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The greatest Japanese RPG franchises, part 1

Celebrating the fine art of hitting things to make numbers bigger

Kingdom Hearts artwork
| Square Enix

Is any genre of video games as closely associated with a single country as role-playing games and Japan? There’s even a term for those games: “JRPG,” a designation that has developed into a catch-all describing games from any region designed in the style of Japanese RPGs.

But what makes a truly great JRPG? This month, I’ve decided to explore that question by looking at the entire pantheon of role-playing franchises crafted in Japan and ranking the 25 most notable series from worst to best. The rules here are simple. To qualify, a series needs to hail from a Japan-based developer (with the realization that a bit of input from international studios is unavoidable in some of the bigger contemporary franchises). Each series needs to consist of at least three related or co-branded games. Finally, in order to qualify as a role-playing series, the majority of its games need to incorporate some sort of level- or experienced-based statistic and attribute mechanics — sorry, Zelda! In other words, the boundaries of this list are by nature somewhat nebulous and hard to pin down … just like the genre itself.

The ultimate question at work here is simple: Which series best embody the strengths (and the weaknesses!) of JRPGs? Which franchises represent its platonic ideal? Strap in, it’s gonna be a wild ride to the top.

Kingdom Hearts artwork
Square Enix

25: Kingdom Hearts (Square Enix)

  • First entry: Kingdom Hearts, PS2, 2002
  • Next entry: Kingdom Hearts 3, PS4, 2018

The Kingdom Hearts games got off to a strong start, marrying a bonkers premise (Final Fantasy meets classic Disney!?) to simplistic (if loosey-goosey) action-RPG combat. Unfortunately, the series has been stuck in a holding pattern for more than a decade. A seemingly endless succession of side stories, spinoffs and remakes since 2005’s Kingdom Hearts 2 has resolutely refused to advance the series’ storyline and play mechanics in a meaningful way. Only the most diehard fans can even begin to explain the Kingdom Hearts narrative’s increasingly bizarre complications at this point. For example, protagonist Sora is something like eight different characters now, several of which are evil — don’t ask. Thankfully, the appeal of walloping the monstrous Heartless (and Sephiroth) with the help of Goofy, Donald and Mike Wazowski hasn’t faded. With luck, the upcoming Kingdom Hearts 3 will hopefully allow this franchise to hop out of the rut it’s fallen into.

Disgaea artwork
Nippon Ichi

24: Disgaea (Nippon Ichi)

  • First entry: Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, PS2, 2003
  • Latest entry: Disgaea 5 Complete, Switch, 2017

Disgaea gave the staid tactical RPG a welcome shot in the arm when it debuted 15 years ago. The game refused to take itself seriously, with a chapter structure that riffed on classic anime, a script that poked holes in genre clichés, and game mechanics that bordered on the preposterous. Stacking combatants on top of one another into weird towers of power became a crucial tactic, and four-digit character level caps allowed players to set up combo attacks worth millions of hit points. The series continues to plug away, endlessly attempting to one-up its own ludicrous excesses, and the its steady sales have been a lifeline for publisher Nippon Ichi. Still, the whole thing can feel a bit like diminishing returns at times, and Disgaea has never quite come up with anything that’s hit with the same impact as its debut entry.

Lunar artwork
Game Arts

23: Lunar (Game Arts)

  • First entry: Lunar: The Silver Star, Sega CD, 1993
  • Latest entry: Lunar: Silver Star Harmony, PSP, 2009

Perhaps no series demonstrates the power of a strong localization more than Lunar. A generic role-playing game for Sega CD became a cult favorite in the U.S. thanks to Working Designs’ groundbreakingly sarcastic English-language script and excellent voice acting in the era of cable-access-quality full-motion video. Its success paved the way for a sequel — Lunar 2: Eternal Blue, a genuine masterpiece of a game — as well as a string of remakes of wildly varying quality. Sadly, the Lunar games peaked early. Developer Game Arts never matched the brilliance of Eternal Blue. The fourth (and presumably final) entry in the series, Lunar: Dragon Song for DS, has gone down in infamy for featuring some of the absolute worst game design choices ever inflicted on an RPG. Flailing legacy aside, there’s no denying that for a brief while, Lunar was the sassy choice of the role-playing literati.

Shining artwork
Sega

22: Shining (Camelot/Sega)

  • First entry: Shining in the Darkness, Genesis, 1991
  • Next entry: Shining Resonance Refrain, Multi, 2018

Sega’s Shining series will make its return to American shores this year with Shining Resonance Refrain: the first entry of the franchise to have been localized into English in more than a decade. Once a genre-defining work, Shining would have been a top 10 contender in the ’90s. Back then, it helped to define the strategy genre alongside Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, livening up what amounts to virtual chess with its colorful characters and flashy battle animations. Unlike Fire Emblem, Shining regularly explored other facets of the role-playing genre. Indeed, the series got its start with a Wizardry-style dungeon crawler, Shining in the Darkness.

Shining put developer Camelot Planning on the map and paved the way for the likes of Golden Sun. Shining even manifested some solid Diablo-esque Game Boy Advance dungeon crawlers with the Grasshopper-developed Shining Souls. Unfortunately, Shining lost its sense of direction after Sega exited the hardware business, wheezing its way toward a string of mediocre strategy efforts that mostly seemed to exist as an excuse to have pin-up artist Tony Taka design a bunch of lady characters whose heaving anime bosoms could be turned into collectible merchandise.

Tales artwork
Bandai Namco

21: Tales (Bandai Namco/others)

  • First entry: Tales of Phantasia, Super Famicom, 1995
  • Latest entry: Tales of Berseria, Multi, 2017

The rule of thumb for Bandai Namco’s Tales series: your favorite Tales game will usually be the first one you played. There’s something intoxicating about these frothy, high-energy RPGs that pulls people right in. They pack a maximum supply of anime clichés (including chipper heroes and long-haired, melancholy rivals) married to a thrilling real-time combat system. Tales turns every random encounter into a manic melee filled with battle cries and guided by fighting game-inspired controller motions. Since the series’ inception (with 1995’s Tales of Phantasia), the Tales games have represented a lively alternative to the somber lethargy of turn-based RPGs.

The downside? The Tales games haven’t really evolved all that much over the years, so each new Tales feels like more of the same. At this point, Tales has settled into a sort of complacent familiarity — ironically meaning this series, which once stood as a bold contrast to its competitors, has become equally workmanlike in nature. Here’s hoping Tales Studios can rekindle a bit of the older games’ fire.

Xeno artwork
Nintendo

20: Xeno (Nintendo/others)

  • First entry: Xenogears, PS1, 1998
  • Latest entry: Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Switch, 2017

In this case, “Xeno” doesn’t refer to one specific RPG series but rather one creator’s body of related works sharing the same prefix: Tetsuya Takahashi’s Xenogears, Xenosaga and Xenoblade Chronicles. Those seven titles constitute a group of games involving wildly disparate play styles and mechanics — from the barely interactive turn-based story of Xenosaga Episode I to the real-time open world thrills of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 — yet the singular vision of Takahashi’s guiding mind unites them in spirit. His bold ambitions for his Xeno games have never quite come to fruition in a single work, bogged down by the realities of business and the sheer improbability of convincing a vast global audience to sign on for multi-part epics combining philosophy, religion, giant robots and RPG combat. He keeps trying, though. The results have been uneven to say the least, but collectively the Xeno titles make for one of the most ambitious yet curiously personal set of games ever made.

Paper Mario artwork
Nintendo

19: Mario’s RPGs (Nintendo/others)

  • First entry: Super Mario RPG, Super NES, 1996
  • Next entry: Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey, 3DS, 2019

Much like the Xeno titles, the Mario RPGs range multiple individual series … though in this case they result from a single publisher exploring different ideas rather than a single creator bouncing from corporation to corporation. Beginning with Super Mario RPG for Super NES and encompassing the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games (and even several Mario sports titles if you want to be generous), Mario’s flirtations with role-playing rules really have only one thing in common: You gotta know about timed hits, bro. Super Mario RPG introduced the idea of incorporating timed button presses into a staid, turned-based battle systems in order to boost attack power or reduce damage from enemy actions. That’s been the guiding theme of Mario’s RPG forays ever since.

The various Mario RPGs vary wildly in quality when viewed individually, from uncontested masterpieces like The Thousand Year Door and Bowser’s Inside Story to more controversial works such as Sticker Star and Partners in Time. At their best, though, the Mario RPGs brilliantly recontextualize the world’s most popular platformers into witty, fast-paced, dialogue-driven interpretations of the RPG concept.

SaGa artwork
Square Enix

18: SaGa (Square Enix)

  • First entry: The Final Fantasy Legend, Game Boy, 1990
  • Next entry: SaGa: Scarlet Grace, Switch/PC, 2018

Tetsuya Takahashi’s creative impulses drive the Xeno games, but if you want to see a pure example of a true singular vision in an RPG, look no further than Square Enix’s SaGa series. For nearly 30 years, the SaGa games have translated the idiomatic tastes of Final Fantasy co-creator Akitoshi Kawazu into a string of unforgiving, unapologetic role-playing enigmas. Over time, the rules of the SaGa universe have become somewhat clear, but the games make no effort to be scrutable or to lay their workings bare for newcomers.

From grand multigenerational epics like Romancing SaGa 2 to the barely playable proto-board game that was Unlimited Saga, Kawazu’s work follows its own rules, and it seems to revel in leaving players guessing at how those rules work. Indeed, SaGa games technically break the rules of this list by skipping experience points in favor of semi-randomized stat boosts. Despite the series sometimes-impenetrable nature, SaGa has proven remarkably influential, and the upcoming RPGs Octopath Traveler and The Alliance Alive both wear their SaGa heritage on their respective sleeves.

Chrono artwork
Square Enix

17: Chrono (Square Enix)

  • First entry: Chrono Trigger, Super NES, 1995
  • Latest entry: Chrono Trigger, Steam, 2018

Conceived as collaboration between the creators of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy (Yuji Horii and Hironobu Sakaguchi), Chrono Trigger was probably meant to be a self-contained, one-off game. And what a masterpiece of a game! Deftly combining the mechanical accessibility and upbeat vibe of Dragon Quest with the sweeping grandeur of Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger remains an unparalleled achievement in role-playing design. However, its follow-ups tend to be more of an acquired taste. The Japan-only Radical Dreamers barely resembled an RPG, playing instead as a visual novel with occasional RPG-like battles sprinkled throughout.

And while 2000’s Chrono Cross definitely fit into the role-playing genre, it bore little resemblance to its predecessors; most of its connections to Trigger involved killing off beloved characters and revealing the ways in which that game’s happy ending were, in fact, completely catastrophic and even fatal for its heroes. Needless to say, it ended up being a bit controversial. Still, every entry in the Chrono saga shines with quality thanks to inventive mechanics, bold storytelling and some utterly stunning soundtracks by composer Yasunori Mitsuda. There’s a reason “making games like Chrono Trigger” remains a compelling (not to mention elusive) goal for many RPG developers even today.

Castlevania artwork
Konami

16: Castlevania (metroidvania variants) (Konami)

  • First entry: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, PS1, 1997
  • Latest entry: Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, DS, 2008

The Castlevania series may have begun with a pure platforming action game, but as early as its first sequel you could see the creators’ role-playing ambitions at work. Those finally came to fruition with the arrival of 1997’s Symphony of the Night, which included everything you really need to qualify as an RPG: a complex inventory system, a driving storyline and a character-building experience system. Symphony and its spiritual follow-ups — that is, the six “metroidvania” sequels on Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS — absolutely qualify as RPGs, and they combine their role-playing workings and systems with pure platforming action mechanics.

The results aren’t always perfect, and the stat-growth mechanics in particular tend to defang the games’ difficulty, but Castlevania’s free-roaming episodes are beloved by fans (and dearly missed) despite their shortcomings. Other developers have experimented with the platform-RPG concept from time to time (including Nintendo with Zelda 2!), but Castlevania’s free-roaming adventures have delivered the goods more, and more consistently, than any other series to date.

Phantasy Star artwork
Sega

15: Phantasy Star (Sega)

  • First entry: Phantasy Star, Master System, 1987
  • Latest entry: Phantasy Star Nova, Vita, 2014

As Nintendo fans dug into Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, Sega gave its faithful enthusiasts their own ambitious take on the RPG concept. Phantasy Star on Master System owed a great debt to Ultima, from its wild mix of fantasy and sci-fi to its first-person dungeons, but it undeniably had its own personality, too. It was the trio of Genesis sequels that defined the series, dropping the immersive dungeons even as it added in bold, anime-inspired story sequences to make the dull-looking RPG genre a little more visually dynamic. Phantasy Star 4 stands toe-to-toe with the best 16-bit RPGs … but, sadly, Sega never followed up on its achievements.

Instead, they shifted Phantasy Star to a networked, multiplayer format with Phantasy Star Online for Dreamcast. PSO certainly was a revolution in gaming, but it had almost nothing to do with the games whose name it borrowed. Still, even if the series has drifted considerably from what it once was, and even if Sega demonstrates little interest in keeping Phantasy Star Online 2 viable outside of Asian territories, the franchise has made its mark on history.

Etrian artwork
Atlus

14: Etrian Odyssey (Atlus)

  • First entry: Etrian Odyssey, DS, 2007
  • Next entry: Etrian Mystery Dungeon 2, 3DS, 2018

When Nintendo presented the prospect of dedicating a second screen entirely to maps as a possible use case for the DS handheld, veteran Atlus RPG designers saw it as a golden opportunity to bring back a forgotten video game discipline: Mapping out complex dungeons by hand on graph paper. In their Etrian Odyssey, the DS (and 3DS) touch screen takes the place of graph paper, becoming a dynamic, interactive medium in which to render the layouts of dozens of sprawling dungeon floors. In terms of combat mechanics and character-development systems, the Etrian games hearken back to the likes of archaic RPGs such as Wizardry: light on story, absent pre-defined characters and focused entirely on allowing players to roll their own heroes and heroines from blank slates and class specializations. The heavy emphasis on nuts-and-bolts play means the Etrian games aren’t for everyone … but they’re the best there is at what they do.

Souls artwork
Bandai Namco

13: Souls (From Software)

  • First entry: Demon’s Souls, PS3, 2009
  • Next entry: Dark Souls Remastered, Multi, 2018

Not unlike Etrian Odyssey, From Software’s Souls games deliberately hearken back to the old ways. Back to the days when video games weren’t afraid to be brutally difficult. Demon’s Souls and the Dark Souls trilogy (and arguably Bloodborne, if you want to roll that in as well) present a harsh view of the relationship between player and game: It’s not a partnership; it’s a rivalry. The Souls games have no compunctions about destroying you in short order if you play sloppily. Or if you get cocky. Or even if you simply don’t give mastery your all. What makes this series work, however, is the fact that you can master the games. You can win. You simply have to apply yourself. You have to pour your heart into Souls games and give yourself wholly over to them. Once you do, everything clicks. Impossible challenges become suddenly manageable. You can even punch deadly meatwall bosses to death in a “naked” challenge. The Souls games don’t hate you; they merely hate your weakness.

Orge artwork
Square Enix

12: Ogre series (Quest/Square Enix)

  • First entry: Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, Super NES, 1995
  • Latest entry: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, PSP, 2010

What does it mean to be a hero? Can you kill your foes and still retain your morality? Do ethics exist in war? In their best moments, the Ogre games confront you with these moral dilemmas while pressing you with ever more daunting battlefield scenarios. The Ogre Battle branch of the series offers an abstract take on war gaming that ultimately concerns itself less with strategy than with how you lead your troops. Extinguish weaker opponents or treat captives with cruelty and you’ll find that no matter how much territory you claim during your campaign, you’ve still “lost” by abandoning justice.

On the other hand, the Ogre franchise’s other aspect, the Tactics Ogre games, very much demands smart moment-to-moment choices from players. Its moral quandaries happen at the macro scale as the story forces you to make difficult choices that draw a distinction between “lawful” and “good.” Outside of an excellent remake on PSP, the Ogre games petered out more than a decade ago. Yet in the series’ brief lifespan, it gave players plenty to chew on — both morally and mechanically.

Yakuza artwork
Sega

11: Yakuza (Sega)

  • First entry: Yakuza, PS2, 2005
  • Next entry: Yakuza 6, PS4, 2018

Easily the most atypical of all the RPGs on this list, Sega’s Yakuza games take place in a real-world setting rather than a faraway fantasy land. Sure, the series’ vision of Tokyo take a lot of liberties with the truth, but its fanciful vision of modern Japan (and historic Japan, in the case of a few spinoffs) feels perfectly appropriate for a series that inflates the popular image of Japan’s take on the mafia into high-minded Robin Hood-like crusaders for the greater good.

Underneath Yakuza’s stoic drama, goofy humor and glittering Shinjuku neon, you’ll find the beating heart of a genuine RPG experience. Kazuma Kiryu and his partners in noble crime wander the streets, engaging in random combat in order to gain both experience and cash, dabbling in side quests while they pursue the main story — it’s pure RPG, through and through. The series has struggled for a decade to find an audience outside of Japan, but Sega clearly believes in the franchise and keeps trying … and it seems like the rest of the world is finally catching on to the excellence of these RPGs disguised as brawlers.

Curious to see what’s at number one? Click to check out the second part of this list.