Without a doubt the Nintendo DS was a JRPG powerhouse. Developers were able to create meaty, in-depth experiences for a relatively low cost on the console, making it perfect for cash-strapped JRPG houses.
Coming up with a list of my favourite ten JRPGs for the little console is a tough one – there are dozens that I still play on a regular basis on the 3DS, and this is before even accounting for the many, many great JRPGs that were never localised in the west.
So here’s one of the toughest lists of ten favourite games that I’ve had to write yet. I’m looking forward to hearing your own favourites in the comments below!
Dragon Quest IX: The DS saw more than a few Dragon Quest games through its lifetime, such as an excellent port of the brilliant trilogy IV, V and VI. But for us it was Dragon Quest IX that was the finest of all, and in fact arguably the finest Dragon Quest game ever produced.
IX packed so much content into its tiny cartridge. A massive quest, deeply customisable heroes and all kinds of little side quests and objectives to distract you. One of the rare games where 100 hours doesn’t feel like it’s being padded out unnecessarily.
The gameplay is pretty compelling too. It’s an old school JRPG of the highest order, with significant difficulty spikes, bosses that are almost impossible to beat without understanding its weakness, wafer-thin plot, and an extensive job class system. This game came to us by Matrix Software, the developers of the remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV on the DS, and this very much feels like the “lost” classic Final Fantasy game remade for modern production values.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon: surprisingly, given how spectacular the Fire Emblem games were on both the GBA and the 3DS, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon was the only Fire Emblem that we saw in the west, and while it’s a great game in its own right, as a remake of the very first Fire Emblem game released way back on the NES, it’s showing its age.
Characters lack the kind of personality that we’ve come to expect from the Fire Emblem, but the core gameplay is as tough as it ever was, and there’s a lengthy quest in here, even if you manage to get through without restarting a level once. Turn the difficulty up to the maximum for the full experience.
Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2: You’ll notice there isn’t a Pokemon game on this list. There’s a good reason for that. Where Pokemon didn’t really evolve (hah) until the recently-released 3DS games, Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2 on the DS took the Pokemon formula and turned it into a truly amazing, progressive game.
Combining an excellent quest with an excellent breeding system (borrowed heavily from the way you combine demons to create more powerful ones in Atlus’ Shin Megami games) and the charm of the enemies in Dragon Quest and you’ve got something truly essential.
Children Of Mana: No top-ten list would be complete without a controversial entry, right? Well, here’s this list’s. Children Of Mana was slammed when it was released on the DS. People argued that it was too simple and limited in scope to really hold the player’s attention.
I disagree. This hack-and-slash title is simple on the surface, sure, but it has loads of personality, with cute enemies, slick dungeon environments and a superb soundtrack. The multiplayer was worthwhile, and the contuination of the Mana story was decent for longstanding fans of the series. Sure there weren’t necessarily many different dungeons types to explore, but the random nature of them meant that the grinding at least looked different, and there were plenty of different weapons to play around with. A truly enjoyable action JRPG.
Final Fantasy IV: Of all the retro remakes we’ve seen, Final Fantasy IV stands out as the finest. Taking the superb sprite work of the SNES original game and turning it into an equally engaging 3D experience using the DS’s limited capabilities was always going to be a challenge, but the team at Matrix games pulled it off.
Full voice acting and detailed character models brings the somewhat tragic tale of redemption to life in a wholly new way, while new boss weaknesses and the odd additional sequence gave veterans something new to look at. Final Fantasy IV might not have been the greatest game in the series, but this port is certainly essential if you like JRPGs at all.
Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Sure Final Fantasy Tactics A2 is in many ways no more than a small expansion of the previous GBA Final Fantasy Tactics. But for us that’s just a case of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”
The narrative is almost identical of the previous game, the combat works in much the same way. There are Moogles and Chocobos and Bangaas and the other races of this little sub-series. And there are literally hundreds of hours of content in here, with dozens of possible character types and combinations. Figuring out the ideal party and strategy is the fun of this game, and you’ll struggle to find a DS game with more depth than this one.
Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer: I love a good Mystery Dungeon game. They’re not necessarily easy to get right – make them too easy (such as the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games) and it’s difficult to be really engaged in the action. Make them too difficult (such as the likes of Baroque), and you’ll only appeal to the most niche of masochists.
Shiren The Wanderer has always been at the forefront of the roguelike genre, and in the DS game it really nails that balance. It’s incredibly difficult, but at the same time with each death and reset back to the start of the game with a level of 1 and no equipment, there’s an encouragement to play again because you just know that the next time you’ll get one floor further on, and find one more piece of better loot. It’s grindy, but gloriously so.
Infinite Space: If you’re going to have a game with the name “Infinite Space” then you better make sure that you’re offering a big game. That’s exactly what has happened here. Infitine Space isn’t quite infinite, but you better put aside a fair chunk of time if you want to explore this game fully.
This one is all about space ship battles, and building the crew and ships to take on the biggest of dreadnaugts. If that doesn’t appeal to the Star Wars/ Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and other such sci-fi shows, then nothing will.
The Dark Spire: This one is for retro fans, but what a game it is. The Dark Spire is basically Wizardry, and offers two ways to play. By default you’ll be delving through incredibly difficult dungeons with a gorgeous hand-drawn art style, but flick on “retro” and you’ll get classic early-era PC graphics.
This game is incredibly difficult either way, and incredibly rewarding because of it. Getting to the final level and beating the final boss is one of the greatest achievements you’ll experience on the DS.
And now it’s time for you to let us know what JRPGs you love most on DS! Sound out in the comments below.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld