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, 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 100 million daily players.

Yes, 100 MILLION players. In a single day.

This article is the first part of my attempt to help improve that, expanding the “canon” of video game history. So 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 with 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 in 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 BOOTLEG TRANSLATIONS

The Chinese gaming industry began in the mid-80s in Taiwan, mostly centered around the Apple II and IBM PC, but having difficulties due to importation costs and the lack of support for the Chinese language.

Some western games like Ultima and King’s Quest would reach the country (usually via copied floppy disks), but the language barrier made them very hard to play. To solve this, a group of Taiwanese gamers began printing translated manuals and guides to sell alongside pirate copies of the games (copyright laws were very loose at the time, this wasn’t even illegal):

A translated manual for Ultima III

By 1986, this group expanded into Jingxun Computer Magazine (精訊電腦), a magazine focused on PC games that advertised new releases (which they were selling) and gave tips on how to play them, translating menus and the overall story, sometimes even providing full walkthroughs:

Issue #2 of Jingxun Magazine from 1986, teaching how to play The Bard’s Tale.

Similar to what happened with companies like CDProjekt in Poland, GSC Game World in Ukraine and Akella in Russia, Jingxun would move from pirate copies to bootleg translations and then to original titles.

Under the name Kingformation Co., they used the magazine to reach out to the emerging domestic developer scene, commissioning two college students to create bootleg versions of Dragon Quest I, II and III for the MS-DOS:

Without access to the original code, they recreated the entire game by hand.

In 1987 they would also publish MX-151 (星河戰士), a crude sci-fi clone of Ultima III for the Apple II and possibly the country’s first original RPG:

MX-151’s title screen, overworld map and combat screen.

One of Jingxun founders would leave in 1988 to start his own game magazine +game publishing combo, Softstar (大宇資訊). However, due to threats of sanctions from the US, Taiwan revised its copyright rules in July 1989, allowing US companies to sue pirate groups in the country.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Kingformation would abandon the magazine and the piracy to become just game publishers, and other Taiwanese pirate groups would soon follow, such as Soft-World (智冠科技), who began making official publishing deals with US developers.

THE EARLY YEARS

Now full-time game publishers and with strong bonds with developers across all of Taiwan, these companies would start releasing several games per year, with a few early hits such as Softstar’s Monopoly (大富翁, 1989) helping them grow into one of the country’s biggest developers.

The RPGs would really begin in 1990, led by Softstar’s Xuan-Yuan Sword:

  • Xuan-Yuan Sword (軒轅劍, 1990). Although it’s a Dragon Quest clone with a simple story, Softstar’s first RPG is already quite professional, with nice artwork and presentation. Its setting stands out, mixing martial arts with fantasy elements (a genre known as Xianxia).
  • Legend of the Chivalrous Hero (俠客英雄傳, 1991) is a more primitive Dragon Quest clone, this time developed by Kingformation. 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 created by Soft-World, 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) by Softstar 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 (天外劍聖錄, 1992) was created by Dynasty International and 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.
  • Empire of the Angel (天使帝國, 1993). Also created by Softstar, it’s one of the first Strategy RPGs to come out of Taiwan, featuring only female warriors. Inspired by games like Fire Emblem and Langrisser, it got several sequels in the following years and a remake in 2000.

This is just a sample, there were dozens of RPGs released in the early 90s. Yet, 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).

I’m only covering RPGs here, but know that there were also other genres, such as 1993’s Legend of Condor Heroes (射雕 英雄 傳), an adventure game by Soft-World that plays like a lost cousin of the King’s Quest series.

THE FIRST CLASSICS

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, Chinese Paladin or simply PAL95:

Chinese Paladin (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 marries a young woman, only to lose his memory the next day.

There are many reasons why it’s such a landmark for the industry, but perhaps the most important is how it established a model for what a Chinese RPG should be, similar to what Dragon Quest did in Japan.

Moreover, not only the game was on par with what was being released internationally, in some ways it was ahead of them — its narrative was far more mature than that of other games from the era telling an emotional and romantic story without relying on traditional RPG tropes like an ancient evil or evil empire to defeat.

More than just an important game, Chinese Paladin’s influence reaches far beyond the video game realm, receiving novel adaptations, several sequels, 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 (軒轅劍外傳:楓之舞) is another all-time classic from 1995. The game is set in a period known as The Hundred Schools of Thoughts, a time around 400 BC when multiple philosophers roamed China. The player is an apprentice of famous philosopher Mozi (founder of Mohism), who will explore this world full of historical and mythical figures such as Lu Ban (a legendary inventor), trying to prevent a war with Korea.

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 a group of heroes, enter dungeon & kill evil wizard”.

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 (one of China’s best-selling authors — his most famous work, Legend of the Condor Heroes, was officially translated into English in 2018). 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 and still active modding scene. Fans edited the game to introduce other novels and stories, then started making several remakes and even entirely new games, such as Heroes of Jin Yong 5:

Heroes of Jin Yong 5, a free fan-made game released in 2018.

THE GOLDEN AGE

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 mythical way to win all wars. His journey takes him from Venice to Damascus, then all the way across The Silk Road into China, recruiting a colorful cast of companions inspired by Chinese myths, Christianity and Hinduism. It’s considered one of the best and most accessible games in the Xuan-Yuan Sword series.

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 artists 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, it's know for its extreme difficulty, multiple endings, satisfying combat and complex story about the pursuit of love vs the burdens of fate. This game has a very devoted fanbase, a fan translation into English was in the works but, sadly, seems to be dead now.
  • 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 focuses 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 (軒轅劍外傳:蒼之濤, 2004) is another high point in the series. Set 500 years BC, its complex narrative mixes Chinese history with time travel and 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)

THE B-SIDES

While I’m only highlighting a few games, it’s important to understand that China’s production during this era is MASSIVE — over 200 Chinese single-player PC RPGs were released in the 90s & 00s! (Not to mention A LOT of strategy games, especially turn-based ones)

The games above are more traditional RPGs, often inspired by JRPGs. However, there was also a massive fanbase for Tactical/Strategy RPGs.

Series like Empire of Angels (天使帝國), Super Space-Time Heroes (超時空英雄傳說) and The Legend of the Fancy Realm (幻世錄) are still held in high regard among domestic releases, having several sequels and mobile ports even today. Fantasy Wind series (風色幻想) ran from 1999 to 2009 with 8 mainline games, several expansions, remakes and an MMO!

Empire of the Angel (1993), Legend of the Hero of Time and Space (1996), The Legend of the Fancy Realm (1995) and Wind Fantasy 5 (2006)

Speaking broadly, in traditional Chinese RPGs the most popular settings are Wuxia & Xianxia stories — often adapted from novels or comics — and historical eras of China, such as the Warring States or Three Kingdoms eras (it’s impossible to overstate how many Three Kingdoms games there are).

But those aren’t the only options, with many Tactical RPGs following European-style fantasy tropes. The art style was also diverse, with some games presenting heavily stylized designs, like the cult classic Flame Dragon series (炎龍騎士團), perhaps China’s most beloved Tactical RPG series.

Flame Dragon II, The Fighting Blast and Thunder Force

The series was created by Taiwan-based studio Dynasty International, that would be acquired by Softstar in 1998 and renamed Zealot Digital, later releasing 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), a kid-friendly RPG about a boy who can talk to animals. Made by Chinese Paladin developers, is extremely polished, with a style and tone similar to LucasArts Adventure games.
  • 1999’s Bodhidharma (達摩), an RPG where you play as the titular Buddhist patriarch (also known as Daruma in Japan).
  • 1999’s Battle for North Korea (决战朝鲜), a tactical RPG where you control Chinese troops in the Korean war, dealing with supply lines, limited ammo, permanent injuries and far better-equipped enemy forces.
  • 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), Battle for North Korea (1999) and Heroine Anthem (2002)

It’s interesting to point out how the focus on PC hardware allowed for gameplay and visuals that consoles of the time couldn’t replicate, making even very JRPG-inspired games stand out from actual JRPGs. A good example is 1997’s Legend of the Chivalrous Hero 3, the last RPG from Kingformation. While it was still an MS-DOS game running at 320x200 resolution, it features huge sprites and combat animations that are unlike any console JRPG:

A special attack animation in Legend of the Chivalrous Hero 3 (1997)

I mentioned that the industry was almost entirely focused on PC games, but they also had a few console RPGs. China is famous for its bootleg scene, with companies like Waixing (福州外星电脑科技有限公司) and Shenzhen (深圳市南晶科技有限公司) porting games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII to the humble NES, a cheaper & more available hardware (you see something similar in Brazil’s 1997 port of Street Fighter II for the Master System).

However, they also produced original titles such as Water Margin (水滸傳, 1995), The Story of Arthur (亞瑟傳説, 1995), The Devouring of Heaven and Earth III (吞食天地Ⅲ, 1996) and Investiture of the Gods (封神英傑傳, 1996).

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

(ALMOST) GOING GLOBAL

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. They are wordy, with several games having moments when the heroes recite poetry and Buddhist teachings or reference obscure events from China’s extensive history. Not to mention how the language itself is one of the hardest to translate.

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.

THE ONLINE BOOM

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 Meteor Blade (流星蝴蝶劍.net), a 2002 martial arts action game that could be played online, leading to fierce arena duels:

A Meteor Blade duel

China also already had some experience with MUDs, the online text-based role-playing games. One of its most popular, King of Kings (萬王之王), 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 growing online scene was first dominated by MUDs such as Eastern Fantasy 2 (東方故事2, 1994), and Ode to Gallantry (侠客行, 1995) then began being taken by imports such as Stone Age Online (ストーンエイジ,1999), The Legend of Mir 2 (미르의 전설 2, 2001) and private servers of Ultima Online.

As Internet and computer access expanded, China’s MMORPG market would grow exponentially. Fantasy Westward Journey (梦幻西游) was released in 2001 and is one of the most profitable game series of all time, with $6.5 billion in lifetime revenue and over 400 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.

If you want to read more about China’s mobile and online game industries, check out Mobile Gaming in Asia: Politics, Culture and Emerging Technologies by Dal Yong Jin, and A Critical Cultural History of Online Games in China: 1995–2015, by Matthew M. Chew.

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 the 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 a more attractive market. And the ever-increasing costs and risks of game development meant that companies went for 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, with a few popular and critically acclaimed titles being released during this era, such as Wind Fantasy 5 (風色幻想5~赤月戰爭, 2006), Chinese Paladin 4 and 5 (2007 and 2011). New series such as Fantasy Sango (幻想三國志, 2003) and GuJian (古剑奇谭, 2010) also managed to gain popularity around this time.

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

While some series survived thanks to the income from online counterparts, developers also found a new way to monetize these RPGs by doing movies and TV series adaptations, with several games of the Xuan-Yuan Sword, GuJian and Chinese Paladin series being adapted since 2005.

It’s a concept seen everywhere from the Pokémon TV show in the 90s to the recent The Witcher series on NETFLIX, banking 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.

GOING TRULY GLOBAL

Last year’s Genshin Impact (原神) 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 phenomenon 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 the press.

Chinese Paladin 6 (仙劍奇俠傳六, 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 (軒轅劍柒, 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 (古剑奇谭三, 2018) is actually a great RPG, with a good translation, challenging 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 (波西亚时光), Tale of Immortal (鬼谷八荒), Amazing Cultivation Simulator (了不起的修仙模擬器), Sands of Salzaar (部落与弯刀) and The Scroll Of Taiwu (太吾绘卷) 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)

A rising trend in these indie games is the “cultivation” theme — a sub-genre of Xianxia focused on people who practice martial arts and cultivate their inner energy (ki) to obtain special powers and longer life, often mixing in “isekai” tropes and following progression systems straight out of MMORPGs.

These stories have been extremely popular in webnovels and manhua (Chinese manga), with titles like 2014’s I Shall Seal the Heavens (我欲封天) and 2016’s Library of Heaven’s Path (天道图书馆) having hundreds of millions of views in China and across various portals that post their translations:

Library of Heaven’s Path page on webnovel.com, with 2,268 chapters and 172 million views

After Genshin Impact, Black Myth: Wu Kong (黑神话:悟空) seems to be the next candidate for a global blockbuster, but there are other big titles coming, such as Chinese Paladin 7 (仙剑奇侠传七), that just released a demo on Steam (sadly, Chinese only for now), or the recently announced GuJian 4.

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

And if you enjoyed this look on the history of Chinese RPGs, check out my other ones on the history of Korean RPGs, the birth of Japanese RPGs, the history of MUDs & MMOs or follow me on Twitter. Cheers!

PS: Special thanks to @OrangePeelPanda and @closer1976 for checking the article and helping with the hanzi.

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