The original PlayStation's time in the sun was a golden era for J-RPG fans. Square-Enix was churning out a Final Fantasy game what seemed like every year, and every other developer under the sun was trying to compete with them. Since it was the pre-HD era, even smaller developers could try their hand at putting out lengthy J-RPG epics, filled with cinematic Full Motion Videos meant to pull young gamers into their stories.
For this list, we're looking at ten of the best J-RPGs from those halcyon golden years and giving some of the most creative titles in gaming the attention they deserve.
10 Legend of Mana
The fourth game in the popular Mana series, Legend of Mana is probably one of the more ambitious games in the series. The main character sets out to restore his destroyed world, and the game actually lets players re-create the world through its Land Make system.
Legend of Mana, at the time, was held up for its beautiful 2D art, but the Land Make system and its non-linear way of storytelling was just as noteworthy; most of the story could be completed in any order, allowing a kind of freedom that most J-RPGs simply weren’t aiming for at the time. With its predecessor, Trials of Mana, already being remade, hopefully, Legend can experience a similar recreation.
9 Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
It feels weird to put Symphony of the Night here, but it’s certainly a Japanese game, and it is an RPG. Though the gameplay is completely different from the turn-based fare players of this era are used to with its side-scrolling action-based combat, they’re still taking on the role of Alucard and exploring Dracula’s castle.
And they’re still beating monsters and leveling up off the experience they get from those encounters, and equipping weapons they find within. So yeah, it’s definitely an RPG, and an excellent one at that. This game was so influential it fundamentally altered the way Castlevania games were made for the next ten years.
8 Valkyrie Profile
Tri-ace never had a better generation than on the original PlayStation. Both of their best games come directly from that generation, right when they were first starting. In Valkyrie Profile’s case, players took on the role of Lenneth, traveling through Midgard to collect the souls of valiant warriors who fight alongside her until it’s time to send them to Valhalla in preparation for Ragnarok.
As if having all party members eventually abandon the player wasn’t unique enough, the game also played like a platformer title as Lenneth explored the overworld and dungeons around her. Everything about Valkyrie Profile set it apart from other J-RPGs of the time, making it a beloved series to this day.
7 Tales of Destiny
Tales games these days get a bad rap thanks to a perceived “rapid” release schedule and a lack of major changes from title to title. But Tales of Destiny was from a different era, when the Tales series was relatively new (this is the second game of the franchise).
Players took on the role of Stahn, a young man who stows away on a ship to become an adventurer only to stumble upon a talking sword and get sucked into a battle larger than he could’ve imagined. Tales of Destiny perfectly combined 2D action combat with an engrossing story and a beautiful world, and will forever be one of the best in the franchise.
In a time when what made an RPG was becoming more and more codified, Suikoden was a game that went against so much of what we knew to “work” for Japanese RPGs. It went for a massive cast of over one hundred potential party members instead of a tight-knit group of three or four. It’s combat employed six warriors instead of three or four, and that’s along with adding solo combat battles and massive wars between armies.
Even it’s magic and upgrade systems for weapons worked totally differently. While it’s not nearly as polished as the sequel, the ambition of the original Suikoden game deserves every J-RPG fan’s respect.
5 Star Ocean: The Second Story
Some Star Ocean fans might argue this is the last “good” title of the series. While that might be a bit much, Second Story is definitely an excellent game.
Putting the players in the shoes of Ensign Claude J. Kenny, Tri-ace blended science fiction and high fantasy, taking the player on a journey throughout the galaxy. Despite being a game in the PS1 era, Star Ocean did so much that games today don’t even do now. Its skill system was revolutionary, allowing the player to customize each character in a way to best benefit their play style. What other game do you know allows a character to specialize in writing, sell their own book, and receive royalty checks?
Giant robots. Does anyone really need more convincing after that? Seriously though, creator Tetsuya Takahashi kicked off his Xeno series here, and the creator really swung for the fences. Everything about this series is different from what RPGs were doing at the time. The battle system works off linking different moves together to create custom combos. The story handles complex themes of religion so touchy that the game almost didn’t get brought Stateside.
Plus, there are the giant robots—gorgeously designed by Kunihiko Tanaka, they fundamentally alter the gameplay from the moment they’re introduced, bringing all-new depth to an already unique battle system.
3 Final Fantasy VII
Arguably, other Final Fantasy titles could’ve gone on this list. Square was on fire this generation in a way they weren’t before and haven’t ever been since. Final Fantasy VIII took the graphical achievements to a new level, and Final Fantasy IX managed to hearken back to the fantasy days of the SNES era. However, Final Fantasy VII was a game-changer.
It was the first of its kind and represented Square breaking away from Nintendo because of its choice of physical media, choosing instead to deliver a cinematic experience. Much of what we think when we think of AAA gaming comes from how revolutionary Final Fantasy VII was and how good at it they were.
2 Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete
Unlike a lot of games on this list, GameArts’ Lunar title didn’t have a revolutionary battle system or play a part in shaping RPG history. From a gameplay perspective, it’s not particularly ambitious.
What it is, however, is the Prototype for Fantasy RPGs. It’s filled with beautiful environments and lovable characters and a romantic story about a hero on a quest for adventure and to save the woman he loves. It’s an addicting title that keeps first-time players riveted from start to finish, and, while it doesn’t do anything new, it executes everything it does excellently, making for one of the most polished experiences of the PS1 era.
1 Suikoden II
Across the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, director Yoshitaka Murayama told stories that were different than almost any other franchise coming out at the time. In his world, things weren’t merely about “saving the world” against unfathomable evils. His conflicts were always smaller scale—stories of war-torn nations, of people rebelling against unjust rule.
Every game was a web of characters connected through familial relations and political intrigue, with a massive cast of characters for players to recruit or ignore. All three of his games are special, but Suikoden II stands head and shoulders above the others, building on the world he’d already introduced in the original game.