Building the Mt. Rushmore of Japanese RPG devs

This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.

Here's a question for you: if you were building a Mt. Rushmore for Japanese RPG developers, who would be on it? I'm partly borrowing this idea from sportswriter Bill Simmons, who once sat down to build a "Mt. Rapmore." He, in turn, got the idea from the Internet. So no, this is not a new question, but it does help put the history of the genre in proper perspective. Personally, I love asking myself these questions, because I'm an incorrigible nerd. So let's get to work building our own shrine to JRPGs, shall we?

The first choice is pretty self-evident, I should think. Yuji Hori was not only the scenario writer for Dragon Quest, but an emissary of sorts for all RPGs. With the help of Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, he created a charming adventure that proved to be a terrific fit for the Family Computer.

Of all the candidates for this list, Hori is the one who has managed to stay closest to his roots. Dragon Quest, after all, is the most traditional of Japanese RPG franchises. But that doesn't mean he's bereft of ideas. Dragon Quest IX in particular has taken the genre in some very interesting places in terms of online functionality, and I expect the Wii U's Dragon Quest X to be more interesting still.

So that gives us a representative from Dragon Quest, which means that we need someone from that other pillar of the genre -- Final Fantasy. I think the obvious answer is "Hironobu Sakaguchi," but I'm not so sure that it's the right one. After all, who has done more to define the heart and soul of Final Fantasy than Nobuo Uematsu?

There's Final Fantasy VII's One-Winged Angel, obviously, and the immortal Crystal Theme, both of which continue to resonate through the years. But for me, the best testament to Uematsu's lasting influence came when I wandered over to the student union during a visit to the University of Minnesota, my alma mater, in 2009. While I worked, someone set up shop on the piano and started playing Terra's Theme, then a little later, To Zanarkand, and several other songs from Uematsu's catalog. As soon as he started, all the old memories came flooding back -- playing SNES in high school, borrowing a PS2 to play Final Fantasy X during my Christmas Break... I think that music will be with me forever.

The final two spots are a bit more nebulous. Pokemon's Satoshi Tajiri should probably be on the mountain, and a case could probably be made for Final Fantasy's Akitoshi Kawazu (or even Tetsuya Nomura) as well. But my mind keeps going to Sega's Rieko Kodama, who has been around at least as long as Yuji Horii, and has had a hand in some of the finest JRPGs ever made. Most of you probably know Kodama for her work on Phantasy Star and Skies of Arcadia, but she's worked on plenty of other projects as well, including the underrated 7th Dragon for the Nintendo DS.

Kodama just seems to have an innate sense for what makes a really good RPG. Her worlds are often both whimsical and dramatic, and her games always feature rock solid customization and battle systems. You could even argue that Phantasy Star II had as much of an impact on the development of 16-bit RPGs as Final Fantasy IV, given that they were released around the same time. I only wish that I had been able to experience games like Phantasy Star when they were still new. I imagine they would have had a huge impact on my outlook as a gamer, not the least because the original game had a halfway decent female protagonist on a quest for revenge, which was rare back then. Heck, it's pretty rare now.

So Kodama joins Hori and Uematsu on our Japanese RPG Rushmore, which leaves one more spot. And who better to round out the group than Yasumi Matsuno, director of Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Vagrant Story, and the man who may have more to do with the future of the genre than anyone else on this list? It was Matsuno, after all, who laid the groundwork for Final Fantasy XII, which has had a greater impact on Japanese RPGs than anyone could have guessed.

Final Fantasy XII's troubled development is well-documented, but it also set out to do something very different with the genre. I'm not a huge fan of number twelve myself, not the least because it kind of falls apart in the second half, but I do admire Matsuno's capacity for thinking outside the box. He has a real knack for identifying something he doesn't like about the genre -- finding an interesting alternative to random battles was a biggie for Final Fantasy XII -- and finding an interesting way to rectify it.

You could call Matsuno "the reformer," which I suppose would make him the Teddy Roosevelt to Hori's George Washington. These days, he's working with Goichi Suda on a mini-RPG in conjunction with Level-5 and Grasshopper, but his previous work lives on. Xenoblade Chronicles, in addition to being developed by Tetsuya Takahashi of Xenogears and Xenoblade fame, has been lauded as the heir apparent to Final Fantasy XII. And as it so happens, a copy is sitting on my desk right now.

Assuming Xenoblade Chronicles is as every bit as good as people say, Takahashi will have two classics under his belt, putting him in some rarefied air. Another candidate for our JRPG Rushmore? I guess we'll just have to see.


Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.