The Japanese RPG is truly an icon. It is odd that it gets differentiated so greatly from western RPGs because both feature stat crunching, crafting and plucky adventurers striving to save the world. But JRPGs are clearly a particular niche that emphasize mature themes and narrative, as told through coming of age stories. Random encounters, separate battle systems and sweeping cutscenes are all part of the JRPG mystique, and something that I have come to love as a gamer.
The JRPG is clearly more than just Final Fantasy, who itself is a textbook definition of the mechanics that make up a JRPG. While I love the Final Fantasy franchise, Japan has much more to offer for this incredibly varied genre.
To a certain degree, Xenosaga needs to be recognized for its own merits. After all, it succeeded in creating a bonafide icon in KOS-MOS, the calculating female android that is a central figure throughout the entire franchise. While a decade of age has not been terribly kind to the slow battle system of Xenosaga, it will forever be known as the JRPG saga that strove to make cutscenes a theatrical experience (over 8 hours in the first game alone). It was a chore, yes, but the spiritual successor to the revered Xenogears gets the nod for its sweeping nature and never wavering from a ludicrous goal.
9. Star Ocean
Star Ocean is a franchise that I would like to have placed higher, but the plucky younger sibling in the Square Enix family has a knack for being incredibly broad at the cost of narrative direction. Star Ocean: The Last Hope suffers from this the most by placing you in expansive continents filled with nothing to do but run around. But the game has an action oriented battle system that emphasizes teamwork with controlled and AI characters, an incredibly deep item crafting system that could be its own game by itself and characters that are likable and varied. The third game in particular, Till the End of Time is a stand out for the types of varied scenarios and lush ensemble of support characters.
Admittedly, I am still very much stuck in the grind on the first Disgaea title, Hour of Darkness. But if there were one game that could feasibly last you until the end of time, Disgaea might be a worthy choice. Not only does it have a lengthy (and hilariously entertaining) story, but with multiple systems to keep track of including item level, character levels (up to 9999), vassal creation for your massive army and randomly generated maps, you will be occupied for a while. This doesn’t even take into account multiple story endings, New Game + or even fighting the senators of the Dark Assembly to increase your kingdom’s funds. With four unique entries and a true sequel to the original due out this Fall, Disgaea always keeps Japanese SRPG fans coming back for more.
Say what you will about its childlike focus, but Pokemon is a rich JRPG with tons of monsters to catch and a rich battle system that plays as much like poker as it does an JRPG. With its iconic “Gotta Catch ’em All” slogan, collecting Pokemon has been part of gaming’s lexicon since 1996. I consider the series an excellent JRPG for new gamers to get their feet wet with stat management and the concepts of leveling up characters. This Fall’s launch of Pokemon X & Y will bring the total Pokedex entries well over the current 649, a list of creatures that is even more impressive if you managed to bring a Squirtle, Bulbasaur or Charmander from the original Red/Blue.
6. Fire Emblem
A simplified strategy RPG that hasn’t gained a lot of traction in the west until recently, Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series has players taking the cause of a young soldier, thrust into a leadership role, tasked with commanding an army across an expansive campaign. The rock-paper-scissors battle system that pits swords against axes against spears is simplistic, but incredibly deep when magic and damage types are added into the equation. While less mathematical than other SRPGs, Fire Emblem’s simple strategies and inclusion of permanent death heighten the importance of each move.
5. Dragon Quest
Beloved in Japan, the Dragon Quest series features acclaimed DragonBall artist Akira Toriyama’s iconic character style set in a world of classic exploration, dungeons and creatures. While often accused of never deviating from its formula, the turn-based combat system is effective and serves as a baseline by which many JRPGs draw their inspiration from. While the status of DQX in the west is still up in the air as the first MMO in the series has not gained proper traction in Japan, the Dragon Quest series is home to the classic stories of a lone hero staving off an ancient evil.
4. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
It is odd that a spinoff is placed on a list when the original is not. Nothing against Shin Megami Tensei, but the Persona franchise is stellar work. Moody themes and exquisite character design highlight a franchise that has put its older brother in its shadow. I first fell in love with the franchise unknowingly at a used game shop when I was in high school, its classic isometric presentation with uniquely designed avatars was captivating to me. The title turned out to be Persona 2 and I had been waiting for a proper new entry to the series when Persona 3 and 4 rolled along at the end of the PS2’s life cycle. It is a franchise that I am intrigued by, but have yet to give a full go. I expect it to be a worthy backlog title.
3. Tales of
Xillia. Destiny. Abyss. Symphonia. Namco’s Tales of franchise is ripe with fantastic stories, wonderful characters (including some done by the incredible Kosuke Fujishima of Ah! My Goddess fame) and some of the most engaging battle systems in any JRPG. Combat places emphasis on combined attacks and strategies, all through a real time action system. No two games are truly alike (except for obvious sequential sequels) and the series constantly evolved, even if Namco has been hesitant to ship the title west. By far the pinnacle of the series is the stellar GameCube title, Tales of Symphonia, which will enjoy an HD upgrade for the PS3 sometime next year.
2. Kingdom Hearts
While possibly the least number crunching entry on this list, Kingdom Hearts is an iconic geekfest that combines the storied history of Square with the unparalleled majesty of Disney. Though the series has become confusing with entries that bounce about its timeline, parallel universes and split personalities, the core draw has always been how will Square marry its own history with the vast selection of Disney creations. The results have been nothing short of magnificent with Sora and his keyblade playing the central protagonist as he fights off the heartless and uncovers the mystery behind Kingdom Hearts. With an HD remake of the original title, Chain of Memories and 358 1/2 Days (as a movie) launching this fall, I expect Kingdom Hearts 2, Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance to get the treatment leading up the launch of Kingdom Hearts 3.
Few games have shaped my perception of gaming like Chrono Trigger. I have never fallen in love more with a single game thanks to its Active Time Battle system, combined tech attacks, lovable characters (also designed by Akira Toriyama) spanning multiple timelines, an unforgettable story with multiple endings, and one of the best soundtracks in any game to date. Chrono Trigger by itself pines for a true sequel, but now nearly 20 years later, I think its best left alone. Its pseudo-sequel, Chrono Cross also shared its predecessor’s penchant for lovely characters, spectacularly scored soundtrack and is possibly one of the prettiest titles available on the PSX. While never embraced like Chrono Trigger was, Chrono Cross still left its impact as a memorable JRPG on a system with a glut of similar titles.