What are JRPGs?
JRPGs are pretty much responsible for the creation of the RPG genre, and have heavily influenced games ever since they became a thing. A JRPG is a Japanese Role-Playing Game. This basically just means that the game was developed by a Japanese team, and they usually have certain styles and tropes associated with them that are different from your traditional western RPG.
So, all JRPGs are RPGs, but only some RPGs are JRPGs. Or more straightforwardly, JRPGs are a subgenre of RPGs. Just like with RPGs, there’s a JRPG out there for everyone. While many may follow the basic formula for a JRPG—just as many western games do—there are a lot of standout games. For every Witcher 3 there’s a Chrono Trigger to match it.
Why They Deserve a Chance
JRPGs often get slammed for the anime art styles that are a staple of the subgenre. The art can take some getting used to, especially if you’re not familiar with the art styles from other forms of media. However, not every game utilizes these styles. Games like Monster Hunter: World and Octopath Traveler feature art styles that have received acclaim even by those in the west.
But JRPGs are a sensational subgenre, and have influenced the world of gaming we live in now like no other. From the early days of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, the RPG genre has grown so exponentially that the original founders are now associated with a subgenre that prevents them from gaining much love in the west.
The only exception to this long distance relationship that most of the community has, is Pokémon. Arguably the most popular JRPG series of all time, Pokémon is where the majority of people’s experience with JRPGs come from. How the stigmas around JRPGs manage to exist alongside the love for Pokémon is baffling.
You’ve Probably Already Played Some
Plus, the genre has a diverse pool of games in terms of gameplay. Turn-based combat may have birthed the genre, but it’s grown far from there. Monster Hunter: World features streamlined action-adventure mechanics, with an array of different weapon styles to help you stand out.
Hell, even the dark, gritty world and unforgiving combat of Dark Souls is part of the JRPG genre. It’s a game that many people love, without realizing it’s a JRPG. Another series people don’t normally associate with JRPGs is Nintendo‘s Paper Mario series. It’s another beloved game that doesn’t suffer from the JRPG stigma.
Now it may seem like the point of this article is a complete contradiction of the title it bears. That’s because it is! The phrase “JRPGs is an acquired taste” is thrown around far too often in spite of how many great and beloved titles the genre has. The point of this article is that there is a JRPG out there for everyone to enjoy. Just like any other genre. And as you explore this subgenre more, you’ll find more games that work for you.
This list is for anyone who is interested in everything I’ve said up to now. Maybe you already liked JRPGs; maybe you’ve never taken interest; either way, this list is for you. I tried to keep in mind how accessible games were for the common player, as not everyone would be able to find a game like Chrono Trigger as easily as games from this console generation.
Monster Hunter: World
Monster Hunter: World revolutionized its franchise, making an easily accessible game out of a series that once intimidated newcomers. Rather than using the cartoonish art styles JRPGs are known for, it used a more realistic style that put emphasis on detail and colors. Everything from the game’s environments to its monsters are stunning in their visuals. It also has combat that makes the game feel a little more familiar for those more accustomed to games like Dragon Age and Skyrim. These qualities help distance the game from your more typical JRPGs, and creates a gateway to the genre for more skeptical players.
Playing Monster Hunter: World may encourage you to try out other games in the series—games that are more in line with other JRPGs. You’ll hopefully be able to adjust to these new qualities because of your soft spot for Monster Hunter: World. That could then lead to you finding more titles you enjoy, as you become accustomed to the subgenre. It may not be rocket science per se—but it is a sort of science.
Then there’s Octopath Traveler, a more nostalgic retelling of what RPGs started off as. The game featured eight protagonists that have intertwining stories, crafting a larger narrative. While the individual stories are generic, the game presents them in a very compelling way. It’s a 2D, bit styled game, with turn-based combat. It’s very much in the style of a classic RPG, but with modern lighting and effects incorporated into it. Again, this game goes against the stereotypes of JRPGs, but it isn’t as approachable as Monster Hunter: World. Turn-based games are generally less popular games, especially ones done in the classic style.
Fortunately, Octopath Traveler is doing extraordinarily well. Even though it is a Nintendo Switch exclusive, the game sold over a million copies in around a month. The game is being heralded as the exception to the turn-based genre for players who aren’t typically a fan. Which means that for anyone venturing into the JRPG niche, this is a good game to look into.
Pokémon is an obvious one. For adjusting to common JRPG art styles, recent games would be best. Pretty much Alpha Sapphire/Omega Ruby and onward. If you’re new to Pokémon in general, then Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! are great places to begin with. These games have all the basic qualities that make Pokémon great, but are more user friendly than most. However, as you become more accustomed to Pokémon, try going back and playing some of the older games. You won’t regret playing Pokémon: Platinum.
Dark Souls is a great way to get used to the length and difficulty of many JRPG games. The combat is very traditional by western standards, which will make the adjustment easy. The difficulty is what really cements it as a JRPG. Unlike a lot of western RPGs where your abilities are typically what pull you through fights, your character is constantly underpowered. Dark Souls may not be a turn-based game, but it relies heavily on your ability to strategize. If you don’t plan well enough or execute your moves perfectly, you’re likely going to be trying again very soon.
Final Fantasy XV
This list wouldn’t be complete without a Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy XV had a rough start due to some technical errors and its ending, both of which have been improved upon in patches or DLC. The game offers, again, combat that by our standards is more common, but with art and narrative styles more similar to the JRPG subgenre. The art isn’t quite as strongly influenced by anime styles. Yet, the style is still there. It lacks the full-on gritty realism that western audiences adore, so it serves as more of an in-between. This is why it works so well as an entry point.
Now, this list is for people with more experience in the subgenre. You’ve played a little bit, and you’ve liked what you saw. Again, this will mainly consist of titles that are fairly easy to obtain.
Nier: Automata is easily one of the most unique games out there. It has a beautiful style to it, a wonderful score, and an expertly written narrative. Although it is sometimes held down by convoluted missions, it doesn’t take away from making this game a masterpiece. The game is more in line with traditional JRPGs, and doesn’t have many similarities to western RPGs. However, the game is so unique compared to the genres it is tied to, that it is worth examining. It will show you the weird worlds of JRPGs.
The development team behind this game took a high school simulator and merged it with a dungeon crawler. The best part? It works. It works very well. Persona 5 is an incredibly well designed game, with its entire aesthetic making it worth a playthrough. More than that, it’s just plain fun. From living the life of an estranged teenager, to plotting with demons and taking down dungeons, this game is full of charm. It’s a turn-based game with a lot of flair, and a lot to offer. One of the best parts? You only have a limited amount of time to do everything. The game goes day by day until it hits the end. If you miss something, you’re out of luck. Fortunately, this just makes me keep crawling back for more.
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom has all the personality of the first game. Although it doesn’t quite exceed the standards set by its predecessor, it is a fun game, and it will keep you very entertained throughout. It has vibrant JRPG art, but action-based combat. So, if you aren’t quite used to the turned-based combat of the classics yet, this is a good game to pick up.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a sequel to Sega‘s Wonder Boy series, and is one of the best games to come out this year. This JRPG is actually a platformer, a style of game not seen too often in this subgenre now. It doesn’t have an obviously JRPG art style due to it being a 2D game. It is however very fun. The combat is fairly simple, but has a lot of charm. If you’re a fan of platformers, and would like to see a JRPG take on the genre, this game is a good choice.
Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past
In 2016, the Dragon Quest VII remake, Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past, was released in Europe and North America. As the typically heralded best Dragon Quest game, it makes sense for this to be the entry point into the series. It has a very simple turn-based system that avoids repetition and allows for a high focus on the game’s great visuals and narrative.
Kingdom Hearts almost made the first section; however, due to its overly convoluted storyline, I thought it would be best to place it here. The game merges western and eastern worlds as Square Enix takes the world of Disney and adds a new take on the Final Fantasy formula. It has some really fun action-based combat, with a good narrative, and exciting worlds for you to explore from movies you’ve probably seen. With the recent release of Kingdom Hearts: The Story So Far and the upcoming Kingdom Hearts III, there has never been a better time to get into the series.
I’m going to only list three games here. These are, for me, the three games I think of when I hear the word, “JRPG.” (Unlike the previous lists, these games may not be easy to find.)
Often hailed as one of the greatest games ever made, Chrono Trigger has outstanding design, story, and combat. It uses time-based combat, which is a staple of many early JRPGs; and it broke the early trope of random encounters.
Final Fantasy VII
It’s difficult to say which Final Fantasy is the best. Both the sixth and seventh installments are extremely praised, and both are deemed the greatest game ever made depending on who’s speaking. You just haven’t truly experienced a JRPG until you’ve played it. Fortunately, someone decided to gift us with the upcoming remake of Final Fantasy VII.
Earthbound is a game with a very small but very passionate fan base in the west. It has a very compelling style, a beautiful and heartfelt story, and very typical turn-based combat. It really is a shame that we will probably never see this series continued.
Other JRPGs to Look Into
Just a list of some of my other favorite JRPGs, if you’re interested in more suggestions:
- Ni No Kuni I
- Dragon Quest Builders
- Persona 4
- Tales of series
- Phantasy Star
- Ys VII: Lacrimosa of Dama
- Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate
- Blue Dragon
- Valkeryia Chronicles
- Bravely Default
- Fire Emblem: Awakening
- Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
- Golden Sun (Learn more about this game on our Retro Rumble Podcast here.)
- Secret of Mana
- Dragon’s Dogma
What are some of your favorite JRPGs? Let me know in the comments!