When one thinks of Japanese RPGs, there are a few pieces of hardware that immediately leap to mind. The Super Nintendo. The first two PlayStation consoles. These are the bastions of JRPG greatness, both quirky and familiar, esoteric and mainstream alike. These are the consoles upon which Dragon Quests were released and Final Fantasy grew up.
And, while the handheld space was never devoid of RPGs, even the original Game Boy having its fair share of SaGa ports and, of course, the Pokémon series, the genre has always been most comfortable on home consoles, where the people who play it are expecting to sit down for an extended span of time, immobile, devoting themselves to an epic and lengthy campaign.
With the latest generation, though, the paradigm has shifted. While the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and even the Wii have a fair helping of JRPGs, the vast majority seem to have shifted over to the handheld space. The DS in particular became the new home for Dragon Quest, with Dragon Quest IX releasing exclusively for the handheld on the heels of ports of entries IV, V, and VI. Final Fantasy IV saw a complete 3D remake for the handheld and, on the side of original games, there was The World Ends With You, Radiant Historia, the Etrian Odyssey series, and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (which saw a sequel).
Now, that too is shifting, and the 3DS appears to be taking its older brother’s place as the premier platform for JRPGs. And, for the first time in a long time, I find myself incredibly enthusiastic about where the genre is going. Part of it is related to the hardware on offer: The DS and 3DS alike are perfect for menu-based games, with their second screen allowing access to everything from maps to status screens and inventories without interrupting the action, the bottom screen’s touch-based nature making navigation of such things a snap.
The 3DS adds the analog disc, which allows for more intuitive and malleable control of one’s character. While the stereoscopic 3D effect may be a bit gimmicky, it works well for a game that doesn’t constantly demand a shifting visual focus—perfect for turn-based combat. Beyond even that, though, the 3DS hits that optimum point in processing power, where the potential is there for visually appealing “clean” graphics, but the financial and time investment demanded to develop for the system are both fairly modest, at least compared to those of the high-definition consoles.
The fruits of this have already become apparent, with many a beloved RPG franchise making the transition. Etrian Odyssey IV was just released, and it’s apparently the best one yet, while Fire Emblem: Awakening turned heads and blew sales expectations out of the water. In Japan, Dragon Quest VII, the largest and most involved game in the series, has been remade for the portable, while Tales of the Abyss and Unchained Blades, both originally released on PlayStation-branded devices, have made their way over.
Really, that’s the reason the handheld has me so excited. It’s striking a wonderful mix between classic JRPG experiences and new blood, perhaps best illustrated by the upcoming release of both Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, which was originally a SEGA Saturn title that most never had the opportunity to play, and Shin Megami Tensei IV, the next main entry in the series. That these niche experiences are even being made, much less finding their way overseas to the U.S. (it hasn’t yet been cemented, but it seems unlikely that SMTIV will be left behind), has me rubbing my hands together in gleeful anticipation. Even that most popular of portable standbys, that Madden of the RPG world, Pokémon, has me anticipating its next release, if only because X and Y look to be the most visually exciting Pokémon games since the series’ inception.
And what of the games that haven’t yet been announced for release in Western territories, but seem likely? Bravely Default: Flying Fairy leads the pack in that regard, with those who fondly remember the SNES Final Fantasy games lauding the ways in which it reportedly harkens back to that “simpler” time.
That isn’t to say that every 3DS RPG experience has been stellar. Paper Mario: Sticker Star was underwhelming, bucking RPG trends in all the wrong places, while Code of Princess was an action RPG that failed both with respect to its plot and its action, plagued by crippling slowdown and a boring combat system.
The future is bright, though, and the present isn’t too shady either. The biggest challenge of lengthy portable gaming experiences—what to do between save points—has been surmounted by titles that either let players save anywhere or at least suspend their game at any point, to resume it at their convenience. Being able to make progress in a lengthy quest, even just five minutes at a time, provides for a more accessible experience than locking oneself into an hour of gameplay and cutscenes the instant one picks up the controller.
So, yes, I’m excited about where portable RPGs are going, courtesy of the 3DS and its lineup. You should be too.
Date: March 11, 2013