Final Fantasy VII was a titan of a game when it released back in 1997. Hell, it still sort of is. In essence, it put JRPGs on the map, at least in terms of mainstream appeal, and was instrumental in the rise of console gaming overall. I’d even go so far as to say it paved the way for this medium as we know it today; it was big-budget, included highly polished cutscenes with (for its time) fantastic CGI, was an expert in storytelling conventions, bolstered in-depth gameplay and sported one of the most memorable casts of characters in all of gaming. Ultimately, it embodies the term “timeless.”
Unfortunately, in all of its hype and praise — and regardless of how much it helped define the roleplaying genre — Final Fantasy VII did a huge disservice for the type of game it represented. I say this because it ultimately acted as the sole benchmark by which all RPGs released around its time were measured. You see, we gamers do this thing called: unfairly comparing one game to another. Excluding the notion that in doing this we are complete jackasses who far too often pit apples against oranges, this is just obtuse behavior in general because it doesn’t help either game’s cause. In fact, it can tarnish both titles to the point that their true potential is never found simply because their merits in these instances only exist in some sort of necessitated juxtaposed universe where they singularly do not matter. In this case, we miss out on true gems that warrant just as much of our attention as the title being showered with accolades.
Needless to say, many games get swept under the rug due to that one acclaimed product essentially hogging all the glory. And that’s what today’s article is all about; in specific, this is a list of the top 10 JRPGs that Final Fantasy VII unfortunately overshadowed. So enough with the chatter; let’s get to it.
(Keep in mind, most of the games on this list came out around the time of VII — usually within a year or so, some within a matter of months — which is why some of the more obvious games may have not made the cut).
10. Breath of Fire III
(Capcom | PlayStation)
At a time when innovation trumped throwback nostalgia, Breath of Fire III got lost in the mix of the industry’s rapdily advancing philosophies and design mechanics. As traditional as traditional comes, Capcom’s third installment in its heinously underrated JRPG series was a love-note to those who enjoyed everything there was to enjoy about the standard JRPG architecture. Regrettably, those specific players were something of a rarity during the exciting, newfangled times of the fifth-generation era.
Aside from its rigid adherence to tried and true formulas, Breath of Fire III was also disregarded by the mainstream because, at a time when polygonal graphics were on the rise, it stuck to the conventions of 2D sprites. Barring the fact that the sprite work was some of the best around for its time, many casual players who were caught up in the VII craze simply shrugged it off because of its aesthetic value, or better yet, in their eyes, lack thereof. Unfortunately, in doing this those people missed out on a fantastic coming-of-age tale that had some truly charming characters and even more charismatic dialogue that was just downright funny. It’s a travesty that the PSP remake never made it to North American shores, as Breath of Fire III is a classic that deserves to be experienced by everyone, but especially all of those who were too busy chasing that Final Fantasy VII high to realize it existed.
09. Tales of Destiny
(Namco | PlayStation)
And just when we thought it couldn’t get any more old-school than Breath of Fire III, Tales of Destiny comes along. At the time, I’m sure no one suspected that this humble little Namco title would go on to spawn one of the most successful and renowned JRPG franchises in history; however, had we been paying closer attention, we would’ve seen it coming all along. Tales of Destiny is the type of game that does damn near everything right: its story-telling is entrancing, its characters, and better yet character interactions, are wonderful and it of course introduces players to the combat engine the series is known for today, which is by the way delightful.
It’s just too bad, then, that Destiny fell victim to the same trap that duped BoF III: its concepts were deeply rooted in an RPG heritage that many gamers weren’t all that interested in anymore. Despite the fact that Final Fantasy VII used all of the same bequest design ideologies as Tales of Destiny (and most others on this list), it simply did a better job at hiding it — using flashy cutscenes and higher production values to make an old car look new again. And sometimes we gamers can be an easily hoodwinked group of people.
08. Wild Arms
(Media.Vision & Contrail | PlayStation)
Yet again, another JRPG goes unnoticed because of how it presents itself. Wild Arms is a 2D game with a battling system that employs 3D graphics. Regrettably at the time, upon first firing up the title most people just saw the sprite work present, and were immediately put off and disappointed by its the traditional convictions. It didn’t help matters that the game was perceived by most American gamers, who may have not been heavily involved in the anime/manga/otaku culture that exploded a few years later, as a weird mishmash of styles, only viewing it as a strange “wild west meets Japanese cartoon” hybrid.
Perhaps the only legitimate argument folks may have had about the game was the fact that it started off painfully slow. Coming from Final Fantasy VII could have been too difficult a task in this instance, seeing as VII throws players right into the fray within a matter of seconds, whereas the plot in Wild Arms takes some time to get going. Thankfully, Contrail’s RPG went on to spawn a pretty solid franchise, and was even re-released on PS2 under the monicker Alter Code: F. Too bad that game didn’t get the credit it deserved either, what with coming out toward the end of PlayStation 2’s life cycle here in western world. I suppose Wild Arms is a game that’s just meant to be forgotten.
(Game Arts | PlayStation/Sega Saturn)
For its time, Grandia was a big game. In fact, its world was so expansive that it practically rivaled Final Fantasy VII‘s. In this, it presented players a diverse world that felt alive — like it could’ve existed in some undiscovered pocket of the world. Its lore was rich, its cast simply adorable. This is the story of friendship and love, and how with it a person can conquer whatever stands in their way. It’s the fact of just how damn big Grandia‘s heart is that is the real travesty of it going unnoticed. It’s rare for a game to come along that is equal parts solid and dazzling on a sort of magical level. We can almost think of Grandia as like an interactive Disney film, filled with entertaining and likable characters, a central plot that doesn’t break new ground but is functional in every way possible and set pieces that inspire.
Now, Grandia is perhaps one of the more successful titles on this list in that it went on to spawn two direct sequels and an off-shoot game. However, when most people talk about the series these days (which they rarely even do that), Grandia II is the one that people remember. Sure, the original might get a fan nod or two, but most people simply haven’t played it. And it’s unfortunate that such a wonderful game had to come out at a time when it was literally impossible to surpass the unrealistic expectations gamers had for JRPGs, beause of VII.
06. Albert Odyssey
(Sunsoft | Sega Saturn)
I’m almost certain that this gem is the most unheard of in this whole account. Not only did it have the misfortune of being on the Sega Saturn, which had a woefully low install base here in North America, but its release was generally ill-timed. Hitting store shelves just two months before VII, Albert Odyssey was already going toe-to-toe with Square’s massive hype-train. In this, folks sort of had the idea of, “At this point, why should I buy another RPG, when Final Fantasy VII is just weeks away?” I literally heard people say that. Back then, most people didn’t buy games as compulsively or as frequently as they do nowadays, so that’s a factor to consider when discussing AO.
But aside from its issues with poor timing, Albert Odyssey just wasn’t in front of enough eyes to gather the mainstream’s attention. Working Designs did a decent job at marketing their games, but even Albert seemed to fly under the radar for them. I rarely recall seeing ads for the game — minus the occasional EGM, Game Fan or Game Pro spot — and when it was able to get in front of people, it sort of looked like everything else Working Designs had ever done. On top of that, it went up against the technology contender as well, like I mentioned with Breath of Fire. 1997 was a time when the gaming industry was quickly evolving; Albert Odyssey was not evolving, though. Hell, it wasn’t even trying to. It was staying as true to its JRPG roots as possible. In that, it was heralded as only a game for the most devout roleplaying enthusiast. What that means is simple: it merely wasn’t a game for your average Joe.
05. Shining Force III
(Camelot | Sega Saturn)
So Shining Force III, and all of its scenarios, is a sad thing for me to talk about. Not only did North America only get part I (the first scenario) of the trilogy, but it was one of the last games released for the, at the time of its launch, very dead Sega Saturn. Shining Force III is also unlike all the other entries in that it isn’t a traditional RPG. In fact, it’s a strategy-RPG, meaning it employs a grid that players traverse in order to set up attacks, and then 3D graphics that depict the actual combat once players have engaged an enemy. So not only is SFIII one of the most gorgeous titles on this lexicon, but it’s the most nuanced.
Any SRPG carries with it an abundance of tactical decisions and a certain adeptness in battlefield awareness. Those fundamentals are on full parade in Shining Force, as well. Battles are vast and a bit of a time-sink, due to the choices involved. Moreover, the level of challenge is formidable, with foes not afraid to kill party members without even batting an eyelash. It’s a tough but rewarding system that displays the inner workings of a truly superb strategy roleplaying game. This coupled with Shining Force‘s unique world makes it worthy of any gamer’s time. It’s too bad it had to come out when it did, however: it had to combat both VII and the fall off of its console.
(Squaresoft | PlayStation)
Shit, it’s Xenogears: the mecca of JRPGs; the creme de la creme; the holy ark; the mother lode. Put whatever label on it you want — the fact of the matter is it infuriates me that Xenogears only has cult-classic status, rather than full-blown, everyone-knows-about-it-because-it’s-mind-fuckingly-good status. Seriously. This may be Square’s best game to date. Aside from my expletives and hyperbole, though, this really is a thinking man’s JRPG. It has one of the most finely crafted plots with beautiful storytelling conventionalities and characters to grace any game system. If I can make the comparison, Xenogears is like the most expensive bottle of wine in the shop: it’s decadent, it’s thoroughly and meticulously crafted with the utmost care, but one that also demands the most sophisticated palette to fully understand and enjoy.
It’s because of all it has to offer that its lack of mainstream success is so disappointing. And really, I can only think Final Fantasy VII is to blame here. Sure, the space between Xenogears and VII was divided by the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics, SaGa Frontier, Einhander and Parasite Eve, but for whatever reasons, whether it was because expectations or market saturation (which could probably also be in part to blame on VII due to it putting Square firmly on the gaming map), Xenogears was criminally overlooked. Games that transcend their medium are hard to come by, but Xenogears was one of the titles that was able to pull off that feat. It became more than a game — it became a story that rivaled some of the best told in the realm of fantasy and science-fiction. It also contained a powerful message that it desperately wanted its audience to hear and process. It’s such a shame that more people never gave it the chance to do just that.
But I’ll end this blurb with this: stop reading this article, and just go download the game already. If you haven’t played it already, trust me when I say it’ll be the best 50 hours of your life; even better than your child being born. Yep, it’s that good.
03. Panzer Dragoon Saga
(Team Andromeda | Sega Saturn)
Panzer Dragoon Saga is the most intriguing game on this list. I say that because it’s probably the one most people have talked or heard about, but have never even touched. That argument would make sense, though; after all, the game was one of the very last Saturn game released, and was distributed in very short supply (only 30,000 copies were manufactured for North America; that’s insane, by the way). Despite that, PDS is also probably the most misunderstood game of the bunch, as well. Or perhaps it’s not misunderstood — maybe it just isn’t understood at all. There’s a lot happening inside the world of Saga. A lot of things that are never directly told to the player. This was an intentional design choice, but one that may have not resonated in the intended way.
For instance: the area that is most different about Panzer Dragoon Saga, at least when put next to its competition, is that its world is extremely desolate. This means towns are very sparse with people and NPCs even more so. It’s said that this was done as a way to make the player feel alone in the midst of the post-apocalyptic setting. To make this message clearer, the game utilizes a drab color wheel to boot. Somber hues of brown, tan, orange and black make the game’s destroyed world feel uncomfortable and eeary, and at times almost oppressive in its destruction. On top of the diverse and hyper unique art direction and game layout, PDS also implements a killer combat system that is truly one of a kind. It’s a bit turn-based, it’s a bit real-time, it’s a bit tactical and it’s a lot awesome.
In the end, Panzer Dragoon Saga is the game you never knew you wanted. Why it hasn’t been remade, or at least re-released under the HD guise, is beyond me. This is one of the best JRPGs ever made. It deserves, and dare I say needs to be experienced by gamers.
02. Legend of Dragoon
(Sony | PlayStation)
Much like others on this list — but perhaps more so — Legend of Dragoon got the shaft from audiences. Maybe it deserved some of the flak it received, but overall, gamers themselves were the reason why this classic never soared to the heights it should have. For all intents and purpose, Legend of Dragoon was the sequel to Final Fantasy VII that we never actually got from Square Enix — at least in terms of style and presentation. On the surface, Sony’s monstrous JRPG bears a striking resemblance to VII: polygonal characters against pre-rendered backgrounds with a main antagonist that has silver hair and a large, fear-provoking sword. Furthermore, characters are of the anime-orientation. There’s also a sweeping soundtrack and a plot about a moon-girl being the key to saving the planet. If you can’t tell, this is all starting to sound strangely familiar.
But, seriously, outside of the obvious comparison, Legend of Dragoon is a game of its own. Sure, it looks and is designed like Square’s baby, but it’s very much its own entity. Its characters are very different from those seen in VII, and from most seen on this manifest, and they all exude a certain level of personality and uniqueness not found elsewhere. Its battling system is also a bit more active than VII‘s, integrating a timing mechanic that allows players to score critical hits every attack with a perfectly timed button press. Additionally, the game in general is far more high-fantasy like than VII‘s steampunk setting. Nevertheless, Legend of Dragoon stood in the shadow of Final Fantasy VII from its conception. Sony knew this, and tried its best to redirect gamers’ attention to a different kind of thinking, but in the end it just didn’t work. Hell, to this very day people still compare the two.
If Legend of Dragoon was given a chance to show what it had to offer, with all of its similarities and differences from Square’s work, people would’ve seen how great a game it was. This is yet again proof that Final Fantasy VII kept a monopolizing, iron-grip on the JRPG genre during the late 90s and early 2000s. Or perhaps it’s proof that any game with the word “dragoon” in it, is doomed to be under-appreciated.
01. Every Final Fantasy before and After VII
I mean, really… Need I say anything more about this one?
“The [Top] Hat” is a monthly article evaluating the reasons why certain games are great or awful and/or the overall accomplishments of our gaming industry. Sometimes we take on the top 20 best games of the 2000s, and other times we analyze the reasons why a game that isn’t on a certain console should be. It is a lengthy editorial piece designed to elicit either nostalgia or an assessment of a product or group of products within this media. It is also a time for Bradly to rant about his opinions on the industry and its efforts. Agree or disagree, love his opinions or hate them, “The [Top] Hat” is the article you will want to look forward to each month.