Japan is arguably most famous worldwide for its video games. Japan took gaming and sent it into the stratosphere. Gaming was popular in the 80’s but it really became what it is today, because of Japan. Companies like Nintendo, Konami, Square, SEGA and much more helped to bring gaming into mainstream culture in the 80’s and 90’s. One incredibly important facet of this gaming revolution is the sub-genre of Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG). In this list, I will go over the 10 best JRPGs of all time. I took the following into consideration when rating these games; impact on the genre, popularity and personal preference, replayability, and timelessness.
In the planning stages of this article, I was originally planning to do a paltry three entry article, but once I compiled my list I felt that only three entries would not be enough, so I expanded it to 5 entries. Then as I started whittling my list I really felt I was going to give a lot of games short shrift. Thus, my original short article expanded into this. Please comment below and let me know what you think.
The tagline for the Kingdom Hearts (KH) series has always been Final Fantasy mixed with Disney. You play as Sora, a young intrepid adventurer who has to battle strange creatures called ‘Heartless’ across different worlds to save your own and your friends. While the game has many weak points (gummy ship… Oh how I hate thee…), the story was somewhat uneven. But, Kingdom Hearts made up for all of that with amazingly fun gameplay, and a compelling story. This game also makes this list because it introduced JRPGs to a whole new audience. I know KH fans of all ages. I played it as a teenager, with my nephew who was only 7 or 8, and my high school English teacher.
Xenogears is perhaps one of the most equally compelling and incomprehensible games on this list. It is also one of the most polarizing. In Xenogears, you play as Fei Fong. You control giant robots to fight against a cabalistic group. It combines Nietzsche, Freud, and Jeung’s philosophies with incredible anime cutscenes, and giant robot action. Some people say the first half is great and the latter half falls apart while others say that the first part is bad and the last part is great. To say the least, it is a classic of the PS1 era. If you don’t mind your games with a lot of ambiguity, you will find this a great and compelling game.
Ni No Kuni is an incredibly heartwarming story. It is a collaboration between the makers of the Tales series (which was hard to keep off this list), and animation studio Ghibli. You play as a young boy who has suffered a great tragedy and crosses to another world to go on an epic quest. Ni No Kuni is the newest game on this list but is probably one of the more traditional ones. Throughout the 2000s, JRPGs underwent massive changes, but Ni No Kuni reaches back in time to what make JRPGs great. The only reason it does not make it higher on this list is because we don’t know what kind of lasting impact this game will have.
Dragon Quest VIII is similar to Ni No Kuni in the fact that it calls back to the JRPGs of old. In Dragon Quest VIII you play as a silent protagonist who joins with a group of other fighters, thieves, royalty and bandits to stop an evil court jester and save the kingdom. The Dragon Quest series is one of the great JRPG series of all time. Dragon Quest VIII is unabashedly classic. It takes the best of the classic series and puts it into a 3D cell-shaded environment. Recently Square-Enix made this game available on smartphones.
I saw one blogger summarize Suikoden II in the best way I have ever seen by simply saying, “Suikoden II is Game of Thrones meets Pokemon”. In Suikoden II, you lead an army against an invading army. In your quest, you are able to recruit over 100 individual characters to your team! The game is incredibly vast and sprawling. Its story is epic and compelling. For as great as this game is, it is relatively unknown. The battle system may feel very archaic today, but it is still fun. You can still easily find it on the PlayStation store. I recommend playing it on your Playstation Vita or PSP.
Many people might be mad at me for having this so far down on my list. Final Fantasy VII is the most popular game on this list. The games characters are legendary; Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, Sephiroth. This game has birthed its own franchise. You play as Cloud, a former SOLDIER, a highly trained military unit, who joins with AVALANCHE a group of Eco-terrorists. You fight against an evil corporation, up until an even more dangerous enemy from the past emerges. This game was the reason I got into JRPGs. It was my first ever JRPG. So, why is it number five? Well, for all FFVII does, other Final Fantasies had done much of it before. Furthermore, upon a recent play-through, I realized that the original game does not hold up too well. A lot of the dialogue is not great, and the graphics really don’t hold up. You can get this game anywhere.
Final Fantasy IV is considered by many to be the greater of the Final Fantasy series. And it is a hard thing to argue against. FFIV is great. You play as Cecil, a dark knight, who can no longer bear to follow the increasingly evil orders of your lord. You turn away from him on a quest of atonement and find a great evil threatening all you love. FFIV set the gold standard for further games. It really set into concrete many of the systems that would come to define this awesome series. It has well-realized characters, a great story, and the game is still fun today. Square remade the game for the DS with 3D sprites but left the gameplay intact. This is the version of the game I know best.
Earthbound is a truly iconic game. Even if you have never played the game you have probably seen some of the characters in other Nintendo products. You play as Ness, who after seeing a meteor land nearby goes to investigate, when an entity named Giygas begins to turn all life into creatures. Ness and his friends go out to save the earth. Earthbound is very unique, it has a very charming style, and a surprisingly dark (at times) story. While most JRPGs are set in a classical fantasy setting, Earthbound is based in our world, making it much easier to invest in. This is a harder game to get a hold of. I believe that it is available in the Wii and WiiU stores.
While Final Fantasy VI is not my favorite of the series (I prefer VII), it is impossible to deny the importance of this entry to not only the Final Fantasy series but to JRPGs in general. If you doubt me, just check out the opening of the game. Three characters in the magi-tec armor run through the snow as opening credits roll and the game’s iconic theme plays. FFVI was one of the games that showed people how games could be a great medium for telling stories. Cinematic in scope, equally heartbreaking and heartwarming, Final Fantasy VI is one entry you simply can’t miss. This game is available on nearly every console.
So here it is, the big number one. Chrono Trigger is simply the greatest JRPG of all time. I play this game at least once a year. It is nearly 30 years old but it is still just as fun today as it was when it came out. You play as Chrono, a young man who must traverse time to stop a powerful force from destroying the world. Chrono Trigger combines the best of many of Square’s franchises of the time. Its gameplay is still engaging, easy to pick up, but deceitfully deep if you get into it. The characters are truly iconic (Frog is my homeboy!). And with multiple endings, it is nearly endlessly replayable. If you have never played Chrono Trigger, JUST DO IT! I guarantee you, you will not regret it. This game is available on virtually every platform, including smartphones. The DS version might be the best one commercially available.
JRPGs are incredible. Sadly, the last dozen years has seen a severe decrease in great JRPGs available in the West. The age of the classical turn-based JRPG may be dead, but we will always have these classics.