In his excellent Winners’ History of Rock and Roll series for Grantland, Steven Hyden writes
the average rock fan tends to burrow deep into subgenres and sub-subgenres, feasting on refinements of stuff they already like. Rock now caters in specificity, not broadness; most rock records these days are geared toward aging collectors already buried in rock records.
Whether intentional or not, Hyden argues, an isolationist attitude has begun to prevail among people who are enthusiastic about rock records as they’ve been traditionally defined. As a lifelong ‘videogame nerd’--but more specifically, a fan of games of Japanese origin, especially so-called RPGs--I can relate to that tendency. Rather than swinging wildly between genres and forms in the increasingly overwhelming jungle of game-fun options out there, it’s somehow more inviting to burrow deeply into one particular subgenre. There’s a certain comfort level that comes with this kind of fenced-off specificity. The genre enthusiast might risk missing out on what other forms may have to offer, but experiencing those things in an equally informed way--appreciating, rather than just playing, or just listening--would require an education, at least a primer. Better, then, to debate minutia and intricacies in a well-established and well-worn form.
But there’s at least one pretty big difference between rock records and JRPGs: the former has some vestigial built-in remnant of ‘cool’ associated with it, handed down from a time when rock was edgy and denim-clad and long-haired. JRPGs, on the other hand, might also have denim and long-hair associations, though much more unfortunate ones, probably. As far as I know, they have never really been ‘cool’ signifiers, anywhere in the world. Dragon Quest might sell millions and millions of copies in Japan, but ‘cool’ certainly has some kind of outsider, minority status implied, right?
Maybe, the rock record niche-ification, with its ‘cool’-ness still somehow intact, is inspiring other niche-dwellers to confuse the niche-ness for the ‘cool’-ness. As if the very act of cordoning oneself off in a genre-defined zone is the source of the ‘cool’, since specificity and depth (rather than breadth) of knowledge give the illusion of something worth knowing due to its apparent barrier to entry. Sure, bro, everyone’s played Super Mario Bros., but I’ve max-leveled all my dudes in Phantasy Star IV. I learned Japanese just so I could experience Mother 3 the way it was intended. And so on.
Eventually, thanks to built-in attention from long-established mainstream media outlets, the rock and roll enthusiast cult became aware of, and began to revel in, its outsider-y, exclusionary position. Rock bands, now, don’t aim to sell millions of copies of records or get airplay on MTV - those options don’t exist anymore, so their craft has changed to reflect that. Bands dig deeper into established sounds, hoping to satisfy small but dedicated fanbases. The results of those bands’ craft often sounds ‘good’ or ‘cool’ or like ‘deeply destabilizing queasiness, amplified … to a frightening degree’, and a certain crowd of sanctioned cool-dudes has their cool-dude-ness reaffirmed once more. No one bats an eyelash.
JRPGs are, in the realm of videogames, like rock in the realm of popular music: no longer that relevant, dinosaurs from an ancient age when a lot about the form hadn’t yet been figured out. Just as most eleven-year-olds you know today are probably not huge Japandroids fans, they probably also aren’t counting down the days until Etrian Odyssey IV finally gets localized and released. Ni No Kuni was released outside of Japan recently, much to the fanfare of 35-year-old white dudes, while 11-year-olds everywhere kept flinging Angry Birds and whatever it is they do with Skylanders. This would almost certainly not have been the case in a bygone age (the ‘70s and early ‘80s for rock, 1997ish for JRPGs).
But JRPGs don’t have any ‘cool’-ness attached. In fact, they’ve got quite the opposite aroma about them, and their ardent fans aren’t usually proclaiming fandom out loud to the public, mostly because they often suffer from crippling social phobias, lol. (I’ve been watching too much Freaks and Geeks lately.) So while being informed and being passionate are already well-realized traits in the JRPG fan community (check out a cool new website called gamefaqs.com for proof), being ‘cool’--or socially congratulated for your carefully cultivated niche tastes--is nowhere in sight. You could argue that it’s not even desired, and that that is a form of ‘cool’, but let’s not go too far down the rabbit hole. Developers of JRPGs are like modern rock bands in the sense that they cling for dear life to established conventions in the hopes that died-in-the-wool fans will continue to lap up what they’ve always lapped up before. There is little attention paid to luring in new fans. This is why a new Ys game released in Japan can retail for the equivalent of $100 Canadian and/or American Dollars--people will pay it, and happily!
Unfortunately, the creepy, geeky, borderline pedophelic tendencies that apparently (that must, because fanbait for these personality traits keeps getting churned out) exist in the JRPG fan community seem to dictate what the risk-averse publishers for these increasingly-niche-ified entertainments are willing to include in their products. Look at stuff like Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dust or Hyperdimension Neptunia V (they’ve made five of them!!)--you either don’t know what they are, or would be afraid to be seen playing them in public, or both. And rightfully so!
So niche does not equal cool, and the majority of makers of JRPG niche products seem fine with that trend continuing--or perhaps herding the JRPG niche further and further away from the cool kids. But every once in a while, someone with apparent and palpable life experience outside of gross cigarette-stained windowless meeting rooms makes a JRPG. And we get something like Mother 3.
Or, we get Bravely Default Flying Fairy. The first JRPG I’ve played that seems to want to reward dedication to a genre the way modern rock bands do. That is, it respects its audience, and instead of pandering to its most base, depraved tendencies, appeals to its highest aesthetic preferences, with an assumption that the person appreciating this crafted piece--this game--is probably also a person capable of appreciating a fine red wine or a Milan Kundera novel or a set of Egyption cotton 1000-count bedhseets. Bravely Default applies the highest artistic standards (capable on a Nintendo 3DS) to the best conventions of its genre, and then works to turn the player’s expectations of those genres inside-out in a way best appreciated by longtime fans of said genre. It is the second-ever JRPG--after Mother 3--that I’ve played that seems to display real literary authorial intent. But whereas Shigesato Itoi’s scenario might have worked just as well--arguably even better--as a novel or stage play, it’s hard to imagine Naotaka Hayashi’s script and plot working in any format other than a ‘traditional’ JRPG.
Somehow, everything about the game feels convincingly like a loving tribute to classic Final Fantasy games while at the same time a clever satire of everything traditionally attributed to that brand. And if there was ever any doubt of that intention, just notice the FF in Flying Fairy, and know that even that is absolutely deliberate. In fact it is integral to one of the most genuinely fantastic ‘shocking reveals’ I’ve seen in a videogame! If you can, you should play this game soon, before that spoiler becomes canonized.
The story starts out with four warriors on a quest to rescue four powerful elemental crystals, which is a little too on-the-nose, really. By the end, however, events become bleak and borderline-sadistic in a way that’s comparable to Game of Thrones. The characters start out as typical trope collections--the naive village boy who becomes a hero, the sheltered and upstanding maiden, the amnesia-afflicted rogue womanizer, and the sassy no-nonsense lady who clashes with him. There’s also a fairy companion, mentioned in that clumsy-but-awesome title. But over the course of the game, each of them develops fully-realized personalities that are not at all in keeping with genre norms. They are characters in the real sense of the word, not the hollow archetypes we usually find in these games. Though there are moments of light-hearted humour and a couple of catch-phrases (the sassy lady often says mugugu! in a very grating way when she’s angry), they come off more like winking concessions to genre than attempts at lols. The game borrows the Party Chat feature from the Tales series to convey a lot of this character development, transforming that feature from a tedious series of interruptions to a welcome series of dialog flourishes.
Battle, the other pillar of JRPGs, is fun and snappy. Like the story and characters, the system in Bravely Default is grounded in tradition and expanded in meaningful ways. It’s still essentially all choosing menu options and taking turns with the enemies, but you’re also able to stack turns offensively or defensively. So are enemies. This adds a whole degree of strategy, and actually demands that the player think! There’s also a job system, because that was fun in Final Fantasy V and half of the Dragon Quest games. But maybe the nicest touch is a fast-forward button, so you can sit through battle animations leisurely, or speed them up, at any point in battle, at your leisure. But the more inventive and exciting additions to the battle system come in the game’s acknowledgement of Street Pass and the 3DS’s online capabilities. At any time during any battle, you can ‘record’ one move by one character, then upload this recording to a player profile. You can then Street Pass and exchange these recorded moves with other players, or swap with friends over the internet, and summon each others’ characters into battle. It’s a pretty neat idea! And given the degree of flexibility in the multi-tiered job system, it’s exciting to see what move sets other people have come up with for their characters. There’s also a world-building mini-game that is powered by collecting Street Passes. The more Street Passes you collect, the faster you can rebuild the main character’s home town, which rewards you with fancy weapons and limit breaks. It’s clever! And it gives an interesting social angle to an otherwise intensely single-player game.
Finally, as if they knew they had a really special core game nugget on their hands, Silicon Studios really went all-out on the game’s presentation. The music is mostly orchestral with some synths and electric guitars mixed in, and definitely good enough to warrant playing with headphones. And somehow, nearly the whole god darn game is voice acted, and pretty well at that! I understand that a lot of the cast is made up of heavy hitters from the world of seiyuu, though I don’t really know for sure. How’d they fit all that voicework onto that there little cartridge, I often wondered. Because I am an old man and I don’t understand how these things work. But my old man eyes sure do love gazing upon the pre-rendered backgrounds and squat little polygon characters. Each environment looks hand painted, and the camera zooms way out to cinematic angles in a really lovely way. Plus the characters’ different job-dependent costumes are all bursting with neat details that aren’t just buckles and pleather and belts everywhere. It’s visually very pleasing. Like Final Fantasy IX, but directed by an ukiyoe master, and with character design by Akihiko Yoshida.
Still, despite all the loving craft so obviously bundled into this little game, I’d still be really hard-pressed to recommend it to anyone who’s never loved a JRPG before. Uniquely, it isn’t even the type of shining example of genre that you could extend to someone uninitiated in the hopes of drawing them into your own chosen enclave. But for a certain type of deep JRPG enthusiast, it’s hard not to see this as a pinnacle of the form.