Released in December 1982, The Dragon and Princess features a classic medieval setting, a party of characters, stats, experience points, and, perhaps most importantly, random encounters that force the player to enter a “battle screen” where they participate in tactical RPG combat. While its combat system is a far cry from what we eventually saw in Black Onyx and Dragon Quest (and much the game plays out like a text-based adventure), it’s pretty remarkable how many “core” JRPG elements this game features. It’s arguably become the most accepted answer to the question “What was the first JRPG ever made?” even if people still rightfully debate the nuances of that discussion.
Of course, all of this information just makes Final Fantasy’s obviously inaccurate reputation as the first JRPG that much more confusing. If there were so many Japanese RPGs released before Final Fantasy (including some of the games Final Fantasy was obviously inspired by), then how has Final Fantasy become so closely associated with the earliest days of the genre in the minds of many?
Well, there’s obviously a degree to which the game’s popularity has impacted its historical status. Simply put, Final Fantasy was significantly more popular than so many of the early JRPG experiments that came before. More importantly, Final Fantasy was the first JRPG many Western gamers ever played (though I and others certainly grew up with Dragon Warrior). If Final Fantasy was the first JRPG you played, you’re more likely to remember it as the first JRPG. The fact that the series has remained the most globally popular JRPG franchise has only enhanced its status as a globally recognized JRPG innovator.
That’s not to say that Final Fantasy doesn’t deserve that honor. The way that the game combined the innovations of its predecessors and introduced a few new ideas of its own (including elemental weaknesses, the “party-view” combat screen, and the way it handled classes and party compositions) means that it really does feel like the first “modern” JRPG in a lot of ways. At the very least, it’s the JRPG of that era that would have the biggest impact on the evolution of the genre moving forward.
See, the evolution of the JRPG is similar to the evolution of slasher films. Games like Dragon Slayer, Black Onyx, and The Dragon and Princess are like Psycho, Peeping Tom, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They all helped set the stage for the genre, but they were really only adopted into it after the fact as spiritual predecessors. In the case of The Dragon and Princess, you could argue that one of the biggest reasons it wasn’t immediately referred to as a JRPG is that the term really wasn’t a thing at the time of that game’s release.
Dragon Quest, meanwhile, is like Halloween. They’re the earliest and clearest examples of what we now think of when we think of their subgenres. Both were clearly inspired by previous works, and their subgenres would grow to incorporate more ideas soon after their releases, but they showed everybody a clear blueprint to follow and proved that blueprint could be commercially successful. They set the stage for so much of what would come next.
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