What is an RPG?

Over the last few years, I’ve read a lot about video games. Some of those books deal with role-playing games in general or with one of the games. Two of the books in particular deal with Dragon Quest.

These two have some weird things in them regarding the origins of the sub-genre of Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPG). Both say that Dragon Quest was the first JRPG, which isn’t true. There were at least three games before it.

In other books, I was introduced to the idea of the Computer Role-Playing Game (CRPG). This was something I found very strange. I had always thought of them and heard them called, Western RPGs. I guess that term has been cast aside in favor of the CRPG. It’s probably for the best, as the CRPG book includes more than whatever Western was supposed to mean.

When you look at games today, it feels like everything has some elements of an RPG. The Action RPG seems to have become what every other AAA release is. Some are good, some are bad, and most are just okay.

JRPG Book: https://youtu.be/jVWjLNXB288 CRPG Book: https://youtu.be/Ch1GK5y3Kl8


With that being said, I wanted to explore what an RPG is and talk about how complex the genre has become. It’s a mess. I was asked once what my definition of an RPG is? After I said that, I don’t think The Legend of Zelda is an RPG. I didn’t have a good answer as any definition I could think of could be applied to any other video game.

I wanted to look at a few books on RPGs and see if I could make some sense of the genre. I’ll be looking at The CRPG Book: A Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games and A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games, both from Bitmap Books.

I might bring in some information from other books along the way. When I do, I’ll let you know where I got it from, and if I’ve done a review of it, I will leave a link to the video.

I don’t know if I will come to some conclusion here. I want to lay out what I think about the genre and develop examples for the different subgenres. If I can, I might come up with a definition that fits some of what I think.

The CRPG Book

This book has a lot of information, but it isn’t laid out very well. It’s broken up by time periods. This includes many games, but they are all jumbled together and could have been broken up by genre. I would have liked it better.

We’re going to be cobbling together a loose definition of what a CRPG might look like.

The book asks a few questions that I find helpful. The first is an article about the things that make an old-school RPG. It’s an interesting read, and I think it’s one of the things that gets lost when you look at the genre’s history.

Early Years

We start our trip through RPGs in 1975. There might have been other games before this, but for what we’re going to be looking at, it doesn’t matter. These simple graphics don’t translate well to a game that people want to play now.

I’m guessing there were also text-based RPGs, but I haven’t found any. There were the Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), but I’m not sure where they fall in the genre. I’m guessing they just get put in their category.

In games like this, you usually were just moving a colored block around. This was supposed to be you. Games required a lot of imagination back then, and a part of me thinks that was a good thing, but that’s probably just the nostalgia talking.

Wizardry and Ultima

In the late 70s, we get the game Aklalabeth. This was Ultima 0. It was made by Richard Garriott for the Apple II and laid the groundwork for Richard to go on and make the Ultima series. When I think of a CRPG, I think of Ultima and Wizardry.

Wizardry was released in 1981 and was also released for the Apple II. Both Ultima and Wizardry would be released on other computers, but they started on the Apple II and other games from the early 80s.

One thing that I find funny is how many of these games, especially Wizardry, you had to make your maps. This was when you would break out your graph paper and do your best! I never considered this in the early 90s when I played games similar to this.

The graphics in Wizardry didn’t change much as the series went on. To me, this is how Dungeon Crawlers look. They have changed for the better nowadays.

Ultima looks closer to the JRPGs that we would see on the NES and SNES. The graphics would significantly improve in the late 80s, but the top-down view of the game would influence substantially how many RPGs would look. Graphical adventure games would also do something closer to this as well.

Both Ultima and Wizardry would see releases every year from 1981 to 1983. At least to me, both games created a lot of what would be in an RPG video game.

Dark Sun and Other Dungeons and Dragons Games

Dungeons and Dragons, and other table-top RPGs, had a considerable influence on both CRPGs and JRPGs. Especially when it comes to those games based in a High Fantasy or Tolkien-inspired world. Growing up, many of the games I played owed their core game mechanics to Dungeons and Dragons.

I wanted to talk about one game, in particular, Dark Sun. It’s a game that I played a few years after being released. At the time, I had no idea what Dungeons and Dragons was. I just saw a collection of five games at a Best Buy, and Dark Sun happened to be in it.

The game was somewhere between a Tactical-RPG and a traditional CRPG. I also seemed to be the only one of my friends who had any interest in it. I’m still not sure why I liked it as I had no clue what I was even playing.

It was like picking up the third volume of a series of books and starting in the middle. It was very different from what I had played before. There were turns, but you could move your characters around the screen. The spells seemed very different, and the classes were strange to me. I was coming from the first Final Fantasy, which was familiar to me.

It started a desire to play the other Dungeons and Dragons games and learn more about Dark Sun.

There were a lot of Dungeons and Dragons games! They touch on all of the subgenres of an RPG. Most of the games I remember were Dungeon Crawlers, or what would come to be known as Dungeon Crawlers.

What is a CRPG?

Aside from the “it’s an RPG on a computer,” I’m unsure. I think of RPGs in subgenres. I think of those games that I experienced on a computer or those made to be on a computer.

Mostly, I think of tactical or strategy RPGs. I also think about some Action-RPGs and some Dungeon Crawlers. I don’t think there is one game or type of game that you can point to as being a CRPG.

It’s up to you to decide what you think one looks like. I don’t think the Final Fantasy series, Dragon Quest series, Shin Megami Tensei, or other games that I remember from consoles. I’m sure everyone has their definition.

The JRPG Book

This book is a great reference and one of the more confusing ones when you get into it. It takes the Japanese Role-Playing Game as an RPG made in Japan. I honestly have no idea if this is right, but it makes sense.

I feel like the JRPG is a subgenre of RPGs. It’s such a mess. As I go through these books and look at the genre, I find a bunch of overlap between the different genres.

So, this book covers the RPGs that were made in Japan. There is a lot of history in this book. It’s a great resource to go through, and I found a bunch of games that I haven’t heard of before.


I think this was the part that I was most interested in. I’ve heard for years that JRPGs started with Dragon Quest. I knew this wasn’t true, and I knew that Black Onyx came before it. I didn’t realize how many RPGs came before Black Onyx.

The Japanese RPGs began on the PC, specifically some Japanese computers made in the 80s. There are too many computers built during this era for me to keep track of.

This doesn’t have much to do with the rest of this; I just want to say that I don’t know much about computers in the 80s. Every time I open a book, it feels like a new one comes out of the woodwork. Almost like someone is traveling back in time just to create a new computer to mess with me.

Let’s get into some of the first games this book talks about.

Mugen no Shinzou, The Tower of Druaga, and The Black Onyx

I knew about two of these series and had no idea that Mugen no Shinzou (Heart of Fantasy) existed or that it was a series of games. When I read a book, do research for a video, or can’t sleep, I find out about more games that I never knew about.

It’s fun. I like finding a series for the first time and deciding if I want to dig deeper into it. This is when I would have thought about trying to collect the games.

In this case, I don’t want to try and find the Mugen no Shinzou games, let alone a way to play them. I could probably find them online somewhere if I wanted to.

Looking at the screenshots for these games, I think it looks good for 1984. It looks like a traditional RPG. It reminds me of Ultima in some ways.

If Mugen no Shinzou is similar to Ultima, The Black Onyx looks like Wizardy. I think these two games are the ones that look closer to what I think of when I talk about an RPG. These look like the other CRPGs from the era.

Let’s talk about Black Onyx for a bit. It isn’t the first JRPG, but it is one of those that I think is important.

The Black Onyx was the game I knew about before I opened this book. I had heard about it through the history of Tetris. It’s weird, but the game does have some ties to the Tetris saga. The reason for this is Bullet Proof Software.

This used to be the game that I would hold up when I read about JRPGs. It is one of those games that helped inspire other games in Japan.

Now, let’s look at the game that I didn’t know was a series, and I have an issue with it that is similar to my problem with The Legend of Zelda.

The Tower of Druaga is a good game. It’s not what I would think of when looking for a JRPG. It’s one of the examples of this book talking about RPGs made in Japan and not the subgenre of JRPGs.

When I look at Druaga, I don’t see an RPG. I see something closer to Gauntlet. I know they’re two different games, but I see something different from what the book tells me. On the other hand, I can see what they’re talking about when I play it. I just disagree with them.

I wanted to look at these three because I thought they were interesting; I felt like other games I have played and did an excellent job of laying out what I like and don’t like about this book.

I’ll get more into my problems with the book, but let’s look at some of the series that this book talks about.

Series and Genres

This book is laid out in a way that makes sense to me. It’s very well organized. The author explains what they mean, talks about the history of JRPGs, talks about some of the high-profile series, and then talks about some of the genres.

I want to look at two series and one genre. I don’t want to talk about either Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. So, instead, I’ll be talking about Shin Megami Tensei and Phantasy Star.

I’ll also talk about the Action-RPG genre. Partially because I want to explain myself when I say The Legend of Zelda isn’t an RPG and because it seems like every modern game is some kind of an Action-RPG.

Phantasy Star


I’ve talked about this series before. I also did reviews for the four core games in the series. It’s a series of games that mean a lot to me. I have many memories of this series, and it’s hard to take an unbiased look at them.

Thankfully, I won’t be reviewing them here. I’ll discuss why they feel more like a JRPG than the more popular series. Most of this has to do with the setting.

I know that there are other Sci-fi themed RPGs from the 80s and 90s. However, most of them were based on a High Fantasy theme. These games involve Elves, Dwarfs, Dragons, Orcs, Goblins, and other creatures.

With Phantasy Star, you get a more mature and more alien story. There isn’t a lot that connects the game to myths and legends that are universal or popular.

A good way to show this is by looking at the first games in the Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Phantasy Star series. There would be changes to each series, but these first games are the ones that I think are the easiest to compare. They were the original visions for the three series.

The story in Phantasy Star is better than either Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy stories. This is a space-faring adventure where you travel to the three planets in the game’s solar system.

Dragon Quest Review: https://youtu.be/sHdt4p3iVBs Final Fantasy Review: https://youtu.be/jidwL1uRzMI

All three games have the same basic premise. You need to defeat the Big Bad Person who wants to take over. Well, sort of. In Phantasy Star, the Big Bad Person has already won. They control the solar system and are under the influence of Dark Falz, or Dark Force. Both are proxies of the Profound Darkness, but you won’t know that yet.

In Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, you just have the threat of losing the world to darkness. In Phantasy Star, you start from someone else who has lost. You have to try to restore order to the solar system.

With Phantasy Star, the game starts with your character’s brother being killed. This creates a revenge scenario. The other characters are found or rescued as you play through the game. In Dragon Quest, the Hero is the only character in your party. In Final Fantasy, you play as a party of four nameless characters to who you have to give personality.

I feel like I have to say that I like all three games. I think that Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were heavily influenced by western ideas of what an RPG should be. Phantasy Star is less interested in being that and wants to be its own story. At least it is for the most part.

Shin Megami Tensei

This is a huge series with a lot of spin-offs. Probably the most famous is Persona. It also wasn’t a well-known series in the US until Persona became popular. There are several reasons for this. Many of them have to do so with the first several games not coming to the US. I’m guessing it had to do with censorship.

Nintendo of America censored a lot of games back in the 80s and 90s. With the religious overtones in Megami Tensei 1 and 2, it’s no surprise that they weren’t released on the NES. If we couldn’t get Devil World, there was no way we were going to get Digital Devil Story. Also, console RPGs didn’t sell well at the time in the US.

For whatever reason, Nintendo thought we didn’t understand RPGs. I’m guessing they were looking at the age of people playing video games. They probably also thought that kids wouldn’t want to play video games for hours.

Anyway, this is the most Japanese RPG that I can think of. It starts with the apocalypse. It tells you that the world you knew is over. You can’t go back to the way things are. The apple cart has been overturned, and you can’t put it back.

There are a lot of cultural storytelling tropes in these games. Tropes that, at the time, would have been alien to a Western audience. Especially to an American audience at the time. Now, it is easier to market stories like this to the US market.

So, what do you do in these games? Well, many of them deal with demons taking over the world and how you choose to deal with it. You can either join the demons, or you can fight against them. This is an oversimplification, but I don’t want to spend too much time explaining each game’s plot, especially when it gets into the spinoffs.  

I think these games are what a JRPG looks like. In my opinion, Atlus has supplanted SquareEnix as the JRPG company. When I think of the genre, I think of their games. I don’t think about the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest games anymore.

Action-RPG and The Legend of Zelda


It seems like every other big game today is an open-world Action-RPG. For some reason, this style of game has become the dominant game in the AAA video game industry if it isn’t an FPS or Battle Royal shooter, of course.

Many of these games draw from Rogue. So much, in fact, that Rouge managed to spawn its subgenre of RPGs. This is going to get confusing, so please accept my apologies.

In Rogue, you die a lot, and when you die, you lose all of the progress up to that point. You have to start over. It is a form of an RPG, but it stands out as being different for me. It has a lot of overlap with an Action-RPG. They are similar but still different.

With an Action-RPG, you have total control over your character’s actions. You move the character around, fight the enemies, use magic, and do any other action that the game allows you to do.

You are the character in the game, much like how you are Link in Zelda. However, it doesn’t feel the same for me. Let’s look at a few games, and maybe I can explain what I mean.

The Legend of Zelda on the NES is a top-down Action-Adventure game with RPG elements. However, I don’t think it is an RPG. Crystalis on the NES is a top-down Action-RPG. What makes them different?

Both games have weapons, hit points, some type of advancement system, and weapon upgrades. However, Crystalis has an Experience and Leveling system instead of a health upgrade. Crystalis has towns that you can travel to and several side quests which are needed to advance the plot.

Being a deeper game pushes the RPG part of the game to the forefront when it comes to Crystalis. The Legend of Zelda seems to push the parts of the game that feel more like an Action-Adventure game. I know they get more complex as the series goes on.

Let’s look at The Adventures of Link and Simon’s Quest. I think The Adventure of Link is an Action-RPG, and Simon’s Quest is an Action-Adventure game.

The Adventure of Link is an outlier in the Zelda series. It has the same things that you see in Crystalis. That’s what separates this game from the rest of the series. I think it’s the progression system that holds Zelda as a whole back for me.

In the end, it’s a matter of opinion. I know that plenty of people disagree with me; I just wanted to point to something that I think is separating the games for me.

What Makes an RPG?

I touched on this a bit in the previous section. Here, I want to figure out what I think an RPG is. There are a lot of subgenres that I won’t talk about. I also don’t expect any of these to be definitive. These are just my opinions.

Mechanics of an RPG

This is going to vary a lot depending on the subgenre.

The first thing I think of is turn-based combat. This can mean a lot of things. It can be an actual turn, it can be something that delays your attack, or it can be as simple as waiting for an opening to attack.

For example, in an Action-RPG, you might have to learn the attack pattern of the enemies so you can attack at the right time. You have to wait for your turn to attack, so you don’t get hit. You’re taking some kind of a turn.

In a Tactical-RPG, CRPG, and JRPG, you choose actions for your character to take during a turn. This can also apply to movement points, time units, or moving within a specific area.

Many games do this, but I think it’s one of the staples of any RPG.

The second thing I think of is some type of a progression system, usually gaining experience to increase your character’s statistics. It doesn’t have to be a Level system as a skill tree can work.

You can see a version of this in Diablo, Persona, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, Dragon Origin, etc.

I debated including Story in this. The problem with putting it in here is that it isn’t genre-specific. Just about every game has some kind of a story, even if the story is paper-thin.

Arcade games, Strategy games, Fighting games, Beat’em ups, Shooters, Side-scrollers, Action-Adventure games, and any other genre you can think of have a story. Some of them even have elaborate stories.

I’m not sure where the cut-off is for a story. You can use the phrase “dialogue tree,” which also exists in Visual Novels, Point and Click Adventures, and others.

The best I can put it is to say that an RPG needs to have a story in conjunction with other things. With how games have become ways to tell stories, I think this is the best way that I can put it.

Final Thoughts

RPGs, JRPGs, and specifically Tactical-RPGs are some of my favorite games. I like playing them, getting into their stories, and exploring their worlds. RPGs are a fascinating genre.

Defining that genre, though, is very hard for me to do. I can look at the industry definitions of the genres, but those don’t always reflect how I view the games. It is an interesting way to start conversations and also arguments.

When I think of RPGs, I usually think of specific games. This works well when you get into the different subgenres. You can show examples of what you think defines the subgenres.

These were some of my thoughts. I know that not everything I wrote matches what people think, and I don’t think it matters that much. Everyone can come up with their ideas and their examples. It’s one of the things that I think is great about video games.

Thank you for reading!

Published by Paul Werkema

Hi! I'm here to share my hobbies with all of you. I love video games and books, so I write about the books that cover video games or are novels about video games.

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