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Console role-playing game, or console RPG, is a term used to refer to either a role-playing game on a video game console, or a style of role-playing game that has its origins on video game consoles and/or generally differs from the style commonly associated with PC role-playing games. However, there is no clear definition on how exactly to define or differentiate these 'console RPG' and 'PC RPG' styles.

Although the name would imply otherwise, sometimes the 'console RPG' style can appear on PCs, such Final Fantasy VII, and vice versa. An example of a PC role playing game appearing on a console would be Morrowind, which was released on the Xbox in 2002.

Some of the stereotypes associated with the 'console RPG' style include linearity and a more story-driven adventure than PC role-playing games. However, these stereotypes have often been disputed by authors pointing out numerous examples of linear story-driven PC RPGs and non-linear gameplay-oriented console RPGs.

Origins (mid-1980s)

The earliest role-playing video game on a console was Dragonstomper on the Atari 2600 in 1982.[1] Bokosuka Wars, originally released for the Sharp X1 computer in 1983,[2] was ported to the NES console in 1985, and was a commercial success in Japan, where it laid the foundations for the tactical role-playing game subgenre.[3] Other notable early console RPGs included ports of Namco's 1984 arcade action role-playing games: The Tower of Druaga,[4] which was ported to the NES in 1985,[5] and Dragon Buster,[6] the first video game to feature a life meter (called "Vitality" in-game),[7] also ported to the NES in 1987.[8]

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In 1985, Yuji Horii and his team at Chunsoft began production on Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior).[12] After Enix published the game in early 1986, it became the template for future console RPGs.[13] The game was influenced by the first-person random battles in Wizardry, the overhead movement in Ultima,[14] and the mystery storytelling in Horii's own 1983 visual novel game Portopia Serial Murder Case.[15] Horii's intention behind Dragon Quest was to create a RPG that appeals to a wider audience unfamiliar with the genre or video games in general. This required the creation of a new kind of RPG, that didn't rely on previous D&D experience, didn't require hundreds of hours of rote fighting, and that could appeal to any kind of gamer.[12] Compared to statistics-heavy computer RPGs, Dragon Quest was a more streamlined, faster-paced game based on exploration and combat, and featured a top-down view in dungeons, in contrast to the first-person view used for dungeons in earlier computer RPGs.[citation needed] The streamlined gameplay of Dragon Quest thus made the game more accessible to a wider audience than previous computer RPGs.[11] The game also placed a greater emphasis on storytelling and emotional involvement,[16] building on Horii's previous work Portopia Serial Murder Case, but this time introducing a coming of age tale for Dragon Quest that audiences could relate to, making use of the RPG level-building gameplay as a way to represent this.[15] It also featured elements still found in most console RPGs, like major quests interwoven with minor subquests, an incremental spell system,[17] the damsel-in-distress storyline that many RPGs follow,[18] and a romance element that remains a staple of the genre,[19] alongside anime-style art by Akira Toriyama and a classical score by Koichi Sugiyama that was considered revolutionary for console video game music.[12]

The gameplay of Dragon Quest itself was non-linear, with most of the game not blocked in any way other than by being infested with monsters that can easily kill an unprepared player. This was balanced by the use of bridges to signify a change in difficulty and a new level progression that departed from D&D, where in the 1st and 2nd editions, players are given random initial stats and a constant growth rate. Dragon Quest instead gave the player some extra hit points at the start and a level progression where the effective rate of character growth decelerates over time, similar to how the more recent editions of D&D have balanced the gameplay.[20] Dragon Quest also gave players a clear objective from the start of the game and a series of smaller scenarios to build up the player's strength in order to achieve that objective.[21] The ending could also be altered depending on the moral dialogue choice of whether or not the protagonist should join the antagonist on his evil conquest towards the end of the game.[22] The game also had a limited inventory requiring item management,[23] while the caves were dark, requiring the use of a torch to display a field of vision around the character.[14] With Dragon Quest becoming widely popular in Japan, such that local municipalities were forced to place restrictions on where and when the game could be sold,[17] the Dragon Quest series is still considered a bellwether for the Japanese video game market.[24] Dragon Quest did not reach North America until 1989, when it was released as Dragon Warrior, the first NES RPG to be released in North America.[17] The release of Dragon Quest was followed by NES remakes of the early Wizardry and Ultima titles over the next several years by Pony Canyon.[25]

Other releases at the time were the action role-playing games Deadly Towers (1986) and Rygar (1987), which were notable as some of the first Japanese console RPGs to be released in North America, where they were well received for being a new kind of RPG that differed from both the console action-adventures (such as Castlevania, Trojan, and Wizards & Warriors) and American computer RPGs (such as Wizardry, Ultima, and Might & Magic) that American gamers were previously more familiar with at the time. Deadly Towers and Rygar were particularly notable for their permanent power-up mechanic, which at the time blurred the line between the power-ups used in action-adventures and the experience points used in RPGs.[26]

Evolution (late 1980s)

In 1987, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei by Atlus for the NES abandoned the common medieval fantasy setting and sword and sorcery theme in favour of a modern science-fiction setting and horror theme. It also introduced the monster-catching mechanic with its demon-summoning system, which allowed the player to recruit enemies into their party, through a conversation system that gives the player a choice of whether to kill or spare an enemy and allows them to engage any opponent in conversation.[27] Sega's original Phantasy Star for the Master System established a number of genre conventions, with its "strong plot that involved quest for revenge and corruption by power, background stories for party members, individual spells that required magic points,"[citation needed] and combined sci-fi & fantasy setting that set it apart from the D&D staple.[28] An important innovation that would later become common in role-playing games was the use of pre-defined player characters with their own backstories.[29] It was also one of the first games to feature a female protagonist and animated monster encounters,[28] and allowed inter-planetary travel between three planets.[30] Boys' Life magazine in 1988 predicted that Phantasy Star as well as the Zelda games may represent the future of home video games, combining the qualities of both arcade and computer games.[31] Another 1987 title Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord was a third-person RPG that featured a wide open world and a mini-map on the corner of the screen.[32] The Dragon Slayer series also made its debut on the NES console (and thus to American audiences) in 1987, with the port of Legacy of the Wizard (Dragon Slayer IV), a non-linear action RPG featuring a Metroidvania-style open world,[33] and the release of Faxanadu, a side-story to Xanadu.[34] Wonder Boy in Monster Land combined the platform gameplay of the original Wonder Boy with many RPG elements,[35] which would inspire later action RPGs such as Popful Mail (1991).[36]

The Magic of Scheherazade, released in 1987, was notable for several innovations, including a unique setting based on the Arabian Nights, time travel between five different time periods, a unique combat system featuring both real-time solo action and turn-based team battles, and the introduction of team attacks where two party members could join forces to perform an extra-powerful attack.[34] Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was an action RPG that combined the platform-action mechanics of the original Castlevania with the open world of an action-adventure and RPG mechanics such as experience points.[37] It also introduced a day-night cycle that affects when certain NPCs appear in certain locations and offered three possible multiple endings depending on the time it took to complete the game.[38] Square's Cleopatra no Mahou was an adventure RPG with a unique plot revolving around archeology.[39] Square's original Final Fantasy for the NES introduced an experimental character creation system that allowed the player to create their own parties and assign different character classes to party members,[citation needed] who in turn evolve through an early class change system later in the game.[40][41] It also featured unique concepts such as time travel;[42] side-view battles, with the player characters on the right and the enemies on the left, which soon became the norm for numerous console RPGs;[43] and the use of transportation for travel, "by ship, canoe, and even flying airship."[44] While creating Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi took inspiration from certain elements in Hayao Miyazaki's anime films, such as the airships being inspired by Castle in the Sky.[45] Some of these 1987 releases proved popular and went on to spawn their own RPG franchises, particularly the Megami Tensei, Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy series. In particular, the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series remain popular today, Final Fantasy more so in the West and Dragon Quest more so in Japan.

In 1988, Dragon Quest III introduced a character progression system allowing the player to change the party's character classes during the course of the game,[citation needed] and keep a character's stats and skills learned from previous classes.[46] This class-changing system shaped the gameplay of future RPGs, especially the Final Fantasy series,[47] while a similar class-changing system later also appeared in Wizardry VI and VII.[48] While the earlier Dragon Quest games were also non-linear, Dragon Quest III was the most substantial example of open-world gameplay among the early Dragon Quest games. It also allowed the player to swap characters in and out of the party at will,[20] and another "major innovation was the introduction of day/night cycles; certain items, characters, and quests are only accessible at certain times of day."[49] Final Fantasy II, is considered "the first true Final Fantasy game", introducing an "emotional story line, morally ambiguous characters, tragic events," and a story to be "emotionally experienced rather than concluded from gameplay and conversations." It also replaced traditional levels and experience points with a new activity-based progression system, where "the more you use a skill, the better you are with it,"[50] a mechanic that has been used in a number of later RPGs such as the SaGa[51] and Grandia[52] series, Final Fantasy XIV,[53] and The Elder Scrolls series.[50] Final Fantasy II also featured open-ended exploration,[50] and introduced an innovative dialogue system where keywords or phrases can be memorized and mentioned during conversations with NPCs,[54] the theme of an evil empire against a small band of rebels (similar to Star Wars), and the iconic chocobo, a fictional creature inspired by Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.[45] That same year, World Court Tennis for the TurboGrafx-16 introduced a new form of gameplay: a unique tennis-themed sports RPG mode.[55]

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In 1989, Phantasy Star II for the Genesis established many conventions of the genre, including an epic, dramatic, character-driven storyline dealing with serious themes and subject matter, and a strategy-based battle system.[28][56] Its purely science fiction setting was also a major departure for RPGs, which had previously been largely restricted to fantasy or science fantasy settings.[57] The game's science fiction story was also unique, reversing the common alien invasion scenario by instead presenting Earthlings as the invading antagonists rather than the defending protagonists.[28][56] The game's strong characterization, and use of self-discovery as a motivating factor for the characters and the player, was a major departure from previous RPGs and had a major influence on subsequent RPGs such as the Final Fantasy series.[57] It also made a bold attempt at social commentary years before the Final Fantasy series started doing the same.[58] Capcom's Sweet Home for the NES introduced a moden Japanese horror theme and laid the foundations for the survival horror genre, later serving as the main inspiration for Resident Evil (1996).[59][60] Like Resident Evil, Sweet Home featured the use of scattered notes as a storytelling mechanic and a number of multiple endings depending on which characters survived to the end.[61] Tengai Makyo: Ziria released for the PC Engine CD that same year was the first RPG released on CD-ROM and the first in the genre to feature animated cut scenes and voice acting. The game's plot was also unusual for its feudal Japan setting and its emphasis on humour; the plot and characters were inspired by the Japanese folk tale Jiraiya Goketsu Monogatari. The music for the game was also composed by noted musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.[62] Also in 1989, the early enhanced remake Ys I & II was one of the first games to use CD-ROM, utilized to provide enhanced graphics, animated cut scenes,[63] a Red Book CD soundtrack,[64] and voice acting.[63][64] The game offered a "much larger, more colorful world, populated with lifelike characters who communicated with voice instead of text," heralding "the evolution of the standard role-playing game" according to RPGFan.[65] Its English localization was also one of the first to use voice dubbing. Ys I & II went on to receive the Game of the Year award from OMNI Magazine in 1990, as well as many other prizes.[63]

1989 also saw the release of Dungeon Explorer, developed by Atlus for the TurboGrafx-16, which is considered a pioneer title in the action RPG genre with its multiplayer cooperative gameplay,[66] allowing up to five players to play simultaneously.[67] That year also saw the release of Super Hydlide, the Mega Drive port of the 1987 MSX action RPG Hydlide 3: The Space Memories, which adopted the morality meter of its 1985 predecessor Hydlide II: Shine of Darkness where the player's alignment changes depending on whether the player kills humans, good monsters, or evil monsters, and expanded its predecessor's time option, which speeds up or slows down the gameplay, with the introduction of an in-game clock setting day-night cycles and a need to sleep and eat. It also made other improvements such as cut scenes for the opening and ending, a combat system closer to The Legend of Zelda, the choice between distinct character classes, and a weight system affecting the player's movement depending on the weight of carried equipment.[68] The Final Fantasy Legend, the first in the SaGa series, adopted Final Fantasy II's activity-based progression, expanding it with weapons that shatter with repeated use, and added new ideas such as a race of monsters that mutate depending on which fallen foes they consume.[69] The game also introduced the concept of memento mori, with a theme revolving around death, while the plot consisted of loosely connected stories and sidequests rather than an epic narrative.[70] That same year, River City Ransom featured elements of both the beat 'em up and action RPG genres, combining brawler combat with many RPG elements, including an inventory, buying and selling items, learning new abilities and skills, needing to listen for clues, searching to find all the bosses, shopping in the malls, buying items to heal, and increasing stats.[71] It was also an early sandbox brawler reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto.[72]

Golden Age (1990s–mid-2000s)

The ‘golden age’ of console RPGs is often dated from the 1990s[73][74] to the early 2000s.[75] Console RPGs distinguished themselves from computer RPGs to a greater degree in the early 1990s. As console RPGs became more heavily story-based than their computer counterparts, one of the major differences that emerged during this time was in the portrayal of the characters, with most American computer RPGs at the time having characters devoid of personality or background as their purpose was to represent avatars which the player uses to interact with the world, in contrast to Japanese console RPGs which depicted intricately related characters who had distinctive personalities and traits, with many of them, such as Final Fantasy and Lufia, seeming to offer more of the traditional role-playing, with players assuming the roles of people who cared about each other, fell in love or even had families. Romance in particular was a theme that was common in most console RPGs but alien to most computer RPGs at the time.[76] Japanese console RPGs were also generally more faster-paced and action-adventure-oriented than their American computer counterparts.[77][78] The console RPG market became more profitable, which led to several American manufacturers releasing console ports of traditional computer RPGs such as Ultima, though they received mixed reviews due to console gamers at the time considering them to be not "as exciting as the Japanese imports."[77]

During the 1990s, console RPGs had become increasingly dominant, exerting a greater influence on computer RPGs than the other way around.[79] Console RPGs had eclipsed computer RPGs for some time, though computer RPGs began making a comeback towards the end of the decade with interactive choice-filled adventures.[80] During this era, Japanese RPGs gained recognition for being one of the very few video game genres to emphasize storytelling, which was considered "revolutionary" at the time, though this is no longer the case in recent years as storytelling has now become commonplace for a majority of blockbuster video games, including action games.[81]

Beginning of Golden Age (early 1990s)

In 1990, Dragon Quest IV introduced a new method of storytelling: segmenting the plot into segregated chapters.[82] While this made the game more linear than its predecessor,[20] it allowed for greater characterization, with each chapter dedicated to a particular character's background story.[citation needed] The game also introduced an AI system called "Tactics" which allowed the player to modify the strategies used by the allied party members while maintaining full control of the hero.[83] This "Tactics" system is seen as a precursor to Final Fantasy XII's "Gambits" system.[84] Final Fantasy III introduced the classic "job system", a character progression engine allowing the player to change the character classes, as well as acquire new and advanced classes and combine class abilities, during the course of the game.[85][86] That same year also saw the release of Nintendo's Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Tsurugi, a game that set the template for the tactical role-playing game genre and was the first entry in the Fire Emblem series.[87] Another notable strategy RPG that year was Koei's Bandit Kings of Ancient China, which was successful in combining the strategy RPG and management simulation genres, building on its own Nobunaga's Ambition series that began in 1983.[82] Several early RPGs set in a post-apocalyptic future were also released that year, including Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei II,[citation needed] and Crystalis,[88] which was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Crystalis also made advances to the action role-playing game subgenre, being a true action RPG that combined the real-time action-adventure combat and open world of The Legend of Zelda with the level-building and spell-casting of traditional RPGs like Final Fantasy.[89] That year also saw the release of Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom, which featured an innovative and original branching storyline, which spans three generations of characters and can be altered depending on which character the protagonist of each generation marries,[90] leading to four possible endings.[28]

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In 1991, Final Fantasy Adventure, the first in the Mana series, introduced the ability to kill townspeople, something that most RPGs still lack today.[88] The most important RPG that year, however, was Final Fantasy IV, one of the first role-playing games to feature a complex, involving plot,[91] placing a much greater emphasis on character development and personal relationships, and pioneering "the whole concept of dramatic storytelling in an RPG."[92] It also introduced a new battle system: the "Active Time Battle" system, developed by Hiroyuki Ito,[93] where the time-keeping system does not stop.[94] On the battle screen, each character has an ATB meter that gradually fills, and the player is allowed to issue a command to that character once the meter is full.[95] The fact that enemies can attack or be attacked at any time is credited with injecting urgency and excitement into the combat system.[94] The ATB combat system was considered revolutionary for being a hybrid between turn-based and real-time combat, with its requirement of faster reactions from players appealing to those who were more used to action games.[96] That same year, Crea-Tech's Metal Max was an early non-linear, open-ended, post-apocalyptic, vehicle combat RPG that lacked a predetermined story path and instead allowed the player to choose which missions to follow in whatever order while being able to visit any place in the game world.[97][98] The ending also can be determined by the player's actions, while they can continue playing the game even after the ending.[98] The game also allowed the player to choose the character classes for each player character as well as create and modify the tanks used in battle.[97] The Metal Max series continued to allow tank customization and open-ended gameplay,[99] while also allowing the player to obtain an ending at almost any time, particularly Metal Saga, which could be completed with an ending scenario just minutes into the game, making it the shortest possible RPG.[100] Telenet Japan released a console remake of its 1988 action-platform RPG Exile,[101] which was controversial, with a plot revolving around a time-traveling Crusades-era Syrian Islamic Assassin who assassinates various religious/historical figures as well as modern-day political leaders,[102] with similarities to the present-day Assassin's Creed action game series,[103] while the gameplay of Exile involved taking drugs that increase or decrease statistics and affect the player's heart-rate, displayed using a heart monitor.[102]

In 1992, Final Fantasy V improved on the ATB system by introducing a time gauge to indicate to the player which character's turn is next,[104] and it expanded the job system by offering more customization options with more than 22 job classes and giving each character greater flexibility by allowing them to learn secondary abilities from each job before changing classes.[96] The job and ATB systems continued to be used in later Final Fantasy titles,[96] and helped differentiate the series from the character class systems and turn-based systems of traditional CRPGs.[105] 1992 also saw the release of Dragon Quest V, a game that has been praised for its involving, emotional family-themed narrative divided by different periods of time, something that has appeared in very few video games before or since.[14][106] It has also been credited as the first known video game to feature a playable pregnancy, a concept that has since appeared in later games such as Harvest Moon, The Sims 2 and Fable II.[107] Dragon Quest V's monster-collecting mechanic, where monsters can be defeated, captured, added to the party, and gain their own experience levels, also influenced many later franchises such as Pokémon, Digimon and Dokapon. In turn, the concept of collecting everything in a game, in the form of achievements or similar rewards, has since become a common trend in video games.[108] Dragon Quest V also expanded the AI "Tactics" system of its predecessor by allowing each ally's AI routines to be set individually.[109] Shin Megami Tensei, released in 1992 for the SNES, introduced an early moral alignment system that has an impact on the direction and outcome of the storyline. It gave the player the freedom to choose between three different paths: Chaos, Law, and Neutral, none of which is portrayed as right or wrong. The deep personal choices the player makes throughout the game affects the protagonist's alignment, leading to different possible paths and multiple endings. This has since become a hallmark of the Megami Tensei series.[110] Another non-linear RPG released that year was Romancing Saga, an open-world RPG by Square that offered many choices and allowed players to complete quests in any order, with the decision of whether or not to participate in any particular quest affecting the outcome of the storyline. The game also allowed players to choose from eight different characters, each with their own stories that start in different places and offer different outcomes.[111] Romancing SaGa thus succeeded in providing a very different experience during each run through the game, something that later non-linear RPGs such as SaGa Frontier and Fable had promised but were unable to live up to.[51] The SaGa series has since become known for its open-ended gameplay.[111] The series is also known for having an activity-based progression system instead of experience levels, and since Romancing Saga, a combo system where up to five party members can perform a combined special attack.[51] Unlike other RPGs at the time, Romancing SaGa also required characters to pay mentors to teach them abilities, whether it's using certain weapons or certain proficiencies like opening a chest or dismantling a trap.[111] Data East's Heracles no Eikō III, written by Kazushige Nojima, introduced the plot element of a nameless immortal suffering from amnesia, and Nojima would later revisit the amnesia theme in Final Fantasy VII and Glory of Heracles.[112] Climax Entertainment's Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole was an early isometric RPG that combined the gameplay of an open-world action RPG with an isometric platformer, alongside an emphasis on varied puzzle-solving as well as strong characterization and humorous conversations.[113] The TurboGrafx-CD port of Dragon Knight II released that year was also notable for introducing erotic adult content to consoles,[114][citation needed] though such content had often appeared in Japanese computer RPGs since the early 1980s.[115] That same year, Game Arts began the Lunar series on the Sega CD with Lunar: The Silver Star, one of the first successful CD-ROM RPGs, featuring both voice and text, and considered one of the best RPGs in its time.[116] The game was praised for its soundtrack, emotionally engaging storyline, and strong characterization.[117] It also introduced an early form of level-scaling where the bosses would get stronger depending on the protagonist's level,[118] a mechanic that was later used in Enix's The 7th Saga[119] and extended to normal enemies in Square's Romancing Saga 3 and later Final Fantasy VIII.[120]

In 1993, Square's Secret of Mana, the second in the Mana series, further advanced the action RPG subgenre with its introduction of cooperative multiplayer into the genre. The game was created by a team previously responsible for the first three Final Fantasy titles: Nasir Gebelli, Koichi Ishii, and Hiromichi Tanaka. It was intended to be one of the first CD-ROM RPGs, as a launch title for the SNES CD add-on, but had to be altered to fit onto a standard game cartridge after the SNES CD project was dropped.[121] The game received considerable acclaim,[122] for its innovative pausable real-time battle system,[123][124] the "Ring Command" menu system,[124] its innovative cooperative multiplayer gameplay,[122] where the second or third players could drop in and out of the game at any time rather than players having to join the game at the same time,[125] and the customizable AI settings for computer-controlled allies.[126] The game has influenced a number of later action RPGs.[125][127] That same year also saw the release of Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium, which introduced the use of pre-programmable combat manoeuvers called 'macros', a means of setting up the player's party AI to deliver custom attack combos.[28] Madou Monogatari, a 1989 MSX and PC-98 computer RPG ported to the Game Gear handheld console in 1993, had several unique features, including magic-oriented turn-based combat that completely lacked physical attacks, and the replacement of numerical statistics with visual representations, where the protagonist's condition is represented by her facial expressions and sprite graphics while experience is measured in jewels that encircle the screen, with the only visible numerical statistic being the collected gold.[128] That year also saw the release of Romancing Saga 2, which further expanded the non-linear gameplay of its predecessor. While in the original Romancing Saga, scenarios were changed according to dialogue choices during conversations, Romancing Saga 2 further expanded on this by having unique storylines for each character that can change depending on the player's actions, including who is chosen, what is said in conversation, what events have occurred, and who is present in the party.[129]

In 1994, Final Fantasy VI moved away from the medieval setting of its predecessors, instead being set in a steampunk environment,[130] and dealing with post-apocalyptic themes. The game received considerable acclaim, for improvements such as its broadened thematic scope,[131] plotlines, characters, multiple-choice scenarios,[132] and variation of play.[133] Square's Live A Live, released for the Super Famicom in Japan, featured eight different characters and stories, with the first seven unfolding in any order the player chooses, as well as four different endings.[134] The game's ninja chapter in particular was an early example of stealth game elements in an RPG, requiring the player to infiltrate a castle, rewarding the player if the entire chapter can be completed without engaging in combat.[134] Other chapters had similar innovations, such as Akira's chapter where the character uses telepathic powers to discover information.[134] That same year saw the release of the 3DO console port of the 1991 PC RPG Knights of Xentar,[135] which had introduced a unique pausable real-time battle system,[136][citation needed] where characters automatically attack based on a list of different AI scripts chosen by the player.[136] Robotrek by Quintet and Ancient was a predecessor to Pokémon in the sense that the protagonist does not himself fight, but sends out his robots to do so. Like Pokémon, Robotrek was designed to appeal to a younger audience, allowed team customization, and each robot was kept in a ball.[137]

Worldwide mainstream breakthrough (late 1990s)

In 1995, Square's Chrono Trigger raised the standards for the genre, with certain aspects that were considered revolutionary in its time, including its nonlinear gameplay, branching plot, more than ten different endings, plot-related sidequests, a unique battle system with innovations such as combo attacks, and lack of random encounters.[138] It also introduced the concept of New Game+,[139] though this game mode has its origins in the original Legend of Zelda.[140] Chrono Trigger also re-introduced the concept of time travel in RPGs, which had rarely been dealt with in video games since the original Final Fantasy. That same year, Square's Romancing Saga 3 featured a storyline that could be told differently from the perspectives of up to eight different characters and introduced a level-scaling system where the enemies get stronger as the characters do,[120] a mechanic that was later used in Final Fantasy VIII.[141] Enix's Dragon Quest VI introduced an innovative scenario with a unique real world and dream world setting, which seems to have had an influence on the later Square role-playing games Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy X. Dragon Quest VI also improved on the inventory management of its predecessors with the addition of a bag to store extra items.[142] Meanwhile, Quintet's Terranigma allowed players to shape the game world through town-building simulation elements, expanding on its 1992 predecessor Soul Blazer,[143] while Square's Seiken Densetsu 3 allowed a number of different possible storyline paths and endings depending on which combination of characters the player selected.[144][145] Beyond the Beyond introduced a turn-based battle system dubbed the "Active Playing System," which allows the player to increase the chances of landing an improved attack or defending from an attack by pressing the X button at the correct time during battle, similar to the timing-based attacks in the later game Final Fantasy VIII.[146]

Another influential RPG released in 1995 was Suikoden. For example, Deus Ex creator Warren Spector has credited Suikoden as an influence on his work, including the Deus Ex series. He stated that the limited moral choices in the game, some of which turn out to be false choices, are what inspired him to explore the concept much further and attempt to offer meaningful choices that actually matter. [1] [2] In turn, modern choice-based role-playing shooters like Mass Effect and Fallout 3 are considered "descendants" of Deus Ex. [3]

In 1996, the tactical RPG Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu gave players the ability to affect the relationships between different characters, which in turn affected the storyline as these relationships led to different characters appearing in the second generation of the game's plot.[134] Enix released tri-Ace's sci-fi action RPG Star Ocean, which also gave players the ability to affect the relationships between different characters through its "private actions" social system, where the protagonist's relationship points with the other characters are affected by the player's choices, which in turn affects the storyline, leading to branching paths and multiple different endings.[134][147] Treasure's Guardian Heroes allowed players to alter the storyline through their actions, such as choosing between a number of branching paths leading to multiple different endings and through the Karma meter which changes depending on whether the player kills civilians or shows mercy to enemies.[148][149] Sega's Sakura Wars for the Saturn combined tactical RPG combat with dating sim and visual novel elements, introducing a real-time branching choice system where, during an event or conversation, the player must choose an action or dialogue choice within a time limit, or not to respond at all within that time; the player's choice, or lack thereof, affects the player character's relationship with other characters and in turn the characters' performance in battle, the direction of the storyline, and the ending. Later games in the series added several variations, including an action gauge that can be raised up or down depending on the situation, and a gauge that the player can manipulate using the analog stick depending on the situation.[150] The success of Sakura Wars led to a wave of games that combine the RPG and dating sim genres, including Thousand Arms in 1998, Riviera: The Promised Land in 2002, and Luminous Arc in 2007.[151] That same year, the first installment of the Harvest Moon series introduced a new form of gameplay: a role-playing simulation centred around managing a farm. The series would later inspire popular social network games such as FarmVille in the late 2000s.[55]

File:FFVIIbattlexample.jpg

The next major revolution came in the mid-to-late 1990s, which saw the rise of 3D computer graphics and optical disks in fifth generation consoles. The implications for RPGs were enormous—longer, more involved quests, better audio, and full-motion video. This was clearly demonstrated in 1997 by the phenomenal success of Final Fantasy VII, which is considered one of the most influential games of all time,[152][153] akin to that of Star Wars in the movie industry. With a record-breaking production budget of around $45 million,[152] the ambitious scope of Final Fantasy VII raised the possibilities for the genre, with its more expansive world to explore,[154] much longer quest, more numerous sidequests,[152] dozens of minigames, and much higher production values. The latter includes innovations such as the use of 3D characters on pre-rendered backgrounds,[155] battles viewed from multiple different angles rather than a single angle, and for the first time full-motion CGI video seamlessly blended into the gameplay,[153] effectively integrated throughout the game.[152] The extensive use of cinematics has since become one of the genre's trademarks.[citation needed] Gameplay innovations included the materia system, which allowed a considerable amount of customization and flexibility through materia that can be combined in many different ways and exchanged between characters at any time, and the limit breaks, special attacks that can be performed after a character's limit meter fills up by taking hits from opponents.[153] Final Fantasy VII continues to be listed among the best games of all time, for its highly polished gameplay, high playability, lavish production, well-developed characters, intricate storyline,[155] and an emotionally engaging narrative that is much darker and sophisticated than most other RPGs.[156] The game's storytelling and character development was considered a major narrative jump forward for video games and was often compared to films and novels at the time.[157]

The explosion of Final Fantasy VII's sales and the ascendance of the PlayStation represented the dawning of a new era of RPGs. Backed by a clever multi-million dollar marketing campaign,[158] Final Fantasy VII brought the first taste of CRPGs to a much wider audience and played a key role in the success of the PlayStation gaming console.[159][160] Following the success of Final Fantasy VII, console RPGs, previously a niche genre outside of Japan, skyrocketed in popularity across the world.[161] The game was soon ported to the PC and gained much success there as well, as did several other originally console RPGs, blurring the line between the console and computer platforms.[79] This would eventually result in a slow decline of the PC RPG in favour of consoles in the West.[162] The game was also responsible not only for popularizing RPGs outside of Japan, but its high production budget played a key role in the rising costs of video game development in general, and it led to Square's foray into films with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.[152]

Later in 1997, Square released SaGa Frontier, which expands on the non-linear gameplay of its Romancing Saga predecessors. It has a setting that spans multiple planets and an overarching plot that becomes apparent after playing through each of the different characters' quests that tie together at certain places.[163] The characters have several different possible endings each,[164] and there can be up to 15 characters in the party at the same time, organized into three groups of five characters.[165] The ambitious amount of freedom the game offered was a departure from most RPGs in its time, but this led to a mixed reception due to its lack of direction.[166] Quintet's 1997 release The Granstream Saga was an early fully 3D action RPG that had a unique third-person one-on-one combat system and a storyline that, while being mostly linear, offered a difficult moral choice towards the end of the game regarding which of two characters to save, each leading to a different ending.[167] LandStalker's 1997 spiritual successor Alundra[168] is considered "one of the finest examples of action/RPG gaming," combining platforming elements and challenging puzzles with an innovative storyline revolving around entering people's dreams and dealing with mature themes.[169]

In 1998, Square's Xenogears was acclaimed for the ambitious scope of its storyline, which spanned millennia and explored themes rarely dealt with in video games, including topics such as religion and the origin of mankind,[170] and social commentary dealing with racism, poverty, war, and human psychology, along with narrative references to the philosophies of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche.[171] It is today considered one of the greatest examples of video game storytelling.[170] That year also saw the rise of monster-collecting RPGs which, although originating from Megami Tensei, Dragon Quest V, and Robotrek, was further advanced and popularized by Pokémon, which featured multiplayer gameplay and was released in North America that year.[137] Pokémon has since become the best-selling RPG franchise of all time.[172][173][174] Another 1998 title, Suikoden II, was acclaimed for its "winding, emotionally charged narrative" that involved recruiting an army and gave players the choice of whether to "redeem or kill" key characters.[175] The same year also saw the release of The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, which was considered an action RPG at the time and was "poised to shape the action RPG genre for years to come."[176] While it is still considered one of the best games of all time, its status as an action RPG continues to be debated, much likes its predecessors.[175]

In 1999, the cinematic trend set by Final Fantasy VII continued with Final Fantasy VIII, which introduced characters with a proportionately sized human appearance. The game also featured a level-scaling system where the enemies scale in level along with the player's party.[141] Similar level-scaling mechanics have been used in a number of later RPGs, including The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Silverfall,[177] Dragon Age: Origins,[178] Fable II,[179] Fallout 3, and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.[180] Square also expanded on the non-linearity of SaGa Frontier with their 1999 action RPG Legend of Mana,[181] the most open-ended in the Mana series,[182] allowing the player to build the game world however they choose, complete any quests and subplots they choose in any order of their choice, and choose which storyline paths to follow,[181][183] departing from most other action RPGs in its time.[184] That same year, Square's survival horror RPG Parasite Eve II featured branching storylines and up to three different possible endings,[185] while the sci-fi RPG Star Ocean: The Second Story boasted as many as 86 different endings,[186] with each of the possible permutations to these endings numbering in the hundreds, setting a benchmark for the amount of outcomes possible for a video game. Using a relationship system inspired by dating sims, each of the characters in Star Ocean had friendship points and relationship points with each of the other characters, allowing the player to pair together, or ship, any couples (both romantic heterosexual relationships as well as friendships) of their choice, allowing a form of fan fiction to exist within the game itself. This type of social system was later extended to allow romantic lesbian relationships in BioWare's 2007 sci-fi RPG Mass Effect. However, the relationship system in Star Ocean not only affected the storyline, but also the gameplay, affecting the way the characters behave towards each other in battle.[187] Another 1999 RPG, Persona 2, also featured dating elements, including the option to engage in a homosexual relationship.[188] That same year saw the release of Chrono Cross, which became the third game to receive a perfect score from GameSpot, after The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Soulcalibur.[189] The game featured two major parallel dimensions, where the player must go back and forth between the worlds to recruit party members, obtain items, and advance the plot, with events in one dimension having an impact on the other.[190] Like its predecessor Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross featured a New Game+ option and multiple endings, with at least a dozen possible endings based on the player's actions.[191]

Peak of popularity (early 2000s)

In 2000, Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast introduced online gaming to consoles and was responsible for pushing console gamers "to dial up with the Dreamcast to play online and to experience a new style of play."[192] It had an impact in taking "consoles online" and defining "small-scale multiplayer RPGs," paving the way for larger-scale MMORPG efforts such as Final Fantasy XI, setting the template for small-scale online RPGs such as Capcom's Monster Hunter series and some of the later Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games, and giving rise to "an entire pantheon of multiplayer dungeon crawlers that continue to dominate the Japanese sales charts." More generally, Phantasy Star Online made "both online gaming and the concept of fee-based services a reality for consoles," paving the way for the online gaming services later provided by all three of the seventh-generation consoles.[193] That same year, Vagrant Story introduced a pausable real-time battle system based on targeting individual body parts,[194] using both melee and bow & arrow weapons;[195] similar body-targeting battle systems were later used in Bethesda's Fallout 3 (2008) and Nippon Ichi's Last Rebellion (2010).[196] That year also saw the release of the PlayStation 2, which would become the best-selling game console of all time, due in large part to its large variety of Japanese RPGs (including franchises such as Final Fantasy, Grandia, and Tales) that established its dominance over the RPG market.[175]

In 2001, Final Fantasy X made advancements in portraying realistic emotions through voice-overs and detailed facial expressions, which have since become a staple of the series, with Final Fantasy X-2 and other subsequent titles (such as Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy XII) also featuring this development. It also replaced an overworld map with the traversing of real-time 3D environments, which has also become a standard of the series, as demonstrated in Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIII.[197] The game introduced several other gameplay elements to the series, such as its Conditional Turn-Based Battle System and Overdrive Limit Breaks. It became a major worldwide success, largely due to its "dynamic" presentation, "movie-quality CGI" cutscenes, and "well-scripted, well-acted dialogue," that helped it become a major success, helping to establish the PlayStation 2 as "the console of choice for gamers looking for a cinematic experience and narrative polish" that had been lacking in most previous RPGs. Around the same time, the first entry in the Shadow Hearts series was released. The series would later be acclaimed for its darker Lovecraftian horror narrative revolving around "an emotional journey through the reluctant anti-hero's quest toward redemption."[175] Much like the Chrono series, the Shadow Hearts games offer multiple endings.[198]

In 2002, Final Fantasy XI for the PlayStation 2 (and later the PC and Xbox 360) introduced the massively multiplayer online role-playing game genre to consoles. In 2003, Final Fantasy X-2 for the PlayStation 2 followed the "stylish narrative formula" established by Final Fantasy X, though with a more "Charlie's Angels-esque" approach. That same year saw the release of the more experimental Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, the third main entry in the Shin Megami Tensei series. Much like its predecessors, it was "psychologically challenging" and featured a branching narrative with multiple endings. Nocturne "carved out a toehold for the series in America with its post-apocalyptic adventure set in a bombed-out Japan" where instead of "trying to stop the apocalypse," the "demonic main character's end goal is to assert his will on the new world."[175] The same year, Konami's Game Boy Advance handheld video game Boktai had a unique stealth-based action gameplay that made use of a solar-power sensor.[199]

End of Golden Age (mid-2000s)

In 2004, Dragon Quest VIII was released and became the first game in the Dragon Quest series to have 3D graphics and voice acting. In 2005, Kingdom Hearts II was released, which solidified the Kingdom Hearts series as the new JRPG series. In 2006, Final Fantasy XII was released. It was the first Final Fantasy game to have enemies on the field, seamless battle transitions, an open world, a conrollable camera and customizable AI. When it was released it became the first Final Fantasy game to get a perfect score from Famitsu Weekly magazine.

Modern era (late 2000s–present)

Relative decline of Japanese console RPG (late 2000s)

With the arrival of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, mainstream interest in Japanese console role-playing games has steadily begun to decline. The first indication of this decline began with the revival of WRPGs on home consoles that started with the release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on the Xbox 360 in 2006. Western console role-playing games have since become far more popular than Japanese console role-playing games on home consoles. Though, JRPGs have continued to be released, their sales have greatly fallen compared to WRPGs. Also, critics have generally considered most newer JRPGs to be either average or subpar. Entries in established franchises like Final Fantasy XIII and its sequel have been seen as only decent, not great.

Rise of Japanese handheld RPG (late 2000s)

Handheld game consoles, however, particularly Nintendo handhelds such as the Nintendo DS, have featured a number of innovative RPGs during the late 2000s.[200] Square Enix's The World Ends with You (2007) featured a unique dual-screen action combat system that involves controlling two characters at the same time.[201] Level-5's Inazuma Eleven (2008) introduced unique soccer football RPG gameplay incorporating sports game elements.[202] The Atlus title Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (2009)[203] blends together both traditional and tactical RPG gameplay along with non-linear adventure game elements[204] as well as an innovative demon auction system and a death clock system where each character has a specified time of death[205] and the player's actions has consequences on who lives and dies.[206] On the PlayStation Portable (PSP), Half-Minute Hero (2009) is a role-playing shooter featuring self-referential humour and a 30-second time limit for each level and boss encounter.[207] Infinite Space (2009) by Platinum Games is a hybrid of tactical role-playing game, real-time strategy and space simulator elements,[208] and features a non-linear branching narrative with numerous choices that can have dramatic consequences,[209] and an epic scale spanning hundreds of planets.[210]

Rise of Western RPG (late 2000s–early 2010s)

Multi-platform releases were common in the early days of RPGs, but there was a period during the 1990s when this was not generally the case.[211][212] The sixth generation of home gaming consoles led many game developers to resume the practice, and some opted to develop primarily or exclusively for consoles.[211] The combination of the Xbox and DirectX technologies proved especially popular due to the two systems' architectural similarities, as well as their common set of programming tools.[211][213] Multimedia and art assets, which account for a greater proportion of the development budget than in the past, are easily transferable between multiple platforms.[211]

This affected several major PC RPG releases, mostly due to console exclusivity publishing deals with Microsoft. BioWare's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was developed primarily for the Xbox, and ported to the PC several months later. Their original IP, Jade Empire (2005) was also an Xbox exclusive,[214] and did not receive a Windows version until Jade Empire – Special Edition (which included bonus content) was released on Feb 26, 2007. Obsidian's KOTOR sequel was released in December 2004 for the Xbox and followed by a PC version in February 2005, and Fable (2004) by Lionhead Studios received a PC port along with its reissue as a Platinum Hit in 2005.

Sequels to many of the above titles were also developed for next-gen systems, including Lionhead's Fable II (2008) and Fable III (2010).[215] The Fallout and Baldur's Gate series of PC RPGs spawned console-friendly, Diablo-style action titles for the PS2 and Xbox as their respective PC series ended.[Note 1] Bethesda's Oblivion was released simultaneously for console and PC, but was considered a major launch title for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.[216][217] BioWare continues to produce launch-exclusive RPG titles for the Xbox 360, such as Mass Effect (2007) and Mass Effect 2 (2010).[218]

[Console gamers] don’t have the patience to wade through the introduction of [new] systems. [...] [But] once they’re into the game, the console guys want just as deep of an experience as the PC guys.

Ken Levine and Todd Howard[219]

The change of focus from the PC platform to console systems has been criticized, due to the concessions required to adapt games to the altered interfaces and control systems, as well as a need to appeal to a wider demographic.[220] Developer Josh Sawyer lamented the decline of high-profile computer-exclusive RPGs, and claimed that the collapse of Troika Games meant that there were "no pure CRPG developers left", outside of small companies like Spiderweb Software.[221] Other criticisms include the increasing emphasis on video quality and voiceovers, and their effect on development budgets and the amount and quality of dialogue offered.[222][223] BioWare was considered the "savior" of the Western RPG following the drought in the mid-1990s, but its prominent Mass Effect series now sheds the novel-like writing style, and other conventions of Western RPGs, in favor of the cinematic style and streamlined action of Japanese console RPGs and other video game genres. These changes raise debate as to whether games such as Mass Effect and its sequels are truly RPGs.[224] On the other hand, BioWare's success has been attributed to successfully "marrying western mechanics with Japanese-style character interactions".[225]

There have been more subtle shifts away from the core influences of Dungeons & Dragons that existed in the 1980s and 1990s.[226] Games were originally closely tied to the system's basic mechanics such as dice rolls and turn-based tactical combat, but are now moving in the direction of real-time modes, simplified mechanics and skill-based interfaces.[Note 2] Dungeons & Dragons itself is diverging from its roots, as the 4th Edition D&D rules have been compared to role-playing video games like World of Warcraft[226] and Fire Emblem.[87][Note 3] Even as some non-role-playing games adopt RPG elements, developers and publishers are concerned that the term "role-playing game" might alienate non-RPG gamers.[226]

Development for multiple platforms is profitable, but difficult. Optimizations needed for one platform architecture do not necessarily translate to others. Individual platforms such as the Sega Genesis and PlayStation 3 are seen as difficult to develop for compared to their competitors, and developers are not yet fully accustomed to new technologies such as multi-core processors and hyper-threading.[211] Multi-platform releases are increasingly common, but not all differences between editions on multiple platforms can be fully explained by hardware alone,[Note 4] and there remain franchise stalwarts that exist solely on one system.[211] Developers for new platforms such as handheld and mobile systems do not have to operate under the pressure of $20 million budgets and the scrutiny of publishers' marketing experts.[222]

Revitalization of Japanese RPG (early 2010s)

In the early 2010s, new intellectual properties such as Xenoblade Chronicles from Monolith Soft and The Last Story from Mistwalker found a home on Nintendo's Wii console late in its lifespan, gaining unanimously solid reviews. Many reviewers claimed the games revitalized the genre, keeping its best traits while modernizing other gameplay elements which could appeal to a wide audience. Xenoblade, in particular, revitalized the genre with an extremely expansive open world compared to the size of the Japanese archipelago. However, Nintendo of America announced its decision to not localize the games, not having enough faith in their commercial appeal to American audiences. In response, a widespread internet campaign known as "Operation Rainfall" petitioned the release of Xenoblade', The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower in America, with participants flooding Nintendo's official Facebook page with requests and sending mail to NOA's headquarters. The former two games were released in America in 2012, with Xenoblade debuting at the top of GameStop's best seller list the week of its release. However, despite this, the sales of both games were far less than those of console WRPGs.

On handhelds, the 2010 Atlus title Radiant Historia introduced a unique take on the concept of non-linear branching storylines that gives the player the freedom to alter the course of history through time travel across two parallel timelines.[227][228] The 2010 PSP version of Tactics Ogre features a similar "World" system that allows players to revisit key plot points and make different choices to see how the story unfolds differently.[229] Imageepoch's 2011 title Saigo no Yakusoku no Monogatari (Final Promise Story) for the PSP has a strategic command-based battle system where enemies learn from previous skirmishes and where characters can die permanently during gameplay which in turn has an impact on the game's storyline.[230]

In 2011, Nintendo made a conscious effort to revitalize the Pokémon brand with the Black & White dualogy, which streamlined the battle system and introduced an entirely new lineup of characters in a new region based on New York City. These games were followed up with a direct numbered sequel in 2012, a first for the main series. 2012 also saw the release of Pokémon Conquest, a crossover with the Nobunaga's Ambition series of strategy role-playing games.[231]

See also

Footnotes

  1. Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (2004), and Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (2001), respectively.
  2. Examples include Mass Effect 2's lack of inventory system and Alpha Protocol's Dialogue Effect System.[226]
  3. E.g., whereas pen-and-paper RPGs previously would influence their video game counterparts, the reverse according to some appears to be occurring now.[226]
  4. Rather, they can often be attributed to developers' willingness (or lack thereof) to support all the optimizations needed to expose a platform's full potential.[211]

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