There comes a time when every person must sit back, think about his or her life's accomplishments, and wonder, "What JRPGs should I play?"
Fear not. I'm here to help.
This is a list of Japanese role-playing games that deserve your time. Some are new; some are old; all are excellent. Each of these is worth playing today, even if you have to dig out your dusty old Super Nintendo and try to find cartridges at a yard sale or something. These are games both timeless and ageless. They're the cream of the crop. They've got the spikiest of the hair. The longest of the swords. The evilest of the demons.
You should really play all of these games. Presented in no particular order:
Final Fantasy VI
(Super Nintendo, PlayStation, Game Boy Advance)
Part steampunk, part Star Wars, and 100% pretty goddamned awesome, FFVI is the best of the Final Fantasys and one of the first RPGs to show people that yes, video games can pack an emotional wallop. The adventures of Terra and Celes and their struggle against the demonic clown Kefka still hold up today, even if their animations are a little limited. Really, the constraints of 16-bit graphics leave a lot to the imagination, which is part of what makes Final Fantasy VI still shine today.
Illusion of Gaia
Back in the early 90s, a small company named Quintet released a handful of actiony RPGs for Nintendo systems. Many are very good—ActRaiser, Soul Blazer, Terranigma—but the highlight is Illusion of Gaia, a quirky romp in which you play a psychic boy named Will who has to travel across a skewed version of the real world, hacking his way through both fantasy tropes and actual landmarks like the Great Wall of China. Will's journey is satisfying and surprisingly touching, filled with little lines and moments that touch upon mortality and The Meaning Of Life.
Lunar: Eternal Blue Complete
(Sega Saturn, PlayStation)
No game has mastered the concept of traditional JRPG—a turn-based, music-heavy adventure filled with interesting people and places—quite like the Lunar series, created by the talented team at a Japanese studio called Game Arts. Eternal Blue is the best of the bunch, and although the hero, Hiro, can get a little grating, the game is warm and lovely and surprisingly genuine. Killer soundtrack, too.
Ni no Kuni
If you look up the word "charming" in the dictionary, you will probably not find Ni no Kuni. I don't know why you thought a niche role-playing game would be mentioned in a dictionary. But Ni no Kuni is an excellent game nonetheless—a gorgeous, funny adventure that's essentially an explorable Miyazaki film. (Read my review.)
Phantasy Star IV
(Sega Genesis, PC (Steam))
Back in the 90s, when Final Fantasy had exploded and JRPGs were almost as ubiquitous as first-person shooters are today, Sega offered up their own take: Phantasy Star, a sci-fi epic that would be to Star Wars what Dragon Quest was to Lord of the Rings. While some naysayers and Nintendo fanboys dismissed Sega's series as a bunch of knock-offs, people who actually played the Genesis RPGs were treated to some high-quality sci-fi RPG action. Phantasy Star IV in particular is a transcendent game with some great music and characters worthy of any JRPG.
(Super Nintendo, PlayStation, Nintendo DS, iOS, Android)
Look, you know all about Chrono Trigger. Time travel, talking frog swordsmen, Lavos, Lucca, mute Jesus protagonist, floating magic sky kingdom. If you've never played Chrono Trigger, try to keep your expectations in check—it's not gonna change your life—but it's still an excellent RPG.
(PlayStation 2, PlayStation Vita)
Persona 4 is part high-school simulator and part dungeon-crawler, which sounds like a pretty boring combination until you play it and see what the fuss is all about. For the first few hours you might not get it, but when it hits you, you'll be writing Rise fan-fiction just like the rest of us. (Read our review.)
Final Fantasy VII
In this game you get to have a slap fight on a giant cannon.
(PlayStation, PS1 Classics)
There are games that make sense, and then there is Xenogears, a sprawling epic about giant robots and religious mythology that somehow manages to be simultaneously poignant and incoherent. If you can look past some subpar dungeon design and excruciatingly slow text, you're in for a wonderful adventure about people fighting the odds—and giant robots—to save the world from what may or may not be God Himself.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
One of the most interesting RPGs in the modern era has one of the most boring titles imaginable: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is far less generic than it sounds, I promise. It's quite lovely, in fact. There are airships and plot twists and funny little moments crafted quite well by the localization team at XSEED, who pulled out all the big guns for this one. Don't forget to talk to the treasure chests.
(Super Nintendo, Wii U)
Yes, the recently-re-released cult classic is as good as everyone says it is. Yes, it's quirky and funny and full of memorable moments. No, it's not really about a fetus.
Something of a diversion for the Persona team at Atlus, Radiant Historia is like a Chrono Trigger for the modern age. You know—time travel, strategy-packed combat system, lots of melodrama. The works. It's pretty great.
JRPGs are, as a general rule, not very good at puzzles, but Lufia 2 rivals Zelda in its ability to surprise and challenge you with every dungeon. It's a great game, and it holds up well. Just watch out for the bugs—one or two levels of the game are so glitched out that they just appear as gibberish on the screen, and you've gotta walk in a straight line to get out.
Game of Thrones meets Pokémon, but really, better. Suikoden II's story is one of the most emotionally resonant I've found in a video game, and its "Oh, holy shit" moments are pretty much better than anyone else's "Oh, holy shit" moments. If you like stories about friendship and betrayal and all that jazz, this JRPG is for you.
Super Mario RPG
(Super Nintendo, Wii Virtual Console)
How many RPGs let you play as Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom? Well, okay, a lot, at this point. But Super Mario RPG was the first and is still one of the best, and it's pretty much the only RPG with a weapon that lets Bowser throw Mario at people.
Final Fantasy IX
(PlayStation, PS1 Classics)
Smart, clever, and remarkably well-written, the ninth Final Fantasy is a Shakespearean romp with more humor than you might expect from a game about a thief in love with a princess. The random encounter rate is way too high, but just about everything else makes up for that.
Dragon Quest VIII
The best of the Dragon Quests is cel-shaded and goofy and full of charm. If you don't mind silly accents and a bit of level-grinding, you'll dig it.
Final Fantasy Tactics
(PlayStation, PSP, iOS, PS1 Classics)
Video games have a penchant for glamorizing war, but in Final Fantasy Tactics, war is real and unpleasant (if you look past the fact that it's conducted by magicians in funny hats). FFT is a game full of death, betrayal, and bad news for all—well, unless you're the player, in which case you will love the hell out of the game's elegant job system and addictive grid-based combat.
Kingdom Hearts II
Because if you don't worry much about the convoluted mess that Tetsuya Nomura calls a plot, jumping and slashing through Disney worlds is really quite fun.
UPDATE: Whoops - this list only has 19 JRPGs. Stealth #20 addition: SECRET OF MANA, a Super Nintendo game about amnesiac sprites and giant chickens and superpowered swords. You can play it on the Wii's Virtual Console too.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET, except when that jerk Stephen Totilo says "Jason, move your column to 3:30 today." You can reach Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jasonschreier.