Fish are an essential part of the JRPG genre, and while recent entries may have lacked some of the sparkle of the JRPG golden age in the mid to late 90s, there are still some great fish out there. Here’s a look at 10 of the best.
- Marinebasher (Xenogears)
Of course, a game about mechs and ships ought to have some underwater mechs. Marinebasher is… not one of them. This battle takes place half-way up the Tower of Babel, because of course a mechadolphin can fly in Tetsuya Takahashi’s sprawling, absurd world.
- Strong Glory (Eternal Sonata)
I guess this is technically some sort of swordfish? This guy is to regular swordfish as the average JRPG sword is to actually plausible bladed weapons. Peak anime (fish).
- Cutlass Fish (Blue Dragon)
Look at this magnificent, swashbuckling bastard. JUST LOOK AT HIM.
- Forest Whale (Hyperdimension Neptunia ReBirth 1)
A brief moment of glorious light in an ocean of garbage.
Not a literal ocean, of course. You didn’t think JRPG fish would actually appear in water, did you?
- Lord Iwama (Live-a-Live)
Ode Iou’s castle is a vast, complex dungeon with dozens intricate subplots. The politics and spiritual turmoil of feudal Japan are brought beautifully to life through a horde of characters and mythical encounters. It’s a masterpiece of environmental design.
There’s also this fucking carp God lurking in the moat. You don’t actually need to go for a swim unless you’re doing the challenge where you kill every human in the chapter, but if you do, Lord Iwama will be waiting…
- The Nebra River King (Final Fantasy XII)
What a beautiful fish. I love the contrast of blue and pink on its irregular scales. It wouldn’t be a list of great JRPGs without a Final Fantasy or two. I have to confess a little person investment here, as well. I owe the Nebra River King quite a lot for finally teaching me the Dualshock button layout after years as a Nintendo gamer. He also yields the only component of the Wyrmhero Blade ultimate weapon that I’ve managed to acquire more than once.
- fish (Xenogears)
You’re stranded on a raft with your lover-to-be, your mechs trapped underneath it. Finally alone. You’re trying to work together with him to secure escape, or rescue.
All he can think of is catching this one fish. You don’t even have a way to cook it, but he insists it’s essential. You think he might try eating it raw. His efforts to catch it dissolve into slapstick.
No intimate moments for you. Just fish.
- Sushie (Paper Mario)
We can all agree Sushie’s great, right? She’s a better boat than Mario could ever be, even with Gamecube power in The Thousand-Year Door, and despite being a land-dwelling fish in a swamp she manages to be a great mom to a pack of rowdy baby yoshis. She’s great.
- Fastitocalon-f (Final Fantasy VIII)
Oh, man. One of the most notorious break-points in all of video games. On the beach near Balamb Garden before the game’s first dungeon, Fastitocalon-fs drop fish fins when killed. These can be refined for large quantities of ice magic, which can then be used to boost your stats well beyond the range of the early-game encounters. Seldom has a single random encounter distilled so much of what is distinctive of its host game.
And finally, the number one, the best fish in all of JRPGs
JRPGs are the best JRPG fish, because there’s no such thing as a fish.
Okay, let me explain.
When Stephen Jay Gould opined that there is no such thing as a fish [(possible) content warning: upper-class British comedy], what he meant was that ‘fish’ is not a coherent biological category. We call a huge range of ocean-dwelling creatures ‘fish’, without much respect for physiological similarity or genetic links among them. Life began in the oceans; all land-dwelling (and airborne) creatures fall within a single branch of the tree of life, and every other branch gets labelled ‘fish’.
Why bring this up in reference to JRPGs? Because even if the concept of a genre has a use outside of marketing (and that’s not clear, though it probably has some sociological utility), JRPGs aren’t a genre of video game even by the wonky standards of the field. Trying to explain what unites all the games that get labelled JRPGs is futile.
What does Fire Emblem have in common with Nier? Do Live-a-Live and Kingdom Hearts share any formal properties that actually matter to the overall experiences they create? How do Xenogears and Etrian Odyssey come to be regarded as part of the same tradition?
There are answers to these questions, of course. But they’re mostly in terms of the people and organisations involved in producing and distributing the software, or the people playing and writing about it. The games themselves may be action games or strictly turn-based, virtual spaces to explore or digital chessboards, deep stories or near-pure mathematical systems.
And there are reasons to take them all together, because they come from a specific culture that isn’t ours, and because all these games labour under this unified expectation we have placed on them. But those expectations can only limit our ability to enjoy and make meaning out of the games themselves. There is no such thing as the JRPG you’re expecting.