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widdowson91's Essential Japanese RPGs

I love RPGs of all kinds, but my favourite type are Japanese RPGs. I grew up playing the genre in the 90's, and many of the games had a profound effect on me as a kid. So I thought I'd compile a list of the JRPGs I deem to be essential. There will probably be some games missing that others would have included, but I haven't played every JRPG, so forgive me.

 

Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross

Square released a lot of non-Final Fantasy RPGs for the SNES in Japan, but very few of these games made it to North America. The Romancing SaGa trilogy, Live A Live and Front Mission are some examples. But Chrono Trigger did, and it was a revelation for the genre. The game already built up a lot of interest among RPG fans before its release because it marked a collaboration between the two finest RPG minds of their era, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii, and this resulted in high expectations. Luckily, unlike the majority of big-name collaborations, Chrono Trigger didn’t just meet expectations -- it smashed them. Chrono Trigger was a turn-based RPG, but unlike most other JRPGs at the time of its release the game got rid of random encounters in favour of a system where enemies were openly visible on screen, meaning battles could be avoided if the player chose so. But this was just one of many great aspects of the game. The title is also widely acclaimed for its story, and the theme of time travel, and how the developers managed to weave the two together effortlessly. The game also had 13 different endings, an unprecedented amount for the time, and it is widely acclaimed for having one of the finest soundtracks ever produced for a video game, as well as the finest sprite-based graphics of the 16-bit era. Chrono Cross was released five years after Trigger, this time for the PlayStation, and although it’s part of the same series it only serves as a loose sequel to the SNES masterpiece. Many of the elements of Trigger were brought across to Chrono Cross, but instead of travelling through time the player this time had to travel between two different dimensions. Cross, much like Trigger, was acclaimed for its execution, and again the soundtrack was wonderful. Cross is also notable for having over 40 playable characters, although not all of them are available to recruit on a first play through. Square may have given up on the Chrono IP after the release of Chrono Cross, but Trigger has been ported to numerous formats, including the Virtual Console, Nintendo DS, PSN and mobile phones, while Cross earned itself a re-release on the PlayStation Network in North America. And quite frankly, it should be a crime to not play these games. Go and buy them right now.

 

 

Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King


Europe had to wait until 1997 to get its first taste of Final Fantasy, but the region had to wait even longer to get its first taste of Dragon Quest. Despite Dragon Quests I-IV getting localised in English for the North American market on the NES the games were never released in Europe. This was sadly something that wasn’t exclusive to Dragon Quest at the time. Europe had to wait until 2006, and the release of Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King, to finally get its first taste of Japan’s biggest franchise. But by god was the wait worth it. From start to finish Journey of the Cursed King is a master class in JRPG design. It’s still very much traditional. It still has random battles. It’s still got a high difficulty level. But the game is packed full of charm, has a great first-person turn-based battle system (a staple of the series), gorgeous cel-shaded graphics and some really lovable characters. Although Dragon Quest VIII is essential gaming for any JRPG fan, those who love old-school hits will adore it all the more.

 

 

EarthBound


More people have heard of EarthBound than have actually played it, which is sad. Until recently the game had never been re-released by Nintendo outside Japan, but now that it is available on the Wii U’s Virtual Console Wii U owners across the world have no excuse not to play it any more. EarthBound is the second game in its series, a series called Mother in Japan. The game follows a young boy called Ness on his adventure to stop an evil alien known as Giygas from destroying all life. EarthBound broke many conventions upon release, and proved to be quite ground-breaking for the genre. Unlike most other JRPGs at the time of its release the story of EarthBound didn’t follow strict fantasy or science-fiction settings. Instead the game takes place in a twisted, stereotypical view of America and is full of western pop culture references. The games main characters, unlike the majority of other RPGs, are all children, who use yo-yo’s, baseball bats and frying pans instead of swords, bows and spears. And Ness, the main hero, can suffer from homesickness, an affliction that can only be overcome by talking to his mother. Oh, and last but not least, EarthBound was notable for being the first turn-based JRPG without random encounters. Although Chrono Trigger gets all the plaudits for doing the same thing EarthBound was release months before Chrono Trigger. So yeah, take that Squaresoft. Upon its original release EarthBound was dismissed by most major gaming publications, and it performed terribly at retail. But thanks to the dedication of fan sites like Starmen.net the game rose in prominence, and it is widely regarded today as one of the best RPGs of the 1990’s as well as a timeless classic.

 

 

Final Fantasy IV, V, VI, VII, IX and XII


When it comes to JRPGs the impact that Final Fantasy has had on not only the genre, but the wider video game community in general, is undeniable. Even the biggest vocal critics of the series will struggle to make a strong argument against the series’ legacy as one gaming’s most iconic franchises. But which games in Square’s venerable JRPG juggernaut are the best? In truth it all depends on which fan you ask. But I, right here and right now, will tell you that the games that standout the most for me are IV, V, VI, VII, IX and XII. Sure, I’m missing out on some big games here. There’s no Final Fantasy I, VIII or X, but I have my reasons. I believe the six games I have chosen not only represent the series’ at its finest but also, arguably, the entire genre. The series has attracted a lot of criticism in recent years, some warranted some not, but for over a decade it was a JRPG powerhouse, and numerous games in the series are regularly ranked amongst the best of all time. Final Fantasy IV, for instance, is often credited with popularising dramatic video game story-telling. Final Fantasy VI, the title widely regarded as the best in the whole series, wins praise across the board for its story, characterisation and its concentration on serious subject matters ranging from suicide to teenage pregnancy. Oh, and it has a kick-ass villain too. Final Fantasy VII was the game that made JRPGs the hottest property in the industry. Back in the late 90’s JRPGs were as popular and as common as first-person shooters are today, and this was all because of the huge success Final Fantasy VII achieved. And although V, IX and XII have never quite reached the same level of acclaim as IV, VI and VII they are all brilliant games regardless. Final Fantasy V made use a job system, much like the one found in Final Fantasy III, but it was greatly expanded to allow greater freedom to the players. As a result it’s one of the best playing games in the series, even if its story isn’t quite up to par with other games. Final Fantasy IX was the last of the “traditional” Final Fantasy games, and as a result the game was designed to act as a homage to the series as a whole at the time of its release. Aside from sharing many elements with the very first game in the series the game also makes allusions to pretty much every Final Fantasy game that came before it. And Final Fantasy XII, although polarising among fans, was a great reimagining of the series that promised a bright future for the series. Sadly Square chose to go in a different route with Final Fantasy XIII. While playing these games on their original formats is the most authentic way Square have re-released these games multiple times over the years, and with the exception of Final Fantasy XII, they are all widely available on various systems. Rarely does a video game franchise house this many great games.

 

 

Fire Emblem Awakening


Fire Emblem Awakening is the most balanced and user-friendly game in the entire series. Veterans of the series will still get everything they want from a Fire Emblem game, but the title also offers a new game mode, designed specifically for newcomers, that gets rid of the series’ infamous perma-death and generally tones down the difficulty. As a result both existing fans and newcomers alike can experience the game equally. And thanks to some new additions to the game play, such as linking up two characters to perform dual strike attacks and having a character adjacent to another to help out in battle, the game play has more depth than ever before. The game also allows the main character to develop relationships with other members of his/her army, which may even result in marriage and children and further bolster your tactics in battle. Overall no other game in the series can match the sheer versatility of Awakening, and none of them play quite as well either.

 

 

Kingdom Hearts


The idea of a crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy sounded ludicrous, but remarkably Square managed to pull it off. Kingdom Hearts isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a hell of a lot of fun. The game takes place across many lands found in Disney films, and follows the adventures of Sora, the hero, who is helped along by Donald Duck and Goofy. Throughout the game the player meets countless Disney characters from the world he visits, such as Hercules, Aladdin and Ariel, as well as Final Fantasy characters like Squall (who is referred to in game as Leon), Tidus and Yuffie, to name but a few. Kingdom Hearts, unlike Final Fantasy at the time, made use of an action battle system, giving the player control over Sora (Donald and Goofy were controlled by the AI). This made battles a lot more intense, even if the camera work sometimes left something to be desired. Many would argue Kingdom Hearts II tops the first in pretty much every aspect, but the original remains the purest representation of what Square and Disney originally set out to make. Kingdom Hearts is also notable for being the first game created and directed by Tetsuya Nomura, who previously worked solely as a character designer for the Final Fantasy series.

 

 

Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete and Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete


Few series have mastered the tried and true JRPG formula quite like Game Arts' acclaimed Lunar. Originally developed for the Sega Mega CD, the first two Lunar games, The Silver Star and Eternal Blue, were released to critical acclaim across the board, with praise given mainly to the games use of the then up and coming CD format, which allowed the game to include animated movie sequences, as well as the brilliant English localisation by Working Designs. But Game Arts, dissatisfied that the games never quite matched their original vision, felt they needed an update, and when the 32-bit systems came on the scene both The Silver Star and Eternal Blue received facelifts for the Saturn and PlayStation (although only the PlayStation versions were released outside Japan). As a result the gaming world was treated to Silver Star Story Complete and Eternal Blue Complete. Although the core narrative from the original games was kept relatively the same Game Arts expanded each game with extra scenarios, more characters, more animated movie scenes, new and reworked dungeons and better graphics and sound (in the case of Silver Star Story Complete a whole new soundtrack was composed). And the “pay-to-save” feature of the originals, in which the player had to spend magic experience points to save their progress, was scrapped. But the biggest change came in the battle system. While The Silver Star and Eternal Blue made use of random battles, like most RPGs of their time, Game Arts changed this for the remakes. Taking influence from titles like Chrono Trigger and EarthBound enemies were now visible on screen, and battles only started upon contact with them. And now battles only occurred when the characters were in hazardous environments, the interconnecting world map was no longer littered with them. The Silver Star received two further remakes, one for the Game Boy Advance called Lunar Legend (which made dramatic changes) and one for the PSP, called Lunar: Silver Star Harmony. But whichever format you have access to the Lunar games are essential.

 

 

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch


Developed by Level 5, a wonderful team known for many great JRPGs and the Professor Layton series, Ni no Kuni was originally developed for the Nintendo DS in Japan. It was never localised, but Level 5 remade the game from the ground up for the PlayStation 3, made some alternations to differentiate itself from its DS brother, and this version was released across the globe. At first Ni no Kuni won’t set your world on fire. It feels a lot like any other JRPG, but the game oozes the sort of charm I haven’t felt since the golden years of the genre on the SNES and PlayStation. You play as Oliver, a young lad who is unaware he is in fact a wizard (much like Harry Potter, really).  After the death of his mother he is guided on a journey to the other world by Drippy, one of the best side-kicks in any video game, to try and resurrect her. But, as is the case with many video games, he eventually gets caught up in a more sinister course of events. From start to finish Ni no Kuni is as traditional as it gets, but thanks to its gorgeous world, lovable characters and great combat system it still manages to feel somewhat unique. Oh, and did I mention that Level-5 also collaborated with acclaimed animation house Studio Ghibli, who designed all the artwork for the game? So yes, the game looks gorgeous.

 

 

Persona 3 and Persona 4


With Persona 3 Atlus mixed dungeon-crawling JRPG goodness with social life simulation. During the day your main hero attended school, partook in after school activities and met up with friends to develop social links. At night your character and his friends enter a 250-floor dungeon called Tartarus, which only appeared in a special time between two days called the ‘Dark Hour’, to help find out exactly why the Dark Hour exists. Persona 4 plays out in a similar manner, but instead of entering a mysterious dungeon that only appears at midnight between two days your character and his friends have to enter a mysterious world that is found within a TV, and befriend a strange character called Teddie. Although the dungeon-crawling and social elements sound like a weird fusion it is the balance between the two that makes Persona 3 and Persona 4 stand out from the norm. Persona 3 and 4 were both released for the PS2, but they have both seen portable re-releases in the years since, and these re-releases have seen even greater acclaim then the original releases. Persona 3 Portable was released for the PSP in 2009 while Persona 4 Golden was released for the Vita in 2012. Pick them up.

 

 

Phantasy Star II and Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium


Phantasy Star doesn’t seem to get the recognition it deserves. Historians point to Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy as the pioneers of the Japanese RPG, but Phantasy Star deserves just as much credit in the creation and popularization of the genre. Phantasy Star was Sega’s answer to Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Sega knew they needed an RPG of their own, and the original Phantasy Star was an instant critical success when it was released for the Master System in 1988, with many finding its purely sci-fi setting a welcomed departure for the genre. It was also praised for including a cast of characters with actual personalities at a time when most RPGs still had characters that were blank slates created by the player. But the series went one step further with Phantasy Star II. Phantasy Star II is, to my knowledge, the earliest example of a story and character-driven RPG. Final Fantasy IV is often regarded as the pioneer of dramatic video game storytelling, but Phantasy Star II was releases two years before Final Fantasy IV. In fact Phantasy Star II was released for the Mega Drive in the west even before the original Final Fantasy for the NES. And Hironobu Sakaguchi himself acknowledged the influence Phantasy Star II had in creating Final Fantasy IV. But as good as Phantasy Star II was Phantasy Star IV took the series to even greater heights. Although it wasn’t as successful at retail as Phantasy Star II it showed the clear talent working at Sega. The game was the perfect refinement of all the elements of previous Phantasy Star games, and it even introduced new things itself, such as the brilliant Macro system. Phantasy Star II and IV aren’t just essential, they are bloody required.

 

 

Pokemon Red/Blue and Pokemon Gold/Silver


Pokémon is a hugely successful, multi-billion dollar franchise today, but back in 1998 very few thought it would find success in North America and Europe. Pokémon Red and Green (later altered and renamed Red and Blue for their worldwide release) were released in Japan in 1996 and proved to be a hit, but many thought their cutesy monster designs wouldn’t go down well with western audiences. Nintendo initially considered altering the designs to make them more appealing to the west, but Hiroshi Yamauchi, then the President of Nintendo, decided against that idea, feeling the release of the games in the west would be a welcomed challenge. After nearly two years in localisation Pokémon Red and Blue were finally released in the west, but by 1998 the interest in the Game Boy had dwindling and sales were down. Many feared the games would flop, but Red and Blue were instant successes with both critics, who lauded their innovations, and consumers alike. The games went on to sell a combined 25 million units, and their success saw a resurgence in the sales of the Game Boy and essentially extended its lifespan. Although Red and Blue were originally designed to be a one-off pair of games their success demanded more games. And the next instalments in the series, Gold and Silver, were even better than Red and Blue. Gold and Silver definitely followed the formula of Red and Blue, but in every conceivable way the games were a huge improvement. Everything that was great about Red and Blue was retained, but Nintendo crammed in so many new features it’s surprising they fit it all on a Game Boy cartridge. Gold and Silver introduced a whole new region called Johto, 101 new Pokémon, a day and night feature, Pokémon sexes and a breeding system, baby Pokémon, new moves, two new Pokémon types (Dark and Steel) and, most impressively of all, the ability to travel back to Kanto, the setting of Red and Blue, to collect a total of 16 gym badges. Gold and Silver are one of the finest examples of how to craft a superior sequel to an already brilliant set of games, and together with Red and Blue they more than worthy of your time.

 

 

Secret of Mana


During the 16-bit era European SNES owners were given the middle finger by Square. While North America and Japan were treated to masterpieces such as Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger European SNES owners were left twiddling their thumbs. Square assumed that their RPGs wouldn’t sell in Europe, so they didn’t bother to localise them despite the fact that Sega’s Phantasy Star games performed admirably in the region. But Square did, at the very least, release one of its SNES masterpieces in Europe – Secret of Mana. The core gameplay of Secret of Mana is much like that of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but it has all the characteristics of Final Fantasy mixed in with it. You control a party of three heroes, and while you can only physically control one character at a time the game’s AI does a fine job controlling the others, and you can freely switch between which character you want to be in control of. Instead of making use of heavy menu systems the designers incorporated an innovative ring menu system, which streamlined the usually menu heavy genre to bring it more in line with the games action. But what was most interesting about Secret of Mana was that you could play it multi-player, and have up to two friends helping you out. Secret of Mana is a pretty expensive game to buy on the SNES today, but for those wanting to give it a try it is available on the Wii’s Virtual Console. And the Virtual Console version is a lot more accessible for multiplayer than the SNES original ever was, as the Wii doesn’t require an add-on to support more than two players. The multiplayer features are something every player should experience at one point.

 

 

Suikoden


Suikoden fans will wonder why I chose the original game over Suikoden II, a game that most fans regard as the finest in the series. Well, I did so for two reasons. Firstly, I have to admit that I haven’t played Suikoden II yet. I know, I know, don’t get on my back about it. But Suikoden II is a hard game to get your hands on, and usually costs upwards and sometimes over £100 on eBay. And since its original release Konami has never re-released the game outside Japan. So can I be forgiven for not playing it yet? Secondly, I chose Suikoden mainly because, aside from being a great RPG in its own right and one of the best on the PlayStation, it is available, in some regions at least, on the PSN, meaning there is still a legal way to play this game without spending a ridiculous amount of money. And for only $5.99 I can assure you it will definitely be money well spent. The game does have its detractions, of course. You can breeze through it in about 20 hours, and it isn’t necessarily challenging. The game also has over 70 playable characters, and some will find this too much to deal with. But if you can look past these shortcomings you’ll find a seriously enjoyable role-playing experience and one that should not be missed by any fan of the genre.

 

 

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars


We’re all used to the idea of Mario appearing in spin-off games today, but back in 1996 Mario was still almost firmly rooted in platform games. Aside from Super Mario Kart and Mario Paint (and a couple of educational titles I hate to even mention) the moustachioed hero stuck with kicking Bowser’s ass in games of pure platforming bliss. But Super Mario RPG marked Mario’s first venture in to the world of role-playing, and it’d be an understatement to call it good. Developed by Squaresoft, Super Mario RPG was the last game the RPG titan made for a Nintendo system before jumping ship to Sony and the PlayStation. But they sure went out with a bang.  Super Mario RPG still feels like a Mario game. It’s still set in the Mushroom Kingdom. It still has elements of platforming. It still includes everyone’s favourite characters. But the game feels like Super Mario and Final Fantasy were both put in a blender together. But it is a lot more awesome than that actually sounds. It’s also notable for being the first game in the series to have Bower as a playable character, this time HELPING Mario instead of trying to kidnap Princess Peach. This is the sort of game every SNES owner needs in their collection, and it can be easily downloaded on the Wii’s Virtual Console for anyone who’s interested.

 

 

Terranigma


Terranigma is often forgotten about in talks of the best RPGs on the SNES. The game closes the unofficial ‘Gaia Trilogy’, a collection of three action-RPGs developed for the SNES by the criminally underrated Quintet, a company founded by former Nihon Falcom designer Tomoyoshi Miyazaki. Miyazaki was involved in the creation of Falcom’s own Dragon Slayer and Ys series, arguably the earliest examples of the action-RPG sub-genre, and his expertise in the field is evident with Terranigma. Unlike most RPGs, which see the player battling through the forces of evil in a world of gradual decay, Terranigma’s main plot revolves around the resurrection of the continents and all life on Earth, as well as law and order -- a nice role reversal. Its game play is similar to the two previous games in the Gaia Trilogy, Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia, but actually mixes elements from each game together. The basic combat is taken from Illusion of Gaia with some notable improvements, and Ark, the games main hero, can use magic akin to Soul Blazer. Unfortunately for Terranigma the game has still to this day never seen an official release in North America, and that’s the biggest contributing factor to why it’s relatively unknown in the mainstream. But Terranigma is one of the finest and most rewarding action-RPGs ever released, and because of the circumstances surrounding its lack of North American release I have no problem pointing players in the direction of an emulator to play it.

 

 

Xenogears and Xenoblade Chronicles


Do you like JRPGs? Do you like giant mechs? If you do Xenogears is the game for you. The brain child of Tetsuya Takahashi, Xenogears would establish his intricate, but sometimes convoluted, form of storytelling that would also go on to characterise many of his other titles, such as the Xenosaga trilogy. Xenogears was interesting mainly because its story wove such an interesting tale. It can be a little hard to understand at times, but its subject matter touched upon themes that very few games at the time dared to tackle (mainly religion). Although the game feels a little rushed towards the end, and can suffer from terrible pacing issues as the story comes to a close, Xenogears remains one of the finest PlayStation RPGs. Xenoblade Chronicles is Takahashi‘s most recent effort, but it was a departure from the style of Xenogears and Xenosaga (although it did share some similar themes). On its own Xenoblade is a brilliant RPG with a fantastic story and a beautifully rich world to explore, but the story surrounding its release in North America, and the subsequent fan movement known as Operation Rainfall, brought the game far greater coverage than it would ever have got by itself. Xenoblade Chronicles only had a limited run, and has already become an expensive game, but if you want to play Xenogears, and live in North America or Japan, you can find the game on the PSN.

 

 

Wild Arms


On the surface Wild Arms looks like any other JRPG, but if you peel away the layers you’ll find a lot to love about the game. Developed by Media.Vision, the title was one of the earliest RPGs on the PlayStation in Japan. Possibly the most interesting aspect of the game is the fact that it is set in a fictional world much like the American Wild West, a setting that I can’t remember any other RPG using off the top of my head. Its game play isn’t anything revolutionary, as it still relies on turn-based combat and random encounters, but it’s so consistently fun that you won’t really care. Unfortunately for Wild Arms it was released in North America only a few months before Final Fantasy VII, and the game always felt in the shadow of Square’s highly anticipated hit. But many would argue Wild Arms is the superior title. Whereas Final Fantasy VII was an epic on an unprecedented scale, Wild Arms felt more personal. Whereas Final Fantasy VII offered a huge cast of characters Wild Arms offered few, but the ones it did offer were all great personalities. And Wild Arms also includes elements of puzzle solving and actions sequences, something uncommon in the genre at the time and something that only a few other traditional turn-based RPGs offered. The success of Wild Arms, although modest in the west, spawned four sequels, but none of them lived up to the original. Wild Arms is a game that every JRPG fan needs to play, and if you don’t own the PlayStation original the game is available to purchase in all major regions on the PSN.

 

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