This week, we attack the Wii's Virtual Console. Granted, Nintendo hates American JRPG fans, as evidenced by the publisher's refusal to localize critically acclaimed games like Xenoblade, but its Wii Shop Channel has a surprisingly robust selection of classics, mostly thanks to the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. We had it good during the 16-bit era. Real good.
Like last time, I'll be spending 30-60 minutes with each JRPG -- certainly not enough time to properly review a game, but enough to get a feel for whether it holds up today, and how it compares to my memories of it. (I've played each game to completion at various points over the past two decades. Some of them multiple times.)
Final Fantasy (Wii, $5, NES)
The game that saved Square from bankruptcy and ushered in a whole new era of swords and zippers, Final Fantasy is a disjointed mess by today's standards. Its menus are sluggish, its sound effects irritating, its towns dull compared to modern offerings. Even combat is a chore, thanks to a bizarre, antiquated mechanic that leaves characters swinging their weapons at nothing when their targets have already been killed.
There's charm to be found in Final Fantasy, but it's buried in this version. If you must play the game that started it all, check out one of its recent remakes on PSP or iOS.
Does it hold up? NO.
Secret of Mana (Wii, $8, Super Nintendo)
A boy finds a sword in the forest. He's tasked with collecting 8 elemental seeds. He fights a bunch of monsters en route to saving the world from ultimate evil and blah blah blah blah blah.
It's tough to care much about Secret of Mana's plot, but its monster-carving is top-notch. The game is still addictive thanks to some combination of the infectious music, the lovely 16-bit scenery, and that "THWAP" sound that plays every time you get a critical hit. If you're feeling the urge to hack and slash, there are few better places to turn.
Does it hold up? YES.
LandStalker (Wii, $8, Sega Genesis)
When I was little, I thought LandStalker was both fun and extremely challenging. Today, I think it's both fun and poorly designed.
Don't get me wrong: This is a good game. It's a Zelda-influenced action-RPG with a lively world and some smart puzzles. It's also isometric, which may have been a revolutionary effect when it was first released in the early 1990s but feels more like a stumbling block today. Since you can only move in four cardinal directions -- no diagonals -- jumping around LandStalker's platforms can be unnecessarily tricky. You'll have to be both very patient and very perceptive to beat this game in 2011.
Does it hold up? SORTA.
Final Fantasy III/VI (Wii, $8, Super Nintendo)
Perhaps no villain in JRPG history has been as loony as Kefka the jester. Or as successful. Where other baddies talk a lot about how much they want to destroy the world, Kefka actually does it.
Generally considered to be one of the best games in the long-running series, Final Fantasy III is my personal favorite because of the subtleties of its narrative. This is a story that tackles serious issues like teen pregnancy, suicide, and abandonment in ways that are simultaneously whimsical and austere, convincing you to care about its characters perhaps a little bit too much. (I may or may not be legally married to a Celes pillow.)
Oh and the combat is fast-paced, the world is a pleasure to explore and the music is grand and stunning.
Does it hold up? YES.
Phantasy Star IV (Wii, $8, Sega Genesis)
Way before Mass Effect was even a twinkle in BioWare's eye, Phantasy Star had the market cornered on melodramatic sci-fi RPGs. Phantasy Star was Sega's answer to the competing Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy franchises, replacing their swords and spells with laser beams and space ships to relatively successful reception.
Phantasy Star IV, the fourth and final Genesis entry of the series, is stellar in every sense of the word. While you might notice a glaring lack of aesthetic detail on the Wii's blown-up version of the game (sprite faces look like blurry blobs), you won't be able to tear yourself away from its grandiose, captivating story. As Robert Boyd of Zeboyd Games pointed out to me on Twitter, Phantasy Star IV's pacing is exceptional. This is a rarity for the genre, and perhaps one of the main reasons the game flows so well today.
If Phantasy Star IV has one glaring flaw in 2011, it's that none of its oddly named skills or abilities have descriptions -- but hey, there's always GameFAQs.
Does it hold up? YES.
Next week, we'll look at the Xbox 360's library of classic- oh, wait. Never mind.
Jason Schreier is a freelance writer/editor based out of NYC. He's a contributing writer for Wired.com and occasionally writes for a number of other sites and publications, including Edge Magazine, the Onion News Network and G4TV. You can follow him on Twitter at @jasonschreier.