Growing up, some of my favorite times bonding with my father was playing video games with him or watching him play them. He introduced me to cool games like Mario Kart and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I discovered The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the first time when I snuck downstairs past bedtime and found him playing. This became a trend over time. My dad realized that it was a lot of fun having me watch the games he was playing, and I couldn’t take my eyes off these games that were so much more than what I was playing.
I vividly remember watching a majority of Final Fantasy IX. My dad named the protagonist “FEEFER” which has been my family nickname since the beginning of time. It probably helped that my name was what he decided to name the protagonist, but I probably would have continued to watch either way. He kept with the trend of naming characters after members of the family with Steiner being renamed as “Daddicus” and Amarant Coral being named as “the flaming Precious” after our cat. The names were not the only thing that kept me entertained. Watching the monkey-tailed FEEFER travel throughout Gaia was much like watching a cool cartoon or film, except that the characters were on journeys that were much more interesting.
Seeing little blue mages wander around, towns that held annual hunting festivals, and airships that could fly created a new spark of imagination inside of me. The fake play I Want To Be Your Canary along with the sword fight was a seat-burner the first time I watched it. As my father attempted to hit the buttons correctly on the mark I would jump up and shout in excitement when it went drastically right or wrong. Then later during the play when characters that aren’t meant to be on stage show up I found it just as hilarious as the cartoons I would watch on TV.
I like to compare my time with Final Fantasy IX to my experience with Star Wars growing up because they both created very similar feelings. While there was plenty of media I was consuming about fantastic scenarios that couldn’t take place on our planet, Final Fantasy and Star Wars both cared about informing the player about their fictional worlds so much more. The castles seemed like they reached higher than the clouds, the people were all so different from anything I had experienced before and the monsters were all unique to me. I was an adolescent devourer of worlds.
This experience is not exclusive to me, many JRPGs are built to attract younger audiences without specific messaging to signal such. The worlds are always unique and explorable on a macro or micro scale. JRPGs start by allowing the player to explore the little town that they start in, unless there are special cases such as the beginning of Final Fantasy VI or Lost Odyssey. The protagonist wanders around and talks to people who inform them about what is currently going on in the town or with their lives. Typically these towns also have stores that are staples across all games in the genre as well. There is always an inn for the characters to restore their energy, a shop that allows the player to buy and sell items, and sometimes you get other things like taverns, restaurants, or magic shops.
Many JRPGs have characters that seem fairly easy to grasp in the beginning of the game. Using Skies of Arcadia as an example, it is clear that a girl, who is probably royalty, is running away from an empirical force. Alfonso flips his hair with a cocky attitude as he shoots down the girl’s ship, leaving a bad impression easily that we have found our villain. Before the empire does anything to the girl though a ship shows up from the cover of the clouds and attacks the empire. Vyse shows up and we can only assume he is the protagonist as he jumps from the birds nest, slides down a rope and gives a sassy remark to an empire soldier. “You guys have the best stuff”, he says as if he is simply a greedy character. It is clear that accidentally saving the princess won’t be the last interaction that the two characters have.
These characters are typically under 18 too, making it easier to identify with a younger player audience. Games like Tokyo Mirage Sessions, Tales of Graces, Earthbound, and even Pokemon tell stories that begin with the protagonist leaving their parents’ house.
Many people make fun of the character and fashion design in JRPGs because of how over the top they can sometimes be. That is not always the case, there are outfits that are just fitting like Yuri Lowell from Tales of Vesperia and the mystery team’s clothing in Persona 4. There isn’t anything incredibly exaggerative in the games because they fit the characters’ well. For every Chie there must be a Tidus however, and Tidus is a severe case. These costumes, exaggerated or simple, can be a good thing for growing kids because it is a way for them to understand the differences in identity between characters. There are personalities that help them with this but having a favorite character with a cool purple cape that flows behind them may help a kid form an opinion about what clothes they like and dislike. Hopefully that doesn’t mean that they will actually want to wear the same outfit as Tidus though because….well….
One of the smart ways that many games of the genre are designed around is that they can be easily picked up, but difficult to master. Final Fantasy XIII is a great example of this because of the mundane emphasis that the game put on the basics of the battle system. The first 20-35 hours in the game can be mostly overcome through basic attacks and the title even added an auto function for these moments. For many, it came across as a boring battle system that was repetitive and uninteresting. However, XIII’s battle system was not unlike what other JRPG systems are like. Typically the beginning of the game has a lot of characters simply attacking and it isn’t until much later where bosses or large battles show up that encourage the player to use other abilities. It just was problematic that XIII expected the player to need that much time to feel comfortable. Other games like Kingdom Hearts and the Tales series have done a great job at finding how to make a battle system that can be simple to use but difficult to master, allowing players of all ages to access them.
The monsters in JRPGs are always a draw themselves, sometimes more so than any of the other elements. This is why entries in series that contain a lot of fan service focus on their monsters. Over the course of any series these monsters reoccur, exuberating their familiar personalities. Looking at a series like Dragon Quest there is a large emphasis on the monsters, especially the slimes. There is so much adoration for these creatures that they even have their own titles such as Dragon Quest Monsters, and Slime Mori Mori Dragon Quest (the only entry of this in America being Rocket Slime).
Growing up I ended up fitting perfectly into the age group for the Kingdom Hearts series when it launched in 2002. Square Enix must have realized from the popularity of their Dragon Quest games with kids that there was something to the idea of combining adolescent-aimed cartoons with their long-running RPG franchises. What kid didn’t want to “beat the crap” out of Hades and summon Genie to help them fight? It ended up being a hugely successful tactic too as the games have birthed 8 titles (not including remakes) that are still ongoing. Kids would talk to each other during class about their theories. “Is Sephiroth really the other half of Cloud”? “All of this leads to Mickey being the creator of the heartless”.
Whether it was newcomers to the genre, or kids like me that had experience the game really did a great job of introducing kids to complex story. Bonds triumphing over darkness, surrealism, and existentialism are all essential parts to the makeup of Kingdom Hearts. It got all of the kids in my school to become conspiracy theorists before they ever experienced anything like Lost or Game of Thrones. In middle school Kingdom Hearts was making our minds inflate like balloons.
Kingdom Hearts released over a decade ago however, which means that the young audience that Square Enix once had has grown up. So while there was a huge outcry for the announcement of the third title a couple years ago there is a new audience of kids that are ready to be swept off of their feet by something new.
Next month World of Final Fantasy is going to be releasing to a mass of people that have never been exposed to Square Enix’s vast roster of big hair and odd fashion choices. The director and writer, Hiroki Chiba, has stated that the game is being made to target younger audiences since what used to be their young audience has grown with their games. Despite my age I am actually pretty excited for it as well. Even if they took out the fan service of characters from other games and it was an original title I wouldn’t mind diving into another world where the focus of the story is being a kid. A lot of JRPGs have drifted into creepy sexual themes or dark tones so it will be nice to not worry about those for once and listen to moogles and small snarky kids. I won’t get to experience anything the same way as when I watched my dad play Final Fantasy IX or when I first played through Kingdom Hearts but I can pretend for just a small amount of time that there are less things to worry about just like I did back then.
Header image by Elisa Ann Sabella. Her website can be found here: http://elisann.com/ and the image URL here: http://paiwayunder7.deviantart.com/art/Relm-and-Uncle-Ulty-150520661