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A Japanese RPG Primer: The Essential 20

March 19, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 21 Next
 

[The Japanese role-playing game is a surprisingly important genre for developers to study - both in terms of gameplay and storytelling, and Gamasutra presents an 'Essential 20' explaining and chronicling the top JRPGs of all-time.]

The gap between Western and Japanese RPGs is so huge that they sometimes don't even seem like they belong in the same genre. Western RPGs usually concentrate on open-ended gameplay, with a "go anywhere, do anything" mentality.

Japanese RPGs concentrate on narrative and battle systems, being more eager to tell a story than let the gamer play a role. However, Japanese RPGs didn't just appear out of nowhere -- as their roots lie heavily in early American computer RPGs of the 80s.

Two of the most popular games back in the day were Ultima and Wizardry. Although all had followings amongst hardcore Japanese gamers, they were a little bit too uninviting for your average console owners, whose ages skewed a bit younger. Yuji Horii, a developer at Enix, decided to take on an interesting experiment.

By combing the overhead exploration aspects of Ultima (the third and fourth games, specifically) and the first person, menu-based battle system of Wizardry, a new game was born: Dragon Quest. Released for the Nintendo Famicom in 1986, the game became a phenomenon, and went on to inspire dozens of clones. Most of these are best left forgotten, but it did inspire two more notable franchises: Square's Final Fantasy and Sega's Phantasy Star.

Meanwhile, in America, it wasn't until 1989 that Nintendo translated the game for English speaking audiences, redubbing it Dragon Warrior. Despite the huge amount of effort put into the localization, the subpar graphics and stodgy interface failed to win over many gamers.

Throughout the rest of the 8 and 16-bit eras, RPGs in America -- and especially Europe -- were relative rarities. While Square continued to translate most of its better games for America, most publishers had left the market, with only sporadic releases from the likes of Capcom, Sega, Working Designs, and a handful of others.

It wasn't until Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation, with its flashy full motion cutscenes, that Japanese RPGs truly obtained worldwide popularity.

Since then, a vast majority of JRPGs have been translated into English, whether they're contemporary releases, remakes of old titles or even fan-translated ROMs for play on emulators.

As of 2008, the Japanese RPG has become a subject of scorn for many Western critics, deriding it for its conventions -- slow, menu based combat, random battles, overreliance on narrative -- and for its failure to evolve. In spite of this, there are still many fans of the genre, who continue to enjoy them for their interesting plots, characters, and battle systems.

This is a list of twenty of the best JRPGs of all time -- well, an attempt, anyway. Each of these has been selected for excelling in some significant way, whether it's through compelling narrative devices or intriguing gameplay mechanics.

To avoid redundancies, only the best installment of a franchise will be chosen as a representative. The exception to this rule includes the Final Fantasy games, many of which are so vastly different from each other that they can barely be recognized as part of the same series, outside of the name.

It's worth bearing in mind that there are technically a few different subgenres of the Japanese RPG. These include action-RPGs like Ys, Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, and (arguably) The Legend of Zelda.

There are also strategy RPGs, like Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, Shining Force, and the like. There are also a handful of Japanese-developed online RPGs, like Phantasy Star Online and Final Fantasy XI. For the sake of focus, these types of games will be excluded from the list.

 


Article Start Page 1 of 21 Next

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Comments


Shaun Huang
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.............

What about Star Ocean? Tales of Phantasia? The hentai RPGs? the horror RPGs? The intro talks big about "studying" the japanese rpg primers but the content seem more like one person's list of favorite rpg instead of a comprehensive overview.

Tom Newman
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Great article! FF heavy (I disagree about FFXII, and definately disagree about Chrono Cross), but my top 5 made it in including the much overlooked BoF:Dragom Quarter and SMT:Nocturne)

Aaron Lutz
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Shaun,

There's a reason it's called an "opinion" piece... it's this guy's "opinion" of the top 20 JRPGs. And he did define the requirements to be included in the list early on.



To the Author,

Thank for this illumination. Sadly, I don't play as many RPGs as I would like, and Gamasutra continues to inform me about games that I never knew existed. This is no different. I agree and disagree about a few choices, but all-in-all it's a good read. Thanks!

Anonymous
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I agree with Zero Punctuation's view on JRPGs. They all look, sound, talk, feel smell the same.

Anonymous
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If you're going to say that all JRPGs are the same, then I think it's pretty clear that you haven't explored the genre much.



Also, this list needs some Disgaea on it, or just any sort of recognition towards Nippon Ichi Software.

Hayden Dawson
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The inclusion of titles such as Dragon Quarter and the Shin Megami's do a strong job of showing how varied the genre is. For places such as g4 and other US sites that have been the most vocal in bashing JRPGs lately, I find it so humorous that they hold FPSes up to some gold standard when if anything, such titles even more guilty of the same old same old.



i would agree that the most obvious series not covered (as he did specifically define JRPG for the article) is something from the Tales series.

Nicholas Karpuk
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I found this article really insightful, since the world of JRPGs is often intimidating, since a bad investment can mean a dozen hours of grinding and plots that don't really satisfy.



It really highlights the benefit of the genre, which is an almost absurd level of depth when it comes to atmosphere and a sense of a larger world.



The main frustration of this article is that the games I was not already familiar with are by in large titles that I can't purchase legitimately without throwing down a large amount of cash.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

David Deeble
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Great article. Within the context you stated at the beginning of the piece I agree with many of your selections (the others I just haven't played).

I haven't played a JRPG for quite some time (Dragon Quest VIII was my last), the reason being that I find the genre may have already past its best, recent titles just don't seem to have the edge that made many of the games on your list so memorable - though I suppose it could just be a bout of nostalgia kicking in.



Still, one thing's for sure: The article's made me fall in love with Skies of Arcadia again...oh and I had my weekend all planned out. Curse you and your eloquent words!

Roberto Alfonso
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When teen, I could never decide whether Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger was the best role playing game ever made. Over 10 years later, I still can't decide.



By the way, isn't Pokémon a JRPG? And I would have mentioned Lufia instead of Final Fantasy VIII. The game starts in the final tower, with your characters at level 70. Back in 1993, that was revolutionary.

Anonymous
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No Super Mario RPG. No Lunar. No Lufia. No Secret of Mana. No Vagrant Story.



Could have dropped FF all but Final Fantasy VI and replaced them with the above.



Final Fantasy V is far from essential.

Jon Burke
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Secret of Mana and Vagrant Story aren't traditional JRPGs, which is what this list is.



Really the only one listed here that I don't agree with is Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Didn't care for the ring system much. It makes every action a gamble when things like using items and doing basic attacks shouldn't be.

Anonymous
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Lack of the Saga series is surprising. Not to mention Tengai Makyo Manji Maru for the PC Engine that lived on Famitsu's Top 20 best games ever list for years beyond its release. Then again, these 2 series are far more essential to Japan JRPGs.

Paul Rooney
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Fantastic article, very glad to see Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Persona 3. I couldn't agree more.



I'm a huge SMT fan for many reasons and Nocturne had many small but key elements that made it by far my favourite game. One of which having a demon that can cast estoma and riberama for exploration and levelling up. Took a lot of the frustration from random encounters right out but kept a huge level of tension due to the brilliant difficulty level because you always had to be on the ball, and if you were even flicking on 'Auto' was a great feature.



The plot(s) also grabbed me more because not only was it complex, it was dark and sometimes optional. For me a guide is essential for this game because its absolutely huge.



Devil Summoner was also great as it had a fantastic and distinct atmosphere that almost felt tangible at times.



Anyway a fantastic list, some of which I havn't played. You can use this list as a must play quality RPG list.

Ryan Barrett
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Kurt, where oh where is Crystalis!?!?

AND Vagrant Story!?!? OMG and Secret of Mana and oh i'm sure everyone above me said something too that you didn't have. You really shouldn't have combined 4, 6 and 7 into one. And 5, 8, and 12 are HARDLY worth playing. Sorry Kurt, but your list fails.

d
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Ignore the haters, Author. This was a great read.

Tawna Evans
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Too much to read! I ended up just scanning titles, and I read only the pages of games I am familiar with. It would be nice if the article were shorter... maybe provide one paragraph per game instead of a whole page.



The author seems heavily biased in favor of Square Enix games. I saw multiple Final Fantasies and such.

Aaron Gingras
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I think the inclusion of an abundant of Square-Enix RPGs was to be expected, considering they've been the primary developer of some of the best J-RPGs out.



Still more into Computer RPGs myself, though.

Anonymous
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I liked the list a lot, it was the most accurately critical and praising the various underlying "segments" that make up each rpg and it's gameplay that I've seen! And while I feel that a few did get left out, and for me final fantasy is vanilla meh, I thought it was a pretty comprehensive list of the mainstream JSRPGS also. Kudos, mebbe now I will finally try Phantasy Star IV my friend has recommended.



PS you left one thing out -- its a bigger mystery than not releasing FF V, another Chrono, etc etc combined that Earthbound II(Mother 3 if you prefer) was indefinitely delayed, then pissed away on a Japanese Cell Phone.

Shame on you, NIntendo!!

Anonymous
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Good list all in all, though like many above me I'd take issue with many of them. For one I found Chrono Cross' battle system anything but friendly to an rpg veteran like me. I'm all for new systems in rpgs, but seriously having to melee attack to charge up to use a HEALING item was something that made me wanna be violent. Spells I could see doing such with but items always made me annoyed.



Other than that I don't have much of a problem with the list at all. I would have grouped all the final fantasies together to make room for some others (yes I know a lot of FF games are very diffrent from each other, so sue me it's still the same name they should be together) but it's a minor gripe.


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