The last decade or so has not been great for Japanese role-playing games. The genre has undergone a difficult transition along with the entire Japanese games industry. More and more of the Asian fanbase has ended up on mobile devices. As the AAA industry becomes increasingly expensive, only a few massive companies can still produce landmark games for consoles. The middle ground for niche genres is disappearing. JRPGs have been a big victim of economic trends.
However, 2016 was a great year for JRPG fans (and a terrible a year for everybody else). This year was a wealth of riches from beginning to end. We saw new releases from companies like Atlus, Square Enix, Nintendo, and Bandai Namco. Persona 5 might be taking forever to reach the West, but there are already too many games for any JRPG fan to get through in one year.
So why was 2016 so great?
The Grand Finale of the 3DS
If you are a JRPG gamer these days, the console you need to own is the Nintendo 3DS. Consoles typically reach their best years right at the very end of their lifespan. With 2016 being effectively the Nintendo 3DS’ last year before the Switch, the 3DS is in its swansong. And what a swansong it has been.
Nintendo and other developers have crammed this year with sequels to all of the best 3DS JRPGs. Shin Megami Tensei IV begot Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse. For Bravely Default there was Bravely Second. The Pokemon X and Y engine had enough juice to create Pokemon Sun and Moon. Fire Emblem Awakening was such a revival in 2012 to that series that its sequel, Fire Emblem Fates was an ambitious trilogy of stories. And let’s not forget Yo-kai Watch 2.
JRPG gamers live in a universe where games take months or years to travel from East to West. Many of these games first saw release in Japan months or even years earlier. None was more delayed than the Dragon Quest VII remake. Thanks to the laws of Special Relativity of Imports, it took Square Enix three years to release the game in the West. But it finally came this September and Fandom’s review of it was pretty positive.
Not all was joy on the 3DS front. I much send my deepest apologies to Langrisser fans, that reboot was a real shame. But otherwise, the 3DS left its mark in 2016 as being the best JRPG system since the PlayStation 2.
Even if you were not a JRPG fan, there was no way you could avoid the biggest JRPGs hits this year. Dark Souls III held that series' position as the most beloved action franchise out right now. Every new release is an instant event for that fanbase. Then there was Final Fantasy XV, a game that fans have waited an entire decade to enjoy. Luckily it has also been best-received mainline Final Fantasy in a decade as well, as our Final Fantasy XV review attests.
2016 was a slower year for Western RPGs. While last year all the air was sucked out by The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4, WRPGs were quieter this year. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and XCOM 2 were the big releases this year. But the effect of Western games was still felt, as Final Fantasy XV emulated open world games. It wanted to be the Japanese answer to The Witcher 3. The jury is still out as to whether it succeeded.
Persona 5 is the biggest console JRPG this year to keep the particulars of Japanese styles. Let's just say Dark Souls III doesn't have dating mechanics, for example. But you’re not going to play it this year thanks to Atlus dragging its feet with the localization. In the meantime, there’s still one of the Wii U’s last great titles, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE.
Square Enix Got Its Groove Back
Final Fantasy XV was the biggest object Square Enix launched this year. But between the Final Fantasy XV game, the Final Fantasy XV movie, the Final Fantasy XV toys, the Final Fantasy XV tie-in apps, and the Final Fantasy XV anime, Square Enix did have a lot of other releases.
World of Final Fantasy was the more traditional answer, using turn-based combat and random encounters. It was a lighter, sillier title compared to the bombast of XV. But just around the same time came the equally adorable Dragon Quest Builders. One of these games borrowed heavily from Pokémon, the other borrowed heavily from Minecraft. But together they were great little titles that snuck in behind the loud roar of Final Fantasy XV.
Square Enix was also releasing other JRPGs throughout the year. They gave fans a new Star Ocean game in the summer. I Am Setsuna was their release from Tokyo RPG Factory, a new studio to create small indie-like JRPG games. At some point in 2016, they seemed to have tried every kind of JRPG.
Yes, Pokémon Go was a very big deal for everybody this summer. Pokémon hit heights of popularity not seen since its first explosion in the late '90s. For the first time in a generation, if you were not playing Pokémon, you were nobody. But Pokémon Go is a Western game and debatably a JRPG. It did, however, remind Nintendo how big Pokémon could still be.
Any new Pokémon generation is bound to be an event. But Pokémon Sun and Moon feels like one of the biggest innovations yet for a series that has barely moved since the Spice Girls ruled the charts. The old formula of Gym Leader bosses is gone. There is a much bigger and more involved storyline. Innovations like Z-moves, Alolan Forms, and non-Pokémon enemies were attempted here. Also, Dugtrio grew beautiful blond hair and you could dance with your Pikachu. Revolutions big and small fill Pokémon Sun and Moon.
Pokémon Sun and Moon have already sold ten million copies. They are the fastest selling Nintendo games of all time. If you combined the sales for Final Fantasy XV and Dark Souls III, you still would not reach the numbers Sun and Moon have achieved. In the world of JRPGs, Pokémon is the sovereign.
Can 2017 Do Better?
Quite a few planned JRPGs did not make the 2016 calendar year. Dragon Quest VIII on the 3DS will hit in January. Following it is Nier: Automata, Tales of Berseria, Persona 5, Valkyria Revolution, Ni No Kuni 2, and Dragon Quest Heroes 2. That is already a very good line-up. Not to mention we’re also getting a ton of Final Fantasy XV additional content and DLC, as well as the Final Fantasy 30th anniversary celebration.
But with the Nintendo Switch on the horizon, nobody can really be sure how good 2017 might be. We know there’s a new Zelda coming, but what else? Nobody knows yet. The Switch might turn out to be as good for JRPGs as the 3DS was.
Square Enix might have just finished one endless project, but it always has more. We most likely will see the first episode of the Final Fantasy VII remake next year. Longer shots are games like Kingdom Hearts III and Dragon Quest XI. If you've followed Square Enix for any amount of time, you know not to get your hopes up too fast.
2017 looks great. But it is unlikely that anything will top 2016. And some of us still have about six games to catch up on already, so a little bit of a slowdown might not be so bad.