I love RPGs, completely honestly and truly. There's something to be said for essentially playing through a story, and most modern RPGs (SNES and later) are as complex as a good novel, with characters you can feel empathy for. To me, it's an interactive reading experience with sometimes neat effects and graphics, a truly rewarding feeling. So, perhaps it's time I list some of my favourite RPGs of them all.
**Warning. Spoilers may follow.**
Be aware! I grew up in the era of SNES and N64 and PS1. So, don't expect too much to fall outside of that category. I am also a fan of "JRPGs", so...yeah.
10. Chrono Cross
Chrono Cross (PS1) is a fairly revolutionary RPG that I found intriguing to play for the first time. Unlike most RPGs, Chrono Cross has a literal bevy of playable characters (45, to be precise), some of whom are extremely powerful, and some of whom are completely weak and useless. The main character, Serge, is a young boy from a small village in an island archipelago who is thrust into a quest to save a girl named Kid from a beast named Lynx. Serge chases Lynx through a parallel universe, only to end up with his soul being exchanged with Lynx's through a magical artifact. He fights to have his body restored, to save his archipelago from the invading forces of Porre...and to find out what beast is so powerful that it can split a dimension apart and destroy time itself.
To be honest, Chrono Cross's story is one of the most complex I've ever seen in a video game - unnecessarily complex. The story follows two dimensions with parallel characters having sometimes similar events occurring to them, and then interjects a notion of time travel and...argh! Basically, a really frustrating story. Where Chrono Cross wins is with its combat system and music. The combat system is a pretty damn brilliant "action point" system - each character begins with a certain amount of action points, and regains their points as other characters and enemies take action. Mastering the system makes the game much easier; but it isn't strictly necessary to enjoy the game.
And the music is utterly fantastic:
9. Final Fantasy II (IV)
Final Fantasy II (SNES) was the first really successful RPG to be released for the SNES. It wasn't graphically advanced, but it was a new style of role-playing game, introducing several staples to the type. Unlike the original Final Fantasy, FFII (for us North American gamers) brought in the concept of characters who have individual stories, and come and leave the party at certain points. You follow the story of one of those characters, and the others parallel yours at points.
The main character of FFII is Cecil, a Black Knight of Baron, who is tasked with using the elite Red Wings airship squadron to recover magical crystals from various other nations about the world. Cecil realizes he's being asked to murder for his King's ambition, and as such is granted a mission by the King that turns out to be a murder-suicide mission. Cecil casts aside his Black Knight ways and becomes a paladin, joining forces with other powerful characters to defeat Golbez and the Four Fiends he commands in their attempt to access the moon and empower the evil Lunarian Zemus in his attempt to destroy the enhabitants of the earth.
The story is a little cheesy, but FFII introduced the active battle system, the set-piece system of "action gauges" that became so familiar throughout most subsequent Square Soft RPG-style games. Similarly, the characters were far more vibrant - the constant betrayals of Cecil by Kain, his best friend who is incredibly weak against mind control, and the heroic but useless sacrifice of elder mage Tellah against Golbez set the tone for future character development in RPGs.
8. Secret of Mana
Secret of Mana (SNES) is the story of a boy, girl, and sprite who are thrust together by circumstance. The boy is just a villager who pulls a sword from a stone to chop through weeds on his way home, only to find that he has pulled the near-powerless Mana Sword from its plinth, cracking the seals that bound monsters and evil forces. The boy adventures, slaying the monsters and restoring the Mana Sword's power - only to be confronted by an evil Empire, who intend to use the powers of Mana for their own, wicked purpose by resurrecting the Mana Fortress, and the Armageddon it promises...
Unlike the previous entries in this list, Secret of Mana is not a standard RPG. In SNES days it would have been categorized as an "adventure" game since its combat was real-time. However, in retrospect, it fits pretty easily into the RPG category, and this is for the best. The storyline is pretty in-depth, but unfortunately bastardized, as Square North America butchered out a lot of dialogue to fit the game in a 16 mbit cartridge (it was originally supposed to be released on the never-finish SNES CD-ROM that eventually morphed into the Phillips CD-i). But what sets Secret of Mana apart was the gameplay.
Navigation through the various screens, between the various weapons, spells, and items that are needed for a good RPG was with a series of unique ring menus that surrounded the active character, allowing for the player to easily assign and alter the three party members. Secondly, Secret of Mana was three player - with the multi-tap, three different humans could control the three different characters, giving each situation a new twist or bend.
I have some criticisms of the game: specifically, I've never beaten it because I've never levelled my magic up enough. It takes an intense amount of grinding to get your magic up, and you can't cast during missions because the fucking MP regen is both rare and expensive. Aside from that, though, it's innovative, colourful, and enjoyable. One of these days...
7. Secret of Evermore
Many critics considered Secret of Evermore (SNES) to be lesser than its cousin, Secret of Mana, but I quietly disagree. Evermore is the story of a kid from Podunk, USA who is drawn (with his faithful hound) into a B-movie, entering a virtual world called Evermore in which four other real humans live, each of which generating a fantasy realm based on their preferences. You travel through Prehistoria, Antiqua (Roman/Greek/Egyptian), Gothica (Middle Ages), and Omnitopia (a space station), each of which has its own unique challenges, as you try to figure who has trapped you and the four denizens inside the fantasy realm.
Evermore is stylistically similar to Mana, with the same ring menus I lauded previously. In addition, both the Boy and the Dog can be controlled by the player, though multiplayer is (sadly) not an option. The magic system, however, is incredibly more varied than Mana - it uses an alchemy system, where the Boy can have a series of formulas memorized at a time, of some thirty or forty, and he gathers components to cast his alchemical spells. It adds a new and interesting dimension to a formula that might otherwise be tired and true.
In addition, Evermore is one of the most visually pleasing SNES games ever released. 16 bit graphics were brought to the very edge of possibility here, with the sprites smoothing and vibrantly animated and coloured. The gameplay was crisp and sharp, and while it wasn't anything particularly new, Evermore was a perfection of much of the SNES console's RPG development. If it lacked anywhere, it was in sound and music, but I can honestly say that I get so immersed in the gameplay and the visual splendour that I hardly noticed. Truly, my biggest complaint is this: the game is far too short.
6. Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy VII (PS1) is generally considered the greatest RPG of all time, and it's clear why. FF7 has a great cast of characters, an interesting and enveloping story, revolutionary effects and graphics for an RPG, and, indeed, new forms of gameplay we would later see more fully integrated into the RPG experience (such as the bike scene). But FF7 will forever be remembered for one thing: Sephiroth.
Up until now, the Final Fantasy series had always pitched good stories and good characters, but excluding FF6 (in a bit!) had never hit a home run on the bad guy. Sephiroth was both a critical and popular success, and the concept of the character has enthralled gamers for over a decade. Sephiroth is pretty much insane, and is dedicated to the destruction of the planet for his own twisted ends. It's brilliant, he's brilliant and memorable.
Unfortunately, most of the game's story is just a little too complex. I have found it difficult to follow the storyline to completion, often just mentally skipping over the plot developments (especially Cloud's story in the second disc), to get to the next scene. This game was difficult to play the first time, I almost had to force myself to finish it. However, it was rewarding when I did, because playing through the second time was a unique experience.
Finally, one of the major ways in which FF7 broke through was with the shocking, sudden, and devastating murder of Aeris at the end of the first disc. Aeris is a character that the player puts a lot of mental stock in, and for the unprepared gamer, having this integral character suddenly ripped out of the party is utterly mindblowing. Aeris's death is one of the seminal moments in gaming history, period.
I always loved Earthbound (SNES) growing up. The moment I saw the game's review in Nintendo Power, I knew I had to play it. This is a game I spent hours on, renting it over and over, and I was extremely disappointed when the local rental shop didn't hold it for me when they decided to sell the cartridge. As a result, I didn't beat Earthbound until much later in life. But it was worth every second.
The storyline is deliciously quirky - Ness, a simple boy, goes on a journey to save the world from Gygas, using his previously hidden PSI powers to defeat a bevy of ridiculous enemies on the way. He makes friends with Paula and Poo, who have psychic powers, and Jeff, who is just really fuckin' smart. The art style is almost childish, but the game offers great moments, like fighting the Moles in the mines, all of whom insist they are the 3rd most powerful of 5, or the great music moments with the Runaway Five (of whom there are actually six).
The combat system is extremely straight-forward: you get a turn, then they get a turn. But the game is complex enough in story to have come bundled with a Nintendo Power Player's Guide, and playing through it was sometimes confusing or difficult. Yet, you still laugh like a madman when you miss your target during an attempt at teleport and all your guys get covered in soot like from a failed Bill Nye experiment.
4. Final Fantasy III (VI)
For me, the pinnacle of the Final Fantasy series is Final Fantasy VI (SNES), or III in North America. Unlike the previous incarnation in the Americas, and arguably the next FF game, FFVI has a brilliant cast of characters, each of which has his or her own, unique, and compelling story (except for the two "bonus" characters). The basic story follows Terra, a magic-wielding girl who has been subjected to control by the evil Emperor Gestahl and his generals, Leo, Celes, and Kefka. Terra links up with the Returners, a group of people opposing Gestahl, and they battle the Empire's attempts to uncover Espers, the world's hidden beings of magic, and living beings. Unfortunately, the Espers are captured and slain by Gestahl and Kefka, and they use the power of their realm to create a floating continent - where they are confronted by the Returners. Then Kefka murders Gestahl, manipulates the ultimate magic power...and rearranges the face of the planet.
Final Fantasy VI isn't revolutionary in any way other than its characters. The Esper system is kinda cool, but ends up with a bunch of grinding in the forest north of the Veldt to level up and get everyone to know the best magic. A good bevy of characters, storylines, and sidequests, especially in the latter half of the game after Kefka goes bonkers, really gives this game an open-ended feel. The focus of the game shifts as it goes on, letting you explore a game that really doesn't have a main character. It's a gaming experience that hasn't yet been repeated.
3. Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals
This is one of the later RPGs released for the SNES, and as a result, was a near-perfect mix of just about anything a RPG gamer could look for. Lufia II has an amazing story where you already know the ending (being a prequel for Lufia I, with the final scene of the game being the first scene of the original). You follow Maxim, a monster hunter, as he adventures to find out why monsters are getting more and more aggressive - eventually he comes up against the Sinistrals, a group of divine beings that have near-ultimate power...and finds out only he can match up against them.
What makes this game truly unique is the story. Unlike FFVI, which I praised for the characters, this game is story-driven. It takes a five minute scene from a game and gives you fifteen, twenty, thirty hours explaining it. Maxim marries the Lady Knight Selan, has a child with her, and then must go fight the Sinistrals...again. In the ultimate climax, Selan is slain, and Maxim remains with her, as the Sinistrals' island fortress collapses. Maxim uses his life energy to ensure that the island fortress won't be dropped on his hometown, and his child, dying in that final act. It's the first, and to date, the only time I've cried playing a game. And I'm tearing up just thinking of it.
2. Fallout 3
Yeah, you were wondering when I'd get to a modern game. Fallout 3 (PC, XBox 360, PS3) came out of nowhere to really usurp my rankings, and let me tell you, it is utterly fantastic. I think the graphics are A-1, but the gameplay completely surpasses anything I could have expected. The story is pretty awesome too.
As in all the Fallout games, you play the nameless protagonist, in this case, The Lone Wanderer from Vault 101. You're raised in the Vault under the dictatorial Overseer, but when you turn 18, your father flees the Vault in a major scandal. You pursue him across the blasted nuclear remains of the Washington, DC area (the Capital Wasteland) to discover that you were not born in the Vault, but outside; and that your father's science could lead to fresh water being made available for the first time since the nuclear holocaust.
Of course, this puts you at odds with the Enclave, the remnants of the US government who believe only they deserve to survive; by teaming up with the Brotherhood of Steel, you defeat the Enclave and make the Capital Wasteland healthy again...or do you? You see, the game has a beautiful karma system - you can go around murdering, stealing, and enslaving, detonating nuclear bombs on peaceful cities, betraying friends, and in the end, you can let the Capital Wasteland's last hope for humanity lapse into oblivion.
The gameplay is amazing as well. Either a first person or third person shooter, Fallout 3 includes a mode called VATS - where you enter a near-turned based system, allowing you to pick targets on the enemy's body. Crippling a leg, head, or arm reduces their ability to engage in combat - and you are more than capable of shooting their gun out of their hands. Fallout can be spray-and-pray if you want, or you can be a careful sniper, slaying enemies from across the huge map. Fallout is the best RPG to come out in this millenium.
1. Chrono Trigger
Not only my favourite RPG, but my favourite game ever, Chrono Trigger (SNES) is a completely perfect game in my opinion. The story is brilliant, the characters amazing, the graphics beautiful for the time, and the combat system is unique. Nothing could ever dethrone this majestic achievement from my list, and other games (Fallout 3, Ocarina of Time, Civ IV) have tried.
You play as Crono, mostly, throughout the game. Crono's a regular lad from Guardia, who hooks up with a cute blonde at the fair. While his best friend Lucca tests her teleportation device on the blonde, it accidentally opens a wormhole and sends the blonde, Marle, back in time. Crono goes after her, discovering the blonde is actually Princess Nadia (who prefers to go by Marle). Crono saves Marle and her ancestor Leene from being removed from time and murdered, returning to the present to be arrested for the crime of "kidnapping the princess". Condemned to death by the Chancellor, Crono escapes with Marle and Lucca, the two going to the future to find that it is doomed to be destroyed by a planet-eating monster named Lavos in the year 1999.
The three friends, and some others they pick up along the way, adventure across the world and throughout time, altering history as needed to defeat Lavos. In the ultimate confrontation, Crono sacrifices himself when Lavos is summoned, and his friends mourn him - before setting out to change time once more and bring Crono back.
The seven main characters are beautifully rendered and their stories unique and enjoyable. Indeed, the history between Frog and Magus is one of the best stories ever written into a game. The music is unbelievable, even by modern standards. The combat system is great - each character has moves (techs), and their techs can link up with the techs of other characters to form combos. Some have line, or area effect, meaning that you have to pick the best moment to launch your attack. The New Game + feature means you get to play through again and again without the hassle of levelling, and finally...the ending is simply beautiful. Perfect game.