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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.