Earlier in February, I raised a question wondering if 2016 would be the best year for JRPGs since the late 90s. I ultimately believed that the releases looked a little too conventional to compare to the “whatever sticks” approach that Square and its rivals were bombarding us with back during the PlayStation days. However, I also believed that it had the best-looking lineup since the early days of the PlayStation 2, which I thought was a much better comparison.

Here we are at the end of the year, and I’ll look back on a few highlights. Note: I didn’t get around to everything, so I’m not going to comment on everything. Let’s just say I don’t think I was wrong. It was a great year for the genre, one which helped give it its horns back, but most of the releases were also too conventional to compare to the likes of Chrono CrossParasite Eve, Xenogears, and SaGa Frontier.

Final Fantasy XV says differently

So, of course, I’ll need to address this game then, which flies right in the face of what I just said. If we were to base 2016 on the merits of a single game, then it would say the JRPG found a way to adapt and thrive thanks to a liberal interpretation of a classic franchise. Final Fantasy XV broke all the rules, both in development and how it played, and it emerged as one of the best games of 2016.

We called it that just recently. I also called it one of my favorites of the decade and the most fun I’ve have since Mass Effect 2.

In a year I think was pretty conventional, the best game was a risk taker and an experimental spin on a series we’ve loved for three decades. I am willing to go back and look at this opinion, but I want to see how Final Fantasy XV influences the games around it. It was a massive success for Square Enix, one which the series really needed, and no Final Fantasy can truly claim its stake in history unless it shifts the JRPG genre as a whole. All of the ground-breaking entries did this, and we’re starting to see its influence in games that didn’t enter development until the hype train got going.

Best example? I still believe Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, which we will get back to soon, is what Final Fantasy XV would be with a smaller budget and two years of development under its belt rather than a whole decade and enough money to make Her Majesty the Queen blush.

So, what are these more conventional games we speak of?

Handheld JRPGs keep the “tried and true” formulas alive

Is it funny that the biggest risk taker on the handheld front, which is generally where the more traditional JRPGs reside, was Pokémon? As a franchise so stuck in its traditions, Joey claims that a few tweaks, whether perfect or not, helped it become the freshest of the series in a quite while. The core combat and general objective of catching and battle monsters remains, but a new approach to the progression helped it flow a bit differently than the rest.

I can’t really comment on it because I haven’t played it yet, so I’m going to trust Joey on this one. Still, when Pokémon is the biggest force of change in the handheld JRPG world… something is amiss.

Also representing this area is Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past, a three-year-old remake of a 17-year-old video game, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, an “expansion pack sequel” to a marvelous game, and Bravely Second, a charming localization with a “butter stretched over too much bread” gameplay formula. Two were solid, I still need to play Apocalypse, and they did exactly what they needed to do. Nothing game changing or enlightening.

Dragon Quest VII is a game I stubbornly championed for years in hopes of getting a localization, and I would be lying if I said it lived up to my high expectations. The game itself and the mini-story approach is a lot fun, but does it have to be over a hundred hours long!? Come on! I have other games I need to play, and I’m exhausted!

And I’ll close handhelds with another way Nintendo managed to shake things up, or rather, fleece us for easy cash: Fire Emblem Fates. Oh man, did I get suckered into this scheme? I followed Joey’s advice and picked up Conquest first, enjoyed it a lot because I love the linear approach to Fire Emblem, and immediately bought Birthright afterwards, which I didn’t like nearly as much.

I jumped ship and avoided the third chapter, but many stuck around to close out all three, spending roughly $80 for a single game with two expansion packs.

If you liked that, it’s cool. I understand. Fire Emblem games are great! It was a bold and brazen decision by Nintendo to try and sell a video game this way, and it seems to have worked. The innovation here wasn’t really in the video game itself, but rather, in the distribution, which I don’t think counts towards pushing the genre forward.

Spin-offs outshine the main show

This will be short because I’m only referring to two games. The first is, of course, Dragon Quest Builders, which became the feel-good success story of the year. Many dismissed it as a Minecraft clone with another franchise’s characters superimposed on top, but doing so proved to be a huge mistake. Those who played Dragon Quest Builders and have experience with the series saw how its creators seamlessly wove Dragon Quest’s core principles into the Minecraft formula, and they spread the good word to make it a big hit with those don’t have so much experience with Dragon Quest.

The Minecraft angle made it easier for newcomers to swallow.

Yes, easier than 100 long hours of Dragon Quest VII. We’ll see if the brand name recognition carries over when Dragon Quest XI gets localized, and it should give us a good hint regarding if 2016’s biggest dark horse hit finally helped the series get a foothold with English speaking gamers.

The other game I’m thinking about is World of Final Fantasy, which, yeah, definitely didn’t outshine Final Fantasy XV. However, many felt it had a good chance of doing so thanks to the positive reception it received upon release.

Then Final Fantasy XV came out, and it put that chance to bed with a warm glass of milk.

Whatever genius decided to combine Pokémon and Final Fantasy in a “kawaii” shell needs a raise. Marketing, though? Ehhh, many were still wondering what this game was up until its release. Not until fans started spreading the news that it was Pokémon did the hype start flowing. Maybe Square Enix thought word of mouth would be enough to sell this one, allowing it to focus all its efforts into Final Fantasy XV. That’s the only logical reasoning I can thing of.

It might not be the deepest or most innovative Final Fantasy of the year, but longtime fans should get a kick out of it. It was also one of my favorite games of the year. Take that as you will.

Random rogues that slipped through my fingers

A few crazy little hits came out in 2016 that dared to defy conventions. Not to the extent that they’ll be Parasite Eve-esque classics, but just enough that those who got sucked into their niche will fondly remember them years from now.

Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky was one of these games. I sunk a solid six hours into this game before losing all of my progress. It’s 2016, developers! Give us an aut0-save feature!

In a year where Star Ocean cranked out a stinker, this will be the tri-Ace game that fans of the increasingly niche studio look back happily on. It’s got plenty of item creation, outrageous and experimental combat, dungeon crawling, character relationships, multiple endings. You name it, fans will probably dig it up in this game.

I’d say it’s up there with Final Fantasy XV as the most unconventional game of the year, but the problem is it just didn’t break as many rules as tri-Ace’s last cult-hit, Resonance of Fate. Blame it on the budget. It also tried a little too hard to channel Valkyrie Profile, tri-Ace’s eighteen-year-old masterpiece, meaning not all of its experimental ideas were entirely original.

And just to be clear, this game is no Valkyrie Profile.

I also dabbed in Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE for two or three hours, but I quickly shifted to something else. It just didn’t jive with me, but I might go back to it in the future to get a much more full opinion.

Finding a heart through an old-school… someone get me a tissue

My second favorite JRPG of the year turned out to be just as conservative as Final Fantasy XV was liberal. Square Enix also pushed this one out, but it did so with the specific vision of an old-school adventure created in the vein of its classic hits on a tight budget. It even created a new studio dedicated to making such games!

I Am Setsuna carries shadows of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy X, and a good many other JRPGS classics. We all expected that when we first turned it on because that was how Square Enix marketed it.

What we didn’t expect was how much heart can be found in this game! Not only is it home to everything you love from the Super Nintendo and PlayStation hits of old, it also does a fantastic job of creating its own world, telling its own story, revealing its own characters, and setting players off on adventures, sub-quests, and secrets. It’s everything you loved as a kid come back to life, just with a much more limited budget.

Hey, Square Enix! Subtlety and restraint look surprisingly good on you! You should try it out more often!

When we were preparing our list of the 10 best games of 2017, we whittled it down to three games each, someone getting a lucky fourth pick… I Am Setsuna, sadly, was the last cut I had to make to make my selection small enough. I am so sorry! That lump in my throat, it was the same I felt during I Am Setsuna’s ending.

Conventional, experimental, does it matter?

So, in conclusion, was 2016 the best year for the JRPG genre in a long time? I think that’s a definite “Yes.” Was it groundbreaking in that the JRPG has finally found a way to thrive on modern day technology and will return to the prominence that it saw in the late 90s? Well, again, we need to see how Final Fantasy XV and Dragon Quest XI catch on and how many other games they inspire.

But, does it really matter? The handheld market has been thriving for years, and with consoles, my two favorite JRPGs from 2016 couldn’t be any further from each other on the spectrum. One was created with the intention of pushing the genre forward. One was created with bringing it all back to where it began.

In that regard… whatever. It wasn’t as crazy as the late 90s, but 2016 certainly showed us the JRPG lives on as it has for the last 30 years. It can find many ways to thrive and reach audiences, through both experimental and traditional means.

In case you skipped all that, here’s a simple “Top 5” list!

  1. Final Fantasy XV
  2. I Am Setsuna
  3. World of Final Fantasy
  4. Dragon Quest Builders
  5. Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest