Food for Thought: Are Handhelds the Future of JRPGs?

I recently had a discussion with a friend about the latest games we’ve been playing. From my end, the primary focus has been handhelds, most notably Dragon Quest IX for the DS and a port of PS1’s Vagrant Story for PSP/PSN. I’ve logged in 108 hours on DQIX and still haven’t finished it, which is probably the most replay value I’ve gotten out of any game in years (since 2004 with Tales of Syphmonia to be exact). There’s just something about these RPGs that remind of the old SNES and PS1 days, a sense of charm that’s extremely hard to replicate in this day and age. Note that I’m not a big DQ fan either, as the 8th installment was my first entry into the series. My friend preceded to tell me of another discussion he had with his cousin, who is a huge RPG fan like me. It’s something that I’ve known subconsciously yet rarely stated in this site: handhelds are truly the future of JRPGs. Then, I managed to complete my friend’s sentence, almost as if his cousin and I communicated telepathically, “after Lost Odyssey, console JRPGs have been dead to me. It’s the last one that managed to channel the charm of the old days while keeping modern production values high”. My friend said that his cousin said those exact same words.

Call me old-school but this is what I truly think. Until MistWalker manages to release The Last Story overseas, name me one current-gen console JRPG that’s as good as Lost Odyssey. The fanboy in me is screaming “Star Ocean: The Last Hope“, but as fun as its gameplay was, Tri-Ace just couldn’t get the narrative right. Same goes for their other game, Resonance of Fate. And don’t get me started on Final Fantasy XIII. Western-developed RPGs are taking over the console market because of their awareness to weave a good narrative into unique gameplay elements never seen before in the genre. Japanese RPG developers, on the other hand, are haphazard. They can’t decide on what to modernize and what to keep. Storyline and narrative are the usual culprits of modern JPRGs, but at times gameplay comes in a way. Either they westernize it too much but still manage to remain stuck in the past (Final Fantasy XIII), or they develop it as safe as possible it almost feels that you’re playing on an older console (most of NIS America’s PS3 RPGs, particularly the abysmal Last Rebellion and the outdated Disgaea 3).

That’s where our current handhelds come in. Because these systems aren’t as powerful as consoles and not necessarily restricted to their highest production values, you’ll see a range of games inspired by the look and feel of past consoles. Some may remind of of the SNES or PS1 games, while others come close to n64 or PS2-quality stuff. It’s that type of freedom which make Japanese developers comfortable with RPGs on handhelds. You’re getting quantity and quality simultaneously. From ports and remakes of old classics such as Lunar, various Final Fantasy entries, and Tactics Ogre; to continuations of popular and/or obscure series like Dragon Quest, Parasite Eve, Golden Sun, Pokemon and Kingdom Hearts; to unique original IPs like The World Ends With You and Radiant Historia…they all fit into handhelds seamlessly. The most notable developer to acknowledge and take advantage of this wide market is Imageepoch as they’ve recently launched a JRPG publishing label. Can you guess which system are they going to publish for? None other than the PSP of course! There’s just something for every JRPG fan when it comes to our current handhelds. If you’re tired of classic SNES-style production with no voice acting, then just browse the PSP’s library and you’ll most definitely find a chatty JRPG with decent cinematics to boot. Heck, even the DS surprisingly had its share of chatty RPGs (Sands of Destruction comes to mind).

I truly think that handhelds are the future of JRPGs if this keeps up. The freedom of making your own budget for JRPG development is appealing, rather than upping costs on a retail release for current-gen systems or taking the risk for a budget JRPG then failing miserably. NIS America and its Japanese core have learned their lessons when it comes to the latter statement. They’ve lost a lot of cash within the past two years thanks to their poor sense of publishing any console JRPG they can get their hands on, and failing to update the budget of their most popular series, Disgaea.

Now to finish DQIX so that I can get to Tactics Ogre for the PSP and Radiant Historia for the DS!

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