As someone who grew up playing as many JRPGs as one person possibly could, it’s safe to say that I’ve always loved the genre. It was easy to see why, growing up with the classic Final Fantasy games, Phantasy Star, Breath of Fire, Earthbound and so many more. My love affair with the genre continued well into the life of the PS1 and PS2, only to die down once this current generation of consoles hit the market. There were some good JRPGs to be found, sure, but they were so few and far between that it was hard to get excited about them anymore.
And then Ni no Kuni came along. It’s a game that manages to capture everything I love about JRPGs and then some. I consider it a hallmark of the genre, but does it scratch that itch purely due to nostalgia, or is there more at the heart of Ni no Kuni that helps it stand out?
JRPGs were always about capturing my imagination. From the war-torn world of Final Fantasy VI to the colorful (and often hilarious) writing in Earthbound, those games (and that era) essentially formed my perspective on video games as a whole. I would never argue that Phantasy Star II is the greatest game of all time, but it will always be a personal favorite. It simply came along at the right time in my life and enchanted me, like many others that came before and after. They proved that you can tell a compelling story in a video game, give life to those sprites on the screen, and provide a world full of seemingly endless possibilities.
I won’t deny that my vision is clouded by nostalgia. A kid today could pick up Final Fantasy XIII and be as amazed by it as I was by the sixth game in the long-running franchise. To that kid, FFXIII could represent everything those older JRPGs did and then some. So yes, there is a time and place in our lives where these games have the greatest impact. But I feel there’s more to it than that. Ni no Kuni was the first of its kind in quite some time that brought me back to that era, and did so without simply relying on the tricks of the past.
I can admit when a game I played in the past was never very good, yet I found reasons to love it anyway. SaGa Frontier on the PS1 is an example of a game that might not be up to the same standards as the best of the best from that same era, and yet I consider it a favorite. I recognize the flaws and I realize why, at the time (and especially now), people consider it one of the weaker Squaresoft-published RPGs. However, Final Fantasy VII, despite the many outcries from people over the years, is still quite good (despite its awful translation). There is a distinction, and even with the nostalgia I have for those games, I can easily tell the good and the not-so-good apart so many years later.
The point of all of this is simple: That kid who played Final Fantasy XIII might love it now, but maybe ten years down the line could see that it’s not entirely up to the standards of the genre’s best. Even during a time when there weren’t many titles competing in the same space, there are other games that they could play that fill the role of a Phantasy Star II or a Final Fantasy VII. I believe Ni no Kuni is that game.
Thanks to the master storytellers over at Studio Ghibli and the creative forces at Level-5, Ni no Kuni is one of the best recent examples of replicating an era of gaming for a younger generation. Many adults, like myself (and a lot of you reading this now), will probably find a lot to like about it, but any kids who play it? There is a good chance they’ll consider it a favorite, even several years later.
What makes Ni no Kuni so special? Outside of the gorgeous art style and brilliant, imaginative world, it’s the main character, Oliver. He’s just a kid who loves being a kid and has a very basic understanding of the way the world works. Early in the game, his mother dies, leaving him alone with his stuffed toy, Mr. Drippy. This alone is a pretty heavy start to what could be described as a story geared towards younger audiences, but I think mature subject matter is commonplace in some of the best kids’ stories (and not just those found in games).
Soon enough, Mr. Drippy comes to live and tells him he is the boy destined to save a parallel world and offers him a chance to do so. Oliver says no at first, unsure if he’s ready to handle such a grand task, but is eventually convinced when he is told it could potentially save his mother. Oliver has no interest in the other world, yet the idea that he could bring a loved one back from the dead, a fantasy that only a kid could dream up, is enough to send him on his way.
The story that unfolds past that early point goes far beyond Oliver and his noble goal, but it is easy to relate to. Oliver’s understanding of his powers, his responsibilities and his ultimate goal grows as the game goes on. In the back of his mind, he knows he’s trying to save his mother, but as he learns more about this new world and the journey ahead of him, he begins to grasp the true nature of what it means to grow up. Ni no Kuni is a game all about growing up, coping with loss and the responsibilities that go along with those seemingly difficult tasks. And it tells this tale wrapped in a yarn all about saving a world full of life and potential.
As Oliver continues his journey, he runs into NPCs that are broken-hearted. Shadar, one of the central antagonists, is stealing pieces of hearts from innocent people around the world. Thanks to Oliver’s abilities, he is the one who can help save them. Once again, the childlike nature of the game is hit hard with the realities of dealing with responsibility. You could ignore these poor people along the way, or you can help them the only way you know how: borrowing a piece of heart from others who are overflowing with a certain trait and giving that to the broken-hearted ones. Small touches like this help give a sense for who Oliver is and the enormous adventure ahead of him.
In Oliver’s world, he never dreamed of having the power to help people or even fully understanding how to do so. By bringing him to another world full of seemingly-endless possibilities, it makes it easier for him to come to terms with what he has to do, and not just in this new world, but also in his world. And, like any kid who believes in magic and the limitless potential that it presents, it gives him an opportunity to actually help those in need instead of being unsure of how to do so.
And it is because of these small touches that it becomes easy to relate to Oliver. I could sympathize with him despite the age difference, but put this game in the hands of someone who is Oliver’s age (or a little older), and suddenly you present them with what could be an instant classic. Studio Ghibli’s work is renowned for being not just for younger audiences, but for all audiences, and Ni no Kuni, like the JRPGs of the past, feels like the first RPG in quite some time to fill that role.
Presenting a believable and relatable character, a gorgeous world full of places to explore and a story that is for all ages, Ni no Kuni succeeds in a way that hasn’t been seen in an RPG for quite some. It’s still entirely possible to make a game that appeals to kids the same way those JRPGs of a bygone era appealed to me so many years ago, we just rarely see them. While I don’t expect to see JRPGs like Ni no Kuni have a massive resurgence, this game and its success that prove to me that there is still hope for the genre and for games that attempt to appeal to a wider audience. If anything else, ten-year-old me would be amazed if he saw what I was playing.