I'm sure you've seen the message board posts. Declarations like "well, the mechanics are OK but the story is great" or "the characters suck but I love the combat" are frequently dropped everywhere from NeoGAF to GameFAQs. Gamers have this tendency to turn games into mathematical equations, breaking them into lists of components like "presentation" and "mechanics" and judging each one on its own merits.
The problem with this attitude is that it ignores everything that makes Japanese role-playing games great. When you cut a JRPG into sections, it is resoundingly subpar. Books have better stories. Platformers have more engaging mechanics. Movies have much more elegant presentation.
So why do we play JRPGs? Because the good ones are better than the sum of their parts. A great JRPG captures that feeling of going on an unusual adventure, of bringing a ragtag group of heroes from famine to fortune or steering cold-hearted villagers away from indifference. A great JRPG lets you explore foreign worlds and see extraordinary sights. Maybe you'll overcome near-insurmountable odds to defeat a powerful enemy, or maybe you'll just play card games with college students. It's not the individual components that matter -- it's the overall experience.
Fans of the column might recall that I spent a little time replaying Phantasy Star IV last month and fell back in love with its pacing and charm. Last night I took another few hours and explored the world of Motavia some more, slaying oddly-named monsters and trying to figure out how my gang of weak scrubs would stop Zio, the invulnerable dark wizard who's been wreaking havoc and petrifying people all over the place.
I had a blast. Not because of the combat system, or the dialogue, or the art, or the sounds. Because of the adventure. Because I loved feeling like I was inside Motavia, exploring its villages and protecting its people. Because I wanted to see and hear and play everything.
But I imagine a GameFAQs message board post about the game would go something like this:
MY THOUGHTS ON PHANTASY STAR IV
Graphics: Pixelated, ugly sprites. Can't even see their body proportions. Everything's 2-D. 0/10
Story: Weird aliens, magic. Also, I already know what's going to happen. 0/10
Gameplay: Menu-based combat? Eww. Don't know what spells like "Res" or "Wat" mean. 0/10
Music: Just a bunch of bleeps and bloops. 0/10
Replay Value: No DLC, no New Game+, limited sidequests. 0/10
This is an alarming mentality, and it's something we should take precautions to fight against. When gamers look at games not as overall experiences but as chimeric potpourris of sight and sound, we take too mechanical a perspective and ignore what really makes them special.
There's no formula for a great JRPG. It can star many types of heroes, from a cabal of modern Japanese high school students to a group of washed-up basketball players. Its combat system can be real-time, turn-based, or something in between. It can look like an action movie or an anime.
Some of a JRPG's components might be stunning; others might be heinous. Doesn't really matter. What matters is how the game makes you feel.
Jason Schreier is a freelance writer/editor based out of NYC. He's a contributing writer for Wired.com and occasionally writes for a number of other sites and publications, including Edge Magazine, the Onion News Network and G4TV. You can follow him on Twitter at @jasonschreier.