Western and Japanese RPGs are clearly distinct but share the same origins. The pioneering titles were the Ultima and Wizardry games which saw many sequels and many more imitators but both series have long been dormant. These titles were influenced by Dungeons & Dragons and other board games and fantasy works. The former was heavily influenced by Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories among a number of other works. The Japanese took influence from these games which led to Dragon Quest and then Final Fantasy which are the two most well-known with the former preceding the latter. These two series arrived in the late 1980s and a clear difference between Western and Japanese games then emerged though generally speaking they derived from the same source.
In this post I will hereafter use the initialisms “WRPG” and “JRPG” to distinguish them. The latter is well recognised but the former is not and Western Role-Playing Games are usually distinguished as “Western RPG” or “CRPG” (C for Computer). I am not attempting to set any new or consistent standard here — it is just easier for the purposes of this post. I am also aware that there are earlier titles and could go into more depth but the four series I’ve mentioned are definitely the titles that popularised the genre in both East and West. That so-and-so made this one game in 1977 on some university mainframe that three people played isn’t really relevant here. I should also state that a lot of this knowledge came later for me as I was too young to have played most of these games at the time. I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons and have only more recently become familiar with some of the other influential fantasy works. I’ve not played any Ultima or Wizardry games as of writing and only played later titles in the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series.
People tend to prefer one or the other with regard to JRPG and WRPGs but so I will try to explain the main similarities and differences. First, the early games in both genres generally had a medieval fantasy setting but have since branched out in all sorts of ways. The earliest example off-the-top-of-my-head is Phantasy Star which had science-fiction elements including lasers, robots and interplanetary travel but still retained many fantasy tropes as well. Both genres have seen a number of departures from the classic setting including the post-apocalyptical Fallout, and the dystopian Shadowrun as well as many alternative fantasy settings. There are plenty more examples beyond this and Final Fantasy in particular has forked out in multiple ways away from its derivative origins.
The basic gameplay has also seen a number of changes. Though most began with a turn-based battle system, this has changed with small tweaks to this formula to the full implementation of real-time combat. I’m not even going to attempt to list the different names these systems have been given as they are legion. Even in real-time systems, there is generally digital dice-rolling going that harkens back to the board-game origins of the genre.
Especially in recent years but for quite a while there has been a lot more fusion with other genres. The two most common would be the third-person and first-person though early attempts and examples of this go back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. This has mostly been as a result technological advancement but also because publishers more and more want to market a game to everyone however poor a fit the result may be. Though there are still more traditional isometric or top-down RPGs being released and other experimental fusions being done to varying levels of success.
Both JRPGs and WRPGs have adopted these changes but still remain noticeably distinct. It occurs to me as I write that these distinctions are fairly obvious but hard to explain — you just tend to know. The big difference is with aesthetics as WRPGs are usually darker and JRPGs tend to adopt a Manga style and tend to be more colourful though there are plenty of exceptions. Dragon Quest as the pioneer JRPG set this standard with art design by Akira Toriyama who is better known for the Dragon Ball manga series. It should be noted here, that unlike most series, Dragon Quest has kept very close to the series roots. There are counter-examples such as the very vibrant world of the WRPG Jade Empire and the darker tone of the JRPG Lost Odyssey. Another major difference certainly is that WRPGs tend to offer the player more choice even if the ultimate goal or ending remains the same but are also more likely to offer different endings based on player actions during the game but then so does the beloved JRPG Chrono Trigger. As well as this, there tends to be more character customization if not outright creation options featured in WRPGs. Again, there are exceptions but exceptions prove the rule.
This may anger JRPG aficionados but JRPGs tend to have very similar narratives. I’ve not personally played a large quantity of JRPGs but I have played a wide variety of different ones. The plots tend to be about world-imbalances from pseudo-spiritual or environmental causes and it turns out to be the ruling power or a deity that is causing this problem. WRPGs do generally involve the player saving the world from some sort of calamity but there tends to be more variety in how this plays out. The plots are so common that I blank out thinking about the major events of most JRPGs I have played which is not true of WRPGs.
My preference for WRPGs should now be sufficiently obvious for me to offer a more subjective difference between the two and that is with regard to replayability. Although both have similar (usually lengthy) time commitments required, I have only ever both wanted to and enjoyed replaying WRPGs. This became clear recently when I replayed Tales of Vesperia, a game I had remembered enjoying over a decade ago. The game still had its moments but the second trip through only served to remind me of what I didn’t like. I should add that this is not a well-paced game but it was a critical and commercial success and plenty think well of it. As I mentioned with narratives, I have already started blanking on it. Blastia? Guy named Duke with long white hair like Sephiroth? I’ll have forgotten it all again in a few months and as an aside, the “white-haired antagonist” is far too common as well. I’ve only played two Final Fantasy games to completion and both had the same. I do know that there is a Japanese cultural aspect about this but this doesn’t make this lack of creativity acceptable.
Take the original Fallout which I have not played through for more than twenty years. I still remember it! In fact, I have replayed a great many WRPGs (and would replay more) but Tales of Vesperia is the only JRPG I have ever replayed and I came close to stopping a few times and was thoroughly sick of it by the end. After that, I think the only JRPG I would replay is Chrono Trigger which is also the best one I’ve ever played. What makes it the exception is how it differs from the JRPG norm. Namely, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, offers a variety of endings and a fun battle-system without much level-grinding. It also has an an amazing soundtrack, a wonderful ascetic and a highly memorable world and characters.
To avoid suggestions that “I just need to play this or that”, to finish off, I will provide a list JRPG games I have played through to the end. I will stick strictly to games that are strictly JRPGs as games like Fire Emblem and Valkyria Chronicles are really turn-based tactical games at heart. The same is true of The Legend of Zelda games which are action/adventure games. I suppose the Pokémon games count and I’ve played most of the mainline titles but I’ll leave them out too. I have probably missed some games but this is the list in alphabetical order:
Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X, Golden Sun, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, Lost Odyssey, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, Paper Mario, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, Phantasy Star, Phantasy Star IV, Super Mario RPG, Tales of Hearts R, Tales of Symphonia, Tales of Vesperia, Tales of Xillia, Xenoblade Chronicles & Ys: Memories of Celceta
If this is not sufficient to earn the right to an opinion, I don’t know what else I can do. Many on the list are the Nintendo RPGs which some might dismiss as JRPG-lite but I enjoyed many of these games a lot more than others on the list due to their relative brevity and originality. The only two JRPG games I feel I perhaps should have played by all accounts would be Final Fantasy VI and EarthBound. The latter is one of the more unique in the genre and though I have played a bit of it — I’ve not finished it. The list of WRPGs would be similar in quantity but the difference is I’ve replayed many of them. It might help to add that I played and didn’t really enjoy The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and I’ve never played some golden age classics like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment either. Overall, I think WRPGs have more varied gameplay, deeper narratives, more replayability and a lot more actual role-playing. The latter should be the focus and is also what is more absent in JRPGs on the whole.