Staff Roundtable: Operation Rainfall
Could Operation Rainfall Revive the west's dormant love for the JRPG?
Nick DiMola: I've put a lot of thought into this topic since Jesse proposed the idea and I must say that I don't believe Operation Rainfall can revive the JRPG for America. At face value, I believe it's easy to say yes. Obviously the operation has directed quite a bit of attention to these three titles, which is phenomenal, but I feel people are likely being duped by what they're getting.
Don't get me wrong, these are Japanese games through and through; however, as RPGs they are much more of a meld of both eastern and western design. Now, I haven't played The Last Story or Pandora's Tower, but quite clearly, neither is a JRPG in the traditional sense. Having played nearly 10 hours of Xenoblade Chronicles, I can say with absolute certainty that it's not anywhere near a traditional JRPG.
With its open world design and tons of quests, the core construction of the game world is absolutely unlike the typical town and dungeon-based worlds in most JRPGs. You'll quickly bounce around, jump into real-time battles and combat enemies without a complex menu and set of rigid turns. Western RPGs offer something extremely similar in this regard.
Conversely, it's still extremely Japanese. The characters are your typical anime fare; the world is absolutely unlike any real world setting; featuring extravagant monsters and settings (the game takes place on the remains of two giant mechs). In many ways, Xenoblade Chronicles is that perfect mesh of two similar, but extremely different styles of RPG.
Let's just say that Xenoblade Chronicles is a big hit - the fact of the matter is that it won't be a big hit because of its traditional JRPG chops, it'll be a hit because it has a universal appeal that anybody can connect with. If a resurgence of the genre happens because of it, it will be short-lived. Your typical JRPG just is not like this and many gamers who are only fans of the western variety of RPGs (like Skyrim) will reject these antiquated games despite their affinity for Xenoblade Chronicles.
If nothing more, I hope Operation Rainfall breaks down barriers. I hope it encourages Nintendo to continue to explore the genre, I hope it discontinues the stereotype that Japanese games can't evolve, and I hope it shows that JRPGs can do some amazing things that Western RPGs aren't great at (like creating extravagant worlds, characters, and enemies). Finally, I hope it encourages all RPG developers to continue to evolve the genre and determine ways to mesh and mold the best parts of RPGs to make increasingly engaging experiences.
Travis Hawks: I agree that Operation Rainfall certainly gave these games the final push they needed to get published in the U.S., but time will tell if they are a sales success. The main problem I see is that even with Operation Rainfall grabbing headlines across enthusiast websites and magazines, these games have little chance of bleeding into the mainstream. The Western RPG has been able to pull this off lately, finding fans outside of the dedicated gaming community in Mass Effect and Skyrim. It's going to take some big marketing cash to gain back the hysteria that peaked with Final Fantasy VII and has been declining ever since.
The regular humans out there aren't getting pulled into the genre at this point because these look like the same old stories and settings, and selling average people on a battle or crafting system is going to be tough. Operation Rainfall might help keep the serious gamers out there in tune with the genre, and convince publishers to give one more JRPG a chance.
VR: Just in regards to Nick's experience with Xenoblade and it being far from a traditional JRPG. Maybe that's exactly what it needs to revitalize the genre. Rather, maybe that's what JRPG developers need to look at to revitalize the genre. I love a lot of JRPGs, as stated before I'm playing through Tales of Graces f and am really liking it, but it definitely is a "traditional" JRPG in the sense that it feels like a game from a generation ago.
We've seen all other genres - WRPGs, action, platformers, shooters, etc. - evolve over the last decade, but JRPGs generally have made baby steps where other genres make leaps. The last time I was really intrigued by a JRPG was in Final Fantasy 12's seamless world and unique battle system; it was impressive for its time. Since then, some interesting JRPG battle systems have been introduced (see Valkyria Chronicles or Resonance of Fate), but everything else seems to be lagging behind other genres.
Some of the best games borrow ideas from other games and blend genres. Perhaps Xenoblade's introduction of WRPG thinking is exactly what JRPGs need to get out of that "traditional" mindset and truly deliver an impressive experience. At one point it was WRPGs taking the basic fundamentals of a JRPG and making it their own, I think it's time for JRPGs to dip into WRPGs for some influence and become relevant again.
AG: In response to Nick, I don't mean to imply that JRPGs aren't required to innovate. Just like other genres, changes and updates will increase the appeal future releases, and I'm dying for some new ideas. I also don't think the US needs to have localized versions of every single RPG that comes out in Japan, or every Tales game for that matter. Sacrilegious for such a hardcore JRPG fan I know, but I think another big problem with the mass appeal people are looking for is market saturation. Like first person shooter games and rhythm games, over-saturation results in disinterest, and that, in turn, causes lack of sales for everything that isn't a monster, household name franchise. No sales means publishers don't want to take a chance on similar games, even if they are unique and creative. Just look at the fate of Kaos Studios, who were shuttered, not for creating bad, bad shooters, but because Call of Duty and Battlefield had already dominated the market, leaving little room for other military combat games.
I do believe the majority of the failure comes from marketing. Again, looking at the FPS genre, there is very little innovation there as well. Call of Duty has been releasing the same game over and over with very little in way of changes, and it sells like crazy. I remember excellent adds for the more recent Halo games and Mass Effect titles as well. Now I don't think Xenoblade could ever be as big as Call of Duty, but Operation Rainfall is doing almost all their advertising. GameStop doesn't even have posters up at my local store for it! I think there is more of a market there than publishers realize, but they don't want to invest enough capital in advertising something that isn't a guaranteed success.
JM: There certainly is merit to the argument that Xenoblade and The Last Story are removed from the traditional RPG tropes, but you have to admit that without Operation Rainfall we wouldn’t necessarily have had the chance to even play these games. Genres have to continually evolve to stay relevant, and perhaps that’s finally what is happening with the JRPG (on the Wii of all places!).
But I think Angelo’s earlier comment really gets to the heart of the matter. Very few gamers outside of the hardcore JRPG fans had heard of any of these games until Operation Rainfall began. There are likely a ton of people picking up Xenoblade today or who have already put money down on The Last Story who don’t really know what to expect when they finally boot up these games. Yet these people are excited for the game based on word of mouth and this fantastic, grassroots movement.
I’m still not convinced that Nintendo isn’t using Operation Rainfall as free advertisement, but that’s beside the point. The reason we’re getting these games is because somebody decided these games were good enough to spread the word as far as they could. Marketing firms would be stupid not to take a good, hard look at Operation Rainfall and base future campaigns around the basic principles of that movement.
Still, we must remember that there is one more game that hasn’t been announced – Pandora’s Tower. The first two games tackled were almost no-brainers – these were JRPGs that came equipped with an impressive pedigree and were created implementing some western school of design – but Pandora’s Tower…well, that’s likely a niche game at best.