After the success of console role-playing games in Japan, the role-playing genre eventually began being classified into two fairly distinct styles: computer rpg and console rpg, due to stylistic, gameplay and/or cultural reasons; with the latter having become popularized and heavily influenced by early Japanese video games such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. In the early 2000s, however, as the platform differences began to blur, computer rpgs and console rpgs were eventually classified as Western role-playing games (or wrpgs) and Japanese role-playing games (or jrpgs), respectively.
Though sharing fundamental premises, Western rpgs tend to feature darker graphics, older characters, and a greater focus on roaming freedom, realism, and the underlying game mechanics (e.g. “rules-based” or “system-based”); whereas Eastern rpgs tend to feature brighter, anime-like or chibi graphics, younger characters, turn-based or faster-paced action gameplay, and a greater focus on tightly-orchestrated, linear storylines with intricate plots (e.g. “action-based” or “story-based”). Further, Western rpgs are more likely to allow players to create and customize characters from scratch, and since the late 1990s have had a stronger focus on extensive dialog tree systems (e.g. Planescape: Torment). On the other hand, Japanese rpgs tend to limit players to developing pre-defined player characters, and often do not allow the option to create or choose one’s own playable characters or make decisions that alter the plot. In the early 1990s, Japanese rpgs were seen as being much closer to fantasy novels, but by the late 1990s had become more cinematic in style (e.g. Final Fantasy series), while at the same time Western rpgs started becoming more novelistic in style (e.g. Planescape: Torment); by the late 2000s, Western rpgs had also adopted a more cinematic style (e.g. Mass Effect series).
One reason given for these differences is that many early Japanese console rpgs can be seen as forms of interactive manga (Japanese comics) or anime wrapped around Western rule systems at the time, in addition to the influence of visual novel adventure games. As a result, Japanese console rpgs differentiated themselves with a stronger focus on scripted narratives and character drama, alongside streamlined gameplay. In recent years, these trends have in turn been adopted by Western rpgs, which have begun moving more towards tightly structured narratives, in addition to moving away from “numbers and rules” in favor of streamlined combat systems similar to action games. In addition, a large number of Western independent games are modelled after Japanese rpgs, especially those of the 16-bit era, partly due to the rpg Maker game development tools.
Another oft-cited difference is the prominence or absence of kawaisa, or “cuteness”, in Japanese culture, and different approaches with respect to character aesthetics. Western RPGs tend to maintain a serious and gritty tone, whereas JRPG protagonsists tend to be designed with an emphasis on aesthetic beauty, and even male characters are often young, androgynous, shōnen or bishōnen in appearance. JRPGs often have cute (and even comic-relief type) characters or animals, juxtaposed (or clashing) with more mature themes and situations; and many modern JRPGs feature characters designed in the same style as those in manga and anime. The stylistic differences are often due to differing target audiences: Western RPGs are usually geared primarily towards teenage to adult males, whereas Japanese RPGs are usually intended for a much larger demographic, including female audiences, who, for example, accounted for nearly a third of Final Fantasy XIIIs fanbase.
Modern Japanese rpgs are more likely to feature turn-based battles; while modern Western rpgs are more likely to feature real-time combat. In the past, the reverse was often true: real-time action role-playing games were far more common among Japanese console rpgs than Western computer rpgs up until the late 1990s, due to gamepads usually being better suited to real-time action than the keyboard and mouse. There are of course exceptions, such as Final Fantasy xii (2006) and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner (1995 onwards), two modern Eastern RPGs that feature real-time combat; and The Temple of Elemental Evil (2003), a modern Western rpg that features turn-based combat.
Some journalists and video game designers have questioned this cultural classification, arguing that the differences between Eastern and Western games have been exaggerated. In an interview held at the American Electronic Entertainment Expo, Japanese video game developer Tetsuya Nomura (who worked on Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts) emphasized that rpgs should not be classified by country-of-origin, but rather described simply for what they are: role-playing games. Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy and The Last Story, noted that, while “users like to categorise” Japanese rpgs as “turn-based, traditional styles” and Western rpgs as “born from first-person shooters,” there “are titles that don’t fit the category,” pointing to Chrono Trigger (which he also worked on) and the Mana games. He further noted that there have been “other games similar to the style of Chrono Trigger,” but that “it’s probably because the games weren’t localised and didn’t reach the Western audience. Xeno series director Tetsuya Takahashi, in reference to Xenoblade Chronicles, stated that “I don’t know when exactly people started using the term ‘jrpg,’ but if this game makes people rethink the meaning of this term, I’ll be satisfied.” The writer Jeremy Parish of 1up.com states that “Xenoblade throws into high relief the sheer artificiality of the gaming community’s obsession over the differences between” Western and Japanese rpgs, pointing out that it “does things that don’t really fit into either genre. Gamers do love their boundaries and barriers and neat little rules, I know, but just because you cram something into a little box doesn’t mean it belongs there.” Nick Doerr of Joystiq criticizes the claim that Japanese rpgs are “too linear,” pointing out that non-linear Japanese rpgs are not uncommon—for instance, the Romancing SaGa series. Likewise, Rowan Kaiser of Joystiq points out that linear Western rpgs were common in the 1990s, and argues that many of the often mentioned differences between Eastern and Western games are stereotypes that are generally “not true” and “never was”, pointing to classic examples like Lands of Lore and Betrayal at Krondor that were more narrative-focused than the typical Western-style rpgs of the time. In 2015, ign noted in an interview with Xenoblade Chronicles x‘s development team that the label “jrpg” is most commonly used to refer to rpgs “whose presentation mimics the design sensibilities” of anime and manga, that it’s “typically the presentation and character archetypes” that signal “this is a jrpg.”