I've been playing video games for as long as I can remember. I started with an Atari 2600 before moving on to the good old NES and beyond. Yet, in all that time I have never enjoyed versus gaming. Perhaps this is because, as a kid, I was the youngest of my game playing friends—and thus the least coordinated. But regardless, my favorite games were always the where my friends and I would team up against the computer. My favorites were games like Super Bomberman 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the Contra series, and the run-and-gun classic Guerilla War.
But with the purchase of my own Super Nintendo in my first year of middle school, I discovered a type of game that seemed tailor-made for me: JRPGs. Until the day I first played Final Fantasy VI, I had no idea that games could really have a story beyond something simple like "rescue the princess" or "defeat the mad scientist." To me, JRPGs were like an epic interactive novel that I had a hand in shaping.
But even as I devoured JRPGs by the score, I always felt something was missing. My friends and I would often watch each other play various JRPGs as I didn't mind watching if I wasn't able to play. But whenever I was playing to an audience, I always wished someone else could join in—that there were some coop JRPGs I could play.
Then I discovered not only that they existed, but also that I already owned one.
Final Fantasy VI, while never promoted as a coop game, does have the ability for two-person play. By entering the setup menu, you can allocate character slots to the second controller. So while on the world map, the first player controls movement and the second player is able to control his/her assigned characters in battle. It is for this reason—and that FFVI is an awesome game in general—that I have played this JRPG more than any other. It is the one classic JRPG I can both recommend and then play together with someone.
By the time I had finished FFVI—well as much as I am ever "finished" with FFVI—the PlayStation era was in full swing and was an era where coop JRPGs were rare, to say the least. So it wasn't until college when I really got to dive head long into coop JRPGs again.
The first of these was Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles—a game for which I bought both a GBA and GameCube just to play it. Needless to say, it wasn't exactly the 4-player game with an epic plot I had been hoping for. So I was more than a little regretful of my purchase until I read about a four-player coop JRPG that had been released that very day: Tales of Symphonia.
Tales of Symphonia is nowhere near the best game in the Tales series, but it is an excellent coop adventure. Like with FFVI, the first player controls the movement on the map while the characters in battle can be assigned to various controllers. The only real problem with the setup is that the camera aligns itself with the actions of the first player in battle, making it hard at times to tell which direction to press to move towards the enemy. Despite this, so many friends at the time wanted to coop the game with me that we ended up assigning people to different characters and they would switch in and out as the situation demanded.
While I had gone back and played a few of the non-coop Tales games, it was only after moving to Japan that I returned to the coop JRPG world with Tales of the Abyss. This time, lacking a PS2 four-player adapter, I nonetheless teamed up with a friend for what I still believe is the pinnacle of storytelling in the Tales series. If you ever have any interest in 4-manning a JRPG, this is hands down the one to choose.
In the years since then, I have only managed to play one other coop JRPG: the PS3's Chopin-inspired RPG, Eternal Sonata. This one is not a bad game, but it is an odd one. Some characters are insanely unbalanced when compared with others, and it is a game with very little in terms of side quests and backtracking. However, the battle system is quite interesting. You can move or attack as much as possible within a given time limit, but your attacks change based on whether you are standing in light or shadow. It makes the gameplay much more entertaining than many turn-based systems.
These days I still keep my eyes peeled for co-op JRPGs, but with JRPGs appearing more and more on handhelds, coop seems to be becoming rarer as time moves on. Sure, there is always the Tales series, and beyond them, there are still quite a few coop-able RPGs I have yet to play across the generations. One of these days I will finally play Secret of Mana in all its 3-player coop glory or find someone to coop Final Fantasy IX with.