In the 90s, every other action movie was a shameless attempt to duplicate Die Hard‘s success. Speed was Die Hard on a bus; Passenger 57, Con Air, and Air Force One were Die Hard on a plane. Someone even made Die Hard in a high-rise, which is really just Die Hard minus John McClane.
While I have a strong appreciation for originality, I’m also pretty cool with this sort of copycatting. If a concept is good enough, it’s worth repeating. Some of my favorite games are Dragon Quest clones, and I’ve played some pretty amazing Zelda ripoffs.
The secret to imitation is figuring out what to copy. If action movies had tried to be Top Gun instead of Die Hard, they would have faltered, and if JRPGs had tried to be Skies of Arcadia instead of Final Fantasy, they would have flourished.
The selling point of Skies of Arcadia isn’t its by-the-numbers storyline, but its sense of adventure. You’re placed in a vast, beautiful world and tasked with exploring every inch of it. You can forget about the plot completely as you fly across the globe, hunting for lost cites and tracking down incredible creatures.
These days, exploration-heavy games are commonplace, but Skies of Arcadia was released 14 years ago, when that level of freedom was rare. Plenty of JRPGs had grand adventures, but most of those adventures were heavily controlled. You couldn’t just take off in search of a mysterious island; you had to stick to the main quest.
Linear experiences were easy to accept when they were the norm, but as worlds began to open up, those restrictions began to feel more chafing. Games like Oblivion and Fallout 3 made your standard JRPG seem downright claustrophobic. People who once lived and breathed Final Fantasy shunned the series, and instead sought out freer experiences.
But if JRPGs had taken a page from the Skies of Arcadia playbook, Final Fantasy XIII would have taken you off Cocoon in the first twenty minutes. Blue Dragon and Eternal Sonata would have obscured their mediocre stories with beautiful, explorable worlds.
Skies of Arcadia was ahead of its time, and if developers had recognized that, JRPGs would be in a better place.
Diversity is a wonderful thing, but every genre needs its staples. Action movies thrived when they ripped off of Die Hard. If JRPGs had borrowed from Skies of Arcadia, they might have thrived too.