Working on my book Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the rise of Japanese RPGs in the West took me back through the annals of JRPG history. Along the way, I was reintroduced to many of the classic titles that defined the genre — from its earliest days on the NES, to the golden age heights of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII. It was a joy growing up alongside the genre as it found its footing and took off to meteoric heights in the ‘90s. It’s a genre about epic journeys, and it’s a genre that’s taken its own epic journey.
But the best time to get into classic Japanese RPGs? Not the ‘90s when the Super Nintendo reigned supreme, or a decade later, during the height of the PS2 era, when Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts were all the rage. The best time to be a JRPG fan is right now. Thanks to the rising popularity of official remasters, the launch of FPGA devices like Analogue’s Pocket and the MiSTer, and a bevy of options for emulation, it’s never been easier to play most of the game’s most revered classics.
What follows are 19 classic Japanese RPGs that you can play on modern hardware. No fuss, just fun.
Chrono Trigger (Super NES, 1995)
What better way to kick things off than with the GOAT?
Conspicuously absent from consoles like Switch and PlayStation, this all-time great 16-bit JRPG is available on mobile devices and PCs. The product of the genre’s greatest minds coming together under one roof — including Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy creators Yuji Horii and Hironobu Sakaguchi, along with future stars like Yasunori Mitsuda, Masato Kato, and Tetsuya Takahashi — dodged all the hubris and potential catastrophe to come together as a tightly polished example of everything great about the first golden age of JRPGs. It’s got a unique time travel story, a memorable cast, snappy combat, and one of the genre’s best soundtracks, all supported by incredible spritework and graphics based on Dragonball-creator Akira Toriyama’s iconic character art.
It stands the test of time, remaining one of the most enjoyable and polished JRPGs ever, and is overdue for a proper console port. Chrono Trigger is, in a word, timeless.
Platforms: Android, iOS, Nintendo DS, PlayStation, Super NES
Live A Live (Super NES, 1994)
For decades, Live A Live — one of Square’s late, great Super NES games — was only available to English-speaking fans via a great-but-unofficial fan patch…until Nintendo and Square’s surprise announcement of an HD-2D remake for the Nintendo Switch. This unique JRPG brings an anthology mentality to the genre by providing the player with several characters to choose from, each with their own story, plot, and setting to explore. From ancient Japan to the far future, from the wild west to a modern-day wrestling tournament, it runs the gamut and showcases how broad and interesting the genre can be. Backed by an incredible Yoko Shimomura score, Live A Live offers not just the journey of a lifetime — but of several journeys and several lifetimes.
Platforms: Super NES, Switch
Final Fantasy V (Super NES, 1992)
It took many years for the secret best Final Fantasy (sorry, Final Fantasy VII) to finally find a western audience at all, thanks to its first official release in 1999’s Final Fantasy Anthology for PlayStation. In the decades since, it’s found a passionate fanbase, so much so that it spawned “Final Fantasy Five Four-Job Fiesta,” a yearly fundraiser that challenges players to complete the game using only four randomly determined jobs. Most recently, it was released as part of Square Enix’s Pixel Remaster series for Steam, iOS, and Android, offering a modern, accessible version of the game for fans and newcomers alike.
It might not have the best story or the most unique setting, but its evolution of the trademark Final Fantasy job system is one of the best in the series, affording endless replayability across a huge, creative canvas.
Platforms: Android, Game Boy Advance, iOS, PlayStation, Super NES, Windows
Earthbound (Super NES, 1994)
Shigesato Itoi’s journey to becoming a video game creator was a labyrinthine and fortuitous one, a strange tale that took him from novelist to voice actor in My Neighbour Totoro, and beyond. That his game series, Mother, would be equally strange and compelling, is no surprise. Earthbound earned its place as a JRPG classic through its sharp writing, one-of-a-kind humour, and absolutely bizarre take on Dragon Quest-style roleplaying. Taking traditional roleplaying tropes and systems, Earthbound sets its adventure in America’s backyard, introducing a zany cast of characters and a unique take on hit points in combat, and ends with a fight against a giant space vagina. It’s weird and loveable, and well-deserving of its cult classic status.
For many years, the only way to play Earthbound was by tracking down its absurdly expensive Super NES cartridge, but recent rereleases on modern consoles, including the Switch via a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, have made this once-scarce game easily attainable.
Platforms: 3DS, Super NES, Super NES Classic Edition, Switch, Wii U
Breath of Fire 1 & 2 (Super NES, 1993 & 1994)
With Square and Enix off to the races with successful JRPG series, Capcom wanted in on the fun, leading to the Breath of Fire series (the first of which, funny enough, was published by Square in North America). While the series would eventually carve out its own identity with its third, fourth, and (especially) fifth entries, these two Super NES releases offer a tried-and-true formula highly reminiscent of the genre on the NES. Breath of Fire is a novelty these days, but Breath of Fire II marks a huge step up in quality and ambition… if you can get past the all-time awful localisation.
Platforms: Game Boy Advance, Super NES, Switch, Wii, Wii U
Final Fantasy XIII (PlayStation 3 & Xbox 360, 2009)
OK, so, Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t have the best reputation with fans, but, hear me out. One of the major things that brought it down upon its release was the sky-high expectations set by its predecessors. As the first Final Fantasy of the HD era, it was competing with memories of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X — the first two games in the series of their respective generations, and arguably the two games that have introduced more fans to the genre than any other in history. XIII wasn’t that. It’s weird and flawed, a clear product of the growing pains Square Enix was going through as they transitioned to the HD era. But, nowadays, separated from those expectations, it’s an interesting experience to go back to XIII with fresh eyes to find a gorgeous world, one of the best combat systems in the series, and an underrated soundtrack.
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
Romancing SaGa 3 (Super NES, 1995)
Despite being one of the Super NES’s most visually impressive games, Romancing SaGa 3 was released so late in the console’s lifecycle — just months before the Nintendo 64 launched — that it was passed over for western release. Of the many late Super NES games that didn’t make it across the ocean, Romancing SaGa 3 stood out thanks to its gorgeous pixel art graphics and ties to the Game Boy’s Final Fantasy Legend series (actually, SaGa games released with a new name in North America). With a non-linear story, huge world, and expressive graphics, it remains a compelling experience whether you play the original via fan translation or opt for the recent HD remaster. Creator Akitoshi Kawazu’s games — with their experimental structures and level-up systems — aren’t for everybody, but they remain one of the most fascinating facets of JRPGs as he explores the genre’s furthest reaches, never quite satisfied with the way it’s always been done.
Platforms: Android, iOS, Super NES, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Switch, Windows, Xbox One
Paper Mario (Nintendo 64, 2000)
Nintendo’s long-running Paper Mario series has had its ups-and-downs over the years as it has messed around with creative combat systems and experimental structures, but the original for the Nintendo 64 remains one of the finest JRPGs of its generation. Packed full of genuinely funny writing, a tight combat system, and a zany cast of characters, it’s got all the great elements of the series without some of its later wrinkles. Not many Nintendo 64 games hold up nowadays, but Paper Mario does so with aplomb, and stands with the best of its brethren.
Platforms: Nintendo 64, Switch, Wii, Wii U
Lost Odyssey (Xbox 360, 2007)
When Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi left Square after its major film flop, The Spirits Within, fans spent several years wondering if we’d ever again see “The King” (as his co-workers jokingly referred to him) make another JRPG. In the unlikeliest of alliances, Sakaguchi emerged from his self-imposed exile in partnership with Microsoft to make not one but two massive JRPGs for the Xbox 360 — which was struggling in Japan. In almost every way, Lost Odyssey feels like a Final Fantasy game — perhaps the Final Fantasy XIII we would have gotten if Sakaguchi hadn’t left the series years earlier — and offered new twists on the formula that still hold water today. Its integration of gameplay segments and cinematics hearkened back to Sakaguchi’s innovations with Final Fantasy VII, and the short story-esque “A Thousand Years of Dreams” sequences offer some of the genre’s finest writing.
Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
Blue Dragon (Xbox 360, 2006)
The other side of Sakaguchi’s Xbox 360-era coin, Blue Dragon, looks like a Dragon Quest game thanks to its Akira Toriyama art style and gorgeous graphics but plays more like a souped-up version of Final Fantasy V (job system) crossed with a little Chrono Trigger (on-map enemies instead of random encounters). Despite the genre’s struggles during the transition to the HD era, Sakaguchi continued to explore how it could look to its past for simplified structures and systems and adapt them for the new generation. While Square was complaining about HD towns being hard, King Gooch was busy making two of the generation’s best games. Were they super original? No, they were mostly derivative of his earlier work, but they showed a template for the genre at a time when the tech was presenting such an issue, and have stood the test of time nicely as a result.
Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
Chrono Cross (PlayStation, 1999)
Chrono Trigger is a stone-cold classic, loved by pretty much everyone who plays it. Chrono Trigger’s younger sibling, Chrono Cross? Not so much. Growing up under a big shadow is tough, and instead of trying to replicate Chrono Trigger’s success, Chrono Cross, the series’s first entry on Sony’s PlayStation, rewrote the book entirely by introducing a new world, art style, 3D graphical engine, and inventive combat system — and then wrapped it around a story specifically designed to deconstruct Chrono Trigger’s hero’s tale. In a vacuum, it’s one of the best JRPGs ever made, with a god-tier soundtrack, gorgeous visuals, and nicely designed combat and levelling-up system (no grinding needed!). But as a sequel to a beloved classic, it’ll remain forever divisive.
Platforms: Playstation, PlayStation 4, Switch, Windows, Xbox One
Final Fantasy XII
How do you make one of the best Final Fantasy games even better? Load it up with all the new content from the previously Japan-exclusive Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System, including a major revamp of the already great licence board and a whole new job system; touch up its gorgeous art design with nice HD graphics; and release it on modern consoles. Which is exactly what Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age did when it hit North America on various consoles between 2017 and 2019.
Final Fantasy XII is remarkable for its serious Yasumi Matsuno story, its classic cast of characters, and its incredible Hitoshi Sakimoto and Nobuo Uematsu soundtrack. But perhaps it’s best remembered for its major shakeup of traditional Final Fantasy gameplay. Replacing the series’s familiar linear structure with a pseudo-open world and its turn-based combat with an MMORPG system that incorporated basic logic programming via its gambit system. It all adds up to one of the most memorable (and divisive) entries in the series, and The Zodiac Age is undoubtedly the definitive version of the game.
Platforms: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 4, Switch, Windows, Xbox One
Legend of Mana (PlayStation, 1999)
You want one of the greatest game soundtracks of all time? What about a gorgeously rendered watercolour fantasy world? A story that you make up as you go along by building the world around you? A weird, uncomfortably clunky combat system? OK, so maybe that last one’s not a selling point, but the rest more than makes up for it. The first instalment of Square’s Mana series to appear on Sony’s PlayStation, Legend of Mana was an audiovisual masterpiece, and its 2021 remaster retained all that goodness with added quality-of-life upgrades to smooth out some of the rougher edges.
Platforms: Android, iOS, PlayStation 4, Switch, Windows
Wild Arms (PlayStation, 1996)
While Final Fantasy VII was many people’s introduction to Japanese RPGs on the PlayStation, Wild Arms was among the first on the system, and still holds up remarkably well, considering its limited tech and ambition. Sure, the combat is simplistic and ugly, but the Wild West-themed overworld, incredible soundtrack by Michiko Naruke, and unique plot involving robots, demons, and world-destroying aliens, remain enjoyable. Plus, it features one of the greatest opening anime sequences of all time. You’ll be pulling out your Spanish guitar in no time.
Platforms: PlayStation, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation Vita
Grandia & Grandia 2 (PlayStation & PlayStation 2, 1997/2000)
Series like Final Fantasy made their name through innovative reinvention and experimentation — carving unexplored paths through the genre with each new release. Others, like Game Arts’ Grandia, were comfortable trodding more familiar narrative ground with tried-and-true stories. While I could go on all day about how Grandia’s best feature is its warm, kind-hearted story full of earnest characters you can’t help but love — these games are best remembered for their top-tier combat systems. Mixing turned-based mechanics with positional elements and timing-base “IP Gauge” that determines when characters and enemies act in battle. By manipulating this IP Gauge, players can mess with enemy plans, time a healing spell for after the boss attacks, or wind up with multiple attacks in a row. It’s a terrific system that arrived fully formed in the first game and was nicely iterated on in the sequels, and it still feels fresh and fun two decades later.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Switch, Windows, Xbox One
Suikoden 1 & 2 (PlayStation, 1995/1998)
OK, so, I’m cheating a little here. Suikoden I&II HD Remaster Gate Rune and Dunan Unification Wars — the HD remaster of two legendary PlayStation JRPGs — doesn’t come out until 2023, but it’s too good a package to leave out. The Suikoden series didn’t wow players with its gameplay or visuals when it first hit western shores in 1996, but it introduced a new style of storytelling to the genre by focusing heavily on politics and introducing a cast of over 100 recruitable characters — and many more non-recruitable characters. It was unlike anything else at the time, and epic in a way that few other games since have managed to capture. For many years it seemed like the Suikoden series was dead in the water, but the announcement of a spiritual follow-up, Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes by Rabbit & Bear Studios, opened the doors for this official remaster from Konami. Now, a whole new generation of fans is going to discover the wonderful world of Suikoden.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Switch, Windows, Xbox One