‘levels’ and skills in order to constantly thread the needle forwards in the game.
The basic premise set by Dragon Quest has survived through 34 years of gaming history. Pick the latest Dragon Quest title today and save for major graphical overhauls, and some refinements in the gameplay department, the template it set as a standard more than three decades ago still stands strong today.
Dragon Quest wasn’t a major success on the West, but in Japan it sold about 2 million copies, which was a staggeringly great sales number back in the 1980’s. That type of commercial success will always spawn a few copycats, and in Dragon Quest’s case it was no different.
It is weird to call the original Final Fantasy a Dragon Quest ‘copycat’, and in truth, Hironobu Sakaguchi had wanted to create a RPG for years (ironically, he was also a fan of Wizardry and Ultima), but Square refused to green light his idea, as the company felt that RPGs wouldn’t sell well. It was only after Dragon Quest became a success in Japan that Sakaguchi would get the funding and resources needed for the creation of his Final Fantasy game. Thus, without Dragon Quest, it is likely that there would have never been a Final Fantasy game, and as such, the birth of the Japanese RPG (or JRPG) must be credited to Dragon Quest instead.
If you ever wanted to have an idea of how big Dragon Quest was in Japan in relation to everything else at the time, this quote from Final Fantasy’s creator Hironobu Sakaguchi in a 2017 Forbes interview will enlighten you:
“Naturally, when it comes to Dragon Quest, I had a massive amount of respect for the game. I was personally a huge Akira Toriyama fan, and I read the Weekly Jump Magazines every week. A game designed by such a dream-team felt way out of my reach, which is why when I started the Final Fantasy project, I hoped to at least get somewhere close to Dragon Quest.” – Hironobu Sakaguchi
That said, in terms of expanding the popularity of the genre on a worldwide scale, the genre has Final Fantasy to thank for it, as it was infinitely more popular on the west than Enix’s more archaic title.
The sales numbers are confusing, at first. Final Fantasy sold 1.21 million units (nearly half the amount of DQ’s sales) but 700,000 of those units were sold in North America, firmly establishing the Final Fantasy name as a bankable commodity in both the Japanese, and the American market.
Dragon Quest would go on to sell 10.9 million combined units of its four NES entries in the series, which is a lot more than Square’s three Final Fantasy entries (FFI-III) which sold a combined 3.5 million units. The difference was that DQ’s success was exclusive to Japan, and the upcoming 16-bit consoles would even out the playing field between the two most popular Japanese RPG franchises.
In order to further illustrate in numbers how popular DQ was in Japan during the 80s, attachment rates need to be considered. Nintendo sold 19 million units of its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or Famicom in Japan, and DQ 1-4 sold nearly 11 million copies of the games. That is more than a 50 percent attachment rate for the series on the console, which by any measure is a staggering number.
Sega’s own 8-bit system, the Sega Master System, would enter the RPG terrain in Japan, after all, with only 1 million units sold in its native country the system needed all of the big hits that it could get. Like Square’s FF, Sega’s answer to Dragon Quest would arrive in 1987 in the form of Phantasy Star.
Like Square, Sega was inspired to make its own epic RPG game based on Wizardry and Ultima’s influence and perhaps more importantly on Dragon Quest’s gargantuan sales success. While Phantasy Star was not as well received (at the time) by critics as DQ and FF were, the importance of the game should not be underestimated.
It created a game series that would find massive success on the Sega Master System’s successor: The Genesis/Mega-Drive. Phantasy Star introduced some interesting concepts into the genre that would later influence other great JRPGs in the upcoming 1990s decade.
The game would find greater praise in retrospective reviews, as the 3-D dungeon exploration sequences were revolutionary, and would end up inspiring future developers. The graphics of the title were superior to any RPG effort made on the more popular NES system.
Yuji Naka (Sonic’s creator), and lead designer Kotaro Hayashida were very forward thinking in their approach during Phantasy Star’s development. The standard top down views, with towns, overworld, and random encounters were all present. But inside dungeons there was a first person view 3-D mode which was revolutionary during the 80’s, and it was something that the NES hardware couldn’t replicate.
In terms of story, the game would break away from the more common “fantasy and dragons” setting of its competitors in favor of a science fiction one. Finally, Phantasy Star would introduce a female character as its lead protagonist.
With Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, and Nihon Falcom’s Ys series, the ‘console RPG’ genre closed out the 80s as a rapidly growing, and successful genre in Japan. The upcoming 16-bit era would prove pivotal in the genre’s build up towards its golden era in the mid to late 90s.
The 16-bit Era
While many fans consider this era the golden age of Japanese RPGs, it is an arguable point. Perhaps, this was the golden era of the genre in Japan alone, but certainly, this did not hold true in the West.
The two best selling RPGs in the SNES era were Final Fantasy VI and Dragon Quest VI. Both games ended up selling over 3 million copies each, with FFVI beating out DQVI by 200,000 units. The caveat is that all those sales took place in Japan, except for 850,000 units that were sold of FFVI “worldwide” (Mainly in the US) which is what ultimately drove the game past DQVI’s sales.
As legendary as FFVI is, most of its defenders probably played the PS1 re-release or the GBA port, because in Sakaguchi’s own words to USgamer.com the game’s US sales were disappointing,
“In terms of numbers, [Final Fantasy VI] didn’t sell in the States. It actually did very well in Japan. I’m mystified, because I see [Americans] are playing the [mobile] version. I think size of the characters really matters to an American audience, so from Final Fantasy VII onward, we used bigger characters. [I think] that’s why Final Fantasy VII took off. But I am kind of mystified [by VI’s current popularity in the West], because [Americans] didn’t buy Final Fantasy VI back then.” –Hironobu Sakaguchi
Enix did not even attempt a western release of DQVI. The series’ heavy focus on randomized battles and slow progression just didn’t bode well anywhere outside of Japan. Thus, even JRPGs that had minuscule success by contrast in Japan (1993 Capcom’s Breath of Fire only sold 63,000 units in Japan) would find a larger market on the west than any DQ title had at that point.
It seems our collective memory as JRPG fans clouds our judgement regarding the SNES/Megadrive era. The memory of the many good to great JRPGs (most of which were played in their PS1 re-releases and GBA ports) tends to make us overrate the period with some calling it the peak of the genre. But, if you need further proof to disprove that theory, look no further than Chrono Trigger.
1995 Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger, a game that is universally loved and generally regarded in many circles as the greatest JRPG of all time, only sold 290,000 units between Europe and the United States. In truth, the fact that the game was released in a transitional period where gamers were moving from 2-D home consoles to new 3-D machines like the PS1 and the Sega Saturn likely hurt its sales.
But comparisons must be made, and only four months earlier Rare’s 2-D platformer (the SNES/Genesis Era was the golden age of that particular genre) Donkey Kong Country sold twice Chrono Trigger’s lifetime SNES sales amount outside of Japan in a single month in the United States alone with 500,000 copies. DKC went on to sell 9 million units which was a remarkable achievement at the time. JRPGs were doing great numbers of course, but only in Japan.
Final Fantasy wasn’t popular in the US; it had a niche fan base. Towards the mid 90’s some magazine editors were doing their best to review and hype some of the more important JRPGs available, but a lot of the titles weren’t even released in the US.
Squaresoft must be commended because unlike Enix, they kept bringing RPGs from Japan into the American market even when the genre was struggling to sell well with non-Japanese audiences. Not all was dire for Squaresoft though, as 1993’s Secret of Mana sold 1.83 million units globally (with 200-300,000 of those units shipped to the US).
The genre kept experiencing a steady growth (particularly in Japan) and there were some subtle signs in the West that perhaps the genre could gain some traction in the future if somehow audiences could be introduced to these games in mass fashion. After all, many games like the Lunar, Chrono Trigger and FFVI had been big hits with the vast majority of American critics.
The 16-bit era outside of Squaresoft
While Squaresoft would become the most prolific publisher, and developer of JRPGs during the 90s, other Japanese companies followed suit and brought their titles overseas to modest success. Sega had moderate success with their Phantasy Star series, and new franchises. Some of these franchises which are still alive more than two decades later, saw their birth in the later stages of the SNES lifetime.
The ill-fated Mega Drive’s CD add-on known as the Sega CD allowed for the release of two traditional RPG titles featuring full-motion anime video cut scenes and voice-acted dialog scenes years before those features would become standard mainstays in the presentation of JRPGs during the PS1/Saturn era.
The titles were Lunar: The Silver Star Story, and Lunar 2: Eternal Blue. Both epic adventures featured epic storytelling and writing that matched the quality of anime shows of the day. While the series’ sales were a bit pedestrian (100,000 units for the first title) thanks to their exclusive appearance on a failed add-on, the positive critical reception and the advancements made in storytelling would influence other JRPGs that came after 1993 Sega CD’s hit. Lunar had a literal 1:1 attachment ratio with the device in Japan, had the game been released on the more popular SNES, perhaps, history would have remembered this series differently.
Namco would join the RPG fray in 1995 with Tales of Phantasia. The title sold over 200,000 units in Japan, and its action based combat, and heavy emphasis in story telling would help birth a long running franchise. The Tales series would become a carefully managed ‘AA’ series in comparison to Square’s AAA Final Fantasy franchise.
On the other hand, Enix not content on resting on DQ’s success, published Tri-Ace’s Sci-Fi RPG, Star Ocean, on the SNES in 1996. The title became a moderate success in Japan selling over 200,000 copies. Star Ocean, like Tales of Phantasia before it, would be the first title in what would eventually become a long running franchise.
The SNES was graced by many other more obscure RPGs that garnered cult followings, and even sequels, such as Lufia & The Fortress of Doom. Quintet’s Illusion of Gaia, an Action-RPG which surprisingly sold better in the US and Europe than it did in Japan, also made its mark. With 450,000 units sold outside of the Japanese Market, the 1993 title might be one of the most important early success stories of the Japanese RPG genre outside of Japan.
The main takeaway here is that unless your game was Final Fantasy, Zelda, or Dragon Quest it was unlikely that you would hit the million mark in sales if you developed an RPG during SNES/Genesis era. Anything over 100,000 at this time was considered a success. Truth be told, the smaller the budget for a game, the less it had to sell to recoup its investment. Nintendo’s Earthbound/Mother 2 crashed and burned when 2 million dollars were spent on its marketing, and the game only sold 140,000 copies.
What about Zelda?
I have refrained from talking about the iconic series because many JRPG fans these days do not really associate The Legend of Zelda with the “JRPG” genre. But Zelda was an important part of the genre’s history indeed, as it birthed the Japanese Action RPG genre in its initial 1986 NES debut. (For those who want to argue about if the main Zelda games are JRPGs, I talk about that here.)
The Legend of Zelda introduced battery backed RAM to the world of video game cartridges. This advancement, in turn, helped future RPG games by eliminating the cumbersome use of ‘passwords’ or ‘save codes’ that marked progress. Before ‘battery saves’ passwords had to be inputted before starting a play-through in order to resume your game where you left off. The Legend of Zelda inspired every RPG that came after it, but it hasn’t been traditionally regarded as one because of the lack of EXP points, and level progression for its main silent protagonist. The original title went on to sell 6.5 million units on the NES establishing Miyamoto’s creation as a bankable franchise.
The series would receive a second NES entry titled Zelda II: The Adventure of Link which proved to be divisive amongst those fans who enjoyed the first title. The sequel did more than first the game in terms of pushing story telling forwards. Zelda II marked the first appearance of NPCs within a Zelda game, and a deeper more challenging combat system. Ironically, some fans were turned off by the fact that the top down view was gone during the dungeon sections, its heavy intensive emphasis on combat (instead of a puzzles), and by the gaining of levels from EXP obtained from said combat.
Nintendo would return to the top down view (of the first entry), and eliminate its EXP system in Zelda’s SNES entry; The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. ALttP became the highest rated 2-D entry in the series and the highest selling RPG game on the SNES, beating out Final Fantasy VI and Dragon Quest VI with 4.6 million units sold. The sales were bolstered, in part, by Nintendo selling the game ‘packed in’ with a SNES unit for a period of time.
Clearly, Zelda’s success at that point was proof that American and European audiences were receptive towards the Japanese Action-RPG genre. It must be mentioned that The Legend of Zelda, like Dragon Quest before it, inspired its share of copycats.
Most of its clones were a bit pedestrian, but some were excellent. On such example is The Landstalker. Developed by Climax Entertainment for the Sega Genesis and released in 1992 in Japan (1993 elsewhere) the game out did A Link to the Past in a few areas. One of the most important improvements happened in the storytelling department, as Landstalker featured an engrossing plot within the action RPG genre.
So, why weren’t JRPGs popular in the west during the 16-bit era?
Many will scream in sheer agony at that heading, but nonetheless, it is the truth. JRPGs were not popular in the US. A quick look at the top ten of both the Genesis and Super Nintendo’s top ten selling games shows that no RPG makes the Genesis chart, and only one makes the SNES one (Zelda). FFVI rounds out the list at #11 but only because of the game’s success in Japan.
Square’s efforts in bringing titles to the US was commendable, and these efforts would establish a niche fan base that would eventually reap rewards for the company during the PS1 era, but success still eluded the genre outside of Japan before the late 1990s.
There does not seem to be a single culprit for the genre’s decade long struggle to reach the mainstream audiences in the west. Developers often blamed bad localizations of the games that did made it to the US shores, others pointed at the inaccessibility of the turn based combat systems, and yet neither of these reasons were congruent with the excellent critical reception that many of these titles received from western critics.
JRPGs were the best vehicle for storytelling, and epic questing during the 8 to 16-bit era. Technology, in those days, did not afford any other genre the ability to surpass JRPGs in terms of creating a cohesive world with towns and NPCs that, at times, conveyed the illusion of being ‘alive’. The over-world sections, while far from 1:1 ratio to the characters size, were as close as we got to an ‘open world’ feeling during those early days of video gaming.
Clearly, quality was not an issue. The issue perhaps was disinterest from the US audiences in the genre during an era where platformers, and action games were all the rage. The disinterest perhaps came from poor marketing on both Nintendo, and Sega’s part. Nintendo certainly knew how to market its Zelda series, but could not do the same for the 3rd party JRPG efforts that populated its console. Square, and Enix weren’t really willing to spend the big bucks that it would have taken for the genre to enter the mainstreams’ consciousness. At least not during the 16-bit era. But times change…
The Winds of Change
The introduction of western PlayStation owners to traditional turn-based JRPGs happened in 1996 with a title named ‘Beyond the Beyond’ developed by Camelot Software (of Shining Force Genesis fame at the time) and published by Sony itself. The game was pedestrianly received by critics as one of the most atrocious games in the genre. Holding a score of 44/100 in Game Rankings (8 reviews were tallied), one would be quick to dismiss Beyond the Beyond as an inconsequential game.
And perhaps it was, but the fact that Sony would take the risk to bring a pedestrian looking title (in truth Beyond the Beyond would have been considered ugly on 16-bit machines) to the US, in order to fill its RPG void, showed that in the mid 90s publishers were starting to think that the genre had some potential on the western market.
Sony’s efforts were repaid, as Beyond the Beyond sold 110,000 copies in the US, and 80,000 units in Europe. If a terrible RPG could make those numbers, what numbers could a great one achieve?
Konami’s first installment of the Suikoden series quickly followed. Suikoden came under fire for its 2-D visuals in some circles, but it was mostly praised for its storytelling and the ability to compile 108 party members throughout the adventure that it provided to players . Some even went as far as to call Suikoden “the greatest RPG” that they had ever played, at the time.
The good critical reception helped the title, as it sold 210,000 units in the US alone. That total matched the game’s Japanese sales, and while these numbers are lifetime sales (all sales did not take place in 1995-96) they show an upward trend in commercial reception for the genre in the US and Europe. Suikoden, a new franchise from a publisher better known for Castlevania and other action titles, sold numbers outside of Japan that were comparable to Square’s efforts during the SNES era.
It was a taste of things to come. The trend would push other publishers to finally risk bringing other titles to western shores that would have previously – in the SNES era – stayed in Japan.
Under Final Fantasy VII’s Shadow
The previous game releases took place in 1996. It is important to note, that even then, those titles were in the shadow of Final Fantasy VII’s pre release hype. This is important because FFVII’s 45 million dollar budget (a great part of it was spent on marketing the game in the US and Europe) began to fuel its promotional machine more than year before the game would hit our shores.
Squaresoft’s executives must have been encouraged by the American success of new RPG titles on the PS1, as according to a Polygon.com research of some documents released by SquareEnix the company estimated that FFVII would sell 750,000 copies in the US alone. It was a modest, but encouraging estimate, as FFVII would eventually go on to sell much more.
1997’s Wild Arms, a Sony published RPG, arrived on Western shores in April of that year to finally grace PS1 owners with a real 32-bit JRPG experience. While the game still used the tried and proven top down view in 2-D when exploring towns, overworld, and dungeons, the graphics looked sharper, and the sprites more detailed than those seen in the previous generation, and the game beat FFVII by 4 months in it implementation of full polygonal 3-D turn based battles.
Wild Arms was a stunning triumph in storytelling, while mixing action-RPG elements pioneered by Zelda, with traditional turn-based RPG gameplay. Wild Arms is one of the most efficient examples of a traditional RPG blended with puzzle-solving action-RPG elements.
More so than Suikoden before it, Wild Arms received near universal praise as one of the best RPGs ever made and its commercial success (950,000 units globally) spawned a long running series. Wild Arms sold 260,000 copies in the US and 170,000 in Europe thus becoming one of the most successful JRPGs outside of Japan at that point in time.
Like Suikoden, Wild Arms was an entirely new IP with no previously established fan base, its success signaled that JRPGs were finally catching some fire on Western shores, even if the genre remained trapped in a niche market. By contrast, 1996’s Tomb Raider sold 7 million units.
The game that changed fortunes across the industry
The arrival of the 3-D era brought with it plenty of changes. 2-D side scrollers would go from being the hottest genre on the market to a niche genre itself in a relatively short amount of time.
Super Mario 64, Nintendo 64’s debut title broke sales records and critical acclaim ratings. It set the stage for the 3-D era to take over, and consequently, 2-D RPGs such as Suikoden, and Wild Arms looked dated by comparison. The genre needed something different to entice mainstream audiences into it.
Final Fantasy VII entered an arena where sales had been dominated by 3-D action adventure, and 3-D platforming games. Resident Evil sold 5 million units, and even the pedestrian 3-D platformer, Croc: Legend of Gobbos, went on to sell 3 million units in its lifetime. 3-D games sold, and even professional critics were influenced to overrate games featuring 3-D polygonal worlds, because it was the new impressive thing in the entertainment medium.
One of the issues with JRPGs in their transition to the 3-D landscapes of the era were their gigantic size and scope. Most JRPGs were globe trotting quests that took players across over-worlds represented by miniaturized planets. This could explain why it took so long for the genre to receive a full blown 3-D entry. 3-D games were expensive to make, and very few companies were willing to invest multimillion-dollar budgets in the mostly niche genre.
Squaresoft, however, in developing FFVII took the “go big or go home” approach by investing 21 million dollars in Onyx stations.
Squaresoft also made a decision that would forever alter the fates of two hardware giants (or maybe 3) even if they did not realize it at first. After all, no one could have predicted how big of a game changer Final Fantasy VII would end up being. Least of all Nintendo.
Nintendo had a strange way of designing their machines. Some would say that the company would not learn their lesson until the Nintendo Switch (2017). But regardless, Nintendo’s hardware was usually designed around Nintendo EAD’s needs, and the rest of the development industry either had to adapt to its hardware and media constraints, or leave. Literally.
Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yoshinori Kitase were in the pre planning stages of FFVII as early as 1994. A big point of contention was whether RPGs were going to move into 3-D graphics and space or whether or not they should stick to working with the “safer” 2-D approach to gaming development that Squaresoft had been comfortable with.
A tech demo done on the astronomically expensive Onyx stations that featured FFVI characters in battle became a huge hit with video game magazine editors. The demo was marketed (by these editors) as “running on the Nintendo 64 hardware” which was partly true (those were the same stations used to create Super Mario 64, and the N64 was based on the SGI hardware), and mostly false, as the demo was running on a SGI workstation and not on anything resembling the final N64 hardware in terms of specs.
Squaresoft was mostly seen as a Nintendo partner. Most, if not all, of their games had been made exclusively for Nintendo’s previous two consoles. Square had even collaborated in the SNES Super Mario RPG title (though rumors abound that there some discord took root between the two companies as result of that title). Sakaguchi himself probably expected the transition to the N64 to run as smoothly as their transition from the NES to the SNES had been.
But Nintendo did not make hardware with third party developers in mind, and as such, it went with cartridge based media for its 64-bit system. The company’s goal was to make Super Mario 64 the mind-blowing experience that it would turnout to be, and little thought was spared to the prospect of JRPGs following Lunar’s blue print on their evolution in presentation (Lunar had voice acting and Full motion anime cutscenes). Media storage was key for JRPGs at that point, and Nintendo’s decision to go with cartridges – instead of CDs – was the final sign that Squaresoft needed in order to say “goodbye” to Nintendo’s home consoles.
Square did try to make an early demo for the N64
According to a polygon interview with FFVII’s development crew, they had a Bahamut model made up of 2,000 polygons running, but there were issues:
“We made a 2,000-count polygon version of Behemoth for the Nintendo 64, but when we rendered and animated it, the framerate was way too low. To properly display Behemoth with that technology, we needed 2,000 polygons, but it was a little too much for the hardware. That was part of the problem with choosing Nintendo.” – Yoshinori Kitase
If you read between the lines you will catch that Square wanted character and creature models with the level of visual fidelity matching the eventual CG cutscenes that would be featured on the final game. These scenes were impossible to make on the N64 (though Angel Studios would solve the issue years later by compressing Resident Evil 2’s CG cutscenes into a larger N64 cart), unless the N64 could render the scenes in real time (think Ocarina of Time’s real time cutscenes), which was impossible for the hardware at the time.
In 1996, Squaresoft would officially announce that their partnership with Nintendo had ended, and that it would move to Sony’s Playstation with its flagship title; Final Fantasy VII. The decision took many by surprise at Squaresoft including some of the newly hired executive personnel,
“[In September 1995] I was hired by the president of the company, [Tetsuo] Mizuno-san, and he told me that, “Squaresoft will always be with Nintendo. … As long as you work for us, it’s basically the same as working for Nintendo.” And the week after I joined, they started saying, “Oh, maybe we should switch to Sony.” So I was kind of shocked.”- Yoshihiro Maruyama, Executive vice president, Square U.S.
The Square vs Nintendo argument was basically about storage. Square had made it known to Nintendo Executives that they wanted a CD-Drive on the N64 during the system’s developmental stages. But to no avail.
“At that time, Square was really close to Nintendo — we were basically like a second party for them. So when their new system was in development, we gave them lots of advice, like, “You’re going to need a CD-ROM drive for it,” “You don’t have enough bandwidth to do what we’re trying to do,” and, “With what you have now, we’re not going to be able to make an RPG.” We gave them lots of advice. But [Nintendo president] Yamauchi-san at Nintendo basically refused to listen to any of it. And that’s when Sakaguchi-san and the management team at Square decided, “OK, we’re going to go with Sony now.”- Shinichiro Kajitani, Vice-President, Square USA
Nintendo didn’t care about Squaresoft at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi, reportedly, wasn’t that angry at Square leaving, but at Square “convincing” others to leave for Sony, as Squaresoft was given a very lucrative deal (in terms of royalties), and Sony even put its own money behind the marketing of Square’s titles. Enix would soon follow suit.
Nintendo in the mid 90’s was a top a high perch. Sega, its main rival, was in debt and had botched the Saturn’s launch. Sony was a newcomer with relatively no experience in the business. Square leaving did not dent Nintendo’s aspirations mainly because RPGs didn’t sell outside of Japan, and Nintendo’s own first party titles had always carried the day. Needless to say, Nintendo grossly miscalculated how the JRPG genre would grow in that generation, and Yamauchi remained bitter at Squaresoft for years after the split:
“Japanese gamers “[like] to be alone in their rooms and play depressing games.” Mr. Hiroshi Yamauchi citing the reason for why Nintendo lost the battle to Sony during the 32-64-bit generation. – Hiroshi Yamauchi, President of Nintendo
Yamauchi’s quote is a direct shot at Square’s darker RPGs, as Nintendo’s largely colorful, and multiplayer focused games couldn’t topple the PS1’s wave of success.
Why FFVII Succeeded in the geographical market where all others had failed
And so, with Nintendo in the rear-view mirror, and after a 45-million-dollar budget – coupled with an astronomically expensive marketing campaign – Square would unleash FFVII into the world in September (November in Europe) 1997. The JRPG genre arrived to take over mainstream gamers’ living rooms in the US and Europe.
Proper marketing was key to its success. 20 million U.S. dollars were spent on the US alone in marketing costs. FFVII was in every magazine cover, featured in multi page magazine previews, and magazine ads in those days. I remember reading multilayered previews of the Japanese version in which the editors proclaimed the game to be the greatest JRPG of all time. Many went even further, saying that FFVII was the greatest game of all time.
The hype for the game was massive, and the PlayStation had a solid installed user base with 20 million consoles shipped at that point. The bulk of the marketing campaign was spent in reinforcing the character’s images used in the FMV cutscenes, as opposed to the squatty blocky characters that were used during the normal playtime of the game.
The CG scenes were beyond anything that N64 hardware was capable of rendering in real time, at the time (and even much further beyond anything that the PS1 was capable of doing itself), but mainstream gamers did not know that.
It was brilliant. FFVII looked bigger, flashier, and more refined than any game before it – in any genre – there had never been a more hyped RPG (or game perhaps), and early sales would demonstrate the power of a well-made marketing campaign.
FFVII sold 330,000 copies in its debut weekend in the US. This number was higher than any other game before it and it even beat out Nintendo’s Star Fox 64, which had pulled in 300,000 units of its own.
With FFVII, a JRPG had established record sales in the US for the very first time in history. FFVII’s use of pre rendered backgrounds mixed with 3-D graphics appealed to audiences worldwide, many of which had never played a Role Playing Game before it. Thus, these gamers would thirst for more of the genre in the following months, and years to come.
The Golden Age Arrives
Sega’s botched Saturn launch placed the company and its 32-bit system in a precarious position. The system wouldn’t receive the bulk of the JRPGs being made in the mid 90’s. It did receive a few, truly stunning titles, as the system, much like the PS1, used CD-ROMs, thus making it an attractive machine for the creation of games in the genre.
1997’s Grandia was billed as the Saturn’s FFVII killer. Developed by GameArts, Grandia would not “kill” FFVII, but it was a great game on its own right, and a worthy spiritual successor to the Lunar series. The game would go on to sell over 350,000 copies in Japan proving successful, even on a failing console. The game would get a second chance in the US and Europe by way of a PS1 version in 1999 which would go on to sell 250,000 copies.
If FFVII set the tone for polygonal characters traversing through pre-rendered backgrounds as a presentation style, then Grandia went for a ¾ top down view featuring fully polygonal environments which were not quite 1:1 ratio with its sprite based characters, but its graphical style would be one of the most popular ones during the era. Breath of Fire, Xenogears, Thousand Arms, among others; would use and follow the same visual style.
All of these games followed the same presentation standards that were once set in stone by Lunar on the Sega CD. These JRPGs offered FMV cutscenes, mostly of the Anime variety. With bigger sales, came bigger budgets and with bigger budgets, came improvements in audio/visual packages.
RPG franchises which had sold moderately well in the SNES era, were now selling 1 million units. Breath of Fire III, and Tales of Destiny being examples of this phenomenon. Dragon Quest VII (2000) made record sales in Japan selling 4 million units (it would get a late 2001 release in the US), and even though the game was panned by US critics ( it is truly a terrible game), it managed to sell 200,000 copies in the west, thus finally achieving some success for the series outside of its native Japan.
Square was the biggest winner
All of those years that the company had spent chipping away, and establishing a niche fan base in the West for its games finally paid off after FFVII’s massive success. In the late 90s, even when Square would release a pedestrian JRPG like SaGa Frontier, it would sell well. SF sold 1,300,000 copies, and absurdly high number for a title that was not a FF or DQ entry.
The controversial Xenogears, a game that almost did not make it to western shores (because of its religious themes), would find an equally staggering amount of success. Released in 1998, the game that was once pitched as an idea for FFVII and was then turned into its own project, sold 1,300,000 copies. 250,000 of those units were sold outside of Japan.
Square’s most anticipated title after FFVII would naturally become the inevitable Final Fantasy VIII. Square didn’t disappoint, the company would raise the stakes in visual presentation, yet again. While 1999’s FFVIII is generally not regarded – as good a RPG – as its predecessor was, visually speaking at least, it dwarfed FFVII and pretty much any competing JRPG of the time.
FFVIII sold a whooping 8,600,000 copies. A staggering number with over half of its sales coming from the Western markets. By 1999, it was clear that the JRPG was one of the most, if not the most, influential genre of the era. Unlike the previous era, the PS1 life cycle was largely defined by FFVII and FFVIII’s sales. Both games are at the top five of the system’s all time game sales, with FFVII coming at number 2, only surpassed by Gran Turismo which did come bundled with PS1 consoles for a period of time.
You know it was the golden era of the genre when even duds sold over 100,000 copies
Look no further than Quest 64. The one and only traditional JRPG released for the N64. The game was the subject of critical panning and magazine jokes. But at the end of the day it was Imagineer, the developer, and publisher, THQ, who ended up laughing all the way to the bank. Quest 64 ended up selling an outstanding 470,000 copies – all of which were sold – outside of Japan.
So, there you go! Even when you made a terrible RPG for a failing system, your game still performed in stellar fashion because it was the late 90s and RPGs were hot.
Even in the overcrowded sea of PS1 JRPG releases, pedestrian titles would consistently find their way to success. 1999’s Legend of Legaia was one such example with sales amounting to 660,000 units outside of Japan. I could keep listing titles here, and the list would be long. The main takeaway is that even terrible games would sell if they were RPGs. A stark contrast from the SNES era, when publishers feared bringing JRPGs (no matter how good) to the US.
Sony, at this point, encouraged the development of such titles even venturing into the genre itself with The Legend of Dragoon.
The game was a pedestrian-ly received title that benefited from a multimillion-dollar development budget and an equally expensive marketing campaign. The game’s obvious status as an FFVII clone, and its poor narrative made it a flop in Japan (its astronomical budget made it hard to recoup its investment), but the game sold very well everywhere else finally tallying world wide sales of 1,240,000 copies. The game’s commercial success proved that western audiences could not get enough of Japan’s RPG games.
The Action RPGs
Vagrant Story might be the best critically received game that Square has ever made alongside Final Fantasy IX and Chrono Trigger, and it only sold 870,000 copies. The use of the word ‘only’ seems odd, most games would have killed for those sales numbers, but Square had lesser games during the late 90s that broke the one million barrier. For some reason action RPGs just did not sell that well on the PS1.
Alundra, the closest thing to a Legend of Zelda game that PS1 would get, was a hit with the critics. Some of them rated the game as the 2nd best RPG of 1997 only behind FFVII. Despite Working Designs bringing the game overseas with a stellar packaging, and an even a more stellar translation effort, in the end, the game only moved 230,000 copies. Alundra was a 2-D game, and clearly, the 32-bit and 64-bit era was all about 3-D games.
Square would release its own effort in the Action RPG genre in the form of Brave Fencer Musashi. Musashi was a colorful and vibrant entry in the genre, but it was also very pedestrian in most aspects. However, these were the late 90s and Square could do no wrong. Musashi ended up selling over 1 million copies worldwide, with the bulk of its sales taking place in Japan. It is ironic that the worst title among the ones mentioned here was also the one that sold the most copies on the PS1.
The Legend of Zelda
Despite the N64’s struggles in terms of sales, the system had some really great first party and second party games. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, released in November 1998, proved to be a sales success on par with the FF series, and an even bigger critical masterpiece. Ocarina of Time, more than 2 decades later, remains the highest rated Metacritic title, and it was by far the ‘great’ game of the 32-64-bit generation.
N64 fans thirsted for a great RPG on their system, and Ocarina of Time more than accommodated the fan base. Before anyone screams: “But Ocarina of Time was an Action-Adventure!” if we consider games like Alundra, and Brave Fencer Musashi ‘action RPGs’ then Ocarina more than perfectly fits that description. The game had an over-world, linear progression, NPCs, and gradual character building in it.
Ocarina of Time would go on to sell 7.6 million units. It sold a 1 million copies in the US on its first week at retail. The only thing that stopped Ocarina of Time from surpassing FFVII’s sales numbers was the fact that the Nintendo 64’s installed user base accounted for less than a third of the PS1’s
Nintendo would follow up Ocarina of Time with a sequel 2 years later (2000) in the form of The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask. By that point, most gamers were moving into the PS2 generation, but that didn’t stop the title from a selling a whooping 3,360,000 copies.
Zelda, like Final Fantasy has sold well to this day. In fact, the latest Zelda game (Breath of the Wild) has become the highest selling Zelda in franchise history. Unlike FF, Zelda did not only maintain its sales numbers after the JRPG golden era ended, but it remains a king in terms of critical reception and innovation.
The ONE JRPG to rule them all
The mid to late 90’s would prove to be fatal to Nintendo’s dominance on the home console market. The N64 was a sales failure, and yet, I doubt Nintendo lost any money on the unit. It is not Nintendo’s way to lose money on Hardware, and most Nintendo developed games for the system were multimillion-unit sellers.
So yeah, Nintendo lost that war, but even in losing they made tons of money. However, Mr. Yamauchi who once let go of Squaresoft thinking that RPGs weren’t going to sell enough copies to dent their own console, must have been ironically (and pleasantly) surprised by the fact that Nintendo’s biggest earnings during that turbulent time came in the form of the greatest selling JRPG game of all time: Pokemon Red and Blue.
Yes, Pokemon. No one talks about it; no RPG fan wants to admit it. But, Pokemon Red and Blue kicked FFVII’s behind in terms of sales in a big, BIG way.
31,380,000 units. That’s the number of sales that 1996’s Pokemon Red/Blue would go on to sale. Even if we take 1998’s Pokemon: Yellow, by itself, its 14 million units sold would still beat out FFVII’s numbers by about 4 million units.
If Final Fantasy VII was a huge mainstream success, Pokemon was cultural revolution and a phenomenon of the likes that we have not seen again (until Fortnite….maybe) in the industry. Nintendo, luckily, owned a third of the rights for the brand in Japan, and all of the rights outside of it. If we take into account that Pokemon became a hit in the toy industry, card industry and even in the TV business it is easy to recognize that while Nintendo lost the console war during that generation, upon deeper inspection, they still won the global sales war. The Gameboy’s phenom helped the sales of Nintendo’s GB and GB color portable consoles and the franchise would eventually become the highest selling video game series around, only second to Nintendo’s own Mario series.
Because Pokemon was such a big hit, and it launched before FFVII; it is not recognized as the ‘messiah’ that brought RPGs into the promised land. Thus, it is hard to pinpoint whether or not the turn based RPG series benefited greatly from the golden era of JRPGs that FFVII ushered. Pokemon was already a phenomenal hit before FFVII hit store shelves.
An argument could be made that Pokemon was more influential than FFVII, as it was infinitely more successful with the mainstream kids of the day. Yet, the fact of the matter is in terms of home consoles, without FFVII’s success, I doubt that the genre would have flooded the big systems of the time.
Without FFVII, perhaps, the genre would have been relegated to handhelds instead (a shift that would eventually happen). Pokemon Red/Blue was important because it turned the POKEMON brand into the global, multibillion dollar overnight success that it became, but it is fair to say that while it is the most successful JRPG of all time, it wasn’t the most influential.
Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow were released at the peak of the JRPG’s golden moments, and as such, however, they are an important piece of history.
The Sega Saturn’s Quieter Waters
The Saturn was an embarrassing mess in terms of sales. At a distant third place from the N64 and PS1, the Saturn would still feature some important RPGs, thanks to its capabilities and CD-ROM based media.
We already talked about Grandia. But let’s talk about the greatest (and currently most expensive) RPG that- almost – no one has ever played. The one and only; Panzer Dragoon Saga.
1998’s PDS was the third game in the Panzer series. What made it an interesting game from the get go is that a series known for linear flying shooters, decided to ride the wave of popularity of the JRPG games of the time by crafting a true “FFVII killer”.
Panzer Dragoon Saga might have been widely remembered as the greatest game of the 90’s (only behind Ocarina of Time) had the Saturn been more successful, or better yet, had the game been released for the PS1 instead.
At the time that Team Andromeda began to develop Panzer Dragoon Saga, Sega had high hopes for the game, as the Saturn in 1995-1996 was yet to completely fall out of the console race. Sega wanted PD Saga to beat FFVII to the market, be a better game, and to outsell it. Team Andromeda, given the difficulties of developing the game on Saturn’s hellishly difficult – to code for – hardware, and the system’s miserable sales, were only able to deliver in one of the expected milestones.
Panzar Dragoon Saga was the better game, and in terms of what it achieved it was also the more impressive title:
“The hardest thing about the project was that, for the time, we took on too many challenges at once. The game was in “full voice,” meaning we had voice-over for all the characters’ dialogue in the game. We also put in 3D real-time processing for whole game. At the time, real-time processing was common in cutscenes and action clips, but nobody had made an entire game using real-time processing. It was also rare for an RPG game to be made completely in 3D. That in and of itself was a huge challenge. We also had to convert what was originally a shooting game and make it into a good RPG. And because of this, we had to create things within the game that were not traditionally in a standard RPG. Each challenge seemed doable alone, but because we tried to do so much all at once, it was really tough.”- Yukio Futatsugi (Producer) Source: Polygon Interview
Panzer Dragoon Saga, unlike Final Fantasy VII was rendered in full real-time 3-D graphics, as opposed to the vast majority of Square’s famous title’s gameplay, which utilized pre-rendered backgrounds, when not in the overworld or engaging in battles.
Of course, Ocarina of Time would arrive later in that same year (1998) to blow the doors out of everything that came before it, but some would rank PDS as an equal, and others would have it rank it as the greatest JRPG ever made.
The only issue with PDS, is that with only 100,000 units sold, and a code that is forever “lost” to Sega… almost no one played the game. Perhaps even more damning is that it is likely that very few gamers ever will.
Playing PDS today would require an expensive trip to Amazon/Ebay that would make the daring soul that plunged to buy the game (and presumably a Sega Saturn) $2000 dollars poorer.
The Saturn also had other offerings such as Working Design’s enhanced versions of the Mega CD Lunar games (these games would also make it to the PS1), Dragon Force, and Albert’s Odyssey. Sega’s Shinning Force III delivered one of the best Strategy RPGs of the Era.
Dragon Force which also was a strategy RPG garnered considerable critical praise, and more importantly, sold extremely well for a Saturn game (300,000 copies).
In short, if you were one of the two people stuck with a Saturn during the 32-bit era, its RPG catalogue was respectable, certainly a better machine for the JRPG genre than the N64.
Dragon Quest VII became a huge hit in Japan securing the franchise’s enduring popularity in the country. But the greatest gifts of Enix to the RPG fans during the era were Star Ocean: The Second Story, and Valkyrie Profile.
Both games were better paced, better looking, had better stories and had more exciting battle systems than the DQ games. Both would find more success on the west because of these improvements. Valkyrie Profile sold over 709,000 million units, and Star Ocean 2 over 1 million units.
The Golden Era peaked as a new generation of consoles arrived
The Dreamcast would be the first system out of the gates. Its ‘9.9.1999’ marked the start of a new era of consoles on the western market. The Dreamcast would die prematurely, but not without delivering its own RPGs including the very first ever Online RPG for consoles in the form of Phantasy Star Online.
The DC also had two important single player releases in Grandia 2, and what perhaps became its best RPG in Skies of Arcadia. Skies would sell 90,000 copies ensuring the demise of a sequel (even though it sold 200,000 units as a 2003 GameCube port). Grandia 2 fared better with 200,000 units sold.
The low sales number were a by product of the Dreamcast’s dismal sales, but perhaps, also a sign of things to come for the genre as games like Resident Evil: Code Veronica and Crazy Taxi sold over 1 million (Crazy Taxi almost 2 million) on the very same system.
The Twilight years
The PS2 dominated the generation since its 2000 launch. Nintendo would find less success than it did with its N64, and Microsoft had an interesting debut with its powerful Xbox by beating out Nintendo to take the number 2 spot in the home console war.
JRPGs, however, began to have a gradual decline in sales (and some would say in quality). An interesting trend took place, in which the big franchises like Final Fantasy continued to thrive. Final Fantasy X, released in 2001, sold 8.6 million units during its run and garnered critical acclaim. 2006’s Final Fantasy XII would go on to sale 6.4 million units, a notable decline from the previous single player FF title’s sales. But, by 2006, the Xbox 360 was out and gamers were ready to make the transition into the PS3.
Those numbers are not dissimilar from Final Fantasy’s run during the PS1 era, and they are a bit misleading regarding the general health of the genre at that point (2006). The PS2 era signaled the end for many JRPG franchises that had established themselves as bankable brands during the PS1, and early PS2 years. These franchises, while garnering critical accolades in some entries, weren’t known for their high budgets and thus in an era where 3-D graphics were getting more complex and expensive to make (and other genres began to appear) the Japanese RPG genre began to suffer some heavy casualties.
Grandia’s ill luck in both console generations are a result of Game Arts’ insistence in supporting Sega’s Hardware. To be fair, the first Grandia probably started development in 1994-95 and there was no way to know back then how badly the Sega Saturn would fare (and how well the PS1 would). Still, it did dismal numbers because of it and the game would eventually receive a slightly inferior looking port on the PS1 in 1999.
Grandia II, however, was a different story. Expectations about the Dreamcast’s success weren’t exactly high even during its multimillion-dollar marketing campaign. Still, early DC owners, such as myself, were happy to get a AAA RPG for the system, and the game went on to sell 200,000 copies. A disappointing number, indeed, as it pulled in about half of the sales numbers that the original Saturn version had (Japan only). The PS2 would receive an infernally bad port of the game and it would sell a similar amount of copies (about 90,000 more).
Enix picked the publishing rights from Ubisoft and delivered Grandia Xtreme which was more of a dungeon crawler than an actual main Grandia game. It did better numbers than the Grandia II port, which probably gave GA the opportunity to go for a 3rd entry in the series with Grandia III.
Here is where it gets confusing. Grandia 3, clearly, by its presentation was a high budget title. Not a high ‘FF budgeted’ title, but in the ballpark of Star Ocean 3. Grandia III sold 490,000 copies. That is a series high. But Star Ocean 3: Till the End of Time sold over a million copies. Grandia’s run as a premier home console RPG would end there in the third installment, as there would never be a Grandia 4.
Suikoden III marked the series PS2 debut in 2002, it was both the commercial and critical peak of the mid-range (budget wise) series as it ended up selling 980,000 copies. The series would then see a gradual decline in sales as Suikoden IV was poorly received and moved 600,000 units in 2005.
Suikoden V would arrive shortly afterwards and only sold half of that (Suikoden IV‘s) amount. Konami moved the series to portable platforms, and Suikoden would never the see the light of day on home consoles again.
Sony’s RPG series received a second entry for the PS1, which sold a decent amount of copies (over 600,000), the series would have three more main numbered entries, and a PS2 remake of the first game. But sales would take a turn for the abysmal, and the Wild Arms franchise was dead in the water by the time the PS3 rolled out.
Wild Arms presents an interesting trend that would ring true for most of the ‘double A’ JRPG franchises of the era. Rising costs in game development and sinking sales of the genre were too much for some of these publishers.
‘200,000 copies sold’ would have sufficed for most 2-D games, but the market had shifted to 3-D completely at this point. Games like FFX had set audio visual standards that were difficult to match within the genre, especially when publishers were afraid that the games would not sell enough copies to recoup the costs.
In a stark contrast to the PS1 era, where unknown or new RPGs titles would often find success, a quick look at the top 50 best selling PS2 games will show that only Square Enix was able to sell RPGs in significant amounts. Final Fantasy thrived, Square’s Multimillion dollar collaboration with Disney produced another multi million seller in Kingdom Hearts (almost 6 million units). Dragon Quest VIII kept selling its usual numbers in Japan, and the only JRPG games that would break the million mark that did not belong to SquareEnix were Xenosaga: Episode 1, and the original Dark Cloud.
The PS2 produced over 150 games that were a million or multimillion-unit sellers during its run, it was telling that only two JRPGs that were not backed by Square Enix would end up making the cut. By 2007, it was safe to say that the golden days of the JRPGs were long gone.
The Lone Survivor
Namco’s Tales series would not only survive the rough patches of the PS2 era, but the games got progressively better in quality, and the series has, against all odds, survived as a console JRPG to this day.
The series had 3 titles that broke the one-million-unit barrier, curiously each title belonged to a different generation. Tales of Destiny on the PS1, Tales of Symphonia on the GC, and Tales of Xillia on the PS3. The latest entry 2017’s Tales of Berseria sold 2 million on the PS4, PS3 and PC which is a promising number for the series.
So, considering that most 90’s franchises that were not named Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest have gone portable or disappeared entirely, how did the Tales series manage to survive this long (25 years) even though it is not a consistent million unit seller? The question was framed differently by Game Informer back in 2013, and the answer from one of the developers left much to be desired:
“The unique evolution in the game design, the new gameplay provided for each title, the theme described in the storyline, the way of portraying the world, and the creation of attractive characters that play an important role in the fantasy world – I consider these essential elements of the Tales of series. They have been working together with the new features suited to the times to last for more than 15 years.”-Hideo Baba (Producer)
Baba’s answer is purely focused on the artistic side of gaming making. He conveniently left the answers that we, for the purposes of this article, really want to know, which is the business side of game making. How then, does Tales continue to survive? One word: Identity.
If you have played Tales of Symphonia (the first 3-D entry in the series), then you have pretty much played all the subsequent Tales games in terms of art and gameplay. Symphonia was the most successful entry in the series, it added a sizable chunk of fans to an already niche fanbase that was loyal to the product.
Namco understands the Tales’ fanbase, and its developers pretty much keep every entry in line with what came before it. It is a simple formula, and because Namco understands this simple fact: That the Tales series is not one of mainstream aspirations, the development costs are kept on the low end. For the last 8 years, or so, it could be said that the Tales games look a generation behind Square’s offerings. Even Berseria looks like a decent PS3 game rather than a PS4 one.
So, it seems that Namco makes and markets the Tales series as if it will sell 100,000 to 300,000 units (though this would change with Tales of Arise). Whereas, a game like FFXV needed to sell 8 million copies in order to break even (according to SquareEnix), the Tales series is easier and less costly to make. Consequently, the Tales games, even when selling lower than half a million units, make Namco Bandai money, and so far, that has been enough for the Japanese giant to keep on funding the projects.
The one special Japanese Role-Playing Game publisher killed by the genre’s twilight
No respectable historical analysis on JRPGs can be completed until without mentioning, and properly honoring, Working Designs. The American publisher was known for their exclusive dedication in bringing overseas some of Japan’s finest RPGs, Strategy RPGs, and top down shooters.
Working Designs offered the best translations and localizations for Japanese RPGs in the market. In fact, their translations were a decade ahead of anything else on the market at the time. The company also had a very special way of packaging their games, especially the packaging of their RPGs which added both monetary, and collectors’ value to its titles.
Working Design’s demise might have partly been due to their long association with Sega which spanned from the Genesis/Mega Drive days into the Sega Saturn’s cursed lifecycle. It seems that Bernie Stolar was, perhaps, the number one culprit for this (WD’s grim fate).
Working Designs President Victor Ireland had tried to strike a deal with Sony early in 1995, as perhaps Victor foresaw both, the commercial potential of the console, and the upcoming boom of the JRPG genre. Bernie Stolar, however, did not quite envision the latter scenario taking place. Ireland was forced into continuing WD’s partnership with Sega.
Success in business, and life, sometimes (perhaps most times) is about being in the right place, and at the right time. Stolar’s short sightedness on the genre set the wheels in motion for the eventual demise of Working Designs.
By the time Stolar left Sony, and Working Designs was able to publish games for the PlayStation it was already a bit late, as other players had established themselves on the PS market.
Forced to work on the Saturn, Ireland would find some success in the form of Dragon Force which sold 150,000 copies in the US. Considering the paltry Saturn user base in the country, that was an impressive number. Working Designs’ most popular titles; the two Lunar games, would eventually see enhanced PS1 releases in the US.
Once in the greener PS pastures, Lunar was a success with 270,000 units sold in the US in 1999. Here is where my theory of blaming Stolar for some of WDs’ struggles takes place. Lunar was a 2-D RPG, by 1999 not many people were into 2-D games, as most RPG fans were gobbling up the 3-D adventures of the genre and in wait of FFVIII.
My belief is that had WD been able to publish Lunar The Silver Star Story in 1997 or even 1998 the game might have seen a doubling of its sales. After all, Wild Arms sold almost a million units in 1997 and it was mostly a 2-D JRPG.
WD also brought us Alundra, which is the greatest 2-D action RPG that I have ever played. Alundra would not break the 200,000 mark in the US. Other Notable titles that Working Designs brought over were Vanguard Bandits, Lunar Eternal Blue, and Arc the Lad Collection. All these titles came in extraordinary packages, with full color (sometimes hard cover) manuals, soundtracks, ‘making of’ CDs, and even some game related jewelry items.
Even when its games were pedestrian (Vanguard Bandits) the packaging and the effort that WD put in translations elevated these titles in terms of quality.
Victor blamed Sony’s approval process and the company’s Growlanser PS2 release (as the final nail in WD’s coffin) during an interview with Gamespot in 2005 (When Working Designs finally shut its operations):
“Packaging Growlanser II and III together, doubling our costs and localization time and halving our profits in one fell swoop, wounded us. Goemon not getting approved was the end. At that point it was clear that the kinds of games we do and the manner that we do them would no longer be a guarantee of approval, and if I can’t use my 15+ years of experience to pick games I know will sell and get them approved, what am I doing? What are WE doing? The majority shareholders in WD voted to stop the nonsense there. I can’t say I blame them–they’d lost enough money in the 3 years prior while we tried to iron it out.”- Victor Ireland
Still, companies usually do not tank because of one bad release (not the long running ones). Working Designs had been struggling somewhat since the 90s. Lunar 2 sold even less than Lunar the Silver Star, and if you were one of the lucky individuals that actually bought Lunar: Eternal Blue you know that the packaging was absolutely fantastic. I don’t think that type of quality production value per copy was sustainable if such games were being made and sold in such smaller scale quantities.
It is a shame, because I feel that a few breaks here and there would have gone a long way in keeping Working Designs alive, for a little longer. But when an entire genre suffers a fall from its peak, some game franchises disappear, and some of the publishers and developers behind said games also go the way of the dinosaur.
The one legend that lost his job
The PS2 era claimed the life a few RPG franchises, and one particularly important publisher. What the twilight years of the JRPG genre did not claim – at least as a direct effect of the dwindling popularity of genre – was Hironobu Sakaguchi’s job at SquareSoft. That, he lost on his own. In his epic (failed) attempt of becoming the Japanese Steven Spielberg.
It is ironic that the man who saved Square from certain bankruptcy, is also the man that would more than a decade later nearly drive the company into the ground at the peak of his artistic and professional career as a game maker.
Great success can empower individuals. It can make them arrogant, and overconfident. Now, I do not know Hironobu Sakaguchi personally, as such, I cannot say that he is or was arrogant, but he was overconfident when he decided that his proficiency as a storyteller in JRPGs would translate to film making success.
After the success of FFVII, Sakaguchi felt confident enough in his abilities to direct a film, and as such, he embarked on a 4-year long endeavor that would produce one of the great financial box office flops of all time.
If Sakaguchi would have tested the filmmaking waters by making a cheap budgeted Anime film, perhaps things would have turned out better than they did. But the man had the audacity to convince Squaresoft to pour 137 million dollars into a cutting-edge CG film instead.
The Film’s existence made no sense, as did the film carrying the “Final Fantasy” title, as the film had nothing to do with the actual Final Fantasy games. It was an exercise in technology, one that would eventually earn the title of the first photorealistic movie made with the use of computer graphics.
The film (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) was not attractive to FF fans who were mostly disappointed the by the film’s lack of FF material, and the Final Fantasy name carried absolutely no importance with movie goers at the time (2001). Had the film been a critical masterpiece, perhaps, a casual audience would have helped the box office numbers, but instead Sakaguchi’s first film directing effort was a disaster, recording a 45% rate of approval in Rotten Tomatoes.
Reportedly, Square ended up losing almost 95 million dollars, and Sakaguchi left the company shortly thereafter in 2004.
He would never achieve Final Fantasy like success again, his two most successful creations afterwards were Blue Dragon which sold 920,000 units and Lost Odyssey. Neither would also capture the critical praise of its former works, and now Sakaguchi has been relegated to a mobile game producer. His fall from grace is a tragic story, and a reminder that if you are good at making games…you should keep making games.
While the world wishes for Sakaguchi to return to his creation in the Final Fantasy series, to the dismay of many FF fans in a number of interviews his attitude towards the franchise and Square/Enix has shot down all hopes for a reconciliation.
A 2014 interview with Kotaku.com shed light on that topic and more. The interviewer, an avid FFVI fan pushed Sakaguchi for info on FFVI as he expressed that it was the favorite entry of a lot of people in America (even though it sold poorly). To that statement Sakaguchi probably raised his eyebrow before answering:
“I’m surprised you mention VI, because at that time, it actually didn’t sell too well, you know, in terms of the pixel art, and the character size, and it actually didn’t jive. That’s why for VII, it got bigger, we got CGI graphics and whatnot. So when I hear you and other fans saying, ‘Yeah, VI was my favorite!’ I’m like, ‘Hey, so why didn’t you buy it back then?” -Hironobu Sakaguchi
Ouch! The interviewer did ask Sakaguchi the one important question about whether he (Hironobu) had ever wanted to return to work on a FF title. To that question Sakaguchi replied,
“So like for example when Uematsu-san does a concert or something, people will say, ‘Play some Final Fantasy songs!’ The franchise has actually gotten bigger than the actual creator, in some sense. I feel like I’ve been able to distinguish myself from Final Fantasy. At this point I feel like I’m doing new and great things, and I don’t look back. So to be honest, probably not.” -Hinorobu Sakaguchi
That’s a big OUCH! For every Final Fantasy fan around the world.
Zelda and Pokemon kept rolling
For those two Nintendo RPG franchises the golden era never ended. From 2000-2010 Zelda’s two entries during the period: Wind Waker and Twilight Princess sold about 12-13 million units combined. The latest entry in the series, Breath of Wild, shattered all records for the franchise as it nears (2021 Update: it has surpassed) the 20 million mark in just 3 years since its release. Perhaps, The Legend of Zelda is in its golden moment right now. Pokemon’s mainstream fever might have slowed down since the 90’s but its popularity as a handheld RPG continues as strongly as ever. From 2001 to 2012 Pokemon RPGs and some Action RPG off shoots sold a whooping 103 million copies between the Gameboy Advance and the Nintendo DS.
The PS3/360/Wii era
This is the era where you can say at loud: Home Console Japanese Role-Playing Games are DEAD! And not many people would be inclined to put forth an argument against the statement. A quick look at the top charts of the Xbox 360 will denote that no JRPG broke the million mark, even though the system had an installed base of users numbering 80 million, and Western RPGs like The Elders Scrolls V: Skyrim managed to sell 13 million units, followed by Fable II which sold 3 million units.
JRPGs on Sony’s PS3 would not fare much better, even with a slightly higher number of consoles sold, Final Fantasy XIII would only sell 3 million units, with less than a million copies of the game selling in the US. The only other RPG to break the 1 million copies sold barrier was Ni No Kuni: The Wrath of the White Witch. These number paled in comparison to many other games on the system such as the Uncharted games and The Last of Us (7 million). Newcomer Open World Action Adventure Batman: Arkham City sold 5.49 million units as an example of a relatively new franchise that completely dominated the sales charts in comparison to the JRPGs of the time.
The genre would fare equally bad on Nintendo’s first and only home console to sell 100 million units (Wii). If not for a pair of Zelda Titles and a Monster Hunter game, no JRPG would have sold more than 900,000 copies on the underpowered system.
The golden era had come and gone, and not even Final Fantasy going multi-platform did enough for the series to break into the top ten best selling games of either of the two core gamer (PS3/360) gaming systems. The era of the First-Person Shooter was in its golden age, and soon Western RPGs like the Witcher 3, Skyrim, and Horizon Zero Dawn would take JRPGs’ place as the premier adventuring games on modern consoles.
Open World Games (All developed in the West) would take over the generation as a whole with Rockstar’s GTA V and Red Dead Redemption 2 selling millions of copies combined.
So why did the genre die?
It did not die, rather it migrated to the portable platforms as technology advanced, competition got stiffer, and rising costs in game development turned the genre into an unprofitable old dinosaur. Perhaps the greatest story of success in recent times has been FFVIIR (The divisive first episode of the ‘Remake’ of 1997’s Final Fantasy VII), as it is rumored to have sold about 4-5 million units in just a few short months since it was released back in April 10th, 2020.
But it could be fool’s gold, as far as the rest of the genre is concerned. FFVIIR relied heavily on a marketing campaign to attract those of us who played the original back into the fold. It seems to have worked. FFVIIR looks and sounds like the multimillion-dollar effort that it is, so it is hard to say how many copies would have to be sold in order for the game to be successful, though all signs point that it is.
Still, it is the only JRPG that has reached the mainstream consciousness in the last decade. Other series such as Persona have garnered a growing cult following that made the series a bankable franchise, but not a mainstream one.
We are at a point where a well made RPG that is not a FF game – but holds a considerable budget – can make some noise (Xenoblade Chronicles Series), but we are likely never to see a 90s like return for the genre, an era where every month a new JRPG seemly made its way into home consoles accompanied by media coverage and decent budgets for the time.
Technology made it possible for games outside of the JRPG genre to deliver better stories
Rising costs in development would mean nothing, if JRPGs still sold in the millions. Rising Costs in development drove the genre to portable gaming devices because other genres evolved and JRPGs stayed the same.
In the 90s, it was hard to imagine the day when a first-person shooter would feature a story rivaling that of FFVII’s and maybe even surpassing it in its delivery of it. But then Halo: Combat Evolved arrived in 2001, and suddenly we didn’t have to read little text boxes or listen to dialog in a passive way during cutscenes. Halo delivered a Sci-Fi tour de force, a cinematic experience that put the player right in the middle of the action. It was mind-blowing. Technology had finally caught up with the ambitions of game developers, and little by little JRPGs began to lose some of their appeal. Other FPS series such as Call of Duty would follow Halo’s lead, and suddenly, first-person shooters were dominating sales charts.
An emergence of the 3rd person action genre happened during the mid-00s with Resident Evil 4 gaining massive critical praise for reinventing action games. Gears of War, and the Uncharted series would follow and surpass it in their commercial success. FFXIII tried, in some ways, to follow Call of Duty’s footsteps because Square had realized that the times had changed, and something had to be done in order to ignite the series.
Final Fantasy XIII’s designer and writer Motomu Toriyama made a heart crunching statement for JRPG fans all over the world on a 2010 Kotaku interview when he admitted that indeed FFXIII had been inspired by Call of Duty:
“The basic RPG functions are to go into towns, prepare for battle by going to shops, then go out in the field,” Toriyama explained. “In that sense, Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t have towns or shops—it’s more that players are thrown into a story, presented with different situations as they move forward in the field and keep progressing that way. In that sense it’s more similar to an FPS genre, like Call of Duty. That’s not to say it’s an action shooting game at all, so Final Fantasy XIII takes some different aspects of different genres, transcending different types of games.”- Motomu Toriyama
It was not an admittance of Call of Duty’s influence alone; it was in fact a statement that demonstrated how ineffective the genre had become at that point in terms of sales.
SquareEnix’s executives understood that Final Fantasy would have to stop being a pure Traditional RPG and evolve into something else or die as a mainstream franchise. FFXIII came under fire from various fans because it was a dull, and linear affair. The only RPG element of it at that point was its turn based combat system. Towns had been removed; it was a corridor adventure from plot point to plot point. When people buy a Final Fantasy game, they expect an RPG set in a massive world, and Square lost sight of that.
Final Fantasy XV would, in turn, become a much more open RPG experience influenced by Monster Hunter and Western, Open-World games. For all intents and purposes, for at least ten years we haven’t seen a traditional RPG in the form of Final Fantasy.
Gone, Never to Return
The Japanese Role-Playing Game genre is not dead in its entirety, play Bravely Default on the 3DS for a good 32-bit era inspired quest, or play the Grandia HD Collection on Switch to relive some of the good golden memories of the old days.
Go into the PlayStation store and you will find a vast array of JRPG games that most of us have never even heard of. The digital age has allowed for a greater proliferation of Japanese titles to be available to us on the west.
The genre, however, is a good as dead as a true mainstream force in the home console arena. A few series have survived as niche console games (the Tales games) and a few others continue to thrive (Pokemon, Zelda, Final Fantasy). But gone are the days where traditional RPGs moved console sales, as the Final Fantasy series did in the late nineties.
Some developers such as From Software found a way to reinvent genres (Action-RPGs) and create some of the greatest games ever made (Dark Souls and Bloodborne), but most of the JRPG genre didn’t evolve with the times and as such, reverted back to the niche sales of SNES era, except that this time there is no upward trend. Like 2-D, and 3-D platformers (except Mario) of yesteryear, the genre is no longer a mainstream sales factor, and is likely to never regain its former stature in the foreseeable future.
As I played my latest acquisition in the Tales series (Zestiria) a few months ago, I couldn’t help but get bored with it about 8 hours in. Ironically, it was the most ‘open’ Tales game that I had played, but the pacing, and the tried and true JRPG clichés that no longer amused me really drove the point home about how stale of an experience the genre has turned into in comparison to games like The Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn.
I understand that Zestiria is one of the weaker entries in the Tales series, but even FFVIIR, though an audio/visual prime AAA experience, in terms of gameplay and even storytelling felt like it was several notches behind the aforementioned titles, and even behind games like The Last of Us.
I am not alone on this sentiment, FFVIIR holds an 87 metacritic rating. A good score, but far below the top games of this era, and a far cry from FFIX’s 94 rating. It seems that action RPGs were destined to age better as technology evolved. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild made a successful transition into the open world genre, a genre that has been traditionally dominated by western developers.
Dark Souls and Dark Souls 3 are certified masterpieces in level and game design. Japan has talent, and its developers are still innovating and pushing gameplay boundaries in many games. Sadly, said talent isn’t making traditional JRPGs anymore.
As it stands, the JRPGs golden era lasted about 8 years from 1994-2002, some would say from 1997-2002, but it feels wrong for me to leave out games like FFVI and Chrono Trigger even (if they sold poorly in the west) out of the equation, as quality should be taken into account (as well as sales) when determining a Golden Era for a certain gaming genre.
Those 8 years were filled with an astronomically high number of Japanese Role-Playing Games that took the center stage during the 32-64 bit era. Collecting 32-bit RPGs remains a – sometimes expensive – hobby of mine, I still feel those games have a special quality and mystique to them. And so, we close out this ‘in depth’ analysis saluting the great RPG series’ that were lost during the twilight of the genre. Here is for the Suikodens, Wild Arms, Grandias, and Lunars of the world. You will never be forgotten.
*2021 Update: JRPGs Rise …Again?
The genre has seen a few strong sellers over the last few years. As of May 2021, Dragon Quest XI (the latest in Square Enix’s long running series) has sold about 6.5 million units across every platform. This would make Dragon Quest XI the most successful entry in the series over the last two decades.
The number would suggest that the series has risen in popularity on the West, and that bodes well for the genre (and turn based titles) as a whole. That said, in four years, and with the aid of multiple releases on different platforms, DQXI still sold much less than new comer Horizon Zero Dawn, a game that sold 10 million units in just two years of confinement to a single console (PS4).
The next big time JRPG that has managed to pull in great numbers is Final Fantasy VII Remake. The long awaited FFVII Remake (which didn’t end up being a conventional remake) sold very well. The game sold 3.5 million its first three days (April 10-13, 2020) on the market. By August 2020, it had managed to move 5 million units, and then Square Enix stopped reporting numbers after that.
It is possible that the bulk of those sales were a result of long-time fans who had been eagerly anticipating the game for over a decade.
These numbers, however, do not break the trend of big time JRPG franchises (DQ and FF) doing perpetually well, even if they are no longer at the very top of the charts when compared to other western franchises.
However, September 2021 brought a certain surprise in the form of Tales of Arise. The latest Tales game managed to sell 1 million copies within a week. That is a record number for the Tales series (but Tales of Arise launched on multiple platforms unlike previous entries), and it might have signaled (depending on how well it continues to sell going forwards) the long running series’ entry into ‘Dragon Quest like’ sales territory.
Still, Pokemon remains the king of JRPGs. 2019’s Pokemon Sword and Shield have sold about 21 million copies while confined to a single platform (The Nintendo Switch). Those are massive numbers, even by western RPG standards, so perhaps the genre isn’t dead at all.
The AAA JRPG market has shrunk since the 1990’s and there is less room for big time console JRPG franchises, but the ones that have survived, have continued to do well. In Pokemon’s case, extraordinarily well. The genre is not dead, there has never been a time with more games (many of dubious quality) available in online digital fronts (Kemco has multiple releases per year).
The JRPG ‘Golden Age’ might be long gone, but the genre will survive. With Elden Ring, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2 and Final Fantasy XVI being some of the most anticipated titles in gaming, JRPGs will do fine in the years to come.
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