Lunar: Silver Star Story (Working Designs, 1996)

What Defines an “Old School” JRPG?

There’s a common assumption that a story starring kids is also for kids, and that a kid’s story is inherently less complex, less nuanced, and simply lesser in quality.

As someone who doesn’t like match-three games, I’ve been playing a shocking amount of Hero Emblems, an iOS match-three RPG. During those many hours, I’ve had time to reflect on this latest obsession. The game is fun from a mechanical perspective, but the thing is I’m not just playing it because it’s fun. I keep playing it because it hits a very specific nostalgia button for me. It feels weirdly akin to the classic Japanese RPGs of my youth, evoking games like Lunar, Legend of Mana, Final Fantasy IX, Arc The Lad, Grandia, Wild Arms, etc.

But why? What makes it feel like these old games? That’s a complicated question and there are actually multiple answers, but as I played, there were two answers in particular that stood out. One is based on narrative and the other is based on mechanics, and each of them represents an embrace of the very traits that have arguably led to the diminished relevance of the JRPG in gaming.

It’s a Kid’s Story

What do Fallout, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Witcher, Diablo, Pillars of Eternity, Planescape: Torment, Skyrim, Morrowind, and Deus Ex have in common? We play as an adult in each of them.

The adult character signals to us that this is a game with adult themes: corruption, power, politics, oppression, prejudice, regret, and so on. Each of these games handles these themes in one way or another, some with more success and nuance than others, but right from the beginning, the age of the protagonist openly proves the desire to be adult and “mature” in story and theme.

What do all those JRPGs that I listed in the opening paragraph have in common? We play as a teenager in each of them, and the teenage character signals to us that this is a young-adult story with the hero’s quest usually a metaphor for coming of age. Unfortunately there’s a common assumption that a story starring kids is also for kids, and that a kid’s story is inherently less complex, less nuanced, and simply lesser in quality.

JRPGs do play into this stereotype. Their anime influences make them more theatrical and melodramatic, and their color palettes are often bright and vibrant, all things that stereotypically connote childishness. It’s undeniably awkward to think of early teens going globe-trotting on a quest to save the world, and the moral line between good and evil is often very stark. This gives the genre an air of naiveté, bolstered by the common themes of friendship, camaraderie, and self-empowerment.

For example, it’s been decades since I played Lunar: Silver Star Story, but I always remember this one vague scene. After beating the game, some NPC is talking to Luna, the heroine, and casually mentions that the main villain was evil… or something like that. Luna disagrees, arguing that he was more misguided than evil and that she pitied him… or something like that. The scene struck me as weird at the time because there was no nuance in the characterization of the main bad guy. He was a villain through and through. Luna’s sympathy seemed misguided. If the game had been trying present a complicated nuanced antagonist, it really failed.

But the truth is that that’s just one game. JRPGs have always told stories of corruption, power, politics, oppression, prejudice, regret and so on. They just often do so from the perspective of a teenager (there’s no denying the age difference in protagonists), and those themes are swept up in the overall coming of age story. A simple tale of good versus evil still has plenty of room for deep characterization. The greater theatrics and melodrama also lead to more operatic and grandiose stories.

Hero Emblems is, however, a simple story with simple characters and a painfully predictable twist leading into its third act. The heroes of this story are four bodyguards to the princess known as the Emblem Wielders. They fail at their one job, allowing the princess to be kidnapped, and thus begins a quest with the eventual fate of the world at stake. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a group of kids.

But even this simple story proves the stereotype wrong. The inciting incident is an act of utter failure on our part. One character learns of her secret parentage and heritage. Another overeager monster killer has to face up to his hotheadedness when the big twist reverses the heroes and villains of the story. Everyone has to deal with the betrayal of their mentor. These are all complex emotional beats, but what really separates this story from something more supposedly serious is that Hero Emblems doesn’t dwell on these problems or revel in them. These topics are handled quickly, with the young heroes showing an emotional maturity decades beyond their age, and that’s precisely what makes it so refreshing and so evocative of those classic JRPGs.

Those games didn’t wallow in negativity, they were usually relentlessly optimistic. Bad things happened, emotions were evoked, drama was had, but the characters didn’t let the darkness break them or make them cynical.

This, perhaps, explains why the genre fell out of popularity in the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 era. Gamers grew older and demanded that games mature with them (or give the outward appearance of such), forgetting that the good themes in the JRPG were deeply tied to the coming of age stories of these young heroes. Fans of Final Fantasy clamoring for a remake of FF7 will never be satisfied because the original game was very much a teen’s game, and these now-adult fans likely don’t want to play something that feels like a teen’s game. We don’t really want to play as an adult Cloud because Cloud is most interesting as a developing young person struggling to understand his place in the world.

Final Fantasy IX (Square, 2000)

JRPGs were young adult stories, but that’s not to say they were only for teenagers, just that they often starred teenagers. The presence of a kid as the protagonist is not an indication of a lesser story being told, just a different kind of story being told, one with a lighter heart, more whimsy, in which not every side quest results in a dead body ((cough) Witcher 3 (cough)), and that’s OK. Sometimes I just want a hero’s journey instead of a meditation on politics and oppression. Sometimes I just want some swashbuckling, and we should celebrate that range of tones.

For Hero Emblems, the simplicity of the story, the arch characters, the predictable betrayal, and the emphasis on good versus evil are all a throwback to a time when epic RPGs could be straightforward, lighthearted, and cheesy. They could be dramatic without being dark, emotional without being serious, grandiose in scope and narrow in theme. A throwback to my childhood and all the lighthearted JRPGs that defined it.

It’s Padded With Random Battles

A JRPG isn’t just about its story, however, a JRPG is also about combat. Lots and lots of combat. These games may be remembered for their sprawling stories, but they’re also infamous for the random battles that padded their playtime. You’re more likely to spend an hour in battle than watch an hour of story-driven cut scenes. Even in a game with lots of long cut scenes, like Xenosaga, most of your game time is spent in battle.

It makes sense. The combat system is the central gameplay system, so of course the game would focus on this aspect, but it’s an aspect that’s been downplayed over the years in favor of remembering grand stories. The genre has gone out of its way to distance itself from this part of its past, and while I admit random battles can be really annoying, they’re also a distinctive part of the JRPG experience.

Hero Emblems embraces this aspect of its genre. The game is nearly all battles all the time, and crossing the world map can take a solid 15 minutes (an eternity in mobile gaming) due to all the random battles along the way. No attempt is made to hide or downplay the randomness of these battles, the game is clearly unashamed of this padding, and so for the first time in a long time, I felt that familiar anxiety that comes from a sudden ambush — or the excitement that comes from a lack of ambush. Hero Emblems embraces random battles as if there were no other alternative, and it’s not annoying when it does.

Part of this has to do with expectations. If I go into a JRPG expecting an epic story and instead get more combat than story, the game feels padded. It feels longer than it really is because I spent so much time doing things that I’d rather not be doing. Hero Emblems has the advantage of being a mobile game, which means that I went into it with very low expectations of story. I expected a match-three puzzle game and that’s largely what I got, but I was still pleasantly surprised by the amount of simple story and character development present in it. I went into this JRPG with the proper expectations.

More importantly, however, Hero Emblems actually modernizes the concept of the random battle. These random fights only happen on the world map, and you travel the world map on a strict path dotted with nodes. Each node represents a location and a possible battle. As your hero moves from node to node, the likelihood of battle increases. Sometimes you’ll fight every node, sometimes every other node, and sometimes you’ll move five nodes without a fight. It’s random.

This structure prevents any freeform exploration since our path is so obvious and defined, but the upside to that lack of freedom is that it ensures our travel is always efficient. Random battles were so frustrating because they discouraged exploration while the rest of the game often encouraged exploration. It was difficult to travel unknown distances when we didn’t know how many fights that we’d get into along the way, which kept us conservative in our movement. I don’t know how many times that I’ve been close to the exit of a dungeon and looked down an optional path, my curiosity demanding I investigate, but with only one health potion, no revive potions, and a party on the verge of death and with my last save halfway across the dungeon, I couldn’t possibly justify any extra exploration.

By confining the random battles to these location nodes, I can see the maximum number of fights between me and goal. This allows me to prepare, both in terms of the game and mentally. That mental preparation is actually the more important thing because it changes my expectations of the game ahead of me. With this preparation, random battles become less of an ambush, less of an interruption, and more an expected event. They don’t prevent me from seeing anything, and so they don’t feel like padding. They feel like a purposeful part of the game, something to be embraced and enjoyed rather than annoyed by.

That’s what it was like to play a JRPG back when I was a kid, back when I had time to kill and didn’t mind the padding. That’s a time I can’t get back, and so I’ve grown to hate such padding in games. The best thing that Hero Emblems does is remind me that random battles are part of the fun of the genre.

Hero Emblems puts its emphasis on systems that modern RPGs try to eschew. It has more dungeons and fewer quests, more random battles and fewer enemies in the world, more grinding and fewer scaling enemies, more obtuse mechanics and fewer streamlined tutorials. Those are all good things in theory, but Hero Emblems proves you don’t have to replace those old design decisions. They can be modernized. The JRPG design is still relevant today, just maybe not in its original format.

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