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A Japanese RPG Primer: The Essential 20

March 19, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 21 Next

Final Fantasy IV, VI & VII

Developer: Square

Publisher: SquareSoft (1991, SNES / 1994, SNES) & SCEA (1997, PlayStation)

If it seems like it's cheating to bunch a handful of games together in one entry... well, it kind of is. There are a number of other Final Fantasy games on this list, but each of them was chosen for some very specific aspect. Final Fantasy IV, VI, and VII are probably the least radical of the modern entries -- and therefore, the least unique -- yet they're considered to be the most beloved entries in the series.

Final Fantasy has always walked the very thin line between "casual" and "hardcore" gaming styles. The idea is that casual gamers will be attracted to the narrative and characters, while the hardcore will find some crazy customization or battle aspect to figure out.

Some of them tilt in one direction more than the others -- Final Fantasy V, VIII and XII offer hardcore gameplay systems, while Final Fantasy X emphasizes story. These three entries -- IV, VI, and VII are the most balanced between the two aspects, which is probably why they're so widely pleasing.

Final Fantasy IV is the epitome of cheesy, melodramatic 16-bit RPGs -- the dialogue is brief, the characters are likable but one-dimensional, nearly half of the game's cast nobly sacrifices themselves, and all but one of them turns up alive and well later in the plot.

The story of the conflicted Cecil and his equally conflicted best friend Kain has all of the basic workings of a Shakespeare drama, even if they're carried out with silly little sprites, whose only methods of emotional expression include spinning, bouncing, and looking at the floor.

Some of the 8-bit RPGs began to emphasize narrative, like Final Fantasy II's war-torn plot or Dragon Quest IV's party of memorable warriors, but Final Fantasy IV weaved everything together brilliantly and set the stage for all future genre entries.

As such, the advent of the SNES signified not only enhanced graphics and stunning music -- Final Fantasy IV still has one of composer Nobuo Uematsu's best scores -- but the next generation of storytelling as well. The fact that that the DS remake -- released fifteen years after the original -- still stands up to most other portable RPGs is a testament to its lasting power.

Final Fantasy VI was released four years later, with significantly improved graphics. Characters were now twice as big, and potentially twice as expressive. The themes are common, especially throughout the Final Fantasy series -- a rebellion against an evil empire, an outsider with mysterious magical powers, and a sadistic villain that seems to be evil for the vaguest of reasons.

Final Fantasy VI's strengths lie in both its scenario and its characters. It has the largest group of playable characters in a Final Fantasy game, with a total of fourteen party members, including two hidden ones. Their abilities are static, like FFIV and unlike FFV. They're still marginally customizable, through the use of relics and equippable summon monsters called Espers, which modify their stat growth a bit and teach them magic.

Each character's inherent skills are important from a storytelling standpoint, as each of their personalities are reflected in their abilities. Cyan's "Bushido" requires waiting several seconds to charge up attacks, which reflects his persona as patient and stoic warrior. Sabin, while not having a particularly strong personality, is occasionally represented as a bit of a meathead.

As such, his attacks are incredibly powerful, as denoted by his muscular stature -- but they're unpredictable, seeing as how you can't target individual foes, and the success of a move is determined by command motions, the fighting game equivalent of brute force, rather than strategy. Setzer doesn't require much of an explanation -- when you convince him to join your party, his response is basically "Why the hell not?" He's a man on the edge, just like his Slot machine ability, which, if luck isn't on your side, can potentially harm your own party.

This idea of portraying a character through gameplay has been around for ages -- strong characters use physical attacks, frail characters use magic and have low HP, etc. It was also used in the same manner in Final Fantasy IV -- Cecil's life-draining attack as a Dark Knight, which are replaced with healing powers once he becomes a Paladin; Edward's Hide attack showing his cowardice -- but they're much more expanded here, and a quite bit more interesting.

Like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI's other strength shows through in its remarkably powerful scenario design. Once the game really gets into gear within the first hour or two, the game tosses out a number of memorable events -- the spooky Phantom Train, the introduction of Kefka and his malicious poisoning of Doma Castle, the silly but ultimately impressive opera scene, the assault on the Magitech Factory, Celes' attempted suicide.

It's also one of the first RPGs where the bad guy actually wins, enslaving the world and reducing it to a total wasteland. It's also worth pointing to the second half of the game -- where the narrative steps aside and eventually lets you explore the open world. Though disliked by some series fans, it also shines, as a huge number of subquests open up, allowing those suffocated by the linearity of the first half to get a little more breathing room.

And then there's Final Fantasy VII, beloved for its interesting characters and cool cutscenes, hated mostly for being a huge success -- and thus the effect it had on JRPG design. And yet, FFVII rides heavily on the coattails of its predecessor -- a group of rebels banding together to face an oppressive evil, another young girl with ancient, mysterious powers -- but goes so over-the-top that it stands out from the crowd.

The biggest difference is that FFVI was an ensemble cast, with the viewpoint switching around between a handful of major characters. Instead, FFVII focused on the development of Cloud, whose huge, spiky blond hair and exaggerated sword has since became an icon of Japanese excess in the same way that hulking, bald space marine has become stereotypical Western gaming.

Cloud is neither hero nor anti-hero -- as we learn, Cloud is somewhat of a weakling with delusions of grandeur, believing himself to be a world-saving bad guy when he's actually just a dude with some psychological issues. This is one of the first instances of an unreliable narrator in JRPGs, adding something new to the usual "boy meets girl then saves world" formula.

At the time, its impressive cinematics were Final Fantasy VII's selling point. The character development system isn't quite as cool this time around -- the Materia is similar to the Espers from FFVI, except it allows characters to swap skills amongst each other.

By removing most of the specialized character skills, it loses some of the narrative appeal of its predecessor, and thus the player tends to pick party members based off who looks the coolest, rather than what they can do. Outside of a few famous scenes -- particular Aeris' murder -- the game is muddled with a subpar localization, another step down from FFVI.

However, the game world has been fleshed out favorably. FFVI's world drew elements from steampunk, but was really just a darker, more detailed variation on the previous games. FFVII's field may just appear to be a 3D rendering the same world map we're used to, but the locations are hugely varied, ranging from the creepy European village of Nibelheim, the Disney World-esque amusement park Golden Saucer, and the traditional Japanese town of Wutai. At the core of this is Midgar, a technological dystopia that borrows heavily from Blade Runner and other classics of science fiction.

It's easy to point fingers at Square Enix for abusing the Final Fantasy VII series with its multiple spin-offs, like the lousy shooter Dirge of Cerberus or the vapid action flick Advent Children.

But the world is so rich and interesting that it actually feels like it has enough depth to explore and expand. The best spinoff -- Crisis Core for the PSP -- draws heavily on the player's nostalgia for Final Fantasy VII, so wandering through Midgar feels like revisiting an old friend. Despite its overbaked tendencies, it still remains compelling, even after the twists have long worn out their appeal.


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 21 Next

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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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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!

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!!

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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.