JRPG Origins on the PC

When talking about JRPGs, people immediately imagine a console title or series. And in general, consoles and JRPGs are closely intertwined. However, this article on PC Gamer looks back at the genre's history and finds out that the PC platform had a big influence on its development. A nice read if you're interested in gaming history. An excerpt:

Leading up to the renaissance

Though the Japanese RPG scene got off to a rough start, by 1983 Koei and other companies were releasing games that had a much clearer vision for roleplaying. Dungeon, for example, was a first-person dungeon crawler that demonstrated how big of an impact games like Wizardry and Ultima were having in Japan. Many of Dungeon's monsters were clearly stolen directly from the Dungeons and Dragons rule books. While you don't manage an entire party in Dungeon, you can build your character by choosing one of five archetypal classes—like wizard or warrior—and explore an island in search of the treasure of El Dorado. Dungeon offers little in terms of innovation outside of its single dungeon that measures a massive 250 by 250 squares.

It wasn't until January of 1984 that Japan would see its first RPG hit. Despite two years worth of releases, RPGs still were little more than a niche genre for only the most hardcore Japanese PC gamers and programmers. Ironically, the person to change all of that wouldn't even be a Japanese.

In the late '70s, Amsterdam-born Henk Rogers abandoned his studies in Hawaii and "chased a girl to Tokyo," getting a job with her parents' gem company to cover room and board. Unable to speak Japanese and working just to keep a roof over his head, Rogers was astounded to discover how little Dungeons and Dragons had penetrated mainstream Japanese culture. Back in Hawaii, the tabletop RPG dominated every waking moment of his life. In 1982, he became obsessed with the idea of programming his own RPG tailored to Japanese players.

"It was immediately obvious to me that the core difference between the two markets was that there were no computer role-playing games in Japan," he said in an interview with The Magazine. Despite Koei pumping out proto-RPGs for years, Rogers felt like they still hadn't penetrated Japanese culture to the same extent as in North America—and he saw an opportunity. "The US had Ultima and Wizardry. But there were no such adventures in Japan. I thought, I could do that."

After saving up $10,000 for a PC-8801, Rogers began working on a game that he hoped would finally bring RPGs to the forefront of Japanese videogame culture. The Black Onyx relied heavily on the first-person dungeon crawling aspects of Wizardry but brought several innovations to the genre including character appearance customization, representing health as a colored bar, and being able to recruit NPCs to fill out your five-man party.

The release was a disaster. The Black Onyx relied too heavily on Western fantasy aesthetics in its marketing, and Rogers explained that it didn't resonate with Japanese gamers. In the first two months, The Black Onyx only sold five copies. That's when Rogers decided to hire a translator and visit every major Japanese PC magazine and demo the game in-person. "I sat down with each editor and asked them for their name," Rogers explained. "I typed this in and then asked them to choose the head that looked most like them. In this way I taught them how to roll a D&D character. Then I left them to play.”

Astounded by the idea of creating their own character, every magazine Rogers visited ran extensive coverage of the game in their next issue. That month The Black Onyx sold 10,000 copies and continued to do so until it became the best-selling Japanese videogame a year later with 150,000 copies sold. Finally, RPGs had become mainstream in Japan.