The 20 JRPGs You Must Play

The 20 JRPGs You Must Play

There comes a time when every person must sit back, think about his or her life's accomplishments, and wonder "What JRPGs should I play?" Fear not. I'm here to help.

This is a list of Japanese role-playing games that deserve your time. Some are new; some are old; all are excellent. Each of these is worth playing today, even if you have to dig out your dusty old Super Nintendo and try to find cartridges at a yard sale or something. These are games both timeless and ageless. They're the cream of the crop. They've got the spikiest of the hair. The longest of the swords. The evilest of the demons.

You should really play all of these games. Presented in no particular order:

Final Fantasy VI

(Super Nintendo, PlayStation, Game Boy Advance)

Part steampunk, part Star Wars, and 100% pretty goddamned awesome, FFVI is the best of the Final Fantasys and one of the first RPGs to show people that yes, video games can pack an emotional wallop. The adventures of Terra and Celes and their struggle against the demonic clown Kefka still hold up today, even if their animations are a little limited. Really, the constraints of 16-bit graphics leave a lot to the imagination, which is part of what makes Final Fantasy VI still shine today.

Illusion of Gaia

(Super Nintendo)

Back in the early 90s, a small company named Quintet released a handful of actiony RPGs for Nintendo systems. Many are very good -- ActRaiser, Soul Blazer, Terranigma -- but the highlight is Illusion of Gaia, a quirky romp in which you play a psychic boy named Will who has to travel across a skewed version of the real world, hacking his way through both fantasy tropes and actual landmarks like the Great Wall of China. Will's journey is satisfying and surprisingly touching, filled with little lines and moments that touch upon mortality and The Meaning Of Life.

The 20 JRPGs You Must Play

Lunar: Eternal Blue Complete

(Sega Saturn, PlayStation)

No game has mastered the concept of traditional JRPG -- a turn-based, music-heavy adventure filled with interesting people and places -- quite like the Lunar series, created by the talented team at a Japanese studio called Game Arts. Eternal Blue is the best of the bunch, and although the hero, Hiro, can get a little grating, the game is warm and lovely and surprisingly genuine. Killer soundtrack, too.

Ni no Kuni

(PlayStation 3)

If you look up the word "charming" in the dictionary, you will probably not find Ni no Kuni. I don't know why you thought a niche role-playing game would be mentioned in a dictionary. But Ni no Kuni is an excellent game nonetheless -- a gorgeous, funny adventure that's essentially an explorable Miyazaki film. (Read my review.)

Phantasy Star IV

(Sega Genesis, PC (Steam))

Back in the 90s, when Final Fantasy had exploded and JRPGs were almost as ubiquitous as first-person shooters are today, Sega offered up their own take: Phantasy Star, a sci-fi epic that would be to Star Wars what Dragon Quest was to Lord of the Rings. While some naysayers and Nintendo fanboys dismissed Sega's series as a bunch of knock-offs, people who actually played the Genesis RPGs were treated to some high-quality sci-fi RPG action. Phantasy Star IV in particular is a transcendent game with some great music and characters worthy of any JRPG.

The 20 JRPGs You Must Play

Chrono Trigger

(Super Nintendo, PlayStation, Nintendo DS)

Look, you know all about Chrono Trigger. Time travel, talking frog swordsmen, Lavos, Lucca, mute Jesus protagonist, floating magic sky kingdom. If you've never played Chrono Trigger, try to keep your expectations in check -- it's not gonna change your life -- but it's still an excellent RPG.

Persona 4

(PlayStation 2, PlayStation Vita)

Persona 4 is part high-school simulator and part dungeon-crawler, which sounds like a pretty boring combination until you play it and see what the fuss is all about. For the first few hours you might not get it, but when it hits you, you'll be writing Rise fan-fiction just like the rest of us. (Read our review.)

Final Fantasy VII

(PlayStation, PC)

In this game you get to have a slap fight on a giant cannon.



There are games that make sense, and then there is Xenogears, a sprawling epic about giant robots and religious mythology that somehow manages to be simultaneously poignant and incoherent. If you can look past some subpar dungeon design and excruciatingly slow text, you're in for a wonderful adventure about people fighting the odds -- and giant robots -- to save the world from what may or may not be God Himself.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky


One of the most interesting RPGs in the modern era has one of the most boring titles imaginable: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is far less generic than it sounds, I promise. It's quite lovely, in fact. There are airships and plot twists and funny little moments crafted quite well by the localisation team at XSEED, who pulled out all the big guns for this one. Don't forget to talk to the treasure chests.


(Super Nintendo, Wii U)

Yes, the recently-re-released cult classic is as good as everyone says it is. Yes, it's quirky and funny and full of memorable moments. No, it's not really about a foetus.

Radiant Historia

(Nintendo DS)

Something of a diversion for the Persona team at Atlus, Radiant Historia is like a Chrono Trigger for the modern age. You know -- time travel, strategy-packed combat system, lots of melodrama. The works. It's pretty great.

Lufia 2

(Super Nintendo)

JRPGs are, as a general rule, not very good at puzzles, but Lufia 2 rivals Zelda in its ability to surprise and challenge you with every dungeon. It's a great game, and it holds up well. Just watch out for the bugs -- one or two levels of the game are so glitched out that they just appear as gibberish on the screen, and you've gotta walk in a straight line to get out.

The 20 JRPGs You Must Play

Suikoden II


Game of Thrones meets Pokémon, but really, better. Suikoden II's story is one of the most emotionally resonant I've found in a video game, and its "Oh, holy shit" moments are pretty much better than anyone else's "Oh, holy shit" moments. If you like stories about friendship and betrayal and all that jazz, this JRPG is for you.

Super Mario RPG

(Super Nintendo)

How many RPGs let you play as Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom? Well, ok, a lot, at this point. But Super Mario RPG was the first and is still one of the best, and it's pretty much the only RPG with a weapon that lets Bowser throw Mario at people.

Final Fantasy IX

(PlayStation, PSN)

Smart, clever, and remarkably well-written, the ninth Final Fantasy is a Shakespearean romp with more humour than you might expect from a game about a thief in love with a princess. The random encounter rate is way too high, but just about everything else makes up for that.

The 20 JRPGs You Must Play

Dragon Quest VIII

(PlayStation 2)

The best of the Dragon Quests is cel-shaded and goofy and full of charm. If you don't mind silly accents and a bit of level-grinding, you'll dig it.

Final Fantasy Tactics

(PlayStation, PSP, iOS)

Video games have a penchant for glamorizing war, but in Final Fantasy Tactics, war is real and unpleasant (if you look past the fact that it's conducted by magicians in funny hats). FFT is a game full of death, betrayal, and bad news for all -- well, unless you're the player, in which case you will love the hell out of the game's elegant job system and addictive grid-based combat.

Kingdom Hearts II

(PlayStation 2)

Because if you don't worry much about the convoluted mess that Tetsuya Nomura calls a plot, jumping and slashing through Disney worlds is really quite fun.

UPDATE: Whoops - this list only has 19 JRPGs. Stealth #20 addition: SECRET OF MANA, a Super Nintendo game about amnesiac sprites and giant chickens and superpowered swords. You can play it on the Wii's Virtual Console too.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


    was about to say where the hell is secret of mana then saw the update.

    Last edited 01/09/13 12:28 am

    While I have to say that, for every one of these entries, I yearned for there to be an entire article describing just how amazing these games are, but for a short article, this was a great write-up.

    Concise and deliberate (The FFVIII one made me chuckle despite it not being terribly descriptive), I really felt like you wrote enough to let people find a hook they like and try it out.
    I liked that you also wrote the downsides to a few of these too, without sugarcoating it and saying they're the best games ever without flaws.
    JRPGS can be convoluted, boring and outright frustrating experiences at times, but by god, the games in this list have all impacted me in ways that no other media has.

    Last edited 01/09/13 12:26 am

      I'm also half asleep, so apologies if I've rambled and failed to remain coherent. <3

    I would like to mention:
    * Shadow Hearts Covenant: I enjoyed this game (and series, R.I.P) so much. Great cast of likable, interesting & eccentric characters, memorable soundtrack, and a fun battle system.
    * Grandia II: besides the story, this improved on the first game in every way possible. Features what might possibly be the best battle system in JRPG history.
    * Xenoblade: the only JRPG worth a damn this generation, it deserved all of the acclaim it received, just an incredible game with a gigantic scope.

    What? No Golden Sun for the GBA? Fail list

      I agree that they're great games. However, I prefer TLA more than the original, what is your opinion on this? I played the second one before the first, so I could be biased but I found the first one to be a little bland, and much of TLA expanded on the dungeon and puzzle elements introduced expertly

        Well they were made as one game in a way, 2 parts of the one big game, playing them backwards, it's no wonder you felt that way, of course they expanded, it's the second part. This is why you play them in order(unless you want the story to make sense).

    Good list, at least from the 75% of it I've played. Only issue is that Terranigma is far superior to Illusion of Gaia.

      Absolutely agreed. If you only play one game from that trilogy, it's gotta be Terranigma.

        Terranigma is definitely the one to play, but the best option is of course to play the full trilogy to really appreciate how the series developed in both narrative and gameplay

        Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia/Time and Terranigma are only really loosely connected as a triology. I never really got the impression when I played through them that the three games were supposed to be connected somehow.

      Absolutely agreed. Illusion of Gaia was an excellent game, especially its stellar soundtrack, but Terranigma romps home with the prize for "best top-down 2D action JRPG ever".

      I also question the puzzling lack of The World Ends With You and Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga on this list. But I DO have to commend them for including Lufia II. One of the best JRPGs of the 16-bit era- not particularly unique or groundbreaking, just all-around solid with tons of content, lovable characters, a HUGE adventure and a TOTAL tearjerker of an ending.

      Terranigma should be on every RPG list ever made.

      Last edited 01/09/13 11:02 pm

    Skies of Arcadia deserves a mention

    How come you skip Sengoku Rance ???

    Awesome list! I might give Final Fantasy IX a go now.
    The only thing I disagree with is the distinct lack of any Tales games. Those games are 'da shiznit', as all the young 'uns say these days.

    Last edited 01/09/13 8:33 am

      Only young'uns in the 90s said that methinks. But I'm still rocking it hard!

    No Vagrant Story?


      Switch legend of heroes and lunar for vagrant story and lost odyssey.

      Vagrant Story is my favourite out of any Square game and damn near the top of the list of my all time favourite games.

        My personal all time favourite. Love that game.

    Kingdom Hearts was horrible. Never been so bored playing a "jrpg". Act Raiser was awesome though.

    Lufia 2 is an excellent title. One other feature not mentioned is that you can capture and train monsters to assist you in battle. Also, there are like 100 dungeons, all with unique Zelda style puzzles. Blew my mind at the time.

    Note that the DS re-make is more of a re-imagining. I liked it, but its no where near as good as the original.

    Golden Sun & GS: Lost Age should be on this list, the fantastic plot and characters, art, graphics. The level of character customization with the Djinns and the level of exploration was fantastic. It was a great challenging game and one of the only games without the ATB system that I had the patience to complete.

    Persona 4 is a definite, but if you have this, I'm surprised Persona 3 made no mention?
    Personally, I believe the story is more in depth, meaningful to the series and just down-right freaking bad-ass.

      Persona 4 is simply the better game. The gameplay has been MASSIVELY polished, many of the most annoying features have been smoothed out (having to wrangle the party AI in battle is no longer an issue) and the pacing of the story is much better (let's face it, much of Persona 3's plot dragged a lot thanks to the long periods between full moon encounters with little to do other than explore Tartarus- Persona 4's return to conventional dungeons worked a lot better). It was vastly superior on a technical level 2- the anime cutscenes were SO much better (Persona 3's got HORRIBLY off-model at times) and the voice acting was a cut above.

        I personally enjoyed the story more-so in P3, I'm not sure how you felt it dragged out. Its pace was similar to that of P4 I felt. That said, I feel I appreciate it more after finishing the story from Persona 4 Arena which tied in nicely towards the end of the game.
        There were quality of life fixes in P4, but overall, I felt more involved in P3.
        Not to say P4 is lacking, it is a fantastic game near the top of my favourite games, but I LOVE P3 moreso :3

    Illusion of Gaia/Time better than Terranigma?? You're dreaming buddy! Both are good, but Terranigma blows Gaia/Time out of the water! Also, while Secret of Mana is undoubtedly a classic and one of my most-played games of all time, if you weren't "there at the time," its sequel, Seiken 3, is a far superior game.

    Other than that, great list, and I'm looking forward to catching up on some of the ones I missed over the years... One day...

      I agree that Seiken Densetsu 3 surpasses Secret of Mana (aka, Seiken Densetsu 2) in many ways, but the tragic part of that is that it was never released officially outside of Japan, so unless you acquired the rom somehow and played the unofficial English translation on an emulator, you wouldn't have been able to experience it.

    My two favourite JRPGs would have to be Tales of Symphonia and Final Fantasy X. Played way too much of both of those back in High School.

      Tales of Symphonia was awesome. It's almost criminal more people haven't played it.

        There's a remaster in the works (including its allegedly ordinary sequel) for the PS3, so that will probably change soon.

        I loved Xillia, but Symphonia had that heartwrenching middle act.

        And, as others have mentioned, Grandia 2 and at least one of the Shadow Hearts games should be in there...

    Lost Odyssey. Loved that game.
    Also FFX. pretty keen to play that one again too when the HD version comes out....

    FF Tactics is technically a strategy RPG, doesn't really belong here (and if it does, then Valkyria Chronicles, Disgaea, Tactics Ogre, Sakura Taisen all do as well). I's argue that Secret of Mana is more of an action game as well, pretty light on the JRPG elements. Same for Kingdom Hearts.

    Also no mention of any of the Tales games? Grandia II? Xenoblade?

      Secret of Mana is every bit an RPG. You don't need to have random, turn-based battles that whisk you away off to another screen for it to be considered an RPG. Everything else from the weapon and magic systems to exploration to the boss fights are all distinctly RPG.

      Last edited 01/09/13 3:10 pm

        It's an RPG, but it's an Action RPG rather than what is usually meant by 'JRPG'. And if Secret of Mana counts then the Ys games should count even more - heck, Secret of Mana isn't even the best of those games (Seiken Densetsu 3 is)

          Again, just because it's an "Action RPG" (by the way, I really hate that term. I prefer to call it an RPG with real-time battles) doesn't mean it's not a JRPG. There are LOTS of JRPG's out there that don't follow the traditional design of random battles that whisk you away to a separate battle screen to have a turn-based fight. It's true lots of JRPG's do that, but certainly not all of them, and you need to drop that stigma.

          You'll see in my reply to Irvyne above that I agree in some respects about Seiken Densetsu 3, it does surpass Seiken Densetsu 2 (ie, Secret of Mana) in some areas, although it still falls short in other areas, and has a number of weird but noticeable glitches and bugs in it to boot. But the main problem with that game is that it never received a official English translation and was never officially released outside of Japan, so it never got the worldwide coverage it really deserved.


    Secret of Mana was great though I always liked Secret of Evermore a tad more. Now for my outrage...No Blue Dragon?? Dammit I smiled the whole way through that game It reminds me of why i loved JRPG's. Lost Odysee was grand as well. My 2 best of this generation of consoles

    Baton Kaitos on the Gamecube is worth a mention. Gameplay was a little slow but had some cool mechanics, story was great (except the ending was a bit of a letdown)

    These are all pretty old games now, how many of these actually hold up well? I mean I have great memories of FFVII just like everyone else but If I went and got Lunar: Eternal Blue Complete would it be worth my time now as a late 20's adult?

    I personally wouldn't call Illusion of Gaia/Time an RPG, for the same reasons I don't call the Zelda games RPG's. It's got RPG-ish elements to it but it most definitely isn't an RPG.

    Also I know it's unavoidable with these kind of lists to get comments saying "why isn't x on this list?", but seriously where is Xenoblade Chronicles?

    Maybe put something good on there instead of FF7.

      If you don't like it just go play the other 19 titles on the list. FF7 isn't the whole list you know

        Oh I meant I liked the whole list except FF7, I don't like FF7 and was just being a jerk about it. Plus, there's already two other great FFs on there.

    I haven't played Persona 4 yet, but I have played 3, and IMHO it wasn't quite as good as Lucifer's Call (aka Nocturne). Maybe Persona 4 is superior, but I would still recommend taking a look at Lucifer's Call.

    I would also like to mention Disgaea. I only ever played the first of the series so I don't know about the others, but that one at least is definitely worth it.

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