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The greatest Japanese RPG franchises, part 2

Celebrating the fine art of hitting things to make numbers bigger

Pokémon artwork
| Game Freak

Yesterday, I began a countdown of the best 25 Japanese role-playing game franchises. It included series like Castlevania and Yakuza, which may have confused a couple of people! And it touched on those most probably expected, like Kingdom Hearts and Phantasy Star. Read it — the first 15 entries — here.

Now it’s time to see through the rest of the list. For the final entries, we’re getting a bit more traditional. Check out numbers 10 to 1 below.

Suikoden artwork
Konami

10: Suikoden (Konami)

  • First entry: Suikoden, PS1, 1996
  • Latest entry: Genso Suikoden: Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki, PSP, 2012

Built on themes drawn from Chinese legends and Hindu tradition, Konami’s Suikoden games recast the role-playing genre in terms of large-scale conflict. While the moment-to-moment action plays out in a traditional turn-based format involving a small party of characters (six at most), Suikoden is ultimately driven by a view of the bigger picture. Each game’s protagonist inevitably becomes the de facto leader of a growing army, and your quest almost always involves recruiting skilled warriors to bolster your forces while establishing an ever-growing base of operations.

The concept of fate plays heavily into Suikoden as you seek the 108 warriors who represent each conflict’s Stars of Destiny. Eventually, things boil over and you have to field your entire army against the enemy’s … or perhaps simply duel an enemy commander one-on-one. Suikoden’s sequels have varied wildly in quality, and Konami appears to have abandoned the franchise altogether. At its best, though, Suikoden spoke from the heart and highlighted small moments that still mattered even against the backdrop of nations locked in warfare.

Fire Emblem Heroes art
Fire Emblem artwork
Nintendo

9: Fire Emblem (Intelligent Systems/Nintendo)

  • First entry: Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Tsurugi, Famicom, 1990
  • Next entry: Fire Emblem (working title), Switch, 2018

Nintendo and Intelligent Systems’ ongoing strategy RPG saga is one of the rare cases in which a series somehow becomes both better and more popular as time goes by. Along with Sega’s Shining games, the earliest Fire Emblem titles help define how strategic wargaming should work on consoles. As the series has evolved, its creators have never strayed from the core concepts that define its gameplay: Players take turns moving their army around a map, drawing strength in unity with allies, while relying on an intuitive rock-paper-scissors dynamic as their individual combat units clash with enemies.

The newer games place ever-greater emphasis on interpersonal relationships within the army, yet you can still choose to retain the option of permanent combat death for your characters — not only creating a steeper challenge during battles, but also leading to heartrending situations in which a blossoming romance is cut short by a battlefield fatality. It even somehow manages to work as a mobile gatcha game. Fire Emblem has turned out to be one of Nintendo’s more unexpected global successes in recent years, but its popularity just keeps growing. Turns out love really can bloom on the battlefield.

Dragon Slayer artwork
Nihon Falcom

8: Dragon Slayer (Nihon Falcom)

  • First entry: Dragon Slayer, PC-8801, 1984
  • Next entry: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 - The End of the Saga, PS4, 2018

The flip side of the Castlevania/metroidvania coin, the Dragon Slayer games began as RPG hybrids and gradually mutated into pure turn-based affairs in the classic role-playing style. It’s honestly a little difficult to draw a line between developer Nihon Falcom’s various RPG titles, as both the Xanadu and Legend of Heroes series began under the Dragon Slayer umbrella before coming into their own as separate works. The Dragon Slayer name itself was originally just used to loosely and informally connect a bunch of separate games conceived by designer Yoshio Kiya. Collectively, however, these different works practically invented the action-RPG, from Dragon Slayer’s top-down exploration to Sorcerian’s side-scrolling action.

Falcom doesn’t use the Dragon Slayer name anymore, but the company continues to develop new entries in the franchises that spun out of the brand. Last year’s Tokyo Xanadu put a dungeon-brawler spin on the Persona concept, and Trails of Cold Steel 4 is poised to bring a masterful finale to the RPG series that began with Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes back in 1989.

Mystery Dungeon artwork
Chun Soft

7: Mystery Dungeon (Chun Soft)

  • First entry: Torneko no Daibouken: Fushigi no Dungeon, Super Famicom, 1993
  • Next entry: Etrian Mystery Dungeon 2, 3DS, 2018

With its permanent death mechanics and randomized dungeon design, the roguelike role-playing genre began as the exclusive domain of hardcore PC gamers. These days, it’s carved itself a place as the basis of innumerable hybrid works on all platforms. Games like FTL, Spelunky and Rogue Legacy barely resemble the turn-based, ASCII-rendered minimalism of Nethack, but they undeniably come from the same DNA. The missing link between the two extremes? Spike Chunsoft’s Mystery Dungeon games.

Originally conceived as a spinoff of Dragon Quest IV, Mystery Dungeon attempted to condense the immense, unpredictable sandbox of a genre designed to be played with the use of practically every key on a QWERTY keyboard into a format that would work with a Super NES controller. This involved a great many compromises and simplifications, yet Chun Soft still retained the potential for deep, surprising, ever-changing interactions that defined Rogue and its descendants. It also added an element of persistence to the genre, rewarding players for meticulous planning over the long term. The Mystery Dungeon format works surprisingly well with a variety of licenses (ranging from Pokémon to Final Fantasy), but its always at its best when it features Chun Soft’s own roguish protagonist, Shiren the Wanderer. Mystery Dungeon is equal parts frustrating, addictive, and influential.

Ys artwork
Nihon Falcom

6: Ys (Nihon Falcom)

  • First entry: Ys: Ancient Ys Vanished, PC-8801, 1987
  • Next entry: Ys 8: Lacrimosa of Dana, Switch, 2018

The Ys games emerged from the same primal pool of creative thought within Nihon Falcom that gave us the Dragon Slayer pseudo-franchise. However, Ys (pronounced “ease”) has always had a far stronger sense of identity than its loose coalition of cousins: The games always star red-headed amnesiac Adol Christin, and they always take the form of an action RPG that isn’t afraid to demand bullet-hell reflexes at times. The Ys games have enjoyed a steadier through-line of evolution than perhaps any other RPG franchise outside of Dragon Quest: The simple top-down “bump attack” mechanics of the earliest games have slowly mutated into a real-time multi-character system based around evasive maneuvers and exploiting enemy weaknesses. Ys has become as speedy as Dark Souls is methodical. The series’ latest entry (last year’s Ys 8: Lacrimosa of Dana, which has a port due soon for Switch) demonstrates Falcom’s remarkable ability to keep the franchise feeling fresh and relevant 30 years on — no small feat.

EarthBound artwork
Nintendo

5: Mother (Nintendo)

  • First entry: Mother, Famicom, 1990
  • Latest entry: Mother 3, Game Boy Advance, 2006

Of all the series on this list, Nintendo’s Mother games (best known for EarthBound on Super NES) feel the most like a singular work. Consisting of a trilogy of games and unlikely to continue beyond that, Mother tells a finite saga. Players experience the games from the perspectives of multiple characters over the span of the series, but the story itself comes from one mind: Japanese pundit Shigesato Itoi. It’s Itoi’s acerbic wit and love of melancholy that make Mother so distinct. His games pay homage to other RPGs and to picaresque kids’ movies while simultaneously deconstructing those works, and the result is a trio of role-playing adventures like no other.

Mother’s dialogue makes use of surrealism and sarcasm to recapture the disorientation that children feel as they navigate the world of adults with their inscrutable motivations. Mechanically, the games seem to revel in applying unexpected tweaks to RPG fundamentals, be it a willingness to cut loose tedious design elements by allowing players to instantly win battles against weak monsters or livening up combat sequences by setting battle actions to music. By turns bizarre, earnest, melancholy and tragic, the Mother games stand as RPGs like no other.

Pokémon artwork
Game Freak

4: Pokémon (Game Freak/Nintendo)

  • First entry: Pokémon Red & Blue, Game Boy, 1998
  • Latest entry: Detective Pikachu, 3DS, 2018

Without question the biggest and best-selling RPG series ever, Pokémon has been a juggernaut for two decades now and shows no sign of slowing down. The idea couldn’t be more simple: Players capture roaming “pocket monsters” capable of using remarkable powers and form a team of their favorites with which to compete against other Pokémon trainers. Battles play out primarily in a one-versus-one format, with each competitor alternating turns; they can field one monster at a time from an active roster of six. Pokémon games increasingly involve epic, world-ending stakes … but no matter how many ineffable godlike beings you manage to cram into a little capsule to serve as your combat pal, the real goal of each adventure is to become the very best by dominating the regional combat tournament. Or maybe the real goal is to catch all 800-plus monsters and fill out your Pokédex database. Or perhaps the true test of Pokémon games is battling with other players, to see whose tailor-made team can come out on top. In other words, Pokémon is versatile enough to be whatever you want it to be.

With hundreds of monsters possessing their own customizable powers and countless combinations of elemental strengths and weaknesses, Pokémon contains the kind of depth other RPG developers can only dream of. While the series can feel a bit stagnant with its formulaic design, that seems a reasonable tradeoff for the fact that a Pokémon fan could literally have carried forward the exact same team of digital creatures for more than two decades across four different hardware generations.

Dragon Quest artwork
Square Enix

3: Dragon Quest (Square Enix)

  • First entry: Dragon Warrior, NES, 1989
  • Next entry: Dragon Quest Builders 2, PS4/Switch, 2018

The grandfather of Japanese RPGs, Dragon Quest cracked the code to the genre back in 1986 and sparked a revolution of imitators and innovators. All these years later, the series continues to power ahead, and its time-tested approach to role-playing continues to make an excellent launchpad into all sorts of sub-genres. Dragon Quest didn’t simply give us the classic JRPG format, it also inspired the Mystery Dungeon series and, most recently, deftly combined its compelling combat feedback loop with the Minecraft concept in Dragon Quest Builders.

Dragon Quest has a powerful legacy, especially among its Japanese fans, and its creators recognize this. Each new entry in the series builds on what has come before, faithful to its own heritage … but often just new and different enough to risk alienating its hardline loyalists. It’s RPG comfort food, but despite the familiarity the games never simply churn through the same material. Dragon Quest has given us icons like Akira Toriyama’s cheerful low-level slime monsters, but the series’ most important legacy might be the way it not only emphasizes its protagonists’ personal journey but somehow manages to make you care about the generic non-player characters you meet along the way.

Nah, just kidding. Everything about Dragon Quest defined the role-playing game as we know it today. It’s the giant on whose shoulders everyone else stands. And if it seems a little conservative or tame at times, well, that’s on purpose, too. No matter how wild the RPG genre becomes — no matter how many other games put their boy-band protagonists in Cup Noodles costumes as they save the world — Dragon Quest will always be there to remind us how it ought to be done.

Shin Megami Tensei artwork
Atlus

2: Shin Megami Tensei (Atlus)

  • First entry: Megami Tensei, Famicom, 1987
  • Next entry: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, 3DS, 2018

Before Pokémon, there was Shin Megami Tensei: a turn-based RPG in which players collect a seemingly infinite array of monsters and harness their powers and elemental affinities into a team. Tonally, of course, the two franchises couldn’t be more different. SMT has almost never bothered to explore the multiplayer competition that fuels Pokémon. Perhaps more importantly, SMT expects you to treat your combat team differently. Pokémon become your adorable pals; SMT’s demons are, well, demons. You don’t befriend them; you recruit them through fear, bribery, or seduction. And where you could theoretically still be using the exact same Bulbasaur you selected in your very first playthrough of Pokémon Blue 20 years ago as part of your Ultra Moon team, SMT has no expectations: You’re meant to use your demons until they’re no longer of use, then destroy them by fusing them into more powerful monsters.

Ruthless as this may sound, SMT actually concerns itself very much with morality. Nearly every one of the franchise’s mainline entries (and many of its spinoffs) involve branching story paths that test the player’s ethical alignment. This rarely boils down to good versus evil; in SMT’s universe, those two extremes tend to have a lot in common. You can often literally side with either God (the very one who melts people’s faces when they look into the Ark of the Covenant) or Satan, but most of the time God turns out to be a fascist dick and Lucifer wants everyone to become an anarchic murderer. SMT’s alignment permutations found their ultimate expression in Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne with its dozen nuanced moral paths, but even when things boil down to the standard Law/Neutral/Chaos trinary, your actions and decisions always have a huge impact on the ultimate outcome of the story.

What really makes SMT interesting is how many different ways Atlus has repurposed its trademark demons and spells. We’ve had pure dungeon-diving (Strange Journey), real-time action (Devil Summoner), Fire Emblem-like strategy (Devil Survivor), an MMO, and even some inevitable portable dual-version Pokémon clones. The core, numbered SMT titles — the fifth of which is currently in development for Switch — provide the series’ ever-evolving baseline. And finally, the Persona games return in many respects to the novella that inspired the series by placing players in the shoes of normal teenagers in contemporary Japan who find themselves drawn into wild demonic adventures while still trying to balance their social lives. SMT stumbles at time, but on the whole it stands as the most genuinely mature and intellectually substantial RPG series to emerge from Japan … and it’s not afraid to kick players’ asses with crazy-hard combat, too.

Final Fantasy artwork
Square Enix

1: Final Fantasy (Square Enix)

  • First entry: Final Fantasy, NES, 1990
  • Latest entry: Final Fantasy 15: Royal Edition, PC, 2018

Finally, there can only be one. And is there any wonder it’s Final Fantasy? Of all the role-playing series to emerge from Japan — or really, from anywhere — no other name represents as broad and substantial an umbrella as Final Fantasy. Launched in Japan in 1987 and making its way overseas for the first time a few years later, Final Fantasy defined its own style amidst a market of games slavishly imitating Dragon Quest and Wizardry. The series has evolved radically throughout the years, to the point that you’d barely be able to identify Final Fantasy 15 as a sequel to that long-ago turn-based NES RPG. But the through line from Final Fantasy to Final Fantasy 15 has been perfectly clear, with each new entry in the series iterating on what’s come before.

Final Fantasy has always been defined by its eagerness to experiment and redefine itself. Sometimes that’s led the series down some genuinely dreadful paths, but it also works as a guarantee: If you don’t like one Final Fantasy game, stick around, because the next will probably turn out to be a lot more to your liking. It also ensures that Final Fantasy will stand at the cutting edge of game design in some respect — narrative, mechanical or technical. The series rarely manages to push ahead on all three of those fronts at once, but you’ll rarely come across a numbered Final Fantasy that didn’t stand out from its peers in some respect at the time of its release. Sometimes, the series works so far ahead that its brilliance only becomes clear years later (as with Final Fantasy 12, which many players scorned in 2006 … but which has become the template for the modern console RPG design).

Still, if all you want from Final Fantasy is more of the same kind of games that drew you into the series 20 or 30 years ago, Square Enix is happy to deliver on that front, too. A steady stream of remakes, re-releases and all-new games built in the classic style ensures that Final Fantasy will never abandon its roots, regardless of how iconoclastic its latest sequel appears. The rules and iconography of Final Fantasy have demonstrated extraordinary flexibility beyond the bounds of pure role-playing, too. From Mystery Dungeon spinoffs to Ogre-esque tactical games to Nintendo sports team-ups, Final Fantasy has proven to be the world’s most versatile video game franchise this side of Mario’s games. The Final Fantasy brand has faced its share of challenges and failures through the years, but it always bounces back. Resilience is built into the series by design, and of any franchise on the list, Final Fantasy seems the most likely to still be around — and still be popular and influential — another 30 years from now.