Fight, Magic, Items by Aidan Moher is a wonderful history of Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPG). The book mainly follows two series, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, as they shaped the genre as we know it. Other series are talked about, but these two are the main focus.
Aidan divides the book into periods. While some series are left out or aren’t talked about that much, it is an objective look at the genre. This helps to organize the subject, and rarely do we have to backtrack or skip around.
I only had one issue with the book. It has to do with the definition of what a JRPG is. This wasn’t made clear to me. I’ll talk more about it later.
The Story of JRPG
The book follows the two big series in the JRPG genre, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. He mentions that RPGs were released before them, but the gameplay that defined the genre came from these two. The games that inspired both series are also talked about.
Other JRPGs, like Phantasy Star and the Mother series, are also brought up. As the book continues, more series are brought up, but the central focus is Final Fantasy and Square Soft, which later merged with Enix.
Aidan brings up how the two series started roughly in the same spot and then diverged radically by taking different approaches to the genre.
Dragon Quest changed gradually and stayed with the same core mechanics over the decades. They added some things from game to game but kept most of the basics the same. Some examples of additions are party members and a class system. The games all feel like they exist in the same universe.
On the other hand, Final Fantasy would have drastic changes from game to game. Some of those changes were well received, and the fan base rejected others. It is fascinating to look at how this series has evolved. There is something in it for everyone, and everyone has their favorite.
Aidan separates this book into sections. These represent chunks of time where he has marked a change in the genre or how the games are made. This was a very interesting way to do it, and I think it is the best way to write a book like this.
Pokemon is brought up as an example of a simplified JRPG that was an entry point for the genre. He also talks about how handheld systems (Game Boy Advance and PlayStation Portable) would be great places for JRPGs. Pokemon helped with this, but you also had ports of retro games and other RPGs made specifically for the systems. There is also some talk of demographics that I completely agree with.
Indie games and JRPG-inspired games are brought up near the end of the book. As the genre moved in different directions, older fans wanted something closer to the games they played in the 90s. That is where the indie game market came in.
With indie games, developers could make something based on the games that inspired them to start making games. They also didn’t have to follow the industry trends. They filled the void created by the larger budget games, which can take years to make.
Overall, this book does an excellent job of showing where JRPGs started, why they changed over time and the current state of the genre. It is a fun book to read and game me some more games to add to my growing backlog.
Fluid Definition of JRPG
This was the only real problem that I had with Aidan’s book. It is simply a difference of opinion on what makes a JRPG and if you define it as a genre or if you go by RPGs from Japan. There probably isn’t a correct answer, and I would instead argue about this since it really doesn’t matter.
Aidan marks the beginning of JRPGs with Dragon Quest. This ignores the other RPGs that were released before that starting point. However, the book does focus on home consoles, but this isn’t in the definition in the book.
There are several RPGs made in Japan that were released on computers. Dragon Quest was the first on a home console. This wouldn’t mean it is the first-ever or the start of a genre. This is just my reading of the different definitions of a JRPG; it really isn’t that big of a deal.
By following the Final Fantasy series, we run into the issue of how that series has moved away from being a JRPG, especially when you bring in the two MMORPGs. There are other sub-genres brought in, but I think the MMOs make it more problematic.
There is also the problem of Final Fantasy moving closer to an Action-RPG. I think that this part of the story needs to be here, but it makes the definition confusing.
What Aidan does that I like a lot is his explanation of how the two series, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, have diverged over the years. It makes sense, and I agree entirely with his analysis of the two series.
He does bring up some games that I wouldn’t consider to be in a genre like JRPG, but I would call them RPGs from Japan. When he talks about Final Fantasy Tactics, Secret of Mana, Tactics Ogre, and Secret of Evermore, I would consider them in either the Action-RPG or the Tactical/Strategy RPG genres. They don’t fit with the main line of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games.
This is my opinion on the genre. There isn’t much that separates the different genres anymore, and each person can have their own opinion on where some games should fit in. It can be fun to discuss these issues that don’t really matter.
An objective look at the Genre
I wanted to talk about this a little more. Aidan does an excellent job of talking about what the games did to either advance the genre or stand out at the time, even when it is a game he mentions not liking. It is refreshing to read something like this.
I feel like the Final Fantasy series is one of the cases where people have strong opinions about the games. Everyone has their entry point to the series, and they can sometimes be overly passionate about defending their favorite game.
Aidan does a great job of talking about the Final Fantasy series and how it constantly tried to push the genre in new ways, and it wasn’t afraid to abandon an idea that didn’t work as well as the developers wanted.
It can be hard at times to ignore your personal bias at times. It is something that I struggled with early on.
Likes and Dislikes
This is a fantastic book. The only things I didn’t like were minor and didn’t impact the book much. That was the definition of a JRPG, and having a different opinion on the origin of the genre.
The rest of the book is great! It does feel a little incomplete by focusing so much on Final Fantasy and Square, but I’m not sure how you would do it differently. I enjoyed the evolution of the JRPG over the course of the book and learning about some games that I’ve yet to play.
I liked how objective Aidan was, especially when it came to games that he personally didn’t like. I share similar opinions to Aidan on the Final Fantasy series, and it was nice to read about how he views the genre as a whole. This book has a lot of great stuff, and I can’t do it justice here.
This was a fun book to read. It reminded me of some of my experiences back in the 90s. Discovering new RPGs back then was always fun, assuming that you were into the genre.
Reading about the games that I missed out on was also very interesting. It reminds me that no one can play all of them. It is one book that I think balances nostalgia, personal experiences, and history quite well.
Books like this one are great! The history of video games is still being written, and having this helps to explore one of the more popular genres.