The 15 best JRPGs

5. Earthbound

Release date: June 5, 1995 (NA)
Format: SNES, Wii U/New 3DS (via Virtual Console)

Writer Shigesato Itoi is a household name in Japan thanks to his advertising copy, essays, and his work on the Mother series, but for years the only example of his work to make it out West was Mother 2 - known here as Earthbound. Earthbound is remarkable in ways you don't expect. It may be a bit cruder around the edges than its contemporaries, its inventory limitations and minimalistic battle animations rudimentary compared to Chrono Trigger or Super Mario RPG, but Earthbound has a beating heart underneath its cartoonish exterior, one full of humor, life, love, and loss. Where else can help an obvious Blue Brothers ripoff get out of debt, call your mom from a payphone to stave off homesickness, buy a stuffed bear at the local shopping mall to soak up damage from enemies, or meet a strange alien race of baby-shaped orbs who add the word 'Boing' to every sentence? Earthbound is the rare game whose importance and stature has only grown in the two decades since its release; a weird, surprising, and disarmingly human tale worth discovering for yourself. - David Roberts


4. Final Fantasy 6

Release date: October 11, 1994 (NA)
Format: SNES, PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, PS3/Vita (via PSN), Wii (via Virtual Console), Mobile, PC

Final Fantasy 6 really begins when the world ends. Everything that leads up to that point is amazing, of course, its ensemble piece telling a tale of over a dozen characters banding together to defeat the evil Empire in a land where magic has been replaced by powerful steam-powered tech. But Final Fantasy 6 elevates from incredible JRPG to masterpiece when Kefka, the villain you've been trying to stop the entire game, actually wins. He succeeds in destroying the world, and you're left to find hope in darkness and rebuild your team out of the ashes. It's a bold, emotional story, bursting out of every single 16-bit pixel and every song in its synthesized soundtrack with the kind of confidence rarely seen in popular entertainment. - David Roberts

3. Dragon Quest 8: Journey of the Cursed King

Release date: November 15, 2005 (NA) / April 13, 2006 (EU)
Format: PlayStation 2, Mobile, 3DS

Consider the basic components of the JRPG as they were conceived of in the 1980s. There’s the medieval warriors; the lush landscape of green fields, dense forests and high seas punctuated by mountains and deserts; there’s an ancient evil to fight, its attendant horde of wild beasts, and a plethora of magic spells and weapons to defeat them. All of it is held together with a simple story told with warmth and full of basic but memorable personalities. All of it felt grand but the scale was always an illusion. The world you were saving was always small, letting you walk across a continent in a few steps due to technology’s limitations. Dragon Quest 8 is the ultimate expression of the classic JRPG, every last feature realized in full scale, letting you wander the land finding treasure and monsters behind every hilltop but never descending into the busy work of modern open world games. Every character is a vividly drawn wonder, every scenario in its hundred hour run time a joy. The PS2 version is still the gold standard, but the excellent 3DS remake is no slouch. - Anthony John Agnello

2. Chrono Trigger

Release date: August 22, 1995 (NA)
Format: SNES, PlayStation, DS, PS3/Vita (via PSN)

Supergroups are almost always disappointing. Kanye West and Jay-Z are great, surely Watch the Throne will be totally righteous! Nope. The hope is the supergroup will be chocolate and peanut butter. Usually it’s just gum and nuts. Not so with Chrono Trigger, the crowning achievement of JRPGs in the 1990s. A time travel epic about a cartoon swordsman, a frog, a frustrated royal, an inventor, a robot, a cavewoman and a displaced goth magician stopping a parasite from destroying the world, Chrono Trigger is the finest work of the storied creators who made it. The collaborators brought their a-game: the humor and charm of Dragon Quest from Yuji Horii, the high drama battles, strategy and heartache of Final Fantasy from Hironobu Sakaguchi, the lovable art of Akira Toriyama, a compact but full story from Masato Kato, and a still legendary soundtrack from Yasunori Mitsuda. Whether you’re playing it on the SNES or on your iPhone, Chrono Trigger is the best thing these creators ever made, together or separately, the promise of the supergroup realized. - Anthony John Agnello

1. Persona 5

Release date: April 4, 2017 (NA/EU)
Format: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4

Persona 5 somehow manages the impossible: sticking with classic JRPG structures while feeling utterly fresh and new. The combat is still turn-based, the heroes are still teenagers, there’s still romance to be had and you still assemble a squad based on your preferred fighting style, but rather than feeling stuck in the past, Persona 5 is relevant, modern, and relatable. The social issues the Phantom Thieves confront can be seen right outside your own window, as they attempt to change the ways of sexual predators, crooked politicians, bullies, and abusive bosses. It also wisely drops many the Japanese tropes that weigh down other JRPGs and make them too “wacky” for many players. But it’s not just its modernity that lands it on the top of our list, but rather how perfectly every aspect of the game works together to create the whole. The music and the visuals and the combat and the social sim all exist in exquisite balance so that none overpowers the rest, each element complementing the others in exactly the same way a well-formed party does. Each iteration of the Persona franchise is a gratifying evolution of its predecessor, and Persona 5 is the pinnacle of that development. - Susan Arendt

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