Aug 02 2013
by Z. Matzo
In 1989, Enix released Dragon Warrior for the NES. It was the first JRPG I ever owned. I was 11-years-old, and it blew my mind. Along with the original Final Fantasy and a pair of lesser-known games called Hydlide and Shadowgate, those games altered the course of my gaming habits. To this day, I can’t resist the grind of a great JRPG
Up until the Dragon Warrior/Final Fantasy one-two punch, my gaming was fairly pedestrian. I didn’t have a PC, so my video game hours were logged on either my NES or my grandma’s Atari 2600; two wildly divergent systems, to be sure. The majority of games were either platformers, arcade ports or quirky puzzle games. Mario reigned supreme, NES Baseball and 10 Yard Fight were the multiplayer games of choice, and I spent hours playing an idiotic Frogger rip-off called Freeway that involved nothing more than, literally, getting a chicken to cross the road.
Starting in around 1987, the dynamic of the North American NES landscape started to shift. More Japanese titles were making their way to North America. Games like Metroid, Kid Icarus, Mega Man and Castlevania became instant classics. And of course, 1987 was the year The Legend of Zelda debuted. The NES was a different system post-Zelda. Developers started to push the boundaries of what an 8-bit console game could offer. One of the outgrowths of this was the belief that traditional role playing games could find an audience in living rooms across the country. The port of localization of Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy were outgrowths of this belief.
All of the sudden, jumping over obstacles or shooting hordes of mindless enemies took a back seat to story, exploration and…grinding. Grinding for gold. Grinding for XP. Level grinding. Grinding for rare drops. The more random battles, the better. Because when you’re 11, the occasional lapse into tedium doesn’t bother you nearly as much as it does when you’re 34. Surviving the JRPG grind was a badge of honor that set you apart from other kids. Anyone could pull the “99 lives” trick on Super Mario Bros. But kids who had the patience to max out their characters in Final Fantasy were few and far between.
And so started a 20+ year obsession with grind-heavy JRPGs. Even with the advent of more “action oriented” Western RPGS such as the Elder Scrolls series, I stuck with turn-based combat, complex menu systems, and awful translations. The Shin Megami Tensei series, and its offshoots, has provided a great deal of entertainment over the years, and with the release of Shin Megami Tensei IV for the Nintendo 3DS this month, the trend has continued.
More than your typical JRPG, the SMT games demand a tolerance for and love of grinding. Leveling up your party requires patience, ingenuity and careful planning. And repetition. Much like in the Etrian Odyssey series, the grinding aspect of the SMT games is intentional. You will fight the same demons over and over and over again. Recruiting demons to your party requires massive amounts of trial and error. Even cutting corners using XP, macca and app point arena DLC is a grind more than a shortcut. There is no way around the monotony. The grind is a battle in and of itself, and the games are designed to force the player to persevere, even when it feels like little progress is being made. The payoff comes when you break through a level barrier or beat a particularly difficult boss. After an extended period of monotony, the emotional impact of any major event is heightened.
I don’t think it is coincidence that I’m a huge fan of both JRPGs and baseball. Both follow similar arcs. Each, by design, includes extended periods of repetition and mounting tension, punctuated by violent catharsis. Both exist outside the limits of time. They simply unfold at their own pace; the speed or lack thereof is entirely dependent upon how individual players play the game. There’s a beauty and nuance to both that is impossible to find in other endeavors.
That’s not to say that I don’t get burnt out on the grind. After 20 years of JRPGs, there are going to be times when I have neither the time nor the patience to grind through a mediocre story. Along those same lines, if a game is too easy or too linear, I’ll often lose interest. I’d say that the odds that I finish a JRPG on the first play-through are 50/50 these days. Often games will just sit on my shelf, aging like fine wine, until I feel that old familiar itch. When that happens, and a game really sets its hook, forget about it. Books don’t get read. Shows don’t get watched. Occasionally, work gets put on the backburner.
So what have I learned after 20 years of grinding? Nothing I didn’t know when I was five. Slow and steady still wins the race. Perseverance will be rewarded. Success is sweeter earned than given. And finally, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. But don’t forget to save first.
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