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Monday, October 24, 2022

JRPGs Released Before Final Fantasy

This is really just a spot of self-indulgence on my part.  Following a claim that Final Fantasy was the first Japanese RPG ever made, I decided to compile a list of RPGs that predated it and compile them all in a thread, which I'm now reposting here and adding a bit more data to.  I'm also sticking to just console RPGs that have seen a western release; there are plenty more early JRPGs on computers and from the early days of the Famicom, but they're mostly forgotten nowadays for good reason; trust me.

First, our baseline:


Final Fantasy was released for the Famicom on December 18, 1987; like many RPGs of the era it was strongly influenced by the PC classics Wizardry and Ultima, which in turn were heavily inspired by Dungeons and Dragons.  Those who played Final Fantasy were wowed by it's strong presentation, open ended design and party customization and it of course became quite popular, pulling Square back from the brink of bankruptcy and going on to become one of the most prevalent and successful media franchises of all time.  It wasn't released in North America until two-and-a-half-years later, debuting on July 12, 1990.  The game proved to be surprisingly popular, even outselling its Japanese counterpart (a reported 700,000 copies compared to Japan's 600,000), so a case could be made it was the first internationally successful turn based Japanese RPG, but it definitely wasn't the first one ever made.

So, which games beat it to the punch?  Let's take a look.

(These will be sorted by US release date.)

Predates Final Fantasy in Both Japan and North America

Rygar


Japanese release: April 17, 1987
North American release: July 1987

Rygar is an early Zelda-like adventure with some RPG stats and imagery heavily based on ancient Greece - a stark contrast from its arcade counterpart which was a fast paced sidescrolling aciton game.  It actually predated Zelda's western release by about a month as well, so technically this was the very first action-RPG style game on the NES.

The Legend of Zelda


Japanese release: Feb 21, 1986
North American release: August 22, 1987

Yep, the original Zelda.  Debuting as a Famicom Disk system game (in fact, it wouldn't be released on a cartridge in Japan until 1994!), it was a smash hit for its enormous world, plethora of puzzles and sense of immersion and one of the first really big titles for the NES, kicking off an immortal franchise that continues to this day.

Deadly Towers


Japanese release: December 15, 1986
North American release: September 1987

Mashou/Deadly Towers was another relatively early action-RPG for the NES, debuting in 1986 in Japan and 1987 in North America. It's also a notorious experience among retro gamers, with plenty of cheap hits, quick deaths, enormous and samey-looking mazes to navigate and twenty-second music loops that quickly become grating.  Few people would defend it these days, especially since it came out after the Legend of Zelda in both regions, but it sold pretty well; enough that you can still get used copies for dirt cheap.

The Goonies II


Japanese release: March 18, 1987
North American release: November 1987

Another early "Zelda-like" was Goonies II by Konami; a video game sequel to the film (even though the film itself never had a sequel) which follows an original storyline.  Konami also produced a Goonies 1 game which oddly never had a cartridge release in North America, though it was released in the arcades as a VS System game and on some PlayChoice-10 machines.

Rambo


Japanese release: December 4, 1987
North American release: May 1988

Pack-In Video's Rambo is a bit of a strange case; it's very clearly inspired by Zelda II, though nowhere near as good, and its design definitely doesn't evoke the type of gameplay you'd expect from a character like Rambo.  It also notably predated its counterpart's western release by several months, though Zelda II came out first in Japan.

Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord


Japanese release: October 18, 1987
North American release: November 1988

The earliest version of Miracle Warriors was actually for the FM-7 computer, but the Sega Master System version was another early JRPG to be localized, coming out the same month as Phantasy Star.  So Sega localized and published two of the first turn-based Japanese RPGs to be released in the west!

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest


Japanese release: August 28, 1987
North American release: December 1988

The first game in the Castlevania franchise actually had two very different versions - a nonlinear action game called "Vampire Killer" for the MSX2 where you had to explore much larger levels, purchase powerups, and track down keys that unlock doors to progress; and the more action-oriented sidescroller Castlevania, released a month later for the Famicom Disk System.  Castlevania II was an attempt to return to the nonlinear style of Vampire Killer and add in more RPG elements like experience levels, equipment upgrades and a bigger focus on puzzle solving, though it garnered a mixed reception from fans who played Castlevania on the NES and were used to the linear platformer style.  Its lackluster translation and cryptic puzzles didn't do it any favors either, though its strong soundtrack and heavy atmosphere still made it a pretty solid game.  Castlevania of course would have several more linear action titles before making another attempt at this format with Symphony of the Night, which is still regarded as one of the best games of all time. 

Golvellius: Valley of Doom


Japanese release: August 14, 1987
North American release: December 1988

Another oddball "Zelda-like" among many, Golvellius had top-down and side-scrolling action segments, which lent it a bit of variety.  It also had quite good graphics for the time, though its gameplay didn't quite stack up to that of its inspiration.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link


Japanese release: January 4, 1987
North American release: December 1988

The second Zelda game famously (or infamously, depending on who you ask) changed up its format, going from a top-down puzzle driven experience to more combat and platforming focused; the overworld retains a top-down view, but towns dungeons and combat are all seen from a side-view. It still sold very well and it was actually a pretty influential game in its own right, inspiring games like the Monster World series, Battle of Olympus and Faxanadu, but it remains a divisive game among Zelda fans.  Unlike its predecessor, it never had a cartridge release in Japan - this was a Famicom Disk System exclusive until compilations and re-releases came along on later consoles.

Ultima: Exodus


Japanese release: October 9, 1987
North American release: February 1989

Technically Ultima III is a western RPG (first released in 1983 for the Apple II), but its Famicom conversion was handled by a Japanese company called "Newtopia Planning".  It was localized and released in February of 1989, technically making it the first turn-based RPG on the NES.

The Guardian Legend


Japanese release: Feburary 5, 1988
North American release: April 1989

Another creative blend of genres, Guardian Legend features top-down open ended exploration segments reminiscent of Zelda or Metroid, interspersed with scrolling shoot-em-up stages capped off with crazy boss battles.  Throughout the game you upgrade your cool transforming gynoid-spaceship character with new weapons, parameter powerups and a stockpile of "bullet erasers" that clear the screen in a pinch.

Legacy of the Wizard


Japanese release: July 17, 1987
North American release: April 1989

The fourth game in Falcom's Dragon Slayer franchise, and certainly a unique concept - a family of five ventures through an enormous labyrinth, one at a time, in search of all the treasures they'll need to collect the legendary sword and slay the dragon in the maze's center.  Gameplay-wise it mostly resembles a platformer, though there are plenty of hidden passages, magic items and other oddball mechanics you'll have to master to find all the secrets.

Hydlide


Japanese release: March 18, 1986
North American release: June 1989

The archetypal game which has inspired a number of others (Zelda and Ys among them), but which itself has aged pretty terribly.  Hydlide's first release was in December 1984 for the PC-88, so it was already over a year behind the curve when it came out on the Famicom.  But that pales in comparison to the US release, where it debuted in 1989 - four-and-a-half years after its initial debut and nearly two years after Zelda!

Dragon Warrior


Japanese release: May 27, 1986
North American release: August 1989

Dragon Quest's first entry was a milestone in Japan, selling over 1.5 million copies and kicking off a highly successful franchise which continues to be monstrously popular today.  Nintendo themselves published the first game in North America, clearly anticipating it becoming a big hit there too; however, it didn't sell nearly as well as they'd hoped, which resulted in them giving away some 400,000 unsold copies as a promotional incentive for subscribing to Nintendo Power magazine.  The original game is often criticized for its short length, simple graphics and grind-heavy gameplay, but it amassed enough of a fanbase that Enix localized its three Famicom sequels in subsequent years.  Even with its relatively primitive design, though, it's a I have good memories of as it was the first RPG I ever played and finished.

Faxanadu


Japanese release: November 16, 1987
North American release: August 1989

Another odd case, as it's a Hudson-developed spinoff of Xanadu, which itself is a spinoff of Falcom's Dragon Slayer series.  It plays completely differently from both Xanadu and Dragon Slayer, though, being a side-scrolling action RPG reminiscent of Zelda II.

Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap


North American release: September 1989

The first of the "Monster World" games that spun off from the Wonder Boy series, and ironically it saw a western release years before it came out in Japan (on the PC Engine and Game Gear).  It was a relatively novel side-scrolling action game, with your character changing forms as the adventure progresses and gaining access to new areas with each form's new abilities - in essence, an early example of what we would come to know as a "Metroidvania".

Battle of Olympus



Japanese release: March 28, 1988
North American release: December 1989

Another title that draws inspiration from Zelda II, and a pretty decent one, though the odd hit detection and extremely limited range of your weapon make it a tricky game to play.  At least it's a much better Broderbund-published action RPG than Deadly Towers!

Magic of Scheherazade


Japanese release: March 28, 1987
North American release: January 1990

Culture Brain was a company known for making culturally themed games, and Magic of Scheherazade is one of the only ones I know of with an Arabian motif.  It mostly plays in a top down Zelda style format, though on occasion you'll also be drawn into turn based battles a la Dragon Quest where you get to fight alongside your magical allies.

Predates Final Fantasy in North America

Phantasy Star


Japanese release: December 20, 1987
North American release: November 1988

Final Fantasy just barely edged out Phantasy Star's launch in Japan, being released only two days prior. Its western release beat FF by over a year-and-a-half, though, becoming one of the very first turn based Japanese RPGs to be localized.  Its setting is a fresh one too, blending high fantasy and a heavy dose of science fiction, with several story beats and visual elements heavily inspired by the Star Wars films.  It's also the earliest JRPG I'm aware of with a female protagonist in the lead role, so that sets it apart too.

Ys: The Vanished Omens


Japanese release: October 15, 1988
North American release: March 1989

The first game in Falcom's Ys series, which has become one of the longest running Japanese RPG franchises of all time, going strong for over 35 years as of this writing.  The Master System version was the first to make its way overseas, though the series wouldn't attain much popularity outside of Japan until the early 2010's with a slew of releases on the Playstation Portable and the Vita.

Willow


Japanese release: July 18, 1989
North American release: December 1989

A Capcom-developed Zelda clone, and quite a good one, with some surprisingly polished gameplay, visuals and music.  In fact, it's so good you forget it's a tie-in to a movie!

Phantasy Star II


Japanese release: July 18, 1989
North American release: December 1989

The second game in the Phantasy Star series, and also the only game on this list from the Sega Genesis's library.  Yep, even the Genesis had a localized turn-based RPG before Final Fantasy came out!

Uncertain

Both of these games came out after Final Fantasy in Japan, but it's hard to say for the western release, as every source I can find lists them as coming out in July 1990 without specifying a day.  So, they could be earlier releases or they could be slightly later, but I have no way of knowing for sure.

Crystalis


Japanese release: April 13, 1990
North American release: July 1990

SNK's take on the Zelda format, and it's widely regarded as a classic in its own right, with fast-paced gameplay, a solid presentation both graphically and musically and some creative gameplay elements, including a number of spells used to traverse hazardous terrain and solve puzzles.

Dungeon Magic: Sword of the Elements


Japanese release: November 10, 1989
North American release: July 1990

Developed by Natsume, Dungeon Magic is a first person dungeon crawler with real-time gameplay and a pretty creative spell-crafting system, with over 200 possible runic combinations (and therefore spells) that can be created and cast.  Taito also later made an arcade game called "Dungeon Magic", though it's completely different in design, being more of an isometric beat-em-up with some light RPG elements.

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord


Japanese release: December 22, 1987
North American release: July 1990

Not a JRPG, but as it was a major inspiration for Final Fantasy, it's worth mentioning regardless.  The first Wizardry game debuted on both the Famicom and NES the same month as Final Fantasy, though it didn't attract nearly as much attention; after all, Wizardry's Apple II counterpart was nine years old by this point, and Final Fantasy naturally played much smoother and was a lot more visually pleasing in comparison.  It still did decently sales-wise, but first person grid-based dungeon crawlers were becoming an increasingly small niche of a rapidly expanding genre, and Wizardry in particular was looking more than a little dated by this time.  Especially if you were a computer gamer, as Wizardry VI for DOS and Amiga debuted the same year as the port of the Wizardry I for NES!