Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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WRPGs vs. JRPGs – Not as Different as You Might Think?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 21, 2012

For a while, I was tempted to split up the RPGs on RampantGames.com into “Western-Style” (WRPG) and “Japanese-Style” (JRPG) role-playing games. I’ve not done that for a number of reasons, the main one being that it is too difficult to draw the line on indie games. A game written with RPGMaker will automatically inherit the look and feel of classic 16-bit JRPGs, but if its written with WRPG sensibilities, it’s hard to tell what side of the line it is on. In the last ten years, particularly, the line has blurred even more. This makes some sense, as the stylistic differences we tend to associate with the two “subgenres” were largely a matter of a tiny number of very popular titles influencing a host of imitators.

Rowan Kaiser’s article on Joystiq makes the case that the line was getting pretty blurry almost twenty years ago. I tend to agree. This predates my own “discovery” of console JRPGs, as I didn’t own a console back then, and may help explain why I found transitioning to console RPGs relatively easy. I think the article only scratches the surface, however. You can point to other examples of pretty story-heavy, system-light WRPGs (my favorite example being Ultima VII, of course).

But there’s another face to this coin. While I’ve played very little of the earlier JRPGs, in my limited experience I’ve found that as you go back to the 8-bit consoles they more closely resemble their western, computer-based cousins. They borrowed heavily from Ultima III and Wizardry at first. They also suffered from the same technological limitations, which restricted the amount of story they were able to tell in-game. By my understanding, it was really Final Fantasy IV, released in 1991, that launched the complex, character-based plot that became the signature of the subgenre. PC games, the focus of western RPG development, weren’t far behind, though they were still contending with compatibility issues on gaming-unfriendly machines.


Even though they had much more to work with on the 16-bit machines,  console RPGs (and JRPGs in particular, rapidly gaining popularity in the west) still had to work with restrictions that were not there on the PC. Saved games were still extremely limited on these cartridge-based systems, which forced limited world interactions, fewer character variations, and a more linear plotline.  Consoles were limited to gamepads with very few buttons, which forced simpler controls and menu-based choices. These limitations drove a style that persisted through the 32-bit era, but the distinction was growing thin even then. 1999’s Final Fantasy VIII even did away with much of the stylized “cutesy” character look of its predecessors in favor of the more realistic look of its western counterparts.

PC games started slipping in popularity here in the west towards the latter part of the 1990s, as console games began to clearly outsell their PC counterparts. Actually, I don’t think that PC games really slipped that much in popularity so much as the consoles gaining popularity, and the relative difference in sales caused publishers to immediately switch primary targets. I think the sales numbers on the PC haven’t changed much (as I learn that The Witcher 2, not yet on any console, has managed to sell 1.1 million copies). But the bigger sales on consoles caused publishers to switch to the consoles as the primary platform, which in turn led to some optimizations (some sorely needed) for the console environment. At the same time, JRPGs are taking better advantage of newer technology, larger controllers, etc. Designers in Europe, the U.S., and Japan had all grown up playing all styles of games, and felt free to mix and match the best (and best-selling) ideas.

And so, naturally, we find the differences between JRPGs and WRPGs to be further eroded.

The distinctions that we make such a big deal about (well, those of us who care about such things) were really an artifact of a relatively brief time period that has been over for longer than it ever existed. And, as Joystiq suggests, the differences of that era weren’t really as pronounced as we tend to credit them.

And for indie games? Unlike mainstream publishers, which are compelled by economics to pursue the path of the most recent hits, indies have a bit more leeway to mix and match. We can dip back into old wells of any era (or genre, for that matter), old or new, mix them with new ideas, and see what we can come up with. As much as I advertise “old-school” style for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, I cannot deny that I’ve taken parts of it in some distinctly not-so-old-school directions as well. Or that what ‘old school’ really means is quite subject to what kinds of games we’re talking about. Likewise, I can’t pigeonhole an RPG-Maker authored title simply because the graphics and control system is reminiscent of SNES-era JRPGs. It’s a convenient shortcut to take when describing a game (and I’ll keep doing it), but it’s really not very accurate anymore.

And maybe it never was.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • Another Take (of Three) on JRPGs vs. WRPGs… said,

    […] on board with their conclusion that WRPGs and JRPGs are two distinct genres.  Especially as I made a big case the other day about their similarities and loss of distinctiveness between the two. I guess I’m just a […]

  • Why categorize jRPGs and wRPGs? @ IndieRPGs.com said,

    […] has been some discussion lately about whether there is really such a huge difference between jRPGs and wRPGs after all. […]