Due to the subject matter, this article may be slightly NSFW. Nothing too dirty, but you might get some raised eyebrows. Just so you know.
There have been three ages for the JRPG.
The first epoch for the JRPG was the light, breezy era of Dragon Quest (Warrior). This, arguably the prehistoric era of the JRPG, was a time when grand stories were condensed into a series of vignettes across a fantasy world. This town has a kidnapped princess. This town is besieged by zombies. This town used to be mermaids or some such thing. Whatever. In a way, this was a natural progression of the D&D roots of JRPGs, as the whole “king has a quest (and rewards) for you” pattern certainly has its roots in venturing into an inn to meet other adventurers.
Easy examples of this style include practically every JRPG on the NES, SNES, and Genesis. While I maintain that Chrono Trigger is the undisputed pinnacle of this category (and is such because it integrates the vignettes perfectly with its time travel mechanics), you still see similar games today with the continuing Dragon Quest series and other “throwback” JRPGs.
The second epoch started with either Final Fantasy 6 or Final Fantasy 7, though it was certainly codified by FF7. Now, JRPGs were all about being gigantic, 40 hour narratives that could (or hoped to) rival classical literature. This was the age of Xenogears, Xenosaga, and later Personas. This was a time when even more action-oriented games like Kingdom Hearts wanted to leech off the “epic” feeling that defined the genre. When people think of the modern JRPG, they’re likely thinking of FF7’s descendants, with their clearly defined characters and occasionally ambitious stories.
For an easy example of “the switch” from phase one to phase two, play Final Fantasy 2 for the SNES, and then try its remake, Final Fantasy 4 DS. Both games feature basically the same story, but you’re going to get a lot more detail on Cecil’s relationships, Golbez’s motivations, and Edbard’s singing career in the latter.
Unfortunately, the Epic Era of the JRPG proved to be unsustainable. The larger-than-life tales of the Playstation era proceeded to the larger-than-budget events of the Playstation 2, and, by the time we hit the Playstation 3, a number of JRPG franchises died on the vine or retreated to the shelter of the handheld market to hopefully recoup some losses. It’s one thing to have a middle of the line JRPG that doesn’t really get the public’s attention, but it’s another thing when that same JRPG cost the gross national product of Ecuador to produce. Nowadays, you only see this kind of excess in the Final Fantasy series, and, even then, it’s supported by seventeen different special editions, a tie-in movie, and the option to donate your child to the Squeenix mines to help cover the next installment. It’s… not the best state of affairs.
But the genie is out of the bottle. JRPG became synonymous with “novel amounts of dialogue”, and no one really stopped to consider how all that writing existed to actually serve the plot, and not just hit some arbitrary word count. The producers of JRPGs seemed to want to retreat to the world of Phase One, and go back to “here’s a neat battle system, now go save the princess”, but feared their audience would summarily abandon the genre if not for reams of conversation every time a new character appeared.
What to do? The answer to this quandary was, obviously, boobs.
Phase Three JRPGs were so close to being something clever. We had years (years!) of JRPGs that took themselves deathly seriously. In a world where you could summon a dragon that could literally nuke entire countries from the moon, there was somehow a days-long chase between two random dudes with swords that was primarily based on both guys having significant mommy issues. In other words, the entire genre was ripe for parody, and a perfect solution to the “epic” problem would be to produce a series of JRPGs that deliberately enjoyed themselves and didn’t have to rely on endless cinema scenes. You want to have twenty hours of dialogue that goes nowhere? Why not get some actual comedy writers on the team? It worked for Shadow Hearts, right?!
Unfortunately, while that idea flourished with Capcom’s favorite lawyer and a ghastly illusion, we didn’t ever get the “Monkey Island of JRPGs”. What we did get was a glut of games that were based primarily on the male libido. Want a JRPG on the Playstation 4? Great! Here’s one where there’s incidentally an achievement for positioning the camera juuuust right for an upskirt view. Here’s a tactical JRPG starring a gang of particularly well-endowed twelve year olds. You want more? Well I bet you’re going to play these 700 Neptunia games with one hand, because get ready to drool over the busty personification of an Xbox. Doesn’t that sound hot?
Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier, luckily, isn’t nearly as bad as some of the examples in the previous paragraph, but it’s definitely at the forefront of Phase 3 thinking. SRTOGS:EF is the human based, JRPG spinoff of the popular robot TRPG series, Super Robot Wars, and gained an extra producer, Monolith Soft, in the jump from the main franchise. Practically from the beginning, the “crossover” nature of this title guaranteed a more tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the Super Robot Wars universe, and, with all the random humans (basically) running about, this could have been an amusing SD Gundam for Super Robot Wars.
And it came close! Haken Browning answers the question of what would happen if you decided to make that scumbag Gambit the star of the show, and his bipolar robot sidekick has some potential. Mix in a naïve princess and the typical looks-younger-than-you-think mentor character, and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for hijinks. There’s also a plot that involves entire countries being tricked by random cat dudes, an exploitative merchant or two, and I’m pretty sure there’s an Alice in Wonderland reference, too. It all works pretty well!
Except… well… I made this chart…
There’s a pretty interesting story in there about a man discovering himself, a ruler learning the full extent of her duty, and a world on the cusp of war, but that’s not what matters in Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier. What matters is that, with very little exaggeration, every dialogue scene must include at least three references to breasts. Those jugs are too big, that character is too flat, and, oh man, here’s a character that’s some kind of cow-man, you know that’s going to lead to some “milking” jokes. I don’t think a single character escapes without a comment on their physique, and you better believe the disproportionately large female cast isn’t there is on account of feminism. Here’s your party, start ogling!
And speaking of which, I want to be clear that the problem here doesn’t lie with the good folks on the Atlus translation team. These characters were clearly created from the get-go for titillation. You’ve got the enormously busty “main girl”, the split personality mother/bimbo woman, “I look like a twelve year old but I’m actually a century old” fan dancer, ditzy neophyte that comments on everyone else’s chests, emotionless robot wearing a garter, and a fox girl, because what’s the point in being alive if you can’t get the furry vote? There’s no way to interpret that lineup without it being clear that you’re dealing with some kind of fetish list. In fact, I’d argue that the only woman in the entire cast that seems to be built for anything other than (straight male) arousal is an enemy general that has about six lines of dialogue… but then again, she’s got wings, so it might be some kind of deliberate angel/devil thing going on. Argh.
But even with the sins against basic anatomy that is the cast of this game, the sheer amount of useless talky talky here is absurd. If all the dialogue relating to breasts was cut from this game, you’d probably be left with about six conversations. It would be very dull, but it would be a lean, focused game with a fun combat system and a smattering of colorful characters. And… that might not be a bad thing. Unfortunately, what we have is a reminder every ten seconds that you’re supposed to be leering at this teenager’s chest. Even if that was something I wanted from a videogame (or anything), it gets old after its 20th instance, left alone the 20,000th time it’s mentioned.
For a game that was released in 2008 (well, 2009 in NA), it was downright prescient regarding the next decade of its Phase 3 brethren. Your choices today are JRPGs made by dedicated fans of the “old days” of the genre, Final Fantasy Spin-Off #4321, Dragon Warrior, or “All Boobs, All the Time”. And of those choices, guess which one gets sequel after sequel? Here’s a hint: it’s the one that involves a hot springs scene.
Sex doesn’t just sell, it dominates, and it looks like it’s going to be a long time before JRPGs stop being such a sub. What was the safe word, again?
FGC #182 Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier
- System: Nintendo DS, home of many refugee JRPGs.
- Number of players: Just one (probably lonely male).
- Just to clear: There is nothing wrong with getting your rocks off to rock monsters. If you can only get an erection while cycling through a magic menu, that’s totally fine. However, my big beef here is that this “let’s talk about breasts all the time” has completely dominated the genre at the expense of everything else, and, what’s more, it’s entirely heterosexual male based. Even being a heterosexual male, I have a hard time enjoying something when it involves such naked pandering.
- Crossover Appeal: The hook of the Endless Frontier world is that it’s connected to other points in space and time, so the possibilities for different characters are “endless”. Unfortunately, aside from some refugees from Xenosaga and Namco X Capcom, not much is done with the concept, and you basically just get oni girls playing with giant robots. Oh, and not-Han Solo, for some reason.
- Favorite Character: God help me, I actually like Suzuka, the fan-dancing “ancient twelve year old”. I know this is just pandering to the lolita otaku market, but she’s also the only character that seems consistently capable of sarcasm, and her “fan dance to control a giant (small) robot” attacks at least seem innovative. I’ll take her over “robot that punches things” any day.
- Speaking of Pandering: Alright, I know the whole “baby talk” thing has been a weird turn on for a lot of men for years (citation: one 30 Rock episode), but if you ever need to tell if some piece of media is built to appeal to the male ID, take note of how many characters fit the mold of “strong female character, but incidentally acts like an airhead due to kooky circumstances”. I’m sure there’s a more concise term for this phenomenon, but look no further than DC Comic’s recent output and particularly Harley Quinn for another easy example.
- Did you know? There was a sequel released for DS titled Super Robot Wars OG Saga: Endless Frontier Exceed… but it never made it out of Japan. Just as well, as judging by screenshots, it would probably be another one-handed adventure…
- Would I play again: No, but I rarely replay JRPGs. Honestly, like I mentioned earlier, if you cut out the gross pandering, this game wouldn’t be all that bad. I like the juggling combat system, the characters are likeable, and there are regular-sized robots to keep things interesting. It’s not a bad game, it’s just a little… weighed down.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Super Punch-Out! Ha ha, now we’ve got a game with no female characters. Well, I guess that’s one way to avoid pandering. But we’ve got stereotypes! Please look forward to it!