Editorial: On This, the Occasion of the Playstation X’s Fifteenth Birthday, We Pause to Reflect on the Passing of the JRPG

GAGA!!! Now that I have your attention ... ...

My goodness, but the time it flies! As many of you will be aware (and some of you won’t) this past week marked the fifteenth birthday of brand Playstation, and by extension the fifteenth birthday of Sony’s small grey miracle box of seemingly limitless potential. It is funny to think that it has been a good thirteen, perhaps even fourteen years since this diminutive plastic box of formative joy and wonder came into my life and impressed on me the ideals which I cherish to this day. And with this in mind, and at heart, I cannot help looking on this era with appreciation for our time together, yet with sadness too for the design ideals which are being slowly lost to the veils of time.

Not hip. Not new. Just good.

The Playstation offered JRPG developers the perfect balance of freedom and constraint. The tyranny of text volume limits and the necessity of reducing complex conceptual designs into crude pixel art was at once lifted, giving game makers unprecedented latitude in visual and narrative expression, without giving them so much rope as to hang themselves with it. Through the use of simple, yet colorful 3D graphics and complex pre-rendered backdrops it was possible to fully realize the artist’s vision, and not have it cost $100,000,000 over a six year development cycle to develop what is essentially an uninteractive grind tube. No, this was back in the days when creating complex and appealing building interiors was still justifiable for use in a one-time event scene, and it was possible to easily create epic vistas of near mind boggling scope and beauty without it murdering the development budget (still waiting on that FFVII HD remake? Protip: NOT GOING TO HAPPEN). Everything feels smaller now.

Just as important was the system’s audio capabilities facilitated by the Playstation’s CD storage medium. Musicians now had the ability to fully realize the complex instrumentation they could but mimic before. Despite my affection for the simple purity of midi tunes, I cannot but listen to the arrangement of ‘Time’s Scar‘ and fail to be impressed, and neither can you I am sure. Yet once again this is the perfect balance of freedom and constraint, CD storage did not possess sufficient capacity for many games to ruin their narrative with bad VA, nor did reviewer expectations foist the obligation on development teams that they repurpose their game’s budget to cater towards the very expensive implementation of voiced dialogue. Moreover, a well told story demands a certain amount of dialogue, and the PS1 with its relatively accommodating set of expectations allowed players to experience game dialogues as quickly as they were able to read, and with a minimum of physical acting between lines. Now however, in addition to the expense of creating cutscenes, the simple act of voicing and choreographing these scenes in a believable fashion effectively means that dialogue takes many times longer to convey than in the PS1 era. Now, given that the market is driven by consumers who will baulk, cry and scream bloody murder the instant that control is taken from them for over two minutes, this means that dialogue will be truncated in all JRPGs that aspire to be more than a niche title, while it will tend to be a bloated amorphous morass in those that do not. It might seem almost axiomatic that in instances wherein a game’s presentation inhibits the creation and consumption of content, then such affectations might be dispensed with, yet such an approach is unlikely to gel with the entitlement ‘professional reviewers‘ are possessed of. They will cry at having to read in the absence of full voice acting, while in contradictory fashion also crying at the absence of Japanese audio.

You could almost mistake that for regret if the Japanese were in possession of souls

In looking back to the PS1 era, we look back to a time when game production was at once simpler and more complex. Design teams were still intimate enough for directors to leave their stamp on the product, and not have it lost ‘neath reams of focus testing and corporate interference (if Yoichi Wada’s focus was to destroy Squaresoft, then he’s achieved it admirably). With fewer non-essential complexities of production, designers were freer to implement experimental mechanics, and construct more holistic, substantial worlds. With fewer logistical constraints developers were at greater liberty to exercise the better angels of their nature in pursuing something grander than corporate profit, many aspired to Art, and in some instances they achieved it. My goodness, but how circumstances have changed.

JRPGs circa 2010 are in desperate need of a new paradigm, either in design or economic formula. The very things that identify a JRPG as being top-shelf, are the same things that often curb their potential and stop them from being any good. As the gaming industry has expanded exponentially, and game budgets have begun to rival major Hollywood films, it would be charitable for me to say that JRPG sales have stagnated. Any game from this genre which once commanded pride of place as a killer app at the helm of the good ship Playstation is now considered a runaway success to break 300,000 LTD in sales, when THQ is bitterly disappointed at only selling 2 million units of their latest generic fighting game. In stark contrast to all that has come before, North American and European studios have seen an explosion in terms of their output, even Canadian development is viewed as the proverbial bacon on the hill, yet Japan who was once the brains-trust of global gaming artistry, is now the sick man of Asia.

We thus find ourselves at an unhappy juncture where a new hardware generation could spell oblivion for the console JRPG, either they will find a new way forward, else perish. And call me a radical dreamer, but I do wonder why we can’t strip back some of these presentational pre-requisite affectations and place a stronger emphasis on content. Is there any reason that pre-rendered backdrops could not look stunning at a HD resolution? Have JRPG enthusiasts forgotten how to read? Does rebalancing the priorities of the genre even threaten to shrink its market-share? The ranks of those who would openly declare themselves as JRPG enthusiasts is surely such a dwindling, meager and dispirited lot by this point that the lack of something as inoffensive as stilted voice acting will surely not be sufficient to deter them from their pursuits of flagellant masochistic purchase intent, and who knows, if Japanese designers have not forgotten how to create quality content then perhaps they will be able to spare their game industry from the yawning abyss of incompetent, uncompetitive and unviable malaise which threatens to subsume it so completely. Ah, but then again, when is the last time the Japanese gaming industry displayed the vaguest hint of development plasticity?

I really didn't intend to turn the joyous celebration of the PS1's birthday into such a bleak assessment, so here, have this charming photo of CAT LILES

If the health of an industry can be measured by the number of battles which take place atop an airship in flight, then we can conclude that the SNES demonstrated the vast potential of this nascent electronic medium, the PS1 in turn ushered in an unparalleled golden age of game development replete with halcyon, sepia tones and a Uematsu soundtrack, the 128 bit era for its part looked a little green around the gills, while the current console generation finds it long dead, and marked ‘do not resuscitate‘.

Please feel free to share your fond memories of the PS1 or comment on Lady GAGA!!!

15 comments

  1. There’s still a lot of good JRPGs being released. They just are no longer produced by Square-Enix (or Tri-Ace… fuck Tri-Ace!) and don’t have “Final” or “Fantasy” in their titles. They’re also mostly on portable systems because that’s what everyone in Japan plays.

    Really aside from the PSX era Japanese devs really never were creating most flashy and graphically awesome good games were they? Sure the 16 bit era had some pretty sprite graphics, but most people didn’t give a shit about them.

    The Xbox Live crowd didn’t–and couldn’t–care about games back then. The Nazis were all renamed by Nintendo to things too subtle for the feeble Xboxer’s Mind, and they couldn’t call everyone “n—–!” and “f—–!” from the safety of their bedrooms.

    The lack of online play was also something that made games much different in the PSX era. It was entirely absent from the platform. Today people expect a four hour campaign they’ll play once and then online multiplayer.

    Games were also cheaper I think…maybe not adjusted for inflation? But the economy was better so people had more money? I don’t know, but I remember Sony releasing lots of 30 and 40 games and buying more games for the PSX than I had been able to get for the SNES.

  2. @EP: Historically, prices of video games (adjusted for inflation) have fallen consistently. Also, as an expression of the currency unit’s buying power (The ‘Big Mac’ Index), the price of games has continued to cost less.

    Part of this is that the price of games has largely remained static and has not adjusted to keep up with inflation. Lest we suddenly start to weep for the plight of starving developers, though, let’s also remember that far, far more copies of games are being sold now than before, more than making up for any adjustment for inflation.

    Today’s video game companies routinely turn much larger profits than those of the 1990s or 1980s ever dreamt of, largely on the basis of huge audiences and massive sales figures. The downside of this: games are more populist than polished, and are playtested into the cardboard-flavoured paste which appeals to the mean, ordinary people to whom a company must cater in order to generate their revenue stream.

  3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt performed Bad Romance at his HitRecord.org event. It was a beautiful melding of two beautiful things.

  4. I love the PSX, Truly the best gaming console ever made. If anyone says otherwise I will stab them with a knife made of AIDS.

  5. @Lusipurr: How do you think populism is working out for JRPGs? Seems to me that they haven’t been generating any extra sales. Any JRPG that doesn’t play ball is likely to get screwed over by reviewers (which is quite likely regardless), yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will sell any less. I don’t think commercial game sites necessarily represent JRPG fans, so by altering their development style to to suit the critics, who are they now making their games for?

  6. The PSX was legen … wait for it … dary!

    Mine survived fire, and being torn apart and modded, and I think it fell down the stairs. And the games… oh the games. :(

  7. I have to say that I am a huge fan of the PS1. It is rife with many fond memories: Parasite Eve, Final Fantasy VII, IX, Siphon Filter…ahhh the classics.

  8. That’s something else remarkable about PSX games: the understated gore. Late in the 16 bit era, probably mostly as a carry-over from the still vibrant arcade scene, was that games were becoming “adult.” In the sense that using words that get bleeped, showing boobs, and exploding people into red mist is “adult.” I’m talking mostly about stuff like Mortal Kombat and Time Killers in the latter red mist category.

    On the PSX you can find so many classics like Bushido Blade and Syphon Filter which had pretty extreme violence but didn’t go crazy over the top with it. In Bushido Blade you could kill an opponent in an instant and there were some splash sort of effects, but nothing gratuitious. In Syphon Filter headshots were the preferred method of dispatching people, but it wasn’t glamorized.

  9. If you look at the three 32bit consoles, I think you’ll find that the PS1 had more than its fair share of violent games. Some games curbed this tendency, but that was mainly down to fitting into a particular ratings regime, or their own artistic prerogative.

  10. I think the reason was largely that as graphics become more realistic, then over the top gore begins to look increasingly out of place. But remember, the PSX had its share of Mortal Kombat 4’s, Resident Evil’s and Tenchu’s.

  11. I also think that tastefulness in violence has been in decline since the rise of the Xbox crowd, and all their guileless, knuckle dragging tastes.

  12. I always liked the tazer in Syphon Filter. Keep a person tazed long enough and they burst into flames.

  13. We actually had that happen for real in Oz. Some Aborigine was sniffing peterol, got tazered by a cop, and then burst into flames. :)

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