You love Japanese role-playing games. We love Japanese role-playing games. Ergo, it’s about time we put together a list of the best retro Japanese role-playing games.
Inspired by the likes of Ultima and Wizardry from the early 1980s, the JRPG genre flourished in the late 80s and early 90s before becoming one of the most renowned genres in gaming history. Names like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Pokémon remain as prominent today as they were two decades ago; this list takes into account these JRPGs and more from the 8-bit era up to more ‘recent’ consoles like the PlayStation 2 and GameCube.
Curating this list down to just 20 games without drawing from a single series too often (looking at you, Final Fantasy) was like murdering childhood memories. We hope you’re not too angry if your favourite JRPG didn’t make the cut. Note – this list isn't presented in any particular order or ranking; these are merely 20 JRPGs you should experience at least once in your lifetime.
While some may argue that earlier titles were the genesis of JRPGs, we’d argue the genre didn’t truly come into its own until Square Enix made its own version of Ultima – Final Fantasy – in 1987, which would go on to become the golden child of the genre the world over. Choosing your party from a handful of classes at the beginning of the game felt like a revelation. Even today, those classes remain iconic, especially White and Black Mages, along with the narrative starring Heroes of Light and elemental crystals. Many still consider the original Final Fantasy to be one of the best games on the NES, and we wouldn’t disagree. It certainly is one of the most influential.
With Nintendo hosting Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games, Sega had to come up with an answer – and boy, did it ever. The original Phantasy Star, released literally two days after Final Fantasy in late 1987, had some of the best visuals and grandest sense of adventure; certainly, its unique science-fantasy setting spanning three planets made it the most ambitious. Three dimensional dungeons that you needed to map by hand and a female heroine further set Phantasy Star apart. It’s a shame it hasn’t become a juggernaut like its counterparts. We’d love to see a triumphant return of this interplanetary series.
Just about every Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior outside of Japan) deserves a spot on the list, but as far as retro titles go, none stand out more than Dragon Warrior III. First released in 1988, exploring an overworld resembled real-world Earth made for an engrossing and difficult adventure; we have fond memories of unlocking the Sage class, building “Immigrant Town” in North America, and the reveal of the true Big Bad and subsequent endgame in Alefgard – the setting of the first Dragon Quest.
Outside of the Nintendo DS remake, Western audiences wouldn’t receive a version of the first Fire Emblem game until late 2020, but that doesn’t mean Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light doesn’t deserve a spot on this list. Despite receiving mixed reviews when it first released, Marth’s first adventure became somewhat of a cult classic with JRPG enthusiasts after its release in 1990. It went on to spawn numerous sequels that still receive great reviews in 2023 and gave us some of the most iconic Super Smash Bros. characters. Intelligent Systems dared to be different way back then, and we’re glad they did.
It ain’t no secret that the action JRPG Secret of Mana impressed when it came out in 1993. Graphically, it holds up a lot better than many of its contemporaries with its clear, vivid pixel art. Furthermore, it allowed you to play cooperatively with one or (if you had a Super Multitap) two friends, making it the only multiplayer retro JRPG. Without friends, you could swap between the three playable characters for some frantic hacking and slashing, the game taking control of the other two party members with some impressive (for the time) AI. The three heroes’ quest to defeat Thanatos might not have had the best plot, but it sure was a memorable adventure in every other regard.
Final Fantasy’s sixth iteration (released as Final Fantasy III in North America) shed the high fantasy aesthetic for a darker tone with steampunk vibes that would influence later entries in the series. It didn’t overtly change the formula from previous iterations, but it was one of the first in the series to truly tell an evocative story with complicated characters that have remained memorable for decades. In particular, the insane Kekfa challenges Sephiroth for the title of most diabolical villain in the series. The final battle with him in his god-like form is one of the most awesome in JRPG history – a fitting end to the era of 2D Final Fantasy games.
Much like Phantasy Star, we want to see a return of this iconic series. The blue-haired protagonist Ryu and the winged princess Nina deserve another iteration on a modern console. Released originally in 1994 on the SNES, Breath of Fire II received praise for the incredibly lengthy adventure and colourful cast; it had a twisting narrative that – while some critics bemoaned for being aimless – we’d argue was ahead of its time. Indeed, successive JRPGs on the SNES loved to have long, convoluted plots. The second Breath of Fire simply did it first with some stellar music and audio design to go along with it.
Many people learned of EarthBound because they had a friend that always picked Ness in Super Smash Bros. and spammed PK Fire, and that’s a damn shame. One of the most unique JRPGs to grace any console – and not just the SNES in 1994 – EarthBound followed Ness as he and his neighbours investigated a meteorite that crash landed near their town that, of course, housed an evil alien presence. Full of wit and a pastel aesthetic wholly unique to the series, EarthBound is a game every JRPG fan should experience at least once, but ideally, more than that – it’s just that unique.
Chrono Trigger is the greatest JRPG ever made and will never be dethroned. There, we said it. With an insane development team that included the creators of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, along with Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame, it’s no wonder. Crono’s time-hopping quest to save the future from the parasitic alien Lavos spanned several memorable locales and was filled with even more memorable characters; for a 16-bit game, it told a story equally thrilling and mysterious. Enemies lurked on maps to trigger battles without the screen changing, and the Active Time Battle system added a sense of urgency to even the most simple fights. Twelve unique, and often humorous, endings awaited the devoted, and Yasunori Mitsuda also composed an unparalleled and evocative soundtrack. We could go on but, well, you get it – we love Chrono Trigger.
We don’t really think the original Pokémon games need much of an explanation as to why they’re among the greatest JRPGs. They were by far the most influential titles on the GameBoy, popularising an entire genre of monster collecting fun. Sure, there were creature collectors released prior to 1996, but none had the pure whimsy and sense of adventure that Pokémon Red & Blue (or Green & Blue in Japan) had; outside of something like Harry Potter, we struggle to think of a more universal cultural phenomenon. It’s quite telling that, despite how the Pokémon formula hasn’t changed much in nearly three decades, it remains one of the best selling games of any genre year after year.
Prior to 1996, if you told us Mario would star in one of the greatest JRPGs ever made, we wouldn’t have believed you. Mario, after all, was supposed to stomp Goombas and leap gaps, not whack enemies in turn-based battles with a hammer. Turns out Nintendo’s poster boy could do both and with colourful style. Super Mario RPG introduced us to Geno, one of our favourite additions to the series we’d love to see again, and, in a welcome twist, Bowser joined his party. A surprising amount of humour and memorable music – reminiscent of standard Mario fare but still unique – enshrined this adventure as one of the most distinctive games of the genre.
If you disagreed with us that Chrono Trigger is the best JRPG ever made, chances are you think Final Fantasy VII holds that illustrious title. The seventh Final Fantasy stunned critics the world over; graphically and narratively, it was an unparalleled masterpiece in 1997. It received universal praise from just about everyone at that time. Cloud’s mind-bending quest first saw him trying to stop Shinra before pursuing the enigmatic Sephiroth – perhaps the greatest JRPG villain – across continents. Massive swords, arm-guns, an even more enigmatic alien lifeform, and a murdered party member later, and you’ve got one of the most iconic games of any genre.
Suikoden II failed to capture audiences in the late '90s as the genre had moved onto polygonal graphics, but that didn’t mean it was a bad game. On the contrary, the second Suikoden gathered a cult following due to its gripping story, over 100 characters to recruit, and three different battle systems. Today, many hail it as one of the most unique and must-play JRPGs. Indeed, none other have done what Suikoden II did since, mixing genres with one-on-one duels, typical JRPG fights, and massive tactical battles reminiscent of Fire Emblem. We’re quite happy that Konami is giving the first two Suikoden games the HD remaster treatment to release sometime in 2023.
Both the best JRPG and one of the best games on the Dreamcast, Skies Of Arcadia gained somewhat of a cult-like status even after its re-release on the GameCube in 2002. People were used to playing JRPGs on their PlayStations by that point and many missed out on this sky pirate-themed gem that saw Vyse and friends hopping between floating continents to stop the wrong people from awakening living weapons called Gigas. It had everything you wanted in a JRPG – a great cast, stellar music, lots to explore, and some solid combat. Though unlikely, we’d love to see Skies of Arcadia get the remake treatment.
Developed by Camelot Co., Ltd., the studio responsible for both Shining Force and Mario Golf, 2001’s Golden Sun stands out as their best game – and it’s an absolute shame we haven’t seen more of the series. Golden Sun was half JRPG and half puzzle game; the overworld featured many puzzles to solve using Psynergy spells that could also be used to defeat enemies in turn-based battles. We have fond memories of seeking out and using powerful little creatures called Djinn to summon impressive magical attacks throughout protagonist Isaac’s lengthy, plot-driven adventure. We hope Camelot gives the series another go someday.
By far the most brutal JRPG to make this list, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, in true Shin Megami Tensei fashion, didn’t pull its punches. Hundreds of challenging enemies. Engaging turn-based combat. Winding, labyrinthine dungeons. A dark, apocalyptic Tokyo to explore. Dynamic demon negotiation and fusion. Mara, the penis-like abomination that makes an appearance in most SMT games. And so on. The Demi-Fiend’s adventure was as strange as it was unique, making Nocturne one of the best games of 2003 that we were glad to see get a remaster in 2020.
Say what you will about the Tales series, it deserves recognition for being way ahead of its time. When JRPGs were still largely turn-based, Tales games mixed action-based combat with AI-controlled companions. The best among these, Tales Of Symphonia, saw you take control of Lloyd Irving as he helped his friend achieve her destiny as the chosen hero, hopping between two parallel worlds in a grand plot of depleting magic and Fascist half-elves (they had literal human ranches – it wasn’t subtle). Symphonia was a very different game in 2003, praised as a fresh take on the genre.
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is so damn good. Of all the games on this list, it requires a remaster most; later Paper Mario games, while good, never lived up to The Thousand-Year Door’s sheer amount of creativity and charm – a stark contrast to the more dramatic alternatives the JRPG genre had on offer at the time. Twitch-based attacks in battle, seven whimsical party members – including the slightly disconcerting Madame Flurrie – and a lengthy adventure filled to the brim with great music and colourful locales more than earns it a spot as one of the best JRPGs.
As the first Dragon Quest game to fully utilise 3D environments, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King was a cultural phenomenon when it released in Japan in 2004 and a well-received addition to the PlayStation 2’s massive library elsewhere. Seeing the series’ massive array of iconic monsters – Slimes, Bodkins, Funghouls, and the like – rendered with gorgeous cel-shaded graphics that hold up to this day was a treat for any fan. Your party of four, including Jessica the Mage and Yangus the Bandit, had a hefty amount of personality and customisation available to them, making the hundreds of battles you fought as you chased down the evil Dhoulmagus an adventure for the JRPG history books.
The most stylish retro JRPG award goes to Persona 4 – or Persona 3, if you prefer its predecessor. We wouldn’t blame you if you did, as both are stellar. The Persona series’ unique social sim by day and dungeon crawler by night system will never grow stale, nor will the monster negotiation and fusion borrowed from the Shin Megami Tensei series. We give an edge to Persona 4 because of its cast and the setup of high school students being murdered. Jumping into TVs to investigate the cultrips made for a unique hook that had us invested in this lengthy, epic anime-inspired adventure back in 2008.
Originally released on the Sega CD in 1992, Lunar was popular with hardcore Sega fans but perhaps didn't get its chance to truly shine. Thankfully, it was enough of a cult classic to be given this remaster on Saturn and PlayStation, with the latter version getting a North American localisation in 1999 thanks to Working Designs. With its attractive hand-drawn visuals, epic cutscenes and wonderful soundtrack, it should come as no great shock to learn that this is widely regarded as one of the finest JRPGs ever made. It was even remade two more times in the shape of Lunar Legend and Lunar: Silver Star Harmony.