Friday, April 26, 2019

The Fantastic Saga of JRPGs on the PS2

Video games have undoubtedly been a huge part of my life. Over the years I’ve gotten my hands on just about a dozen consoles and handhelds, but none have embodied my existence better than the PlayStation 2. Growing up, my favorite kinds of video games were Japanese RPGs, which was something the PS2 is chock full.

Fig. 1: The best games ever made.

Obviously, you can’t talk about JRPGs on the PS2 without talking about Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts… but everyone talks about those. There isn’t much to say about them that hasn’t already been said. They’re some of my favorite games of all time. They’re at the top of my shelf - that’s how I organize my games - along with other classics and not-so-hidden hidden gems like .hack and Xenosaga.

Being a Japanese gaming console targeted at teenage boys, the PS2 is no stranger to JRPGs. Since I started recollecting games for the console in 2016, I’ve been reacquiring a lot of games I stupidly traded in for peanuts while also filling out the rest of my library with all the games I always wanted as a kid but never got. Or ones that I never heard of but totally would’ve loved back when I had all the free time in the world to play a 60+ hour adventure about a generic anime boy with spiky hair fighting monsters with a longsword. I currently have sixty games on my PS2 shelf and of those sixty, twenty-four are JRPGs… give or take depending on how you define an RPG.

It sure is a real shame they never made any more DBZ games after Budokai 3.

Despite being a huge anime fan graduating from Fox Kids to Toonami just as the PS2 was released, I never really got into PS2 anime games except for the first Dragon Ball Z Budokai games and a random Yu-Gi-Oh! Game here or a Yu Yu Hakusho game there. I never even played the Digimon games until recently. But while I never really got into anime-based games, most of the original JRPGs on the PS2 are super anime it’s not even funny.

I made a few impulse buys at the $5 bin at Wal-Mart, but a lot of the JRPGs I got or always wanted came to me the same way as everything else that shaped who I am today: in a full-page ad in Shonen Jump’s monthly magazine. For over a year it was routine that my parents would take me to the mall on the 5th of every month to pick up Viz Media’s phonebook sized “anime comic book” that first introduced many Millennial anime fans to the worlds of Naruto and One Piece. But while the cheap black and white newsprint pages were filled with serialized stories of Hikaru no Go or Shaman King, the glossy full-color pages on the ends and in the middle were full of articles, news, and glorious ads.

Many of these advertisements are the sole reason why I own Star Ocean: Till the End of Time or Xenosaga. Oh, sweet Xenosaga. Why did I ever buy the second game? I never finished the first one. I had no idea what it was even about. At least I had the sense to not bother with the third Xenosaga game. I never beat Star Ocean either.


And then there are the games I never got but always caught my eye. Dragon Quest VIII looked amazing. Why did I never get it? Or Disgaea and Phantom Brave? Actually, I know exactly why I never got Phantom Brave. I was heading to the cash register at Gamestop to buy the tactical RPG and then saw Fighter Maker 2. That was a mistake.

Years later I discovered that there were even more JRPGs on the PS2 that would’ve blown my mind. Like Steambot Chronicles, an open-ended adventure game where you pilot steampunk mechs and fight an evil army or just join a funk band if you want to do that instead. It was one of the ones I was looking out for the most in my recent years of retro game hunting. Finally found it at a con for $45. It’s terrible.

I think the best way to really experience JRPGs from the PS2 era if you don’t have time to play all of them is to just play Rogue Galaxy. It’s a cavalcade of every trope seen in the genre-defying classics that came before it. Game Informer once did an article that tried to create a Frankenstein monster of an RPG by taking all of the best aspects from every one ever made. That’s basically Rogue Galaxy. You learn skills from a grid similar to FFX, craft weapons like in Dark Cloud 2, there’s platforming elements like in Kingdom Hearts, you can freely control and switch between characters in an action-RPG battle system like in Star Ocean, you can find secret alternate costumes that borderline on fanservice, even though it’s a space opera it hits a bunch of fantasy tropes in the planets you visit, there’s cooky robots and aliens, there’s a bug catching and battling league for the Pokemon fans, there’s a full-blown factory sim that feels like a full-blown Windows 95 computer game shoved into the already loaded experience. I haven't found it yet but there is probably a card game mini game somewhere in the game. Rogue Galaxy is a time capsule of everything you see in every JRPG on the PS2. Too bad it’s story is really generic and boring - that’s my only complaint. It’s so fun to play but the plot is stupid and uninteresting.

The PS2 has one of the largest libraries of games of any console ever and it’s full of so many JRPGs I couldn’t play them all if it was my full-time job. I do hope to one day work through the ones I have and continue to grow my collection, buying more and more games that I don’t have time to play. That’s the ultimate adventure, isn’t it?