With a very large percentage of gaming franchises, they’ll always have their defining heroes. Sometimes, a franchise will use a protagonist only once per installment such as the legendary, Final Fantasy series. Others stick to the same characters such as Mario and Sonic (though these series’ do give players the option to play as other characters in some installments).
In fighting games, many characters can be the hero. A good number of old-school Japanese RPGs (JRPG) has this quality as well. A protagonist can be identified by their style, their substance, or both. In the end, the heroes all have qualities that players find identifiable and admirable. So who is our top 10? Read this list to find out!
10. Kairi from the Kingdom Hearts Series
- Platform: Multi-platform
- Publisher: Square Enix, Disney Interactive Studios
- Developer: Square Enix, Jupiter, h.a.n.d., BitGroove Inc., Success
- Release Date: March 28, 2002 (Japan), September 16, 2002 (US)- Present
In the unique world that combines Square and Disney, one of the original characters in this game is Kairi, the childhood friend of Sora and Riku and is really a princess. In a unique sense, their names represent certain parts of the earth. Sora references the sky, Riku means the ground, and Kairi is the sea. Like all main characters, she has her own unique journey and development as she and Sora are there to help each other.
Unfortunately, due to events in Chain of Memories where she is not featured but is mentioned, her memories of Sora are rather weak, but she knows deep down inside he is a part of her. Though she could lose her memories due to time, if there is one thing that cannot be taken from her, it is her gentle soul and friendly personality.
Initially, she has little to no combat abilities but in time, she becomes a Keyblade disciple and is a featured combatant in Dead Fantasy, a game that mixes Final Fantasy (though she is not really a Final Fantasy character) and Tecmo’s Dead or Alive. Her base qualities along with her development are ultimately what make her one of the best characters from this unique series.
9. Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII
- Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
- Publisher: Square Enix
- Developer: Square Enix
- Release Date: December 17, 2009 (Japan), March 9, 2010 (WW)
If there is to be a female version of Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII, then Lightning is the one you’re looking for (and what an interesting combination with their names). It was the intention of both Tetsuya Nomura and Motomu Toriyama to make a strong female character to be less feminine than previous Final Fantasy female characters. In addition, her personality is also meant to be a contrast to that of her partner, Snow. Plus, she possesses a badass gun-blade known as the Blazefire Saber, which also has magical properties. If anything, the only thing that solely motivates her is saving her sister, Serah.
The nature of her development is when she spends time with her team, most especially with Hope. Thanks to his companionship, Lightning understands that she doesn't have to be alone. In her journey in Lightning Returns, she understands if she wants to save humanity, she has to first learn to care for it. Though the character may come across as a little unoriginal, her flaws may be common but very relatable. Anybody can be driven to achieve something, and that is not a bad thing.
Sometimes, you have to know when you need help and that there is more to reaching your goals than just strong motivation. People need to realize that there are other people who can help you, and sometimes, you may unintentionally hurt people at the cost of putting them aside. Through Lightning, gamers can learn to overcome such flaws in their own lives, which makes her a great hero.
8. Phoenix Wright from the Ace Attorney Series
- Platform: Gameboy Advance, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Date: October 12, 2001 (Japan), October 12, 2005 (NA) – Present
So if you find yourself caught in some legal problems and need to prove you’re innocent, who better than Phoenix Wright? Phoenix, or Nick, is an up and coming defense attorney who has defeated ruthless prosecutors such as his childhood friend Miles Edgeworth and his mentor, Von Karma.
Thanks to the help of Maya and Mia through their spiritual powers, he can find the contradictions necessary to help find why his clients are innocent and find the real culprit. He may not be as seasoned as his rivals, but with the right help and questioning, he can always turn things around when they hit rock bottom. Though some of his methods may not hold up in a real life US court (as well as the prosecution’s), his belief in people and his determination to seek the truth are all characteristics that people should strive to achieve.
He is very self-driven and with the difficult nature of his work with what could be at stake, he can be hard on himself. But when the going gets tough, he has a great supporting cast who are there for him when it counts the most.
7. Hatsune Miku from Project DIVA
- Platform: Arcade, PSP
- Publisher: SEGA, Dwango Music Entertainment.
- Developer: Crypton Future Media, SEGA
- Release Date: July 2, 2009
Debuting as a voice for a software program for music professionals, thanks to amateur programmers and musicians, Hatsune Miku became a pop icon. The good news is, those who made their own songs with the software, were free to distribute their own songs with her voice and image. Thanks to her popularity, fans were able to create not just songs, but some went as far as creating their own software for her dance routines and create their own music videos in tribute to her. Eventually, SEGA got a license to make a music game using her image.
She is the one who solidified the Vocaloid genre of J-Pop. Her voice is very high pitched and has an excellent sense of control. With Japan’s love of cuteness, she is created to be the ideal J-Pop idol whose only death can be if her license ceased to exist or those who hold her license decide to no longer use her. Her star power has grown big to the point that she was internationally featured in Toyota commercials. She is a character that we can use the way we imagine. Last, a hologram version of Hatsune Miku actually does live performances and has taken her tour worldwide. So if you want an opportunity to see a game character in person, this is one of your few chances.
6. Kasumi from the Dead or Alive Series
- Platform: Multi-platform
- Publisher: Koei Tecmo
- Developer: Team Ninja
- Release Date: November 26, 1996 – Present
Kasumi is a knockout in every sense with both her body and her moves. A majority of her story revolves around revenge and redemption. She joins and emerges victorious in the first DOA tournament to avenge her brother, who has put in a coma by Raidou. However, due to abandoning her duties as the head of her ninja clan, she is banished to never come back. In the next installment, her only wish is to be with her family again. However, things have taken a turn for the worse because a terrorist organization has made clones of her as their own personal army.
Like Hatsune Miku, for a while, Kasumi became something of a popular icon in Japan. She was featured in numerous advertisements. Her appeal comes across as uniquely organic. She can be the deadly ninja, she can be the innocent school girl, a swimsuit model, and a volleyball player. Her base design can be made into any image the player imagines. But forget the fact that she can be a great model, with her ninja skills, she can hold up against all the other DOA combatants male and female alike.
5. Link from The Legend of Zelda Series
- Platform: Nintendo platforms
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo
- Release Date: February 21, 1986 – Present
The Legend of Zelda in recent years has become a very interesting source of discussion with its very unusual timeline. Each game takes place some years after another so for every Zelda game we play, we may always get Link and Zelda, but it’s never the same Link and Zelda. Though the characters are different, they still share the same essence thanks to the story given in Legend of the Skyward Sword. Though the American cartoon from the late-1980s tends to portray Link as sarcastic and a wannabe playboy, his game portrayal is the complete opposite of being humble. Link is simply the definition of courage since he is the rightful owner to the Triforce of Courage.
Some of his stories mostly start out that he’s just a regular kid, but after seeing that the world is in danger he fulfills his missions who fights various enemies and makes unique allies. He may not be a great magician like his rival Ganondorf, but what he makes up in power, he makes up with determination and skill. Every installment is a unique coming-of-age story for the character that just never seems to get old, and yet many players can identify with his journeys.
4. Ryu from the Street Fighter Series
- Platform: Multiplatform
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Date: August 30, 1987 – Present
In the 30-year history of Street Fighter, one of the very few characters that have continued to stay on is one of its two main protagonists (along with Ken), Ryu. Ryu’s design is very straight to the point with who he is, a Japanese karate fighter. He has all the cool moves that are identifiable with most gamers such as his Hadouken, Shoryuken, and Tatsumaki Senpu Kyaku. But it is not his moves that make him a great hero, just his ideal qualities. He is not someone who is motivated by saving the world or anything of that nature.
All he wants to do is prove himself like any old school martial artist. What drives him is simply his inner conflict, and this is also further symbolized with his struggles against the Dark Hadou. Ryu shares many qualities of famous karate fighters, most notably, Mas Oyama, who dedicated his life to karate. Some people believe that in martial arts, your journey ends once you get your black belt, but it’s only the beginning. Many true karate practitioners not only want to develop physically and in technique but ultimately in spirit. Ryu is a great example of what karate and the martial arts are all about which makes him a unique protagonist.
3. Mario from Super Mario Bros. Series
- Platform: All Nintendo platforms
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo
- Release Dates: July 9, 1981– Present
Debuting in Donkey Kong as Jump Man, Mario would have his solo debut in a simple game called Mario Bros. However, he wouldn’t have his major breakout until Super Mario Bros., the game that solidified Nintendo’s first console. The design of Mario has stuck with him throughout the lifespan of his releases. The reason for his design of a blue long-sleeved shirt, red overalls, a hat, and a mustache was due to technological limitations when he debuted in Donkey Kong. Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to find creative ways of using that technology to create a character than can be recognized as a man and it has worked ever since.
He may look out of shape, but if looks could deceive, Mario is a great example of it. He can run with the endurance of a sprinter, jump as high as a pole vault athlete, and scale walls like Spider-Man. In most of his appearances, he always has to save the princess from Bowser but every once in awhile, he can appear at a party, play golf or tennis, or is up for some go-kart racing. The appeal of this character and his usage is extremely universal and family friendly, which are probably the reasons why he has lasted long as a gaming icon.
2. Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Series
- Platform: Multi-platform
- Publisher: Konami
- Developer: Kojima Productions
- Release Dates: July 7, 1987 – Present
Solid Snake is probably the ultimate tragic hero in gaming. Though the character is a clone of Big Boss, the greatest soldier to who have ever lived, he finds his own path in life. After killing Big Boss at the end of the second Metal Gear game, in a twisted irony, he accomplished the very thing he was created to do. After the events of Metal Gear Solid, he and Otacon find their own purpose in life by starting a private organization that is dedicated to stopping Metal Gears and in effect, nuclear weapons. Due to his origins of being a clone, Snake is intended to have a short lifespan and within that time, he must save the world and also find some meaning to his life.
To make matters worse, it is revealed in the post-credits ending of MGS1 that Solid Snake received the recessive genes. But in the end, Solid Snake was the winner with his rivalry with Liquid Snake. He rejects the principles of his genetic father, brother, and the Patriots, the organization that created him, and chooses to think and fight for himself. As the great Mewtwo once said, it is not the circumstances of our birth, but what we choose to do with life that defines us who we are, and Solid Snake masterfully demonstrates that.
1. Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII
- Platform: Sony PlayStation
- Publisher: SquareSoft (Presently Square Enix)
- Developer: SquareSoft (Presently Square Enix)
- Release Dates: Jan 31, 1997 (JP) Sept 7, 1997 (NA)
Last, at number one, we have Cloud from Final Fantasy VII. When the character is first introduced, he is a jerk. He allies himself as an Eco-terrorist group named Avalanche not because of their cause, but because he wants money. But as he spends more time with his employer, Tifa (his childhood sweetheart), and Aerith (a flower girl whom he befriends), he comes to learn to care more about his fellow human beings and the planet. As Cloud and his friends’ journey to stop Shinra and Sephiroth progresses, Cloud beings to learn the unfortunate truth of his past. As he comes to terms with his past and the mission he must accomplish, the only thing capable of stopping him is just Cloud himself.
Cloud is someone who probably has the ultimate inferiority complex. And when the player explores his past through his flashbacks and through the prequel game Crisis Core, you can learn more about him and what leads to his initial personality in the first FF7 game. Though Cloud demonstrates excellent fighting skills, the sad truth is, he was never a member of Shinra’s elite Special Forces unit, SOLDIER, in which Sephiroth was their top dog. In fact, some of the qualities he displays are based on a friend from his teenage years, Zach. Despite his true initial status as a mere soldier, he manages to beat Sephiroth a first time after destroying his home village of Nibelheim. The fact that he overcomes numerous adversities time and time again, and save the world shows a true testament to his character.
And since our list was limited to 10, some honorable mentions go out to Mega Man, Pikachu, Nene from Love Plus, Dante from Devil May Cry and Crono from Chrono Trigger. To be quite honest, making this list and ordering it was quite a challenge and it is understandable that a good percentage of you readers may have your own ideas.
If we could, we would have done a top 20 or top 30! So if you disagree with our list, it’s totally cool. With all the legendary games out there, we can agree to disagree. Do you have a concrete idea of who the Top 10 Protagonists from the world of Japanese gaming should be? If you do, all you just need to do is type your top 10 in the comments. If you got more than 10, feel free to add as many as you want. Let’s enjoy a civil discussion on each other’s lists.