RPGs in South Korea —A brief history of package, online and mobile games

To talk about games in South Korea usually brings to mind legions of hardcore gamers playing StarCraft, or maybe MMORPGs such as Lineage, Ragnarök, MapleStory, Black Desert Online, Dungeon Fighter Online, etc…

However, before the reign of eSports and online games, Korean gamers enjoyed a brief but very productive era of domestic single-player games — called “packages” due to being sold in physical packages.

Yes, Koreans weren’t just playing StarCraft, they made their own RTS too!

The Forgotten Land (광개토대왕, 1995), Jurassic War (쥬라기 원시전, 1996), Three Kingdoms Divine Destiny (삼국지 천명, 1998), Lord of the Sea (해상왕 장보고, 2003)

The history of the Korean game industry is told in detail by Sam Derboo at HG101. If you are interested in this subject, I fully recommend reading the entire piece, this article would’ve been almost impossible without his research. Here I’ll just briefly mention the start of the PC era, to contextualize the appearance of the first Korean RPGs.

As Derboo tells, early home computers begin to appear in Korea in the early 1980s. These were supported by local companies like Samsung, who also helped promote computers in the country by organizing contests between students to push them to learn this new technology.

A computer room in a Korean school and a Samsung SPC-1000 computer ad, both from 1983

By the mid-1980s the several competing standards of early computers would mostly be replaced by Apple II and MSX compatible machines. This made it easier to import games from abroad — mainly Apple II games from the US and MSX games from Japan. The MSX machines came in two varieties: either as computers with a keyboard and a cartridge slot or as consoles with just controllers and the cartridge slot, such as the Zemmix.

A CPC-300 computer and a Zemmix console, both from Daewoo and capable of running MSX cartridges.

Since there were no software copyright laws at the time, Korean companies would simply pirate & re-release foreign games as their own.

It’s important to point out that at this time Korea had a ban on culture from Japan. After the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea ended in 1945, the country decreed a “Law For Punishing Anti-National Deeds”, banning the consumption of Japanese media such as music, TV shows, and games. This didn’t mean it was impossible to get Japanese games — Korean companies would simply hack games to remove any Japanese text or logo.

Valis: The Fantasm Soldier (1986) with the Japanese logo removed.

The popular games at the time were mostly arcade-like titles, so translation efforts were minimal, at most a few lines of text in the title screen — there were no bootleg translations of complex games like Taiwan had done with Dragon Quest.

However, by July 1987 the country adopts software copyright laws, so local game companies were forced to start developing their own games. This is when reportedly the first fully-Korean RPG appears: 1987’s Dream Traveler Part 1 (or Legend of the Holy Sword / 神劍의 전설) for the Apple II. Created by a high school student named Nam Inhwan (남인환), it’s basically a simple Ultima clone. Nonetheless, it was the first time Koreans could play a complex RPG developed in their country and in their own language.

Dream Traveler Part 1 (神劍의 전설, 1987)

While an important first step, it would take a while for more original RPGs to appear. Korean companies could no longer re-publish foreign games, but the law was loose enough to allow them to re-create these games from scratch.

Zemina was a company that specialized in these clones, producing several Mario clones for the MSX as well as the Family Cart, an MSX accessory that allowed the computer to run Famicom games:

Zemina’s Brother Adventure (1987), Super Boy 3 (1991), and Family Cart accessory.

One of the few companies focused on fully original games was Topia, Korea’s largest chain of computer stores. They would hire developers to create original titles to be sold in their stores, such as 1989’s Romantic Paladin (風流俠客 / 풍류협객), an Action-RPG in the style of Hydlide.

Romantic Paladin (風流俠客 / 풍류협객, 1989)

Reportedly Korea’s first RPG for IBM PCs, it was still a monochrome game, primitive even when compared to the original Hydlide, from 1984.

As a whole, Korean PC games were seen as too simple and outdated, unable to match the know-how and technology of developers from the US and Japan, who had easy access to computers like the Amiga and the Japanese PC-9800.

The early 90s saw an end of the dispute between multiple home computer standards, with IBM PC compatibles becoming the global standard, thanks in part to the new VGA graphics cards that allowed for much better graphics:

Much more accessible than machines like the Amiga, they allowed developers across the globe to produce far more advanced games.

This is when Hong Gildong (홍길동전, 1993) was released. It’s a colorful RPG heavily inspired by Dragon Quest, but with a much larger focus on narrative, telling the story of the titular character, Hong Gildong:

Hong Gildong (홍길동전, 1993)

The game is based on The Story of Hong Gildong, a popular Korean novel from the 16th century about the illegitimate son of a nobleman from the Joseon kingdom era. Despite being a gifted child with magical powers, he cannot even refer to his father as “father” due to being an illegitimate son, so he ventures into the world, becoming the leader of a group of bandits, rescuing maidens, and then forming his own kingdom.

This is a very influential novel, and we’ll see other RPGs based on it. If you’re curious about it, it was re-translated into English by Penguin Classics in 2016, and it’s just about 70 pages long.

While Hong Gildong was still a bit primitive, it was a giant leap in quality from previous Korean RPGs, and told a story dear to Koreans. It set a new standard, and in the next years several high-profile Korean RPGs would follow.

In 1994 Astonishia Story (어스토니시아스토리) would be released. The debut of studio Sonnori, it was a very popular title, that impressed Korean gamers and sold over 50,000 copies. As a Korean gamer describes:

At that time, foreign RPGs such as Ultima and Ys were difficult for domestic users to enjoy because of the language barrier. People were enthusiastic about the arrival of full-scale Korean RPGs at this time. Just being able to fully understand the story of the game was already a huge blessing.

Astonishia Story (어스토니시아스토리, 1994)

While at its core the game is a very traditional JRPG, its combat is tactical, closer to Western RPGs like Pool of Radiance and Ultima III than to games like Fire Emblem, something that would be a trend among Korean RPGs.

Still fondly remembered, Astonishia Story got a remake in 2002 and a PSP port in 2005, which is also available in English.

The 2005 release for PSP

Another influent title from 1994 is Ys II Special (이스 II 스페셜). In 1992 Studio Mantra did a translation & port of Princess Maker for the Korean market, and soon after scored the license to Ys II, a popular 1988 Action-RPG by Japanese developer Falcom. Instead of just porting the game to IBM computers and translating it, this time they redid most of the game, adding plot elements from the Ys anime, new areas, quests, songs and even hiring manwha artist Lee Myungjin (이명진) to do the art.

Ys II Special (이스 II 스페셜, 1994)

While some of the changes bothered die-hard Ys fans — like how they added an attack button to a series (in)famous for not having one— Ys II Special was a landmark for the Korean industry: a team of local devs had managed to license an important Japanese series, remake the entire game, translate it into Korean and even add their own content!

These kind of projects are extremely important for emerging developers, as allows them to put their foot on the door and acquire a lot of experience. One of the developers, Kim Hakkyu (김학규), would move to start Gravity Studios and create important games we’ll talk about later.

In 1995, The Romance of Forgotten Kingdom (망국 전기: 잊혀진 나라 의 이야기) is released, another game inspired by The Story of Hong Gildong. This time it’s not a direct adaptation of the novel, but rather a continuation of it, set in the kingdom founded by Hong Gildong and offering multiple endings depending on your actions.

The game’s story was actually written by a High School student, who wrote a 300-page manuscript by hand and won a 1993 public contest organized by the government to promote Korean culture in the national video game industry.

The Romance of Forgotten Kingdom (망국 전기: 잊혀진 나라 의 이야기, 1995)

BTW, this is one of the few games in this article you can actually play in English, thanks to the fan translation by Derboo. Among all the games in this article, The Romance of Forgotten Kingdom is the best starting point to those looking for an RPG in English that is representative of Korean culture.

All these games mentioned so far were important and helped to establish the Korean RPG scene. But the biggest one comes next.

In 1995 Softmax released The War of Genesis (창세기전), the start of Korea’s biggest single-player RPG series. The game is a tactical RPG, telling the story of a kingdom trying to resist invasion by a powerful empire.

While you can freely explore some towns like in a JRPG, you’ll spend most of the time in large-scale tactical battles. Unlike other similar games, each character can perform various actions per turn, drawing from a pool of action points (somewhat similar to the original X-COM).

The excellent pixel art and the artwork by manhwa artist Kim Daejin (김대진) earned much praise, but the game suffered from bugs, balance issues, and an incomplete story, as it had to be rushed out due to financial issues.

The War of Genesis (1995)
The War of Genesis (창세기전, 1995)

While the first game got a good reception, it was the sequel that conquered people’s hearts. The War of Genesis II (창세기전 II, 1996) is actually a full remake of the first game — what they wanted to achieve with the original but couldn’t — retelling the original story alongside a separate storyline, until both converge into an epic plot full of twists and a deeply emotional ending.

The War of Genesis II (1996)
The War of Genesis II (창세기전 II, 1996)

Thanks to the experience and money earned from the first game, The War of Genesis II is highly polished. The combat mechanics were greatly improved, sea and air battles were added and the shift from floppy disks to CD allowed for a great soundtrack:

War of Genesis II is arguably the most important “package” ”RPG in Korea. It was on par with what was being released in the US & Japan and likely would’ve become a worldwide hit had it ever gotten an English release.

Another title that could’ve been a global success was Sonnori’s Forgotten Saga (포가튼사가, 1997). A very unique game, it’s a rare example of a developer trying to create what’s basically a Western RPG under a JRPG presentation.

Forgotten Saga (포가튼사가, 1997)

While it looks like your typical JRPG, you start the game by creating a party of 4 characters, rolling their races, classes, and stats. The game is open-world, you can travel freely, get quests from NPCs, and even recruit some of them to your party depending on your actions, leading to multiple endings.

The game was delayed multiple times and plagued by bugs on release, but it still managed to sell well, and later re-releases (with bug fixes) helped to set it as one of Korea’s most respected and interesting RPGs.

These games stand out for their quality, but it’s important to have a sense of scale of the Korean game industry: while it wasn’t as massive as the Chinese, it was still one of the biggest in the world. Including shareware titles, over 80 single-player Korean RPGs were developed in the 90s and early 00s:

While most were very derivative (and famously rather buggy), ranging from very typical “JRPGs” and Ys-clones early on to Diablo-clones in the late 90s, there are some interesting obscurities to be found:

  • Liar: Legend of Sword II (LIAR: 신검 의 전설 II, 1995) is the sequel to Nam Inhwan’s Dream Traveler Part 1. Once again taking A LOT of inspiration from Ultima, it’s a simplified but well-presented Ultima VII clone.
  • The Story of Atria Land (아트리아 대륙전기, 1997) is a JRPG where combat is fought as a beat-'em-up, with your party entering a small arena. The 1998 sequel added 2 player co-op but isn’t as good.
  • Cybermercs: The Soldiers of the 22nd Century (에일리언 슬레이어, 1998) is a mix of Diablo and Crusader: No Remorse, where you create a mercenary, equip yourself then venture into missions, shooting aliens in an isometric view. Was also created by Nam Inhwan, and had an English release.
  • Koko Look (코코룩, 2002) is an RPG for young girls, about a girl who wants to be a fashion designer. Combines JRPG battles with Princess Maker elements, offering multiple endings.
  • Xenoage: Knight of the Rihas (제노에이지, 2000) is a very standard tactical RPG. It’s noteworthy for being licensed to a Japanese company and then edited to become 風と大地のページェント, a +18 eroge RPG.

It’s also important to remember that by this time Korea already had a rich animation and manhwa (Korean comics) industry. As such, several popular manhwa and TV shows were adapted into RPGs:

Red Hawk — 협객 붉은매, Sky Blade — 파천일검, Taoist Mutul — 머털도사, Cheollang Yeoljeon — 천랑열전, The Ruler of the Land — 열혈강호, Mr. Son / Flying Superboard — 미스터 손 / 날아라 슈퍼보드, Legend of the 8 Dragon Gods — 팔용신전설, Soul Frame Lazenca — 영혼기병 라젠카, Kung Fu Jungle Boy — 까꿍

Finally, it’s interesting to note that Korea was closed to Japanese games but open to Chinese ones, with popular RPGs like Book of the Sword Saint (天外劍聖錄, 1992), Heroes of Jin Yong (金庸群俠傳, 1996) and Legend of the Chivalrous Hero 3 (侠客英雄传3, 1997) being translated into Korean.

In most parts of the globe, the golden age of single-player PC games would collapse by the early 00s, driven by multiple factors such as the massive popularity of the Playstation 2 and online games, the rising cost of game development thanks to 3D graphics, piracy, the 2000s dot-com bubble, etc…

Korean developers had to face an additional issue: the 1997 IMF crisis.

Also known as the Asian Financial Crisis, it was a huge investment bubble that affected several countries. Korea was hit hard — the country went from an economic boom to a recession, going from a 9,6% annual GDP growth in 1995 to a -5,1% contraction in 1998.

Default, a 2018 movie about the 1997 crisis

This led to countless companies going bankrupt, including Daewoo and large game companies such as HiCom, a publisher with multiple studios under its wing. It was a domino effect, and even successful companies that managed to survive the crisis were crippled, as we’ll see below.

It’s also important to note that 1998 is also when Korea finally ended the ban on Japanese media, allowing games like Pokémon to be officially sold in the country and its anime to air on TV. While it gave more choice to gamers, it also increased the competition from Japanese games.

In 1998, riding on the success of War of Genesis II, Softmax would release The War of Genesis: The Rhapsody of Zephyr (창세기전 외전: 西風の狂詩曲), a spin-off set in the same universe.

Heavily inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo, it tells the story of Cyrano, a man unjustly sent to prison, who many years later manages to escape, acquires great power (a demonic sword, in this case) and plots his revenge.

The War of Genesis: The Rhapsody of Zephyr (창세기전 외전: 西風の狂詩曲, 1998)

This more personal story scaled-down the battles from large armies into a small group of characters, adding mechanics like weapon durability and gun ammunition, as well as four different endings depending on your choices.

The game was a huge hit in Korea, selling over 100,000 copies and competing with Blizzard’s StarCraft. Later it was later also released in China and Japan, with ports for Dreamcast in 2001 and PS2 in 2004. Oddly, the Japanese ports chose to redo the characters’ appropriately grim art:

The original Korean portrait of the main character and the Japanese one.

Overall, it was a huge achievement for the Korean game industry. However, in a cruel twist publisher HiCom went bankrupt during the IMF crisis, with Softmax reportedly never receiving the sales of Rhapsody of Zephyr.

Desperate for a successful title, they took another project they were working on called Tempest and changed it into a War of Genesis game only six months before release. As such, The War of Genesis: Tempest (창세기외전2 템페스트, 1998) was originally a “raising sim” like Princess Maker, inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.

Instead of being top-down, most of the game is shown in a 2D side-view. You explore the world walking around as if you’re in a side-scrolling beat’em up, and the combat is also in side-view, with big head SD sprites fighting in small-scale tactical battles set on a narrow horizontal grid.

The War of Genesis: Tempest (창세기외전2 템페스트, 1998)

While The Rhapsody of Zephyr feels like a JRPG, Tempest is closer to a visual novel with tactical combat. Its dialogs are long, presenting a 2D portrait against a static background, and a lot of its exploration is done by menus. While not a bad game, it’s clear it was never a War of Genesis title.

In the following year, The War of Genesis III (창세기전 3) would conclude the original series with a big finale — so big that it was split into two parts, one released in 1999 and the other in 2000, for a total of 8 game CDs.

The War of Genesis III — Part I & Part II

It’s still a tactical RPG, now with an even bigger scale and unit count — thanks to the addition of AI-controlled mercenary squads and much higher screen resolution. The story also greatly expands the series’ setting, with a much bigger focus on storytelling and lots of long dialogues.

The War of Genesis III — Part Two (창세기전 3: 파트 2) goes full sci-fi, continuing the story into the far future, with spaceships, androids, and elaborate themes about humanity’s role. While the shift in setting was controversial, and it had glaring issues like the lack of a skip button in its long events & animations, it remains a good ending to an iconic series.

Another series to suffer from the IMF crisis was Corum, developed by HiCom itself. The first game, Corum: Legend of Anpnentria (코룸: 저주 받은 땅) was released in 1997, the same year as Diablo, but was one of several Action-RPGs following a formula similar to Ys II Special, showing how influential that game was among Korean gamers.

Corum (코룸: 저주 받은 땅, 1997)

As mentioned before, HiCom would go bankrupt in 1998, but managed to reform after being saved by an investor. Corum would still get two sequels, Corum II: Dark Lord (코룸 2 : 암흑 군주, 1998) and Corum III: Chaos Magic (코룸 3 : 혼돈의 마법 쥬마리온, 1999), all following the same combat style, plus Corum Another Story ( 코룸 외전 : 이계의 강림자들, 1999), a spin-off set in a post-apocalyptic world and using turn-based combat.

Corum II (1998), Corum III (1999), and Corum: Another Story (1999)

After Corum: Another Story, HiCom would abandon single-player games to focus on MMORPGs, releasing Corum Online (코룸 온라인) in 2003.

One of the most ambitious among all Korean RPGs, Arcturus (악튜러스) came from the combined effort of two studios, Sonnori (creators of Astonishia Story and Forgotten Saga) and Gravity (formed by former Ys II Special devs).

The game’s main focus is its complex story and charismatic cast of characters, which are quite well executed. However, its open-world nature and obscure objectives mean you can spend hours lost, fighting respawning enemies while trying to figure out what to do next.

Arcturus: The Curse and Loss of Divinity (악튜러스, 2000)

While it sold well, moving over 60,000 copies, Arcturus was also plagued by issues, from several bugs to a plagiarism scandal that led to the company having to recall 15,000 copies of the special edition pre-orders, delay the game and remove enemies copied from Japanese artist Yasushi Nirasawa:

The game had an English demo showed at the 2001 E3, but was never released in English. However, it did get a fan translation thanks to Helly.

The game was also released in Japan, published by Nihon Falcom. Since Falcom would create The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (2004) soon after, it’s often speculated that they were heavily influenced by Arcturus, given how similar both games look — especially their rotating 3D camera.

And if the sprites above also look familiar, it’s because a year later Gravity reused the game’s engine to create Ragnarök Online (라그나로크 온라인, 2002), one of the most popular MMOs of the 2000s.

Ragnarök Online (라그나로크 온라인, 2002)

It’s no coincidence that Gravity and HiCom entered the MMO scene at this point. By 2000 MMOs were already dominating the Korean market and “package” games were withering. Arcturus was one of the last big single-player Korean RPGs for PCs. The other would be Magna Carta: The Phantom of Avalanche (마그나카르타, 2001).

Having finished the War of Genesis series on a high note, Softmax’s ambitious next title had the company entering the 3D world, with aspirations to make something that could rival foreign titles like Final Fantasy X.

Magna Carta: The Phantom of Avalanche (마그나카르타, 2001)

However, Softmax was used to making a game per year, and Magna Carta suffered from this rushed development — not only the story and battle system was confusing, but the game was extremely buggy. Many Korean RPGs have a reputation for being buggy, but here the situation was so bad that they had to recall thousands of installation CDs due to a game-breaking bug.

The game later got patched and still had decent sales, but had already shattered player’s faith in Korean RPGs, becoming an icon for the downfall of the “packages” market.

I could end the article here, but I think it’s interesting to give a brief look into what came after. From this point onwards, our story splits into three main branches: MMORPGs, mobile games, and console games.

Going online — The kingdom of MMORPGs

While I’m focusing on single-player games, the online scene of Korea was already rapidly expanding during the 90s. I wrote about MMORPGs in another article, but it’s important to repeat some information here so you can see the bigger picture.

In the early 90s, Korea already had some people creating MUDs (text-based online games). The most famous was a MUD called Jurassic Park (yes, with dinosaurs!), which went live in 1994:

A screenshot of Jurassic Park / 쥬라기 공원

By 1996 there were over 100 MUDs available to Korean players, with an estimated 200,000 people playing them regularly. Jurassic Park was the most successful, quickly generating over 20,000 visits per day and earning $20,000 in the month of July, 1994. Its growth would eventually reach over $200,000 per month in revenue for Samjung Data Systems. — Jong H Wi (Innovation and Strategy of Online Games, 2009)

Imagine 20,000 visits per day when the most popular single-player Korean games were selling 50,000 units total.

Behind Jurassic Park was Jake Song (송재경), the Korean father of MMOs. Inspired by the success of the game, he partnered with his college friend Kim Jung-ju to create Nexon and release their first commercial game, Nexus: Kingdom of the Winds (1996), set in the world of Kingdom of Winds (바람의 나라), a popular manhwa.

Nexus: Kingdom of the Winds proved itself popular, but Jake Song would leave the company and join NCsoft, where he would work on a landmark in MMO history: Lineage (1998).

From 1998 to 2004, Lineage was bigger than every single western MMO combined.

  • Ultima Online peaked at 240,000 monthly subscribers.
  • EverQuest at 460,000 monthly subscribers.
  • Lineage at 3,250,000 monthly users.

It was WoW before WoW. But why are we comparing subscribers to users? Because Lineage wasn’t “just” 13 times bigger than Ultima Online, it also revolutionized the Korean MMORPG industry. Korea’s Internet Cafés (aka “PC bangs”) were booming when Lineage came out in 1998, so they decided upon a novel business option: PC bangs would pay monthly license fees so that its clients could play Lineage for free:

In 2000 Internet café sales accounted for over 70% of NCsoft’s annual revenue, more than 3 times the revenue that came from individual users on home computers. — Jong H Wi (Innovation and Strategy of Online Games, 2009)

We already saw how Lineage crushed Ultima Online and EverQuest’s numbers, but other Korean MMORPGs like Ragnarök Online, Mu Online, MapleStory, and Dungeon Fighter Online also had huge numbers.

Mu Online, Ragnarök Online and Maplestory

They are harder to track but, in 2005, when WoW had almost 6 million monthly users, MapleStory was already at 13 million. It would peak at 18 million users in 2008, dwarfing WoW’s 12 million.

Sadly, there are still few resources in English on the Korean MMO market. Dal Yong Jin’s book Korea’s Online Gaming Empire is good, but it’s from 2010, leaving a huge gap in the progress in recent years.

While a lot has changed since then, Korea is still a powerhouse in the MMO market, with some of their most popular games being Lineage M (2017) and 2M (2019), now mobile-only versions of their classic MMOs:

Trailer for Lineage 2M, which itself has 52 million views

Going mobile — The smartphone pioneers

Korea is the country of LG and Samsung, so they always had a strong mobile industry. In the early 2000s, service providers would offer exclusive games as an incentive for you to choose their services, leading to competition between companies to offer the best games and the rise of mobile developers like Gamevil and Com2uS.

While its easy today to downplay how relevant a game from an early 2000s cellphone can be, Korea saw some massive hits during this era, such as Gamevil’s Nom (놈) series, an endless runner that sold over 1 million copies in 2003, making it one of the best-selling games in the world— and yes, it’s an endless runner several years before Canabalt (2009) and Temple Run (2011)!

Nom (놈, 2003)

RPGs also played a part in this, with the development of original titles such as The War of Genesis CROW (2003) and CROW 2 (2005), as well as ports of older hits, such as a three-episode port of Astonishia Story in 2004–2005.

The War of Genesis CROW (2003)

In 2005 there was even a mega-project: Sonnori and Softmax joined forces to create Norimax Heroes (노리맥스 영웅전), a tactical RPG featuring characters from The War of Genesis and Astonishia Story:

Norimax Heroes (노리맥스 영웅전, 2005)

After that, Sonnori’s mobile team split into its own company, Ironnos, and released Astonishia Story 2 (어스토니시아스토리2, 2006) for GXG phones (a shortlived standard of Korean cellphone focused on gaming and made to be played horizontally). The game was later remastered for PSP in 2008, released worldwide as Crimson Gem Saga.

Astonishia Story 2 (2006) and its PSP remake Crimson Gem Saga (2008)

In 2007 they even ported the massive War of Genesis III-Part 1 to phones. It was split into 4 episodes, the first arriving in 2007, the last only in 2011 (Part 2 was never ported). Here’s the first episode running on a Samsung SCH-V890, a phone from 2006:

War of Genesis III: EP 1 (2007)

All this celebration of “package” RPG series would soon be eclipsed by new series of mobile RPGs such as EA’s Heroes Lore (영웅서기), a series of 6 Action-RPGs from 2005 to 2014, and Gamevil’s Zenonia (제노니아), which began in 2008 and is still going strong, with 7 games released and World of Zenonia announced for 2022.

Heroes Lore Zero (2007) and Zenonia (2008)

The iPhone officially arrived in Korea in 2009. While Koreans already had their own smartphones, like the LG Prada from 2006, Apple’s app store completely changed the logistics of game distribution, no longer tying them to specific service providers.

From there on we see the start of the modern mobile industry, with the shift to free-to-play games with microtransactions, the arrival of platforms like Kakaotalk & LINE, and the rise of massive hits like Summoners War, Dragon Blaze, Lineage M, CrossFire, etc…

The Kakaotalk app, released in 2010

It’s a market much bigger than the “package” market ever was and deserves its own article. If you’re interested in reading more about it, check Dal Yong Jin’s book Mobile Gaming in Asia: Politics, Culture and Emerging Technologies.

As a side note, we spoke before about how Korea had several RPGs based on manhwas, but manhwas themselves have since evolved into webtoons made to be read on smartphones —scrolling vertically instead of having pages. Of course, these are a valuable source for mobile game developers, with recent webtoons titles like Gosu (고수) getting adapted into mobile RPGs.

Gosu (고수, 2019)

Going consoles —A small & late arrival

Korean developers had long been unable to create games for consoles (at least official ones), but this finally changed in 2004.

While Softmax had a very rocky start with their Magna Carta series, the game sold well enough to become their new main product. For the sequel, they managed to land the first deal among Korean companies to develop games for Sony’s Playstation 2, with Magna Carta: Tears of Blood (2004) — later re-released for the PSP as Magna Carta Portable (2006).

A worldwide release, it was available in the US, Europe and Japan. Although the western reviews were lukewarm at best (its attack system based on timed button presses was widely criticized), it was a hit in Japan. On the other hand, the Korean PC market was long gone by then, so the game was released as a console exclusive, selling poorly in its home country.

Magna Carta: Tears of Blood (2004) and Magna Carta II (2009)

The last game of the series would be Magna Carta II (마그나카르타 2, 2009), now as an Xbox 360 exclusive. Once again it was a global release, once again it was successful in Japan, mostly ignored in Korea and considered a mediocre-at-best JRPG in the rest of the world.

If Magna Carta failed to impress western audiences, there’s at least one Korean RPG series that succeeded: Kingdom Under Fire.

Developed by Phantagram, the series began on PCs in 2000 with, Kingdom Under Fire: A War of Heroes, an unusual combination of RTS levels with levels where you controlled only 1-3 heroes, in a mix of Diablo & Baldur’s Gate. The game got a worldwide release in 2001, becoming the first Korean game of many gamers.

Kingdom Under Fire: A War of Heroes (2000)

Like Magna Carta, the sequels moved to consoles, with Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders (2004) and Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes (2005) offering a unique blend of RTS and Dynasty Warriors-like battles for the original Xbox, then Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom (2007) becoming a pure beat’em up/Action RPG for the Xbox 360.

Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders (2004), Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes (2005) and Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom (2007)

While not the only Korean RPG on consoles, Kingdom Under Fire remains the most popular series abroad and arguably the only one to successfully make the jump from PCs to consoles. Ironically, the latest entry, Kingdom Under Fire II, is actually a PC exclusive, having been originally announced in 2008 and in closed beta since 2011, it suffered several delays and was released only in 2019, with all console ports canceled.

While not considered a Korean game, Phantagram was also co-developer of 2006’s Ninety-Nine Nights, one of the Xbox 360’s launch titles, famous for having a large number of enemies on screen.

No, they weren’t involved with the sequel that had one million troops.

The legacy of Korean RPGs

While it’s undeniable that Korean games like Lineage defined MMORPGs and still dominate mobile games, the legacy of their “package” RPGs isn’t as clear.

Some differentiated themselves by telling local stories like Hong Gildong, but they never developed their own style, apart from favoring tactical combat and Ys-like Action-RPGs. And they often suffered from buggy releases, which gave them a bad reputation when compared to foreign games.

Moreover, most of the teams and series from the golden age of single-player RPGs have vanished — including The War of Genesis’ creator's Softmax.

Their last effort was in 2016, with the release of The War of Genesis 4. The game was an MMORPG where you controlled 5 characters at once, which already enraged old fans, and also had several gameplay & server issues. It sold poorly, ending with Softmax itself being sold in November 2016 and changing its name to ESA Co.

In the end, The War of Genesis 4 stayed live for only about a year, then was killed and the War of Genesis IP was sold by ESA Co.

The new owners would make The War of Genesis: Battle of Antaria (2018), a more successful mobile MMO, and just recently announced The War of Genesis: Remnants of Gray — a remake of the first two War of Genesis games, scheduled for release on the Nintendo Switch in 2022:

So far, there’s no PC version or English release announced.

Regarding single-player PC games, while Korean indie games are still rare, the last couple of years saw a few recent ones have been quite successful, led by indie studios like Devespresso Games and ProjectMoon:

In order, the above games are Lobotomy Corporation (2018), Dungreed (2018), Vambrace: Cold Soul (2019), The Coma 2: Vicious Sisters (2020), Library of Ruina (2020), Troubleshooter: Abandoned Children (2020), Scarlet Hood and the Wicked Wood (2021), 8Doors: Arum’s Afterlife Adventure (2021) and Riffle Effect (2021).

Among these, Troubleshooter stands out by being an excellent tactical RPG, being voted 3rd best RPG of 2020 by the RPG Codex. The developers mentioned it was inspired by War of Genesis, so maybe we’ll see more of the legacy of Korean “package” RPGs once its newborn indie scene grows. Time will tell.

(BTW, you should also try 8Doors, it’s a really good metroidvânia in the vein of Hollow Knight.)

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

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