01 Jul 1990s JRPGS: A Timeline of Classics
I was a kid of the 1990s. Born in 1986 I only remember a slight taste of the end of the 1980s, so calling myself an 80s kid has always felt wrong. I loved (and still do), Ghostbusters and TMNT, but I was a little too young to ever really get He-Man, GI Joe, or Transformers. Many of those series were something that I caught in reruns. I grew up with X-Men and Batman on my television, grunge and punk rock in my stereo, and the SNES. I have always appreciated the NES but was born a little too late to truly understand its dominance. I still play NES from time to time, but it’s hard for it to compete with the SNES, what I will often consider the greatest game of all time. If you’re confused by that ranking take a look at the game library for the SNES classic.
Despite a few misses in there like StarFox 2 and Kirby’s Dream Course, this list represents 20 of the best games of all time. If you gave me these 20 games and added FFIV and Chrono Trigger to the mix, I could be very happy for a while. There’s something about SNES quality that speaks through the generations. From Super Mario World to Kirby’s Super Star, the GAMES have withstood the test of time and continue to be classics. Age has not affected the quality of these games and in many ways they’re better now than they were then! There were amazing platformers and adventure games, fighting games, and puzzle games. But most importantly, the 1990s is when the JRPG found itself.
JRPGs got their start, like many other video game genres in the early to mid 1980s. There were a great deal of computer-based JRPGs but the genre started to take shape when Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in the US) was released in 1986. Final Fantasy followed soon thereafter and the NES, Master System, and PC Engine gave birth to monumental series like: Dragon Quest, Dragon Slayer, Ys, and Phantasy Star. When the SNES launched in 1990 JRPGs were still learning to grow with new hardware. The first SNES JRPG I could find was Act Raiser, a game that was ½ city builder and ½ action RPG which was the first game developed by Quintet. Quintet would go on to develop: Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma, all of which have become SNES classics.
But why are the 1990s what I consider to be a murderers’ row of classic JRPGs? Let’s take fairly limited view at the timeline:
- 1990 – Final Fantasy III (the REAL FF3), Phantasy Star III, Dragon Quest IV
- 1991 – Final Fantasy IV (Final Fantasy II in the States), Final Fantasy Adventure (Seiken Densetsu)
- 1992 – Soul Blazer, Romancing SaGa, Final Fantasy V, Shining Force, Dragon Quest V
- 1993 – Illusion of Gaia, Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2), Breath of Fire, Phantasy Star IV, Shining Force, Lunar: The Silver Star,
- 1994 – Breath of Fire II, Final Fantasy VI, Earthbound (Mother 2)
- 1995– Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest VI, Front Mission, Trials of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 3), Secret of Evermore, Lunar Eternal Blue
- 1996 – Super Mario RPG, Terranigma, Suikoden
- 1997– Final Fantasy VII, Breath of Fire III,
- 1998– Final Fantasy Tactics, Parasite Eve, Xenogears, Pokemon Red/Blue, Panzer Dragoon Saga
- 1999– Final Fantasy VIII, Grandia, Suikoden II
This list represents just a portion of the JRPGs that released at this time. Across multiple platforms, this list is filled with so many amazing games that it’s hard to compete with. As you can see, there were at least 3 high quality, and in some cases legendary, JRPGs, released year-after-year. Looking at this list, I see major hits year after year in an unrelenting and constant wave of classics. Experiencing this generation first hand I didn’t realize how amazing it was. Looking back, I need to stop and breathe for a minute. These games would establish the genre and they were all from what I consider to be monumental series. But…What made these games so good?
The world was ready for this brand of RPG. These were games that true 80s kids could finally fully embrace. While consoles like the SNES and Genesis had their technical limitations, this era allowed these series to find their footing and form the future of JRPGs. I always imagine that these companies were scrappy young developers banding together to make these amazing experiences for the player. Bright colors, beautiful music, and amazing story. Square, Spike Chunsoft, Capcom, Konami, were firing on all cylinders and it showed. Dragon Quest V had to outshine Final Fantasy IV and FF6 needed to be better than both Secret of Mana and Breath of Fire combined! While JRPGs were still what I would consider a niche market at the time, these games paved the way for the giant blockbusters like Final Fantasy VII.
They are so good, because they feel significant when you play them. They are making history while helping to create expand a relatively young genre. These games offered a different alternative to the mascot platformer overload of the early 1990s. They were deeper, richer, and more absorbing. Developers took chances and made some brilliant games. While Square and Spike Chunsoft led the way, even Nintendo, who historically doesn’t like RPGs made their own in Earthbound (and we never heard from it again).
Due to technical limitations, it made sense to graphically tell a story through a JRPG. I’ve always appreciated that the characters in the game continue to get better at their job while I slowly become a better player. Platformers like Mario, Sonic, Mega Man, and Castlevania at that point mostly relied on improvement to come from the player’s growing familiarity with how the games work. It works well for most genres, but RPGs require you to be invested. Grinding is the absolute worst thing in video games…but having to work through endless waves of slimes to get strong enough to eventually take on a Dragon is pretty cool. It’s as though our hard work, as the player has paid off! As though WE as the player are part of the story, like a giant choose-your-own adventure.
These games also had given the reins to the player as well. Very rarely does an RPG follow a set path and this list of games is filled with experiences that require some degree of customization. While FFIV, Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire are lacking in character customization, games like FFV, Tactics, and FFVI make up for it in spades. No two games or playthroughs are the same, giving the player endless experiences and encouragement to play more and more! Player choice is always very important to the JRPG and RPG in general. Some are more simplistic; Super Mario RPG, for example, only lets the player choose which characters are in their party. While others, like FFV allow you to completely custom craft your character classes to fit your playstyle. I normally like to do: Fast Fighter, Power Fighter, Healer, and Damage Mage; whereas others may want to make a party entirely of monks…you can do that! JRPGs often ask the player to invest more of themselves psychologically into the game more so than say your run-of-the-mill platformer. In addition, they require a time investment. That may seem like a deterrent to many, but this is what proves their ultimate value, they’re worth every minute.
The JRPGs of the 1990s got a lot right as they offered ambient and escapist experiences for all gamers at the time. Many of them have also completely withstood the test of time. While some have come back with minor advancements and quality of life improvements. I just replayed Secret of Mana for the first time in roughly 15 years and I may have enjoyed it better now than I did back when I first played it. It’s not just nostalgia either, these games have weight and importance to them. They feel like you’re playing a piece of history, while then they were the cutting edge. It’s like watching a great film like, Pulp Fiction; it changed the game in 1994 and has become a historical pillar of film making. Modern video game owes a lot to the JRPGs of the 1990s. We can see that RPG elements are infused in almost EVERY game today and I will always accredit that to games like Final Fantasy VII, for opening gamers’ eyes to RPG mechanics and for bringing the JRPG out of the basement and into the mainstream. While the aforementioned timeline goes beyond FF7, you can see how Final Fantasy VII represents the culmination of everything great before it. It is as though 1997 was a banner year for the future of games and the significance of the JRPG.
FF7 is somewhat more simplistic than its predecessors, but was able to deliver one of the most important and awe-inspiring experiences in video game and JRPG history. It was the first JRPG that I could remember that had the ability to be both cool and different while attracting a new fanbase. I remember being 11 years old when FF7 released and playing it feverishly once I was able to get my hands on my own copy. I read the guide front to back (spoiling Aeris’ death…sadly), and wanted to know everything about Midgar and the world of the game. I scoured the internet for artwork and if it was now, would have changed my phone background to an FF7 character every day. It was at this time that I said “I like this genre and I’m going to play it a lot.”. While I often credit Super Mario RPG as the game that made me better understand RPGs, Final Fantasy VII was what made me make it a way of life. Speaking from anecdotal experience, I believe many of my generation felt the same way. Square would go on to use FF7 to push all sorts of JRPGs past and present and made almost every PRE-10 Final Fantasy available on PS1. They may run like trash, but you can play them. With the 1990s leading into FF7 and the door being forcibly kicked open, many a gamer was also introduced to the amazing JRPGs on the SNES. Collections like Final Fantasy Anthology, Final Fantasy Chronicles, and Final Fantasy Origins were like a library of great RPGs PS1 players were able to get their hands on. I highly recommend anyone or everyone who’s interested in the genre to check out Final Fantasy IV, V, VI, and Chrono Trigger, you can see how they led to Final Fantasy VII and how they continue to inspire the series, and it’s offshoots for generations. We’re still seeing ideas from FFVI in games like FFXV! If you’ve played Octopath Traveler or Bravely Default, those games trace their histories directly to Final Fantasy V. Even my favorite, Final Fantasy Tactics, owes its lineage to FFV.
The influence from this era of JRPGs is equally as important to me as games like Super Mario World, Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Street Fighter II. They pushed narrative and character while other games were pushing speed and action. Looking back, there’s an inherent goofiness to many of these games, but their expressiveness and ambiance permeated the industry for decades. JRPGs had a rough run in the mid Aughts/Early Teens, but they have come back over the past two years to reclaim their spot at the table. These JRPGs owe everything to their ancestors from the 1990s and the 90s games have influenced everything from Persona 5 to GTA.
What’s your favorite JRPG from the 1990s? Let’s talk about it!