- [The Japanese role-playing game is a surprisingly important genre for developers to study - and big sister site Gamasutra presents an 'Essential 20' - by HG101 star Kurt Kalata - explaining and chronicling the top JRPGs of all-time, from Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger to Xenogears and Shadow Hearts.]

Japanese RPGs that concentrate on narrative and battle systems, favoring storytelling perhaps more than any other genre, actually have more complex roots than many realize, as Kalata explains:

"Two of the most popular games back in the day were Ultima and Wizardry. Although all had followings amongst hardcore Japanese gamers, they were a little bit too uninviting for your average console owners, whose ages skewed a bit younger. Yuji Horii, a developer at Enix, decided to take on an interesting experiment.

By combing the overhead exploration aspects of Ultima (the third and fourth games, specifically) and the first person, menu-based battle system of Wizardry, a new game was born: Dragon Quest. Released for the Nintendo Famicom in 1986, the game became a phenomenon, and went on to inspire dozens of clones. Most of these are best left forgotten, but it did inspire two more notable franchises: Square's Final Fantasy and Sega's Phantasy Star."

With this in mind, Kalata presents a thorough run-down of the top 20 JRPGs of all time and detailed information on each title, including in-depth explanations for each as to why they're worthy of note.

Kalata covers more obvious candidates, like the Final Fantasy series and Chrono Trigger, to somewhat under-exposed fan favorites like Shadow Hearts: Covenant:

"Shadow Hearts is a game of contrasts. On one hand, you have an immensely violent and brooding hero, fighting in a world filled with hellish demons. On the other hand, you have flamboyantly gay shopkeepers, even stranger cast of supporting characters and a real world setting that grossly misinterprets historical figures and events to its whims. The games consist of moments of tragedy intermingled with moments of total ludicrousness.

The first Shadow Hearts -- which was released in American within a week of Final Fantasy X and got totally demolished at retail as a result -- errs a bit too much on the serious side. The third Shadow Hearts, subtitled From the New World, takes place a warped version of 1920s America and conversely errs a bit too much on the wacky side. Sitting beautifully in the middle is Shadow Hearts: Covenant, which balances its tone perfectly."

You can now read the full Gamasutra feature, which contains Kalata's complete top 20 as a journey through the best of JRPGs (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).