Two European developers explore the lasting influence of Japanese RPGs

Over the space of two years, three of the most beloved Japanese role-playing games in history were released in North America. The first, in 1994, was Final Fantasy 6 (known in America as Final Fantasy 3), a story of people coming together amidst chaos. Many still think of it as the greatest work of an iconic series. A teenage Scott Lynch was so fond of the game that, years later, the protagonist of his novel (‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’) was named as a homage to one of the main characters in the game.

The second game (which was at first only a cult favourite) was named Earthbound, a surreal and striking work that ended up as a crucial influence on Toby Fox, the creator of Undertale. And the third game was Chrono Trigger, perhaps the most consistent and winsome of all three. It influenced multiple games, including the upcoming Sea of Stars, which even has the same acclaimed composer, Yasunori Mitsuda, in a guest role.

None of these three all time classic games were released in Europe until years after their North American dates; in the case of Chrono Trigger and Earthbound, it was over a decade.

Here’s a look at Chrono Cross.

The situation was still unfortunate in the PlayStation/PSX era. Europe did get Final Fantasy 7, one of the best games ever made, but Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Valkyrie Profile were missing for years. Xenogears and Parasite Eve, startlingly, still haven’t been released in Europe.

Of course, there were still ways to play these games despite the lack of an official release, but the lack of availability must have had an impact. It certainly had an impact on me: I still remember being on holiday in America as a child, and watching a store assistant tell my sister that Chrono Cross had made him cry. It took until earlier this year, over twenty years later (with the European release) for me to finally play the game myself.

Luckily other European players were getting their hands on these classic games without too much waiting – and some of those players went on to develop games of their own that were deeply influenced by the JRPGs they once played and loved.

Chrono Cross is one of the many games that influenced the work of Felix Klein of Radical Fish Games in Germany. Klein and his team created CrossCode, one of the most popular examples of a Western game influenced by classic JRPGs.

CrossCode.

“I was just lucky I could play those games,” he says, after talking about how his family really enjoyed JRPGs and how his mother imported games that were unavailable in Germany, where they had to use a type of adapter to get the region locked games (like FF6 and Chrono Trigger) to run. By the time the PlayStation era arrived, he was importing more games than not with the help of “stores in Germany that specialised in these kind of things”.

Eventually, he admits, he did dip into emulation too, pointing out that it was the only way he could have played Seiken Densetsu 3 (known as Trials of Mana in English, finally released in 2019). “That game wasn’t even available in English, right? You only had English fan translations.”

Aside from Chrono Cross, his list of influences are: Secret of Mana, Lufia, Secret of Evermore, Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears, Xenosaga, and more. A particularly interesting game he mentions is Terranigma, which is distinctive amongst other classics mentioned here in that it had a release in Europe but not America. It has never been re-released, possibly due to the supposed disappearance of its director, Tomoyoshi Miyazaki.

Klein explains that the game his team are currently working on, which is only referred to as ‘Project Terra’ at the moment, is “especially inspired by Terranigma”:

“There’s actually one thing about Terranigma I believe is still something you really don’t find a lot in games these days, or in any other game in general. That is this kind of feeling that you built up a world and a society, but not in a building simulation, but in an action RPG.”

The process of transforming a “dark and gloomy” world into one with nature and animals and such was “a great feeling”, but his favourite element came afterwards, helping the humans develop, which he found “incredible”.

(Terranigma is also an influence on Chained Echoes, another JRPG style game from a German-based developer, Matthias Linda.)

Jack Move.

Edd Parris recently released his own JRPG influenced game called Jack Move. Parris (who resides in Taipei) grew up in the UK, but was never really bothered by the unavailability of some games in Europe; in fact, he notes that he didn’t really know about it. “We only had access to what we could get locally and the internet was still a burgeoning technology that I didn’t really think to look much up on.”

“When I was 17 I worked in the warehouse at a Currys store, so used to paw over the covers and manuals of all the games instead of actually working. My friends and I got to “try” a lot of games as I’d buy them from work, play them for a bit and then just get my mate on the till to refund them. We also got to see the discount lists super early, so when the PS2 came out I hoovered up a ton of weird PS1 games for 99p before they even went out on the shelves. I got to play Vagrant Story that way, a game I probably wouldn’t have played otherwise.”

Parris’s list of influences for Jack Move (mentioned on its official site) are mainly free of any of the aforementioned games that suffered long delays getting to Europe. He instead references games like Final Fantasy 7-10, Grandia, and Golden Sun. He did emulate Breath of Fire 4, though, something that was “very difficult to play legally” when he got around to it. (It was available on PSN in America, but not in Europe.)

“Honestly, the biggest thing we took from BoF4 was the fact that characters only have a single frame of animation when they move forward to attack. Originally I had planned for every character in Jack Move to have a little run cycle when they moved, but Joe (our lead animator) suggested we scrap that and just use a single frame. It saves on animation work for a start, but also makes battles feel much more snappy.”

He didn’t just take heed of classic Japanese games: there is some influence of his British upbringing in his game too. “Noa and Ryder are really just two english scallies, and Uncle Guin is very much based on a British playboy from the 60s a la Peter Cushing and David Niven.”

Klein, too, sees some of the influence of German culture in CrossCode; it’s down to earth and mundane, he notes, rather than being about saving the world or Marvel style comic stories. (The popular media in Germany, he says, is something like Tatort, “a crime series”.)

Klein believes that JRPGs are probably still a niche in Europe, but his team are filling that niche. “I think we actually found a spot in time when JRPGs were kind of lagging behind a little bit, because I think the golden years of JRPGs were probably the Playstation 2 era, the Playstation 1 era.”

“I don’t think they are like one of the most popular genres in Europe but there is at least a passionate group of people that really enjoyed these games, and we were just part of that essentially.”

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