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The JRPG is a genre with a strange history; at one point in time, it was heralded as the crowning jewel of what video games could accomplish, and the games it consisted of were widely loved for their compelling stories, intriguing settings, as well as their strategic and action packed battle systems. Fast forward to the modern day, and JRPGs have frankly fallen from grace, as many new installments in the genre are afraid to add much needed innovational gameplay mechanics, choosing instead to prey off the player's nostalgia and love of the genre to succeed. Simply put, the JRPG genre is struggling to enlarge its fanbase. That's a true shame, as some of the greatest games money can buy are a part of this genre. To rectify this, I've decided to compile a list of my personal favorite JRPGs of all time; it is my hope if you're new to the style of gameplay JRPGs offer, you'll try out these games for yourself and enjoy them. So boot up Amazon, equip your reading glasses, and let's get started!
10) Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (DS)
A common complaint with the JRPG is that towards the end, they get somewhat stale and repetitive, and while strategy is required to succeed, player input isn't always. That simply isn't the case with the third installment of the Mario & Luigi RPG series. Bowser's Inside Story stars everyone's favorite pair of brothers as they find themselves trapped inside of big baddie Bowser's body and search for a way out. In the meantime gaming's most persistent reptilian antagonist searches for a way to reclaim his castle from the nefarious and downright hilarious Fawful. If this sounds absolutely bonkers, that's because it is. Bowser's Inside Story boasts an insane and nonsensical story that's a real treat to follow, and is filled to the seams with cunning and witty dialogue that pushes sarcasm and dry humor to new heights.
But Bowser's Inside Story doesn't succeed on its story alone. All of the game's battles require players to utilize well timed button presses to deal sufficient damage to enemies. These range from tapping the A button at the right moment, to turning your system sideways and sliding the stylus with perfect timing to smack foes in giant Godzillaesque boss fights. Because of this, there is never a dull moment in Mario, Luigi, and Bowser's adventure as the player is required to stay alert to attack and dodge enemy attacks at the right moment. It was also refreshing to get to play as the "100% Final Boss Material" baddie Bowser himself in a game that wasn't a terrible Mario sports spin off. Simply put, Bowser's Inside Story is a game that begs to be in your library if you're up for some Mushroom Kingdom antics or action packed turn based gameplay.
9) Bravely Default (3DS)
Bravely Default hit store shelves just a few months ago, and blessed the 3DS with an extensive and exciting JRPG for adopters of Nintendo's most recent handheld to enjoy. Bravely Default is a spin off of the Final Fantasy series, and after the debacle that was Final Fantasy XIII, helped to restore gamers' faith in Square Enix.
Bravely Default twists players' expectations of turn based combat on its head. In order to carry out an action on a character's turn, the player must spend one Brave Point (BP). Players can stock up on BP by "Defaulting" (defending) for one turn, earning BP in the process; then that character can then move up to four times in one turn depending on how many turns the player defaulted for. That means you can attack, heal, use a special, or any combination of the above up to four times without being interrupted. However, you could also move up to four times in one turn without defaulting, which would render you immobile for a few turns as you'd have negative BP, but could prove useful in a tight spot. As a result, Bravely Default boasts an incredibly strategic and involving battle system that requires careful planning and foresight on the player's part. Furthermore, the game has an extensive Job system based on the one seen in the classic Final Fantasy V. Players can give the four main protagonists one of 24 Jobs, and in doing so will change that character's stats, abilities, and the gear they are able to equip. However, players can also utilize the ability of one other Job they are proficient in, opening up the door to countless combinations and battle techniques. There are literally hundreds of possible ways to tackle the same battle in Bravely Default, and this makes everyone's personal experience with the game different. Add in likable protagonists, neat Streetpass and Spotpass features, and a soundtrack that's so good it's an assault on the senses, and you're left with one of the best JRPGs money can buy. Purchase without hesitation.
8) Pokemon FireRed and LeafGreen (GBA)
As you can tell by my Avatar and Profile name, I'm kind of a sucker for the Pokemon series. Back in the late 90's Pokemon took the world by storm by offering players a unique JRPG experience. Rather than having your characters fight, you caught creatures in the wild called Pokemon and trained them to your liking and had them fight your battles for you. The game operated on a unique rock-paper-scissors mechanic, with each Pokemon having its own type that was weak and strong against certain other types. In a brilliant business tactic the game also released with two slightly different versions, Red and Blue. In order to capture all of the monsters in the world, the player had to use a Game Boy Link Cable to trade critters with friends. This is what makes the Pokemon series so special as it encourages you to go on a quest alongside your friends and help or hinder their progress through multiplayer battles and trades.
Fast forward to 2004, and Red/Blue get astonishingly good remakes in the form of FireRed and Leafgreen. The updated versions brought with them many glitch fixes, improved aesthetics, more complicated gameplay mechanics, and a superior metagame that lengthened replayability considerably. FireRed and LeafGreen stayed true to the simplicity of the originals while making them better in every possible way. It is a game that every Pokemon fan owes it to themselves to experience, whether they've played the originals or not.
7) Secret of Mana (SNES)
Secret of Mana was ahead of its time. While in many aspects it was a fairly pedestrian JRPG, it brought to the table two massive innovations that set it above almost every other game the genre has to offer.
For starters, battles happen in real time. You have complete control over one character, and can move and attack during battles in a similar fashion to how you can in the 2D Zelda games. Furthermore, you can actually experience this game with two friends: you can plug in two other controllers to have your friends take control of the two other main characters while you play as the third. This leads to riotous good times as anything other than careful cooperation will result your team getting annihilated. For these two reasons, as well as several others, Secret of Mana is an outstanding game and one well worth your time and money.
6) Golden Sun/Golden Sun: The Lost Age (GBA)
Up until this point, every game I've listed has done something incredible to innovate the JRPG genre and set itself apart from every game on the market. Golden Sun...well, Golden Sun doesn't. But regardless, Golden Sun takes the attitude, "if the **** ain't broken, don't fix it" and ends up becoming an incredible game regardless.
Aside from boasting a surprisingly mature and melancholy story for a Nintendo game, Golden Sun sucks players in with its expansive and eerily familiar world, tense and exciting combat and an astonishingly good soundtrack. The game also utilizes a clever "Djinn" system in which the characters seek out and equip creatures that boost their stats, potentially change their class, and grant them new spells to use in combat. These monsters can also be used like items in battle to great effect, but at the expense of the benefits they previously brought. They can then be used in their "stasis" state to call upon enormous monsters to deal massive damage in combat. The Djinn will be set to the player once more in a few turns, but the player needs to think things through regardless: is dealing massive damage worth decreased stats for a few turns? The events of the original Golden Sun also lead into those of a similar, yet superior sequel. The stats and items of the characters from the first game can be transferred to the second via a password, adding continuity to the series and preventing your efforts in the original from being undermined. I've spent many hours exploring every corner of Angara and enjoyed every minute of it. I'm sure you will too if you're willing to give these overlooked classics a shot.
5) Pokemon HeartGold/Soulsilver (DS)
Continuing on the traditions set forth in 2004's Pokemon FireRed and LeafGreen, HeartGold and SoulSilver on the DS took the classic Game Boy Color Pokemon installments Gold and Silver, and gave them a fresh coat of paint from a gameplay and aesthetics standpoint. Wonders were done to the graphics, as Johto never looked better, and the soundtrack was also elevated to new heights (with the original Game Boy soundtracks still available as an unlockable bonus!).
HeartGold and SoulSilver introduced new areas to Johto (like the ever-popular Safari Zone), as well as new online features (that have since shut down) that made battling and trading your buddies even easier than before. These remakes didn't reinvent the wheel from either a Pokemon or JRPG standpoint, but the entertaining quest to become the best of the best (which is actually twice as long as that off all other Pokemon games), and extensive multiplayer opportunities make these games the finest games Nintendo's long running Pocket Monster series have to offer. Throw in a nifty pedometer that offered a few in-game benefits (and was surprisingly accurate) and you've left with one of the highlights on the Nintendo DS system.
4) Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (GCN)
The last great game to grace the aging Nintendo 64 was Paper Mario, an indirect sequel to Super Mario RPG that reimagined the Mushroom Kingdom and its denizens as a popup book, and featured another turn based battle system that heavily involved player input. In 2004, Nintendo released the sequel to Paper Mario, The Thousand Year Door. It's a game that still has a huge following to this day, and for good reason. While the original Paper Mario featured settings and locales that were fairly predictable (desert worlds, ice worlds, etc.), The Thousand Year Door had bizarre and unique areas that hadn't yet been tackled in the Mario universe. Uncharted islands, floating arenas, a town doomed to a perpetual state of twilight, and even the moon; the second Paper Mario game features places that were intriguing and were filled with characters and secrets that made them well worth exploring.
The Thousand Year Door also introduced players to what are indisputably the greatest characters of the Mario universe; from the cowardly and dorky Koops, to the tragic hero Bobbery, the game was home to many partners that were full of personality and charm, and whose quirky comments never failed to put a smile on my face. Finally, Paper Mario's Gamecube outing featured battles that took place in front of an audience: players had to appeal to the audience by taunting and pulling off "stylish moves" in order to win their affection, which was required to pull off the game's powerful special attacks. It gave you the impression you were literally showing your skills off to a crowd. For these, and various other reasons, The Thousand Year door is not only the finest Mario RPG to date, but also one of the portly plumber's best outings period. It's well worth the cash if you've still got a Gamecube buried in your attic somewhere.
3) Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)
While JRPGs aren't nearly as popular as they once were, the 3DS is home to several that have sold surprisingly well against all odds. Fire Emblem: Awakening is one of those games. Up until last February, the Fire Emblem series definitely had a "niche" status; the only reason Western gamers even knew of its existence was from Marth's appearance in the Super Smash Bros. series. Then along came Fire Emblem Awakening, which was supposed to be the last game in the series had it not sold as well as it did. Awakening, like its predecessors is a strategy JRPG; you'll give the members of your army orders on a grid, and have them confront and avoid enemy units accordingly. Careful management of troops and inventory is the key to success in the world of Awakening. One word sums up what is so great about the game, and that is mortality. The game's protagonists are members of an army called the Shephards, and they feel human. They're witty, funny, charming, and often have tragic backstories and character flaws. They can also die. This makes you attached to them on a whole new level as your favorite character could lose his or her life at the end of a blade, and you'll have to live with being the *** that gave them an order that got them killed. Awakening also has a robust shipp...er, support mechanic. You can pair characters up in battle, which will improve their relationship. After a while, if they're members of the opposite sex, they'll get hitched and have children who can join your ragtag group of heroes later in the game. The fact that the game's permadeath mechanic could also tear apart families and leave children without a parent is tragic, and encourages you to give it your all and not make stupid decisions in the heat of battle. This is easily one of the most mature games to leave Nintendo's doors, and an essential purchase for those looking for a more adult Nintendo experience.
2) Chrono Trigger (SNES)
The birthchild of Square's "Dream Team", Chrono Trigger was created by the developers of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, as well as the artist for Dragon Ball. Trust me: Chrono Trigger is every bit as good as that description makes it seem. The best noun to use when describing Chrono Trigger is "flow." The pacing is perfect, no grinding is ever required to succeed, and battles take place right on the map; there's no need to switch to a battle screen. The premise of Chrono Trigger is our group of protagonists discover by accident that their homeworld will be destroyed by a malicious alien named Lavos, who is resting in the Earth even during the time they discover this. An epic journey across time ensues, and the plot of Chrono Trigger somehow manages to avoid becoming convoluted and full of plot wholes (for the most part) despite this. In Chrono Trigger, you get to explore an expansive world from its inception to beyond its premature doom, traveling through dinosaur filled valleys, medieval castles, and post-apocalyptic cities along the way.
Chrono Trigger also features a rather cool "Double and Triple Tech" mechanic. The battles of Chrono Trigger are not truly turn based. Each character has a bar that fills up over time, and fills based on that character's speed stat. When the bar is filled, they are ready to attack. This doesn't just make battles more tense and difficult to predict: if multiple characters are ready to attack, they can combine their abilities to pull off a powerful combo. Lucca can embed Crono's sword with fire prior to his attack, Robo and Ayla can juggle an enemy back and forth, and much more. The game boasts dozens of double and triple specials like this, and as a result encourages you to try out different team combinations across multiple playthroughs. And you will want to play Chrono Trigger again. This is thanks to the game's unique "New Game +" feature. After beating the game once, players can choose to do so again, this time with the same level, stats, and items from your previous playthrough. This would normally make the game horrendously easy, but players can confront the final boss whenever they want to this time around, and as a result of this experience over a dozen different alternate endings. With replayability coming out the wazoo, Chrono Trigger is a game that every gamer owes it to themselves to play.
Like the NES Mega Man titles, there's a great game underneath this terrible box art.
1) FInal Fantasy VI (SNES, GBA)
All of the aforementioned games are good, but we all know there can only be one BEST JRPG, and for me, that game is Final Fantasy VI. The quality of the games in the Final Fantasy series has fluctuated severely over the years, and its recent installments have been worse than liquidated garbage. However, in its hayday, the Final Fantasy brand was essentially a seal of quality, and I can confidently say Final Fantasy VI is not only the best game the series has to offer, but the best game the JRPG has to offer period. VI stars a cast of fourteen characters, all of which have troubling backstories and are lovable from the moment you meet them. Thankfully, the personalities of the cast members vary quite a bit, and none of them are annoying and emotional tweenagers. This is because VI is a game made with adults in mind, reflected by how it revolves around an empire and its lust for control. The antagonists are not dark wizards or demon lords: they are merely mortal humans with an unhealthy desire for power, led by Kefka Palazzo, who is quite possibly the greatest antagonist in gaming history. His laugh sends a chill down by spine to this day.
Final Fantasy VI is filled with some of my favorite moments in gaming history. From Edgar and Sabin's coin toss, to Celes' emotional opera scene, there is rarely a moment in Final Fantasy when I wasn't engaged in the plight of the protagonists. Of course, this would mean nothing if the game didn't have impressive gameplay to back up its emotional story, and that is thankfully not the case. All of the characters in the game have unique fighting styles; Sabin for example can pull of special moves that require players to input button combos similar to those seen in fighting games. Coupled with the fact there are fourteen protagonists, and dozens of types of weapons, armor, relics, and magic-granting espers to equip them with it's clear Final Fantasy VI has one of the most flexible battle systems in gaming history. Simply put, Final Fantasy VI isn't just the greatest Japanese RPG ever made; it's easily one of the greatest accomplishments of the gaming industry.
This is my all time favorite moment in gaming history. It's very moving if you know the secret behind it.
Gaming is subjective, so my list of personal favorite JRPGs may not match with yours at all. Furthermore, it's important to note that limiting this list to just ten games was difficult, and I had to cut some other favorites of mine, such as Xenoblade and Persona 4 as a result. Consider those honorable mentions. Regardless, I consider the ten aforementioned games to be essential purchases, and I sincerely hope you enjoy them should you ever give them a try.
What is your personal favorite JRPG? Sound off in the comments below, and happy gaming!