Much like anime, Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) feel like video game junk food — indulgent and easy to access. We’re here to count down our top 10 JRPGs of all time.
Defining a JRPG can be messy, as titles developed in various regions have adopted menu-based combat and JRPG-style character progression. For this list, we’re focusing on releases that were developed by Japanese studios and feature the tropes of a JRPG, namely an open overworld, item management, and a party-based leveling system.
Release Date: March 11, 1995
Platforms: SNES, Nintendo DS, iOS, Android, Windows, PlayStation, Apple TV
Chrono Trigger is one of the most interesting video games ever created. Created by a supergroup of game developers, it showcases the talent of Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy series; Yuji Horii, creator of the Dragon Quest series; and Akira Toriyama, who’s most famously known for designing the characters in Dragon Quest and Dragon Ball.
Although Chrono Trigger’s development was messy — it was originally planned for the Final Fantasy series and eventually the Mana series — the final product is incredible. In it, you take control of six characters across various points in history, with time travel being a core mechanic in the game. Traveling back and forth through time, your party learns about a creature that will eventually wipe out civilization, and you must go back in time to prevent that from happening.
Gameplay-wise, Chrono Trigger introduced a variety of new concepts that can still be seen today. For instance, enemy encounters aren’t random — you can openly see enemies on screen — and there’s a “new game plus” mode. In battles, the game borrows from Final Fantasy with an Active Time Battle system, where characters can take actions once their timer depletes.
Final Fantasy VI
Release Date: April 2, 1994
Platforms: SNES, Wii, Game Boy Advance, PlayStation, Android, iOS, Windows
With 15 numbered games, various sequels, and even more spinoffs, it’s hard to nail down the best Final Fantasy game. Instead of choosing one of the newer entries in the series, like VII or X, we’re throwing it back to the SNES era with a nod to Final Fantasy VI (or, if you’re on the SNES, Final Fantasy III).
Final Fantasy VI is the last 2D, sprite-based game in the series before Square decided to settle on low-poly character models and pre-rendered backgrounds on the original PlayStation. The game feels like a magnum opus of old-school Final Fantasy design, with gorgeous visuals and an engaging battle system.
It’s the story that stands out most, however. Ditching the high-fantasy setting of previous entries, Final Fantasy VI explores a steampunk world where mechs and magic meet. Final Fantasy VI defined the tone that the series would take going forward, setting a foundation for Final Fantasy VII, the best game in the series for many.
Dragon Quest VIII
Release Date: November 27, 2004
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS, PS2, Android, iOS
Dragon Quest basically invented the JRPG, introduced in the West as Dragon Warrior way back in 1986. Released in the same year as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Metal Gear Solid 3, and Katamari Damacy, Dragon Quest VIII had a lot of competition. Despite that, it’s one of the best games on the PS2.
The game is a defining point in the series, developed by Level-5 and released as the first game with the Dragon Quest moniker in the West. Battles are handled in a traditional turn-based fashion with menus and sub-menus. However, VIII also includes a tension system. With this, you can skip a player’s turn to make their next attack stronger.
It also features the monster-capturing system of Dragon Quest V, allowing you to catch and use monsters during battle. Although Dragon Quest VIII is the best in the series, it’s only available on PS2 and 3DS (there are Android and iOS ports, though they’re not very good). If you’re on a modern console, Dragon Quest XI, the most recent entry in the series, is a close second to VIII.
Release Date: August 27, 1994
Platforms: SNES, Wii, Nintendo 3DS
Earthbound is the second in a series of three Mother games, the first and last of which were exclusively released in Japan. In the game, you play as Ness, a young boy living in Eagleland. After investigating a meteorite crash, Ness and his neighbor, Pokey, discover that aliens, known as Giygas, have turned their bright town into something far more sinister.
Throughout your adventure, you’ll recruit other party members as you collect melodies from eight Sanctuaries, each of which helps you fight the alien threat. Although the general plot is generic, Earthbound is anything but a standard JRPG.
Games like Final Fantasy focus heavily on the apocalyptic nature of the story, while a series like Pokémon is much more light-hearted. Earthbound manages to do both, with the overall positive atmosphere juxtaposing the dark subject matter of the story. Furthermore, Earthbound pokes fun at many of the tropes of the JRPG genre, much in the same way as Undertale.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Release Date: July 26, 2019
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the latest in the long-running strategy RPG series, and although it has some fierce competition in the form of Awakening and Path of Radiance, Three Houses feels like the most definitive Fire Emblem experience to date.
Unlike previous titles, which focus almost exclusively on battles, Three Houses mixes in a life sim with the strategic gameplay. In it, you’ll have to choose between one of three houses, each of which has its own recruitable characters and story.
You play as a professor, and outside of battle, you’ll spend your time training students, building relationships, purchasing items, and recruiting new students. Like Persona, the bonds you form outside of battle will impact your performance in action, bringing a new level of depth to the series. For most people, Three Houses is the best Fire Emblem game, though Path of Radiance is a great choice for those looking for a purer experience.
Release Date: September 15, 2016
Platforms: PS3, PS4
Choosing a favorite Persona game is like picking your favorite kid. Sure, there’s one you definitely prefer over the others, but they’re all pretty great when you get down to it. For us, it’s the latest from Atlus: Persona 5. In it, you play as a silent protagonist codenamed Joker, who, along with a group of friends, travels into corrupt hearts to fix them.
Sure, it’s a cheesy setup, but one that works wonders in the context of Persona 5. If you’ve never played a Persona game, they’re half JRPG, half life sim. You spend most of your time going day by day as you struggle through high school classes, meet new friends, read books, and forge relationships.
Throughout the story, however, various events will crop up which ask the Phantom Thieves — you and your group of friends — to travel into the hearts of those who are corrupted. These dungeon-like areas are where Persona feels like a traditional JRPG, but one oozing with interesting character concepts and style.
Release Date: June 10, 2010
Platforms: Wii, Nintendo 3DS
The Wii isn’t known for its lineup of JRPGs outside of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn and a slew of re-releases for the Virtual Console. Xenoblade Chronicles continues the series of Xeno titles on the PlayStation and PS2, which started with 1998’s Xenogears before moving onto the Xenosaga trilogy on the PS2.
Mechanically, Xenoblade Chronicles combines elements of various other JRPGs. The battle system happens in real-time, though players can input special attacks known as Arts, not to be confused with the Tales’ series Artes. Although the game can initially feel like you’re just watching a slideshow of attack animations, it grows into something far more nuanced as the game progresses and enemies get more difficult.
Unfortunately, Xenoblade Chronicles looks like a mess, both on the Wii and 3DS. The capabilities of those platforms don’t let the game stretch its legs enough, leading to muddy textures and little anti-aliasing. Thankfully, the game is being remade for Nintendo Switch and is set to release this year.
Tales of Berseria
Release Date: January 24, 2017
Platforms: PS3, PS4, Windows
Tales of Vesperia is often hailed as the best Tales game ever released, but we’re giving a nod to Berseria here. In it, you play as Velvet, a small-town girl who’s caring for her little brother, Laphicet. We’re going to spoil the triggering event in the story here, so if you want to go in fresh, just go pick up the game.
Velvet’s brother-in-law, Artorious, is an exorcist who can kill Daemons, and he sacrifices Laphicet as part of the Advent ritual. Artorious then goes after Velvet, but she’s overcome by Daemons who possess her arm. With her hellish new arm, Velvet spends three years in prison, where she absorbs Daemons before being freed by someone formerly associated with Artorious.
That’s just the first couple of hours of Tales of Berseria. Featuring one of the best stories in the series and the same Arte-based combat system, Berseria combines all of the best elements of previous titles under one roof. It actually takes place in the same universe as Tales of Vesperia, just 1,000 years earlier.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Release Date: November 17, 2011
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PS3, PS4, Xbox One, Windows
Perhaps the most defining series for Level-5, which also developed Dragon Quest VIII, is Ni No Kuni. The first entry that shipped to the West, Wrath of the White Witch, is easily the best of the series. Gameplay-wise, Wrath of the White Witch is your standard JRPG, with an open overworld, various quests, and plenty of dungeons.
It comes into its own in terms of visuals and narrative. In it, you play as Oliver. After a tragic accident involving his mother, Oliver’s doll comes to life in the form of a fairy known as Drippy. Drippy tells him that there’s another world that he’s from, with an evil wizard who’s taken control.
Wrath of the White Witch is very much a fairy tale, and the visuals mirror that. Japan’s own Studio Ghibli famously produced the animated sequences in the game, as well as set the tone for the overall world design and character models. Although there are previous Ni No Kuni games, Wrath of the White Witch is the first fully realized one, able to take advantage of console hardware instead of that of mobile devices.
Secret of Mana
Release Date: August 6, 1993
Platforms: SNES, iOS, Android, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation Vita, PS4, Windows
The Mana series, also known as Seiken Densetsu in Japan, has been seeing a renaissance as of late, with the recreation of Secret of Mana, the Collection of Mana on Nintendo Switch, and the upcoming remake of Trials of Mana. We’re going back to the West’s first introduction to Seiken Densetsu, however, with the 16-bit version of Secret of Mana.
Originally released for the SNES in 1993, Secret of Mana looks like your run-of-the-mill 16-bit JRPG. However, unlike its contemporaries, battles happen in real-time. Secrets of Mana feels much more action-oriented than the JRPGs released at the time. That said, it still has many of the mechanics that define the genre, including a leveling system and magic.
Secret of Mana sits at an interesting place in JRPG history, too. Many of the systems in the game were developed for Final Fantasy IV before being reworked into a project codenamed Chrono Trigger. After building upon those mechanics, the final release became Secret of Mana, though many of the aspects of the Chrono Trigger project were later reworked into the Chrono Trigger game.
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