Old School: The PlayStation JRPG Factor

Two days ago, I listened to the latest edition of Retronauts and the topic was a discussion of B-list or second rate JRPGs. If you haven’t heard it, check it out. It’s a great if long (2 hours) listen and it’s extremely informative and entertaining. This had me thinking back about when I finally was introduced to RPGs by my friend, Don.

Final_Fantasy_VII_Box_ArtPrior to 2001, I didn’t care for RPGs. I didn’t understand how you didn’t actually control characters during the fighting sequences, why the games were so long and how the games would tell you EXACTLY where to go. Maybe the games were to expansive for me to understand. So that means that I didn’t play SNES RPGs and I missed out on Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy II and III. Side note: To be fair, these weren’t available to rent either at my local video store. Anyways, in 2001, I entered my first year in high school and met my friend Don. He was a big RPG fan and half of his massive PSone collection were RPGs, if not more. I remember buying him Xenosaga (and for some dumb reason, the guide for it as well) for his birthday. He didn’t just like the popular ones. He liked the obscure games as well. So he was the perfect guy to get me into the genre and he did when he lent me his copy of Final Fantasy VII. He knew the PSone was one of my favorite consoles and he didn’t steer me wrong.

I had actually briefly tried Final Fantasy VII before. Twice, actually. A quick demo was included on one of those demo discs you got in magazines and my cousin had the game and I tried it quickly one time when he was gone. Neither tries were able to get me into the game but finally, when I was able to relax and sit down and play the game with no distractions, it all fell into place and I understood that this is supposed to be a game that lasts a long time. The story will change and go through different places and battling was more about strategy than reflexes. I became hooked and I immediately started looking for any RPGs I could get my hands on. Luckily, there were plenty of cheap PSone RPG games at my local Gamestop, ripe for the picking.

With some guidance from my friend, I bought games quicker than I could play them. I did get to at least experience some truly great and obscure titles. No one seems to talk about SaGa Frontier all that much but I admire that game for taking a stance and saying “I’m going to be so convoluted in plot and you won’t know where you’re going half the time, but that’s because I’m hardcore and I have a battle system that’s badass and you won’t get bored because of the multiple characters.” I also had the sequel and although it’s really nothing like the first one, I did enjoy it a bit more just because I had some idea as to what to do. Also, the graphics are wonderful. Something that I really enjoy are well done 2D sprites. 3D graphics are nice and all but something about 2D graphics, especially on the PSone, just pleases me aesthetically.

Although not a favorite as well, a great example of my love of 2D graphics is Breath of Fire III. Sure the game draws out segments a bit too long at times but it’s still an enjoyable game. I have tried Breath of Fire IV but only briefly and I don’t remember too much about it. Legend of Dragoon is the same way. Tried the first battle at my friend Don’s house and that was about it. Legend of Legaia is an RPG that must have been made for me. What better way to get a fighting game fan into RPGs than to merge the two together? The combat system had you combining hand to hand attacks to do combos and special moves. Many RPGs live and die by their battle system and this one is truly unique. I’ve never seen this kind of system done again except for the sequel. Legend of Mana was another game that you could get lost quick but there was something very whimsical about the game as well, something that other RPGs during the PSone days didn’t have. I remember getting a lot of these games cheap back in the day. $8 for Saga Frontier, $12 or so for Breath of Fire III, Legend of Mana was only $10. I know now that game goes for close to $100 now!

Legend_of_ManaFrom what I understand, I missed a few games, despite my best efforts, from that era that are worth playing. Wild Arms is a game I never stumbled upon, nor its sequel. Xenogears is another game that apparently I need to play. I’ve heard good things, although I’m not a fan of Xenosaga. Valkyrie Profile is another game that I actually wasn’t even aware of until the PSP game was released a few years back. The most egregious mistake is that fact that I’ve never played Dragon Warrior VII. I don’t have an explanation other than I was busy with other RPGs. Good thing for PSone backwards compatibility for both the PS2 and PS3.

Of course I didn’t miss the Final Fantasy series. Along with VII, I played VIII and XII as well as the collections Anthology and Chronicles. However, I never could get into those collections. I now know that those ports are pretty poor so maybe that was it. However, I really liked the Origins collection. Oddly enough, I think the first Final Fantasy on that collection is really fun. I’m like that will the Legend of Zelda too. When I finally got into that series, the first game was one of the games to do it. In the Anthology collection I believe, it also includes a port of Chrono Trigger. Although I would go back and try the game and enjoy it more, I’ve never gotten into that game that much. What I did play I enjoyed a lot but it has never held my attention for too long. However, the same can’t be said for its sequel, Chrono Cross.

Chrono Cross is one of my favorite games. Problem is I wasn’t aware of it until recently, after it was announced that it was coming to the PSN. When I first played the game, I played it briefly and stopped. It sat on my shelf and I didn’t play it for somewhere around three years. I originally picked it up new because it was on sale at Best Buy. Finally, the summer before I went to college, I decided to pick it up and play it and I was addicted. The characters, the vibe, the battle system, the environments. It all merged together to make this engrossing experience that just worked. Sure the characters aren’t all fleshed out but they are all interesting just by their design alone. The parallel worlds are similar but different enough to make it believable. The story…is convoluted but not so much that you can’t follow what’s going on. And then there’s the music. Oh my god, the music. Chrono Cross is the first game I ever bought the soundtrack to. The music is a key reason to the game’s addictive fashion. It puts you into the area and each track fits where its played. In my opinion, Chrono Cross has the greatest soundtrack for a game EVER! When I finished the game, I put it back on the shelf and talked about it for several weeks before moving on to another game. I actually haven’t thought about it since. When the announcement came, all these memories of the game came flooding back into my mind and honestly, I’m as excited for this PSN port as I am for triple A titles like RAGE, Batman: Arkham City and Skyrim.

I would continue to try RPGs for the PS2, although when Gamefly came around, I stopped buying and started renting since it was cheaper and I was starting to get burned by bad games (Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits, dot Hack series). Although the PS2 has great RPGs both popular (Final Fantasy X) and obscure (Shadow Hearts), the quality of the games seemed to be the best on the PSone. Unfortunately, this generation of JRPG games have been pretty abysmal. Good thing western RPGs have finally found their footing and are now great games. However, that way the games were made back then were wonderful and in a lot of ways, RPGs were being released left and right. Developers pretty much made these game and threw them on the wall, hoping they would stick. No thinking about marketing or sales were a factor. The PSone was an interesting time for the genre in which success was possible and therefore, companies made as many RPGs as they could, however the genre was also still seen as a niche audience, as it was on the SNES and Genesis, as so they were aware that it could only sell a couple of thousand copies and would still be okay with that. This transition era was the best time for RPGs, and it was a great time for me to get into the genre.

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