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It’s okay for a grown man to play Japanese video games
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It’s okay for a grown man to play Japanese video games

Not exactly the manliest of protagonists

Not exactly the manliest of protagonists

It’s a bit hard to swallow, but I’ll just make it clear: I absolutely admit that I am in love with JRPGs (for the uninitiated, that stands for Japanese Role Playing Games). They’re like my guilty pleasure, my summertime kitschy romance novel. Yes, I understand the stories are often pseudo-philosophical ramblings with juvenile solutions to non-problems. Yes, I understand that the style of art can either be considered childish or overtly paedophilic. Yes, I understand that at their core, every JRPG is essentially the same. Still, I collect them, play them, and love them. I blame my childhood introduction to the NES hit Final Fantasy as the start of this dark path.

One game I recently became enraptured with was Namco Bandai’s Eternal Sonata. I remember fondly the warm memories of me rushing to hide it from my friend Jeff when he unexpectedly stopped by my house. I knew that if he saw the big-eyed lead character “Polka” on screen, he would be relentless in his mockery. And why is this? Why should I be embarrassed that I am enjoying a game with an art style that may not fit the American cultural norm? While the art style can be considered juvenile in games like this, the stories are often very much adult.

Let’s look at the story for a moment. Never in my life did I think I would play a video game based on the comatose dreams of a dying Frédéric Chopin. My children played the game with me, and they learned more about classical music and 19th century European history than any other 4th and 5th graders I’ve met. They connected with Chopin, taking newfound pride in their Polish heritage, and discovered a fondness for piano. Yes, the lead character looks ridiculously cute and goofy, but she is a terminally ill heroine on a quest to find meaning in her tragically shortened life. I admit that the story gets a little too crazy in the end, and degenerates into the kind of stuff that provides conversational fodder for nerdy 15 year old girls who hang out in coffeeshops; but still, there is validity and fulfillment to be found even for a modern gentleman like myself.

I recently reviewed Valkyria Chronicles and that got me thinking. I was extremely happy with the game, and I consider it one of the better games I’ve ever played, but the juvenile attempts at romance and humor were slightly embarrassing. There are cutscenes involving a winged pig that the antagonist and his team pick up on their travels that are downright silly and awkward to watch. At the same time, there are story elements and characters that only adults would be able to comprehend, so the question must be asked: Who is this written for? My kids lost interest in the story almost immediately because it was a bit too complicated; yet they giggled and enjoyed the pig scenes and the simple love story.



It’s things of that sort that lead me to believe that ultimately, it’s a cultural thing I’ll never grasp. After all, Japanese pop culture is liberally sprinkled with “cute”, from advertising to retail product branding and everything in between. It even has a name, and is a fundamental part of modern Japanese culture. Whereas to westerners, Kawaii may seem juvenile or off-putting, we still smirk and snicker at the cuteness factor and realize that, maybe because of Anime and video games, it is becoming a small part of our culture too. After all, we could all do with a bit more positive energy in our lives, right? I’m not saying that most JRPGs are Kawaii, but there is definitely some in almost every JRPG I’ve ever played (usually in the form of an animal, or comic relief). Think “Mog” from Final Fantasy VI. This game had one of the most psychotic, evil villains in video game history, but there was Mog to lighten things up for us.

Let’s turn the tables for a minute. Take a look at western game characters. They’re all overblown, oversexed paragons of masculinity/femininity. The male heroes are huge musclebound tough guys with a gruff demeanor, sarcastic smartass attitudes, and big guns. The female leads are all minxes, with outfits that you’d only see at fetish shows, and they all kick ass and take names. Try, for a moment, to put yourself in the Japanese mindset. As a mental exercise, take yourself out of the picture, forget your culture, and see western video game characters with new eyes—perhaps they are a tad ridiculous as well?


MERIKA. FUCK YEAH. Imagine what this looks like to a Japanese person.

I can appreciate the fact that playing the game as an anime character brings the “game” back into the game. Video games are a form of escape; most of the time, I don’t necessarily want a super-realistic experience. If I do, I can always pop in an NHL game, or Ghost Recon, or Call of Duty. Those are fantasies in their own right (not many of us can join special ops, or become professional athletes), but sometimes you just want to leave this world behind entirely. When you want that, I’d rather go past the uncanny valley of realistic people in fantastic situations; I’d rather have fantastic people in fantastic situations. When I want to let go and just immerse myself in cuteness, or kitsch, or a juvenile storyline, I have to tell myself “It’s okay to play as a 13 year old girl. It’s okay to be a cute little animal with a sword. It’s okay to cry when Aeris dies.”

It’s okay.


  1. Thrax
  2. FelixDeSouze
    FelixDeSouze I can't complain about JRPG's -- Some are very good and yes, they are all pretty much the same.. But still enjoyable :)
  3. Snarkasm
    Snarkasm I like a JRPG as much as the next guy, but it's not like EVERY American game is filled with massive macho dudes (Portal, Half Life, COD4, Bioshock, Mass Effect...)

    I need to pick up some JRPGs when I get some spare time. Haven't had a good immersive game in a while.
  4. kryyst
    kryyst I enjoy JRPG's but I also find that they are pretty much all the same. Specially the recent run on them. They have become less about playing a role and more about clicking a few buttons between the CGI.

    Plus while it's true that many North American RPG's are the same. I'm am kind of growing tired of the JRPG formula of androgynous looking boy child grows up to save the planet from the evil overlord with his gaggle of friends.

    I just don't find I can get imeresed in a story line that plays out the same regardless of what I do. I can watch the CGI Eye Candy or (if I'm lucky) I can skip it. But the meat of the game is walk forward kill everything in sight. They seldom have branching quests or real decisions to make. North American RPG's usually at least give you a greater sense of freedom of exploration and a variety of side quests to do along the way. I find they are better at making me feel immersed in the story.
  5. Mochan
    Mochan I'm a diehard anime fan. I eat Moe and cute things for breakfast.
  6. UPSLynx
    UPSLynx I like JRPGs. I also like WRPGs. The older I get I find myself enjoying WRPGs moreso than JRPGs, mostly because the JRPG formula has become old to me as well.

    But it is interesting to note the cultural differences in the game types. Japan is hardly excluded from the over-sexed women look however. Their representation is just different then America's approach to the matter. With their cultural views being more open to sexuality, I'd suggest they push those boundaries more aggresively then we do.

    America has the 'space marines shoot up aliens' genre and Japan has the 'little boy grows up saves world' genre. And korea has 'play this MMO until I pass out'. It's all dependant on cultural views.
  7. drasnor
    drasnor As long as we're all coming out of the closet here I'll also admit that I watch anime and play JRPGs. I'm playing Ar Tonelico 2 now and mean to start Star Ocean 4 soon.

    -drasnor :fold:
  8. fatcat
    fatcat I've yet to meet a "grown man" on Icrontic

    exception: mondi.
  9. UPSLynx
    UPSLynx Drasnor - I played and really enjoyed Star Ocean the Second Story but missed out on Till The End of Time. Did you play it? Recommend?
  10. drasnor
    drasnor Till the End of Time was ok to Second Story's excellence. Unfortunately, Till the End of Time breaks the series (there won't be any more that happen AFTER it) so I'm not terribly fond of it for plot reasons. Having to train your party AI's was annoying as well (the AI controlling the rest of your party emulates your behavior last time you controlled each character. Characters you never play tend to act stupid.) The Star Ocean 1 remake for the PSP (using the Star Ocean 2 engine) is pretty enjoyable though.

    -drasnor :fold:
  11. cambrose
    cambrose Since I have been on campus so much lately due to 2ish hr breaks in between classes, I have been playing my DS again and getting random JRPGs...I surprisingly enjoy more than I initially had assumed I would. Unfortunately, the only console I have is my 360, I have very few options there.
  12. Mochan
    Mochan I liked Star Ocean 3 more than Star Ocean 2. I only loved Star Ocean 2 for the incredibly bad dub, it was so bad, it was good. Too bad the redo of SO2 on the PSP has a new dub. I'm gonna miss such famous lines as, "Claude has advanced forward!" "Mother!!!!"

    I still prefer JRPGs to WRPGs. I play both and enjoy both but I always connect with JRPGs better, even if WRPGs tend to have better gameplay mechanics. The best JRPGs are still my faves, and there are precious few of them, since a lot depend on the same old game mechanics.

    But last gen we had real gems like Persona 3/4 and Dragon Quarter; so far this gen there really hasn't been anything that stacks up to games like those.
  13. drasnor
    cambrose wrote:
    Since I have been on campus so much lately due to 2ish hr breaks in between classes, I have been playing my DS again and getting random JRPGs...I surprisingly enjoy more than I initially had assumed I would. Unfortunately, the only console I have is my 360, I have very few options there.
    The OP recommends Eternal Sonata (now $20 on 360). Lost Odyssey is also alright, and I'm getting ready to start Star Ocean 4.

    -drasnor :fold:
  14. primesuspect
    primesuspect Blue Dragon
    Enchanted Arms
    Lost Odyssey
    Eternal Sonata
    Last Remnant
    Star Ocean 4

    and so on. The jrpg list on the 360 is growing.
  15. Annes
    Annes Ugh...I HATED Enchanted Arms. I couldn't even sit through watching Eli play 20 minutes of it.
  16. Mochan
    Mochan Enchant Arms, Blue Dragon, these games were way too oldschool JRPG. It's hilarious how RPGs on the PS2 like Persona 3 and Dragon Quarter were more "nextgen" than these next gen RPGs.
  17. drasnor
    Mochan wrote:
    Enchant Arms, Blue Dragon, these games were way too oldschool JRPG. It's hilarious how RPGs on the PS2 like Persona 3 and Dragon Quarter were more "nextgen" than these next gen RPGs.
    What does this mean?

    -drasnor :fold:
  18. cambrose
    cambrose I'll look into those on the 360 when I get a chance, I have fifty or so games downloaded on the DS to still play.
  19. Mochan
    Mochan Just saying that the gameplay concepts of PS2 games like Persona 3/4 and Dragon Quarter were more advanced/nextgen than those you found in games like Blue Dragon or Enchant Arms, which were really throwback RPGs to the age of Final Fantasy IV.
  20. MrTRiot
    MrTRiot Runes of magic started off as being a JRPG. It's definitely pretty cool, and free too
  21. Mochan
    Mochan Is that an MMO?

    I just finished watching Tower of Druaga, Sword of Uruk. Druaga is the only big name JRPG MMO that I know of, but I'm not really into MMOs. I really only found out about it thanks to my anime obsession rather than my gaming obsession.
  22. Hinderence I don't bother with these games, despite them looking awesome, because of the turn-based-multiple-character gameplay. I'd like a game like Sonata that had one character and it was real time combat.
  23. primesuspect
    primesuspect Hinderence: Did you ever try the Tales series? They're also somewhat real-time.
  24. primesuspect

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