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Gaming Trends in 2013: The JRPG! It Lives!

Atelier Ayesha Alechemist of Dusk (2)

Ask any JRPG fan when the genre peaked, and more likely than not, you’ll get the Super Nintendo or PlayStation as your answer. A late comer here and there might try to bring up the PlayStation 2, but the point is, it’s not the previous generation of consoles. HD gaming effectively killed big budget production of the JRPG, and many feel that the best days of the genre were well behind it.

Not so. 2012 jump-started the rusty engine and pumped out some impressive Wii titles like Xenoblade: Chronicles and The Last Story, and the original Nintendo DS had been doing a more than adequate job of keeping the genre on life support while waiting for handheld technology to catch up. Developers had to figure out how to get the most from the Nintendo 3DS and maximize the systems strengths.

And maximize they did! The Nintendo 3DS roared into a huge 2013 with an amazing JRPG lineup which could have contended with even the best years of the 1990s.

Right out of the gate, Nintendo had Fire Emblem: Awakening waiting for us, a game which made a lasting impression and scored a spot on our top favorite 15 games of 2013. If Fire Emblem didn’t make enough of a case for Nintendo’s JRPG dominance, then maybe a little title called Pokemon X and Y could do so instead. It wasn’t one of the biggest games of the year for no reason.

Nintendo aimed for three of its own JRPGs, and rounded out the bunch by pushing out Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, a quality follow-up to the popular handheld RPG series from AlphaDream. The game was a little long for my taste in handheld JRPGs, but crank through it I did, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I hated it.

If original titles weren’t enough from the halls of Shigeru Miyamoto, then how about Nintendo finally re-releasing Earthbound on the Wii U. We never thought that would happen, but hey… 2013. Year of the JRPG. If not now, then when?

Continuing right along on Nintendo’s popular handheld device, Atlus had a big year with one of the best JRPGs in recent memory, Shin Megami Tensei IV. Don’t expect anything less than a grueling experience from beginning to end. Only the most intense JRPG fans might want to take a bite, but thanks to that challenge, it was the most rewarding 2013 had to offer. Recently JRPGs have been more about the story and simple systems and can be beaten just by sinking time in. The challenge was graciously accepted, Atlus.

Speaking of challenge, Etrian Odyssey also had a big year with not one but two releases. Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan was released earlier in February, and just like Fire Emblem: Awakening and Shin Megami Tensei IV, it survived the onslaught of huge video games to remain on top of my favorite games in 2013 list. Measuring which of the three was the hardest is a difficult task in and of itself, but I walked away from each a broken but renewed man.

The follow-up, Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl, was released in August to just as much fanfare as its predecessor. I haven’t gotten around to it, but it is a remake of the first game in the series with more focus on the story rather than straight up character customization and dungeon crawling. Fans describe it as the best way for newcomers to get involved.

Finally, Atlus also dug through its past like Nintendo did and released Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, an unreleased classic from the SEGA Saturn which never saw the light of day in America. The Nintendo 3DS gave it a second chance at life, and fans were happy to see it hadn’t aged too much over the years to not be enjoyable.

And to send off the Wii, XSEED finally published a localized version of Pandora’s Tower, successfully fulfilling the wishes of Operation Rainfall and closing out the console on a relatively high note. Could 2013 have been the year that Nintendo snatched the genre back from Sony?

Tough to call, really. Sony had a big year too, and what a better way to start off than with Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. It’s hard to believe this Level-5 and Studio Ghibli collaboration was a 2013 game, but it was released on Jan. 22 and set up the stage for what was going to come.

Most of the PlayStation 3 hits this year were so niche that even JRPG fans might not have heard of them. I know half of these passed me by.

Nippon Ichi continued its trend of quirky tales and high-resolution sprite based strategy games with two more hits, Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness and The Guided Fate Paradox. Really digging deep into Nippon Ichi’s library, we also find the incredibly obscure Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory and the unfortunate Time and Eternity. Hey, I never said all of the JRPGs in 2013 were good.

Another title which slipped out early in the year was the latest in Gust’s annual series, Atelier Ayesha: Alchemist of Dusk. As long as it keep making this cheerful series cheaply, and its handful of fans keep buying, Atelier isn’t going to let up anytime soon.

The trend which companies like Gust and Nippon Ichi are showing us is that JRPGs can survive on the PlayStation 3. They can even be made speedily in a cost effective manner, and even if your audience is a marginal niche, the games are still worth making. Who needs big budgets or the PlayStation 4? It’s games like these which will drag out the PlayStation 3’s lifespan. We laugh at how silly some of these games look, but there is no getting around that they make money year in and year out.

Speaking of underdogs, one company is very clearly tired of seeing its series be labeled as anything less than number one. Namco Bandai went on a tear through 2013 and propped up its Tales series as the biggest on the market. Final Fantasy is currently taking a nap, so why not strike when the competition is down and out? Tales of Xillia had the series cross its 13th release, and what a game it was!

Fans around the globe pushed and pushed for its localization, and Namco Bandai could have very well ignored them. Instead, it made a deal with fans, saying they would gladly localize Tales of Xillia 2 if the figures for the first game reach their expectations. Fans obviously responded because Tales of Xillia 2 is scheduled for release next year as the 14th game in the series.

Don’t stop now, because Namco Bandai also announced an HD collection for Tales of Symphonia, the series’ most popular entry, and a new game called Tales of Zestiria, the 15th game in the series, obviously hoping to beat Final Fantasy XV out the door.

Continuing in the strategy of these underdog companies, a short development phase for a quality product is working in Tales‘ favor and it could very well overtake its longtime rival once and for all.

Strong showings from the other guys in 2013, but what about Square Enix? Well, the company mostly focused on recuperating from the damage dealt by Final Fantasy XIV. Square mostly focused on the digital front, rebuilding it from the ground up into Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and, luckily for Square, its new vision has scored it nothing but positive praise.

Fans love Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and not just because it’s a genuinely fun MMORPG. Tucked down in the cracks of the game is everything that makes Final FantasyFinal Fantasy.” This game is bleeding with the lore and spirit that helped the series thrive back in the day, and it gives hope for the future in these dark times. I’m surprised to say it, but Final Fantasy XIV turned out the be the winning RPG of this HD generation.

Who would have thought?

Would you also believe that Final Fantasy XI received an update this year? Square Enix claimed that the game was the most profitable Final Fantasy in history, and why stop such a good thing? Seekers of Adoulin was the last game ever released for the PlayStation 2 in Japan, and both the PC and Xbox 360 versions pushed the game into its eleventh year of operation.

Kingdom Hearts saw a long overdue release, even if it was just an HD port. Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX was released in September to positive press, and it received a small boost in popularity from the announcement of Kingdom Hearts 3 on next-gen consoles.

Sora and his crew have never looked better, and it is finally exciting to be a Kingdom Hearts fan again. Expect an HD port of its sequel to come out next year also.

Capping off Square Enix’s releases were our SNES Final Fantasy classic favorites, Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy VI, all being released on iOS and Android. Only, they are horribly butchered versions hardly worthy of the legacy they hold. More likely than not, they will cause more harm when future generations turn to them for convenience sake and wonder what all the fuss was about.

My memories… what happened?

Would you believe that the most exciting PlayStation JRPG though was on the PS Vita? Like an old man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, Nihon Falcom came out swinging in 2013 to deliver its first universal success in the 30+ years of its existence.

Ys: Memories of Celecta might have finally put the company on the map, earning universal praise from all around the Internet. Fans have praised its fast pace and wonderful old-school charm, meaning it’s finally time for me to pick up a Vita, all because one of the genre’s founders finally has a proven hit.

So yes, thanks to our handhelds, some low budget offerings on the PlayStation 3, and major damage control on Square Enix’s behalf, 2013 was one of the most exciting years for the JRPG genre in a long time, and 2014 is shaping up to be just as exciting. Great titles have been lined up and scattered throughout the year, and I am expecting quite a few announcements as well, cough-Dragon Quest VII-cough.

We’ll get into the upcoming lineup at another time. For now, I was still in high school when I was this excited to be a JRPG fan.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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