Before Genshin Impact: A brief history of Chinese RPGs

If you were interested in learning about movies, music, poetry or any art form from China, you could easily find hundreds of books, articles, documentaries, essays and videos on the subject.

Sadly, if you’re interested in Chinese video games, the story is quite different. For all its love of epic adventures, the English-speaking video game world has a critical lack of interest in anything outside its comfort zone. It lives in a bubble, still acting as if consoles were the biggest platform, Call of Duty was the biggest game and US, Europe & Japan were the only *real* game markets.

You hear all the time about how big Fortnite is, with its 30 million daily users…. and then you find that a game from Vietnam has 80 million daily players.

Yes, 80 MILLION players. Daily.

This article is an attempt to help improve that. Let’s delve into the rich history of Chinese RPGs, meet the oldest RPG series still around and one of the most influential games in history — that you probably never heard about.

For starters, to talk about “Chinese games” is to deal three main regions — mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan — each with very unique socio-economical scenarios and regulations. For example, consoles were banned in mainland China from 2000 until 2014 (of course, there was still a black market) but could still be legally purchased in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Moreover, it means dealing with two writing systems: Traditional Chinese, used on Taiwan and Hong Kong (and Macau); and Simplified Chinese, used in mainland China (and Singapore).

Since the 2000s games usually offer both systems in the options menu, but before that it means that a game from mainland China would be weird for a Taiwanese person to read, for example.

Lastly, most of these games never were translated so have no official English titles. I will post the original Chinese title and a crude translation (sorry for butchering them!).

The Chinese gaming industry began in the mid 80s in Taiwan, almost exclusively focused on MS-DOS releases, with titles like Softstar’s Monopoly (大富翁, 1989) an adaptation of the board game:

The first Chinese RPGs would appear in the 1990, mostly as simple games that mimic foreign classics with a thin coat of Chinese culture on top:

  • Xuan-Yuan Sword (軒轅劍, 1990) is a crude and short Dragon Quest clone, with a simple story & setting that mixes martial arts with more fantastic elements (a genre known as Xianxia).
  • Legend of the Chivalrous Hero (俠客英雄傳, 1991) is another early Dragon Quest clone, where you play as a lone martial arts hero that travels the land to defeat evil-doers and can choose one of five maidens to marry.
  • Eight Swords of Shenzhou (神州八劍, 1991) is a simple King’s Bounty clone, with you visiting cities to recruit armies, battle enemies and earn money for larger armies, until it can defeat all evil kings and unite the land.
  • Fantasy Zone of Computer (電腦魔域, 1991) has a gamer being dragged inside his computer, exploring the circuits and battling demon-virus. Despite the unique setting, the gameplay is still very basic.
  • Book of the Sword Saint (天外剑圣录, 1992) offers a plot far more complex than its peers, telling the tale of the last surviving member of a martial arts sect, trying to uncover the mystery behind the sect’s destruction. At release it was praised as a Wuxia (martial arts fantasy) novel in RPG form, showing a path forward for Chinese developers.

None of these games can be called great classics, being far behind what other countries were developing at the time. But they served as the foundation for the industry, establishing developers and series that would last for decades, such as Softstar’s Xuan-Yuan Sword series (BTW, “Xuan-Yuan” is The Yellow Emperor, a legendary figure considered to be the father of Chinese culture).

In 1995, Softstar releases the most popular and important of all Chinese RPGs: 仙劍奇俠傳, know as Legend of Sword and Fairy or Chinese Paladin:

Legend of Sword and Fairy (1995) — Fan translation patch

A polished, engaging and emotional game, it tells the story of a man who travels to a mystical island in search of medicine for his aunt, then meets and marry a young woman, only to lose his memory the next day. It was a touching story, expertly mixing Xianxia with romance and polished game design, setting the foundation for a series that is still going strong in 2021.

While you may never have heard of it, Chinese Paladin 1 is a cultural landmark in China, with its influence reaching far beyond the the video game realm, receiving novel adaptations, a remake in 2001, a 2005 TV series, and now a second TV series in 2021.

The 1995 version and the 2001 remake

TIP: If you want to try a game from the list, this is definitely the best one to start. It was never officially translated, but has an excellent fan-translation.

Xuan-Yuan Sword: Dance of the Maple Leaves (轩辕剑外传枫之舞) is another all-time classic from 1995, a powerful anti-war game that cast the player as an apprentice of Chinese philosopher Mozi (founder of Mohism) during the Warring States era, exploring many political and philosophical concepts.

Xuan-Yuan Sword: Dance of the Maple Leaves (1995)

For comparison, remember that western RPGs by this time barely had any story. Apart from games like Betrayal at Krondor and the Ultima series, it was still mostly “create group of heroes, enter dungeon & kill bad man”.

Released in 1996, Heroes of Jin Yong (金庸群俠傳) is another example of the more literary flavor of Chinese RPGs from this era. Developed by Heluo Studio, it’s an open-world RPG where your character is a gamer sent into a world formed from the novels of famous Wuxia novelist Jin Yong. You must learn martial arts and collect all of his novels, with characters from those novels helping or attacking you depending on your moral choices.

Heroes of Jin Yong (1996)

The game is also noteworthy for its large modding scene, as players edited the game files to introduce other novels and stories.

The evolution of China’s developers was extremely fast. The early 90s had them making simple clones, by the mid 90s they had found their voice and by the late 90s/early 2000s they would be at their peak, releasing great classics that are still held as the pinnacle of the industry.

One of these classics, Xuan-Yuan Sword 3: Beyond the Clouds and Mountains (軒轅劍參 雲和山的彼端, 1999) tells the story of a Frankish knight who is tasked by King Pepin the Younger to find a way to win the war. His journey takes him from Italy to the Middle-East and across Asia into China, dealing with demons and cultural differences along the way. It’s often considered the best game in the series and one of the few RPGs that can rival Chinese Paladin 1.

Xuan-Yuan Sword 3: Beyond the Clouds and Mountains (1999)

Heluo Studio’s second game, Legend of Wulin Heroes (武林群俠傳, 2001), would expand the non-linearity of Heroes of Jin Yong, mixing it with mechanics from Princess Maker to create what’s basically a “Wuxia Hero Maker”: your character gets accepted into a martial arts school, where each week you choose how to train, which weapon & martial style to follow and get lessons on Chinese culture:

Legend of Wulin Heroes (2001) — Images from Nyaa’s excellent translate Let’s Play: https://lparchive.org/Legend-of-Wulin-Heroes

Between lessons, you venture into the world, helping people, befriending other martial artist and carving your own path into legend — or infamy, since the game has many different routes and endings.

The game was remade in 2015 as Tales of Wuxia and even got a sequel but, sadly, the poor quality of the translation means part of the game’s charm is lost. A spin-off, Path of Wuxia, is currently on Early Access and turns the martial arts school into something like Harry Potter’s Hogwards:

Tales of Wuxia (2016) and Path of Wuxia (2021)

Another few classics from this era:

  • Tribulation of Heaven and Earth - Prequel: Legend of the Phantom Blade (天地劫序傳:幽城幻劍錄, 2001), aka “Castle: The Forbidden Divines”, is part of the popular Tribulation of Heaven and Earth trilogy. A cult classic with great visuals, its know for its extreme difficulty, multiple endings, satisfying combat and complex story about the pursue of love vs the burdens of fate.
  • Swordsman’s Romance: Moonlight Destiny (剑侠情缘外传:月影传说, 2001) is the third game in the series, a real-time isometric RPG that focus on a romantic story with multiple endings (ranging from a harem to suicide!). It’s also famous for its soundtrack, and for being released in Japan.
  • Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Millennial Destiny (2004) is another high point in the series. Set 500 years BC, its complex narrative mixes Chinese history with time travel and lots of philosophical questions about ambition and nationalism. With no romances or comic relief, it left many players bored or lost in the plot, leading to sequels being more lighthearted. But those who manage to delve into its heavy writing defend it as a masterpiece.
Tribulation of Heaven and Earth — Prequel (2001), Swordsman’s Romance: Moonlight Destiny (2001) and Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Millennial Destiny (2004)

While I’m only highlighting a few games, it’s important to understand that China’s production during this era is MASSIVE — over 100 Chinese single-player PC RPGs were released in the 90s & 00s!

The most popular settings are Wuxia & Xianxia stories — often adapted from novels or comics — and historical eras of China, such as the Warring States era or the Three Kingdoms. But they aren’t the only options, with games like the Flame Dragon series (炎龍騎士團) mixing large tactical battles with a more European-like fantasy setting, including very stylized character designs.

Flame Dragon II, The Fighting Blast and Thunder Force

The series was created by Taiwan-based studio Zealot Digital, that in the 2000s would also release the High School RPG The Fighting Blast and the cyberpunk RPG series Thunder Force (致命武力) .

Other interesting examples are:

  • 1998’s Tun Town (阿貓阿狗), an RPG about a boy who can talk to animals.
  • 1999’s Bodhidharma (達摩), an RPG where you play as the titular Buddhist patriarch (also known as Daruma in Japan).
  • 2002’s Heroine Anthem: The Elect of Wassernixe (聖女之歌-人魚的新娘), a really unusual RPG about a girl that gets turned into a mermaid, combining freely swimming across the ocean with turn-based battles.
Tun Town (1998), Bodhidharma (1999) and Heroine Anthem: The Elect of Wassernixe (2002)

I mentioned that the industry was almost entirely focused on PC games, but a few rare console RPGs were also made around this time. Taiwanese studio Trump Technology released unauthorized Sega Mega Drive games such as Water Margin (水浒传, 1995), The Devouring of Heaven and Earth III (吞食天地 3, 1996) and Investiture of the Gods (封神英杰传, 1996):

Water Margin (1995), The Devouring of Heaven and Earth III (1996) and Investiture of the Gods (1996)

The early 2000s was also when a few exports began to happen, with a few Chinese games reaching the US, Russia, Korea and Japan.

A huge challenge in making all these gems reach the global market is their heavy focus on story, romances and Chinese culture/history, making them difficult and costly to translate. Several of these games have moments when the heroes recite poetry, reference Buddhists teachings or obscure events from China’s extensive history.

Even Genshin Impact’s excellent translation can’t capture the sheer density of the language — if you’re curious, check this video comparing the English translation with the original and explaining some cultural references:

That briefly changed with the arrival of real-time RPGs such as Blade & Sword (刀剑封魔录, 2002), Prince of Qin (秦殇, 2002) and Seal of Evil (复活之秦殇前传, 2004). Prince of Qin and Seal of Evil are actually more similar to Baldur’s Gate, having a party of characters, real-time-with pause combat and far more elaborate stories. Still, the focus on action made publishers quickly translate them and them and promote them as “Diablo with a history lesson”, making them some of the few Chinese RPGs to ever be officially released in English:

Blade & Sword (2002), Prince of Qin (2002) and Seal of Evil (2004)

While some of the translations are quite poor, with terrible voice acting, this could’ve been the start of more regular exports. Alas, it was too late — the entire single-player market was about to vanish.

While all these classic single-player games were being released, a new world of online gaming was taking shape. Internet cafes were booming, not only with Counter-Strike, StarCraft, Diablo II and other international titles, but also with Blade Meteor (流星蝴蝶劍.net), a 2002 martial arts action game that could be played online, leading to fierce arena duels:

A Blade Meteor duel

China also already had some experience with MUDs, the online text-based role-playing games. One of its most popular, King of Kings (万王之王), began in 1996 at the National Tsing Hua University of Taiwan, then in 1999 was turned into a graphical MMORPG, quickly growing popular — reportedly, reaching 10,000 concurrent players a month after release, at a time when Ultima Online and EverQuest had around 100,000 total subscribers each.

The MUD version of King of Kings and the graphical one. The bottom of the screen is filled with MUD-like text commands.

This overnight success led to a boom of new online games, including imports from Korea and Japan, such as Stone Age Online and The Legend of Mir 2.

As Internet and computer access expanded, China’s MMORPG market would grow exponentially. Fantasy Westward Journey (夢幻西遊) was released in 2001 and is one of the most profitable games of all time, with $6.5 billion in lifetime revenue and over 310 million registered users.

Fantasy Westward Journey (2001)

And it’s not “just” that online games were insanely popular and profitable, they also solved a long-lasting challenge: piracy.

China has the biggest internal PC market in the world, but most of its players pirate games. The developers tried many types of copy-protection, from codes to hiding quest information in the manual to having players pick colors to match illustrations that came with the boxed copy. With the shift to 3D graphics, fully voiced dialogs and orchestral soundtracks, development costs kept rising and higher and higher legitimate sales numbers were required.

Online games solved that. The game CDs were distributed for free, the important part were the fees paid to play and, later, the in-game purchases.

Cards sold with MMO game time

All this leads to a massive shift towards online games, later transitioning partially into mobile games with similar monetization systems. These became the backbone of most of the Asian game industry, and I’ll not get into them here. It’s something that deserves a much more detailed examination.

Honkai Impact 3rd (2016)

It’s important to mention that this was a global event, not something exclusive to China or to RPGs. In Japan, Square and Enix had to merge in 2003 to be able to handle the ever-increasing development costs, while in the US dozens of companies like Origins, Interplay, Sierra and Westwood Studios closed down or were purchased. Classic RPG series like Ultima, Wizardry, Quest for Glory and Might & Magic all died, with surviving studios like BioWare and Bethesda moving focus from PCs to consoles.

https://web.archive.org/web/20070216205153/http://pc.ign.com/articles/092/092316p1.html

It wasn’t “the death of PC gaming”, as many analysts said, but it was undeniable that online games and console games were much more profitable. And the ever-increasing costs and risks of game development meant that everyone went for what seemed to be the safest bet.

The lack of access to the (official) console market means Chinese developers didn’t have that option, betting all their cards on online games. During this era, South Korea saw all its single-player RPGs disappear, but China actually managed to endure— despite some misfires, Xuan-Yuan Sword and Chinese Paladin still released popular titles during this era, and new RPG series such as Fantasy Sango (幻想三國誌) and Gujian (古剑奇谭) also appeared and gained popularity.

Fantasia Sango 2 (2005), Legend of Sword and Fairy 4 (2007) and Gujian 2 (2013)
2016's Chinese Paladin 5 Tv series, based on the 2011 game of the same name.

They also found a new way to monetize these RPGs by doing movies and TV series adaptations, with several games of the Xuan-Yuan Sword and Chinese Paladin series being adapted since 2005.

The Witcher series proved this works also in the west, cashing on the game’s popularity but also selling it to those coming fresh from the TV series.

Still, it was definitely a time of decline in the single-player RPG market, with veteran studios like Heluo Studio temporarily disbanding and Zealot Digital leaving the single-player market to focus exclusively on online games.

Last year’s Genshin Impact was a landmark, not only as a single-player RPG that managed to bridge the mobile, console and PC markets, but also for its localization and marketing efforts. The biggest international Chinese release ever, it successfully went from “Chinese Breath of the Wild clone”, as the international press initially reported it, into a global phenomena that made more than 1 billion dollars in less than 6 months.

Genshin Impact (2020)

It’s not a simple feat. The traditional Chinese RPG series have long been struggling to keep up with the standards of the global industry and get attention from foreign fans and press.

Chinese Paladin 6 (2015) was praised for its plot but heavily criticized for being outdated and full of technical issues, with a Chinese reviewer concluding “Why not just make a TV series?

Chinese Paladin 6 (2015), Gujian 3 (2018) and Xuan-Yuan Sword VII (2020)

Xuan-Yuan Sword VII (2020) tried to deliver next-gen graphics and a more modern Dark Souls-esque combat, but was ignored by the western mainstream press and criticized by players both domestic and foreign for its poor animations, lack of enemy variety and empty, linear world.

Gujian 3 (2018) was actually a great RPG, with good translation, challenging action combat and gorgeous AAA graphics — personally, I consider it far superior to recent western RPGs like Greedfall and Vampyr. However, even after selling 1.3 million units, its Metacritic page remains empty:

The big Chinese RPGs from the past years, all available on Steam in English, all struggling for attention.

Clearly there’s a lot of issues to be faced, from internal production challenges to properly marketing and localizing the games — Steam has dozens of interesting RPGs that are Chinese-only, and even the famous titles above only have Chinese voice acting, relying on English subtitles of uneven quality.

On the other hand, more and more indie Chinese RPGs like My Time at Portia, Tale of Immortal, Amazing Cultivation Simulator, Sands of Salzaar and The Scroll Of Taiwu are selling well and offering/promising English translations on Steam, which itself now has almost 25% of its user base coming from China. Not that surprising when you consider the country has over 312 million PC gamers.

The Scroll of Taiwu (2018), Sands of Salzaar (2020) and Tale of Immortal (2021)

After Genshin Impact, Black Myth: Wu Kong seems to be the next candidate for a global blockbuster, but there’s many more of those flying under the radar, incluiding Chinese Paladin 7, that just released a demo on Steam (sadly, Chinese only for now).

Even if they both fail, seems clear by now that Chinese RPGs are going to play an important role in the global market.

Brazilian living in Japan, Marketing dude and Gaming History enthusiast. Creator of The CRPG Book: https://crpgbook.wordpress.com/

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