The 20 JRPGs You Must Play

There comes a time when every person must sit back, think about their life’s accomplishments, and wonder, “What JRPGs should I play?”

Worry 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.

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.

This article was originally published in 2013. We’ve revised and bumped it up again for 2018.

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

Final Fantasy VI

Platforms: Super Nintendo, PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, iOS, PC

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 in the modern age. (Play the original version if you can, rather than the ugly PC remake.)

Illusion of Gaia

Platforms: 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 twisted 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.

Lunar: Eternal Blue Complete

Platforms: 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

Platforms: 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.)

The sequel is also worth playing, and has a drastically improved combat system.

Ni No Kuni: The Kotaku Review

It would be easy, while reviewing Ni no Kuni, to sit at my desk and fling adjectives on the page like a fantasy novelist. I'd call the game whimsical, charming, beautiful, fascinating, smart, pleasant, challenging, slow-paced, grand, surreal and aggressively colourful.

Read more

Phantasy Star IV

Platforms: Sega Genesis, PC, PS4, Xbox One

Back in the 90s, when Final Fantasy had exploded and JRPGs were as ubiquitous as MOBAs 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 transcendent.

Chrono Trigger

Platforms: Super Nintendo, PlayStation, Nintendo DS, iOS, Android, PC

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 it before, try to keep your expectations in check—it’s probably not gonna change your life—but it’s still a top-notch RPG. (We recommend the DS version.)

Persona 5

Platforms: PlayStation 3, PS4

Persona 5 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.

Although the fifth Persona can drag a little bit toward the end, it’s got a vibe unlike anything else out there. Coffee and curry, anyone? (Read our review.)

Final Fantasy VII

Platforms: PlayStation, PC, iOS, PS4

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

Xenogears

Platforms: PlayStation, PS1 Classics

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

Platforms: PSP, PC

One of the most interesting RPGs in the modern era has one of the most boring titles: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. I promise, it’s far less generic than it sounds. 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 and its sequel, which are basically two halves of a single game.

Don’t forget to talk to the treasure chests. (Read more about what makes Trails in the Sky so good.)

Earthbound

Platforms: Super Nintendo, Wii U

Yes, Nintendo’s 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.

The Man Who Wrote Earthbound

Marcus Lindblom logged onto TwitchTV. He found someone playing Earthbound, and he watched them stream for a while. Every time they smiled in the right place or laughed at the right joke, he felt a jolt of vindication. Validation. Eighteen years later, he could finally see people enjoying his work.

Read more

Radiant Historia

Platforms: Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS

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

Platforms: 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 brain-teasers in every dungeon.

It’s a great game, and it holds up well today. 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. (Also: Avoid the DS remake, which is essentially a different game.)

Suikoden II

Platforms: PlayStation, PS Classics

Game of Thrones meets Pokémon, but really, this is much 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. Beating the first Suikoden is useful but not essential. (Playing for the first time? Read our tips.)

Super Mario RPG

Platforms: Super Nintendo, Wii Virtual Console

How many RPGs let you play as Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom? Well, ok, a lot these days. But Super Mario RPG was the first and is still one of the best, and it’s the only RPG with a weapon that lets Bowser hurl Mario at enemy Koopa Troopas, which is pretty much all you need to know.

Final Fantasy IX

Platforms: PlayStation, PS1 Classics, PC

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.

Dragon Quest VIII

Platforms: PlayStation 2, iOS, 3DS

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

Platforms: PlayStation, PSP, iOS, PS1 Classics

Video games love to glamorize warfare, 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, unless you are 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

Platforms: PlayStation 2

If you don’t spend too much time thinking about the convoluted mess that Tetsuya Nomura calls a plot, jumping and slashing through Disney worlds is really quite fun.

Lost Odyssey

Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One

Back before Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker got trapped in the quagmire of mobile gaming, they made a few fantastic role-playing games, including the Microsoft-exclusive Lost Odyssey, which is easy to play today thanks to the Xbox One’s backwards compatibility.

With a fascinating story surrounding a squad of amnesiac immortals and some solid old-school mechanics, Lost Odyssey is still well worth your time.


Comments

    Having placed a Tactics Game as an RPG, I would say that a must-play game is Tactics Ogre: Knight of Lodis, for the GBA.

    I dunno but I consider it to be one of the best Tactics games out there.

    Glad to see Lufia 2 mentioned, such an underrated game. But where on earth is Xenoblade?!

    No Breath of Fire III? No Shadow Hearts/Shadow Hearts Covenant? No Vagrant Story? No Tales of Phantasia? No Dark Souls/Demons Souls? No Final Fantasy IV (It may not be my favourite, but the number of re-releases compared to any other FF has to mean something)?
    No Disgaea (anything)? No Ys?

    I call into question Jason's JRPG creds. At least he has Suikoden on there though.

    While disjointed and with some weird gameplay, my favourite "Mana" title is Legend of Mana.

    Can't believe Chrono Cross didn't get mentioned. The music alone should get it in.

    Persona 3 should be considered too.

    Glad to see Secret of Mana sneak in and FF6 get prime spot, though.

    The only Japanese RPG I've ever played that was worth a damn was Anachronox and that was developed in Texas.

    hey wheres Parasite Eve?..where Shadow Hearts 1 and Shadow Hearts Covenant?..wheres Koudelka?..wheres Vagrant Stories?..wheres Threads of Fate?..
    does Action, RPG count?..if so wheres my favorite game Brave Fencer Musashi?? wheres Megaman Legends?
    ..wheres Star Ocean????
    ..wheres Arc the Lad:Twilight of the Spirits
    ..wheres Valkyrie Profile???????
    ..wheres Breath of Fire?? (how come this game doesnt get much love??)
    ..wheres Wild Arms??
    ..wheres Rogue Galaxy?? <--this is a good game
    ..wheres Disgea??.
    ..wheres Dark Cloud 2?
    ..whers GRANDIA?????
    ..wheres SaGa series??
    ..can I add in Shadow of Memories?(not an RPG per say but..)
    ..and of course the RPG I played in the PS1 era before FFVII, whers is Beyond the Beyond???

    You missed a couple of great ones...

    Lost Odyssey
    Blue Dragon
    Tales of Graces f
    Star Ocean 4
    Disgaea (technically a ARPG, but whatever)
    Grandia 2

    and, get ready for the blasphemy...

    Chaos Rings on iOS.

    Last edited 02/09/13 10:20 am

    I resent the fact that you say barely anything about FFVII, one of the best FF games ever created.

    Also, Chrono Trigger will change lives.

    No Shining Force II/III or Golden Sun? Poor Camelot :~(

      AAHHHHHH! i can only give you one up vote >:(

    Shining Force 2(mega drive), Shining Force 3 (sega saturn), Tales of Symphonia (Game Cube), Grandia (psx) and i cant believe there was no Fire Emblem - AT ALL!

    ahhh, JRPG, you make me warm and fuzzy inside.

      That's OK, I'll up vote you in return to spread the Camelot love <3

    Shining Force I, II and III.
    Phantasy Star IV at the very least.
    Dragon Force.
    Azure Dreams
    Dark Cloud and Dark Chronicle

    i have really tried to like persona 4.
    i just cant play it without wanting to fall asleep. plus the chances of me having more than an hour to play at a time is unlikely.

    guess i should have just played it when it was new and i was in high school. too late now i fear.
    though i am replaying FF6 at the moment. it is still such a brilliant game

    Reposted after five years and the only thing that seems to have changed is Persona 4 swapped out for Persona 5 (which is a backward step) and Ni no Kuni being added?

      I just finished Persona 5 a couple of days ago. I think as far as general gameplay mechanics go, it's a definite step up over 4. So smooth and stylish!

      Story-wise it's a bit up to personal preference, I guess.

    Ahhh... Xenogears and Lost Odyssey. Last Story was sweet also

    Hmmmm, never played any of these.

    Wait,

    WHERE IS POKEMON YELLOW (am I doing it right?)

    Some amazing games on this list, I can only hope as many as possible end up on the switch at some point - would be amazing!

    A consensus on a list like this is as likely as an honest politician, but it’s certainly a solid lineup (not that Jason needs or requires any validation from me etc!).

    Only interesting thing to me is that Persona was swapped - i’m in the ‘prefer 4’ category, curious to know how many people who played 4 before 5 preferred the latter? I largely suspect if I’d played 5 & then 4 that my preference would be reveresed, mainly because the core part for me - the characters - map across and whilst not direct clones, are pretty much recycled in so many ways. Both games are awesome regardless so play either if you get chance (3 is still totally worth playing too!)!

      My offical Persona rankings:

      Best story: 3
      Best Characters: 4
      Best gameplay: 5
      Favourite overall is still 4

        I’d definitely agree with that; just wonder id i’d prefer the characters in 5 if i’d played it first?

        The damning part to 5 for me is if I built my ‘Persona dream team’ there’d be no-one from 5 I’d take over characters from the other games - I’d choose Mitsuru before Makoto any day as an example (Makoto ‘seems’ to be ‘the internets’ overwhelming choice of best character from 5 from what i’ve read).

          I played Persona 4 years ago, but still well after it was originally released. It took me over 2 years to finish it, because I started playing other games and just didn't pick it back up again until I forced myself to start clearing out my pile of shame. That's not to say I didn't love it, because I did.

          I've spent the better part of the last 2 months grinding P5 because I didn't want the same thing to happen. I really loved the characters for the most part. I liked Morgana more than Teddie, and some characters who I thought I wouldn't like from their intro ended up being some of my favourites. The only one who I remained a bit meh on was Haru.

          You are correct in saying that a lot of the character tropes carried over from 4, but I suppose it's been such a long time that I don't really mind. You're probably right in your assumption that people would be more likely to have a fondness for whichever they played first.

          Also Yusuke is best boy, fight me.

        How’s the soundtracks of 3 and 4? Because 5 ... damn. Disco/funk bass FTW.

          3 has the strongest soundtrack, J-Pop/Hiphop crossover has no right to sound that good. I think I like 4 Golden's soundtrack the most, mainly because it was my first experience, but it's much more streamlined pop music than the fusions of 3 and 5

      4 has vastly better characters and plot than 5 IMO. 5 has more style and slightly more refined gameplay but the game itself isn't as good.

    There is no way Illusion of Gaia is anywhere NEAR as good as Terranigma.

    If you've never played a Persona game, then I guess Persona 5 is an okay place to start. If you have played 3 and 4 and are like me hoping for something a little different... then avoid Persona 5. When it comes to gameplay, it's pretty much the exact same game as 3 and 4 (like Pokemon). Only big changes are dungeons; which vary from "neat" to "I am not having fun" (some overstay their welcome. Easily the worst parts of the game).

    Gonna stop there because I'll just go into a rant about how much I didn't like Persona 5... more so than I already have.

    Only ones I have played are ni no kuni (and ni no kuni 2) and kingdom hearts 2 (which I’m not sure is a JRPG).

    I played 2 minutes of Ff7 and was bored AF. Would love to give something like persona 5 a go but I don’t have the time.

    My all time fav jrpg (I think it is) is Baten Kaitos: Eternal wings and the lost ocean. Wish the sequel made its was to Australia.

      I honestly suspect that some of these are in the list because Jason played them when he was 12, and hasn't been back since. Illusion of Gaia and Lufia 2 especially were very good games at the time, but they don't hold up that well if you're going in without nostalgia now. Even FF7 and Xenogears fall far short now.

      Something like Final Fantasy Tactics is hard to recommend as well - the best version was the PSP War of the Lions remake, but even that is eclipsed by the remake of Tactics Ogre they did afterward.

        Politely disagree. Tactics Ogre deserves recognition for establishing the modern tropes and outlining basic mechanics that would become staple of the subgenre. FFT, however, is the pinnacle in terms of sophistication of its systems. Regardless of the poor translation, the bugs, exploits and lack of balance in certain areas, the systems at the core of the game are a delicate, super-complex filigree of mechanics. Similar games before FFT are decidedly primitive in comparison, and games made after were intently "dumbed down" and never reached the levels of complexity of FFT which surely were deemed "too much".

        Also, the story of FFT is one of the best among jRPGs and is full of clever narrative tricks (again, poor translation non-withstanding).

    Wow, for once on one of these listing articles I have literally played every one of these games, either on release or other methods.

    Great list! There's still quite a few of these I've yet to get to but I can never get enough of the genre. I'm currently taking a break from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to play Octopath Traveler haha then it'll be time for Ys VIII while I wait for Dragon Quest (Switch version), Shin Megami Tensei V and more Atelier games.

    Edit: I seem to be alone on this based on others' comments, but I'll back you in saying that Illusion of Gaia/Time is better than Terranigma.

    Last edited 19/07/18 10:09 am

    If you’ve never played it before, try to keep your expectations in check—it’s probably not gonna change your life

    My mate. I just... I just... I just want to murder you!
    Kidding. But this game, this game is the Zenith of the mankind. A prime exemple of how high human can achieve when we put our best together.
    I played this games 5 years ago in the ds and my only regret with this game is not having play it before over and over again.

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