After reading my list of The Best Games from 2011 You (Probably) Haven’t Played, a reader sent in a surprisingly polite email requesting more handheld RPG recommendations after reading about Radiant Historia. Since its rare to receive a message over the internet that isn’t somehow insulting or a solicitation for sex (or both,) I thought it was only fair that we acquiesce and fulfill this reader’s request. So here you have it: part 1 of IGXPro’s official-but-not-all-encompassing guide to the best handheld RPGs.
First, some disclaimers: this is by no means a comprehensive list of every handheld RPG, it’s merely a list of personal recommendations of titles that I enjoyed. I know I’ve left out a lot of quality titles, and that’s probably because I haven’t played them (yet,) but I assure you, if your favorite game isn’t on this list, it’s not because I hate it (well, maybe) but simply because I haven’t gotten around to playing it yet. In addition to that, this guide only covers the DS and PSP, and while there are many worthwhile GBA (or older) handheld RPG’s out there, that’ll have to be saved for a separate article. Also, keep in mind that this is only part 1 of 2, and only covers Ports/Remakes and Multiplayer RPG’s. The real meat of this article — brand new, original RPGs — will be featured in part 2.
Ports and Remakes
Might as well start off with the one that everyone is expecting — Chrono Trigger. In the 15+ years since its release, Chrono Trigger has been uplifted to near a god-like reputation by old school J-RPG fanatics, and let me assure you, none of that praise is hyperbole. The game is simply as good as its fans say it is; combining a fast, accessible combat system, a light hearted, yet memorable story and characters, and one of the best soundtracks to ever appear in a game, Chrono Trigger represents all the best traits of both the 16-bit era and J-RPG’s as a whole.
Square-Enix re-released Chrono Trigger on the DS a few years back, and while some balked at the idea of paying full price for what was essentially a port of a very old game, the DS version can be had for around $20 now, but it’s worth picking up at any price. The DS versions contain all of the anime cutscenes that were added to the PS1 port of the game (minus all the atrocious load-times that ruined that particular version,) and also adds in an entirely new optional dungeon, which, while not as good as the original game’s areas, is still a nice bonus. The DS version is the definitive version of one of the best games of all time, so if you somehow haven’t played Chrono Trigger yet, stop what you’re doing right now and go track down a copy. You can thank me later.
Final Fantasy IV
While Final Fantasy VI gets all the acclaim and Final Fantasy VII gets all the popularity (and all of the embarassing fangirls and fanfiction,) FFIV is sort of the sleeper hit of the series: while there are entries in Square’s long-running franchise that are more popular or held in higher esteem, FFIV has a small but dedicated following who make a pretty good argument as to why it’s the best Final Fantasy: its quick yet strategic battles (which pioneered Final Fantasy’s now standard “ATB” system,) its deliciously melodramatic, almost Korean drama like (every character has some sort of very emotional personal tragedy) story, or its iconic cast of characters, who laid the foundation for the archetypes that would one day become J-RPG’s most oft-used cliches, such as sullen main character Cecil (who was whiney and introspective long before FF7’s Cloud and FF8’s Squall made being self-centered cool), his sometimes-friend-sometimes-rival Kain, or the heroine Rosa, who exists solely for Cecil and Kain to fall in love with and rescue at various points in the story.
Final Fantasy IV may also set a record for the game remade or ported the most times as well. After its initial SNES release, Square saw fit to port it to the PS1, the Japan-only handheld Wonderswan, the Gameboy Advance, and also released it on the Wii’s Virtual Console. They also did a full, 3D remake of the game in 2007 for the DS, and the results were mostly postive: the game’s graphics are beautiful (for a DS game,) and the new, more cinematic presentation will likely win over younger gamers who can’t stand the archaic graphics of the original, the new 3D engine causes the game’s previously trademark quick pace to be slowed by quite a bit, and the DS version is also a bit harder than the original. Still, despite the slightly slower pace, the DS remake of FFIV more than makes up for it with some added character customization and new skills that help turn previously gimped characters (like the bard, Edward,) into genuinely useful battlers.
The game was also remade again 3 years later for PSP, and also included the After Years, a series a episodic adventures done within the FFIV engine, originally released for Japanese cell-phones and the Wii several years earlier. The After Years itself isn’t particularly good, as it’s plagued by unbalanced battles that randomly spike in difficulty and a story that reads more like fanfiction rather than an official product, but the core FFIV game remains worth buying. Instead of the blocky 3D graphics of the DS remake, the PSP version instead opts for a classier, hi-res 2D art style. The basic gameplay systems are truer to the original version of the game and lack some of the refinements that were added to the DS version, but considering how good FFIV originally was, it’s not a big loss. It’s debatable which version of the game you should get it you have both a DS and a PSP: the DS version’s refinements make it play better (provided you can deal with the slower battles,) but the PSP version is more accurate to the original and looks better.
Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver
There’s been a lot of versions of Pokemon throughout the years, and while a cynic will tell you they’re all basically the same game, anyone who’s ever put a few hours into Pokemon will tell you that there’s enough changes between each iteration to make some entries feel like completely different games. Among hardcore Pokemon fans (yes, they exist,) the second generation, Gold and Silver, are held the most dear; they brought about the most radical changes to the Pokemon formula, introducing an in-game clock that affected the availability of certain Pokemon, as well as two new elemental types and a hundred new monsters to catch.
While I think the more recent Black and White was just as innovative (and overall, much better) than Gold and Silver, the GS generation is still a worthwhile RPG for all-ages. Like all Pokemon games, its simple (but charming) story and its cute menagerie of oh-so-marketable monsters only serve as a friendly mask for the truly imposing, insanely deep and complicated battle system that lies beneath. While most players will see the battle system as a simple game of rock-paper-scissors with cute animals, hardcore tournament level Pokemon players (yes, I know, it’s weird, but they do exist,) know that the battle system is just as deep as any PC RPG’s, with loads of stats, hidden stats, turn-altering maneuvers, and ways to exploit the system that require hundreds of hours of work and in-depth strategy to learn. What you get out of Pokemon depends on how much time you’re willing to invest: it can either be a simple, 30 hour RPG with cute characters, or it can be a 100+ hour behemoth that makes even pro-level games of chess or poker seem shallow by comparison.
Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions
There are a lot of strategy RPGs on the PSP, but the best among them remains the port of the original Final Fantasy Tactics, which arguably laid the groundwork that later SRPG’s would build upon. Despite its age, Final Fantasy Tactics remains the crown jewel of the genre, with an intelligent, complex story of political intrigue and an equally deep character customization and battle system. If you think Japanese strategy RPG’s are all cut from the same mold as Nippon Ichi or Idea Factory’s grind-heavy, fanservicey and overly goofy games, think again.
The PSP version of FFT suffers from some annoying load times, but it’s a much better choice than the original PS1 version (also playable on PSP via a download from the PSN store,) due to a new classier localization, which replaces the original version’s infamously incomprehensible dialogue and inconsistent translations.
Dragon Quest V
Two of the games I’ve mentioned previously were based on SNES games. The Super Nintendo hosted some of the best J-RPGs of all time, and while Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger have since come to be regarded as classics by retro gamers, us here in the West also missed out on a wealth of other quality RPG’s that never managed to get released outside of Japan. The best of these lost classics is Dragon Quest V, which was finally made available in English when the game was remade for DS a few years ago.
In Japan, Dragon Quest is big business. While it’s arguably been surpassed in terms of popularity by Capcom’s Monster Hunter (more on that later,) DQ still remains the biggest traditional RPG franchise in Japan, and even today it maintains a larger, more mainstream acceptance and audience than even Final Fantasy. Dragon Quest games are often criticized for being too simple, but that simplicity is exactly what makes them great. Sure, the core mechanics haven’t evolved much over the years, but its accessible gameplay and impeccable balance make DQ the videogame equivelant of comfort food: simple, satisfying, and addictive. Of all the DQ games, Japanese fans hold Dragon Quest V up as the pinnacle of the series, thanks to its heart-rending story that spans the entire life of the main character, starting with him as a small child and eventually continuing as he raises children of his own, DQV’s themes of family and loss are surprisingly deep and poignant for a game that looks as outwardly cheery and colorful as it does.
Persona 3 Portable
While both the PSP and the DS are filled with remakes and ports of classic 16 and 32 bit games, it’s comparatively rare to find a port of a full length RPG from the PS2 era on a handheld. But Atlus was just crazy enough to port their PS2 opus Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 over to the PSP, and surprisingly, the game is even better on a handheld.
In case you didn’t know, Persona is a sort of RPG-adventure game hybrid: the core of the game is spent dungeon crawling, where your team of plucky high school students fight off a horde of demons using their “Personae,” physical manifestations of their psyche capable of defeating monsters. The main character’s Persona can be customized and altered as you progress through the game, lending the game a sort of Pokemon-ish angle as you recruit new monsters to become your new Persona. Outside of the dungeon, players find themselves in a modern Japanese city, where they have to deal with day to day activities like going to school, going out on dates, or simply just talking to their neighbors. While this sounds like it’d be pointless, it’s anything but: the relationships you form in real life have a direct effect on the stats of your Persona, and likewise, your progress in the game’s massive dungeon effects the real world as well. If it sounds weird, that’s because it is, but thanks to clever writing and a challenging but fair difficulty curve, the whole package is surprisingly compelling.
The game boasts a wealth of new content, ranging from new items, sidequests, Social Links (the adventure game like aspects of the series,) and now even gives you the choice of making the main character a boy or a girl, which allows for new dialogue and new romantic subplots, depending on your choice of gender. But even if you ignore all the added content, the core experience of Persona 3 remains worthwhile; whether you’re playing it for the challenging dungeon crawling, the original, surprisingly well written story, or simply to listen to its strangely catchy avante-garde soundtrack, Persona 3 remains one of the best, and most unique, J-RPGs available, handheld or otherwise.
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite
I’m sure you’ve heard of Monster Hunter by now: the multiplayer action-RPG has become Japan’s equivalent (in terms of popularity) of Call of Duty, and the game can arguably be credited with the PSP’s popularity in Japan. Each new release of the game manages to shatter sales records and causes Japanese gamers to line up outside stores by the hundreds in order to secure a copy on launch day.
Monster Hunter’s popularity is not unwarranted; while the game has an infamously steep difficulty curve, and certain aspects of it are deliberately obtuse and unfriendly towards new players, once it gets its hooks into you, Monster Hunter provides a nearly unparalleled multiplayer RPG experience, perhaps only matched in terms of addictiveness by genre classics like Diablo II and Phantasy Star Online. Like those games, the central conceit of Monster Hunter is the acquisition of more epic gear: the more monsters you take down, the better armor, weapons, and items you can get. Unlike PSO or Diablo, however, you won’t be fighting your way through massive dungeons while slaying thousands of generic enemies; rather, Monster Hunter tasks you with killing a specific boss-type enemy on almost every mission, and killing these titanic monsters (which is easier said than done; fights tend to be long, tense, difficult affairs,) will usually net you just enough raw materials to craft a new piece of gear that will help with your next conquest. It’s an addictive cycle that has kept millions of players glued to their PSP’s, and it becomes even harder to put down once you start playing it with friends.
Phantasy Star Portable 2
While Monster Hunter is the current king of the Japanese gaming industry, most fans are willing to admit that Capcom’s blockbuster owes more than a little to Sega’s pioneering Phantasy Star Online, which melded the addictive hack-and-slash gameplay of Blizzard’s Diablo with Japanese style and balance. While PSO was a great game (it’s my personal favorite game, in fact,) and a modest hit in it’s own right, it came out a few years before multiplayer action-RPG’s became all the rage in Japan, and never managed to become the runaway phenomenon that Monster Hunter has become.
It certainly didn’t help Sega that their attempts at creating a proper follow-up to PSO have been… well, not very good. In 2006, Sega released Phantasy Star Universe, which at the time they promoted as the next Phantasy Star Online (despite the fact that they are now making an official PSO2, which looks a lot more promising,) and many PSO fans (including me,) fell for it. Unfortunately, the game came out and well, it was terrible — the story was perhaps the most irritating piece of fiction to ever appear in a videogame, the enemies were forgettable, the level design wasn’t as good, and the game lost the impeccable balance that PSO had that made it impossible to put down. Instead of giving you a steady drip-feed of rare items to keep you motivated pressing, as PSO did, PSU was a shameless grind-fest that required months of play before you gained any skills or gear that felt remotely rewarding.
Sometime after PSU’s underwhelming release, the Monster Hunter craze hit full swing in Japan and Sega wanted a piece of the action; after all, Monster Hunter was selling millions of copies in a genre that PSO had helped to establish. Unfortunately, instead of creating a proper new game, they ported PSU to PSP, renaming it Phantasy Star Portable, and while the game was better recieved on Sony’s portable than it had been on consoles, most of the same issues remained.
Thankfully, Sega has since released several revisions to Phantasy Star Portable, and the latest version available in the US, Phantasy Star Portable 2, is a substantial improvement over it’s mediocre predecessors. The insipid cast of characters from the original release were dropped (though some of the new characters are honestly just as bad,) and the game was balanced slightly better. New levels and enemies were added (including a lot of content brought over from PSO, making for a tacit admission that yes, PSO was better than PSU) that helped lift the series back from the depths of mediocrity and back into compelling territory again. While Phantasy Star Portable 2 still isn’t the instant classic that PSO was, its still a damn fine action-RPG in its own right, and as with Monster Hunter, it becomes even better with friends.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time
If you’re in the mood for a multiplayer action RPG but you don’t have a PSP, your selections on the DS are a bit more limited. While Sega released a multiplayer Phantasy Star for Nintendo’s handheld, entitled Phantasy Star Zero, it suffers from enough balance issues that I can’t recommend it over Square-Enix’s entry into the genre, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time, a game which is as good as its title is long.
Like Monster Hunter or Phantasy Star, your main motivation to keep playing is the acquisition of epic gear to make your character look cool, and in that aspect, FFCC:EOT (goddamn, even the initials are long,) succeeds by giving you gear that recalls to mind the most iconic Final Fantasy characters. If you’ve ever wanted to look like Vivi from FF9 or Kain from FF4, FFCC:EOT gives you enough gear and customization options to let you recreate, or even make your own, favorite Final Fantasy character.
But the game doesn’t just succeed because of fan service. The gameplay here is also solid, once again liberally borrowing from the framework established by PSO and Diablo, but it also manages to feel unique thanks to the incorporation of some light platforming elements as well as a few environmental puzzles that would feel right at home in a Zelda game. Like the other games listed here, it’s definitely better with friends, but it also happens to be an entirely playable and enjoyable experience solo as well.
… And that’s it for part 1. If you liked what I had to say about these ports and multiplayer RPGs, check back soon for part 2, where I’ll highlight the best original RPGs for handhelds, including (but not limited to) The World Ends With You and Ys 7.