For a certain cohort of players, making a JRPG of their own was the dream. I mean THE DREAM. Whether it was Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, or one of the other less “household name” franchises or one-offs, it was, for some of us, a genre that inspired us beyond reason, feeding into our combined love for combat and character progression systems as well as storytelling.
We wanted to make some JRPGs.
Just one problem: They’re huge, and complex, and usually made by huge teams of people. You were lucky if you could get three friends together on regular weekends to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons or Earthdawn.
Forgotten Realms, I don’t make the rules.
But we made maps, and wrote out lengthy campaigns, crafted heroes and villains, and milled our Monstrous Compendiums and countless splatbooks for inspiration and stat blocks. We filled Trapper Keepers and spiral notebooks with drawings (some OCs, some just bad copies of Yoshitaka Amano’s designs). I had a friend in middle school who devoted three of his five subject notebook to just drawing motherfucking swords and axes (dude, they were sick). Some of us learned piano and picked up cheap synthesizers, writing bad MIDI battle jams. Others tried teaching themselves C to varying degrees of success. In a way, we were building our own dev team, one that would just never come together to really make much of anything. Certainly nothing even close to the complexity of a game as minimal and held together with bailing wire and prayers as Final Fantasy. In the end, we mostly packed up those dreams and moved on. It was too hard, too much. And there were no resources for even where to begin such an undertaking at the time.
We put the dreams aside. I fell in love with HyperCard and made some really bad adventure games in the mode of ShadowGate. And the rest of my friends decided to fuck off to the land of Doom WADs and Warcraft mods.
But then something happened. RPG Maker was born, and it eventually came to America.
An ember was rekindled.
The first official English release of RPG Maker was XP in 2005. A lot has changed in 15 years, but at its core this is still the RPG Maker both loved, reviled, and sometimes ignored by the gaming world at large.
If you’re already an RPG Maker user, this review probably isn’t for you. If you have MV and are familiar with how it works and what it’s capable of, then you know enough to look at the feature list and make a coherent decision based on what you need an RPGM to do.
But if you’ve never heard of RPG Maker or have been too shy or confused about all the versions still readily available (and quite usable) with no idea where to start, I’ve got you.
RPG Maker MZ is the latest in the 27 year history of RPG Makers developed by KADOKAWA and published by Degica, who also make a Visual Novel Maker (that is a perfectly usable alternative for people who want to make one of those without dealing with RenPy). It’s a game engine, a dev kit, and a huge catalog of art and sound assets that are all free to use in RPG Maker projects (even in commercial works—yes, you can get paid for your homemade JRPG) just for buying the software.
“Why RPG Maker?” is a completely valid question. In 2020, the options for free, low cost, simpler, or more flexible game creation packages are pretty numerous. You could make a JRPG in many of them. Some support other genres too. You could make basically anything in Unity or Unreal Engine, and you can certainly make a JRPG in Gamemaker.
But the bigger and less specialized the software and engine, the more complicated. And few of those will just give you a collection of assets that work together and the software more or less perfectly (even if their asset stores boast huge free or low cost offerings).
And if this is your first game, or especially your first JRPG, then RPG Maker is all about setting you up for success as readily as much as it can—while still giving you plenty of rope to get expressive and grow.
You don’t need to learn a scrap of code, or system design. Every tile you need to make a basic game is included. Don’t want to deal with class design or skill creation right off the bat? There are a wealth of default classes and skills already baked in—even a premade party. If you really just want to make a game fast and focus on something like writing, it’s got a slew of premade maps and auto-generators. There’s even music, sound, and visual effects. All free to use, which is a big deal, especially if you end up wanting to sell your game.
While previous RPG Makers were limited to Mac and Windows executables, now you can port your game to HTML, and even mobile (this takes some doin’ though) in addition.
It’s an ideal package if you don’t have a budding squad to all specialize in various areas of game development or a budget for cohesive art and music. It even has a character creator where you can assemble bits and pieces of faces and change bodies to make NPCs and party members. Just take a look at my editor Garrett Martin as a classic JRPG NPC…
$80 gets you everything you need.
Okay, you’ll need to come up with a story and write your game. But, look, you can do it. Most games aren’t well written anyway, and the 16-bit JRPGs that RPG Maker wants to help you make? Well, some of the best are just ghastly.
For all it does bring to the table, you’ll still need to make the game. It’s not enough to just have an idea. And you’ll spend most of your time plunking away with Events.
It’s okay, there’s a menu for all that. It’s dense and not easily parsed at first. But at least MZ has a side panel to help you keep track of them—you’ll make a lot. Basically everything is an Event in RPG Maker, from doors and chests to quest chains and NPCs with one weird line of dialogue. And for things like doors and shops and treasure chests, there are some quick-events you can drop in place with a simple right-click. It really speeds things up, because drilling through the whole event menu can get exhausting, especially if you’re just learning. Especially when you’re not sure where the event you need is. Because you’ve been making them hand over fist because you decided to populate an entire world with throwaway characters that all have one or two lines of flavor dialogue and also made every object interactable (often changing over time). I have a problem with making everything reactive. So, yeah…The event panel does make things a lot nicer if you get silly with events (trust me, you will).
The database is your hub-away-from-hub. Look at all these sick skills!
Stringing events together with toggleable switches is largely how you build out your game. Switches change the game state in response to events. Eventually you’ll get into a rhythm of how this all works. And you can get pretty fancy with this all from the menu full of predefined events.
And what JRPG would be complete without combat? Whether you want a first person view like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy-esque side battlers, the latest version of RPG Maker supports both. And new for MZ is the Time Progress Battle System, for something resembling Active Time Battles.
Like classes and skills and items and equipment, everything to do with combat is handled from within the Database menu. It’s big, bigger than the event menu, but here you can tinker with abilities, build and modify monster encounters, even test out combat to help with balancing, trying out how abilities work, or making sure that boss is appropriately challenging. You get the standard assortment of buffs, debuffs, and spells. Things like fire and ice magic, poison and paralysis. All adjustable from within the database. The math guiding everything is also adjustable here.
You want to send players up against an army of eight crabs? You can do that!
If you want to extend RPG Maker without having to do lots of the heavy scripting yourself, there’s a number of third-party developers (Yanfly being the biggest name of the bunch) who have made scripts and whole plugins that can massively expand what RPG Maker can do, and that for the most part, slot right in. You want crafting? There’s a plug-in for that. Weapon proficiencies? Plug-in. Skill points and trees? Yet another plug-in.
You can even add fishing to your JRPG, which would make Yoko Taro happy.
If this all seems like a lot, don’t worry, it is. For first time users, it can be overwhelming. Hell, it’s overwhelming for me most of the time, and I’ve started and abandoned dozens of half-finished games at this point. But there’s a surprisingly robust (and hand-hold-y) tutorial menu that will guide you through everything from tile placement to making quests and bringing NPCs to life to creating an ending cutscene.
The nice thing about the tutorial is it happens within the software itself. You start with making a project, adding to it progressively as you work through the tutorials. At the end, you will have a fully-functional, if slim and short, JRPG.
It’s a cool feeling, and it sets you up for basically everything you need to make your first real game.
So, you’ve made it this far, and you’re still hype to go set out and make your first JRPG with RPG Maker. Awesome.
But is RPG Maker MZ the right one for you?
If you have $70 to spend, it probably is. It’s the newest and the quality of life improvements made to events alone will make some things easier. It’s a decent upgrade on the previous version (RPG Maker MV) and what plugins don’t exist yet will likely be ported over soon enough.
But it’s also the newest. It hasn’t been heavily patched like MV or the even earlier VX Ace, and some people prefer the older versions’ tilesets and aesthetics. Also, some plugins you may be really interested in using that aren’t ported yet may never come. Free plugins are a labor of love, and even paid ones are subject to developer time and labor constraints, and market demand.
If you like the look of MZ’s 48×48 pixel tiles and want a robust ecosystem of plugins, scripts, and community support, MV will probably suit you best.
I made this in RPG Maker MV by editing the base tiles in Photoshop.
VX Ace has long been my favorite version, and can usually be found dirt cheap. It uses smaller tiles, and I am one of the ones who likes its art assets better. It supports most of what MV and MZ do, with the noted exception of mobile and HTML exporting.
Earlier versions are hit or miss with what they offer and what you might want to do, and lack scripting support. But are robust little powerhouses in their own right, and they definitely support specific aesthetics more readily than even VX Ace.
In the end, I’m probably moving over to MZ entirely. The plug-in ecosystem will likely catch up for 90% of what I would use, and the quality of life improvements (seriously, that event sidebar is a lifesaver). But, I also got this review copy.
Earlier this week RPG Maker MV was on sale for $16.99 on Degica’s own website. This isn’t an infrequent thing. Previous versions are often DEEPLY discounted.
I don’t think I’ve paid more than $100 total for every PC version. And if you get really invested in RPG Maker, you’ll find that these previous versions all have their place and come with their own unique and portable (with some tweaking) assets.
If you’re reading this and it’s still on sale, MZ doesn’t do enough to enjoy the price premium over a game creation studio that can often be found for as cheap as $17 and that will still go strong for several years to come (seriously, I’m using one made for Windows XP), even if MZ is definitely nicer. There’s just no world where that makes any kind of economic sense.
And that’s kind of the bummer with RPG Maker MZ as a standalone product. It does some nice stuff, but not far enough. There are additions to the core engine that previously needed plugins and scripts, but it makes you wonder why they didn’t just license things from Yanfly directly, or do what Blizzard did in World of Warcraft and implement their own simpler versions of popular mods. Some things have also been needlessly complicated. The old visual effects menu has been stripped out to make way for the standalone Effekseer—more powerful, but also much more fussy and obtuse. And, at this point, it’s time for new default tilesets.
As a photographer, people always ask me what camera to buy. And I always tell them to get way less camera than they think they need, or is being advertised to them. All the bells and whistles and improvements for high-level users don’t make a bit of difference if you’ll never touch them, don’t know you need them, and won’t for years. And if you know, you know.
This is how I feel after spending two weeks with RPG Maker MZ. What you don’t know, you won’t know to miss. And by the time you’re really ready for them, RPG Maker MZ will probably be on sale, or the series will be onto the next, more substantive version upgrade. There’s just not enough here to make it worth the price premium to new users.
So if you’re new and just want to have fun exploring, just get MV when it’s on sale. Take the money you save and splurge on some cool new tilesets (personally, I love GuttyKreum).
RPG Maker MZ was developed by Kadokawa and published by Degica. It available for PC and Mac.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.