Latest news
Replay: Retro JRPGs and You
by Joey Núñez

Maybe it was all part of my hormone-induced post-puberty hysteria, but I remember a time when Japanese role playing games, or JRPGs, were the games to beat. If you owned a PS1 or PS2 back in the day – which seemingly every gamer did – each year you were bombarded by one JRPG after another. Fans of the genre, such as myself, poured hour after hour into these games, completing every sidequest, finding every weapon; inching ever closer to the elusive 100% completion. Back then, it seemed like JRPGs would always be the king of the gaming hill. Life was good.

So what the heck happened?

With the exception of Final Fantasy XIII, it has been years since I've been offered a decent JRPG for my PS3. The industry has undoubtedly changed, and so have the gamers who fuel it, but have we really reached the point where the classic JRPG has lost its magic? I refuse to consider Fallout and Mass Effect 'RPGs', regardless of their much-publicised role-playing elements. Where are my turn-based battles? Where are my goofy characters? Where is my melodrama?! Call me old-fashioned if you must, but if you’ve rubbed the soreness out of your eyes at 3:00 a.m. whilst trying to strategise just which party members to use and what battle tactic to implement, in order to get through that one final boss, then you know what I’m talking about.

With the barren JRPG landscape in which we currently find ourselves, it dawned on me that thousands of gamers out there might not have even had a chance to experience a decent JRPG. Really, the only viable solution for those out there wondering what is it about these 'Final Fantasy-type games' that makes old-school gamers go mental is to mine the classics. Well, consider me your guide.

If you’re a JRPG buff, you’ll find below a short but tasty list of some of my favourite games, that you might - but shouldn't have - missed out on back in the day. If you're a JRPG noob that can’t tell apart a potion from an elixir, do yourself a favour and check out one of these games ASAP.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

A silent, yet heroic, protagonist. A princess in peril. A buxom girl with the power of magic. A talking frog. If ever there were a JRPG that defines the genre, Dragon Quest VIII is it. Dragon Quest VIII was released in Japan in 2004, before making its way to North America in 2005, and finally to Europe and Australia in 2006, during which time the PlayStation 3 was looming overhead and the PS2 was slinking into the shadows. When all was said and done, Dragon Quest arguably ended up being one of the last hurrahs of the ageing PS2, a fitting swan-song for the JRPG on a console defined by the genre.

With DQVIII, Square Enix managed to take every classic element of the JRPG - random enemy encounters, a turn-based battle system, an open world map, item and equipment collection and the need to level grind – that reviewers had been criticising for years as tired and outdated, and make it all seem fresh again. For JRPG enthusiasts, DQVIII was like coming back home after a long holiday; nothing beats sleeping in your own bed, right?

Even now, more than six years after its original release, this game is easy to recommend, with a massive campaign - which can take you anywhere from 50 to 100 hours – and endearing cel-shaded visuals. If you want to find out whether or not JRPGs are for you, this is the game to try.

Shadow Hearts: Covenant

Shadow Hearts: Covenant is set during the First World War, and features a dark and tortured hero who has no need for wussy magic spells. Oh no, because he can turn into a demon. All types of demons, actually. If you’re wondering; yeah, he is badass. The cast of playable characters is certainly one of the most memorable and eclectic ever to be featured in a JRPG, including Gepetto, the doll maker, who makes use of his puppets to battle; Blanca, a white wolf; Joachim, a French vampire wrestler; and the one and only Princess Anastasia Romanov.

Oh, did I mention that Rasputin is actually one of the enemies in the game? And he’s not even the big baddie.

With two discs worth of engaging story, the most memorable aspect of the game is its battle system, featuring the Judgement Ring. Every action you take in battle is governed by the Judgement ring, a kind of dial. Whether or not your planned action succeeds depends on your ability to press the right button, just as the marker on the ring is crossing over the corresponding section of the ring. Each character's judgement can be customised and modified, making markers move faster or slower, and expanding the action areas. When you factor in combos and special moves, you end up with some pretty frantic battles, which require precise timing. Sound complicated? Well, it should, because it kind of is; just do yourself a favour and watch the video embedded above.

If what you see seems at all interesting, give this game a shot. You won’t be disappointed.

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter

The first JRPG I ever played was Final Fantasy VII on my PS1, and so began my obsession. The second JRPG I got my hands on was Breath of Fire III, and so was my obsession cemented. Breath of Fire has held a special place in my heart ever since.

Like the Final Fantasy series, the games in the Breath of Fire series have many elements in common, that carry over from one game to the next; primarily, the blue haired protagonist, Ryu, who had a bad habit of turning into a dragon. With Breath of Fire V, or Dragon Quarter, the fine folks at Capcom turned the series on its head. Forget the sprawling open worlds that the previous games were known for, filled with floating castles and magical forests; Dragon Quarter sticks you in a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has been forced to retreat underground. Depressing and dreary scenery is the norm. The battle system was completely reworked, with no more random encounters; rather, enemies are fought directly in the dungeon environments, with a grid based battle system slightly reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics.

The greatest change, however, is the difficulty. It is insane. Why’s that? Well, when you die, you actually die. That 'Game Over' screen is not just there for kicks; the game is very much over and you must start again from scratch. Why the hell would you even play this sick, sadistic game, churned from the minds of Japanese madmen? Well, each time you die and start over, your keep your abilities, items, equipment and level; not only that, but as you die and restart the game, your D-Ratio increases.

What does this mean? A higher D-Ratio will give you access to areas, cutscenes, and plot points which were previously inaccessible. Long story short, in order to experience the whole game, you need to die and play through it more than once, with the bright side being that each time you play, things will be different. This makes up for the relatively short 10 hour campaign.

This is as about as hardcore as hardcore gets. Man up and get on it.

Chrono Trigger

What happens when you take the game developers behind Final Fantasy, pair them up with the character designer from Dragon Ball, and throw in an epic story featuring time-travel and the fate of the world?

Epic awesomeness, beyond compare.

Forget Final Fantasy VI; if I had to pick one JRPG out of the Super Nintendo catalogue, Chrono Trigger would be it. Extremely innovative for its time, nowadays Chrono Trigger’s mechanics are classic. The battles are typical JRPG turn-based affairs, but the Active Time Battle system - in which each character gets a turn to strike once a specific timer bar fills up – has rarely been so well implemented. First of all, enemies are fought right on the environment map where you encounter them, with no separate battle screen required. As for your combat options, things get quite tactical, with area-affecting spells and the possibility to combine two characters' moves for combo specials, with devastating effects.

What truly makes this game timeless, though, is its story. Heroic feats, magic spells, and time-travel are the things childhood fantasies are made of. Many JRPGs create worlds with rich histories and fantasy-filled futures, but Chrono Trigger lets you experience the history and future of its world, and it’s quite a ride. Couple that with some incredibly endearing and memorable characters, and gorgeous animation, and you have a truly timeless game. Chrono Trigger is already available on the Wii Virtual Console, and should be hitting Xbox Live soon, so there is really no excuse. If you haven’t played this game yet, get it as soon as you can, and stop bringing shame to yourself and your ancestors.

If one of the games listed above doesn’t tickle your fancy, then JRPGs really aren’t for you. Which, sadly, makes you not quite as awesome as I had hoped.

...I should get over it with time.

There are plenty of other classic JRPGs that could stand tall next to the games featured here. Don’t be shy; sound off with your favourites in the comments below.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

- Joey Núñez

Discuss this article in our friendly forums

Sign up to our community today and discuss our articles, debate over upcoming games and organise matches and playsessions with like-minded people just like you.

Liked this? Spread the word - share with your friends!

Done? You might also enjoy these!

All comments are subject to our commenting policy

GGTL Classics
Some of the very best articles dug out from deep in the GGTL archives, written by some of our past and present wordsmiths alike.
Your continued use of this website and/or any others owned by Gamer's Guide to represents your acceptance and indicates your full understanding of all of our legal policies and terms. Our legal policies and terms are legally binding. If you in any way disagree with or refuse to be bound by any part of said legal policies and terms, you are advised to leave this website immediately.