It’s a good day for fans of classic JRPGs: Grandia II Anniversary Edition launches on Steam and GOG.com today, an updated version of the anime-flavored adventure that originally appeared on the Dreamcast fifteen years ago. It’s not the first time that the game has come to PC—it was ported to Windows and PS2 two years after its initial release—but this is definitely the first time the game will be widely accessible in almost a decade.
In the last year or two, a handful of developers have discovered that there’s a considerable audience for JRPGs on the PC. Sega was almost bewildered by the success of Valkyria Chronicles when it was released on Steam at the end of last year, and games like The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky and the Hyperdimension Neptunia series have found audiences on the PC because, it seems, nobody in the States bought a Sony handheld system.
But if Grandia II Anniversary Edition is a hit, it could be the first strike in a whole new vein of JRPGs worth mining: games from two console generations ago, games that, for whatever reason, have not yet been summoned up from the last fifteen years via the magic of digital distribution. Here, then, are eight such games from that same era, titles which are definitely worth playing but at the moment are surprisingly hard to come by.
I don’t think it’s an unreasonable complaint that there simply are not enough games about sky pirates. Released on the Dreamcast just a month before Grandia II, Skies of Arcadia follows the adventures of a handful of teenage heroes as they take on an evil empire that is trying to accumulate magical artifacts in order to awaken ancient weapons of monstrous power and rule, or possibly destroy, the world—in other words, it’s a JRPG. What makes Skies of Arcadia worth going back to, however, is its world—with its fleets of airships, floating islands, and seas of clouds, the titular skies are an engaging place to explore, and a setting which still feels unique even fifteen years after its release. The visual aesthetic of Skies, with its big, blocky character models and vibrant colors, epitomizes the flavor of the Dreamcast. It’s surprising to me that we haven’t already seen a PC port of this game, in fact, because Sega hasn’t been shy about releasing some of the Dreamcast’s other gems. If Grandia II does well, maybe someone at Sega will take the hint!
I know a man who sold his PlayStation 2 so he wouldn’t be sucked back into Dark Cloud 2. It’s a shame he didn’t hold onto it longer—if he wanted a new copy now, he’d have to spend a cool Benjamin on Amazon. Dark Cloud 2 takes the action-RPG formula established by its predecessor, layers several more complicated systems on top of it, and somehow doesn’t collapse under its own weight. You can alternate between protagonists Max (a quirky inventor) and Monica (warrior princess from the future), there’s an inventing system that requires you to take photographs of things in the environment, there’s town-building, fishing, equipment levels up, you can travel through time, levels are randomly generated, there is a golf-based mini-game that you can play through every level you clear—Dark Cloud 2 did an awful lot of things “before they were cool.” (Golf-based mini-games still aren’t cool, but give it time—in 2017, every single game in Early Access is gonna have a golf-based system, I bet.) All of this combines to make a huge, delightful time sink. If Sony isn’t going to release it as a PS2 Classic, can’t we at least have it ported to PC? I’d buy a copy for that friend of mine just to see him squirm.
The thing to know about Shadow Hearts: Covenant is that you can have in your battle party: a 400-year-old vampire, a wolf, the Princess Anastasia Romanov and Geppetto. (You know, Pinocchio. That Geppetto.) The Shadow Hearts games are weird. A lot of this weirdness comes from dissonance in their aesthetics: the games take place in a fictionalized version of the early twentieth century, and as such are grounded in some real-world locations and events—Covenant takes place during World War I and involves visiting Paris, Florence, Wale, and Yokohama, among other places. The visuals and the mood are dark, even Gothic, as befits the setting. On the other hand, your vampire is a pro wrestler and you level up Geppetto’s dolls by collecting homoerotic magazines to trade to an effeminate tailor who bestows you with new dresses. This tension between gravitas and absurdity is the hallmark of the series, and it might play better now than when it was first released (in the shadow of Final Fantasy X, no less). Covenant was published in the US by Midway, which went bankrupt a couple years ago. Someone should snap up the publishing rights and make a mint! People are apparently willing to pay $130 on Amazon for a new copy of this game.
Square Enix has stoked some enthusiasm for Star Ocean with its recent announcement that a fifth game is in development, but if anybody still has love for the series, that good will was probably bought by this third installment. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time takes place in a science fantasy universe that’s equal parts Star Trek and Phantasy Star, and features a fast-paced battle system and a jazzy soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba (a JRPG great!). In between some plot twists pulled directly off the Big Board of Sci-Fi Cliches (“Oh no! Our universe is actually a videogame!”), Star Ocean 3 makes room for some genuinely effective cosmic horror and plenty of great beats between its cast of anime misfits. In fact, if you smartly turn the game off before its excruciating hour-long epilogue, it’s got one of the most potent endings in the whole genre. Star Ocean 3 also introduced “battle trophies” several years before such a system became the norm, and there are a whopping 300 of them—achievement hunters take note! Surely a PC release of SO3 would stoke the fires of enthusiasm for a new entry in the series…
Besides clearly winning the title for “Most Quintessentially JRPG Subtitle,” Baten Kaitos is also notable for being one of the only major JRPGs to be a GameCube exclusive. Developed by Monolith Soft, the same folks who created Xenosaga, Baten Kaitos features a card-based battle system that offers surprising strategic depth. It also has a card-based items system, a card-based quest system, and, uh… Everything in the game is card-based, okay? This game is a bonanza for folks who like cards. When it was released in 2004, Baten Kaitos was hailed as one of the prettiest console games ever made—and though we’ve come a long way in the last ten years, a lot of the art direction in the game holds up pretty well, especially the environments, which often look like the developers took exceptionally detailed notes when they were playing Chrono Cross. It’s beyond impossible that Nintendo would ever let one of their console exclusives come to PC, but it’s not like they’re bringing a wealth of GameCube titles to the Virtual Console! Maybe the Big N should make just one exception for the card lovers out there.
The main character of Radiata Stories is named Jack Russell, which A) tells you a little bit about the game’s tone and B) should be an instant enticement to play it, I feel. Radiata Stories was developed by tri-Ace, the Star Ocean crew, and it inherits Star Ocean’s battle system while adding a few interesting tweaks, such as the ability to pull your entire crew into a tight battle formation and rush them all around the battlefield at once, smashing into enemies in a comical fashion. I vaguely remember that the game was sort of a grind, but mostly what sticks out in my mind are all the things it does really well—it’s got a huge cast of recruitable characters, it does an excellent job of building a persistent world centered around a bustling, beautiful hub city, and it’s got a very cool mid-game decision that splits the storyline in two and has you choose between two sides of a civil war (and forces you to choose sides between your love interest and your best friend!). Radiata Stories also features the most comprehensive kicking-based system I’ve seen in a game. You can kick everything! Objects, people, you name it. Why this system hasn’t been stolen by other RPGs, I’ll never know. And now I’m kicking myself for having ever sold my copy. How about a PC port, Square Enix?
I’m personally invested in a re-release of Rogue Galaxy, because I never got to play it the first time around, and it looks amazing. Rogue Galaxy might well be the prettiest game to grace the PS2, and it comes from Level-5, whose RPG chops are impressive (they’re not only responsible for Dark Cloud 2 earlier on this list, but they’re also the devs that would later bring us Ni no Kuni, one of the more charming JRPGs of the last five years). Rogue Galaxy is an action-RPG that wears its Star Wars influence on its sleeve, starring a blonde teenage protagonist who lives with his adoptive parent on a backwater desert planet before being swept up in a conflict against an oppressive empire for the fate of the galaxy. One of the best things that Rogue Galaxy cribs from Star Wars is its wide variety of alien races—in fact, it might have the most diverse ecosystem of space-dwellers this side of Mass Effect. Take this and combine it with a beautiful, colorful range of settings, a unique system of character development, and that sailing-ships-but-in-outer-space thing from Disney’s Treasure Planet that you always wish was used in service of a better story, and Rogue Galaxy becomes a game that should have been ported to the PC yesterday. Oh, and did I mention that there is an axe-wielding dog-man you can recruit to your party? Because that’s a thing in this game.
There’s a reason that JRPG fans everywhere had their ears perk up in excitement last month when Arnie Roth casually dropped a hint that Final Fantasy XII might be getting an HD remaster. (It turns out that he might have been talking about new orchestral arrangements coming to Distant Worlds, the Final Fantasy concert series, which was both a huge bummer and perfectly in line with Square Enix’s recent tendency to tease us with things that we want and then announce something that we really don’t care about.) We want an FFXII HD remaster! We don’t want it because FFXII is the best Final Fantasy (it’s not), we want it because FFXII is, weirdly, the least accessible Final Fantasy. Every single other game in the series has been ported to a system we have access to—I’m pretty sure I could download the original Final Fantasy to my espresso machine—but FFXII remains, for the moment, exclusive to the PlayStation 2. There’s also a widely-held suspicion that Final Fantasy XII was underrated at the time of its release—a suspicion that I share—and that maybe the collective gaming community is willing to give it another shake. So let’s have it, Square Enix! Bring back FFXII!
The likelihood of any of these games actually seeing a re-release may be slim, but we can dream—dream of a world in which games from ten years ago weren’t frustratingly difficult to access, a world in which digital distribution rescued classics from the dustbin of history, a world in which we all had the dozens upon dozens of hours necessary to finish a JRPG!
Oh, well. At least we have Grandia II!
Nate Ewert-Krocker is a writer and a Montessori teacher who lives in Atlanta. His first book, an adventure novel for teens, is available here. You can find him on Twitter at @NEwertKrocker, where he mostly gushes about final boss themes from JRPGs.