Japanese computer role-playing games
Origins (early 1980s)
While the Japanese video game industry has long been viewed as console-centric in the Western world, due to the worldwide success of Japanese consoles beginning with the NES, the country had in fact produced thousands of commercial personal computer games from the late 1970s up until the mid-1990s, in addition to dōjin soft independent games. The country's computer market was very fragmented at first; Lode Runner, for example, reportedly required 34 conversions to different hardware platforms. The market eventually became dominated by the NEC PC-8801 and PC-9801, though with some competition from the Sharp X1 and X68000; FM-7 and FM Towns; and MSX and MSX2. A key difference between Western and Japanese systems at the time was the latter's higher display resolutions (640x400) in order to accommodate Japanese text which in turn influenced game design. Japanese computers also employed Yamaha FM synthesis sound boards since the early 1980s, allowing video game music composers such as Yuzo Koshiro to produce highly regarded chiptune music for RPG companies such as Nihon Falcom. Due to hardware differences, only a small portion of Japanese computer games were released in North America, as ports to either consoles (like the NES or Genesis) or American PC platforms (like MS-DOS). The Wizardry series (translated by ASCII Entertainment) became popular and influential in Japan, even more so than at home. Early Japanese RPGs were also influenced by visual novel adventure games, which were developed by companies such as Enix, Square, Nihon Falcom and Koei before they moved onto developing RPGs. In the 1980s, Japanese developers produced a diverse array of creative, experimental computer RPGs, like a Cambrian explosion, prior to mainstream titles such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy eventually cementing genre tropes by the 1990s.
Japan's earliest RPGs were released in 1982. The earliest was Koei's Underground Exploration, released in March 1982. It was followed by Pony Canyon's Spy Daisakusen, released in April 1982; based on the Mission: Impossible franchise, it replaced the traditional fantasy setting with a modern espionage setting. It was then followed by Koei's The Dragon and Princess (ドラゴン＆プリンセス) for the PC-8001 in 1982; it featured adventure game elements and revolved around rescuing a kidnapped princess. Following a random encounter, the game transitions from a text adventure interface to a separate, graphical, overhead battle screen, where a tactical turn-based combat system is used. Also in 1982, Koei released another early Japanese RPG, Danchizuma no Yuwaku (Seduction of the Condominium Wife), a PC-8001 title that also featured adventure game elements in addition to eroge adult content. These early experimental Japanese RPGs from 1982 are considered "proto-JRPGs" and predated the arrival of Wizardry and Ultima in Japan.
In June 1983, Koei released Sword & Sorcery (剣と魔法) for the PC-8001, and it also revolved around rescuing a princess in addition to killing a wizard. That same year, Koei released Secrets of Khufu (クフ王の秘密), a dungeon crawl RPG that revolved around a search for the treasure of Khufu. ASCII released its own RPG that year called Arfgaldt (アスキー), an FM-7 title also featuring adventure game elements.
Also in 1983, Nihon Falcom released Panorama Toh (Panorama Island) for the PC-88. It was developed by Yoshio Kiya, who would go on to create the Dragon Slayer and Brandish series of action RPGs. While its RPG elements were limited, lacking traditional statistical or leveling systems, the game featured real-time combat with a gun, bringing it close to the action RPG formula that Falcom would later be known for. The game's desert island overworld also featured a day-night cycle, non-player characters the player could attack or converse with, and the need to survive by finding and consuming rations to restore hit points lost with each normal action.
The trend of combining role-playing elements with arcade-style action mechanics was popularized by The Tower of Druaga, an arcade game released by Namco in June 1984. While the RPG elements in Druaga were very subtle, its success in Japan inspired the near-simultaneous development of three early action role-playing games, combining Druaga's real-time hack-and-slash gameplay with stronger RPG mechanics, all released in late 1984: Dragon Slayer, Courageous Perseus, and Hydlide. A rivalry developed between the three games, with Dragon Slayer and Hydlide continuing their rivalry through subsequent sequels. Nihon Falcom's Dragon Slayer, released in 1984, is a historically significant title that helped lay the foundations for the Japanese role-playing game industry. It was a real-time hack & slash dungeon crawler that is considered the first action role-playing game. Dragon Slayer was a major success in Japan, and contributed to the emergence of a distinct action role-playing game subgenre on Japanese computers during the mid-1980s, with Nihon Falcom at the forefront of this new subgenre. Hydlide, an action RPG released for the PC-8801 in 1984 and the Famicom in 1986, was an early open world game, rewarding exploration in an open world environment. It also added several innovations to the action RPG subgenre, including the ability to switch between attack mode and defense mode, quick save and load options which can be done at any moment of the game through the use of passwords as the primary back-up, and the introduction of a health regeneration mechanic where health and magic slowly regenerate when standing still, a feature also used in Falcom's Ys series from 1987 onwards. The Tower of Druaga, Dragon Slayer and Hydlide were influential in Japan, where they laid the foundations for the action RPG genre, influencing titles such as Ys and The Legend of Zelda.
Also in 1984, The Black Onyx, developed by Bullet-Proof Software, led by Henk Rogers, was released on the PC-8801 in Japan. It became one of the best-selling computer games at the time and was voted Game of the Year by Login, the largest Japanese computer game magazine at the time. The game is thus credited for bringing wider attention to computer role-playing games in the country. In early 1984, Mugen no Shinzou (Heart of Fantasy) featured a large open world. The cyberpunk RPG Psychic City, released by HOT・B for the FM-7 and PC-8801 in 1984, departed from the fantasy theme common in other RPGs at the time (such as Hydlide and The Black Onyx) in favour of a science fiction plot, set in a post-apocalyptic city devastated by World War III and where the protagonist fights using psychic/telepathic abilities. The game later served as the basis for the 1987 NES RPG Hoshi wo Miru Hito.
Dragon Slayer's success led to a 1985 sequel Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu, which became the best-selling PC game in Japan. It was a full-fledged RPG with character stats and a large quest, with action-based combat setting it apart from other RPGs, including both melee combat and projectile magic attacks, while incorporating a side-scrolling platform game view during exploration and an overhead view during battle. Xanadu also featured innovative gameplay mechanics such as individual experience for equipped items, and an early Karma morality system, where the player character's Karma meter will rise if he commits sin which in turn affects the temple's reaction to him. It is also considered a "proto-Metroidvania" game, due to being an "RPG turned on its side" that allowed players to run, jump, collect, and explore. The way the Dragon Slayer series reworked the entire game system of each installment was an influence on Final Fantasy, which would do the same for each of its installments. According to GamesTM and John Szczepaniak (of Retro Gamer and The Escapist), Enix's Dragon Quest was also influenced by Dragon Slayer and in turn defined many other RPGs. Falcom would soon become one of the three most important Japanese role-playing game developers in the 1980s, alongside Enix and Square, both of which were influenced by Falcom.
Hydlide II: Shine of Darkness in 1985 featured an early morality meter, where the player can be aligned with justice, normal, or evil, which is affected by whether the player kills evil monsters, good monsters, or humans, and in turn affects the reactions of the townsfolk towards the player. Magical Zoo's The Screamer, released for the PC-8801 in 1985, was an early example of a real-time shooter-based RPG. Set after World War III, the game also featured elements of post-apocalyptic science fiction as well as cyberpunk and bio-horror themes. Square also released their first RPG that same year, which was an early futuristic sci-fi RPG for the PC-8801, Genesis: Beyond The Revelation, featuring a post-apocalyptic setting. Other sci-fi RPGs released in 1985 include The Earth Fighter Rayieza by Enix, and Kogado Studio's MSX game Cosmic Soldier, which introduced an early dialogue conversation system, where the player can recruit allies by talking to them, choose whether to kill or spare an enemy, and engage enemies in conversation, similar to the later more famous Megami Tensei.
Golden Age (late 1980s–early 1990s)
The late 1980s to early 1990s is considered the golden age of Japanese computer gaming, which would flourish until its decline around the mid-1990s, as consoles eventually dominated the Japanese market. A notable Japanese computer RPG from around this time was WiBArm, the earliest known RPG to feature 3D polygonal graphics. It was a 1986 role-playing shooter released by Arsys Software for the PC-88 in Japan and ported to MS-DOS for Western release by Brøderbund. In WiBArm, the player controls a transformable mecha robot, switching between a 2D side-scrolling view during outdoor exploration to a fully 3D polygonal third-person perspective inside buildings, while bosses are fought in an arena-style 2D shoot 'em up battle. The game featured a variety of weapons and equipment as well as an automap, and the player could upgrade equipment and earn experience to raise stats. Unlike first-person RPGs at the time that were restricted to 90-degree movements, WiBArm's use of 3D polygons allowed full 360-degree movement.
Another 1986 release was Falcom's Xanadu Scenario II, an early example of an expansion pack. The game was non-linear, allowing the eleven levels to be explored in any order. Dragon Slayer Jr: Romancia simplified the RPG mechanics of Xanadu, such as removing the character customization and simplifying the numerical statistics into icons, and emphasized faster-paced platform action, with a strict 30-minute time limit. The action took place entirely in a side-scrolling view rather than switching to a separate overhead combat screen like its predecessor. These changes Romancia more like a side-scrolling action-adventure game. Square's 1986 release, Cruise Chaser Blassty, was a sci-fi RPG that had the player control a customizable mecha robot from a first-person view. That same year also saw the arcade release of the sequel to The Tower of Druaga, The Return of Ishtar, an early action RPG to feature two-player cooperative gameplay, dual-stick control in single player, a female protagonist, the first heroic couple in gaming, and the first password save system in an arcade game.
In 1987, Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family (Legacy of the Wizard) returned to the deeper action-RPG mechanics of Xanadu while maintaining the fully side-scrolling view of Romancia. It also featured an open world and nonlinear gameplay similar to "Metroidvania" platform-adventures, making Drasle Family an early example of a non-linear, open-world action RPG. Another "Metroidvania" style open-world action RPG released that year was System Sacom's Sharp X1 computer game Euphory, which was possibly the only Metroidvania-style multiplayer action RPG produced, allowing two-player cooperative gameplay. The fifth Dragon Slayer title, Sorcerian, was also released in 1987. It was a party-based action RPG, with the player controlling a party of four characters at the same time in a side-scrolling view. The game also featured character creation, highly customizable characters, class-based puzzles, and a new scenario system, allowing players to choose which of 15 scenarios, or quests, to play through in the order of their choice. It was also an episodic video game, with expansion disks released soon after offering more scenarios. Falcom also released the first installment of its popular, long-running Ys series in 1987. Besides Falcom's own Dragon Slayer series, Ys was also influenced by Hydlide, from which it borrowed certain mechanics such as health-regeneration when standing still, a mechanic that has since become common in video games today. Ys was also a precursor to RPGs that emphasize storytelling, and it is known for its 'bump attack' system, where the protagonist Adol automatically attacks when running into enemies off-center, making the game more accessible and the usually tedious level-grinding task more swift and enjoyable for audiences at the time. The game also had what is considered to be one of the best and most influential video game music soundtracks of all time, composed by Yuzo Koshiro and Mieko Ishikawa. In terms of the number of game releases, Ys is second only to Final Fantasy as the largest Eastern role-playing game franchise.
Hydlide 3: The Space Memories, released for the MSX in 1987 and for the Mega Drive as Super Hydlide in 1989, adopted the morality meter of its predecessor, expanded on its time option with the introduction of an in-game clock setting day-night cycles and a need to sleep and eat, and made other improvements such as cut scenes for the opening and ending, a combat system closer to The Legend of Zelda, the choice between four distinct character classes, a wider variety of equipment and spells, and a weight system affecting the player's movement depending on the overall weight of the equipment carried. That same year, Kogado Studio's sci-fi RPG Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War featured a unique "tug of war" style real-time combat system, where battles are a clash of energy between the party and the enemy, with the player needing to push the energy towards the enemy to strike them, while being able to use a shield to block or a suction ability to absorb the opponent's power. It also featured a unique non-linear conversation system, where the player can recruit allies by talking to them, choose whether to kill or spare an enemy, and engage enemies in conversation, similar to Megami Tensei. Also in 1987, the survival horror game
Shiryou Sensen: War of the Dead, an MSX2 title developed by Fun Factory and published by Victor Music Industries, was the first true survival horror RPG. Designed by Katsuya Iwamoto, the game revolved around a female SWAT member Lila rescuing survivors in an isolated monster-infested town and bringing them to safety in a church. It was open-ended like Dragon Quest and had real-time side-view battles like Zelda II. Unlike other RPGs at the time, however, the game had a dark and creepy atmosphere expressed through the story, graphics, and music, while the gameplay used shooter-based combat and gave limited ammunition for each weapon, forcing the player to search for ammo and often run away from monsters in order to conserve ammo. That same year saw the release of Laplace no Ma, another hybrid of survival horror and RPG, though with more traditional RPG elements such as turn-based combat. It was mostly set in a mansion infested with undead creatures, and the player controlled a party of several characters with different professions, including a scientist who constructs tools and a journalist who takes pictures.
In 1988, Arsys Software's Star Cruiser was an innovative action RPG released for the PC-8801. It was notable for being an early example of an RPG with fully 3D polygonal graphics, combined with first-person shooter gameplay, which would occasionally switch to space flight simulator gameplay when exploring outer space with six degrees of freedom. All the backgrounds, objects and opponents in the game were rendered in 3D polygons, many years before they were widely adopted by the video game industry. The game also emphasized storytelling, with plot twists and extensive character dialogues, taking place in a futuristic science fiction setting. It won the 1988 Game of the Year awards from the Japanese computer game magazines POPCOM and Oh!X. Star Cruiser was later ported to the Mega Drive console in 1990. Another 1988 release, Last Armageddon, produced for the PC-8801 and later ported to the PC Engine CD and NES consoles in 1990, featured a unique post-apocalyptic storyline set in a desolate future where humanity has become extinct and the protagonists are demon monsters waging war against an alien species. The Scheme, released by Bothtec for the PC-8801 in 1988, was an action RPG with a similar side-scrolling open-world gameplay to Metroid. That same year, Ys II introduced the unique ability to transform into a monster, which allows the player to both scare human non-player characters for unique dialogues as well as interact with all the monsters. This is a recurring highlight in the series, offering the player insight into the enemies, to an extent that very few other games allow to this day. Also that same year, War of the Dead Part 2 for the MSX2 and PC-88 abandoned certain RPG elements of its predecessor, such as random encounters, and instead adopted more action-adventure elements from Metal Gear while retaining the horror atmosphere of its predecessor.
1988 also saw the debut of Telenet Japan's Exile, a series of action-platform RPGs, beginning with XZR: Idols of Apostate. The series was controversial for its plot, which revolves around a time-traveling Crusades-era Syrian Islamic Assassin who assassinates various religious/historical figures as well as modern-day political leaders, with similarities to the present-day Assassin's Creed action game series. The gameplay of Exile included both overhead exploration and side-scrolling combat, featured a heart monitor to represent the player's Attack Power and Armour Class statistics, and another controversial aspect of the game involved taking drugs (instead of potions) that increase/decrease attributes but with side-effects such as affecting the heart-rate or causing death. An early attempt at incorporating a point-and-click interface in a real-time overhead action RPG was Silver Ghost, a 1988 NEC PC-8801 game by Kure Software Koubou. It was an action-strategy RPG where characters could be controlled using a cursor. It was cited by Camelot Software Planning's Hiroyuki Takahashi as inspiration for the Shining series of tactical RPGs. According to Takahashi, Silver Ghost was "a simulation action type of game where you had to direct, oversee and command multiple characters." Unlike later tactical RPGs, however, Silver Ghost was not turn-based, but instead used real-time strategy and action role-playing game elements. A similar game released by Kure Software Koubou that same year was
First Queen, a unique hybrid between a real-time strategy, action RPG, and strategy RPG. Like an RPG, the player can explore the world, purchase items, and level up, and like a strategy video game, it focuses on recruiting soldiers and fighting against large armies rather than small parties. The game's "Gochyakyara" ("Multiple Characters") system let the player control one character at a time while the others are controlled by computer AI that follow the leader, and where battles are large-scale with characters sometimes filling an entire screen.
Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes in 1989 departed from the action-oriented gameplay of previous Dragon Slayer titles, and instead used a more traditional turn-based combat system. In 1990, Data East's Gate of Doom was an arcade action RPG that combined beat 'em up fighting gameplay with fantasy role-playing and introduced an isometric perspective. That same year, Enix released a unique biological simulation action RPG by Almanic that revolved around the theme of evolution, 46 Okunen Monogatari, a revised version of which was released in 1992 as E.V.O.: Search for Eden. That same year, Alpha Denshi's Crossed Swords for the arcades combined the first-person beat 'em up gameplay of SNK's The Super Spy (released the same year) with RPG elements, while replacing the first-person shooting with hack & slash combat. Also in 1990, Hideo Kojima's SD Snatcher, while turn-based, abandoned random encounters and introduced an innovative first-person shooter-based battle system where firearm weapons (each with different abilities and target ranges) have limited ammunition and the player can aim at specific parts of the enemy's body with each part weakening the enemy in different ways; an auto-battle feature could also be enabled. Such a battle system has rarely been used since, though similar battle systems based on targeting individual body parts can later be found in Square's Vagrant Story (2000), Bethesda's Fallout 3 (2008), and Nippon Ichi's Last Rebellion (2010).
In 1991, Nihon Falcom's Brandish was an early overhead action RPG to use mouse controls, where the player could move forward, backward, turn, strafe and attack by clicking on boxes surrounding the player character. The 1991 Dragon Slayer title Lord Monarch departed from the action RPG gameplay of its predecessors, instead using an early form of real-time strategy gameplay. The erotic adult RPG Dragon Knight III, released in 1991 for the PC-8801 and as Knights of Xentar for MS-DOS, introduced a unique pausable real-time battle system, where characters automatically attack based on a list of different AI scripts, though this meant the player had no control over the characters during battle other than to give commands for spells, item use, and AI routines. That same year, Arcus Odyssey by Wolf Team (now Namco Tales Studio) was an action RPG that featured an isometric perspective and co-operative multiplayer gameplay. The sequel to the first-person shooter role-playing game Star Cruiser, simply called Star Cruiser 2, was released in 1992, for the PC-9821 and FM Towns computers. T&E Soft released the PC-98 game Sword World PC in 1992 and a console version Sword World SFC for the Super Famicom in 1993. It was officially based on Sword World RPG, a popular Japanese table-top role-playing game. The video game versions were multiplayer titles and early attempts at recreating an open-ended, table-top role-playing experience on video game platforms, being set in the same world as Sword World and implementing the same rules and scenarios. Wolf Team's Dark Kingdom, released for the PC-98 in 1992 and ported to the SNES console in 1994, featured a unique storyline that revolved around the players conquering the world as a villain instead of saving the world.
Decline and independent titles (late 1990s–2000s)
From the mid-1990s, the Japanese computer game industry began declining. This was partly due to the death of the NEC PC-9801 computer format, as the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation became increasingly powerful in the console market while the computer market became increasingly dominated by the IBM Personal Computer and Microsoft Windows 95. This led to many Japanese PC manufacturers either continuing to develop for Windows 95 or moving over to the more lucrative console market. While most developers turned their attention to the console market, some developers dedicated to content unsuitable for consoles (such as eroge and complex military strategy games) continued their focus on the PC market.
In 1996, Night Slave was a shooter RPG released for the PC-98 that combined the side-scrolling shooter gameplay of Assault Suits Valken and Gradius, including an armaments system that employs recoil physics, with many RPG elements such as permanently levelling up the mecha and various weapons using power-orbs obtained from defeating enemies as well as storyline cut scenes. These cut scenes also occasionally contain lesbian adult content.
Lastly, in the late 1990s, a new Internet fad began, owing to simplistic software development kits such as the Japanese RPG Maker series (1988 onwards). Influenced by console RPGs and based mostly on the gameplay and style of the SNES and Sega Genesis games, a large group of young programmers and aficionados across the world began creating independent console-style computer RPGs and sharing them online. An early successful example was Corpse Party (1996), a survival horror indie game created using the RPG Maker engine. Much like the survival horror adventure games Clock Tower (1995 onwards) and later Haunting Ground (2005), the player characters in Corpse Party lack any means of defending themselves; the game also featured up to 20 possible endings. However, the game would not be released in Western markets until 2011. In an interview with GameDaily in 2007, MTVN's Dave Williams remarked that, "Games like this [user generated] have been sort of under the radar for something that could be the basis of a business. We have the resources and we can afford to invest more... I think it's going to be a great thing for the consumer."
Steam and resurgence (2010s)
In the 2010s, Japanese RPGs have been experiencing a resurgence on PC, with a significant increase in the number of Japanese RPGs releasing for the Steam platform. This began with the 2010 release of doujin/indie game Recettear (2007) for Steam, selling over 500,000 units on the platform. This led to many Japanese doujin/indie games releasing on Steam in subsequent years.
Beyond doujin/indie titles, 2012 was a breakthrough year, with the debut of Nihon Falcom's Ys series on Steam and then the Steam release of From Software's Dark Souls, which sold millions on the platform. Other Japanese RPGs were subsequently ported to Steam, such as the previously niche Valkyria Chronicles which became a million-seller on the platform, and other titles that sold hundreds of thousands on Steam, such as the 2014 localization of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (2014) and ports of numerous Final Fantasy titles. Japanese developers have been increasingly considering Steam as a viable platform for the genre, with many Japanese RPGs available on the platform.
By 2015, Japan had become the world's fourth largest PC game market, behind only China, the United States, and South Korea. The Japanese game development engine RPG Maker has also gained significant popularity on Steam, including hundreds of commercial games. Every year, hundreds of games released on Steam are created using RPG Maker, as of 2017.