This list of the best jRPGs from the 90s is mostly for the kids coming up who never got to have a PS1. It’s the first entry into what I hope will be a short series of posts for different game genres to give my Gen Zers a look into the things they may have not played since they were still in diapers but which are worth going back, digging out of the dirt and downloading and emulator to play.
10. Chrono Cross
Chrono Cross was the long awaited sequel to an even older game called Chrono Trigger, which was widely viewed as the best RPG of all time. It disappointed fans as a sequel to Chrono Trigger given that it jettisoned the cast of the previous game and the whole time travel mechanic, but given distance and time, people came around to the viewpoint that Chrono Cross was a great game — just not the sequel people wanted. Oh, and also, it has one of the best video game soundtracks of all time. Easily one of the best jRPGs of the 90s.
9. SaGa Frontier 2
SaGa Frontier was a 1999 entry to the long running SaGa series, an experimental series with a spotty hit-or-miss track record. What made SaGa Frontier 2 special was its beautiful watercolor art style and its compelling story, which followed two stories through multiple generations. It told, on one hand, the story of Gustav and his evolution from troubled child to revered king after being cast out of the royal family; and, on the other, the adventurer (think: Indiana Jones) Knights family across 3 generations. It has a great cast, a good story and a beautiful, unique look.
8. Vagrant Story
Vagrant Story, one of the best jRPGs from the 90s, is one of those games that people love or hate. It was one of the earliest entries into Squaresoft’s Ivalice series, which also includes Final Fantasy 12 and Final Fantasy Tactics. It follows Ashley, a Riskbreaker, which is essentially a sort of medieval special forces, as he tries to hunt down the criminal/cult leader Sydney Losstarot who, by the way, he incredibly cool looking magic robot arms and a badass full back tattoo. Key to this game is its story, which is both incredibly interesting and stylishly told. Ashley Riot is motivated by the memory of his wife and children getting killed, but Sydney reveals to him that it was actually him that did the deed, leaving Ashley to wonder throughout the game: who’s lying to him, his government employers or the charismatic rebel?
7. Valkyrie Profile
Valkyrie Profile is an incredibly beautiful game that follows a unique storytelling mechanic. You play as a Norse Valkyrie, tasked to find heroes to bring to Valhalla to participate in Ragnarok. The execution of this is done in the form of vignetted short stories, each focusing on a new protagonist, tied loosely together by a story about humans’ rebellion against the Gods, the Valkyrie’s human life, and the ongoing preparation for the Ragnarok itself. On top of this, it boasts a unique gameplay style that mixes sidescrolling puzzles with unique RPG battles. It possesses artistry, heart and originality in spades. One of the best jRPGs from the 90s.
6. Breath of Fire 3
Breath of Fire 3, the third entry to the Breath of Fire series which, overall, is very good, is the best of the bunch. It has a timeless art style that has aged very well, and tells a deeply engrossing story about Ryu, the last dragon, on his quest to find God and, in turn, find out who he is and what happened to his people. There’s a very interesting gameplay system wherein you collect the genes of dragons, Ryu’s ancestors, and combine them to create new, powerful dragon forms for Ryu to turn into. It has another feature where characters can apprentice under ‘masters’, which teach skills and alter their stats, allowing you to shore up a characters’ weaknesses or embellish their strengths. The story itself is textbook great. It’s crisp and told effectively with a series of emotional chapters that provide great character development and an overall compelling narrative. Just look up a guide for the desert of death, whew. Also, it has, weirdly enough, a super fun fishing minigame that you can easily lose hours to. One of the best jRPGs of the 90s.
5. Final Fantasy 7
Final Fantasy 7 is one of the best jRPGs of the 90s, and a game most people have probably heard of. It was the game that defined the genre for a long time, and for good reason. It tells an interesting story about eco-terrorists and their journey to save the world. That’s the simple version. It involves clones, scientific experiments, corporate/government corruption, magic, Biblical themes and the iconic spiky haired hero known as Cloud. It’s been criticized as being convoluted — I might simply say that it’s epic, cool and super weird — but the fact is that as you actually go through the story, it grabs you. The music is great to the point you remember the songs years later, and there are many scenes and segments that stick in your mind. It has one of the coolest RPG casts, a very unique world, and it sticks with you.
4. Star Ocean 2
Star Ocean 2 is the second entry to a game that, basically, asks the question “What if someone from the Star Trek crew got stranded on a fantasy planet?” It combines sci-fi and fantasy in a way that’s fresh and enjoyable. The plot itself is kind of eh, but it’s told well and the cast of characters has a lot of charm. The gameplay is the star here: its active, action RPG battle system split the difference between the button mashing of the Tales series and the fire-and-forget nature of a typical RPG. The real, real champion of the game, though, is its talent & skills system, which allows characters to master skills like crafting, blacksmithing, cooking and dozens of others. Using this system you can, if you were so inclined, search out rare ingredients and get the best weapons and armor halfway through the game. The concept and the inventive systems make it one of the best jRPGs of the 90s.
3. Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy Tactics is the video game version of Game of Thrones before Game of Thrones was a thing. It tells and intriguing political fantasy story overlaid on the story of the personal journey of Ramza Beoulve, an aristocrat who disowns his family and journeys around the kingdom after his commoner best friend’s sister is murdered on his brother’s orders. It’s hard to undersell how good the story is; Ramza encounters evil forces who are possessing the corrupt members of high society and has to put a stop to them. Meanwhile, Delita pursues an epic rise to power fueled by his vendetta against the upper class. The game also has an execution of strategy RPG style gameplay that hasn’t been beat to this day. The moment to moment execution is fluid and fast, and the Final Fantasy style jobs system present in the game is the perfect fit. Easily one of the best jRPGs of the 90s.
Xenogears is, perhaps, the most epic and ambitious RPG ever conceived. Like a lot of the coolest RPGs, it combines sci-fi and fantasy. Up close, it tells the story of Fei Fong Wong, the mysterious orphan whose carefree life in his village is disrupted when a bipedal Gundam-style robot crashes into his village. He climbs in to try to fight off the pursuers and off we go into a story that involves political intrigue, philosophical allegory, split personalities, nanobot orphans, the history of the universe, robots, a great cast of well-developed characters, and all sorts of interesting allusions and references to everything from classic films to the old testament. If you’re the type of person who might be interested in reading, say, Dostoevsky, Xenogears is the game for you. One of the best jRPGs of the 90s.
1. Suikoden 2
Suikoden 2 may not look like much at first glance but it is, hands down, easy choice, the top of this list. The story is well told, beautiful, emotionally powerful and at times even poetic. It tells the story of Riou, a young soldier, who is the victim of a false-flag attack — his own country attacks his unit, pretending to be the enemy to get out of a recently signed peace treaty. From there, he travels with his best friend, Jowy, and sister, Nanami until fate irreversibly forces them apart. Jowy, an aristocrat of his country, uses political savvy and cunning to get into the royal circle; meanwhile, Riou becomes a war hero fighting for independence. There’s a beautiful emotional push-pull of the dichotomy where Jowy and Riou have the same goal, but are forced to fight each other. Of course, the gameplay is brilliant as well. The main battle system is simple and easy to get into, but the real key here are the subsystems. You collect 108 characters who populate your castle. Not only do you collect warriors, but also shopkeepers, chefs, journalists, etc. As as you do, your castle slowly transforms from a dump into, basically, a theme park full of fun minigames — including, but not limited to, an Iron Chef cook-off. If video games had oscars, Suikoden 2 could win one every year.
Interested in more content like this? Check out the top 5 games to install on an SNES classic.