By Aidan Moher
Formats and Prices
- ebook $11.99 $15.99 CAD
- Trade Paperback $17.99 $22.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 4, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
The Japanese roleplaying game (JRPG) genre is one that is known for bold, unforgettable characters; rich stories, and some of the most iconic and beloved games in the industry. Inspired by early western RPGs and introducing technology and artistic styles that pushed the boundaries of what video games could be, this genre is responsible for creating some of the most complex, bold, and beloved games in history—and it has the fanbase to prove it. In Fight, Magic, Items, Aidan Moher guides readers through the fascinating history of JRPGs, exploring the technical challenges, distinct narrative and artistic visions, and creative rivalries that fueled the creation of countless iconic games and their quest to become the best, not only in Japan, but in North America, too.
Moher starts with the origin stories of two classic Nintendo titles, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, and immerses readers in the world of JRPGs, following the interconnected history from through the lens of their creators and their stories full of hope, risk, and pixels, from the tiny teams and almost impossible schedules that built the foundations of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises; Reiko Kodama pushing the narrative and genre boundaries with Phantasy Star; the unexpected team up between Horii and Sakaguchi to create Chrono Trigger; or the unique mashup of classic Disney with Final Fantasy coolness in Kingdom Hearts. Filled with firsthand interviews and behind-the-scenes looks into the development, reception, and influence of JRPGs, Fight, Magic, Items captures the evolution of the genre and why it continues to grab us, decades after those first iconic pixelated games released.
This book is a guided experience following my journey as a Japanese roleplaying game (Japanese RPG or JRPG) fan. It’s my voice and memories, and those of many fine people I met and spoke with along the way. I am an unreliable narrator, and this story reflects that. When I set out to write the history of JRPGs from a Western perspective, I knew that the most compelling narrative I could tell was one steeped in my own story—my personal history with these video games. This medium encourages us to bring ourselves and our experiences into the games just as they leave their mark on us. I hope this book will help you better understand what it was like starting out as a young JRPG fan in the West in the ’90s and watching the genre’s evolution over the next decades, even if there are paths untraveled or corners important to your own experiences, at the time or since, that are unmarked by my footprints.
Broadly, the history covered in this book follows the emergence of JRPGs on Nintendo’s NES in their homeland during the early ’80s and through their golden age as they moved west to great acclaim and fanfare during the 16- and 32-bit eras (the generations of Nintendo’s Super NES and Sony’s PlayStation, respectively). Then we examine the challenges the genre faced during its dark ages at the dawn of the high-definition (HD) era (with the PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360), explore its migration to handheld systems, and conclude with a look at its nostalgia-fueled resurgence happening now thanks to popular sequels and new games from young creators inspired by the classics and familiar faces alike.
To tell this story, I referenced my own personal history with some of the important games in the genre, conducted interviews with experts—ranging from game developers and writers to journalists, storytellers, and historians—and conducted detailed research of existing essays, reviews, books, and interviews. A list of referenced material can be found at the back of the book.
How I Became a Dragonmaster
As a kid in the ’90s, I fought goblins and demons. I learned new magic spells and traded in old gear for shiny weapons. Raised rebellions, traveled through time, and rode a whale into space. I became the Dragonmaster and the Hero of Light.
Didn’t we all?
Besides being a Dragonmaster, I was an otherwise average Canadian teen. I’d regularly sequester in a dark bedroom with my friends, drenched in the phosphorous glow of a bulky tube TV, punk rock from The Offspring or NOFX drowning out the game’s built-in soundtrack, mutually entranced by the latest video game. We weren’t obsessed with the latest first-person shooter or strategy game. These weren’t Warcraft 2 LAN parties, and we weren’t playing DOOM II deathmatches into the wee hours. We were obsessed with Final Fantasy VI and Xenogears.
The creators of these Japanese roleplaying games (Japanese RPGs or JRPGs) handed me upgraded armor and sharper swords, pitted me against those goblins and dragons, and deemed me Dragonmaster. Like Warcraft 2 fanatics, I’d haul my game console and trusty computer monitor—an already-ancient-at-the-time Commodore 1702—to a friend’s house, where we’d set our tubes back to back (to avoid spoilers, naturally) and play these single-player games for hours. If you’ve got kids or a sibling, you’re familiar with the term “parallel play,” where two young children will play within each other’s vicinity without necessarily acknowledging each other. Gamers do this, too, and those evenings with my friends have become one of my foundational memories.
Our homework neglected, the bus rides to school the following morning were filled with in-depth discussions of our experiences with the JRPG of the month.
“Have you reached that part with Aeris yet?”
“Anyone got tips for the Black Dragon?”
“Hey, dude. Are you done with Xenogears yet? I really want to borrow it.”
As creators of some of the most popular video game franchises of all time in Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii are high on the list of visionaries to have left an immeasurable mark on the world. However, JRPGs like theirs weren’t always popular, and the genre’s rise to mega-popularity in the mid-’90s—as well as their lasting influence on modern games and pop culture—was a long and hard-fought journey.
This book is an exploration of how my experience wasn’t unique, that the special coming-together of Eastern and Western design philosophy, storytelling, history, and pop culture in JRPGs is a shared experience among millions of gamers. Fight, Magic, Items is the story of how JRPGs brought a genre to the masses and reached meteoric success thanks to some of the most brilliant and bold creators in gaming history.
My first exposure to JRPGs was during a visit to my friend’s house. While I chased down Krang in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan on my Nintendo Game Boy, he was moving a squat character around a large, multi-screen map on his in a game called Final Fantasy Legend II. I knew The Legend of Zelda, so the adventure game concept wasn’t strange. And when he let me give it a go, the maps shattered into a double-diamond pattern and were replaced with the static sprite of a cartoonish tiger and a menu with two options: Fight or Run. I was… unimpressed. Who wants to be navigating slow-paced menus when I can be slicing and dicing the Foot Clan with every button press?
The Legend of Zelda
(1986, Nintendo Entertainment System)
Key Staff: Koji Kondo, Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka
Whether The Legend of Zelda and its sequels are JRPGs or not is hotly contested by fans, yet no one can deny its adventurous and far-reaching impact on the genre thanks to its highly explorable world, puzzle-based dungeons, and sword-and-sorcery setting.
Final Fantasy Legend II—from controversial game designer Akitoshi Kawazu—is not the game I’d use to introduce the genre to anyone, especially a platformer-obsessed kid. It was full of opaque gameplay systems, including a complex monster evolution system, that challenged genre newcomers to run before they even knew how to walk. But, at the time, JRPGs were still finding their footing in North America, so there weren’t a lot of JRPGs to choose from on handheld devices—especially the ones I had access to. Sure, it was cool you could take a whole fantasy world on the go, but the moment-to-moment gameplay didn’t fire off any endorphins.
At least, not yet.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later, thanks to one of the most revered JRPGs of all time, that I discovered the beauty of JRPGs, and when the genre finally clicked with me, it became an obsession.
I was the oldest of three brothers, and we were… a lot, growing up. My parents did what any tired parents would do: hired the cool babysitter armed with a cache of video games. We spent most nights playing DOOM, but one time he brought something new and not at all like DOOM’s demon-infested fight for survival. Digitized organ music blared through TV speakers like a harbinger, ushering in a logo in with purple clouds and lightning: Final Fantasy III.
That night we explored the mines of Narshe, fled the Empire’s soldiers, and traveled in a moving castle beneath vast deserts. The bright flash when we stepped onto a glimmering save spot filled me with an indescribable sense of safety that I hadn’t encountered in video games. The games I’d played before were focused on gameplay and conflict, always keeping the player on their toes with a new challenge leaping onto the screen, but this was a story—a book I could play.
I was hooked.
From that point forward, I kept tabs on all the JRPGs I could find in the pages of Game Players, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and Nintendo Power. I longed for the releases that never made it out of Japan and lusted over the games I couldn’t afford at Toys “R” Us. And there was one game that stood above them all, convincing me JRPGs were definitively my thing and every bit as worthwhile as the massive fantasy novels I was contemporaneously falling in love with. That game was Chrono Trigger.
I have vivid memories of reading and re-reading previews and reviews in gaming magazines. I counted down the days until my birthday, months after its official release, when I knew I’d be able to go with my dad to Toys “R” Us for a copy of my very own. I can see myself walking back to the car with the game in the shrink- wrap—finally mine—and reading the manual cover to cover on the long car ride home by the dim glow of passing streetlights.
Where Final Fantasy III caused sparks in the gaming world of the mid ’90s, Chrono Trigger fanned those flames into wildfire. At around the same time, I was also discovering J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara, the trading card game Magic: The Gathering, and Akira Toriyama’s legendary anime Dragon Ball Z. What really caught my attention when I discovered Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI was the way they combined fantasy tropes with science fiction, steampunk, and everything in between in a way that I wasn’t finding in books, but that suited my tastes perfectly. To my younger self, Chrono Trigger was a post-apocalyptic science fiction, a gothic vampire hunt, a tried-and-true medieval fantasy, and an over-the-top shonen anime all at once.
From 1995 on, I lived off epic fantasy novels and JRPGs—immersed in these brilliant worlds that seemed so much more complex and exciting than the real life of a high schooler living in a small island community in British Columbia. My teenage years coincided with what many JRPG fans consider the genre’s golden age—from the mid-’90s emergence of Final Fantasy on the Super NES through the absolute JRPG dominance of Sony’s PlayStation into the early 2000s. It was a heady time to be a JRPG fan with legendary game designers, writers, and artists working at the height of their careers—without a lot of corporate interference and at an absolutely dizzying pace.
When Final Fantasy XV released in 2016, it had been seven years since the previous mainline release in the series, Final Fantasy XIII; however, during the ’90s, fans expected—and received—new entries in the series on a yearly basis. From 1999 to 2001, Final Fantasy VIII, IX, and X were all released a year apart, and the seven previous titles were released over the span of a decade—and that was just Final Fantasy! When you started to add all the other high-caliber JRPGs during that period like Game Arts’ Grandia, Working Designs’ Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, and Namco’s Tales of Destiny, it was like drinking from a fire hydrant. Despite the rapid pace of releases and my meager wallet, I couldn’t get enough.
Some teenagers bonded over games of pickup basketball or late-night Dungeons & Dragons sessions, but for my group of friends, it was these JRPGs that glued us together, even as the combined gravity of high school social politics, dating, and the looming threat of adulthood tried to pull us apart.
“Yeah, dude, I heard you can revive her if you max out all your materia before facing Sephiroth!”
“Did you remember to equip the Dragon Armor before the battle started?”
“I just got to disc two, I think I’m almost done?”
Twenty years later, we still regularly connect over online video games to shoot the breeze from our different corners of the country. Like the PC RPGs that inspired them, JRPGs were (and still are) designed to be a predominantly singular experience, but they proved to be so much more than that—not just for my friend group, but for countless gamers over the years.
Our planet is overwhelmingly huge, and yet the art we create makes it feel like the most tight-knit of communities sometimes. My friends and I couldn’t have been less Japanese if we tried, but something about their cultural approach to video games (along with film and TV) just hit us in the right place at the right time. Before we knew it, fantastical Japanese coming-of-age stories became as foundational to our youth as Tolkien, pickup basketball, and punk rock.
What Is a JRPG?
Put simply, a JRPG is a roleplaying game from Japan.
What separates them from their Western counterparts and where did their histories diverge? Now that requires a more complex answer.
One of the things I find the most remarkable about JRPGs—perhaps what I consider their most definable attribute—is how they’re born of Western roots, but shaped by Japanese myth, themes, motifs, and storytelling modes that, at the time, couldn’t be found in Western media.
A relatively new medium, video games are continuously evolving and redefining their boundaries and doing so at an astonishing pace. Because of video games’ fluid nature, it’s necessary to explore the video game genres adjacent to JRPGs: adventure games, visual novels, and other games that many fans might not consider JRPGs, but undeniably contain elements that helped shape the genre.
All games are in conversation with one another on one level or another. It’s impossible to look at modern JRPGs like Final Fantasy XV and not see the influence of open-world Western RPGs like Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Though all RPGs trace their roots back to Dungeons & Dragons, the way they execute on the RPG concept varies widely. Western RPGs generally hew closer to the tabletop RPG formula with nonlinear adventures that emphasize player choice, whereas JRPGs more commonly focus on linear narrative experiences—almost like a novel. This isn’t to say that JRPGs are strictly linear, as the genre frequently explores different structures, design ideologies, and experimental approaches to RPGs, but I think it’s a decent shorthand to explain the structural divergence between the subgenres.
The core gameplay loop for a JRPG goes something like this: A young, plucky hero (sometimes mute, sometimes verbose, almost always naive) leaves their home in pursuit of (or fleeing from) an evil villain. They assemble an eccentric party of fellow adventurers, each filling a role analogous to the early Dungeons & Dragons classes as they traipse from town to town, pillaging dungeons and powering up by battling monsters, wild animals, and ne’er-do-wells along the way. They eventually defeat the villain during a climactic final battle and consequently save the world. This is reductive, of course, but it’s a popular and reliable framework that has formed the foundation for so many games in the genre from its 8-bit beginnings to today.
1. I appreciate Final Fantasy Legend II’s quirks now specifically because Kawazu, who was part of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s team on the original Final Fantasy, experimented so much with the genre, even compared to other industry pioneers.
2. Can we pour one out for the game manuals of yore? Huge volumes with dozens of full-color pages, meticulously laying out gameplay systems, characters, and beefy walk-throughs for the game’s opening hours. I grieve for all the kids who don’t know the wonder of cracking open a game manual for the first time. It was glorious.
3. Not all the early games in the series made their way over to North America at first, so the publisher maintained a separate title scheme for each region. This was eventually rectified in 1997 when Final Fantasy VII released, and Square retroactively restored the Japanese title scheme to the older releases. They officially changed the name of this entry to Final Fantasy VI with a 1999 rerelease on the PlayStation. From here on out, I’ll be referring to the games in the series by their Japanese titles.
4. What about Final Fantasy XIV, you ask? Well, it is a massively multiplayer online RPG for the PC, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4—with a climatic development history that deserves more than a footnote.
5. I still owe my friend the fifty bucks he loaned me to buy Final Fantasy IX.
To understand JRPGs, you first must step beyond the coastal borders of the archipelago nation to a United States–based gaming convention called Gen Con. It’s there during the late 1960s when two young game designers named Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson first met. A decade later, they would release a game together that changed everything.
“In the mid-’70s, a game was released that could arguably be described as the single most influential game of all time,” said Game Maker’s Toolkit’s Mark Brown. “But it’s not a video game. I’m talking about the unstoppable tabletop roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons.”
The first of its kind, Dungeons & Dragons modeled itself off tabletop miniature war-games with its use of complex rules systems, guidebooks, and dice, but put its own spin on the formula by centering the game on a collaborative narrative created by the players as they play. In many cases campaigns (as they’re called by fans) can last weeks, and some longer ones take years or even decades to finish.
During a game, a Dungeon Master guides Player Characters through an adven-ture by mapping out their quest, providing them with narrative choices, maps, non-player character interaction, dice-driven combat and conflict, and structured guidance. Ask anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons’s first edition, and they’ll tell you it was a total mess. It did, however, establish a template for narrative-driven roleplaying that Gygax and Arneson vastly improved for subsequent editions, and it remains a genre staple for all RPGs—tabletop, digital, or otherwise—decades later.
Around the same time as Dungeons & Dragons’s debut, another group of game designers were creating the world’s first video games for early operating systems like UNIX or University of Illinois’s PLATO. Only, it wasn’t really a different group, according to Brown. “If you were a big enough geek to be messing around with those things,” he said, “you were probably also a big enough geek to be playing [Dungeons & Dragons].”
Dungeons & Dragons soared in popularity, especially once its more refined and accessible Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set was released in 1977. It was so popular that by the ’80s, parents and politicians were in a moral tizzy with the mistaken belief that Dungeons & Dragons was linked to Satanism and dark magic. “The 1980s were prime years for accusations that the game fostered demon worship and a belief in witchcraft,” explained Clyde Haberman for the New York Times. “Some religious figures cast it as corrupting enough to steer impressionable young players toward suicide and murder.”
However, rather than sinking the ship, this pushback lifted Dungeons & Dragons to new heights by driving sales among people who would not have heard about it otherwise. Instead of thousands of players, it now reached millions. And the community kept growing, not because of legitimate ties to the occult, but because it offered a creative social environment that encouraged teamwork, camaraderie, critical thinking, and, foremost, safe fun.
“Dungeons & Dragons saved my life,” wrote Jon Michaud in a New Yorker essay of the same name. Michaud describes a childhood lost to the doldrums of cohabitation with the rec room television, until three brothers down the street introduced him to the game. “I didn’t know it, but I was simply waiting for the right game to come along.”
Michaud’s story is not unique, and thirty-five years later, new players—including his screen-obsessed son—are falling in love with the game every day. Though its popularity has waxed and waned over the years, it has remained one of the bestselling games in the world since its original release. Thanks to the popularity of actual-play shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, the current Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set quadrupled in sales compared to 2018, marking the game’s sixth consecutive year of growth, and 2019 was Dungeons & Dragons’s biggest year on record.
With the popularization of computer games through the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was only natural that video game creators would adapt the tabletop roleplaying game concept. Even in its earliest form, Dungeons & Dragons was an immensely complex game, and it requires a lot of mathematics, memorization, and abstract calculations based on character statistics, guidebook tables, and dice rolls. Though that may all give me a headache, computers are designed to process that sort of information almost instantly. Why keep track of all that game data when the computer can do it for you?
Dungeons & Dragons provided a template for computer-based RPGs, but where the tabletop game was aimed at groups of several players, computer games at the time were generally designed for only one or two. Digitizing the Dungeons & Dragons experience required a new way of thinking about roleplaying game mechanics and narratives. So, rather than centering gameplay around collaborative storytelling, these computer RPGs leveraged simple exposition and worldbuilding, with the bulk of the “story” coming from the gamer’s unique experiences within the game world.
Legendary game designer Richard Garriott credited Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons not only for his own career, but for changing the direction of the entire gaming industry. “Millions upon millions of players around the world live and play in imaginary worlds built on the back of what Gary first conceived,” he said following Gygax’s passing in 2008, as reported by 1UP.com.
The very first computer-based RPGs—like Don Daglow’s Dungeon or Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood’s dnd—offered the first glimpse of the potential for digital roleplaying games, but they were locked away on expensive mainframe computers and were out of reach for most players. It would be Garriott’s Ultima that offered something even more compelling than a Dungeons & Dragons–inspired roleplaying experience: accessibility. Subsequently, this emphasis on reaching new players allowed people to enjoy Ultima
- "A wondrous in-depth look at the history of Japanese role playing games.”—Engadget
- "Aidan Moher has literally written the book on Japanese role-playing games.”—ComicBook.com
- “A work that will resonate with many of us who grew up with the genre and watched its rise as we ourselves grew into adulthood.”—RPGFan
- "A fun, fascinating exploration of the medium’s most magical genre.”—Nicholas Eames, author of Kings of the Wyld
- "Informative, personal, and fascinating, this book earns its place among deep dives into video-game history.”—Mary Kenney, author of Gamer Girls
- "Fight, Magic, Items is the intricate deep dive that the JRPG genre deserves.”—Daniel Dockery, author of Monster Kids
- "Strong research that’s fun to read, alongside moving anecdotes and nostalgia? Take my money.”—Andy Campbell, author of We Are Proud Boys and Senior Editor at Huffington Post
- On Sale
- Oct 4, 2022
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Running Press