I used to love Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs). Phantasy Star II on the Sega Genesis was the first to completely possess me. Soon after, there was Lunar: The Silver Star, the Evangelion-inspired Xenogears, Final Fantasy IV and VI and VII. These were demanding games, consuming games, games that usually required a minimum 40-hour workweek to complete, back before I knew what such time commitments could do to a person.
But even in the JRPG heyday of the ’90s, there was a central element I never liked. I could go along with the melodramatic plots, the broad characters, certainly all the maps and amazing music. But not the one thing that actually took up the most time — the random encounter battles. One minute you’re exploring a new continent, right in time with the swell of the overworld theme, poised to plumb the depths of some hidden chasm, when suddenly: breach. The screen blurs and in come the patient, turn-taking servants of the Dark Lord.
The thing is, I like confrontation. The duel, the fierce engagement, the heated conversation, all face-to-face. When people stop being polite and start getting real. It’s not so much the conflict I crave as the chance to encounter something up close and personal, something that pushes back against my will, something unexpected but perhaps also true.
Of course, this is not what the random encounter of a JRPG offers. It is distanced, impersonal, expected, not even interested in true. It provides instead polite repetition, immanently manageable, where there’s no pesky physicality to bog you down, and everything can be overcome eventually with enough preparation and know-how. Run into trouble? You can grind levels, farm materials, craft new items, fill out that skill tree, and always, always shop. I believe the technical term for this range of activity is "video-game bullshit."
The turn-based version of the random encounter is even further removed from the moment of action. It ensures that not even time itself will get in the way of mastering the JRPG’s true heart: its systems. Predictable, stable, closed systems are what you’ll be administering to keep these scripted battles humming along. If you follow your instructions, know your numbers, and put in your time, victory is inevitable.
I sense this is exactly what many JRPG fans love about the genre. What I’ve never understood, though, is how one can willingly, even delightfully, repeat these encounters hundreds of times within a single game. I understand the appeal of meditative repetition, of ritual. But these aren't zone-out types of games; at least I’m rarely able to play them that way. JRPGs are too fussy, require too much working memory to keep track of the bloated inventories, the character spreadsheets, the who goes best with what and where. And once they do become rote enough to mindlessly menu through, why endure the rank monotony at all?
Still, as one who once did endure it and found its pleasures where I could, I have a soft spot for the genre. So I took up 3 modern variants of the JRPG — one "pure," one tactical, one action — all from venerable series I had never played. The Nintendo 3DS announced itself as the home for such old-school pleasures this spring with the release of Etrian Odyssey IV, Fire Emblem: Awakening, and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. I wanted to see just what kinds of encounters the genre I’d abandoned more than a decade ago now had to offer.
Surprisingly enough, Etrian Odyssey IV eschews almost everything but the random encounters. No characters, except for the party of ciphers you cobble together, no town-filled overworld, no cut scenes, and hardly a plot on which to hang the usual overwrought save-the-world histrionics. In this way, it feels like a pure, distilled JRPG, and the lack of distraction is welcome.
There is thus nothing to disguise the fact that the game is random encounter after random encounter, with the occasional boss. In each one, you do not attack; you choose "attack" from a menu. This is not an insignificant difference. The extra mediation slows the feedback loop and leads to a remote, anemic experience. Each encounter is with a world of menus, flat and bodiless, without true collision detection, without any real space at all. In this way, battles are abstracted until they occupy some comforting mind-space, filled with predictable systems and attractive anime GIFs.
As such, Etrian Odyssey IV’s encounters play more like puzzles than fights. Which sounds intriguing until you realize they’re puzzles with extremely simple solutions that you must resolve over and over (hint: the answer’s always the same). The enemy has no discernible AI, only simple scripts to follow, and your own options remain markedly limited until much later in the game. Even then, only the boss FOEs roaming about will bring out the hacker in you to test the limits of the game’s systems. Outside that, it’s back to the old grind again. No alarms, no surprises.
Perhaps the only real surprise is how little these encounters have changed in 25 years. They're more colorful, user-friendly, and smooth, yes. And so brazenly familiar. Even the status and elemental effects draw from the same well — poison, sleep, ice, and fire. Have there been no innovations in this regard since the ’80s? Can characters not suffer from something more interesting or relatable? Say, OCD? Constipation? Hiccups?
The connective tissue surrounding these encounters does have its appeal. You draw your own map on the lower screen, though it’s mostly just paint-by-numbers cartography. There’s little personal interpretation, and thus little of the thrill in a map’s ability to represent imperfectly; your map and mine will probably look remarkably alike in the end. And while carving new paths through a space and learning your own limits so as not to overextend yourself are both real pleasures, it is perhaps the sudden lightness you feel after unloading all your loot from a particularly deep dive that satisfies most.
Still, it raises the question: Just how many times can you do this? Both within a single game and over the years? You inch forward, through dungeons and menus, through skills trees and side quests, and it’s always the same and it’s never enough. You buy a weapon or a piece of armor, one that you’ve been eyeing for a while, one that really boosts your stats, and then you’re not 20 minutes in the field before you feel the pinch of some new enemy and the inadequacy of your equipment. In this way, JRPGs resemble a nightmare world ruled by Apple, where obsolescence is immediate and inadequacy looms over all. What can you do but start angling for the next upgrade, world without end.
I tried to imagine the lives and personalities of my party members in Etrian Odyssey IV. But my fortress only became more impregnable, my nightseeker more assassinating. The tactical Fire Emblem: Awakening goes the other way, piling on more vivid character types than you could ever possibly use. The story they inhabit is not far removed from the usual kingdoms at war plus ancient evil hokum, but at least the localized dialogue is punchy and the music stirring.
The unique draw in Fire Emblem is the ability to pair off couples toward greater intimacy, up to marriage (except for same-sex pairings, which the game inexplicably never allows to move beyond "great friends"). Relationships confer advantages on the battlefield, and to build these connections, you do not have characters choose "make eyes" or "woo"; you simply stand on adjacent squares and have traumatic wartime experiences together. Have enough of these, and each will lend the other greater support in battle, until the couple finally becomes a bona fide superteam. Loyal, lethal, and totally in love.
The encounters themselves are elegant affairs, especially early on. Your mini-army acts as a kind of super-organism, expanding and contracting across the chessboard battlefield. Your tactical sense of space, its shifting boundaries and danger zones, is as crucial to victory as keeping track of the distinct abilities of your people. Fire Emblem wisely remembers that, in chess, each piece’s attack power and hit points are effectively 1; only mobility and position matter. And so, the game keeps its stats and loot relatively simple — there are different weapons to gather, but no armor; items are minimal, and all numbers are kept low.
When I first experienced the unique tactics of character pairings, I thought, "Finally, a marriage of story and mechanics. More sense, less ludonarrative dissonance." But this was, of course, premature. Because I’m also a fan of permadeath, I had chosen the "classic" mode in which characters lost are gone for good. Early in the game, I was determined to live with loss, so when Virion, my preening archer, died in the fifth battle, I let him go. However, as my characters became more powerful, and the game harder, it became more difficult to relinquish any tactical advantage. Especially since I tended to grow attached to and use the same characters over and over again, never developing a particularly deep bench.
By mid-game, there was only one satisfying conclusion to each battle: total victory. And if I lost a single character, I would invoke that familiar playground mantra — DO OVER — and reset my 3DS. This was cheating, I knew, but I didn’t like how conservative and risk-averse the game encouraged me to play otherwise. As the difficulty continued to increase and I was presented with ever more options, I felt my tactical mind begin to infringe on my narrative sense. Maybe pairing characters according to my usual "opposites attract" school of thought didn’t allow for the optimal use of their respective skill sets. My thinking was becoming systematic and practical, and my early matchmaking experiments had become fraught with that particular video-game anxiety of "not doing it right."
Near the end, almost 30 hours in, I’d grown tired of doing it right. The tactics weren't expressing anything interesting about the characters or their relationships; they were leading them by the nose. In one particularly grueling battle, the daughter of my leader Chrom was cut down unexpectedly. I prepared to reset the system when suddenly, in that same turn, Chrom’s wife, Sumia, a charmingly clumsy Pegasus Knight, was also killed by a freak last-minute blow. I wanted to see how the game would respond to this, or wouldn’t, so I dutifully finished the battle. And sure enough, Chrom blithely declared victory and began the usual intermission chatter, with no indication that his wife and child lay dead in the field.
This story, of world-ending loss on the brink of ultimate victory, became more interesting to me than the game’s actual apocalyptic plot. When Chrom’s daughter then showed up in the next mission anyway, the game having assumed I would never let her die, I knew what I had to do. I took Chrom’s imagined grief, in light of the world’s obliviousness, and had him lead his trusted friends, crazy-eyed, into the next battle. Wherein he promptly sent each one to the frontline to be slaughtered, before facing the inexorable emperor and being struck down himself.
This became my Fire Emblem story. It wasn’t a happy story, but it was mine. In a game plagued with so much dissonance, it seemed the right ending for me. I’d actually like to see "failed" endings taken more seriously in games (in my XCOM, the aliens won). Stories and characters aren't just systems to be optimized. When treated this way, you get the dull tales of destiny and soft-headed, sentimental endings typical of the genre. Not the losses that made games like Final Fantasy VII and Phantasy Star II so memorable (RIP, sweet Nei).
Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate makes a god-awful first impression. The early hours reveal a game filled with nearly everything I hate about JRPGs: extensive inventories, elaborate crafting, countless modification options for weapons and armor, at least three interrelated economies, and resource farming (literally — you develop an actual farm). In other words, a surfeit of insular, mind-numbing stuff. Had I not heard so much praise for the series from gamers I respect, I never would've made it past the opening tutorials.
When the titular monsters finally do appear, though, they surprise with their lack of fussy data. In fact, they don’t even have a standard health bar, only appearance and behavior. Is the beast limping, maybe drooling? How does it seem? Worn out? Fierce and desperate, like a cornered animal? There are no numbers to quantify this seeming. Instead, you sense an agency in these creatures you’re hunting. Though they possess only a moderately more intentioned AI than that of most video-game enemies, they impress with a remarkable sense of presence onscreen.
Actually tangling with each beast is neither elegant nor given to displays of badassery. They are messy, awkward, exhausting affairs, spread out across multiple zones, lasting nearly an hour each, and filled with more missed connections than contact. When I first realized I could center the screen on the creature but not lock on, I thought there must be some mistake. Then I realized this was precisely the point. I had to actually hit the beast, not establish some invisible video-game tether and then wail on the buttons.
To encounter something in space, for bodies to have consequence — this is a rich source of drama. And Monster Hunter takes its 3-D space seriously. You move around or behind or under a creature, and the prepositions signify an actual relationship between bodies. The game’s various weapons don’t simply have different attack values; they cut through the game space with unique lengths, speeds, and angles. This adds up to a powerfully embodied encounter with each monster, and it’s a rarity not just among JRPGs, but among video games in general.
Of course, this only really works when a game’s collision detection is fine-grained enough to parse the difference between a nick and a near-miss. When I first fought the Royal Ludroth, I marveled at how its rolling attack would sometimes miss me, even when I was in the way. Not because of some detection error, but because the arc of its roll had natural safe spots that I sometimes found myself in. This wasn’t just some janky death box smashing into me; this was a precise, articulated lionfish I was wrestling with.
Many of my favorite Monster Hunter moments happened around the edges of these encounters. I’d walk into a clearing and see the monster before it would see me, just going about its business there, doing whatever it is monsters do. Mid-battle, it would limp away or pause to catch its breath and I would pity the wounded creature and imagine an unlikely truce, until we were back at it again. And at the end, the game would always force me to stay with its corpse for exactly one minute after the killing. I would observe its broken majesty, slack-jawed, dead-eyed, curved in on itself and lacking that vital, virtual spark that had made it so fearsome to behold just moments before.
All of this colors the hunt and makes each encounter more intimately felt. You can’t help but respect these colossal beasts because the game respects them, as well. Even when you finally bring one down and gut it for resources, the game doesn’t allow you to forget what you’re doing. The armor you forge from its body actually looks like the poor thing, so you end up wearing its skin like a serial killer. It serves as both trophy and evidence of your crime, but the game doesn’t really judge. It just acknowledges that monster hunting is not without its regrets.
The encounter at the core of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is brilliant, and this isn't even considering the experience of sharing the hunt with other players (which the 3DS makes sadly difficult). But in the end, I could not ignore the tedious JRPG conventions the game layers around that remarkable core. Once I defeated the mighty Lagiacrus, I walked away, even though my 30 hours was only a small fraction of the hundreds the game had to offer. I missed out on many of the most impressive beasts because I simply couldn’t stomach the resource gathering, armor chasing, and all the rest.
I’m left to look at the series in the future tense and hope that it will eventually shed every JRPG convention that detracts from the core encounter. I like to imagine this future Monster Hunter set in an open world with a robust ecosystem ripe for unexpected interactions and emergent situations, full of beasts with even more diverse and unpredictable AI, punctuated by moments of quiet among sweeping vistas, and given to an even fuller embodiment through which we might inhabit its space and encounter its creatures.
I’m not sure if there will ever be a truly great JRPG, one that speaks beyond itself and its conventions. I’m not even sure if there's a demand for one. Aficionados will probably tell me there's an entire language here, full of beauty and nuance, which I simply don't speak. And without fully re-engaging the genre, how can I disagree? Or justify my suspicion that insularity is a large part of the appeal?
Still, a video-game genre doesn’t get to define all the terms of engagement. Perhaps even less so than in other media because of the crucial, irksome role of the player. I obviously had little use for Etrian Odyssey, but I did truly love the core of Monster Hunter. And I was having a lot of fun with Fire Emblem up until I wasn’t. I suppose the bigger problem for me is that the JRPG is one of the most conservative genres in a very conservative medium, and I ultimately find its values suspect.
I won’t claim that the classic JRPGs are any better or that some golden age is long past. I simply haven’t played the old ones recently enough to have an opinion about how they hold up. And while I’m curious about the experience of replaying a beloved Final Fantasy, after wrestling with these three games, I doubt I’ll try that anytime soon. I’m already fairly certain I couldn’t stomach more than about 10 minutes of Phantasy Star II.
A video game becomes "unplayable" once you're no longer willing to do what it asks of you. And of course this depends on the times, on expectations, on age. For someone who’s loved games as long as I have, I’m surprised at how many things I’m now unwilling to do. And yet, I’m willing to do other things that games only rarely ask of me. To slow down and dwell, to feel out, to fail. I end up playing video games wrong, seeking within them my own rough encounters, as if this improvised act of engagement might lead me to something messy, unforeseeable, incomplete, but true.