There was a lengthy period of my adolescence when I simply couldn’t afford to play current video games. Growing up in a relatively low income household, having money to buy the current console or a computer capable of running the latest and greatest was simply not a possibility. To be perfectly honest, the cost of a game itself made this a hobby that just wasn’t viable at the time.
While the more demanding and costly current games were not open to me, the vast back catalogs of older systems were through emulation. Programs like ZSNES and the multitude of sites that offered up ROMs for download provided a means to play countless titles at no cost. While this is admittedly morally questionable in that it crosses over into potential piracy, it is also worth noting that the era of 16-bit by this point was long since dead.
And it is worth noting that while this behavior is piracy, it allowed many individuals to experience titles they would otherwise not have been able to regardless of what they were willing to pay. My exploration into the catalogs of primarily the Super Nintendo or Super Famicom did one significant thing. It introduced me to the genre of RPGs and adventure games, primarily those from Japan. And more importantly initiated what would become a life-long obsession. Through emulation, titles that never made it to U.S. shores or to English speaking countries were now available. And through the concerted efforts of fans online, these games were arduously translated over the course of countless years.
While I no longer heavily play JRPGs since they have long past their heyday, my love for RPGs and adventure games as whole never faded. And to a certain degree, I credit those early years as informative of the type of gamer I am today. Because of this, I felt a desire to highlight a select number of titles I remember fondly that likely never reached an audience outside its native country. And while some of these were eventually re-released years later on an updated platform, they remain playable in their original format only through the presence of emulation and concerted fan translation efforts.
Lastly it is worth noting that while I haven’t touched these games in years, many of them remain as what I consider some of the greatest games I have ever experienced within a historical context. If there is an irony however in all of this, it is that my love for this particular genre and era also highlights its ultimate downfall. A time before the merger of Squaresoft and Enix, and when 56K was king. But more importantly when gaming was distinctly Japanese before the West completely took over. With the continuing shift of popular franchises and development houses sprouting up outside Japan, the era of JRPGs ultimately nosedived and while still present today, is lost in a sense of nostalgia and attempts to recapture the magic of the 1990s.
Ultimately what I consider one of the best eras of gaming and genres that quite possibly put out some of the industry’s best works, has today completely stagnated. With Square Enix amidst financial turmoil and Final Fantasy no longer being their primary franchise, JRPGs do seemingly feel dead. But it is still a genre that we can fondly remember and hope for a second golden age.
If I were to be asked what I consider the greatest all-around video game of all time, it would likely be this. While Terranigma was released outside of Japan to English-speaking countries, it never made it to the United States officially. And sure enough out of nearly all of my 16-bit inclined friends from my youth who had an equal love of JRPGs, none of them had ever heard the likes of Terranigma.
Produced by the relatively unknown Quintet, Terranigma was the last entry in an unofficial trilogy of games that revolved around the theme of world creation. Illusion of Gaia its predecessor (and a title that did release stateside to favorable review), is largely similar to the spirit of Terranigma but widens the scope considerably.
As Ark, players embark on a journey of absolutely epic proportions that has them following a continuous narrative that sees the creation of the planet Earth itself, the formation of its land masses, the evolution of life forms, and ultimately the advancement of the human species technologically.
Terranigma was equal parts action RPG, platformer, and city management/building rolled into one. And through its temporal journey, players were able to experience a wide range of varying unique spaces; everything from the traditional middle-aged themed castles of RPG tradition to the neon lights of the modern day cities of Japan.
It also had one of the most memorable musical scores of the 16-bit era and nudged its way amongst the likes of Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda who often overshadow everything else from both this time period and genre. The score and the level of writing within the game elevated it past the confines of its 16-bit limitations into a wholly cinematic experience.
Ultimately it’s hard to quantify or list off exactly what made Terranigma so great. As cliché as it is, it’s truly something that has to be experienced first hand. It is simply a beautifully crafted game and one that is equally emotionally draining as it is mechanically entertaining. Terranigma is that rare game that left players absolutely catatonic once those credits rolled from its pure brilliance.
Current availability: While Terranigma never released in North America, English versions of the game were released in the European and Australian markets. Because of this, it was completely possible to track down a PAL copy of the game and play it through a Super Nintendo. Currently aside from emulation or tracking down an old cartridge of the game, there is no other means to experience it. It’s completely debatable whether or not Nintendo ever plans to release this through their eShop Virtual Console given its relatively forgotten status.
Seiken Densetsu 3
Aside from Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana is arguably one of the most beloved RPGs that came out of Squaresoft in the 16-bit era stateside. That said it is somewhat shocking that its followup never released outside Japan given its potential to grab a large audience. I’ve heard that the reasoning behind it were largely technical with the limitations of the Super Nintendo cartridge over the Super Famicom, but in either case it was a massive loss.
Seiken Densetsu 3, or unofficially Secret of Mana 2 had many of the characteristics that made its predecessor great but also completely improved upon them. Players had access to six different heroes as well as three different narratives dependent on who was chosen as the primary character. Each character had their own distinct backstory and mechanically provided solid reasons to play the game several times over to experience them all.
Secret of Mana among many things, was most fondly remembered for innovating the mechanics of an action RPG as opposed to the strategically engaging but often tedious combat of traditional turn-based titles like Final Fantasy or Lufia. While much of the background number-crunching and level grinding elements were still in play, combat felt leagues more thrilling when players could actually swing their own sword in real time as opposed to inputting specific actions like on a tabletop RPing session.
But above all else, Seiken Densetsu 3 stands out for its staggeringly high potential for replayability through a combination of its multiple narratives, larger roster of characters, but also a complex and customizable class system. And with the possibility of co-op play, the game provided a means to be experienced with friends and not merely as a solo venture.
Those that fell in love with Secret of Mana should most certainly look into Seiken Densetsu 3 if they weren’t otherwise already aware of it. The sheer diversity and scale of the world space and its inhabitants completely dwarfs the scope of its predecessor.
Current availability: Seiken Densetsu 3 has yet to release on any online networks or mobile platforms like other titles. To this day, the only way to experience Seiken Densetsu 3 in English is to obtain a copy of the fan translated ROM and emulator. However given the game’s wide popularity in the emulation community, it does stand a good chance of eventually releasing on current platforms like Nintendo’s Virtual Console or the Playstation Network.
Final Fantasy V
Arguably, there is a very good chance that Final Fantasy V has actually been played by many stateside. However given it was never released outside Japan in its original platform, it is still being included within this selection. Also while I don’t have specific figures to back this claim up, I do feel strongly that many self-proclaimed fans of Final Fantasy have likely skipped over this title despite it becoming available years later through a multitude of different platforms. That said for fans of the franchise who have previously ignored Final Fantasy V, I highly suggest giving it a try.
To start I probably should mention that Final Fantasy V past any gauge of its objective merits or accomplishments is a title that holds a certain degree of sentimental value personally. Strangely enough, it is the first JRPG I ever played and is directly responsible for my love of the genre and Final Fantasy as a series. Indirectly it could even be argued that it is that pivotal game that truly gave me an appreciation for the medium that I didn’t have prior.
With that said, the appeal of Final Fantasy V isn’t just sentimental, rather I objectively feel it is easily the most underrated in the series. When it eventually got ported onto the Playstation, the critical response in the US was less then stellar. The most criticized aspect was an unimaginative story and dull characters.
While I wouldn’t argue for its narrative being anything but largely derivative, I never felt this was a huge factor to consider as it wasn’t ultimately what made its experience so memorable. As for the game’s characterization, it’s debatable whether there may have been issues with translation that could have skewed the perception of the writing’s quality in its re-release. My only experience with the game is through the fan translated Super Famicom release which I never felt had this particular flaw. If anything, with its smaller cast of characters I found its focus that much more narrowed in over titles like Final Fantasy VI which suffered from being spread too thin.
However mechanically speaking, Final Fantasy V easily had one of the better class systems of the series. Through its job system, characters could learn various skills from assigned jobs then mix and match them to create their own unique classes. This allowed players a great deal of freedom in how they ultimately wanted to play the game and its characters.
Lastly for a series that has become known equally for the quality of its music as the merits of the actual games, Final Fantasy V stands out with tracks like Dear Friends which lent its name to the first North American tour by Nobuo Uematsu back in 2005. Of which I can embarrassingly admit, I attended amongst an unholy mix of suit and tie and horrifying cosplay.
Current Availability: In its original format, Final Fantasy V is only playable through obtaining a fan translated ROM and emulation. However in proceeding years, Final Fantasy V became available through a number of different platforms. Final Fantasy Anthology on the Playstation included a remastered version of the game with additional 3D cinematics. Later it was ported over to the Gameboy Advance a second time as Final Fantasy V Advance. It has also been made available through Nintendo’s Virtual Console, the Playstation Network, and on iOS and Android devices.
E.V.O. Search For Eden
In what is probably the most oddball title to be mentioned in this selection and questionably barely an RPG is E.V.O. Search For Eden. While this did in fact release in North America it remains somewhat of a forgotten title that most never even heard of. Not particularly well received in its day, it has often been reevaluated in recent years seen for the innovative and truly original work that it was, despite some serious flaws.
The basic premise of E.V.O. Search For Eden is as the name suggests, an interactive retelling of evolution. Players begin their journey as the most basic of life forms and through its own progression system, advance slowly into more larger and complex creatures. The mechanics behind this progression is fairly straight forward. The game begins the journey with players as a small fish where they are tasked in collecting points from killing other hostile creatures. With the collected points, players can slowly evolve certain parts of their body into more advanced stages.
This takes the place of a more traditional leveling system, but also allows players to continuously create altogether unique creatures that may or may not resemble a real world historical analogue. Eventually the fish reaches land where the player obtains legs and from there continues to evolve into the Age of Man.
E.V.O. Search For Eden is noteworthy primarily for its ambitious and completely original premise. While I found the execution to be adequate, the game could understandably get frustrating at times with its rather brutal difficulty.
Current Availability: E.V.O. Search For Eden did in fact release on the Super Nintendo in North America, and was perfectly available given one could find a copy. Afterward it never saw a re-release of any kind, nor are there any hopes of it happening. Being a relatively forgotten title that holds no further interest to any large group, there is likely no chance of it popping up on the various online console stores. Given its rarity, the value of an original cartridge often demands high prices. I recently saw an unopened mint copy going for five thousand dollars on eBay. That said, emulation is the only viable route for those interested in playing it.
Tales of Phantasia
Tales of Phantasia quite literally pushed the boundaries of what the Super Famicom was capable of technically. Above all else it’s a game worthy of merit simply for what it was able to achieve being the largest 16-bit era game to be produced at its time, only to eventually be toppled by the likes of Star Ocean at 48 megabits of data. And from its high visual fidelity to its inclusion of actual vocal recordings, Tales of Phantasia marks a bridge of sorts from the limited plastic cartridges of the 16-bit era, into the 32-bit with its advancement onto CD-ROMs.
While at its most basic core Tales of Phantasia didn’t offer up anything innovative, the level of production and presentation was something to behold. Going into the next console generation with the likes of the Playstation and Sega Saturn, JRPGs made the shift into utilizing 3D models as opposed to the typical 2D sprites. However many franchises still relied on the top-down 2D aesthetic, instead funneling the extra power of 32-bit into other areas. And Tales of Phantasia visually looks on par with many of these Playstation titles, at least more so then the rather primitive graphics of similar era Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest entries.
Past its technical achievements, the game was known for its thrilling combat system which was a mix of the strategic side-view of Final Fantasy and the fast-paced real time action of Seiken Densetsu 3. And unlike most conventional RPGs, Tales of Phantasia utilized AI to control most of the party leaving the player to focus solely on its main hero, where combat felt more like a proper action or fighting title, then that of the typical mechanically tactical turn-based RPG.
And certainly it can be argued that the core combat system established in Tales of Phantasia, otherwise known as liner motion battle system (LMBS) is what ultimately allowed for a long running franchise to sprout out of this particular title. The “Tales” series has in the proceeding years become to Namco what Final Fantasy was to Squaresoft.
With the greatest irony being that the Tales series has seen great success both in its native country and in the U.S, but Tales of Phantasia still remains relatively lost in time never getting the proper re-release that it deserves. As someone who has played his fair share of Tales titles, it’s particularly depressing given none of the proceeding titles ever matched the original charm and power of Tales of Phantasia.
Current Availability: In its original release, Tale of Phantasia can only be experienced in English through obtaining a fan translated ROM and emulation. And while it has been ported over to proceeding platforms multiple times, it didn’t officially become available in North America until its release on the Game Boy Advance in 2006. It was more recently made available on mobile devices however it was shortly discontinued within the same year (it was also met with harsh criticism for its shameful monetization practices). Currently for those seeking to experience Tale of Phantasia in English have two options; track down a copy of the Game Boy Advance cartridge or emulate it.
The appeal of Front Mission is rather obvious as is its intended audience. As someone who grew up watching an unhealthy amount of anime, particularly of the giant robot variety, Front Mission was basically a mecha fanboy’s wet dream. Owing much to how traditional tabletop RPGs play out, the game centered more on combat atop a grid then focusing in on narrative, exploration, or other common traits found in JRPGs.
Gameplay was distinctly divided into levels, where combat and interaction were self contained. What ultimately made Front Mission a game to be played or ignored, depended largely on whether the player was already obsessed with mecha to begin with.
The game offered a large roster of characters, but in the case of Front Mission these characters were secondary to the robots they piloted. All of which could be fully customized by swapping parts, guns, and other goodies. Basically it was Barbie for guys, at least for guys occupied more with fictional gun-toting robots then playing outside.
But none of this is to say that Front Mission lacked a strong narrative or thoughtful mechanics, in fact it was likely one of the more dialogue heavy games I played in its era. Players will likely find themselves reading wall after wall of text as often as they will find themselves in combat or shopping for new gear.
And the combat itself was absolutely exhilarating. Despite its primitive graphics in its map view, in initiated attacks the game switched to a higher resolution view of the combat taking place where mechs actually took on damage from blows seen in busted up or blown off limbs.
Lastly the legacy of Front Mission is most easily seen in the successful series that spawned out of it. Of which saw regular releases from its original 1995 release to recent years crossing into multiple genres of games and other media. A series that has sold well both in its native country as well as here in the States.
Current Availability: While the original Front Mission has seen countless ports and re-releases, it was only made available officially to North America on the Nintendo DS. This was an enhanced port of the earlier Playstation re-release Front Mission First which added additional content linking it to later titles in the series. Additionally, the original Super Famicom version was fan-translated and is playable through emulation.
Live A Live
Live A Live has the honor of being the only JRPG title that I wasn’t surprised about never leaving its native country. By all accounts, it’s actually not a very good game but does remain an interesting bit of curio as possibly one of the most interesting titles to ever be conceived by Square themselves. As the title of the game suggests, Live A Live has players living through a diverse selection of different lives in rather short vignettes. Seemingly unrelated, these sections range from placing players in the Wild West to futuristic sci-fi. I kind of like to think of it as a GURPS session gone awry.
While each seemingly disparate narrative does eventually converge, I never felt that narratively speaking the game made a whole lot of sense. The segmented structure ultimately felt more like a gimmick then a properly thought out consideration with the narrative feeling written around its structure, instead of the other way around.
Despite that, Live A Live is remarkably memorable for being so divergent within a genre that has admittedly been noticeably formulaic. And in retrospect while Live A Live somewhat missed the mark, its ambitious premise and willingness for top dog Square to take such a risk is commendable. The spirit of which has more in common with the smaller indie developers of current, then the massive and rather soul-less conglomerate Square-Enix has become today.
Current Availability: Live A Live never released outside Japan, nor did it ever see an emergence on future platforms. However it has been fan-translated and is available through emulation.
Breath of Fire II
There is a good chance that most people have actually played Breath of Fire II and in its original release. However as a series that has often been overshadowed by the giants of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Breath of Fire has often felt like a throwaway title, largely only played by genre enthusiasts.
And true to form, Breath of Fire II is in many ways more similar to its more popular cousins then it is different. Its combat and mechanical core are fundamentally identical to typical JRPG fare, and there have been frequent valid complaints about the inconsistent difficulty of the game that ranges from idiotically easy to downright impossible.
But what makes Breath of Fire II so great is in its absolutely imaginative and colorful world. One that is equal parts typical high fantasy fare, but also an equal dose of absolutely “balls to the wall” acid trip. A player only needs to look at its rather insane cast of characters to get what I’m talking about. And while this probably isn’t doing the game any favors, it does come off as a nightmarish furry gathering more so then a collective of run-of-the-mill adventurers.
As Capcom’s attempt at creating their own flagship RPG franchise, Breath of Fire has always been somewhat of an underdog. While it’s been critically received well, it never seemingly reached the same massive numbers of its contemporaries. And it does show in the series relative decline and sparsity in releases. Breath of Fire II has often been considered the height of the series and for that alone warrants enough reason to be played in retrospect.
But more importantly, Breath of Fire in its first few releases were altogether unique in what it managed with its narratives providing for a great degree of continuity and coherence between titles which was completely uncharacteristic of the genre. Series like Final Fantasy or Tales while officially being the same series, might as well have been standalone titles that took place within separate worlds.
Breath of Fire on the other hand delivered an altogether complex and tight narrative that spanned across three titles and hundreds of years. In Breath of Fire II, returning players witnessed first hand the effects of the events of the first game on a grand scale hundreds of years later.
Current Availability: Breath of Fire II did in fact release here in the States on the Super Nintendo. It was also ported over to the Gameboy Advance years later and has more recently been made available through Nintendo’s eShop Virtual Console accessible on both the Wii and Wii U.