When I was younger, I remember stumbling across a block of programming on Syfy (then called Sci Fi, which looks a whole lot less stupid if you ask me) called the Saturday Anime. For a couple hours every week, this magical doorway opened my eyes to the wonders of the Japanese anime culture. These cartoons we called Japanimation, were so much different than anything else I’d ever seen on television. They could be bloody, violent and utterly bizarre and could take place far in the future where robots acted like humans or in an alternate reality where vampires existed and were hunted by people with hyper-realistic swordsmanship and agility. The characters in these vivid stories were usually teenagers full of angst, distinctly opposite the heroes of action flicks made in the States. It was because of these Saturday afternoons that I became infatuated with the post-war Japanese entertainment culture and the reason I got involved in a long relationship that ultimately wouldn’t stand the test of time. That relationship was, of course, my not-so-brief affair with Japanese RPGs.
My first experience with the genre came around 1995, when I visited a friend’s smoke and cat hair filled basement. This place felt like one of the crypts Indiana Jones would seek out to find hidden Incan treasure or long forgotten artifacts. Every time I visited, I could count on seeing something new and exciting. One of those reasons being that Mark was always the one with the new console and games, probably due to his mom’s flirtations with gaming. She loved Kid Icarus. Mark shared my enthusiasm for anime and when he picked up a copy of Final Fantasy III (technically Final Fantasy VI, but who cares) for the SNES and played the intro for me, I could tell it was something special. The opening sequence alone gave me chills, but it was the story of a handful of memorable characters weilding magic and melee weapons fighting against a psychotic jester that enthralled me. It was a world of six-foot-tall chickens and mischievous cactii that would be reiterated for many years to come. I only got to play it a bit over that weekend and spent the rest of the week with only my PC and no JRPGs. So, I played them vicariously at friend’s houses where games like Chrono Trigger and Earthbound kept my appetite somewhat satiated.
It wasn’t until Final Fantasy VII came out on the PC that I was able to fully immerse myself in one of these games. Yeah, the controls were pretty crap and there were technical issues that caused game freezes and movies to play with no sound, but everything else about the game was amazing. It had beautiful full-motion video sequences, a great soundtrack and a protagonist with awesomely spiky hair. It was almost like taking on a role in one of the anime films I’d seen as a kid. I played the game for nearly 100 hours, which I can imagine isn’t that long compared to some, but it was an experience unlike any other I’d had playing a game. The scope and cinema came together to create something that really struck a chord with American gamers, ushering in an era of JRPG domination. A lot of people would argue that the SNES was just as much of a vehicle for the genre as the PSX and by the sheer number of titles released, they might be right. But the PSX titles seemed to have a much grander cultural impact and maybe I was too young, but I never heard any stoners talking about how “wicked” Lufia 2 was.
Around this same time I got into another type of RPG, specifically the kind that were based off of tabletop Dungeons and Dragons. Where JRPGs were cool and stlyish, this western breed of RPGs was nerdy and often looked at with disdain. D&D generally brings to mind images of four dudes wearing whatever approximation of battle armor they could manage to assemble while sitting in a dimly lit basement huddling around a bunch of hand-painted action figures. Despite the negative connotations associated (and due to my PC only handicap) I grew a fondness for the genre, playing less visually impressive things like Might and Magic VI and Planescape: Torment alongside my favorite Final Fantasy sequels, FFIX being one of the most underrated and impressive entries to the franchise. There was just something so compelling about the incomprehensible rules and the Tolkein-inspired settings that hit just the right key to balance out the steampunk fantasy vibe many JRPGs have. Needless to say, I didn’t talk as much about my guilty role-playing pleasure in the company of normal folk.
When Final Fantasy X came out, I knew I had to get a PS2, so I could experience what promised to be an awesome game. I can say that I wasn’t dissapointed. This title did more than any that had come before, featuring fully voice-acted characters and some of the best looking graphics the PS2 had to offer, even in its later years. Unfortunately, FFX also did away with some of the staples that made previous games feel less linear than they actually were. Gone were the open world maps that you could spend countless hours exploring. There was no more chocobo breeding or racing and no cardgames to pass the time. Sure they introduced Blitzball, but once you got the Jecht shot it all seemed pointless. In spite of the more linear feel and limited extracurricular activities, FFX was still a fantastic ride with memorable characters, even if they sort of fit the old templates laid out in previous games. So a couple years later, when I heard that a true sequel was in the works, I was stoked. And then I saw this Final Fantasy X-2 trailer. The prancing parade of Pussycat Dolls proportions, holographic backup dancers and robot-buddha drummer seemed to shuck the spirit of adventure that every game before had embodied.
I bought Final Fantasy X-2 anyway, hoping against hope that it would be as great as the first game, but while the battle system was pretty solid, the rest of the game blew pretty hard. Everything felt like a hyperactive teenage drama where none of the character’s actions have any impactful consequences in the world around them. Yeah, the other games were about teenagers, but they were saving the world from corporate greed and evil forces beyond comprehension. Now, it’s a trio of treasure hunting fashion models chasing after a long-dead boyfriend. Give me a break. It’s hard to put a finger on, but I think the main problem was that there was just too much Japanese pop culture shoved into the game. I like karaoke as much as the next pub-crawler, but watching a game with so many scenes devoted to being a J-pop video got old really fast. The cutesy, annoying-school-girl-with-a-crush genre really isn’t my thing, no matter how good Rikku looked in those booty-shorts.
In spite of it all, I finished the game and felt like I rather needed a shower afterward. I’ve been around the web enough to know that I’m not alone in my sentiment towards this game and it has become one of the most derided of the series, a parody of what fans used to love. From then on, I sort of shied away from the genre, in part because I didn’t have a PS3, but mostly because I was just so disappointed in how the games had shifted. I indulged more and more in the nerdier side of Western RPGs, which were in turn becoming more mainstream. Morrowind showed how incredibly deep and invovling an experience a classic take on the genre could be, and Mass Effect showed how freakin’ cool it was to role-play in space and that these RPGs didn’t have to follow the strictures of D&D rules. Hell, even the Star Wars RPGs were surprisingly good considering what Lucas has done lately (I’m looking at you, Clone Wars). With the recent overwhelming success and reception of Skyrim and its 4.5+ million copies (not including digital sales) sold and the comparitively lackluster reception of FFXIII, I just can’t see myself going back to my beginnings. So unless there is a big revolution in the JRPG market, not just countless remakes for handheld devices, I believe that I and many others have played their last Final Fantasy game.