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The 10 best JRPGs: from classics to lesser-known masterpieces

From family favourites to hardcore niches, here’s 10 of the best JRPGs that have touched the mainstream scene in their own special way.

The term ‘role-playing game’ is incredibly broad. After all, this could be anything from a cosy Dungeons & Dragons session to your favourite MMORPG with millions of players. The best JRPGs traditionally use the formula of assembling a party to take on some evil catastrophe in some fantasy world. The genre has adapted and evolved over the years, broadening its horizons as eastern and western influences mingle.

Most of these JRPG titles like Pokemon and Final Fantasy have gained worldwide appeal. Some games have taken on any new sub-genre it can, whereas some games take pride in their traditional roots. For those curious about this wonderful world, today we’re introducing you to 10 amazing JRPG series to start off your next adventure.

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Castlevania

As the Metroidvania entry with more RPG elements, Castlevania is the series that has earned a spot on our list. Although not as action or platforming heavy as the Metroid series, Castlevania games provide a unique gothic charm alongside strong storylines and a unique setting.

With an incredibly distinctive universe full of Victorian-themed horrors, players will find themselves immersed within moments.

Castlevania has fallen into relatively obscurity as the official series barely made it past the Nintendo DS. Ever since its not-so-good Lords of Shadow spin-off, the 2017 Netflix show is the only thing the younger generation will remember of the series. That said, it’s always held a place in the hearts of retro fans.

Monster Hunter

The Monster Hunter series hits a different sort of niche. Rather than engaging in some pretty adventure with your band of brothers or sisters, this JRPG series brings you back to a prehistoric fantasy age. This time, you get to live out your primal fantasies of tracking and hunting down colossal monsters. The game replaces grinding for character EXP with scoring better equipment as each monster carcass becomes used as crafting materials.

Although not as prominent in the west, Japanese teenagers would often gather around and pull out their PSPs as they went off on another hunt together. However, Monster Hunter World has been an absolute hit with foreign audiences, and 2021’s Monster Hunter Rise is getting massively hyped.

Here’s to many more years of Monster Hunter finding a worldwide appeal. 

Mother

Mother, or more commonly known as Earthbound outside of Japan, is a retro parody of the JRPG genre. With trippy psychedelic themes and a unique ‘rolling’ HP meter, Nintendo gave birth to a wacky sci-fi take on the established idea.

This classic hit took the JRPG genre to the contemporary world, where battles featured psychic powers in labs over swords fights in castles.

Whilst the game was a classic hit in Japan, the series flopped in the US despite its vast marketing budget. With only a small cult following, most Nintendo fans would probably only recognise hints of Mother through Ness and Lucas in the Super Smash Bros. series.

Here’s our reminder to all: this was the off-beat JRPG that started the non-traditional JRPG craze.

Mystery Dungeon

Mystery Dungeon refers to the series of games developed by Spike Chunsoft. These guys brought roguelikes to popularity in Japan and started mixing it up with some JRPG notes with Shiren the Wanderer and the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon spin-offs. As the developers behind the first five Dragon Quest games, we just couldn’t leave them out.

The Mystery Dungeon series never really stood out – their scatter-gun approach only gave birth to minor hits. Despite tapping into the world of JRPGs with Pokemon, Final Fantasy, Gundam, and Touhou, many would argue that they were simply bandwagoning onto these other popular series.

As a result, Shiren the Wanderer never made it to the limelight despite being one of the best roguelike games ever. 

Persona/Shin Megami Tensei

With a production quality just as good as your favourite anime and stylish decisions to make this comparable to a delicious meal, here’s the Persona and Shin Megami Tensei series. Despite being two faces of the same coin, the latter offers JRPG elements from the ’80s inside an apocalyptic setting. Persona differentiates itself with a more casual setting and looser definition of the genre – they even have social simulators.

Both feature turn-based strategy and are similar in gameplay, it’s just the setting that’s different. One feels like a high school anime, the other feels like a tribute to Satan.

New players may find the universe hard to get into as there’s plenty of lore scattered across the games. As most of these games are about 90% self-contained, we suggest curious players to try out the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V.

Souls

Hitting a grim note with darker fantasy overtones, the Souls series takes influence from the western medieval era. The Dark Souls series looks different from other JRPGs; this one comes with knights clad in armour swinging gigantic swords.

Set in a world on the brink of despair, players must vanquish grotesque foes in real-time combat in one of the most challenging experiences in video gaming history.

FromSoftware hits a niche for hardcore gamers, with insane difficulties and relentless punishment dealt out to players who make careless decisions. Each boss fight gives off a most satisfying feeling of accomplishment, but it’s usually only achieved after dying many times.

The difficulty itself is enough to weed out newcomers, but players are bound to improve with enough grit and tenacity.

Thought they’re not strictly part of the Souls series, FromSoftware’s other original IPs Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will scratch the same itch.

Super Robot Taisen

Super Robot Taisen is what you get when you combine JRPG fantasy elements with the mecha/sci-fi world of futuristic, robotic weapons. From teched-out gunblades to full-functioning mechas, the Super Robot Taisen series introduces fighting game-esque input commands to its turn-based combat system.

This is one hidden gem you’re going to want to check out. Super Robot Taisen OG Saga on the NDS had a polished combat system and production quality on par with other masterpieces from the pre-2010 era. From fleshed out character voices to a plethora of combat interactions, this game was as immersive as it was interesting.

Tales

The Tales series has set the standard for modern-day JRPGs for years, benchmarked as traditional yet stylish games that keep true to their roots whilst making the genre appealing to new players. The combat system has evolved too, with the more recent titles incorporating the Linear Motion Battle System where battles now occur in an arena where players get to move around freely (similar to Ni no Kuni).

Despite humble beginnings in 1995, the series didn’t really take off until 2008 when Tales of Symphonia sold 1.6 million copies. We recommend 2016’s Tales of Berseria for anyone wanting a non-demanding JRPG to cruise through. 

The World Ends with You

The World Ends with You shows that developing a unique game with flavour is better than pumping out something with simply great production quality. As a matter of fact, the thick lines and two-dimensional art style suits the vibrant hip-hop vibes the game was aiming for. From the creators of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts comes another JRPG masterpiece.

After falling into obscurity for almost 10 years, the game has received a remastered version on the Nintendo Switch and an anime adaptation coming in 2021. Wilder then hip-hop and smoother than jazz, this game pushes players to conduct their own orchestra as they control two characters via touch-screen and button inputs.

Yakuza

Broadening the definition of JRPG, let’s switch out some teenage knights and wizards with heroes old enough to be someone’s dad. The Yakuza series takes the role-playing genre very seriously, delivering a high level of accuracy is when simulating the life of these Japanese gangsters.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon even paints the combat system with intense Dragon Quest colours, where each battle looks and feels like a parody of the JRPG genre.

If you ever wanted to role-play as someone crushed by society, then this is the perfect game from you. Why not take a breather from your real-world woes? Take a trip down into the virtual job search agency and get chewed out by your Yakuza boss instead. Then, blow off steam by jamming out at karaoke or beating up some street thugs.

Ridiculous and amusing, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is finally out on Steam/Xbox Series X/PS4.