Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Top Eleven: Japanese RPGs

Lately I've been playing a lot of Eternal Sonata (review to come once I can find someone to help me discuss the absolutely insane outfits these characters wear), and I managed to get two other people I know interested in playing it.  The question then came up, "What are you favorite Japanese RPG (jrpg) games?"

Now, I could've done this as an Ask Erik, but then I was afraid it'd get lost in the shuffle.  Titling it a "top eleven" makes more sense, in my eyes, because it is, at its core, a list.

I'm also amazed I haven't done this list before, because I've played a lot of these games over the years.

Now, one has to ask "what makes a role-playing style video game a "Japanese RPG?""  Well, there are a few qualifiers.

The first of which is "at least one person needs to have an absolutely ludicrous costume and/or weapon.
The more characters that look like they gathered everything they own from the blown up ruins of Party City, the better."

Typically, a "jrpg" involves a turn-based combat system, where each character gets a certain amount of time/movement to be able to take an action.  They tend to have a fantasy-esque theme, where characters are more likely to carry swords than guns (but not always), feature young people as protagonists, and the stats your character develops tend to only help in combat as opposed to anywhere else.

Oh, and they tend to be made in Japan.  Hence the "J."

So, here's my top eleven (not in order, because my memory likes to shuffle things around) "jrpg" games.

11)  Xenogears

This game and I have an... "interesting" history.  Here's the set-up.

Like many "jrpg" games, the final boss comes in multiple "forms."  You defeat one, it gets bigger, you fight that form, it usually shifts into a third "ultimate" form, and you fight that one.  It's like battling monsters from Power Rangers, except that in this game you tend to get to be in the giant robot whenever you want.

I was near completing the game, having played for hours and hours to get through it.  I was hooked into the story (your standard "amnesiac hero winds up with connection to evil blah blah blah" plot), I liked the characters, and I was even enjoying the combat.  I had one moment where I forgot to save for several hours and then died, but despite that usually being a "mood killer" that makes me shelve a game so I don't have to do it all over again, I plowed back through it, learned from my previous mistakes, and finally got to the final boss.

I played for about an hour and started the fight against the boss.

Without having saved my game right before the fight started.

My roommate at the time actually pointed out I forgot to save.  I pointed out that I spent a ridiculous amount of time leveling up my characters and I was blazing through the boss' first form like it was nothing.  I maxed out the number of healing items and protection items I could carry.  I was using my best fighters who could probably go forever with the strategies I worked out.  I asked what the worst thing that could happen was.

I actually used those words.  "What's the worst that could happen?"

Apparently that's when God just happened to be listening, and he decided to exercise his sense of humor.

I faced the first form, beat it, no problem.  I faced the second form...this one was harder.  I struggled a little, but I beat it.  The third form....was a huge fight.  I was healing just as often as I was attacking, I was delivering massive amounts of damage, and the boss would not die.  Finally, FINALLY I managed to deliver a powerful attack, and the screen flashed white indicating the boss was exploding and I was going to get to see the ending cinematic for the game.

The power went out.

I'm. Not. Kidding.

I gave up right there.  The game went back in the case, and it went on the shelf.  I went to Youtube and watched the ending cinematic there, and I never looked back.

10)  Parasite Eve

I've discussed this twice before now.  A science-fiction themed rpg taking place in the modern world that actually managed to scare me at times, this game was the perfect blend of multiple genres of game.  The sequel...disappointed.  I haven't touched the third because I haven't really heard a single good thing about it since it came out.

But man.  That first one.  If this was in order, this game would be in the top three.

9 Through 6) The Shadow Hearts series- what?  That's too cheap?  Fine.

9)  Shadow Hearts: Covenant

Click those two links up there again, because I've mentioned the Shadow Hearts franchise before as well.  Quite possibly my favorite "series" of "jrpg" games, the games brought in a unique setting, extremely cleverly designed characters (including a few who, well, the less said about them the better),

With a unique (I'm sure using that word a lot) combat system involving a "judgement ring," a system requiring carefully timed button presses while a dial spins around a ring.  The location the arrow lands on when you push the button determines your level of success at things like attacking, mini games, and even purchasing new equipment.  It took some time to get used to, but once you manage to get the system down, it becomes second nature.

I would love, love to see this series make a comeback.  After all, they can keep grinding out Final Fantasy games without caring whether they're any good or innovative in any way, why not try something that isn't really done any more these days anyway?

8)  Lunar: Silver Star Story

I tend to forget I even own this game, actually, but every time I find it, I get excited to remember I have it.

With some of the most gorgeous animation scenes in a game to this day (yes, I'm finding something on a dated system better than a lot of stuff I see now), this game had me hooked from the start.  It had all of the classic "rpg" tropes, including a character with a mysterious past, dragons, a dark powerful figure in the distance with a threat growing ever larger, a mixed cast of characters with distinct (and sometimes clashing) personalities, but it all came together perfectly.

And hey, it had a cute girl with blue hair.  Ya gotta have blue hair.

Man.  Now I want to toss this game back in and play it again.

7)  Chrono Trigger

If I need to go into what makes this game so great, you obviously don't play video games.  So what are you doing reading this article?

One of the few games that took the idea of time travel and made it actually enjoyable, this game had so much replay value that it was ridiculous.  Multiple endings weren't too common when this game first came out, so when you realized that there were fourteen different ways to end the game (more, actually, if you count the little changes that occur when you "change" things), you knew you were going to be playing the game for a very, very long time.

6)  Wild ARMS

I keep referencing this article I wrote, but it still holds true.  This is easily the most truly "unique" setting, in that there just aren't that many "western" style games made at all.  Again, you had an eclectic cast, extremely fun game play, and a world you wanted to explore every single nook and cranny of all coming together perfectly.  The rest of the series is also a lot of fun to play, and I silently hope that one day people will realize that Final Fantasy VII just isn't worth all of these updates and remakes (yeah, you heard me, you wanna pick a fight about it, drop a line in the comments) and will instead focus on rebuilding the brands that might just save the fading "jrpg" style game.

Or even update it.  This series would make for a great western version of, say, Mass Effect or Dragon Age.  Or make it into an online co-op game.  There's so much you could do with this world, that the fact they're doing nothing just makes me really, really sad.

5) Super Paper Mario

This game might be cheating (and yes, I know I give Mario a lot of grief elsewhere in my posts), but this game.  Man, this game.

The bit with Francis might just be the funniest thing I've ever seen in a video game, and the most self-aware thing I've ever seen a video game company do.

That's all.

4)  Dragon Warrior

Remember kids, at one point these were the best graphics you could ever dream of having.
Aside from a few games on an Atari 2600, this was the first video game I ever really remember playing on a home console.  My neighbor Matt had it, and I used to love to go over and just watch him play it.  I'd be upset if he continued playing without me some days, but he'd catch me up on everything that happened.  I dabbled in it somewhat, but it wasn't until much later that I went back and replayed it.

However, I can state without a doubt that even though I essentially did the early video game player's version of "Let's Play," I loved this game.  Sure, I wasn't actively holding the controller, but I was caught up in the story, I was fascinated by all the monsters the characters would fight, and I was mentally trying to fill in the holes in the story about other things happening in the world.

3)  Final Fantasy IV

If I didn't put a Final Fantasy game on this list somewhere, I'd probably get lynched.

Speaking of ridiculous characters, may I point your attention to the left?
My absolute favorite from the Final Fantasy series, this is another game that I have a long, strange history with.

See, at one point in the original production of the game, you find yourself leaving a room with only one exit just to find yourself trapped against a boss fight.  A wall steadily creeps in towards you, threatening to crush your characters to death.  You have to defeat it (by smacking it with a sword?) in order to move on.

I had saved in the room before, but I only had one save file (a classic rookie mistake, you keep two save files in case you miss something between them so you can go back and fix it), and I wasn't high enough level to beat the wall.

I struggled against that thing for days (again, at my friend Matt's house).  I just couldn't do it.  I couldn't get past that area.

Rather than start from scratch...I gave up.  I watched Matt play it, but I didn't want to try again.  I was heartbroken, because I loved the story so much even as a kid, but the idea of doing everything all over again (this is before "replay" was a factor in RPGs, so, before Chrono Trigger).

It wasn't until the game came out years later on the Nintendo DS that I finally went through and played through the whole thing myself.  I still loved it.

2)  Shining Force 2

This is one of the few games that I not only beat on the console, but later went on to play several times in a row on a...well, let's call it a "perfectly legal version on the computer."

Finding every character (and dear god there are a lot of them), upgrading every character, finding new strategies for each combat scene that would allow me to upgrade characters that needed it while keeping my primary character safe (since if he died, well, game over).

This game was completely addictive, and while I'd love to go back to it again (in a perfectly legal means, of course), I'm sure I'd get sucked right back in again and wouldn't surface for air in a few days.

Now, this next game probably is my number one "jrpg" of all time.  It was my favorite video game on the classic console days, and one that I still own a copy of.

1)  Phantasy Star IV

Spoiler alert for a game from 1995
This is my favorite video game (that I can think of right now).  This is the game that I played, and played, and played back when it first came out.  This is the game that I spent years thinking about, wondering if there were any secrets I hadn't discovered, wondering if there was anything I could have done differently.

This is the first RPG that I would play just to be able to play it.  Being able to combine spells into more powerful spells, facing off against massive creatures without the help of a large armed transport vehicle, seeing just how high I could level up my characters, this was the game that consumed my days.

This is the game that took that initial fascination in "jrpg" style games from Dragon Warrior and turned it into an obsession that lasted for years.

You'll note there aren't that many "recent" games on the list.  Well, the "jrpg" genre is faltering quite a bit in recent days.  There were some that trickled over from Japan during the past few years, but outside of Final Fantasy games, they really don't get much of a push any more.  I think people are tired of a genre where the combat tends to never really evolve beyond "let's take the manual control people are used to and just automate it."

Hopefully we'll see a resurgence in these styles of games, because there are still some great stories to be told on these worlds, and I fear that when the "jrpg" goes away, we'll never get games like these again.

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