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An Extremely Brief History of Japanese RPGs

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Late 70s/early 80s: The Lord of the Rings books are translated into Japanese and enjoy some minor success.

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1983: Nintendo Entertainment System (Famicom) released

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1984/85: Traveller and Dungeons and Dragons are translated into Japanese. Tunnels and Trolls comes out soon after.

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1986: Dragon Quest (Famicom)
(and lesser, The Legend of Zelda)

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Record of Lodoss War replays published.

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1987: Final Fantasy (Famicom)

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1989: The first Japanese-made fantasy RPG, “Sword World”, released.

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1990: Record of Lodoss War (anime) released

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…see the problem here yet? 

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In the US and Europe (those nations with very little information float due to translation lag), tabletop RPGs had a generation to be released and gain acceptance or at least a decent foothold before the first classic console RPGs started to be released. While those console games were initially dinky and repetitive, they were pretty addictive and well-made for the time, and of course could be played by one’s self. D&D and Sword World still had the “imagination advantage”, but due to various cultural reasons (which we can look into later) it’s much harder to organize group play. Most folks who started playing in this era were brought into the game through high school/college clubs (book clubs, manga clubs, cultural clubs etc) or their friends.

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But yeah, the main problem there was that when D&D/AD&D started its heyday in the US, video games were just crappy dots and bleeps. In Japan, the Nintendo/Famicom came out the year before D&D exploded. Nintendo, in its absolute drive to create innovative new games, found out about these tabletop RPGs and quickly starting making similar games for the console, most successfully initially with Dragon Quest (Sequels to Dragon Quest were the ORIGINAL “line up for two days outside the store just to buy it” games).

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After that, the early 1990s are a whirlwind of mostly English games translated into Japanese, and meeting moderate to great success: Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Runequest, TORG, Earthdawn, Vampire and the first three World of Darkness game line books, and so on.

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The mid 1990s is where the tabletop market started to dry up, perhaps around the same time console RPGs exploded in popularity. From the mid-90s on, fewer English RPGs saw translation into Japanese. However, some studios began developing more interesting and uniquely Japanese RPGs. Tokyo NOVA (トーキョーN◎VA), with its uniquely Japan-centric cyberpunk setting and trump-card-based rules and Tarot-based character classes, was a true gem of this era. The late 90s and early 2000s were a succession of Japan-centric RPGs that fell into two categories: New systems, new settings made for the Japanese market; and licensed Japanese media turned into tabletop RPGs (like the Megami Tensei series).

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2000s onwards: I’ll post more on this era in a future post. However, to briefly summarize: Very few English games translated into Japanese (although an explosion of interest in board games creates a pretty decent market for translated board games!) aside from Dungeons and Dragons (3rd and 4th editions), Warhammer 2nd and 3rd editions, and very recently Eclipse Phase. There are a handful of RPG companies, and they have pushed towards making more rules-light games with settings and rules aimed to pull in fans of anime, light novels, and console games. Because of that push, tabletop gaming went through a second explosive renaissance: While the market is no where near what it used to be in 1984-89, many new players are pulled into the hobby with games like Tenra Bansho, Alshard, Doublecross, Arianhrod/Etrian Odyssey and more.

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The games we’ll be talking about on this blog mostly come from this new era. To be frank, some incredibly awesome games have developed in this trying environment, the strive to stay alive and be relevant resulting in extremely interesting developments worth relaying back to the English-speaking world. Stay tuned for more!

2 Comments

  1. I found out about you acrsos rpgnet and j-rpg.com trying to find translations of some awesome looking trpgs. Now, come to find out, you live in my area. (I also occasionally go to Sci-Fi.)I’m thinking about biting the bullet on shipping and translating DX3, but the prospect is intimidating (haven’t used Japanese in a few years and I am r-u-s-t-y.)It’s just cool to find another gamer interested in JRPGs so close to where I am.

  2. Interestingly, I just came across your blog, but came to a similar conclusion using the same timeline above to describe why console RPGs (JRPGs) are so different from computer RPGs (WRPGs). My interest lies many in console games, but I do have a history of tabletop RPGs, so I’m very curious to see the influences from tabletop RPGs introduced into console games.

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