Top 5 RPGs from the Land of the Rising Sun
Japanese game developers have left an indelible mark on our culture in a variety of ways, and this article is a tribute to one of my favorite genre’s: Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs). These games have inspired us, taken us on adventures to strange, exotic worlds, and introduced us to a range of characters that we’ve come to cherish (and sometimes dislike).
Some of the characteristics of a JRPG include a silent protagonist, great music, fun combat, and above all, compelling stories. Here’s a list of what I considered to be the top five JRPGs and the reasons why - with plenty of spoilers! I limited myself to one game per franchise. And while the order is up for debate, what they represent - the creativity and sense of innovation from the developers - is, I think, unquestionable.
5. Suikoden II (PS1, PSP):
Suikoden 2 was a hybrid RPG that also incorporated tactical strategy, mixing political intrigue with fantastic elements like the Runes of Magic. While other titles had attempted this, none had done it with as much finesse and style. Inspired in part by Chinese literary classics like Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, there were 108 eight members in total to gather, and the game was huge.
It started off simple enough, with two friends caught in an ambush that wiped out their youth bridge. But, it took on epic proportions, as our protagonist went from trainee to leader of the whole state. This progression was done very naturally, and one of the primary themes was relationships. There was the main character and his best friend Jowy, who took divergent paths driven by their own ambitions. The protagonist’s older sister, Nanami, had a doting attitude, but her strength and charm balanced the darker moments, culminating with her tragic death, which still shakes me.
The war between the city-state Jowston and Highland, then Master Genkaku and Han, and finally the strategists Apple and Shu, all reverberate throughout their history. There’s subtlety and back-stories to everything and everyone, and depending on which characters are in your party during certain events, you’ll experience different interactions.
Animation was smooth, backgrounds beautiful, and catchy music became poignant in proper moments. Although turn-based combat was fun, with villains that varied from the main antagonist, Prince Lucas Blight, to a vampire called Necron, full-scale battles and one-on-one confrontations added to the potpourri of fighting sequences, and you could spend hours recruiting different members to upgrade sections of your castle. The game really made you feel like a leader growing a nation.
4. Chrono Trigger (SNES, PS1, DS):
If a game ever got me thinking about the implications of time, this was it. It was the result of the masterminds behind Final Fantasy (Hironobu Sagakuchi), Dragon Quest (Yuji Horii), and Dragon Ball (Akira Toriyama), Chrono Trigger was one of my absolute favorite games growing up. An interesting cast of characters from all different eras were connected by their personal tragedies, like Robo being alienated from his fellow machines, or Magus warped by anger and time in his desire to avenge his sister, Schala.
This was also one of the first somewhat non-linear games, with multiple endings and a whole lot of optional sidequests. On top of that, the connections between the different time periods was like a puzzle waiting to be unraveled - what you did in the past affected the future, and seeing the causality, the direct changes as a result of your actions, was an integral part of the game.
Adding to the layers was the interaction between all the characters that gave glimpses of their personalities, such as Lucca working all night to fix Robo, or seeing Frog angrily confront Magus. Each time, ‘epoch’ was a vibrant world, and I especially liked the Kingdom of Zeal, the advanced sky city completely unexpected in the distant past.
In terms of the game mechanics, random battles were eliminated, and you could see your enemies before a fight. Double and triple techs were awesome ways of showing teamwork and chemistry, and the art was gorgeous with so many different time periods integrated to look like they were part of the same world.
Yasunori Mitsuda’s soundtrack was riveting and melodic (a soundtrack I listen to regularly). The whole quest started with an odd twist on the cliché ‘save the princess’ goal and turned into a ‘save the world from mass destruction in the future,’ leading to a pivotal sequence that explained the title, ‘Chrono Trigger’. Through it all, the characters transcended both time and adversity through their heroism, courage, and friendship.
3. Phantasy Star 2 (Genesis):
Phantasy Star 2 was a game that hearkened to the days when science fiction was a way to comment on human nature. Themes likes technology vs. nature came to the forefront when the utopian society of Mota started to fall apart. Why were monsters being created at the Biosystems lab? What were Agent Rolf’s dreams supposed to represent? And who created Mother Brain? The answer to the latter led to a chilling climax at the end of the game. Rolf and party entered a chamber filled with eerie humans who revealed they were the creators. They’d come to control the Algo Star System after humans had destroyed themselves and made Earth uninhabitable. In perhaps the best ending of the 16-bit era of games, the group faces off against the humans and no resolution is given, leaving us only with an image of the planet Dezo and the words, “I wonder what the people will see in the final days?”
The game itself was brutally difficult, and I remember spending weeks level-grinding my characters. But, a cool battle layout on a blue, 3D grid along with some great animations made combat more visceral than any RPG before it. Each weapon was distinctive, and your party members had their areas of expertise. I particularly liked the futuristic feel of the game; from the dungeons and cities to the costumes the townspeople wore, a neo-modern sensibility was captured really well.
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He has been working in film and games for over a decade. On his off time, he likes to travel the world. His short story collection, Watering Heaven, was just published by Signal 8 Press.
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