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The full article with screenshots and miscellaneous tid-bits was originally posted on the game design blog Significant-Bits. Unfortunately Gamasutra no longer allows hotlinking of non-https images, so only the charts are included here.
In the previous entry, I analyzed ten notable turn-based JRPGs from the 16-bit era. Each title was measured on how long it took to reach 12 different milestones common to the genre. My goal was to help quantify the amount of time required to “get into” these games by obtaining a certain level of comfort with their mechanics.
An additional goal was to measure how these metrics changed over time, which we can now observe with the 5th generation of consoles.
CD-ROM extensions existed in the previous generation, but this was the first time the medium became the prevalent storage format. This resulted in much more space for base assets as well as new elements such as prerecorded movies and voice overs. The extra production values sometimes came at the cost of loading times, but most games embraced the approach, especially for narrative purposes.
Another aspect of the 5th console generation that helped blur genre-lines was the memory card. Obtaining permanent upgrades and saving one’s progress was no longer the sole domain of JRPGs. This provided titles such as Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil room to breathe and pace out their experiences without relying on password systems or built-in battery backups.
JRPGs also started to include more real-time elements, and not just in their minigames. Series such as the Tales and Star Ocean showcased a more action oriented approach to combat and finally got Western releases. In fact, pretty much everything made it out to the West, including more offbeat JRPGs such as Koudelka, the SaGa games, and the Persona series.
During the 5th console generation I was catching up on classic CRPGs like Ultima VII and Betrayal at Krondor, and enjoying more contemporary PC releases like Fallout and Planescape: Torment. However, I was still firmly entrenched in the JRPG genre and checked out most of these titles upon release.
Final Fantasy VII – January 31, 1997
Starting off with a bang, Final Fantasy VII is largely credited with making JRPGs a mainstream genre in the west.
Following a dramatic split with Nintendo, SquareSoft embraced the CD-ROM and created the best selling and arguably the most beloved entry in the series. It was a huge production — and the first JRPG I recall seeing ads for on prime time TV — that ended up spawning a slew of side-games and leading to an ill-conceived CG movie.
Behind the scenes, FF VII was a bit of a rickety mess. Characters lacked texturing, FMVs were inconsistent, various parts of the game ran at a different FPS rate, and entire chunks were coded in isolation becoming separate executables launched by the main engine (I once worked with someone involved in the PC port, and he lamented trying to backtrace assembly variables from the minigames named “a”, “aa”, “aaa”, and so on).
FF VII starts off with a vary patient 46-second view of a starry night before the FMV kicks into full swing. The famous sweep over Midgard city quickly transitions to full player control as Cloud and the rest of Avalanche make their way to a Mako reactor.
The first enemies are felled in a cutscene and yield an item, and a scripted combat encounter follows right after. When the opponents are dispatched, Cloud levels-up and joins his companions as the party enters the dungeon-proper. The first save spot is encountered about 2/3 of the way through, and in just over 15 minutes the first boss battle takes place.
It’s a blistering pace, and when it finally slows down for some character development, it does so while providing a rest spot and an equipment store. The first ability-granting materia is eventually “unlocked” as well, but the quick pace and grandiose scale sputter as the player is forced to do a squats minigame to obtain a blonde wig — among various banal objectives — so that Cloud can crossdress as an escort for a local crime boss.
The game picks up yet again with another Mako reactor sabotage and a storming of the excellent Shin-Ra Tower, but it takes significantly more time to enter the overworld map.
Breath of Fire III – September 11, 1997
Taking the opposite approach of FF VII, BoF III uses fully 3D backgrounds with sprites representing characters and enemies. These are a big step up from the 4th console generation, appearing larger, more detailed, and fully animated. They also work really well with the colourful, cartoony environment textures — something that’s an issue for many PSX titles that relied on low-res CG environments and bland 3D models.
Breath of Fire III never won any major awards, but it cemented the series as Capcom’s flagship JRPG property.
Breath of Fire III is the first game to start off in the middle of a battle, but it’s not a challenging one. The player takes control of a baby dragon newly excavated from a giant crystal. The little drake proceeds to char all the miners he encounters, but is eventually knocked out and captured.
Following his imprisonment, the baby is shipped out of the mines in a little prison cart, but he shuffles around in the cage and eventually topples down a cliff… where he awakens as a naked little baby boy! It’s a great intro that sets up an interesting mystery, but the narrative immediately abandons it for unfocused, slice-of-life vignettes.
The protagonist is adopted by a small group of vagrants and the group attempts to steal some food, fails, tries again, fails again, gets punished with minigame-chores, then splits up to explore a side-area in a somewhat contrived fashion.
The meandering progression feels all the longer due to how text is handled in the game.
Even at the fastest speed, the text prints out slowly and can’t be sped up/skipped with button presses. It also has an animation for exiting out, and the whole text window animates in and out as different speakers say their lines. It’s painfully slow and is used to tell a rather mundane story, at least in the early parts of the game.
Mechanically BoF III comes in below the median for most 5th-gen gameplay milestones, but even there it comes across as unnecessarily prolonged. The player wakes up in a bed, but can’t rest there again until an arbitrary narrative point is reached. Boss encounters take place early on, but their conclusions are scripted and play out as gimmicky cutscenes. The first piece of gear is actually obtained in the intro segment, but can’t be equipped as the player doesn’t gain access to the entire in-game menu until roughly twenty minutes into the game!
It’s a bit of shame that BoF III felt like such a grind as it introduced various gameplay elements that firmly positioned it as a next-gen JRPG.
Xenogears – February 11, 1998
It seems SquareSoft was hedging its bets with Xenogears by taking a completely different development approach from Final Fantasy VII. FF VII had pre-rendered backgrounds, Xenogears was fully 3D; FF VII used 3D models for all characters, Xenogears used sprites; FF VII was filled with CG cutscenes, Xenogears relied on 2D anime clips.
In the end, both games had a bumpy development process. The latter parts of Xenogears were largely skipped over, replaced with simple sequences that narrated what should have been experienced by the player.
However, the game’s parallels to the hugely popular Neon Genesis Evangelion (the mechs, waxing philosophy, religious overtones, etc.) greatly resonated with fans. Xenogears became hugely successful, and even launched a spiritual successor in Xenosaga.
Xenogears has the first somewhat lengthy intro, but it still relinquishes control less than 10 minutes into the game. Resting and item acquisition happen right after, but exploring the town is a lengthy process.
Much like BoF III, text prints out at a painfully slow rate, and there’s no way to speed it up. It’s a common complaint that fans tried to address through a bit of hacking.
Text boxes are typically 4 lines tall, accommodate portraits where applicable, and can often be walked away from to terminate the dialogue à la Chrono Trigger. However, playing in a completionist fashion prevents this, and the NPCs have a lot to say. Their dialogue sequences are longer and more involved than in the last generation, and they often have secondary dialogues once the initial one is processed.
The biggest offender of this is a Lucca cameo where she takes a whopping 23 large text boxes (more than 4 lines), to explain game saving. Her diatribe could’ve easily been summarized as “You can save your game on the overworld map or at special markers.”
Fully exploring the starting town takes about 35 minutes, delaying various other milestones. Once the game finally proceeds to the first dungeon, random battles happen at a fairly high rate. The first level-up doesn’t take long to reach, and after some cutscenes a scripted mech fight takes place. The first special ability is awarded at its conclusion, and the player proceeds to get kicked out to the overworld map.
A second dungeon follows soon after wherein the first companion joins the party, the first piece of gear is found, and the first true boss is fought at just under 2 hours.
Legend of Legaia – October 29, 1998
Out of the 5th generation list, Legend of Legaia is a game that best exemplifies a cult-classic. It’s also the one that most resembles a 4th generation JRPG, albeit upgraded to full 3D for both characters and environments.
In a setup reminiscent of the Mistborn series, the protagonist starts off in a small town isolated by dangerous mists and the monsters that come with them. Once the intro finishes, the player can save their game, get an item, participate in a combat tutorial, and gain a new ability all within 10 minutes.
A slew of narrative cutscenes follow, but these are quite short and spread out with plenty of freedom in between. The narrative does a good job of introducing the gameworld and its characters, and the text can be skipped instantly with a button press. NPCs also say only one or two lines, and simply repeat the same text upon subsequent conversations.
Eventually a scripted encounter with the antagonist takes place, the protagonist levels up and gains some new equipment, and the overworld map opens up. It takes another 15 minutes or so to reach the first resting spot and the first dungeon.
Combat itself is quite frequent, takes a while to load, and lasts a fairly long time. Despite the battles often involving only two or three combatants, a lot of effort is spent on looking up combos, selecting attack inputs, and watching characters run up to each other and attack.
When the initial dungeon is conquered, a new PoV character is introduced. Since they eventually join the party, I noted this as the point at which they’re obtained. More narrative scenes and dungeon exploration follows, capped off by the first two boss battle.
Suikoden II – December 17, 1998
More so than any other game on the list, Suikoden II managed to recaptured my nostalgic love of JRPGs. I first played it well into the 6th generation, but Konami’s flagship series instantly clicked with me.
In a way it makes perfect sense as Suikoden II feels most like a direct evolution of 16-bit era JRPGs. The sprites are bigger, there are tons more custom animations, proper shading gives the tile maps an extra visual touch, the storyline focuses on political intrigue rather than an ancient evil, and the epic conflict is well represented with heavily scripted SRPG battles.
Suikoden II is widely considered the best of the series, and it was a big inspiration for this series of posts. My memories of it were certainly rose-tinted, so I definitely wanted to see how it stacked up against its contemporaries.
Suikoden II starts off very quickly, setting off international strife with an ambush on a young group of military recruits. The event is a sham orchestrated by the boys’ senior officers in order to provoke a war with the neighbouring nation.
The first 10 minutes bring mobility, items, combat, and a level-up. Text prints out almost instantly and NPCs don’t have a whole lot to say, although their dialogue often changes when new story beats are reached. Combat is also blistering-fast as all actions are queued up ahead of time and executed in a staggered, semi-simultaneous fashion.
Attack order, successful hits, damage amounts, etc., seem to be calculated when the player finishes their inputs, with the actual combat round simply playing the calculated animations. There are some delays here to show enemy strikes and mass-damage spells, but there’s a very quick flow to the battles and they allow for a maximum of 12 combatants — a huge increase over the typical 6-7 participants common to this generation.
When the opening finishes, the protagonist is captured by members of the enemy state and imprisoned. This section proved a lot longer than I remembered, lasting around 30 minutes as the protagonist is forced to perform various menial chores. However, none of it felt as aimless as BoF III’s post-opening as it was used for worldbuilding that directly tied into the political conflict of the intro.
There’s also plenty of new gameplay while serving the captors, with the first companions joining the party, gear upgrades being made available, the overworld map opening up, and the player finding a place to rest and save.
The hero eventually breaks out and journeys to his hometown through a dungeon, battling a boss along the way. The only milestone that is missing at this point is a new ability, but it takes another hour or so to start slotting runes in magic shops. It doesn’t feel that way, though, as plenty of new companions come packaged with unique abilities, and new combination attacks are automatically unlocked based on who’s in the party.
Final Fantasy VIII – February 11, 1999
The second Final Fantasy entry on the PSX featured upgraded character models and a divisive junctioning system that permeated all aspects of the game. Much like FF II’s learn-by-doing approach, the junctions were a drastic gameplay departure from the previous titles and the system buckled a bit under its own weight.
The game itself seemed to follow SquareSoft’s focus on anime and pop-culture trends, leaving all traces of medieval Europe for a sci-fi setting that included a military school for teenagers, beach imagery, and overtones of idol culture.
Over the years, FF VIII has garnered something of a darling status for its unabashedly unique gameplay conventions, but SquareEnix has not been quick to celebrate it (although it does look like the remaster is at least getting some voice-overs, if not a full remake like FF VII).
FF VIII’s intro takes 5 minutes, and is then an even slower grind for a completionist playthrough. In addition to various cutscenes, the opening area is quite big and requires plenty of backtracking. The exploration is also severely slowed down if the player wants to peruse the in-game lexicon that’s unlocked soon after gaining control.
This in-game encyclopedia contains not only a plethora of tutorials, including the entire ruleset and all variations for the card-battling minigame, but tons of extra flavour text, e.g., a history of the school, student conduct guidelines, a message board where a companion despairs about the lack of hot dogs, etc.
There is no gradual unlocking of all this text; its entirety is available right away despite FF VIII being by far the most systems-heavy game on the list. What’s worse, going through these tutorials doesn’t seem to flag them as having been viewed and completed — I was still forced to sit through the junctioning tutorial once I reached its trigger in the narrative even though I had already read it.
Once exploration of Balamb Garden kicks off, save and rest points are reached, followed by some optional combat. A strange design choice here is the potential to encounter a very powerful enemy that can easily defeat the protagonist, or a group of weak enemies that can repeatedly put him to sleep. This caused the first battle to last 5 minutes as I had no companions that could cure the status effect, and the enemies themselves had plenty of HP.
The combat area contains some items and spells, though, so exploring it is worth it.
When the player is ready to proceed, a companion joins up, the overworld map is unlocked, the first level-up takes place, the first dungeon is reached, and the first boss is fought all within roughly 15 minutes.
The only milestone that is not obtained in the first 2 hours is a gear upgrade. There is no armour in FF VIII — all external stat boosts are done via junctioning — and new weapons are slowly crafted by obtaining the necessary parts from enemies and various “refining” mechanics that take a while to unlock.
Chrono Cross – November 18, 1999
While not quite the departure of Radical Dreamers, Chrono Cross was a very indirect sequel. Xenogears was initially supposed to be the follow up to Chrono Trigger, but those plans were scrapped once the new project diverted in its own direction.
Chrono Cross felt like it wanted to do the same.
It swapped a small party of time-traveling adventurers for an almost Suikoden-in-size cast spread across two different dimensions. The narrative and gameplay had shades of Chrono Trigger, but those felt more tacked on rather than the core of the experience. The end product was well received overall, but heavily criticized for this disparity.
An intro FMV plays before the title screen, making the opening cutscene just over a minute long. The party starts off in dungeon with visible enemies, but it’s tricky not getting into at least one fight. Much like the FF games, combat loading is masked with a sweeping camera and summary screens, but plays out fairly quickly.
At the 8 minutes mark, the protagonist wakes up from the intro-dream and opens the blinds in his room; a clear homage to Chrono Trigger. There’s a hidden item close by and the bed provides a free rest point. Exploring the village itself takes about 20 minutes as there’s quite a bit to do.
In addition to a proper combat tutorial, there’s new gear and abilities to uncover, a secret companion to recruit, and even a side quest. Text prints out quite quickly and the villagers typically only have a few short things to say. However, a few do drone on and on about their lives using way more text than necessary — an emerging theme in this generation.
At just under the half-hour mark, the world map and saving is made available, and the first dungeon is entered. It takes another 15 minutes or so to complete it, encounter the first boss, and achieve the first level up.
The Legend of the Dragoon – December 2, 1999
Wanting to capitalize on the success of the FF VII, Sony commissioned its own “clone” of the game.
Developed internally by a large studio, The Legend of the Dragoon had the budget and scope to rival any Final Fantasy title. Its sales were quite strong upon release, especially in North America, but they quickly petered out and the game never got a sequel.
Much like Legend of Legaia, The Legend of the Dragoon has a cult following that remembers it fondly, but the game never attained the same status as the series that inspired it.
Despite another pre-title cinematic, The Legend of Dragoon has a lengthy 7-minute introduction. However, when the player gains control, the game takes a rather blistering pace.
Chests containing items and the first save spot are found right away, and a series of scripted fights result in the first level-up and new ability — 5 milestones in 5 minutes.
Combat has the same load-masking as Final Fantasy and the text prints out very slowly, but the starting town isn’t overly large. There are some hidden items, but most of the time is taken up with an optional combat tutorial. Once it’s completed, the overworld map opens up leading immediately to the first dungeon in just over 20 minutes.
The protagonist’s next destination, Hellena Prison, is a much different beast from the forest path leading up to it. It’s a positively huge dungeon, composed of many interlocking maps that contain different elevation paths, numerous patrolling enemies, interactive elevators and cable cars, and lots of optional treasure.
Various narrative cutscenes play while exploring the dungeon, and the protagonist is eventually joined by two companions, one of whom can equip a superior piece of gear found earlier on. A boss tries to stop the party, but once dispatched, a new location on the overworld map opens up that contains a rest spot.
Final Fantasy IX – July 7, 2000
SquareSoft’s final PSX JRPG was a thematic and aesthetic return to the titles of the 4th console generation. It kept the engine of FF VII and FF VIII, but embraced the medieval Europe look, used cartoony character designs, and centred on a more grounded narrative.
FF IX’s intro is split into multiple FMVs: one before the title screen, one as soon as the game starts, and one after a clever mock-battle where the party rehearses for a play. This interspersing of short FMVs continues throughout the game, never taking control away from the player for too long.
An item is stolen in the first battle, and the game quickly transitions to a new companion via a point-of-view character switch. However, the only other milestone to come in the next hour is a save point.
Despite this, FF IX doesn’t feel slow.
The POV oscillates as the opening is presented through the eyes of various party members. Each character has their own goals, and these are accompanied by minigames and other challenges not captured by the milestones. When the party comes together, a level-up and first real boss battle take place.
Eventually the group attempts to escape via an airship, but it’s damaged and crash-lands in a forest. This is the first chance to equip new gear, rest, and delve into a dungeon. While exploring the dense woods, the first permanent ability is obtained before opening up to the overworld map.
Valkyrie Profile – August 29, 2000
One of the larger departures from JRPG conventions, Valkyrie Profile eschewed the typical 3rd person camera for a side-scrolling adventure filled with giant, photo realistic props and well animated character sprites.
This stage-like presentation applied to the narrative as well, focusing on extended character-development segments that took place in small, singular areas. The nature of the storyline itself was also a departure, revolving around a macabre, non-linear quest to shepherd the souls of great warriors to fight in the apocalyptic Ragnarok.
Valkyrie Profile received a remake, a handful of ports, a sequel, and some side games, and is a constant presence on most top 5th generation JRPG lists.
An option for the opening movie/prologue is present on the title menu, making the vague backstory entirely optional.
Once in the game proper, the prevalence of voice acting instantly makes itself apparent. All the cinematic events are fully voiced, accompanied by slowly printing text bubbles. The two are synced fairly well, but there’s a delay after each segment as if to make sure the player has enough time to read all the text.
The problem with this approach is that it’s much faster to read text rather than listen to the full VO, and since there’s no skipping of text until the voice clip finishes, all the scenes are filled with unnecessary pauses.
Early on in the opening cutscene the player obtains mobility, but the scripted sequence resumes immediately in the next room. The first battle takes place further into the segment, but it’s not until the 40 minutes mark that the player is no longer strictly railroaded.
When the overworld map opens up, the player can instantly save and travel to a tutorial dungeon. Upon arrival, all of the intro’s main characters become companions and the player gains access to the in-game menu. The menu doubles as a store for items and gear, and allows the player to upgrade their characters. That’s seven milestones all within a minute of each other.
About 20 minutes into the dungeon the first level-up occurs, and the boss is encountered 20 minutes later. It takes another 10 minutes or so to exit the dungeon and obtain the final resting milestone.
Unsurprisingly, the median times generally increased from 4th to 5th generation. However, I wasn’t expecting all but one to grow, and by so much: the majority of the milestones took 2-5 times longer to reach. This wasn’t the fault of the opening cinematics either as TTF (usually dictated by the mobility milestone), took only 2 minutes longer to reach.
The biggest relative jumps came with resting and saving, which I actually expected to take place sooner rather than later. With the proliferation of memory cards and a trend toward user-friendliness, I thought most titles would provide a safe area to experiment in and reload as required. This was still achieved with laughably easy encounters and the shifting party-recuperation to items, abilities, and cutscene transitions. Saving on the other hand was simply delayed due to longer opening segments.
Travel and dungeon milestones also increased dramatically, by a factor of 4 and 3 respectively. The main reason for this seemed to be a desire to constrain the player in more linear locations while building the narrative and doling out new gameplay elements.
Combat was the only milestone that took place earlier in the 5th generation than in the 4th. However, the boss battle milestone came in at a significant 45 minutes later — the single largest time-increase among all the milestones. This was possibly due to the greater breadth and depth of combat mechanics, which also impacted leveling up and obtaining new abilities as XP-gain was no longer the only way to upgrade characters.
Overall the mobility, item, level-up, and boss milestones stayed in the same order, while the combat, companion, ability, and gear milestones occurred earlier, with the save, rest, travel, and dungeon milestones being pushed further into the timeline.
The milestone spreads generally increased as well, with the shortest times being pushed up as the opening segments got more and more elaborate. The most interesting takeaway, though, was which of the longest milestones changed. These actually decreased for ability and companion while increasing for travel and level-up. This indicated a general trend of focusing more on narrative elements while introducing specialized game mechanics (party-based combat, unique abilities) before tackling an open, less linear world with more difficult challenges.
Somewhat surprisingly, some of the most groundbreaking entries in the genre came early on in the 5th generation: the epic CG-based presentation and cynical tone of FF VII, the marriage of huge sprites and colourful 3D in Breath of Fire III, the cinematic cameras and anime inspirations of Xenogears. Later titles — including ones not on this list — largely attempted to live up to the standards set by these first success stories.
Not all aesthetic upgrades had a smooth transition either. Memory management and loading times introduced delays to the still-prevalent random encounters, exacerbating the combat grind. Voice overs worked fine in FMVs, but were annoyingly repetitive when used as combat barks and ground against dialogue timing in text boxes.
The quantity of text didn’t seem to increase drastically, at least not to visual-novel levels, but was nonetheless a painful step back. Most dialogue remained modal, and many developers bizarrely insisted on slowing down the speed of text and preventing the player from skipping it.
Gameplay-wise, combat saw the biggest changes. Titles were no longer content with closely mimicking the Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy template. Half the games on this list allowed multiple hits with basic attacks in a single round, mimicking the combo dynamics of fighting games. Furthermore, each title seemed to introduce its own unique wrinkles to combat: fuel-management in Xenogears, body-part targeting in Legend of Legaia, elemental field-effects in Chrono Cross, guard-breaking Valyrie Profile, etc.
Combat considerations spread out beyond the standard HP/MP/status management as well. For example, Suikoden II severely limited rune customization and raw amount of spell options, FF VIII relied on its complex junctioning system, Chrono Cross allowed the player full magic customization while scaling spell-power and refilling all spells after combat, etc.
These systems provided a lot of extra flexibility and allowed more meaningful progression and experimentation. However, the added complexity came at the cost of a higher barrier of entry. Despite being relatively familiar with these titles, I had to refresh my memory with manuals and carefully read in-game tutorials to get a good grip on the mechanics. Exploring a JRPG was no longer jumping in and simply figuring out which spells worked best in which situations.
An unfortunate trend that also emerged was the obfuscation of game elements for the purpose of selling strategy guides. Min-maxing the hidden bonuses awarded by the masters in Breath of Fire III or getting the most out of upgrading party members to Odin’s liking in Valkyrie Profile was not something the player could figure out just by playing the game.
Finally, it’s worth noting that as JRPGS began to implement elements outside the 12 milestones I captured, they spread them out throughout the overall experience. Suikoden II is a great example of this as its duels, large-scale SRPG battles, stronghold maintenance, gambling minigames, Richard’s detective investigations, etc., all took place at different parts of the game after the 2 hour limit.
I expect to see more of this type of pacing in the next generation, as well as a smaller reliance on old-school abstractions, e.g., separate battle arenas, overworld maps, turn-based combat, etc. I have a rough idea of which titles to cover that still fit my original criteria, but feel free to comment and mention which titles you’d like to see included!