So you want to get into JRPGs (Japanese role playing games) huh? Well, pull up a chair and let your buddy Ron tell you all about where you can get started.
The selection of your first JRPG is an incredibly important one as it could easily make or break your interest and future career with the genre. Pick one too hard, and boom, JRPGs become too impenetrable and not worth your time. On the other hand, starting with an overly-simplistic or just downright bad game could prove to be too boring by modern standards, setting up expectations that all JRPGs are meandering grindfests, which just isn't true.
That first game must be a bullseye hit, one which intrigues you with its story without being too overly complicated, and one that challenges you without hiding its fun under layers and layers of blubbery, fatty RPG mechanics.
With that, if you play these recommended classics before all else, you should be set for the rest of your life in the wonderful world of JRPGs.
Disclaimer: I disqualified Pokemon for this editorial because that choice is a bit too easy. By all means, use that to start your new hobby though.
Final Fantasy VI
We'll go with a little personal experience here as this was my first JRPG, the one which started it all for me. Final Fantasy VI has long been one of the most popular games in the series thanks to cast of unforgettable heroes and equally despisable villains. None will forget the barrage of heartbreaking moments which this war-torn world must suffer through after the first time they wrap up its 35 hour story.
Luckily, they won't have to struggle very hard to get the closing moments. For as all-absorbing Final Fantasy VI's story is, it is an absurdly easy video game, perhaps the easiest in the entire franchise. A few bosses and dungeons deep into the second half might stand out as challenging, but by that time, even beginners should have its mechanics well under wraps.
Learning magic spells has never been easier aside from simply "leveling up." Each individual character also has a unique ability that is well explained, but chances are you won't need most of them for the first few hours as many fights in the game can be beaten by just plain attacking.
Final Fantasy VI is also widely available on a large selection of platforms. The Super Nintendo version is still the most authentic way to go about it, and it is available on the Wii Virtual Console as Final Fantasy III for reasons I really don't care to get into here. Look it up!
The Game Boy Advance port is a suitable substitute, but it sacrifices a bit of the music quality for the sake of being portable. A version on PlayStation Network is also available, but it is a bit infamous for poor coding and excessive load-times.
Final Fantasy VI was also souped up for iOS and Android, and these versions will even hold you by the hand with waypoints and the ability to skip difficult portions. It's a bit overkill, making an already easy game even easier, and they miss the point of Final Fantasy VI's graphical choices entirely. Stick to the original or GBA version, maybe the PlayStation one, for the most authentic and user friendly experience.
Dragon Quest IV
Final Fantasy VI's radical storytelling was quite a departure from the previous games in the series, and it would be fair to say that it might give newcomers a false impression that JRPGs are a very liberal genre. That couldn't be further from the case, and Dragon Quest is a testament as to how a series can evolve and yet stay well within its set boundaries and traditions over the course of 30 years.
Dragon Quest wasn't the first JRPG, but its success did set the standards for how JRPGs would be modeled, making it a great place to start. Those looking to break into it would do well to jump in with Dragon Quest IV. This fourth entry finds the best balance between an interesting story, a very classic feel, and most importantly, a beginners mentality. Dragon Quest IV perfects the tropes of the other games with its episodic adventures and goofy puns, and its predetermined characters are easy to learn and enjoyable to journey with.
With Dragon Quest IV under your belt, it will be much easier understand the finer points of each other individual game as well. You can better grasp the subtler themes of Dragon Quest V's emotional story, understand the scope of Dragon Quest VIII's world, and be more equipped to handle the character customization in Dragon Quest III and Dragon Quest IX. The fourth entry will teach you everything you need to know about this marvelous series, and it is charming enough to give you the spark of exploration.
It will teach you all you need to know about the basics of JRPGs as well. Everything found here can be found in Final Fantasy, Suikoden, Persona, Breath of Fire, you name it!
I'd say avoid the original NES version, but you probably won't have to because it is really hard to find and fetches an absurd price on the secondhand market. Instead, buy the Nintendo DS remake. It's the absolute best way to experience the game. Square Enix has also done a better job with the Dragon Quest mobile ports than the Final Fantasy mobile ports, so iOS and Android users also have my stamp of approval from Dragon Quest IV if they want to go that way.
Dragon Quest IV is about as simple as the genre can get while still being a blast. Final Fantasy VI is a bit of a deviant in its storytelling and a far more exciting game, but Dragon Quest IV is pure, vanilla JRPG fun.
If it proves to be a little old-school though, Dragon Quest VIII on the PlayStation 2 is the second best place to get acquainted with the series. Just be ready to drop 100+ hours into it and deal with some slightly complicated battles.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
The two biggest problems most newcomers have when it comes to JRPGs is that there is too much reading and choosing attacks from a menu can get boring. Well, we'll let Mario twist your expectations a little.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, developed by Square, not Nintendo, is easy enough to approach because this is more than a simple RPG. Square piles on the extra options like explosive minigames, fun dungeons that force Mario to use his platforming skills, and most importantly, timed hits. Yes, you'll still still be choosing attacks from a menu, but Super Mario RPG creates a new system in which simply tapping a button at the exact right moment will add damage to an attack or cancel damage when used on the defense.
It's a simple mechanic, but it will keep those bored with traditional battle systems alert from beginning to end.
As for the reading, Super Mario RPG is just plain hilarious. It's super tongue-in-cheek and pokes a lot of fun at Mario's more awkward quirks in a way that only Square, who wasn't pleased with Nintendo at the time, can. The liberal use of the Mario universe is unlike anything Mario fans may have witnessed in the main line games, even the popular handheld Mario & Luigi RPGs. This is definitely a unique beast, one which shows how RPGs can really shake up a canon.
Beyond those two changes, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is a really easy RPG with an easy layout to its battles and a very simple leveling up system. Anybody can pick up and enjoy this game with even a bare minimum knowledge of the genre.
It is available on the Wii Virtual Console, which is the only way to play it outside of the original Super Nintendo cartridge. Good luck tracking that down.
And if all else fails, this is your stop gap. Ideally, you should have slugged through two or three other JRPGs before taking a bite out of Chrono Trigger. Not that it is complicated in any way, but rather, it is just so stupidly perfect that it is hard to fully appreciate without experiencing all the missteps that it irons out.
Chrono Trigger addresses every single flaw or mistake made by Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the other B-tier franchises of the day that came before it. Quite frankly, it is the perfect 16-bit JRPG. Random battles have been marvelously replaced with scripted fights. Its plot rockets at an unstoppable pace, and there is no need for pointless grinding, fighting for the sake of "leveling up."
Not an ounce of storytelling telling spirit is lost in the streamlining of the genre either. Chrono Trigger's characters are eternally popular, and their time-bending quest is unlike anything else you'll ever find, capturing the bright and joyous colors of a summer festival to the devastating lows of the post-apocalypse. As for the combat, it's definitely simple enough for a newcomer to grasp, and its depth through "combination attacks" is easily accessible thanks to the game spelling it out for you in menu screens.
Again, play through Final Fantasy VI and maybe one other game of the era before tackling this one. If you still don't like JRPGs after Chrono Trigger, then maybe there is just no hope. It is available on the Wii Virtual Console, and the Nintendo DS version also comes highly recommended.
The PlayStation version adds animated cutscenes which are really well, done, but the sprites in Chrono Trigger are expressive enough to get the emotion across without them. Plus, this version suffers from the same loading issues as Final Fantasy VI's PlayStation version. Chrono Trigger also has a well-received iOS port, but I've never played it.
Final Fantasy X
I was going to go with the Suikoden games, but looking back at the last four, all of these choices have been a little old. I mean… very old if we are being honest here.
I'm sorry. I tried to think of something a bit more modern. I really did, but the truth is that JRPGs simply peaked in the 90s. That's when they reigned supreme in a way that they simply don't anymore. Plus, most modern JRPGs on the seventh and eighth generation consoles all assume that you have had experience playing some of these classics before. Everything is an evolution of their foundations nowadays. Battle systems must appear to be "cutting-edge," leveling up have to be seen as "thought-provoking." The JRPG's traditional, simplistic approach is a one way ticket to being a relic upon arrival, and nobody wants to be seen as the old man on his front porch.
The JRPG world is no place for beginners anymore! Luckily, the older masterpieces have been made widely available.
I would say the buck stops here when it comes to being both "accessible" and "modern" in the world of JRPGs. 2002's Final Fantasy X showed the world the possibilities of the PlayStation 2's graphics, and it even looks better than games which came out towards the end of the console's lifetime. Without question, if you love beautiful looking games, this is a great place to get your eye candy. Even the original PlayStation 2 character models tackle age splendidly thanks to Square's stunning art direction.
Final Fantasy X's plot is very fun, very romantic in a teenie-bopper kind of way, and most importantly, very easy to grasp. I'd even go so far as to call it a tear-jerker with some genuinely touching moments, a constant sense of dread over the whole adventure, and hands down the best ending the series has ever seen. Get those tissues ready.
As for gameplay, Final Fantasy X is simple enough when it comes to combat. Attack, Defend, Magic, Summon, Steal. It's pretty simple, and just a shred more difficult than the classics. I'd say it might be tough for a newcomer to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each character, like understanding that Wakka's status attacks make him one of the game's best characters, but Square provides enough of a tutorial explaining the basics of each.
Newcomers should never use Kimahri in battle.
Leveling up is also a little iffy for newcomers not because it is hard, but because it is unique. In fact, Final Fantasy X entirely does away with traditional "leveling-up "as we know it! If the player has zero experience with other RPGs, Final Fantasy X's "sphere grid" might set up some weird expectations for their second outing. It certainly won't teach them anything about "experience points," that's for sure.
Final Fantasy X can be played on the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PS Vita. I still prefer the rough edges of the PlayStation 2's graphics, but the later ports have the advantage of higher quality music tracks and portability. I'll leave that choice up to you.
The only traditional JRPG to come after this game that might be accessible to newcomers is Lost Odyssey on the Xbox 360, but I don't have enough experience with that one to recommend it. It doesn't look like any will rise to to occasion either… until Dragon Quest XI comes out of course. Talk about a series that doesn't mind looking like the old man on his front porch. Get off my lawn, Xenoblade Chronicles!
Take my advice. Stick to these five games before branching into classics like Suikoden or Breath of Fire, and most definitely play them before picking up the likes of Kingdom Hearts, Tales, Star Ocean, Xenoblade, Persona, and the rest of their modern ilk out there.
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