Unfortunately, even I have nice things to say about JRPGs
PREVIOUSLY, ON NATESTALGIA (holy crap, that was like four months ago):
Fearless CRN newswriter Nate Ming decided to do the unthinkable, and write about stuff he likes and feels nostalgic about. The last time he braved this scorched wasteland, the column finished up a lengthy two-parter on his favorite anime openings and endings from before the year 2000. Now, starting fresh, Nate enters familiar--and deadly--ground...
A lot of you like JRPGs. Also, I like to make fun of you guys for liking JRPGs. I really can't help it.
If video games were sports, JRPGs would be badminton... which is still somehow an Olympic event.
But the truth is, I like JRPGs too... a lot! It's easy to make jokes about a genre when it has such easily-riled fans, but the truth of the matter is that JRPGs bring some of the most beloved characters, uniquely-implemented mechanics and unforgettable stories in video games. In no particular order, here are my five absolute favorite JRPGs--titles that I'll always come back to, year after year.
Chrono Trigger (1996)- SNES, PS1, DS
JRPGs are notorious for being hilariously convoluted. When this is the simplified version of your game series' story, you're doing something wrong.
But Chrono Trigger isn't like that at all, despite juggling multiple time settings and possibilities. Really, Chrono Trigger plays like a Final Fantasy game, but its overall style and feel are more like Dragon Quest. This works in the game's favor, starting out as a light, earnest adventure that quickly takes a turn for the apocalyptic.
You play as Crono--or whatever you want to name him--a young man whose simple day at the fair goes kind of bonkers.
Starting with an encounter with the princess, Crono then gets arrested, goes on trial, and then gets thrown into a massive adventure that bounces him from the past to the future and back again, all in an effort to stop a force of nature called Lavos from wiping out life on Earth.
I've always held to the belief that you can have the most basic, familiar story on Earth and you'll be fine... so long as your characters hold up. Chrono Trigger does go a little lighter with its story, with a lot of humor and light moments breaking up all the sturm and drang of Lavos' impending arrival, it's true. But the real strength of the game's story comes from its cast, and how you end up caring about them. You want to save the world, so everybody has a happy ending in whatever time period they come from.
While I prefer Chrono Trigger on the SNES, the better port is easily on the DS--no load times, improved art and added content make it an incredibly solid port.
Xenogears (1998)- PS1
Xenogears came at the best possible time for me: I was really getting into anime at the time, I was religiously following Neon Genesis Evangelion's VHS releases, and I was sixteen. This made all the angst and crazy religious content edgy and smart for me, when now I tend to roll my eyes so hard they fall out of my head.
But even after all this time, I still enjoy the game. I love how the hilariously racist-sounding Fei Fong Wong (I know, it's supposed to be a play on Wong Fei-hung) knows nothing about his past, how his whole life is in the small village of Lahan where he lives as a painter and occasionally runs errands for the village's reclusive doctor, Citan. Around the world, a war rages between the nations of Kislev and Aveh, with battles being fought in "massive humanoid weapons" known as Gears.
Of course, nothing gets a rollicking adventure started like the village of Lahan being burned to the ground, and most of Fei's friends getting killed in the process. Fei leaves his ruined village behind in search of answers about his past, leading him to the capitals of the warring nations, an ancient floating city, and to the heart of the sinister force behind the war. Then... it goes crazy.
Y'see, partway through development, the team ran out of money. The entire first disc of the game is cohesive--you play through all these events, and there's a decent split between on-foot and Gear battles. There's even an action-based minigame where you fight through a Gear tournament. But once you pop in that second disc, you get... a lot of text.
So after all that awesome story buildup, we get walls of texts as the main characters sit in a chair and tell us about what's been happening, occasionally letting us fight. Unfortunately, it's almost all Gear battles from here, leading up to an appropriately epic series of final bosses where you get a chance to use all of your characters.
Yeah, so you "kill God" at the end (it's really an alien being called Deus, which means "god" anyways). So there's an awkward sex scene. Sorta.
There's still something about Xenogears that keeps me coming back. A lot of it is really just that first disc, but the game still gets regular replays from me. It has this ineffable character that the follow-up Xenosaga games never really achieved.
Vagrant Story (2000)- PS1
True story--I didn't care much for Vagrant Story at first. I thought it was a thinly-veiled rip-off that was equal parts Metal Gear Solid and Diablo--hell, the game is about an elite operative infiltrating a fortress run by freaks, with the head freak trying to unleash a diabolical power on the world. You'll also spend a lot of time juggling loot, changing and upgrading your gear for the most optimal setup.
But giving it a second chance, it's quickly become a favorite, almost entirely for its WRPG flavor in a JRPG package. While the story is more or less an afterthought, the gameplay is deep and the mechanics are so impressive that I'm surprised Square has only partially revisited them once--in 2006's Final Fantasy XII.
See, plenty of RPGs give you a party, and only really deal in single attacks. While Vagrant Story is partially turn-based, it introduces a "Risk" system involving timed hits. When you see an exclamation point appear above your character's head, you can press the attack button again to try and get an extra strike. As you connect with these timed hits, your Risk increases--it becomes harder to do consecutive follow-up attacks, but you can do plenty of damage this way if you get good at it. RPGs are usually about taking you on a ride and telling you a tale--Vagrant Story is, above all else, fun to play.
It also helps that leading man Ashley Riot is a total badass. Like a certain chain-smoking, sometimes-eyepatch-wearing super spy, he's a man of action with his mind on the mission. His best line in the entire game:
As part of the Ivalice Alliance, Vagrant Story takes place in the same universe as Final Fantasy XII and the Final Fantasy Tactics games, but Ashley Riot and the gang have never been seen since. If Square ever does get around to visiting old properties and feels like making a roguelike, I really hope they give Vagrant Story another shot.
Shenmue (1999)- DC
In all honesty, I get sick and tired of turn-based battle systems and quasi-fantasy elements. Sometimes, I just want to punch somebody in the face over and over again, and Shenmue gave me exactly what I wanted in a video game story: a martial arts movie.
Ryo Hazuki lives a pretty normal life--he's liked and respected by his friends, there's a girl who kind of has a thing for him, and he likes arcade games and motorcycles. He's also been raised by his father, master of the family jujutsu style, so Ryo can definitely hold his own in a fight. One snowy day, a large black car drives up to his family's house, and a man dressed in elegant Chinese robes makes mysterious demands of his father, asking for a mirror. The man then asks Ryo's father if he remembers a man he killed in the past--and then brutally murders him in revenge.
Now, Ryo must search for answers. Why did the man kill Ryo's father? Who did Ryo's father kill? And what connection does this all have to a Chinese crime syndicate? Shenmue is a pretty methodically-paced game--you spend most of your time running around town, talking to different people and following clues. You don't fight often, but when you do, it's these horrible Steven Seagal-esque brawls where Ryo leaves a trail of broken arms and shattered jaws, whether it's through the game's cinematic QTE fights or the Virtua Fighter-inspired free battles.
Yeah, you really have this game to blame for QTEs, but it worked in this context. In a first for a slower game like this, you really had to stay on your toes on the off chance that something might come flying at you from off-screen, whether it was an errant soccer ball or a pair of jackass delinquents wanting to start something.
The second game, released on the Dreamcast in Japan and later coming to the Xbox in the US, improved on a lot of the mechanical aspects of Shenmue, with better controls and a more sensible way of leveling your moves than "stand in a parking lot and practice a thousand punches." The first game, however, feels more personal. This is Ryo's hometown, these are the people he knows and loves. The game encourages you to take your time and explore everything, talk to everybody, play every mini-game.
Shenmue in all its slow-paced weirdness is one of the reasons I still love the Dreamcast, and think it died way too soon. More games need to be like this.
Final Fantasy VI (1994)- SNES, PS1, GBA
Playing this game wasn't what sold me on JRPGs. See, I'd played them before--I even have my free copy of Dragon Warrior that I got with my Nintendo Power subscription. I always thought of RPGs as this little side genre--real games weren't about slogging through menus and reading dialogue, but were tests of guts, skill, and fortitude.
Reading about Final Fantasy VI (originally released in the US as Final Fantasy III) in the pages of Nintendo Power was what really sold me on JRPGs. Reading the coverage for the game, as well as the in-depth player guides talking about each individual character drew me in. It was absolutely fascinating, and like nothing I'd ever seen before in a game.
Actually playing the game blew my mind. Great characters, an excellent story with twists and developments you would never see coming, and a villain who you genuinely feared and hated made Final Fantasy VI one hell of a game. The mechanics were familiar--the Active Time Battle system returned, and each character brought unique abilities to the table, giving plenty of reason to cycle through the party and give everyone a chance to fight.
Among its Final Fantasy brethren, FF6 stands out because when the bad guy wins, holy crap does the bad guy win. Kefka breaks the world and rules over its shattered, bloodied ruin with an iron fist--for a while, you're not even sure if you can win or not. Kefka was much scarier than any villain I'd faced in a video game up to that point, and everyone afterwards, with few exceptions, fell flat. Thanks, Final Fantasy VI, for spoiling me on villains, forever and ever. I don't fear anybody in games any more.
HONORABLE MENTIONS, or "the rest of the list if this were a 'Top Ten'"
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (2004)- PS2
Valkyria Chronicles (2008)- PS3
Final Fantasy XII (2006)- PS2
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996)- SNES
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (2004)- GC
Whether Western or Japanese-made, RPGs are always going to be a cornerstone genre, and I could easily talk about any one of these games for days and days. In no particular order, what are your five favorite JRPGs?
Thanks to Shenmue Dojo for the images!