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I've always wondered if JRPG, or Japanese Role-Playing Game, has any concrete definition for it.

I'm only curious now because lately I've seen a lot of people referencing Genshin Impact, a F2P MMORPG be considered a "JRPG". Which, to me, sounds weird because it is widely known that Genshin Impact is produced by a Chinese game developer, Mihoyo.

Which then leads me to believe that there must be a more intrinsic meaning behind the category "JRPG". If the developer does not necessarily have to be Japanese, then does it mean any developer can produce a JRPG? And if so, what defines a JRPG? What differentiates a JRPG from a regular RPG game, for instance Baldur's Gate?

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    I can swear I've seen exactly same question before on arqade. Was it deleted? Can't find it now, only jrpg vs krpg. – user135338 Nov 5 '20 at 15:19
  • @Sinatr Could you be thinking of What is a “DRPG”? – Wondercricket Nov 5 '20 at 21:40
  • @Wondercricket, maybe. My memory is not the best one, but at least we have all these topics linked. – user135338 Nov 6 '20 at 8:10
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Extra Credits, a well-known YouTube channel about game design, made a video series about this topic:

Key takeaway points:

  • The reason why we have that distinction at all is because the RPG video game genre was discovered and developed independently in the Western and the Japanese industry. Those two industries interpreted the idea of the RPG very differently from the start and then had very little exchange during the following years. The Japanese RPG developers were heavily influenced by the Japanese visual novel games. This influence is still visible in their approach to storytelling.
  • Trying to define the difference between these genres by assembling checklists of specific game mechanics is misleading, because they aren't the reason why players prefer one genre over the other.
  • Trying to define them by the country where the game was made is also misleading (at least for recent games), because game developers of today take inspiration and design cues from games made all around the world.
  • The actual difference is that JRPGs focus more on storytelling with well-established characters. WRPGs focus more on letting the player live out fantasies and express their player-character the way they want. JRPGs tell the player a story through the eyes of one of the characters. WRPGs let the player choose what kind of person they want that character to be and then the game shows the player how the story plays out with their character in it.

If you agree with this definition, then Genshin Impact seems indeed more JRPG than WRPG. The player chooses between one of two main characters whose only obvious difference is gender. The PC already has an established personality and motivation. There are very little options to customize the player-character visually or mechanically. There are lots of narration-heavy quests in the game, but dialogue choices are mostly meaningless. They are more about telling a story than putting the player into a story and having them choose what to do with it.

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    Western and Japanese RPGs did develop differently, but it wasn't discovered independently. JRPGs follow on the tradition of the early Ultima games. It's just that the RPGs that followed Ultima in the west quickly diversified and on the whole turned into power fantasies, while JRPGs stayed relatively true to the original formula, refining it and focusing heavily on story. Today's JRPGs (especially the indie ones) are still very much early Ultima games (again, refined, much improved, but very recognizably Ultima). – Luaan Nov 5 '20 at 12:41
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    I'd say JRPGs place the player in a story as much as WRPGs - the difference is that in JRPGs your player conforms to the story (Zelda, FF, etc) while in WRPGs there is usually more latitude for the story to conform to your player (ie: Mass Effect, etc). – J... Nov 5 '20 at 14:26
  • @J I clarified that section a bit more. – Philipp Nov 5 '20 at 15:03
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    @J... That's an interesting line of thought but consider a few things, Zelda and Mass Effect are both not generally considered RPGs, Zelda is an Action/Adventure game where Zelda-like games are usually thought of as its own subcategory (Darksiders, Hyper light drifter). While Mass Effect is tag soup as a Sci-Fi Third-Person Cover Action-Roleplaying-Shooter, Roleplaying is in there but it counts as a Roleplaying Shooter which is the category for Bioshock, an FPS. On that note some FPS games feature roleplaying such as CoD: WWII and Battlefield 1 but are FPS games primarily – Gatchwar Nov 5 '20 at 16:12
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    I like this answer, basically, in WRPG the 'R' has more weight (like playing DnD) and in JRPG the 'P' has more weight (like playing FF) – Ivan García Topete Nov 5 '20 at 16:36
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I don't think there can be a dictionary definition of JRPG in the same way you could strictly define a car and even the best attempts I think the definition is going to be fuzzy around the edges since it'd be hard to get everyone to agree on a definition of JRPG. Wikipedia's definition while not definitive I think is a good place to start:

a JRPG is defined as a franchise which: (1) is considered a role-playing game by reliable sources and was made in Japan, or (2) made in another country, but otherwise the franchise would be difficult to differentiate from a JRPG due to having common traits found in JRPGs such as: anime/manga character designs, RPG elements, fantasy setting and widely considered as being inspired or influenced by a JRPG

This definition happens to include Genshin Impact, which while being a Chinese made game seems inspired by the Japanese made Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in terms of gameplay with character designs which are undeniably inspired by anime. Granted, and I have no evidence to support this and this may be entirely wrong but I think a bunch of people who just jumped into Genshin Impact don't know the nationality of the developers and assumed from the character designs it was a Japanese made game, until this post and a quick Google search I personally didn't know Genshin Impact wasn't made in Japan, it simply wasn't something I thought about, in the way I don't think many people know the tidbits that Hotline Miami is technically a Swedish game or Life is Strange was made in France.

This highlights though what I think is an underlying problem with a hard definition for JRPGs, perception is key. Going back to that Wikipedia page there's a list of best selling JRPGs which includes the stereotypical JRPGs Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Tales of, etc. no one will argue these aren't JRPGs and feature a bunch of features people strongly associate with JRPGs including turn based combat, character designs that draw from these and anime and the like, among other things but that's an awkward position to take because even these games have diverged from a lot of the features people generally associate with JRPGs, Final Fantasy has shifted away from proper turn based combat and has much more real time elements but again no one will argue FFXV isn't a JRPG. The thing is there isn't a any specific criteria a JRPG needs to fulfill to be a JRPG so long as it was made in Japan and is an RPG there's going to be a JRPG that breaks from every possible criteria someone could toss out to define JRPGs, turn based combat is missing from any number of JRPGs (FF, Monster Hunter), fantasy setting (Mother, anything sci-fi), child/teenage protagonists are common but not universal (Yakuza, Dragon's Dogma), anime/Japanese influence (Souls, Kingdom Hearts) I'd like to draw special attention to Kingdom Hearts which has anime inspired designs for its human characters but it draws deeply from the American Disney canon which would pose the question since its inspired by western culture does it qualify as a Western RPG as well? It's not as though a JRPG cannot be inspired by Western culture since the definition catches any RPG made in Japan but then we pose similar inquiries.

A few of the games on the list are considered JRPGs which I don't think many will have thought of as JRPGs unless brought up. Yakuza is a game heavily inspired by Japanese culture and is made in Japan but it's strange to think of it as an RPG at all. The games Yakuza is most similar to is GTA and other open world sandbox action/adventure games such as Sleeping Dogs and Just Cause not JRPGs such as Pokemon and Fire Emblem. So is Yakuza a JRPG? technically it is but the main genre would not be JRPG in the way that Mass Effect is technically a dating sim although you don't usually class it as such.

Another interesting entry is the Souls series and Dragon's Dogma both of which are RPGs made in Japan but are themed like generally western style RPGs similar to Baldur's Gate and The Elder Scrolls more than God Eater and Code Vein. It doesn't matter that much for them though because "souls-like" has seemingly become a genre in and of itself. That does beggar the question do all souls-like games count as JRPGs since according to Wikipedia they are inspired by a JRPG? Is Star Wars: Fallen Order a JRPG?? I'd say no because that just feels ridiculous but I think its more that inspired by JRPGs is mostly thought of as similar to early FF than similar to Yakuza.

A common thread here is tagging, a game can have any number of tags but you don't think of games as all of its constituent genres. When is a platformer not a platformer? When it's a Metroidvania or a collect-a-thon (think Banjo Kazooie) or an adventure game. The problem with genre is that its not often very useful at its broadest, Mario, Mark of the Ninja and Spelunky are all 2D platformers (which I'm defining as a 2D game with a jump button and platforms where jumping is necessary) but only Mario is thought of predominantly as a platformer, MotN is Stealth action game and Spelunky is a Roguelike. They're all undeniably platformers but they couldn't be more different and it isn't useful to think of the latter 2 as platformers. Genres also have confusing overlap and separations, what is a horror game? A simple way to think about it is a game that elicits horror, now what is the gameplay of a horror game like? Is it a visual novel (Higurashi)? A walking sim (Outlast), an FPS (Resident Evil)? Because any of these tags can describe a game's genre but as soon as its main objective is to elicit horror the main way people think of it is "horror game" regardless of mechanics. There's also games which are Horror secondary, Bioshock is usually thought of as an FPS with a horror tone but one tag describes gameplay the other describes emotions, when does one dominate the other? Its nebulous and I think that's a core problem with defining JRPGs. A lot of the games that qualify are not thought of as JRPGs they are thought of primarily as something else.

One more food for thought, RPGmaker is on the list, which might not even be considered a game, its a software to craft "RPG"s but that is not a game in the same way Unity and Flash are not games, they're tools. Are the games made using it considered JRPGs? The software has all the tools needed to make an RPG with turns, items, levelling and anything else you could think of to rip off early FF but you don't need to use any of them and you might just make a walking simulator (To the Moon) which is distinctly not an RPG. Okay now say you remove all combat, levelling and items from an early Final Fantasy (rendering it a walking simulator merged with a visual novel) is it still a JRPG? probably not, it'd no longer be an RPG, now add back in enough elements to make it an RPG, say you talk enemies into submission like in Fallout, wouldn't this make Ace Attorney a JRPG? A visual novel with "enemies to defeat", "inventory management", and "anime style characters". Most would still say no, Ace Attorney is generally considered a visual novel or a detective game but it mostly satisfies the requirements of a JRPG, granted, about as much as it counts as a romance game.

Here's the rub, JRPGs themselves at their inception are largely inspired by Western RPGs. Wizardry and Ultima are very direct influences on Dragon Quest, one of the prototypical JRPGs and anything closely inspired by it is considered a JRPG but who's to say a western game with cartoony graphics wasn't also inspired by Ultima rather than Dragon Quest? would it still be a JRPG? that's up for interpretation and guessing the developer intent. The problem with inspirations is it's somewhat of a tangled web and it's hard to say if something directly/solely inspired something else. An example would be the Suzanne Collins controversy when people noted Hunger Games bore a strikingly similar premise to Battle Royale both featuring a death game involving teens tasked to kill each other at the behest of a dystopian government. Collins claimed to have never heard of Battle Royale and instead gotten the idea from channel surfing between Survivor and news coverage of a war, despite the similarities I'm inclined to believe her without evidence to the contrary. The Running Man was a movie with a loose version of the premise from over a decade before Battle Royale was published and I wouldn't suggest Battle Royale is based on it but rather that a death game run by a dystopian government isn't that far fetched of an idea to independently come up with. Contrast to A Fistful of Dollars which is a very close retelling of Yojimbo which could not be refuted as a straight rip of the older film. Essentially, inspirations and intent is a tangled web and some games might get pulled into the JRPG genre despite not being directly influenced by a JRPG or being inspired by one.

Ultimately it comes back to perception, no one will argue Final Fantasy isn't a JRPG and no one will argue Call of Duty is a JRPG but where a definition needs to be careful is the grey area in between, I think most people would consider Genshin Impact a JRPG if you count games heavily inspired by JRPGs but not everyone agrees there. I don't personally consider Dust: An Elysian Tail a JRPG given it's predominately a Metroidvania (which falls under platformers usually) and neither Metroid nor Castlevania are considered RPGs, the art style is vaguely anime-lite but American cartoons can have a similar art style without being anime inspired but more than anything else because the game is lightly steeped in Korean culture, the game's cover has a Korean subtitle and a few references to Korean culture are mixed in such as Kimbap and the Halmeoni Pendant but I wouldn't fault someone who considers it a JRPG. And that's the takeaway, similar to questions like "What qualifies as anime?" or "What is a game?", I could try to define JRPG but where I draw the line in the sand you might disagree and where you draw the line I might disagree and neither of us are right or wrong unlike defining genres with stringent definitions like Roguelikes, Visual Novels or Souls-likes.

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    I think this answer could be edited down quite a bit. From my understanding, it is a very long winded way of saying that genres are not a strict classification, instead they try to give a name to some traits you commonly find in some games but not in others (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_resemblance). I think this answer would be greatly improved if it would give a summary of those traits specific to JRPG and remove most/all the talk about other genres and games (at least clearly separate those as examples of NOT being considered JRPGs). – Simon Lehmann Nov 5 '20 at 14:44
  • Character Customization is Western. You don't do backstory in JRPGs, IIRC. You pick a class or are a set character and that's it. ... Making my own answer... – Malady Nov 5 '20 at 15:58
  • Without TLDR this answer is a bit too long. And actually I don't see an answer in the answer: Is Genshin Impact JRPG or not? It feels wrong to discuss from where game come from: J stand for type of game, at that time japanese games (not all, but such games) were all like this, so it's totally irrelevent where another such game was made. Russians can make JRPG (actually everybody can make such game with rpg-maker). – user135338 Nov 5 '20 at 16:12
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If the first WRPG is Akalabeth, and the first JRPG is Tower of Duruga...

Then it sets trends of how Character Creation works in each type of game, although, by now, they're patterns have stopped repeating, sometimes.

If you get control of your initial stat allocation, then WRPG. If you don't, then JRPG.

And selection of classes doesn't count as stat allocation. I mean like saying directly, 5 in Strength, etc, instead of presets.

But that was the past, now we have games that take influence from a wider range of things and each other than before, such that we probably can only define as plain RPG, without W or J prefixes, such as Dark Souls? Unless there has been a raging debate somewhere about where Dark Souls is on the J/W-RPG continuum or whatever...

And I also say that MMORPGs are a different sort of beast compared to Single-Player RPGs, due to a subscription model trying to get a different sort of player compared to Single-Player...

Then there's the gacha mechanic of Genshin Impact, which is something most RPGs don't have?

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  • But there are plenty of classic JRPGs that allowed for stat allocation, like FF. Even Genshin Impact allows for stat allocation through the use of equipment and gear. With your logic, are they not JRPGs then? – sayu Nov 5 '20 at 19:03
  • @sayu - Which FF? I'm quite sure not FF 1 and 2? – Malady Nov 5 '20 at 19:10
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    @Malady Any number of games feature stat allocation rooted from D&D style pen and paper RPGs which many early RPGs are heavily based in but there's no rhyme or reason to which are JRPGs or not based on this. Western RPGs such Undertale don't have stat systems and Western MMORPGs such as WoW stick to the class structure which doesn't have initial stat allocation. On the flip side the Souls and Drakengard series do allow for initial stat allocations à la Fallout. You say the trends have moved away from this but then how is this a useful heuristic to determining JRPGs? – Gatchwar Nov 5 '20 at 21:54
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    @Malady MMORPGs are quite different than single player games but just because there's MMO trappings on top of a JRPG doesn't make it not a JRPG it just means people tend to think of it as a MMORPG made in Japan, it doesn't change that they're RPGs and if they're made in or heavily inspired by Japan then they have the J of JRPG as well. Besides would anyone claim any mainline FF or DQ is not a JRPG? because FFXIV and DQX are both very popular MMORPGs based on undeniably JRPG foundations – Gatchwar Nov 5 '20 at 23:28
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    You don't set your character's attributes at the start of Skyrim, just pick a race and class (which this answer specifically says does not count as setting attributes). Guess that means Skyrim is a JRPG. – Dave Sherohman Nov 7 '20 at 13:03

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