There are a whole lot of amazing JRPG sequels as well as games we wished there were sequels for. Then there’s the games that seem so completely different from the games before them, they feel strange and foreign, almost like they should be part of a different franchise. Here’s 7 of the strangest JRPG sequels that changed the formula, sometimes to make the games better, sometimes to make it worse.
Ultima IV is hands down one of the most unique games ever made. It was originally developed for the PC by Richard Garriott here in the States. FCI and Pony Canyon made a streamlined version in Japan with JRPG-styled sprites for the Nintendo. The ported edition of the adaptation is the one I got my hands on. Until then, most JRPGs I’d played had you saving the world, rescuing a princess, or vanquishing an evil. It was a strange shock to play a game where your ultimate objective was to be a good person. Seriously, that’s it. Even Ultima III had you defeating Exodus, the unholy creation of the villains of Ultima I and II. Moral dilemmas affected your destiny as you fed the poor, refrained from cheating blind shopkeepers, valiantly fought your battles, and tried to avoid lying. A lot of games pay lip service to moral choices with a token dilemma which turns out to be pretty black and white in its implications. Ultima IV ventured into the gray embers of ethics that made it an unusual sequel for embodying a philosophy and a new way of life in its gameplay.
How do you follow the meditative and melancholy journey that marked Tidus’ march to the ruins of Zanarkand as the party struggled with religion, identity, and death? Create a spirited and lively sequel focused on j-pop, new costumes, and Charlie’s Angels-styled shenanigans. Honestly, when I first heard about the game, I was skeptical, thinking it was a cash-in on the franchise. But I was surprised at the game’s depth and variety. The dresspheres hearkened back to the class system of the two Final Fantasy games that didn’t originally get ports, FFIII and FFV. Even though the game was structured into five chapters, it felt the most open and free form of any in the series. There were a plethora of minigames, optional bosses, and sidequests, with Luca’s concert mission being one of my favorites for forcing you to don a moogle suit. The combination of the upbeat jazz, the surreal sight of Yuna skipping around in the moogle suit, and the absurdly complicated plot to retrieve your garment grid was part of its allure. The story does get more serious as it evolves into a quest to rescue Tidus. But my favorite parts were the quirky diversions from the main journey. I think the strangest part of all was that in some ways, I actually enjoyed Final Fantasy X-2.
Phantasy Star II is arguably one of the most epic games ever created as you traveled the Algo Star System in what was one of the very first science fiction themed JRPGs. Its sequel, Phantasy Star III, plunged you into a seeming medieval age with the opening taking place during your nuptials. When your princess gets kidnapped (see JRPG trope #2 above), you chase after her and discover your world is part of a space colony escaping from a planet that was destroyed in Phantasy Star II. The newly boasted mechanism in the game was a chance to get married and have kids that you would play as in the next generation. Marital politics were the key innovation and depending on who you married, you’d have different storylines. It seemed intriguing in theory, but Phantasy Star III made several odd choices in its execution to hamper the experience. First off, the ubiquitous battles were stripped of almost all animation in stark contrast to Phantasy Star II, making the combat seem lifeless. Second, the brilliant science fiction milieu of its previous entry was largely stripped away, making the environments seem bland and dull in comparison. Phantasy Star III wasn’t without its highlights, including the best party companion in the cyborg, Wren, as well as an intriguing narrative detailing the vicissitudes of its history. But its core mechanic, marriage, was doomed from its inception with a series of loveless pairings until they were brilliantly reconciliated in Phantasy Star IV.
I’ve always been a big fan of the BoF games, so I couldn’t wait to get my hand on the the fifth in the series. Immediately, I was struck at how different the game felt. Rather than the fantasy worlds I was accustomed to, Dragon Quarter was about a dystopia where humans live underground inspired by The World Five Minutes From Now by Ryū Murakami. Basically, your friend Nina needs fresh air which is only available at the upper levels. As you fight your way up, you get stronger and stronger until you meet an enemy you can’t beat or your D-counter goes up to 100 and you die. If this were like the previous BoFs, you’d be required to either level up some more or get a new weapon to progress. Dragon Quarter made the strange choice of forcing you to repeat the entire game from the beginning. That meant lots and lots of replays. While more of the story was revealed on each restart, this design choice was the kind that made the repetition of Majora’s Mask pale in comparison. The Scenario Overlays system could either be the most perfect metaphor for the cycles of poverty and suffering people get stuck in, or the most annoying game mechanic ever conceived. I’m still not sure which it is.
I always wondered what happened to the main protagonists of one of my favorite JRPGs, Chrono Trigger. Crono and company saved the planet, rescued history from the evil of Lavos, and things seemed to end off on a happy note (presuming you got one of the main endings). Chrono Cross presented multiple bleak scenarios. Lucca is dead. The ghosts of Crono and Marle haunt you, asking why you’ve undone all their work. The same could be said of the game. Honestly, I initially just wished for an extension of the first one and felt if the developers had chosen to whittle down the 45 playable characters into a smaller cast we could really get to know, similar to Chrono Trigger, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. My first step to really appreciate Cross was forgetting its connection to Chrono Trigger so that I could take it as its own game. Whereas Trigger revolved around time, Cross was about dimensions and the branching choices we make. It’s a more somber game with one of the best soundtracks ever composed, and once I saw it for its own virtues, it quickly became one of my favorite JRPGs. In an alternate universe, I played Chrono Cross first and deplored its prequel, Chrono Trigger, wondering why it couldn’t be more like its sequel.
I honestly wish there was a new Zelda game done in the sidescrolling style of The Adventure of Link. I know it was vastly different, but I loved the game and the way it introduced towns, magic, and experience points. Playing it now, it feels even more strange because of just how far it strays from the Zelda formula we’ve come to expect. I enjoyed wandering temples in combat, talking to unusual townspeople like “Error,” and using my favorite technique, the downthrust, to get through the tight tunnels of Death Mountain. Zelda II also let you turn into a fairy and fly past all your enemies. The part the official Zelda timeline didn’t mention was that in one of the alternate histories, Link got stuck in fairy form, went back in time, and started calling himself Navi. “Hey, listen!”
I think there’s a general consensus that the first Hydlide is one of the worst games ever made. Super Hydlide, its Sega Genesis sequel (it’s actually Hydlide 3 but part 2 never made it over), fares a whole lot better. I bought it sort of by chance. I had the choice of purchasing a new RPG, and the only two choices available were Fatal Labyrinth and this one. The game store employee told me Fatal Labyrinth wasn’t good so I went with Super Hydlide. I’m glad I did as it’s one of the most fascinating games I played growing up. Initially, I was very discouraged by its hyper realism. You have to eat and sleep or you’ll get weak. If you carry out immoral acts, people won’t talk to you anymore, refusing to give you necessary tips to progress. If you buy too many items, your weight will prevent you from moving. You need to leave money at banks and there’s even a day and night cycle. Most of the opening of the game revolves around you micromanaging the details of your life. Fortunately, certain items you acquire help speed things up so you can start to dive into the main quest. The game is full of obscure puzzles, the Simon’s Quest type that make you scratch your head and wonder how in the world you were supposed to figure it out. But if you stick with it, the game gets stranger. The fantasy land becomes a science fiction sprawl that makes for some interesting worldbuilding. At some point, you actually fall down a fissure in the ground and land in space. You walk among the stars until you find a spaceship and a technological fortress where you discover its inhabitants were all turned into monsters a la Alien. This leads to a climactic fight against an evil being who exists in the first dimension and turns out to be the creator of the universe. You just killed your god and everyone lived happily ever after. That is, until Virtual Hydlide.
Peter Tieryas is making a strange sequel of his own.