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What can Japanese RPG developers learn from Rayman: Origins?


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.

I wish more Japanese RPGs were like Rayman: Origins.

Alright, I'll give you a moment to wrap your brain around that statement, then I'll explain. As most of you know, Rayman: Origins is a completely beautiful platformer that captures everything that is great about the genre -- precise controls, expansive levels, and high challenge. It's at the forefront of the genre's mini-renaissance, which has been ongoing for a few years now.

I want all that for Japanese RPGs. More to the point, I think that it can happen, if only an enterprising publisher or developer were to pick up the baton.

At the moment, I think there's something of a taboo against the classic form, at least among the larger developers. Even Dragon Quest -- long the bastion of reliability -- has been shaking things up with its multiplayer innovations. The unspoken mandate is that the genre must evolve or die.

Not that this is a bad thing. I look at Xenoblade Chronicles, Last Story, and Valkyria Chronicles, and I see ideas that really can move the genre forward. But there's also a great love for the classic 16-bit JRPG that repeated remakes of Final Fantasy IV have only begun to address. What I would like to see is the Rayman: Origins of 16-bit JRPGs -- a big, beautiful love letter to its genre.

There is some precedent for this approach. Back in 2010, for example, Square Enix released Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, which was a tribute of sorts of the 8-bit JRPGs that originally helped to spawn the series. It was true to its roots too, which is to say that it has little to no story, and is really, really hard. Not that difficulty is bad in of itself, but 4 Heroes of Light is also rather notorious for splitting the party for long periods of time. Needless to say, it can be a bit of a grind.

Looking a bit further back, there's also Final Fantasy IX, which has developed a passionate -- even slightly rabid -- cult following over the years. Apart from starring probably the cutest Black Mage ever invented, it's home to a boatload of Final Fantasy references, from the original game to the then-recent 32-bit iterations. Final Fantasy IX is also purported to be Hironobu Sakaguchi's favorite game in the series, which isn't really surprising. It is, after all, the last game to really capture the look and feel of a classic Final Fantasy game.

Lately, handheld systems have been a haven for more traditional JRPGs like Black Sigil: Blade of the Exile and Hexyz Force, but these games were done in either by a ludicrously high encounter rate, or a simple lack of imagination. Rare are the RPGs like the indie title Cthulhu Saves the World, which is both a tribute to and a loving sendup of early 16-bit JRPGs. I wish all RPGs were as clever or charming.

Right now, JRPGs suffer from the popular perception of being archaic and limited to niche-oriented, which happens to be exactly the sort of problem that traditional 2D platformers had during the 32-bit era. Final Fantasy IV, VI, and VII, as well Secret of Mana and even Breath of Fire, still inspire all kinds of love and nostalgia though. The number of people champing at the bit for a Final Fantasy VII remake ought to give you an idea of the power certain classic JRPGs still exercise over the masses.

The game I'm proposing would scratch a different sort of itch, but one that's no less important. In my mind's eye, I see an RPG with a battle system in the mold of something like Final Fantasy IV, with lush 2D graphics. In an ideal world, it would have a sense of humor about itself, and wouldn't be afraid to have a few pokes at the genre's well-worn conventions -- the burning villages, evil religions, and airships that we've all come to know and love. Such a game would fit in rather nicely on Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, or Steam.

I feel like there's a lot of history to exploit here, but that established series have different agendas right now. The Persona and Tales franchises have their own niches to take care of, Final Fantasy is struggling to stay relevant, and Xenoblade and Dragon Quest are more concerned with blazing the path forward. Others, like Hyperdimension Neptunia, are budget releases meant to make as much money as possible at minimum cost.

When I think of 2D platformers like New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Rayman: Origins, I think of the tremendous amount of devotion and love put into them by their designers. Each one is like a little hand-carved statue imbued with the indelible mark of their creator. They employ design techniques that were perfected decades ago, but are nevertheless great fun to play. I look at them, and all I can think is, "Why can't this work for JRPGs?"

I think it can.

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.

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