Over the years, role-playing games have significantly varied in their content and style. When it comes to JRPGs specifically, fans are split on the true definition of what makes a JRPG stand apart from western RPGs. Some say JRPG is a unique genre created by the combination of nostalgic graphics and linear storytelling. Others think JRPGs have a specific art style: very Japanese and anime. And still, other fans believe that any RPG made in Japan can be considered a JRPG. Regardless of semantic squabbles, most gamers can agree on which JRPGs are the most classic, the most engaging, and the most memorable. Here are 10 of the best of all time, in no particular order.
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
Dragon Quest XI has the qualities of a traditional RPG with its turn-based combat, party system, and world exploration. However, the random encounters were replaced with enemies visible in the overworld. The game begins with a monster invasion in the kingdom of Dundrasil. The protagonist, called the Hero or the Luminary, is just an infant at the time and is separated from his family while escaping. He ends up in a town called Cobblestone with a new family, and so begins his quest to discover his true identity. Fans of the Dragon Quest series often deem it the best game in the series, and Kotaku‘s Tim Rogers even claimed it was one of the best games of all time. However, its MIDI-synthesized soundtrack was not received so well, causing fans to create an orchestrated mod for the Windows version of the game. In 2018, Dragon Quest XI won Famitsu‘s Game of the Year as well as the Excellence Prize.
Released in 2010 on the Nintendo DS, Radiant Historia was well-received for its combat, characterization, and story-writing. In this game, you play as the “Crimson Warrior” Stocke, along with six other characters traveling through Vainqueur, a land that has been torn apart through battle and a disease known as the Sand Plague. The story jumps between various timelines, a feature that was praised, though the branching paths were criticized. An expanded remake, titled Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology, was released on the Nintendo 3DS in 2017. The game was reviewed highly positively: both the original game and its remake received a score of 8/10 from GameSpot and a rating of 9/10 from the Nintendo World Report.
EarthBound, released on the SNES in 1994 in Japan as Mother 2, follows Ness and friends as they travel across Eagleland, investigating a meteorite crash and the disappearance of Ness’s neighbor Picky. They venture through various cities and dungeons, battling enemies and gaining experience to level up and grow stronger. Like Dragon Quest XI, there are no random encounters, but this is the only thing that sets EarthBound apart from classic JRPGs. The game was originally a flop in the US due to the game’s unusual humor and Nintendo’s strange marketing tactics: its “this game stinks” campaign involved the usage of foul-smelling scratch and sniff advertisement. As a result, the game was not released in Europe. However, years after its release, the game has been praised for its originality and even the unusual humor.
The game’s eccentric charm has sparked an outcry for an international release of its sequel, Mother 3, which was released in 2006 but never saw the light of day outside of Japan.
Chrono Trigger saw its release in 1995 on the SNES, as with EarthBound. Also, similarly to EarthBound, Chrono Trigger features the presence of enemies in the overworld rather than random encounters. The game is set in a world similar to Earth throughout various eras such as the Middle Ages and a post-apocalyptic future. The plot involves time travel: you play as Crono and five other characters (including an anthropomorphic frog) as well as an optional role, all of whom travel through time to restore history. Chrono Trigger gathered many good ratings. Famitsu initially gave it a score of 8/10 but changed it to 9/10 in their Reader Cross Review. Nintendo PowerNintendo Power compared its graphics and gameplay to other classic JRPGs such as the Final Fantasy series and the Secret of Mana. Its re-release on Playstation consoles were received favorably as well.
The self-titled first game in this series came out on the Nintendo Wii in Japan in 2010, with a release in the PAL region in 2011 and an American release in 2012. This first game takes place on the frozen bodies of two titans called Bionis and Mechonis. The two races living on these titans, a humanoid race called Homs and the robotic Mechons, are at constant war, and a sword known as the Monado is said to be the key to ending their conflict. After discovering he can wield it, the protagonist, Shulk, sets out to avenge his colony after the Mechons attack. Though the genre of action RPG is a subgenre, Xenoblade Chronicles still has the usual features: a party of friends joins Shulk, an open world to navigate, quests to complete, and enemies to fight. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with the game receiving near-perfect scores from publications like IGN and Game Informer. The 3DS port was criticized for downgraded graphics but still received favorable reviews.
Octopath Traveler came out on the Nintendo Switch in July 2018, and only a month later, it became one of the best-selling Switch games, selling over a million copies. The same year, it won the Nintendo Game of the Year at the Golden Joystick Awards. It was praised for its battle system and “HD-2D” graphics, though its storytelling was criticized. This story consists of eight characters on their journeys in the land of Orsterra, seemingly unrelated but coming together in unexpected ways. All in all, Octopath Traveler received high ratings across gaming publications.
Fire Emblem Awakening
The first Fire Emblem game to come to the 3DS, Fire Emblem Awakening, follows the same tactical RPG formula set up throughout the series, using war tactics to control each unit and make every move count. The game is set 2000 years after the story of the original Fire Emblem and Fire Emblem Gaiden, centering around the Ylissean prince Chrom and his band of “Shepherds,” his army as they fight back foreign invasions and the impending awakening of the fell dragon, Grima. With very positive ratings, such as a perfect 10/10 from Eurogamer, Fire Emblem Awakening has been praised as a game that hardcore fans and newcomers alike can appreciate.
Persona 5 is the sixth game in the Persona series, which in turn is part of the Shin Megami Tensei series. In this game, the protagonist Joker is sent to Shujin Academy after being framed for an assault. There he meets other students, and the group form together as the Phantom Thieves of Hearts after developing powers which they use only for good in the mystical Metaverse. The game received very positive reviews, with criticism focused on how the story handled LGBT issues: there is a scene which treats two gay male characters as lecherous predators. The expanded version, Persona 5 Royal, was also criticized for its shortage of new content.
The first in its series, the story of Kingdom Hearts, started in 2002 on the PS2. It is well-loved for its combination of anime-style characters (including characters from the Final Fantasy series) with cartoony Disney characters, something which allowed it to win “Best Crossover Since Capcom vs. SNK” in GameSpot‘s Best and Worst of the Year awards in 2002. Another action RPG, the game still has the classic party system, various Disney-themed world to explore, and enemies to cut down, most of whom spawn unexpectedly. Kingdom Hearts begins with Sora and his friends Kairi and Riku, as they set sail from their island only to be attacked by little demons called Heartless. The three are separated. After receiving the Keyblade, Sora embarks on a journey to restore peace to each world and reunite with his friends.
Kingdom Hearts received praise for its art style, voice acting, and the mix of action-adventure and role-playing. Criticism of the game comes from confusing terms and plot points.
Final Fantasy VII
What JRPG list is complete without the fan-favorite of the Final Fantasy series? The game has all the popular features of a JRPG: party, leveling, exploration, and random encounters. The Final Fantasy series has no chronological order, and in Final Fantasy VII controls Cloud, an antisocial mercenary, as he travels with a colorful cast of characters. Cloud has with him his childhood friend Tifa Lockhart, a martial artist, and Yuffie Kisaragi, a brave ninja. Together, they must work to stop the Shinra Electric Power Company from draining the planet’s Lifestream energy. It has been hailed as one of the greatest games ever made, with scores of 8/10 and higher from most game publications, and a 300+/300 from GameFan. Though the PlayStation graphics look clunky today, the game remains a classic for its incredible storytelling, and it rightfully earned its HD remake.