A Japanese RPG Primer: The Essential 20
March 19, 2008 Page 1 of 21
[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.
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