Marty Poole loves video games. When it comes to JRPGs, they are particularly excited to share all of their knowledge.
Whether your first taste of JRPGs was during its near infancy with Dragon Warrior, the phenomenon that was Pokémon in the '90s, or its revival in the West with most recent entries in the Persona franchise, there is no denying the impact JRPGs have had on many gamers and its influence on the industry as a whole.
1. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
It took a while for the Legend of Heroes series to find its footing. What started out as quite the run-of-the-mill series in the late '80s to mid-'90s eventually blossomed into this gem in the early 2000s in Japan and making its way worldwide in 2011.
The story starts off simple with the two main protagonists, Estelle and Joshua, as they journey to become Bracers, but soon turns into a game with some of the best world building, political intrigue, and twists I have ever come across in a video game. With an amount of dialogue to fill the blank pages of a book, this means each and every NPC in this game adds something to the world you are in, nobody is a throwaway.
While Nihon Falcom has been around for nearly four decades and is most known for their Ys series, this is their magnum opus.
2. Xenoblade Chronicles
Tetsuya Takahashi has always been known for his ambition. This has in the past been a double-edged sword. While Xenogears on the PS1 is considered a classic and even Xenosaga having its fair share of fans, both games had to be chopped down in size due to their scope, making them feel rushed and incomplete.
Takahashi learned from his mistakes and we eventually got Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii in 2012. The characters in the game live on the back of a giant mechonis (a Machine God), and you really feel it! Some of the locations in this game, even on the Wii's limited hardware, are absolutely breathtaking. If the look of the game wasn't enough to draw you in, it's accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack by the one and only Yasunori Mitsuda.
The accessibility of Xenoblade Chronicles helped make the Xeno franchise into becoming a flagship RPG series for Nintendo.
3. Pokémon Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald
As a '90s child wearing his nostalgia goggles, I'm a genwunner. But I don't often find myself returning to Pokémon Blue/Red/Yellow like I do the Gen 3 games. Oh, you think there is too much water? French horns are too loud? Pfft, give me more of both!
The jump from the Game Boy Color to the Game Boy Advance was enough to draw in the 12-year-old me, but everything else about Hoenn kept me there. Everything from the double battles, the weather effects, the godly Battle Frontier, and the accomplishment I felt when I finally caught that Feebas and evolved it into Milotic—all of which still holds up so well over a decade later.
Admittedly, like many others, I didn't play this game around the time it was released. This is a real shame because now what is viewed as one of the best games on the SNES had more of a cult following in the '90s. We even felt this impact with Mother 3, which never got an official release outside of Japan.
The best way to describe Earthbound is that it's The Goonies of JRPGs, though the stakes are a bit higher. Instead of a group of children looking for treasure, they are out to stop an alien invasion. What sets Earthbound and Mother 3 before it apart from other JRPGs of its time is the setting. There is no medieval setting with dragons, knights, and typical magic; instead it's replaced with shopping malls, burger joints, feral dogs, and children wielding baseball bats as weapons.
While the turn-based combat may not be innovative and even a little dated, and even though this game still may not be for everyone, it's still a unique experience and has gone on to influence developers, most notably Toby Fox.
5. Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy has had plenty of spin-off games, which have been hit or miss, but Final Fantasy Tactics was a knock out of the park.
Coming from the creator of Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics is a tactical role-playing game with a politics-heavy plot. The star of the show isn't a single character, but Ivalice itself. This is the most mature plot out of any Final Fantasy. We are talking all-out war, treachery, and murders to reclaim the throne.
It's a spin-off, but don't let that fool you, Tactics rivals most of the mainline Final Fantasy games in quality so much that fans are still calling for a true sequel from Yasumi Matsuno.
6. Parasite Eve
Ever wonder what Resident Evil would look like if Squaresoft got their hands on it? That's Parasite Eve.
There are a lot of typical JRPG games, even from Squaresoft/Enix, I could have chosen over this game, but they don't provide the rare experience Parasite Eve does. If I want a typical turn-based RPG, I have an entire library to choose from—how many survival horror games with RPG elements that are genuinely scary and haunting out there? I bet you can count them on one hand.
It's a little sad that its sequel moved towards standard survival horror and dropped the RPG elements. Here's hoping for a remake, Square!
7. Golden Sun
Released early during the Game Boy Advance life cycle, we got one of the best games on the handheld with Golden Sun. I wouldn't say anything about the game is exactly groundbreaking, it has a standard role-playing style and light puzzle solving, but it does everything great and it was on the handheld. If you can make an RPG on a handheld that rivals the RPGs on consoles, that's a great feat. I feel this game is a bit forgotten now since the years are piling on, but it's one I continue to go back to.
8. Persona 4
With any popular series, you're going to get a divide and it's no different with the Persona fan base. Some enjoy the very dark nature of Persona 1 and 2, some enjoyed the "Emo Messiah" take of Persona 3, while others enjoyed the more upbeat vibe of Persona 4. I'm in the Persona 4 camp.
While I certainly enjoy 2 and 3 and what they brought to the table, Persona 4 was the first to pull itself away from the core Shin Megami Tensei games in terms of style and tone. Instead of the sad, dark, and dreadful tone of the previous Persona games, we got a more vibrant and colorful game with a Scooby-Doo-esque mystery and a heavier emphasis on slice-of-life. Adding to that, what Persona 3 started with its reformed turn-based system, Persona 4 refined it.
9. Final Fantasy IX
With an iconic series like Final Fantasy, how the heck are you supposed to choose a favorite? With debates all over the internet of which is the best, is it 4, 6, 7, 10...maybe 12? Well, it's actually quite easy for me, I'm going with 9 without a second thought.
Final Fantasy 9 is the final product of what every previous Final Fantasy game was striving to be—and, in a way, it's a celebration of all those games. On the surface, it looks very whimsical and lighthearted, but deeper down it addresses some incredibly serious and dark topics—such as mortality and fear. Often the heroes of the story are powerless to stop the destruction. They're forced to sit back and watch the genocide of the people. But the best thing about Final Fantasy 9 is that despite the heavy subject matter, it keeps its positive tone and sends a message that you need to look fear and death straight in its face and say "F*ck you! As long as I have my friends and I'm held in their memories, you can't beat me!" There is something very comforting in that.
10. Chrono Cross
I don't want anyone to get me wrong here, I get why Chrono Trigger is loved. I understand why it's considered not only the best JRPG, but maybe one of the greatest games ever made. A dream team of creators coming together, working themselves to the bone to create a masterpiece—how often does that happen? I even understand that going from a lighthearted adventure about time traveling teenagers out to stop a parasitic world destroyer to a game about some a father who was a panther who killed his son and split a dimension while your favorite characters have been thrown to the wayside would be jarring. But man, I totally understand what they were going for with Chrono Cross.
What many consider the negative of Cross, I consider to be its strength—I loved that Cross was contrasted to the tone of Trigger. It could have easily have been a copy and paste of Trigger, but instead it explores the ramifications of messing with time. What was created was this melancholic journey about a boy who should be dead set on an oceanic landscape accompanied by one of the greatest soundtracks in video game history and because of that Cross stands tall in Trigger's shadow.
© 2019 Marty Poole