IMPORTANT: The final results will be tallied up on the 22nd March! Get your favourite JRPG into us by then to be counted!
Hey, does anyone remember 2020? Funny old year, not much happened…
Well, there was that massive thing, that world-changing event that shook up the established order of the universe itself.
I speak, of course, of the Great JRPG Character Face-Off!
Working alongside the ever talented and excellent Pix1001 of Shoot the Rookie, we reached out to you, the community at large, to work out who the best character from the JRPG genre at large truly was, and the results were quite earth-shattering!
Well anyway, Pix and I have decided to team up once again, only this time we’re going even bigger, we’re asking for everyone’s top five JRPG games of all time! Yes, JRPGs, Japanese Role-Playing Games. I’m talking Final Fantasy (before it went all onliney), Tales of, Persona, all that good stuff from the far east, the land of the rising sun, the home of sushi, samurai and other cool things beginning with the lette
Now, I will admit that I haven’t played many JRPGs recently and will be drawing from the classics that will always have a place in my cold, dead heart. Pix, however, is an anime and JRPG connoisseur, so between us, we should have some pretty epic picks. The most exciting choices will, however, come from you, our readers, as the final list will be chosen from your submissions, so get them to us via the comments here or at Shoot the Rookie, where Pix will list her top five or hit us up on Twitter @winstolf and @pix1001.
With that said, let me tell you about my top five…
5. Persona 5
While Atlus’ twisty, frankly messed-up 2015 release featured my favourite ever JRPG character (Morgana for life!), it doesn’t quite beat out a few others, four to be exact.
That said, Persona 5 is a really, really good JRPG that absolutely deserves your attention. In fact, I reviewed it for The Pixels here. The game features new-kid-in-town Joker who, after being sucked into a strange alternative universe shaped by people’s innermost psyches, becomes something of a vigilante hero.
Joker, and his growing crew of school friends, follow the guidance of strange cat/otherwordly creature Morgana to become the Phantom Thieves, jumping into the Metaverse to change the hearts of bad people and make the world a better place.
The plot is heavy, complex and gets pretty wild toward the end. It’s also long as heck, with hours and hours of compelling content (and some overly long dungeons in places, hello cruise ship). The gameplay pattern keeps things moving along and balances the real-world drama and Metaverse action nicely, the combat is delightfully traditional JRPG fare with a few twists and the soundtrack, oh man that soundtrack is something else! It also has a strong anime visual style which is very easy on the eye.
For goodness sake people, check this beast out, the cat can turn into a camper van!
4. Chrono Trigger
Many would say that the Super Nintendo, the SNES, the Super Famicom even, is the premier console for JRPGs (a fact I will refute shortly) and hey, it has at least something of a claim to that throne, let’s say second in line at least.
One game that thrusts it into this sphere is Final Fantasy VI, but hey I’m not going to talk about that one here. Nope, I’m going to talk about 1995’s Squaresoft classic Chrono Trigger, the time-hopping epic featuring a mute redhead kid and his band of really interesting friends gathered from across time.
I first played this JRPG on an emulator when I was in high school, the only real way to play it in the UK in 2000 if you ask me. Heck, I don’t even think it saw release in the UK, just Japan and the USA. Anyway, I spotted this one being a Squaresoft title and had already had a lot of fun with their 32bit entries, so why not check out the earlier stuff, right?
Well, it was well worth it because Chrono Trigger is just as cool as everybody on the internet says. The gameplay is peak golden age Square, rocking crisp 16bit visuals and making the most of the Super Nintendo sound chip to deliver some truly legendary musical tracks. The presentation is all-around top drawer and is backed up by an amazing cast of characters, all players in an adventure across the ages. The cast includes a cavewoman, a robot, an inventor, a knight cursed to be a frog and a sinister sorcerer with a scythe – if that sounds wild then that’s because it is, and yet the guys behind it all somehow make it work!
I don’t want to say anything more for fear of spoiling anything, but you need to check out this one if you haven’t already.
3. Final Fantasy VIII
Now, let us discuss a far more divisive title, 1999’s Final Fantasy VIII, developed by Squaresoft and released on the PlayStation, aka the best console of all time (see, told you that would come back!)
The eighth instalment in what is, probably, the most famous franchise in the genre really divided fans at the time and continues to do so to this very day. A big part of this is that VIII is a bit of a departure from the game that came before it, eschewing a lot of established mechanics and themes and replacing them with something a little more… controversial.
The combat system was, for example, massively overhauled. Characters no longer rely on an MP (that’s magic points, for the uninitiated) pool, but instead had to draw a stockpile of spells from baddies during battle, or by interacting with draw points out in the field.
And it didn’t end there. Previous entries in the series had featured summon spells, in which characters call upon a mighty beast to drop a ton of damage on the bad guys. VIII made summons, or Guardian Forces (or even GF) equipable to each character, and from this base, you could set up what spells they have and even use the stockpiled magic to boost stats. An interesting system, and one that could be gamed with very little effort. Wily players could make a tough, incredibly hard-hitting team with little effort which could be pretty damned game-breaking difficulty wise.
But I’m still willing to overlook the changes and the rather glaringly easy way to exploit stats, and I shall tell you why in three words: story, soundtrack, visuals.
I know, I know, “Squall is such a boring emo!” right? How can the main character be such a drag? Well, I never really minded the main man of Final Fantasy VIII. He’s a man of few words and has a deep fear of losing the people he loves, to the point where he does his level best to keep everyone well away from him so he has nobody to love in the first place. And while he doesn’t say that much out loud, he has some brilliant internal monologue going on, which is especially brilliant during the game’s dream sequences, where you play as an entirely different trio of characters (albeit built off the main party’s stats), Laguna, Kiros and Ward. Sure, the overall big bad and her motives are a bit too vaguely explained, and there’s that whole “Squall is dead” theory that gets trotted around, but overall it’s a blinder.
Wow, I’ve gone on quite a bit defending this one, haven’t I? I’ll wrap it up here by saying it looks gorgeous for a PlayStation game and Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack is one of his finest, I’ll even lin my favourite piece of Final Fantasy music ever to prove it! Oh, and it also has Man With the Machine Gun. Case closed!
Final Fantasy IX
Oh look, it’s another PlayStation Final Fantasy game, weird eh? My second favourite JRPG of all time is Squaresoft’s 2000 venture, a nod to the entries of old with airships, magic, intrigue and… well… fantasy.
IX returns to the more traditional hallmarks of the series in more than just themes too. MP has returned, as have accessories and armour types, and summon spells have returned to their classic role as powerful attack and support spells. We also see the return of some positively ancient themes such as the pointy-hatted black mages and a baddie called Garland.
Graphically, IX pushes that PlayStation hardware even harder than the previous game did, with some truly stunning locations and character models. Uematsu also once again knocks the soundtrack out of the park, with some amazing musical pieces such as You’re Not Alone.
One of my favourite things about this game, however, is how surprisingly dark it all gets, with themes that sit entirely at odds with the often cutesy visuals and characters. Thematically, Final Fantasy IX is just as dark as its sixth outing, and that is saying something!
The story follows Zidane, an irritatingly upbeat and womanizing member of the theatre/thief outfit Tantalus. The game begins with him taking part in a daring plot to kidnap the princess of the kingdom of Alexandria, Garnet, a plan made all the easier by the girl actually wanting to be kidnapped anyway. Her mother, the distractingly blue Queen Brahne, has had a bit of a personality drift and has begun somewhat uncharitably toward Alexandria’s neighbouring kingdoms, and you can bet your butt that Zidane, Garnet and the friends they make along the way will be drawn into this conspiracy before long, as tensions break out into full-scale war and the real villains make themselves known.
While VIII‘s new systems and mechanics weren’t as bad as many make out, it is nice to return to gameplay a little more traditional. Welcome back ATB bars, MP and accessories is what I say, and the skill learning system IX utilises is actually quite nuanced, with spells and abilities, active and passive, all being learned from equipping different kinds of weapons and armour. It’s clever stuff and makes character abilities quite customisable, definitely one of the game’s strong points.
This game also has the best character (as I voted for back in 2020), Freya! Oh, did you think I’d say, Vivi? Naaaah! Oh, and Zidane is a total pain in the ass, I’m afraid. Little pervert he is.
Final Fantasy VII
Am I getting predictable in my old age, going for the big one and agreeing with that nebulous evil known as “the internet”? I must be because after much soul searching I have nominated Squaresofts’ 1997 magnum opus as my number one, Final Fantasy VII.
What can I say about this game that hasn’t been repeated a million times already? Well, let me tell you my more personal thoughts on it, as opposed to regurgitating what has come before… and I won’t be talking about that bloody over-stuffed remake either! Is VII‘s plot perfect? Not at all. Is it still engaging and memorable, heck yes! I never think of this games’ plot as a whole, but instead remember it as a series of excellent stretches held together by more mediocre elements. That isn’t to say it isn’t a good story, just that it’s not as almighty as many think it is (in my opinion, anyway).
Visually, Final Fantasy VII does look a bit dated in 2022. Well, okay, very dated. Character models in the field look like they’re made of KNEX or something and the game has a limited number of NPC sprites, so you’ll get used to seeing the same randos over and over again. Thankfully the backgrounds fare much better, having a really high level of detail that really draws you into the story. Places like Cosmo Canyon and parts of Midgar still look amazing to this day, a rare feat for a 25-year-old title. Combat graphics also fare well, character models look much better in this mode and some of the spell effects are really cool.
While VII‘s score was generated using the PlayStations’ internal sound chip, to save on disc space, the music is still no less amazing. Yep, it’s Uematsu again and this one might just be his best. With tracks like the Shinra theme, that beasty boss battle music and, of course, the ever-emotional theme of Aeris, there really is a lot to be enjoyed here. Oh, and that JENOVA boss battle music? That’s some damned good stuff!
I think one of the biggest strengths of Final Fantasy VII is its cast. Protagonist Cloud starts off a little chilly (though nowhere near as surly as his Remake overhaul) but really warms up as the game goes on (especially after his big story moment in the final third). Characters like Barret and Cid add a particular brand of foul-mouthed charm, Red XIII is a wise, talking lion/wolf thing and hey, there’s Cait Sith too, who is literally a cat riding a giant stuffed moogle. I mean, what the heck?
Then there’s that infamous love triangle of Cloud and the two female leads (for disc 1 at least) Tifa and Aeris. There’s been a huge amount of love from fans of the remake when it comes to these two characters, but once again I dare to posit that their OG forms are the best. Tifa is brave, strong and never lets Cloud far from her sight (and for good reason) and Aeris is fun, bubbly and surprisingly tragic (again, especially at the end of disc 1!) Together they round out an awesome cast. And no, I won’t choose a favourite.
Also Sephiroth… He’s a bit naff, isn’t he?
Well. That’s enough rabble-rousing/opinion sharing from me! What are YOUR top 5 JRPGs of all time? Why not let me know in the comments, or over in Pixs’ comments section? Or, hey, @winstolf or @shoottherookie on the Twitter?
Looking forward to hearing back from you lovely lot!