You know, as much as I love being a gamer, sometimes I really hate my kind. This kind of self-loathing usually comes up when gamers – journalists, developers, and regular players alike – start arguing with each other. These arguments, from my experience, usually degenerate into hyperbole, ad hominem attacks, and general blind faith in whatever side they take. Take the old chestnut of games from different cultures, for instance – Western vs. Eastern games. Each culture has its own unique take on games, and both cultural approaches are valid, and both produce quality games. However, when they get compared to each other, it inevitably disintegrates to a “mine’s bigger than yours” type argument. Need I mention the fight between Japanese RPG and Western FPS? Rather than recount the individual arguments on either side, I’m here to settle the debate once and for all with a simple statement: any genre of game, by either Japanese or Western developer, can be good if the developer does it right. Sure, each culture has a different approach to development, and each aims to create something different, but to assert that the nationality (or even race like some crazed gamers assert) of the game’s origin is the sole determinant of a game’s quality is just…stupid.
I honestly don’t get why so many gamers on either side of the globe can’t get this through their thick skulls. It breaks my heart. I realize I can’t just say something like that and walk away expecting people to listen. So what will follow is a top 10 list of the best Japanese RPGs, shining examples of the JRPG genre done right. These games are proof that the JRPG genre is not, as a whole, stagnant and rigid, as these games in particular have addressed most, if not all, of the flaws that other articles points out as being supposedly endemic to the JRPG genre. The games on this list are just plain awesome, and the fact that they are JRPGs becomes irrelevant in the face of their quality. Not all Western gamers are closed-minded towards JRPGs; in terms of myself, I love the JRPGs that are “off-brand” so to speak, i.e. not part of the big name franchises such as Final Fantasy. So that is what this list will focus on, and thus will hopefully further my argument that you can find a great game in any genre on either side of the Pacific, if you look hard enough. On that note, let’s begin.
10. Parasite Eve– Well, okay, maybe Parasite Eve isn’t strictly a Japanese RPG, having been developed by a team including both Western and Japanese developers at a studio in Los Angeles, CA, but it most definitely has a Japanese flavor to it, with Hironobu Sakaguchi and Takashi Tokita as the lead designers, and the game itself based on a novel by Japanese author Hideaki Sena. In addition to having a compelling, original story based on present day New York City with NYPD homicide detectives as the main characters, Parasite Eve also possessed one of the most kick-ass battle systems of all time. Revolving around gunplay and the powers the main character possesses to enhance her abilities, the battle and weapon customization aspects of the game truly stood out as unique and made the game genuinely fun to play. In fact, upcoming tri-Ace JRPG Resonance of Fate looks to have a battle and weapon customization system that seems inspired by Parasite Eve, or at least that’s the impression I got from the videos I watched of Resonance of Fate. Coincidence? Most likely, but Parasite Eve is as good a source material to draw from as any.
9. Star Ocean– Whoever said JRPGs are too linear obviously hasn’t played any Star Ocean games. Although each game has its own overall plot arc that’s not affected too much by player decision (which actually can be said for almost any Grand Theft Auto game), the point where each game really branches out and provides freedom to alter the game’s direction is with the interactions amongst the player characters. There are opportunities in each game to alter the relationships each character has with the player’s main character, and each decision can alter the dynamic of the party and change what kind of ending you get (at least concerning the fate of each party member). It’s kind of like the precursor to the party loyalty system of Mass Effect 2. Also, the real-time battle system and the blend of sci-fi and fantasy influences to create a unique-looking universe don’t hurt either. Try Star Ocean: The Last Hope if you’re looking to try this series on the Xbox 360.
8. Fire Emblem– You want epic battles and deep strategy? The Fire Emblem series has them in spades. This series has a tactical battle system that almost perfectly embodies the “easy to learn, hard to master” mantra that most RPGs from both Japan and the West strive for, with a deceptively simple foundation that branches into a level of complexity that feels natural to progress into. Plus, the characters in each game are usually very well developed, and the fact that character death in each game is permanent – lose them in one battle, and you lose them for good – makes them all the more special. The Fire Emblem games are almost like playing a really good tactical board game.
7. Front Mission– Everything’s better with giant robots. Case in point – the Front Mission series’ focus on the battlefields of the future not only has a highly original story driven by international politics and the impacts of war, but the ability to customize your own squad of giant robots, called wanzers in the series, is always a plus. The plots of each Front Mission game are as gripping as any Tom Clancy novel, and the complexity of the wanzer customization system is compelling enough to satisfy any sci-fi or military hardware geek. Try Front Mission Evolved when it comes out this spring for the Xbox 360 if you want to get a taste of this amazing series.
6. Disgaea– There are some that accuse JRPGs of taking themselves too seriously. Well, the Disgaea series sure isn’t one of them, as these games have a wacky, zany sense of humor that, to be honest, more games need to have. And the humor is not just expressed through the storyline, but in the gameplay itself, where players are often challenged to do the most outlandish of tasks to produce the most outlandish of results. Need to power up a weapon? Fight on its surface to rid it of impurities. Need to alter a game rule such as the prices of shops, but the ruling council doesn’t agree with you? Fight them yourself. Then there’s the art, which is as likely to make you laugh as it has you gawk at its beauty. Oh, and don’t forget the Prinnies. Prinnies are awesome, dood.
5. Demon’s Souls– I hope this isn’t seen as a cheap shot against the Xbox 360, seeing as how Demon’s Souls is a recent PlayStation 3 exclusive, but to be honest, Demon’s Souls deserves to make this list, seeing as how it’s a near-perfect blend of both Eastern and Western RPG design sensibilities. Having a real-time combat system comparable to Elder Scrolls games Morrowind and Oblivion (except in third person this time), character customization abilities that can withstand comparison to any Western game with similar features, and online features that make me ask “why hasn’t anyone thought of these before?”, Demon’s Souls could almost be mistaken for a Western RPG. But it’s distinctly Japanese in its execution, providing a gripping single-player experience that the aforementioned online features enhance, rather than intrude upon. So, From Software, please port this game to the Xbox 360, okay? Thanks, bye.
4. Skies of Arcadia– Without getting into what killed the Dreamcast, let’s just acknowledge that over its short lifespan, the Dreamcast really did have some awesome games, one of them being Skies of Arcadia. Sorry, ninjas, but pirates win this round, as this pirate adventure RPG had unique elements to it that made it go above and beyond the regular JRPG. For one, you could control your own airship which you could customize to your heart’s content, and the ship battles are intense. Exploration was one of the central themes of the game, and with a huge, diverse world to search every nook and cranny of for treasure, every time you went somewhere, it felt like you accomplished something. Add to it a unique steampunk setting and you really had something special.
3. Earthbound/Mother– Unfortunately, only one game of this series has been released in the West so far, but what a phenomenal game it was. Maybe not so innovative in its combat or roleplaying systems, but in terms of sheer plot, character, and theme originality it was a godsend. In Earthbound you play a group of four everyday kids who have to save Earth from an alien invasion. And with what? Try not only psychic powers, but yo-yos, frying pans, and other everyday household items hefty enough to be used as weapons. In addition to aliens, you also get to fight possessed items (such as guitars) and people…including hippies. Yes, hippies. I’m sure a lot of you will rush to play this game now that I mentioned you get to fight hippies.
2. Final Fantasy Tactics– What do you get when you add the word “tactics” to “Final Fantasy?” An until-recently neglected series that has everything the mainline Final Fantasy series doesn’t – an awe-inspiring world setting (complete with continuity!), a battle system that really made you give a damn about your characters, squad customization abilities that allow you to create that perfect team of kick-ass soldiers to dominate the battlefield in your own way, and each game having a story that grabs you by your heartstrings and doesn’t let go. The Final Fantasy Tactics series is so good that it’s surprising that Square Enix isn’t giving it the full attention it deserves, considering how its games succeed where the mainstream Final Fantasy games fail. Well, at least there’s its spinoffs into other genres (such as tower defense with Crystal Defenders, on Xbox Live Arcade) to tell us that the setting is alive and well.
1. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona – If you think JRPG storylines are just for emo teens, then the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series will have you thinking again. Possessing mature, philosophical storylines that really push the artistic envelope, the Persona series has always been a high watermark for JRPGs with their deep, gripping plotlines and their three-dimensional, realistic characters. And this series’ unique innovations in gameplay will have you rethinking the notion that JRPGs are only limited to menus with the cliché “Fight” command. This series has it all, and then some, so if you want a game that truly will change the way you think about JRPGs – and games in general – look no further than Shin Megami Tensei.
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