Five Obscure but Wonderful Japanese RPGs That Need More Love

Eric Fuchs

There are the superstars of the Japanese RPG genre, the must-plays on any gamer’s list: Final Fantasy VII, Persona 4, Chrono Trigger. This is a not a list of those.

Then there are the rare classic games that are beloved by the hardcore fans: Ogre Battle 64, Skies of Arcadia, and the ultra rare Panzer Dragoon Saga. This is not even a list of those.

No, this is a list of five games that somehow have ended up under the JRPG radar. They aren’t mainstream successes or the ultimate in expensive collector’s items. But for those who have played them, they are great little games that need more love.

Sweet Home (Famicom)

Strangely, not many JRPGs have managed to overlap into the horror genre. It really should happen more. Dungeons are dark places full of monsters. You fight your way through trying your best to survive with dwindling HP and MP. But really only one JRPG has fully jumped into horror. Sweet Home is a 1989 tie-in with a Japanese movie of the same name. Where most movie tie-in games have a reputation for awfulness, Sweet Home is arguably more famous than the movie it is based on.

In it, five characters enter a haunted house, classic plot. They must survive random encounters and freaky traps while attempting to solve puzzles. Just a few caveats: death is ”permanent,” healing items are extremely rare, and there are no inns where you can recover health. When you lose health or a character, you lose it forever. This game is actually the granddaddy of the entire Japanese survival horror genre, being the primary inspiration for Resident Evil on the PlayStation nearly a decade later.

You may have felt some unease in other JRPGs when wandering through dungeons. Now ramp that tension up because any step could be the end of your characters. Death scenes are as gruesome as the old 8-bit Famicom processor from the ’80s could manage: characters melt into blood or get chopped in half. The haunted house is a labyrinth of dark secrets and complex puzzles based around a brutally complicated item management system (good luck getting very far without a guide).

Unfortunately, Sweet Home was never released outside Japan, dooming it to the legends of collectors and lists like this one.

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (NES, PS1, DS)

The Dragon Quest franchise is the undisputed champion of the genre… in Japan. Here in the West, Dragon Quest’s quirky charms and Akira Toriyama’s art style will forever stay in the shadow of its more serious rival, Final Fantasy.

Dragon Quest IV is a charmingly simple game. It has an uncomplicated battle system and a lighthearted adventure story that make it the perfect introduction to the JRPG genre. The game is one of the first JRPGs to have party members with distinct personalities, including Alena, an adventuring princess; Torneko Taloon, a fat merchant; and Meena and Maya, a pair of mage sisters — one bookish and withdrawn, the other a sexy belly dancer.

But what really makes Dragon Quest IV work is a unique idea rarely implemented in other games: episodic gameplay. Dragon Quest IV is broken up into five chapters, where the player takes control of individual members of the cast in their own separate stories before uniting in the final chapter. Along the way the heroes fight the very forces of Hell, led by a surprisingly deep and well-crafted villain, Psaro the Manslayer.

Dragon Quest IV was originally released in America on the NES as Dragon Warrior IV, featuring a (frankly awful) AI system for the supporting characters. The game is best experienced in its DS remake, with full player control of everybody.

Jeanne d’Arc (PSP)

Strategy JRPG games like Tactics Ogre and the Fire Emblem series feature elaborate, medieval-inspired war stories as their plots. These are gritty games about the fates of nations. It seems only natural that an SRPG should use an actual historical war as its inspiration. Thus we have the 2006 Level-5 game Jeanne d’Arc, based on the Hundred Years’ War. It stars none other than Joan of Arc herself, fighting for her native France against the invading English.

Of course, this being a JRPG, some historical authenticity has been lost: Joan has a magical set of armor as her weapon, she fights alongside animal people, and the English are ruled by demons trying to destroy the world.

Jeanne d’Arc is not as brutal as most games in the genre. Death is not permanent, and the game is relatively easy to master. Follow-up attacks and positioning are essential tools for winning battles.

Still, while the game might not be actively trying to ruin your life like some levels in Final Fantasy Tactics, Jeanne d’Arc offers a moderate level of challenge. And the story has dark turns and plenty of twists — including the true fate of Joan of Arc. Probably the only knock on this title is the very unconvincing French accents on the English dub.

Resonance of Fate (PS3, Xbox 360)

Tri-Ace’s 2010 RPG Resonance of Fate unfortunately came out right around the same time as Final Fantasy XIII. One of those games is still enjoyed today, while the other is largely forgotten. I’ll recommend the forgotten one here.

Resonance of Fate takes place in a far sci-fi future where the world has been destroyed. Humanity is left to survive on a giant techno clockwork tower crawling with monsters. The rich upperclass rules the wastes with the support of a deeply corrupt Church, while the heroes are a trio of down-on-their-luck hunters doing odd jobs in the enemy-infested lower levels. The story becomes a complicated conspiracy involving life stones and weird anime science experiments. I can’t say I actually understood much of it, but thankfully the main trio are a lovable lot. And the story is not why Resonance of Fate gets a recommendation.

No, the reason Resonance of Fate is on this list is thanks to its entirely unique battle system. The game mixes together action gameplay and turn-based strategy like few other titles in the genre ever have. The heroes are capable of fantastic feats of John Woo-style gun-fu, but pulling the leaps and spins off requires a delicate balance of the game’s internal systems. You can’t just blow your characters’ entire stamina on showy attacks without thinking ahead, or you will leave them vulnerable to enemy attack.

Resonance of Fate is a game with a very steep learning curve. It is a brutal climb, but it’s one well worth taking.

Terranigma (SNES)

Terranigma is one of the most unique games ever made. It was criminally doomed to obscurity when Enix USA shut down towards the end of the Super Nintendo life cycle. Unfortunately that meant the game was never released outside Japan and Europe. Even in those territories, it was largely ignored thanks to the Nintendo 64 coming around the corner. Still, Terranigma absolutely belongs on the list of the greatest SNES RPGs ever, along with titles like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI.

The story of Terranigma involves a young boy named Arc. He lives in the last village of humans in a strange misty underworld. As Arc, you must to save his town by exploring seven dungeons. At the end of each dungeon you create a landmass that looks like one of the continents of our Earth. Then you go to the surface and restore the plants, the animals, and eventually humans. In a sense you end up as a dungeon crawling God, creating life by defeating dungeons in a simple but enjoyable top-down action RPG framework.

Terranigma is a gorgeous experience, featuring one of the best soundtracks in RPG history. Few games, let alone classics from decades ago, manage to create a spiritual journey of such power as this one.

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Eric Fuchs
FFWiki Admin, Gunpla Builder, House Lannister-supporter, Nice Jewish Boy that Your Mom Will Love, and a Capricorn.
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