Pokémon: The convention-twisting JRPG

What? [Insert Pokémon name here] is evolving! It was this very moment repeated across the many hundreds of hours that I put into the main line of Pokémon games that still gets me excited to this day.

Figure 1: http://i.imgur.com/ZoTk1UD.jpg

Pokémon has come a long way since then, but while many things have changed, the core gameplay remains very much untouched across the multiple generations that this long beloved series has spawned since its inception way back in 1996. When series creator Satoshi Tajiri was trying to come up with an idea for a handheld portable game, it reminded him of this childhood where he would spend his summers insect collecting, a great hobby of his. This was the idea that made Tajiri want to make a game that would capture his feeling of delight and excitement as he went out into the unknowns of the forest and seeked out more and more new insects that he had never seen before and try his best to capture them for his collection.

Sound familiar? In essence, that’s what the Pokémon games set out to accomplish, but in the end the games become larger than life, and while so many fads and trends have come and gone, Pokémon somehow remains strong and is still dear to many. A big part of this can be contributed to the ‘personality’ of the games, and perhaps most importantly, their gameplay mechanics.

At its most basic, Pokémon tasks the player to set off into the unknown world and learn as much as possible about Pokémon in their quest to help the local Professor complete the region’s Pokédex. To do so, the player is given a starting Pokémon as their partner and sets forth to do battle with other Pokémon and whenever the player deems appropriate, try to catch and raise additional Pokémon to increase their collection as well as their party, which can hold up to 6 active Pokémon on the players’ travels.

It is at this point that I want to point out how Pokémon games, despite being a Japanese Role-Playing Game or JRPG, do subvert many of the expectations and standards that most games in this genre conform to. But before we get ahead of ourselves, we should understand more about what makes a game a Role-Playing Game.

Here’s some history for you, did you know that the first commercially available RPG (and thus the first RPG for all intends and purposes) was D&D. Better known by its full title:

Figure 2: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/0/0d/D%26D_1983_Basic_Rules_cover.jpg/220px-D%26D_1983_Basic_Rules_cover.jpg

It was a new type of game, one where the players would take on the role of a fictional characters of their own and set off into a world of monsters, magic, adventure, and the occasion dragon2. At this point is where I would like to technically define an RPG:

  • A game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting.
  • Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development.
  • Actions taken within many games succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines.

With these small set of definitions provided, we know now what contributes to a game being an RPG, but what of the JRPG, with the ‘Japanese’ prefix tacked on the front?

In all honesty, there doesn’t exactly exist any real tangible definition for what constitutes one, but I would like to tackle this here myself. A JRPG is an RPG that:

  • Has nothing to do with the location the game was made, in this case, Japan.
  • Focuses on the concept of a player that controlled a character that was predetermined, with a preset history, personality. Basically, putting the player into the shoes of a premade character, not one they created themselves, so the protagonist is less of an ‘avatar’.
  • Puts forth an emphasis on plot and story elements rather than gameplay or interactive elements within the game world.

As you see from my definition here, I never once mentioned actual gameplay mechanics, which might prompt the sharp-eyed reader to say: “But your title of this article says otherwise!” So, in light of this, allow me to elaborate: taking an example by a certain anonymous online person, just because an Italian dish isn’t made in Italy, by an Italian, doesn’t stop it being Italian food. The same goes for JRPGs, just because a game isn’t made in Japan, by the Japanese, doesn’t stop it being a Japanese RPG. It’s more to do with the ‘way’ the games are built than who built them, or even what mechanics such a game possesses.

However, that isn’t to say that the genre doesn’t have its share of gameplay mechanics that usually operationally define a JRPG or RPGs in general. For most of you reading this, you might associated the gameplay mechanics of Leveling up, Stat Allocation, Equipment and Item accumulation, and having a party of characters, usually centering on a protagonist of some description, with other characters following suit, which may or may not be playable.

I’m sure you can think of a few games that commonly come to mind as textbook examples of JRPGs:

Figure 3: http://img11.deviantart.net/ca55/i/2012/274/6/c/finalfantasy_logo_by_al3tebe-d5ghzw7.jpg

So with all that said, let’s get to the title shall we? The thing to remember here is that the mainline Pokémon games all fit into this definition of game genre, so they count as JRPGs, however, oddly enough, they play havoc with the conventions that govern the usual gameplay and style of such games, yet are unquestionably still following them. What do I mean? How about some examples:

  1. The Plot

Most JRPGs focus an overarching plot that eventually comes full force into the life of the protagonist (and thus the player), where the story will impart some sense of agency and time urgency, so as to push the player along a clearly defined goal. Save the world from the space alien, find the magical relics to destroy a demon, avenge your father by becoming strong enough to face the dragon that killed him. All good plots to achieve the aforementioned player agency malarkey.

But Pokémon does something rather unusual here, the game’s plot is basically to just fill out a Pokédex, there isn’t a real time pressure here, the planet won’t blow up if you can’t get enough Pokédex entries, you aren’t finding out more about Pokémon because it serves a higher purpose (except SCIENCE!!), you merely go about it at your own pace, and do so in any which way you please. The complete lack of player agency is staggering, and blows the convention set here wide open, yet it fits perfectly, recall what I said earlier about how the Pokémon games came to be? That’s right! The games weren’t about a big adventure that affected the lives of many, just the personal joy of exploring and finding new and interesting creatures. And it’s that very joy that the games bets on the player having, and that it how it imparts its agency, the player makes its their own. This core formula that governs these games is how they have managed to stand the test of time.

  1. The Party System

Figure 4: http://pm1.narvii.com/5711/1c0767fd74e7f1c6f1f334381044f5c3e3a6cbc0_hq.jpg

Most JRPGs have a protagonist that is premade and has a set history, and this is true for Pokémon as well, albeit Pokémon’s protagonist in most games is very much a blank slate (to achieve that personal player agency we talked about in the last paragraph), but a premade character nonetheless- you have a mum, you always have a game console in your room, you have a rival, and so on… Yet, something isn’t quite right here, in Chrono Trigger, I was wondering around and doing stuff with my party to save the world, I had a cast of interesting fellows along with me: a robot, a princess, a magus, even a catgirl (I’m serious, go play Chrono Trigger if you don’t believe me).

But Pokémon takes a different approach here, this was the only RPG of its time to introduce the concept of having an extremely varied party setup, with your options not limited to a number you can count on one hand, but up to 151 different potential party members (For Pokémon Red, Blue & Green)! The idea to swap out potential active party members wasn’t new at all, Chrono Trigger did it, so did many others. But none ever had your party members be entirely dependent on being added, SOLELY on the basis of the player’s own discretion to get the party member for themselves!

Think about it, for most JRPGs, additional party members joined as a result of story justification or plot reasons, with few exceptions like hidden party members that require specific conditions to acquire. Yet when you play Pokémon, if you never take the initiative to ever catch another Pokémon in the entire game, you will NEVER have any additional party members, aside from your starter Pokémon. Even more astounding is that the player character him/herself isn’t playable during battle scenarios, you merely exist for the overworld, and during battle, only the Pokémon act as ‘playable’ party members! This is worlds apart from standard JRPG logic, where you would be crazy to suggest that you couldn’t use Cloud (Final Fantasy VII) or Shulk (Xenoblade Chronicles), despite them being the so called protagonist that the player directly controls.

  1. The Pokémon themselves

Carrying on from the previous point, Pokémon themselves are unusual party members, with each being not a character per say, but instead something quite unusual when you take a step back to examine them for what they are… That’s right… your party members in Pokémon games are the same enemies you face in random battles!

Figure 5: http://www.puclpodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/878821412_orig.png

What an odd idea! What if every single enemy you can fight in the game also be adopted into your team and become a playable ‘character’! But wait, there’s more! Most Pokémon follow an evolutionary path, so when you level up and/or fulfill certain conditions a Pokémon can transform into another one altogether (Which is admittedly one of the few features that conforms to JRPG standards. A good comparison is the Final Fantasy series’ Job System). Better yet, most Pokémon you can catch aren’t limited by number, so you could have multiple if you wanted, even Legendaries (unique Pokémon) could be traded across game states, so you could have a team of 6 Shuckles or 6 Mewtwos if you really wanted.

The fact that the party members in this game are treated not as characters, but as a resource that can be swapped out and rearranged in so many combinations, either for style/preference or for strategic advantage is what lends the Pokémon games their charm and replayability, something most JRPGs lack gameplay-wise.

While there are so many more amazing revelations to be had, this nerd has been rambling for long enough, so maybe you could go boot up your old Pokémon games and try to have a think about what other ways the series subtly side-steps the genre while still remaining firmly within it.

This has been ArcticLyrae, professional chatterbox reporting out of his Game Cave. Tune in (get it, cause’ Radio Monash, no? Just me?) next week where I cover the topic of:

“Inverse Kinematics in Video Games, or that thing that happens in games you never knew the term for.”

ArcticLyrae is a 3rd-year Monash University Malaysia undergraduate with great enthusiasm for all things related to gaming and its many forms. He is the Game Master of Monash Gaming Society and writes articles for Radio Monash Malaysia covering various gaming-related discussions in his weekly blog, The HotSeat.

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