If you haven’t yet, it’d likely be prudent to check out the first article in this series; it provides a proper context for what you’re about to read. You may also wish to read the previous article.
WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
This isn’t going to be as bad as the scenario articles, but in discussing these masterpieces, I’m going to be discussing many of their stories. I’ve tried to keep it to a minimum, but there will unavoidably be spoilers. Since the works cited will have several games that are not discussed in great detail, I’m ending it with a numbered list; a top 23 countdown without the entries. I’d recommend checking that out before reading this article, because some of the spoilers will be big ones.
Every RPG enthusiast has likely played a lot of great games within the genre over the years. I’ve already discussed the incredible potential of the genre, even to those whose gaming skills are less than adequate; to those who can handle the brainwork, it’s an easily accessible genre. You’ve played your Chrono Triggers and your Phantasy Stars and they were games that everyone discussed and celebrated. Then, you pick up a new RPG and start hungrily devouring it. After the tenth or twentieth hour or so, it hits you: you’re playing a masterpiece. Not everything is perfect – there’s no such thing as a perfect game – but there are certain aspects of the game that are outstanding; unlike anything else you’ve experienced before. These are the kinds of games that wind up returning again and again to top ten lists that you write, games that you review with incredibly high scores, and games about which you simply cannot stop gushing. You get the point; they’ve made quite an impression upon you. The purpose of this article is celebrating those masterpieces.
At first, I was uncertain as to how I should sort these. Alphabetization didn’t bother me as a method for being less exciting so much as it would be a lot less cohesive as a piece, giving it a more disjointed feel. A chronological sorting would put the games into historical context, but this isn’t really about that, either. I’ve decided to make a top twenty-three countdown. This might make it a bit similar to the top twelve list that I made – which was mostly populated by RPGs – but with a different context. I’ve already discussed these games at length, so I’m not going all out; besides, if I did, we’d have twenty-three full length reviews, which would be not only overly lengthy, but also completely pointless. All of these games would be given a 9/10 (I don’t give 10/10s unless the game is perfect, and that’s impossible), so scoring them is equally pointless. I’m going to just name the game, the one aspect that shines most, it’s biggest flaw, and why it is a masterpiece, talking a bit about each. So, for your reading (dis)pleasure, here is a list of what I feel to be the twenty-three greatest JRPGs ever created. Why twenty-three? Because Alice Kojiro doesn’t adhere to numerical conventions.
#23: Dragon Warrior 4
Greatest Element: The Adventure
Biggest Flaw: Auto-Battle
Dragon Warrior 4 was a revolution on the NES. The story was very detailed for its time, as were the characters, and the music was the best in the series, ranging from heroic quest music to one provoking a melancholy sentiment when the hero is alone. The overworld theme changes to the theme of the character that’s in the lead (one for each chapter), and each theme is very fitting. The visuals aren’t bad – they’re the best of the NES titles – but nothing terribly outstanding. The gameplay is the same as it ever was, though this game backpedals on the class system in favor of predetermined archetypes, which makes for stronger characterization in this case. Even the bad guys have good characterization for such an old RPG; the main villain isn’t who you initially think it is – and it’s a great fake-out when you kill the “ruler of evil” not long into your quest – and you eventually come to realize that his hatred of humanity isn’t entirely ill-founded. What makes this game a masterpiece is the adventure itself.
Dragon Warrior 4‘s quest is broken into five chapters, the first four of which are on the short side. It is not until you reach the final chapter that you realize just how big the game is. It is longer than all of the other chapters combined, and it is where all of those vague threats to the hero’s life you’ve been hearing finally begin to materialize. You’ve had little teases about these threats, even coming close to meeting one of them at the end of Alena’s chapter, but everything remains a terrifying mystery. So much happens in this final chapter that it could almost stand on its own as a game; the other chapters are merely exposition, albeit a necessary one. You travel the world – which is modeled after our own – and after you’ve done that, your quest still has several interesting places to take you, including underground and into the very skies themselves! The dungeons are long and dynamic; some have massive labyrinths made of arrow tiles, one has so many staircases that the guide book has to resort to capital and lower-case letters, and there are even a few dungeons into which you bring a ship! Even the Dark World is fairly large for being just a boss gauntlet, and the final dungeon is both large and complicated. For its time, the game is just so… big!
My biggest problem with this game is the auto-battle. Normally, I would just not use it, but you can’t not use it. Once you reach the final chapter, you have absolutely no control over anyone but your leader, and that can be irritating. Imagine having a party of mages, each of whom has a very impressive library of spells, but never having any say over which spells are used. The auto-battle AI in RPGs usually isn’t terribly good – especially back in 1990 – so you’re likely to spend some time angrily questioning your party’s decisions. What, you don’t yell at your video games? Then you clearly haven’t played enough of them. There are different settings, but they are more like suggestions; to take control away from the player in a menu-based battle system makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I understand the noble intentions to streamline the battle system, but seeing how well it worked out for Phantasy Star 2, I think we can safely say that such a thing has to be carefully executed.
Of course, this flaw is not enough to kill the game, especially for me. I almost never use magic in battle, so I just pick the No MP option, and my characters just wail away at the enemies until they all stop moving. It’s a pain when you need to heal someone, but for the most part, it works well enough. This one flaw is not enough to diminish the immeasurable sense of grandeur in this quest. It might seem like nothing compared to newer RPGs, but when this first came out, it was absolutely incredible. Having a cast of nine playable characters was a big deal, but having a wagon in which they travel was really something. If your wagon is with you when your party falls in battle, it’s not game over just yet; four more characters will jump out of the wagon and begin battling in your stead. Better yet, you can bring the wagon into the final battle, so the marathon seems a great deal less overwhelming – especially in a game with no save points – but is still quite challenging. A great adventure can overwhelm a multitude of flaws.
22: Final Fantasy 5
Greatest Element: The Class System
Biggest Flaw: The Story
Final Fantasy 5 was the only SNES Final Fantasy that North America didn’t get, and it’s a bit of a mystery as to why. Final Fantasy 2 and 3 came out before the first Final Fantasy came Stateside, and by the time they would’ve been translated, they’d likely have sold poorly, since Final Fantasy 4 was already out on the SNES. Since Final Fantasy 4 (released as 2 in North America) was a launch title, there was plenty of time to translate 5 and ship it over, but it was skipped, and North America’s next installment was 6 instead. All we had to hold us over was Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, which made little sense, since it had to be completely created by Square USA; we got it before Japan did. What’s more, we didn’t get 3, which had a huge number of warrior classes, so 5 would have been a great substitute, but we didn’t get it until Final Fantasy Anthology – a compilation of Final Fantasy 5 and 6 – came out on the Playstation, complete with butchered music and sound effects, not to mention a debatably poor translation. North America has since seen releases of every Final Fantasy game to date in one form or another, but it has been a rocky road.
Final Fantasy 5‘s class system was magnificent. The first game had six classes, each of which had upgrades, and it was a great start. The third game had a ton of classes, but there was no real motivation to stick with any of them for any reason other than their inherent utility. For example, a Fighter is a great class, but once you get the Knight, it’s absolutely useless, because the Knight is better in every conceivable way, even aesthetically. Final Fantasy 5 fixed all of that with its skill system. Each class has its stat boosts and weaknesses, but they also have several skills to learn permanently. If you need a healer, you can have someone become a White Mage, but spend enough time in that class, and you’ll be able to use White Magic any time you want. You learn active and passive skills, and most classes have one open slot into which to place the skill of your choice. One of the most useful skills allows you to deal the bare fisted damage of a Monk, which is fantastic for making magic users less useless in regular combat. Imagine a White Mage dealing great damage without even having any weapons! Imagine the converse: pick a tank like a Knight or Samurai and give him or her White Magic, Black Magic, or even Summon Magic; there’s a killing machine! It’s this level of reward and customization that makes the game great, but if you pick the non-class, you can equip anything in the game, have almost all passive skills active without equipping them, and you get two slots for active skills; you can have a White Mage/Summoner with heavy armor and legendary swords in each hand! The hidden class, Mimic/Mime, has three slots, but no Fight or Item command – unless you equip them – and a very limited range of equipment, though their Mimic command is very useful if planned properly. There really aren’t many useless classes, either; the Bard – which is usually the worst job in any Final Fantasy game – can absolutely annihilate the undead with a skill that doesn’t even consumer Magic Points. Even though the battle system is just a plain old Active-Time Battle system, the class system makes this game excellent, even in the shadows of the other SNES Final Fantasy masterpieces.
The story is a little absurd; stop me if you’ve heard this one: a centuries-old evil tree gains a humanoid form and tries to gain the power of the void. This void – a space of non-existence – is created when two planets are joined; they were separated to fill the void. That makes a lot of sense to me! Aside from that, the game takes it very seriously, even having a lengthy back-story about how four legendary warriors sealed this evil tree away forever. Don’t these people play RPGs? That never works out! Anyway, there are all sorts of goofy moments throughout the game, but they’re broken up by very serious ones, almost like a reverse comic relief. Would one call that tragic relief? It just doesn’t work that well; do you really expect me to gasp as the evil Exdeath has an “epic” battle against a turtle? It’s not a gigantic monster turtle, or a powerful magician disguised as a turtle, or even an anthropomorphic turtle; physically speaking it’s just a regular old turtle, like you’d see near a pond. For how seriously most Final Fantasy games take themselves, this is an incredible change in tone.
In the end, despite having a really silly story, it’s still a fun game. The battle system works, the class system is excellent, and the soundtrack is superb, though I might be a little biased, since my synaesthesia causes the third overworld theme to bathe the game in glorious sunset. There are few stunning environments, but the monster design is pretty cool. It all goes back to the whole story versus gameplay debate; I know this is an RPG, but Mega Man was a lot of fun without much of a story, so if the gameplay’s great, then does the story really need to be stellar? The reason that this game is still a masterpiece, despite its weak story, is that the gameplay wildly exceeds expectations. Aside from that, the game managed to do what no other class-based Final Fantasy had before: have adequate characterization. In fact, the only other Final Fantasy games before it that had characters that even had default names were 2 and 4, and those had no class system. In the others, personality was thrown completely out the window – especially in the first game – because the class was the personality; it was rare for the heroes to even talk. The characters on the Final Fantasy 3 remake for the Nintendo DS were not in the original game on the NES; they were just Squenix’s attempt to “update the game for a modern audience.” Bah. In Final Fantasy 5, Butz, Lenna, Faris, Galuf, and Cara/Krile/Kururu/Whatever didn’t have very deep personalities, but they were at least there; it was an important step. The developers saw the other class-based Final Fantasy games, noticed the non-existent characterization, and realized that it didn’t have to be that way. It’s a shame that they didn’t realize that it’s not necessary to sacrifice story for gameplay, but it is certainly a better choice than the other way around.
#21: Pokémon (First Generation)
Greatest Element: The Collection
Biggest Flaw: The Music
Right away, I know you want to laugh, but Pokémon was more than just a game; it was a phenomenon. Part of this was that it was marketing brilliance in its purest form. Think of some of your favorite cartoons for which you had toys back when you were little – which should be particularly easy if you were a child in the 1980s or later. How many different characters were there? Four of five? Ten to twenty? How about one hundred fifty-freaking-one? Granted, some characters – *AHEM* Pikachu – were marketed to death, while others didn’t receive much attention at all, but the potential was there. Because I was exposed to the marketing long before the game itself, I’d dismissed this as just another fad for kids, but my sister – six years my junior – picked up a copy of the Red Version. She’d never had the patience to play an RPG before, so she was hopelessly lost, and asked for me to help her out. Being very hardcore about RPGs at the time, I did, and then some more, and I was soon addicted; despite the hype and juvenile presentation, they’re very solid games.
There are a great many things that Pokémon did extremely well, especially considering its scope. Suikoden was impressive because it had one hundred eight main characters, but Pokémon had forty-three more than that, and each and every one of them was playable, not to mention that it was on a portable system. Well, technically, it was made for the Super Game Boy, but that’s neither here nor there. The elemental system had to be expanded, naturally, since there were so many creatures with strong elemental bases, and it was done well, with a great level of balance. Even with hacking, it’s impossible to have any one creature that can exploit every single monster’s weakness. Even just having images, data, and a unique noise for each monster to make is impressive from a technical standpoint, but there’s one thing above all else that fueled the insatiable blaze that was Pokémania: the thrill of the hunt. The tagline, “Gotta Catch ‘em All!” is the mantra of the series, and it perfectly captures the spirit of the games. They wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable without this spirit, because half of the fun of the games was going out to find that next elusive creature. While the earlier Megami Tensei games were the first to let you capture monsters and have them fight alongside of you, they didn’t encourage the collection aspect, as there was no real way to keep track of which monsters had joined your team until Nocturne on the Playstation 2. Collecting all of these little creatures, while tedious and frustrating at times, is what kept me playing back then, and what keeps me coming back to this day.
Pokémon‘s biggest criticism is that it’s very juvenile, and I can understand that completely. There really isn’t much to the story, the characters are fairly shallow, and many of the monsters – especially the most popular ones – are very cutesy. The biggest perpetuator of this notion, however, is the music. I actually played most of the game on mute because the music is downright juvenile. I grew up with the Sega Master System, which had a few kiddy tunes, but this was just ridiculous. I felt that the game could’ve been something I could be unashamed to play if only it would treat me a bit more like an adult. Sure, there were a few decent tunes – the battle music against the Elite Four was outstanding – but most of it was so aggressively childish that I couldn’t stand it. I’ve played through the Game Boy library; I know that the system is more than capable of producing some stellar music, so why this? Maybe to try to sugarcoat the whole “subjugating wild beasts (and plants) to fight to the death for you” thing, so that PETA wouldn’t notice.
Of course, it all boils down to the same thing; if you don’t like the music, then play the thing on mute. Play your own music if it drives you that nuts, though the likes of Slayer probably wouldn’t work here. Of course, the game could probably have other flaws and still be a masterpiece because of what it is: gamer meth, plain and simple. Every time I go back to it, I expect the effect to be diminished, and every time, I get sucked in all over again. I was in high school when it came out, too, so it’s not just childhood nostalgia calling me back – aside from that, I don’t usually let nostalgia cloud my judgment – they’re just really solid games. It might be a little embarrassing to some, but screw it; I like smooth jazz (thought that was just a one-time joke, didn’t you?), so I have no problem professing my love for the first generation Pokémon games.
#20: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
Greatest Element: The Various Locales
Biggest Flaw: The Amount of Content
While the first Paper Mario was beloved of millions and widely regarded as one of the best games on the N64, the sequel was released to little fanfare. Even though I’ve long been a fan of the original, I myself cared very little when The Thousand Year Door came out. Paper Mario was just such a perfect package, in which everything fell so wonderfully into place; I figured that it just had to be a fluke. Many years later, when I’d gotten a Wii, I started to explore the Game Cube library. Since most of the games for the system were relatively cheap and easy to find, I was able to grab a few classics – like Metroid Prime and Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker – for less than ten dollars. I was able to find Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door for very little, as well, and I figured I’d give it a shot. I popped it in, not expecting much, and what a pleasant surprise!
The beginning was typical enough; grassy plains, stone castles, hmm… this seems awfully familiar. Then, I finished the first chapter and entered Boggly Woods, and I was completely awestruck. The place was filled with an unearthly beauty that was somehow familiar at the same time. It may have been a distorted memory of something that really happened, or it might’ve been a dream I’d had a long time ago, but this dark autumn landscape was calling out to me. Not long after that was Twilight Trail, another dark, gorgeous landscape. Along my journey, I traveled to many other exotic locations such as a tropical island, a long stretch of railroad at different times of the day, and even a high-tech fortress on the moon. Maybe it’s my love of Final Fantasy 4 speaking, but I think going to the moon is one of the most romantic things a non-space-themed RPG can do. It all culminates in this elaborate palace deep below the planet’s surface, with elegant red carpet and glowing patterns all over the walls and ceilings. The game is incredibly visually appealing, at times even moreso than its predecessor.
The game’s biggest flaw is one I’ve already explained at length: it has too much content. The amount of different areas it has is fine, and it is sufficient in length, but there are just too many extras. There are too many extra badges, too many collectibles, and there’s just so much extra overall. The Trouble Center is completely unnecessary – not to mention that the worthwhile rewards are so few that they might as well be independent sidequests – and so was the Pit of 100 Trials. Why have a battle marathon with its only rewards being something you don’t need if you’re skilled enough to get through it without them. It’s the same problem with a lot of optional superbosses – who are stronger than the final boss of the game – that give powerful weapons as rewards: if you can beat them, then you don’t need what you get. Super Paper Mario had two Pits of 100 Trials, but since the game played more like a Platformer, they were action trials, rather than just a long string of static battles, so they were a bit more appropriate and a lot less boring. I liked the recipies, and how you have a visual menu to help you keep track of both them and the badges you’ve found, but there were so many additions in this game that I felt detracted from the experience, and I didn’t even mention the minigames or the lottery.
At the end of the day, it’s still a great experience, and once I get into it, I remember why I love it so much. It doesn’t take itself seriously, and the humor leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s just such a magnificent adventure. You travel to unique locations and unusual twists on familiar ones. The battles are far more interactive – for better or for worse – and your partners are all very interesting; they’re a nice blend of old and new. I’m particularly fond of Vivian, the Shadow Siren, but there are a lot of improvements on previous members, as are there completely unique ones. It might not live up to the legacy of its predecessor, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you enjoyed the first Paper Mario.
Greatest Element: The Visuals
Biggest Flaw: PSI Targeting
Earthbound was a very unique game when it came out in North America. Since we hadn’t gotten its predecessor, it was the only modern-day RPG we’d ever seen. Its often quirky sense of humor and unusual choices in enemies made it stand out, but it was all worked into the story very well, so it wasn’t just thrown in. Beyond any of that, though, the game had such a charming atmosphere that kept me coming back to it. It wasn’t terribly serious, but it wasn’t super cutesy, either; it just felt like home. In fact, my first time through, I was actually sad to leave Ness’s house, a feeling that only Chrono Trigger had been able to duplicate. After having finished it, and upon further reflection and playthroughs, I came to understand its layered presentation and appreciate how absolutely brilliant it is.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the game is its use of abstract visuals. Instead of a plain black background or representation of the surrounding area, it’s a crazy explosion of colors and shapes. The background varies depending upon which enemy you touched to initiate the encounter, and each contains several layers; they’re technical marvels in the same sense as Metal Storm‘s backgrounds were on the NES. The spells are also abstract representations of what they’re supposed to be. Thunder and Starstorm look a bit like lightning and crashing stars respectively, but everything else is just wavy lines and geometric shapes. It might sound unnecessarily bizarre, but it suits the combat backgrounds quite well. It all lends itself quite well to the surreal horror of being attacked by things that are normally fairly benign or even inanimate; the whole experience is like some sort of strange dream.
The biggest flaw is one that doesn’t affect me as much as it might affect someone else: the targeting on the PSI attacks. PSI acts as your magic in this game, and each family of attack spells has a different group that it targets. Fire attacks a single row, Freeze attacks a single enemy, Thunder attacks a single, randomly-chosen enemy a certain number of times (with very poor accuracy), and Starstorm and Ness’s Special attack all targets. It might not seem like a big deal, but when you want to attack a big group of enemies weak against ice or a single enemy that’s weak against fire, you’re out of luck. Things get even worse if your enemy is weak against lightning, since PSI/PK Thunder hits completely random targets, and misses most of the time; I never use them for this reason. Starstorm and Ness’s Special are the strongest spells in the game, so they’re best used against bosses – almost all of which are a single target – but they’re all-targeting, so there’s a lot of waste. Since I’m not a big magic user, it doesn’t affect me much, but it’s definitely a problem at times, one that remains unresolved in Mother 3.
The game is such a spectacle in so many ways that poor targeting with PSI doesn’t drag it down too much. The Dragon Warrior series is great, and attack magic is practically useless in all of its games. The story is very interesting in that, while it is a direct sequel, its connection to its predecessor is a bit tenuous. This might sound like a bad thing, but since said predecessor never left Japan – except as a prototype – the rest of the world could appreciate Earthbound as a self-contained experience, and a rather unique one at that. Even the guide book that came with it was immersive, in that it had fake tourist ads for the different towns you’d visit, not to mention a set of – useless to my nose – scratch-and-sniff cards with the weaknesses and attacks of the game’s major bosses on the back. It was an unforgettable adventure for those of us who experienced it back in the day, and still is to many who experience it for the first time even now.
#18: Mystic Ark
Greatest Element: Adventure Elements
Biggest Flaw: Mechanical Inconsistencies
Mystic Ark is often considered a spiritual sequel to The 7th Saga, due to its reuse of enemy sprites, similar-looking battles, method of enemy encounters, and the fact that the main character – should you choose a male – is named Remeer, which bears a striking similarity to Lemele, the king who began your quest in The 7th Saga. Of course, the similarities end there, and Brain Lord‘s main character is also named Remeer; I think that Produce just likes that name. At any rate, Mystic Ark eschews the typical long quest in a single world for seven self-contained stories in seven different worlds. One might think that this would build a shallow experience, but it all gradually builds up to the final conflict in a way that makes sense. It’s a game that – despite a small teaser in Nintendo Power – never left Japan.
There are a lot of great things about Mystic Ark, including the excellent soundtrack, which features a ton of different battle themes, all of which work well on different levels. What I thought made it most unique, though, was its use of Adventure elements. For the most part, it was structured like a typical RPG, but every now and again, you’d examine something and it would take you to a still screen with options, much like you might see in something like Shadowgate or Princess Tomato in Salad Kindgom. You’d have different options, and you’d sometimes have to use your items or Arks to interact in these scenes. It’s a very subtle touch, but as it did in Shadow of the Beast, it served to create a very unique and memorable experience. Sometimes, it would just be some sort of puzzle that flashed up on the screen; there’s a particular dungeon that has a lot of math puzzles. Combine that with the puzzles that are more typical in structure for an RPG, and you have a very immersive and satisfying game that challenges your mind more than most RPGs do. Since RPGs are supposed to be the thinking (wo)man’s game – and to be fair, they used to be – I find this to be a very welcome addition. If the battles aren’t going to be particularly difficult or engaging, then there should be some other manner of challenge of the mind awaiting the player.
Another cool element of the game is the Arks that you find. Each world has one of these Arks – mystical beings that enhance their surroundings – and they enhance different things in different ways. Some are to be used on the little figurines you carry in order to breathe life into your party members, while others can enhance your weapons or armor by causing them to deal extra damage or restore your Hit Points or Magic Points. The problem is that – though this mostly applies to weapons – the results are very inconsistent. It works with some weapons, but not others, and it won’t necessarily work with all weapons of a certain type. Weapons themselves have a similar problem; certain types work better with certain characters, but nothing is consistent. Let us take the katanas for example; the hero generally gets less attack power out of them than the maximum, but the Pirate Scimitar and Black Iron Scimitar give him or her full power. In contrast, Tokio – the ninja for whom they are made – gets full attack power from all of them except the Pirate Scimitar, though he gets full power from the Black Iron Scimitar; even the inconsistencies are inconsistent! The axes are even worse; the hero, Tokio, and Kamiwoo are to use them – Kamiwoo getting the most from them – but the Skull Axe can also be used by Miriene and Meisia with full effectiveness, and the Cutter can be used by absolutely no one but Reeshine, who is a martial artist, and thus cannot use any other axes. The armor’s all over the place, too. So, unless you have a lot of spare time to constantly revive and re-doll (it’s a verb if I say it is!) your party members to test out their effectiveness with each weapon – or read that one walkthrough by that neurotic chick (spoiler alert: it’s me!) – you’re never going to know to whom to give that new item. It’s okay; Mother will take care of you.
The flaws are annoying, yes, but with a little trial and error – whether it’s yours or mine – it’s a problem that’s easily solved. There are plenty of RPGs with cryptic elements (and walkthrough writers neurotic enough to figure them out and publish guides to explain them); it just makes the game seem a little sloppy in this case. It’s really a very minor speed bump for such a solid game. The soundtrack alone is worthy of praise, and nearly everything else about the game is outstanding. It is unfortunate that it never really made that big of a splash, even in the post SNES scene after its full translation. I theorize that this is because the game is not outstanding in any inherent way, but as a whole, and in a more subtle manner. Whatever the reason, I can at least find satisfaction in knowing about this hidden gem, and hopefully spread the word to others that they might find it as well.
#17: Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
Greatest Element: The Adventure
Biggest Flaw: The Minigames
I’ve already explained to you the hype surrounding this game when it first came out. I’ve also explained that it lived up to and even exceeded its hype, even though many of the preproduction screenshots never made it into the final game. What I’ve yet to address is the after-effect of Super Mario RPG. My mind started racing one night, “There should be a Zelda RPG, and a Kirby RPG, and oooooo a Mega Man RPG! Maybe there should even be a Sonic RPG or a Street Fighter RPG!” I was still young and stupid, but I couldn’t help imagining all of the possibilities of some of my favorite non-RPG games being made into RPGs. A few of those even managed to become RPGs at one point or another – with varying degrees of success – but with not only the concept of an Action hero from a video game crossing over to this genre, but also the success with which he did so, this game got me more excited for RPGs than I ever had been before.
The best part of Super Mario RPG wasn’t the revolutionary battle system, the great soundtrack, the implementation of action into an RPG, or even having Mario in an RPG; it was the adventure itself. It starts out in the Mushroom Kingdom, but the developers weren’t afraid to take it beyond that. Part of what makes Zelda 2: Adventure of Link among my favorite Zelda games is that it expands beyond the tiny borders of nearly every other game in the series, and it works well with Mario, too. You’ll visit so many wondrous places that bear some vague similarities to other things you’ve seen in Mario games before, but most of them are completely foreign. Super Mario RPG was a great adventure because it transcended what Mario was. There were so many exotic locales, many of which were unlike anything I’d ever seen before – and many of them since – in an RPG, and that made it such a memorable game. It’s one of those memorable games that I didn’t remember all that well after my first playthrough because there was just so much that was memorable that I couldn’t absorb it all. My favorite place is and always was Monstro Town, but after beating Smithy my first time, I barely remembered it because there was so much before and after it that just blew my mind, even though one of the optional bosses there was a very strong reference to Final Fantasy 4, my very favorite game at the time. It might not be anything special by today’s standards, but when it came out, there really wasn’t anything else like it; it was excellent in almost every single way, and – as I’ve been saying since the beginning of this series – that isn’t easy to do.
If Super Mario RPG has a flaw, though, it’s the minigames. Fortunately, a lot of them aren’t necessary for full completion, but a few of them are. Some just take some thought and careful timing, like the tadpole minigame, but many of them require precise Platforming skills. Well, duh; it’s a Mario game, but when the game has an isometric perspective, Platforming is tricky and unintuitive. You’ll encounter them all over, too, from the races on Yo’ster Island to hopping across Koopa Paratroopas at Land’s End. Perhaps the most irritating of these is having to get one hundred Super Jumps in a row in battle; the timing completely changes with absolutely no indication that it will do so at around seventeen, and you’re not even a quarter of the way at that point, so it is an exercise in frustration. I know that it’s an Action-RPG, and as such, lends itself more to minigames than a straight RPG, but with so many of them being frustrating messes that require absolute perfection, it sucks the fun out of what might otherwise be wonderful areas.
The minigames suck for sure, but the game is otherwise excellent. When I think about the game, they don’t usually jump immediately to mind, so they’re not as great a burden as they are in some RPGs. I still think it’s sad that the developers didn’t have enough confidence in the absolutely revolutionary gameplay that they thought they had to add in these distractions from it. The puzzles they added in were great – particularly those in the Sunken Ship – and most of the Platforming added an interesting twist to the usual RPG formula. For all it does right, I can’t help but forgive it for what it does wrong.
#16: Paper Mario
Greatest Element: The Package
Biggest Flaw: Inventory Size
Paper Mario is only a spiritual sequel to Super Mario RPG. It’s still an Action-RPG, it still stars Mario, and it still has a battle system that requires action-based input, but the similarities die there. While Super Mario RPG was a big deal because it was a 3D game when most games were only 2D, Paper Mario was one of the few games on the 3D-heavy N64 that featured 2D graphics; hence the name. It was kind of a tongue-in-cheek stab at the push toward 3D – which was strange, since Super Mario 64, another Mario adventure, was a very big deal because of what it did for 3D gaming – and it had a lot of gags about Mario being made of paper, from the way he flipped around to the way he’d sometimes float to the ground like a feather when he fell. Paper Mario held the spirit of its predecessor tightly and turned the rest of the formula on its head.
Unlike Super Mario RPG, which was structured like a typical RPG, Paper Mario was much more concise and deliberate. There were limited amounts of everything but consumable items, new weapons were just upgrades, and damage output – as well as HP levels – was very low and not randomized. Whereas dealing three hundred damage is pathetic at the end of the likes of Final Fantasy 6, dealing ten damage is a huge deal in Paper Mario. In fact, the final boss of the game has a whopping ninety-nine HP, and it will take you a long time to whittle that down, especially when he decides to heal himself for thirty of that. It’s a very neat thing, though; there is a lot less in the way of guesswork, defense is rarely an issue in calculation, and it is very easy to prepare for upcoming battles and dungeons. Defeating the next tough enemy could be an issue of grinding, or it could just be a matter of crunching the numbers. Everything’s succinct; the weapons are succinct, the accessories are succinct, the damage is succinct.
Unfortunately, your inventory is also quite succinct. You can carry a total of ten items, and can store up to thirty-two. When you have a ton of different recipes – many of which require two items to make – and have to carry healing items and sometimes key items that remain in your active inventory, it gets to be a bit much. Several times throughout the game I’ve managed to fill up my storage – which isn’t exactly convenient to reach – and that’s on multiple playthroughs. The problem is solved somewhat in the sequel, since you can get a key item that doubles your storage space, but that doesn’t help much here. Worse yet is when you go on a baking spree and have to continually go to this one little room in Shy Guy’s Toy Box and fight a Shy Guy for his Cake Mix; you can only carry so many, so you’ll need to make several trips. Considering the insane amount of Cake Mix you’re going to need to get all of the recipes, you’ll burn the image of that room into your brain, and maybe your TV as well.
Overall, it’s a burden, but one I’ll gladly endure, especially since not all of my runs are going to be full completion runs. The game is just so wonderful; it’s one of those things that’s popular because it’s actually good. There isn’t a whole lot of depth to it, but there doesn’t need to be; it’s just a whimsical little adventure, and that’s something it does extremely well. Not ever masterpiece has to have a life-changing story attached to it, especially if it works so well together. There is a very good reason that Paper Mario is the most beloved of the Mario RPGs: it’s a fun little adventure that anyone can enjoy.
#15: Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Greatest Element: The Theme
Biggest Flaw: Multiple Endings
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is the reason I got my Playstation 2. A long-time friend had me over to his place to show this game to me, and he described it as “Satanic Pokémon”. Being a pretty big fan of Pokémon and having hated the second generation, I was excited to get more of that addictive substance known as monster collection. I was more than impressed, and as soon as the games became available to me, I began hungrily devouring every morsel I could obtain, which isn’t much, since I don’t speak Japanese. I’ve long been a fan of world mythologies, and was very impressed not only to see that they’d really done their homework, but also that I learned quite a few things. The music, the monsters, the detailed elemental system; everything was just excellent, but nothing moreso than the creepy post-Apocalyptic world.
The game takes place in present-day Tokyo, and the first place you visit is a creepy abandoned medical center. You stand on the rooftop as you watch the world transform into a demon-infested wasteland, and that’s how the game begins. The buildings of the once thriving metropolis are completely empty, except for the occasional demon or ghost standing around. The music is great when it’s there, but you’ll often have just ambient sounds; normally that’s a lazy and uninspired thing to do, but it actually works here. The overworld is endless sand with spiraling patterns reminiscent of Zen gardens running through it. The sense of desolation is incredible, and it mirrors your own plight: you’re very much alone in this world to survive. The few humans that survived haven’t banded together, but rather have each gone on their own. Even if you decide to ally with one of them, they won’t help you out; at best, you won’t have to fight them at the end, but even that’s no guarantee. Even more than the hunt for new monsters, this pervasive theme kept me riveted.
Unfortunately, with the ability to choose your own path, you have your choice of six different endings. That might sound like a good thing, but when you have to play through such a long game with only subtle differences in each path to get each of them, it becomes a bit tedious. With some creative copying of save files at crucial points, you can cut that time down quite a bit, but get ready to buy another Memory Card, because this game only affords you five save slots for the six endings. You have a New Game Plus to save you the trouble of reacquiring all of the demons, but if you want them for your actual party, you’ll have to either fuse them again or pay a lot of money. If you did well enough on the Boss Rush in the optional dungeon, you might also get an extra press turn icon, but your protagonist also starts back at Level 1 all over again. The biggest kick in the face is that only maybe two of the endings are worth getting. The three main philosophies have lame endings in which you talk to the human who believed in said philosophy while a city builds in the background; aside from the text, the three endings are identical. So, unless you’re really a strong believer in any of the philosophies, those endings are going to be meaningless to you, so repeatedly going through all of this a total of six times really wasn’t worth it to me.
Of course, if you don’t really care about actually getting the other endings, you can just take whichever route you like best – I recommend the one that happens upon finishing the Amala Labyrinth – and watch the other endings on YouTube, so it’s not a huge flaw. Had I not been stuck with dial-up, I probably would’ve gone that route, especially since I didn’t like any of the philosophies, and got what I felt to be the most satisfying ending on my first playthrough. On the other hand, playing through the second time, I was able to fix a lot of mistakes that I’d made as far as learning techniques for my protagonist; I’d culled a few great skills that would’ve helped a lot during the battle with the final optional super boss. Of course, following these other paths, I didn’t get to fight said boss again, but it was a nice aspect to explore. Aside from that, the game is put together so incredibly well that I didn’t really mind all that much. By even the second playthrough, I was so good at the game that even The Trumpeter didn’t give me much trouble, despite having to fight him five more times. It’s a fantastic game, and it expands greatly upon the series’s old Law/Chaos/Neutral system by giving you more options than white, black, and gray. How would you rebuild the world, if given the choice?
#14: Legend of Dragoon
Greatest Element: Rose
Biggest Flaw: The Love Stories
Legend of Dragoon is the reason you’re reading this right now. I rediscovered this game in college, and was frustrated by the walkthroughs that were out for it, most of which I felt to be inadequate. So, instead of just complaining about it, I decided to write my own, which led to my writing more guides, top 10 lists, and other miscellanea. The top 10 lists eventually blossomed into meeting Mr. Jerebko, who spoke very kindly of a series of lists I’d written in his Top 10 Top 10 Lists list (take that, linguistics!). From there, we worked together to get a dedicated Top 10 board, and he eventually approached me to write for a brand new gaming website known as Gaming Symmetry. So yeah, the game is a pretty significant event in my life as a gamer, but it stands very well on its own merits.
The game did a lot of things very well, especially the battle system, which expanded upon that of Super Mario RPG. However, this was a serious game that used the formula; you weren’t attacking your enemies with turtle shells, frying pans, or a flying Mario, but rather with real weapons that have elaborate combo attacks. Best of all, though, isn’t the characters in general – a lot of them aren’t that special – but a single character: Rose. I’d never met anyone like Rose before in a video game; she’s a battle-hardened warrior who does a great job holding her own, and eventually winds up being the one to wield the legendary weapon, despite not being the protagonist. She’s a smart, cynical (sometimes to the point of breaking the fourth wall by subtly goofing on the game’s writers), no-nonsense kinda gal, and she doesn’t put up with the inane banter of brod00ds or the catcalls of sexist old men. In fact, she’s so confident in herself that she doesn’t enter the fighting tournament because she feels no need to prove herself, even though she could’ve stomped any of the entrants into the ground with her heel. She’s also one of only three healers in the game, and one of the two who isn’t completely useless in battle. She’s a good mother figure to Dart, even though she’s very hard on him, and she takes her immeasurable burdens in stride. All of this and she represents the elemental of darkness, which is not only rare, but also makes her look like a total badass. She’s easily among my favorite video game characters of all time.
While Rose herself has a well-developed love story, the rest of the love stories in the game are trash. Most of them are just shoehorned in, mainly for fanservice. I’ve seen a lot of people who really got behind one of Lloyd’s love interests, despite the fact that he shows no real interest in her. Yeah, he’s a hot guy, but fangirls and boys wanting him to hook up with someone doesn’t automatically make all of his love interests legitimate. Albert’s love interest is little more than a princess who may or may not have seen the world beyond the walls of her castle. Besides, she’s a princess and he’s a king, so she’s really little more than a peace offering. Albert’s very much a gentleman, and I’m sure he’ll treat her well, but it would be nice if she’d have been given a choice in the matter. Worst of all is the relationship between Dart and Shana. Dart sees her as a little sister, and there’s very little evidence to support the notion that she sees him as anything more than a big brother. Despite that, almost every character you meet – except Rose, who treats him like an adult by actually letting him make his own choices – has these little man-to-man talks with Dart, telling him, “You know, I don’t think Shana thinks of you as just a big brother.” Dart resists for a while, but eventually, the two of them hook up, and it’s strongly suggested that they get married in the ending. I guess they’re meant to be; Dart’s a total meathead and Shana has absolutely no personality whatsoever. The story itself is so interesting; I don’t know why all of these crappy love stories had to be thrown into it.
In the end, it’s still a great game, because so much else of it is marvelous. The battle system is engaging and keeps fights fun throughout the whole game (and subsequent playthroughs), the music – while a mixed bag – is very unique, and the old ruins you explore are colorful and alien. Aside from that, Rose is so awesome, that it makes one forget how lame some of the other characters are. Lavitz and Albert are good characters, Kongol is a very interesting look at English as a second language, and Miranda – while overly belligerent – is a fairly deep character once you get to know why she is the way that she is. Even Lloyd, the game’s main antagonist, is more than your typical “Mwahahahahaha! I’m going to destroy this planet for no apparent reason!” So, while many accuse this game of being a Final Fantasy 7 rip-off, it is most definitely its own unique game with better characterization than what you’ll see in its supposed source of inspiration.
#13: Final Fantasy 6
Greatest Element: The Characters
Biggest Flaw: The Title
Final Fantasy 6 stands right behind 7 in popularity, and it’s no big mystery. It was an incredibly deep and new experience at the time. Not many RPGs of the time tossed you into a world that is on the brink of a global war, and even fewer had you live through the destruction of that world. Throughout the first half of the game, you’re trying to stop the evil empire from obtaining the lost power of magic, which culminates in a climactic battle atop an island floating in the sky. You arrive just in time to save the day, but then the unthinkable happens: you fail. You completely and utterly fail to stop an earth-rending cataclysm from occurring and the bad guy – formerly a minor antagonist – achieves his goal. You’re left to try to get to the airship in a frail attempt to save yourselves, and as you descend, you’re treated to an image of the planet with explosions erupting all over it. And on that day, the world changed forever.
The impact of an entire planet getting reverse plastic surgery – releasing all sorts of horrific creatures in the process – would be great, but what makes it really hit home is the characters. The villain is as shallow as they come; he’s little more than a rip-off of Batman’s Joker – and scary to those who can’t see through his juvenile tantrums for much the same reason – but your team is comprised of many characters that make you care about them. When Celes awakens from a long coma, she’s all alone, aside from her adoptive grandfather. He becomes ill, and you have to feed him fish so that he survives; if you don’t he dies, and Celes hurls herself off of a cliff in an attempt to kill herself. In either case, she notices a bird with Locke’s bandanna, which gives her hope that she might find her friends. Since you’ve gotten to know and love these wonderful characters, you care about what has happened to them, too. When you meet up with them, you’ll find that most of them have given up and reverted to their old ways. Locke is trying to find a way to revive his dead girlfriend, Gau has gone feral again, Terra has given up on fighting and now spends her days caring for orphans, Strago has joined Kefka’s cult, and Cyan – whose wife and son were murdered by Kefka before it all hit the fan - now spends his days writing letters to a woman in the guise of her boyfriend, who – unbeknownst to her – has perished in the cataclysm. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see what some of your friends have been up to, but they eventually do find the drive to stand back up and fight for the future. Of course, right before you enter Kefka’s tower, it comes up again that Terra’s half-Esper. Since Espers are magical creatures, and destroying Kefka will remove magic from the world entirely, no one is entirely sure what’s going to happen to her, so it’s emotionally difficult to even save the world from utter disaster.
The most unfortunate thing about Final Fantasy 6 is its title; it’s not a Fantasy game at all. Sure, you have swords and sorcery, but the game’s style is most certainly Steampunk. It’s true that some of the elements from previous Final Fantasy games were carried over – as much as any of them have anything to do with each other – but so have other Squaresoft games. Final Fantasy Adventure also had some of the same elements, and it was not a Final Fantasy game at all; in Japan, it was known as Seiken Densetsu, and is the first game in the Mana series. Squaresoft also rebranded the SaGa games on the Game Boy as Final Fantasy Legend in order to make them sell in North America, but that’s not what’s happening here. Final Fantasy 6 was never a rebranded game from another series; its number was changed so that it would make sense outside of Japan, but it was always part of the Final Fantasy series. I know that Final Steampunk with Magical Elements sounds a bit awkward, but why not just come up with another name entirely? At this point, five other games had been released with a great deal of success; it’s clear at this point that there’s nothing final about them anymore, so why cling to the name long after it has lost all meaning? If Soul Blazer can do as well as it did – it had three sequels of sorts – just being a spin-off or spiritual sequel to Actraiser, then I think that Squaresoft of all companies could have pulled this off very easily, especially at that point in time. It’s a minor detail, but to the semantically aware – especially about a game that uses the phrase “semantic nonsense” – it’s bothersome, especially when it suggests that Squaresoft had so little confidence in such a solid product. It’s like the opposite of how it’s annoying that all throughout the God of War series, Sony keeps trying to beat you over the head with how impressive the game is.
Of course, any lover of butchered Shakespeare will tell you, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” so its flaw doesn’t really add up to much. Never before have I loved an emotional train wreck so deeply. From beginning to end, the game’s tone rarely ventures far from deep sadness. There are a few attempts at comic relief, but they’re very brief, and many of them are completely crushed under the heavy mood, particularly the scene between Cyan and the barmaid. The game isn’t afraid to be serious and remain that way; if it were, the whole experience would fall apart and become the thematic mess that many newer RPGs have become. Even the fairly ugly visuals have their place; the game wouldn’t work as well without them, and they’re working alongside of everything else to drag you down into the dumps. Everyone’s so concerned with everything being happy all of the time that it’s gotten to the point that any work in any medium is considered “mature” if a main character dies at any point. It’s not until something explores any sort of true sadness that the groundless nature of these claims is revealed.
12: Valkyrie Profile
Greatest Element: Lenneth
Biggest Flaw: Inability to Grind
Valkyrie Profile is a fairly depressing game as well. The world is about to end, and your task is to go to Midgard and watch people die tragic and grisly deaths so that you can recruit them to fight the battle that will end the world; such is Norse Mythology. The game does a pretty good job of letting you get to know each of the characters in the events leading up to their deaths, and their attributes – both positive and negative – are displayed in a menu, so that you can improve upon them by spending points in the appropriate categories. The journey itself isn’t terribly story-heavy, but giving personality to so many characters in a single cutscene each is fairly impressive. There’s one character in particular that stands out to me.
Lenneth Valkyrie, the gatherer of these doomed souls, has such a sad story. Her earthly incarnation was to be sold into slavery by her mother, but her childhood friend helped her to escape, only to wind up in a field of poisonous flowers, so she died in his arms. She now has absolutely no recollection of this because her memories were sealed away. So, for now, she’s a knight of justice, and a good one at that. She dutifully serves Odin without question, gathering the Einherjar for the final battle. She’s so noble that every time she bellows with righteous indignation at a villain, it sends shivers up and down my spine. She’s a true hero, but can you imagine having parts of your brain locked away? Can you imagine being unwittingly subjugated by a society that wishes only to use you, all the while never truly knowing who you are? I can, and let me tell you, what this woman endures is just ridiculous. It isn’t until the seal on her memories has been completely shattered that she even begins to feel anything, and rather than beginning a quest for revenge against those who had used her, the first thing that begins to flood her emotional capacities is compassion for the humans she’d taken so long to get to know. So, what happens next? Ragnarok occurs, but is halted, though it matters very little because she winds up inadvertently destroying Midgard and all life within it because some whiny little half-breed whose feelings were hurt egged her on until she couldn’t control herself. Her compassion is so deep, however, that she gains the power of creation and restores life to all, just before sticking it to Loki, who had caused her to enact all of the destruction. Even if the double Deus Ex Machina is a little silly, she is truly deserving of her new title of All-Mother.
The game’s biggest problem is that you’ll have limited resources. You get money from fighting enemies as usual, but once you clear out a dungeon, there will be no more enemy encounters. Since you can only perform so many actions per cycle, of which there are only eight, you will not be able to grind indefinitely until you’re in the postgame, at which point, it no longer matters, because what you can buy pales in comparison to what you’ll find in the Seraphic Gate. To those of us who insist upon having the absolute best equipment for absolutely every playable character, it is madness, but the problem goes deeper still. Do you upgrade your equipment now and risk not having enough money for the equipment you’ll need later, or do you just try to tough it out with weaker weapons, or even ones that can possibly break. It becomes a huge problem, especially since you will get a lot of characters over the game, and you might put a lot of time and effort into one, only to find a much better one right around the corner. Trial and error is one thing, but in such a linear game, you could really screw yourself over if you don’t know what you’re doing, and on your first time through, it is likely that you don’t.
The flaw certainly causes problems, but with such an incredible cast, a great interactive battle system, well-designed dungeons, and some truly magnificent battle themes, you’ll likely find a lot to love about the game. It’s so good that it wound up being the only reason that I played the sequel through to the end, despite not liking it much at all. There were many memorable characters that I grew either to love or to hate over the course of the game, but they were all very well developed. The major twists were intriguing because not only were they few in number, but from very early on, you realize that you’re not getting the whole picture. You’re pretty sure that there’s something that Odin and Freya don’t want you to know, but you’re not quite sure what it is. Since it’s lurking in the shadows from the beginning, it makes the twist perhaps less shocking, but far more meaningful than today’s “plot twist for the sake of a plot twist” formula; a good twist is one that gradually builds over time. So, while I had little to no interest in the game before I played it, it just goes to show that you can’t always judge a game by its title.
#11: Final Fantasy 9
Greatest Element: The Adventure
Biggest Flaw: The Pacing
People love to talk about how great Final Fantasy 7 is, but to me, 9 is the better game. The Materia system was neat and all, but learning a predetermined set from your equipment was fun, a took a lot less time, and was structured in a way that it couldn’t be exploited quite so easily, making the game actually challenging. While 9‘s soundtrack suffered from the same hit-or-miss problem, there were a lot more hits than misses, and nothing was entirely out of place. The story in 9 was a lot less poignant and allegorical, but the characters were much stronger, so they drove it along quite well. While a translation doesn’t really affect the quality of the original work, I’d also like to take this opportunity to say that you won’t find any lines like “This guy are sick,” and “GET WIN!!” in Final Fantasy 9. These, admittedly, are fairly minor points in its favor, though, because Final Fantasy 9‘s true level of quality comes from something that’s more than just the sum of its parts.
It was just such a grand adventure. The places you visited were diverse, unique, and absolutely beautiful. Not content to be just another Medieval Fantasy-themed RPG, you visit exotic locations like a giant tree surrounded by a sandstorm with a beautiful village at its zenith, ruins indicative of life on another planet, proof of the existence of that other planet when you actually go there, and a bizarre realm that’s a physical manifestation of the amalgamation of your party members’ memories. Even some of the regular old cities are intriguing; my personal favorite is Burmecia, a kingdom blanketed in eternal rains. As you travel along to these places, the mood will be perfectly set into place by the music playing through your speakers. You’ll be visiting continents that no one you’ve ever known has seen before, and you might be shocked to find that they are populated, though perhaps not very densely. This world has a lot of history, if you’re into that sort of thing, but it doesn’t get in the way if you’re not. The journey is an unforgettable one, and its backed up by some solid elements on all fronts.
The problem is that it sure takes its sweet time getting there. The beginning of the game – the vast majority of the first two and a half discs – will have you spending little time in the exotic locales in question. It’s mostly about a war between the kingdoms on one continent of a much larger world; how exciting. Imaginary political struggles are boring enough so as it is, but when it’s just about one country trying to take over the world for the sake of its own greed, its relevance lies back in the 1940s. The pacing is pretty bad early on, and you’ll spend an awful lot of time in Lindblum: the most boring town I’ve seen in any RPG. They try to spruce it up by having it in three sections, casting everything in a pale pink for some visual interest, but it’s a boring place. The music that plays there says, “Dum-da-dum; I’m loitering.” The other problem is that there’s a vast world to explore out there, but the game is so one-way until you get your first ship – about halfway into the third disc – that if you miss something, it’s going to be quite a while before you can go back to get it. Sure, there are plenty of plot twists along the way, but as I’ve said, plot twists don’t make a good story; it’s a fairly dull ride until the world really opens up to you.
Of course, this can’t hold it back for long, because once the world does open up, there’s so much that you want to do. There are places of which you’ve only caught glimpses, so you’ll want to see them more closely. There are places that you’ll want to revisit, either to find new things or check things you’d missed before. There are items you wish to synthesize, but couldn’t because you didn’t have the right items at the time. On top of all of that, there are places you haven’t even gotten near yet, so you’ll want to check them out, as well. Perhaps the slow pacing in the beginning was to allow these things to build up, so that you could have an immersive experience, exploring the world that has accrued so much intrigue over the game. I cannot say for certain, but what I do know is that this is far and away my favorite Final Fantasy on the Playstation, and it has some stiff competition!
#10: Skies of Arcadia
Greatest Element: Exploration
Biggest Flaw: Random Drops
Skies of Arcadia is really unlike anything else I’ve played. It’s an RPG, sure, but there is just so much innovation packed onto a single disc. There’s a solid elemental system, which you can easily utilize by changing your weapon’s elemental before each attack. Aside from just spells, there are special attacks for each character, which drain a bar that refills itself a certain amount every round. There are ship battles, in which you use the weapons on your airship to fight some other flying monstrosity, whether it be another ship or something too big for your weapons to do any more damage to it than throwing a box of toothpicks. There are two different factions of pirates: the Robin Hood type and the self-aggrandizing type. There’s one thing that’s a part of every RPG that most people don’t immediately think about, and Skies of Arcadia revolutionizes that as well.
It would be one thing to have a world set entirely in the skies to explore; that’s not something that you see very often. The only other example that comes to mind is Bahamut Lagoon, and you don’t really get to do much of any exploring, since it’s just one battle after another. No, Skies of Arcadia said, “Screw it; we’re going to put an emphasis on exploring.” You’re no longer just exploring to find treasure chests, dungeons, or towns; you’re searching the world over for all sorts of discoveries. The game actually rewards you for finding unusual things, like the Aurora, Sky Coral, or even discovering that (spoiler alert) the world is round. You have little creatures to find, bounties to hunt, and, of course, treasures to plunder. All of this increases your worldwide reputation, which gives you different titles. All of this put together makes a very unique experience, and a wonderful one at that; I really wish this game had as many imitators as some of the other greats in the genre.
The biggest drawback is the randomly dropped items. In the Metrovania games, you have this, too, but since the encounters aren’t random, you have absolute control over what you fight and what you avoid, so trying to get that elusive item is only a matter of finding the right enemy near the edge of a screen. In an RPG, the enemies are chosen for you. Now, for something you can get elsewhere, it’s fine, especially if the drop rate is reasonable. However, when you have unique items with one percent drop rates, things start to get a little hairy. Since every weapon in the game looks different, it’s logical that you’ll want to see them all, but I’ve spend several hours getting some of them, and when it’s all left to chance, you don’t know when it’s going to end, and that can be stressful.
When all is said and done, with such a rich new experience, a flaw like this barely makes a dent in its quality. Innovation doesn’t always mean quality, especially when there’s a lot of it. I haven’t liked a non-Platformer Kirby game since Block Ball, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. In this case, though, the innovations are not only all fantastic, most of them go together, so it’s like one big innovation. In a genre that is often accused – and rightfully so – of being stale, such a fresh experience is rare, especially from a gameplay perspective.
#9: Rogue Galaxy
Greatest Element: The Content
Biggest Flaw: The Story
Like Skies of Arcadia, Rogue Galaxy was an incredibly innovative game. It had a really neat spin on learning techniques; one that was exciting to uncover as you entered new areas and found new items to fill out the flow chart. There were minigames that utilized critical thought instead of twitch reflexes with crappy controls. There were even Platforming sections, which worked because the mechanics were incredibly well-crafted. Combat was smooth, real-time action, much like your typical Devil May Cry clone, subweapons and all. While the combos aren’t nearly as deep as something like that, the jumping mechanics were far better than you’d encounter in Devil May Cry; the game could’ve been a great 3D Platformer if it weren’t so busy being a stellar Action-RPG. It’s a far cry from the typical clunky Action-RPG that does the RPG part well enough, but sucks at the Action part; it’s one of the few competent fusions of the two genres I’ve encountered since I began gaming in 1987.
Rogue Galaxy has claimed more of my time than any other three RPGs put together. One could probably blow through it in a week or two, but doing so would leave the player relatively unimpressed. It’s one of those games that’s not worth playing unless you’re going for one hundred percent completion, because what makes it truly impressive is just how much there is to do, but how fun and manageable it all is. Aside from gathering items for the Revelation Flow chart to expand your own skillsets, you have weapons to get both for their own sake and for use in fusion to make new ones. Said fusion is particularly entertaining, since you feed them to this little purple frog, who pukes out something new. There are materials to grab for your factory, which makes items for sale in shops around the galaxy, and bugs to catch for the challenging, strategy-based Pokémon parody. You have certain amounts of each monster to kill and horrifyingly powerful monsters that act as bounties to hunt. All of this raises your ranking amongst others, though there are over one hundred of them. At certain rankings, you’ll be given a gift for your efforts. It is a bit like Skies of Arcadia, but the path diverges in certain areas, much like the Adventure Island and Wonder Boy series. In the end, I played the game for two to three hundred hours for total completion, and another hundred or so because I wanted to, and still wanted more and that is the mark of an excellent game.
The biggest problem with the game is its story. It’s very scant to begin with, and while the characters each have at least one interesting thing about them – some more interesting than others – they aren’t terribly deep. Some of them are cool – I really like Lilika – but they’re no rivals for the likes of Final Fantasy 6. Toward the end of the game, you start gathering physical manifestations of redemption for your characters to make a sword to save the universe. No, really. It’s actually quite laughable that the loading screen that you see when you first load your save file – the only loading screen you’re likely to see – summarizes what’s going on story-wise at the moment, as if there’s enough for you to forget. Granted, you can spend days upon days doing other stuff, but when you get back to the plot, it really doesn’t take much to remember what had happened previously.
The plot is weak, but that might just be one of the game’s strengths. If the plot is incredibly gripping, you don’t want to do as many side quests because you’re riveted to it, which causes them to pile up even worse than usual. You also don’t have to worry about forgetting what happened last time. The sheer amount of things to do can be a bit overwhelming at first, but if you establish a routine of what to do every time you enter a new area, it’s really not overwhelming at all. At no point will you feel rushed to finish the game, so it’s a nice, leisurely stroll. Even the post-game content is worthwhile, and you already know how I feel about that. If a game can pack this much side-content into a single disc and still make me want to play it, you know it’s doing something right!
Greatest Element: The Theme
Biggest Flaw: Insufficient Feedback
Mother is a game of which I was only subconsciously aware. I’d seen the article about Japan-only games in Nintendo Power that talked about it, but I forgot the name and most everything about it. Personally, I was a lot more interested in Mindseeker, a game that purportedly helps you develop your psychic abilities. Little did I know that Mother had psychic abilities of its own. It wasn’t until I’d rediscovered how excellent Earthbound is and gained access to the Internet, that I really got to know anything about this game in earnest. I started playing it because it was the precursor to what was my favorite game at the time – I was going through a rose-tinted glasses phase – and only continued because of that. It wasn’t until something clicked with one of my buried memories that I understood what made this game so special.
While I normally don’t like games that are realistic until the very end, at which point they go all surreal on me, it was wonderful in this particular game. I’ve already talked about how this game captures the spirit of the ’80s beyond what watching The Breakfast Club will tell you, so I’ll spare you the speech. I really was transported back to that night back in my old living room – with its orange shag carpet – watching Webster with my grandmother; it’s that powerful. It’s even more powerful when you enter Magicant, a beautiful pink wonderland in the clouds. At any rate, the fact that the alien abduction thing takes so long – until the last few rooms of the last area, in fact – to get off the ground (pardon the pun) allows one to absorb oneself in the atmosphere of the game. The sequel does a bit of the same, though it has a few extraterrestrial areas sprinkled throughout the game, like the base under Stonehenge. For something powerful enough to give me flashbacks – ones that help me recover my shattered memories – I’d say that’s completely worth it.
The PSI techniques are your spells for this game, putting a more modern spin on the old swords and sorcery theme. It boils down to little more than a rename of a familiar concept, but it’s a nice touch. What I don’t like about them is the way that they are learned. Unlike most RPGs in which you learn them at specific levels, these seem to happen almost completely at random. They do tend to happen within a specific range of levels, but they’re not very consistent at all. You also don’t get money directly after battle; each enemy is worth a certain amount of money, but it is deposited directly into your bank account by your father. If you call him or check an ATM, you can find out how much money you’ve earned, but when you’re out in the wilderness, you just have to guess. On top of that, it is a lot more difficult to figure out each enemy’s particular monetary value. I know this was a stylistic choice, and one designed to help make the experience more immersive, but as far as gameplay, it leaves a bit to be desired. When you first start an RPG, particularly an old one – your first goals are to gather enough money to buy the best equipment in the first town and to get your first healing spell. When you don’t know when the former has happened or the latter will happen, it makes the process a bit irritating.
These flaws aren’t enough to drag the game down, though, since they’re effectively quite minor. Once you get into the game itself, it just becomes something to which you become accustomed. They couldn’t be that bad because not only is this one of the most sought-after Japan-only RPGs on the NES, but the money system was continued into its sequel. People love a good twist on reality, and if you throw in aliens and debatable drug references, all the better! The final conflict gradually builds from scant details and exposes itself in a way that makes sense, but doesn’t reveal itself too early. It’s no wonder that this series has gained a very strong cult following over the years, and it all started with a group of psychic kids.
#7: Shin Megami Tensei 2
Greatest Element: The Story
Biggest Flaw: The Collection
I’ll confess; I’ve never finished the first Shin Megami Tensei, and I’ve never even played the first two Megami Tensei games on the NES. It doesn’t entirely matter for the sake of this game, because – as far as I can tell – all of the relevant information is divulged in the game’s introduction. Immediately following its predecessor, Shin Megami Tensei 2 takes place after nuclear weapons have converted Tokyo into a post-Apocalyptic warzone. To make matters worse, demons freely roam the city, and a new city, known as Tokyo Millennium, has been built on top of the original, leaving its less privileged residents to exist entirely without sunlight. To put it simply, it’s not safe to play outside anymore.
The story only gets more twisted from there. You have a moral choice system, which was pretty rare for a JRPG on the SNES. You can follow Law, as do the Messians, who live in Tokyo Millennium; they rule by logic and order, so they’re pretty big on control. You can also follow Chaos, as to the Gaians, who also live in Tokyo Millennium, but ally themselves with Luficer, who dwells in Makai, the demon world – or Hell, if you prefer; they prefer to let their emotions guide them. You could also tell both factions to sod off, allying yourself with the mutants who live in the Underworld (formerly Tokyo), and while that means that demons of all moral alignments will join you, both the Gaians and Messians are going to be gunning for you. I tried to follow Law, because I believe in order and logic as the best way to rule a society, but it soon becomes clear that it isn’t that simple. The Messians are full of corruption, much as has happened in our own world with all of the dictatorships that rose from what was supposed to be Communism. They created a three-dimensional virtual reality matrix into which they place the champions of the tournament held in the Valhalla sector; sound familiar? It’s really clever how a few horrible acts by the Messians made me want to side with the Gaians out of spite, and I think that this is intentional on the part of the developers to try to give each alignment credence to everyone. As you go, though, the tables begin to turn, and Lucifer gains the upper hand by destroying sections of Tokyo Millennium. Of course, he kills a lot of innocent people in the process, so he’s kind of a jerk, too. Throughout the game, as both opposing factions’ plans unravel, you get to see the good and the bad of each, and that makes it hard to choose. Even the mutants, while they don’t do anything outright destructive, are just looking out for themselves, relying on the ancient gods of Japan to save them; nobody really thinks about how the rest of the world has been affected. It’s a tough choice, because in the end, everyone just has their own agenda, and while there is a very real sense of right and wrong, both sides engage in both.
It would be quite unfair of me to list the biggest problem I had with the game, since it’s the first-person perspective, and that’s only because I always get lost due to my spatial reasoning being roughly that of a tree stump, so I’m going to disregard that for the sake of this entry. As I’ve mentioned, one of the most interesting features of the game is the ability to add the demons you battle into your party. You can convince them to join through conversation, or you can fuse them at Jakyo Manor. It seems like a much deeper method than the first generation of Pokémon – and in many ways it is – but it lacks the allure of Pokémon: the collection. You’ll find no storage for your creatures, beyond what you have in your arm terminal, which never exceeds twelve. Unlike in Nocturne, you cannot spend money to get back an old demon that you had, and in fact, there’s really no in-game way to keep track of how many creatures you’ve had. You can go through the trouble of fusing them all, sure, but you’ll have nothing to show for it. Your monsters don’t even level up, but remain at a predetermined level, so they never improve; they’re disposable monsters until you get your dream team. So, while I enjoyed the whole demon system, I found that there is no sense of accomplishment to be had from it, and that leaves a lot to be desired.
Of course, if you treat the game like just a regular RPG, then it’s no big deal. Just think of them as nameless mercenaries, and you still have a stellar RPG. The flaw isn’t really so much a drawback as an improvement that could have been made on a relatively prototypical system. Dragon Quest 5 and 6 came out within a few years of this game, and they didn’t have any sort of tracking system, either. It’s entirely probable that the developers had never considered the collection aspect of demon hunting, and if they had, Pokémon would likely have been much less of a success, since Shin Megami Tensei 2 boasts over two hundred fifty different monsters, as does its predecessor; that exceeds even Pokémon‘s second generation roster, and it doesn’t even count the human members of your party, and it came out almost two full years prior. It’s a shame that Pokémon got all of the credit for being the first to do this – because in North America, we had no way of knowing otherwise – because instead of this series being called “Satanic Pokémon”, Pokémon should really be called “Kiddy Megaten”.
#6: Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinestrals
Greatest Element: The Ending
Biggest Flaw: The Adventure
Lufia and the Fortress of Doom was a decent RPG. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but amongst so many great RPGs on the same system, it tends to get lost. It was incredibly bland for the most part, but the spells were different and the characters were bright and colorful in a way that I really liked. It’s fairly forgettable overall because one of the most notable things about the game is that it has a submarine, a rarity at the time. The only other thing that was really notable about it was the absolutely epic introduction, part of which you get to play. A massive island floats in the sky with a foreboding castle sitting atop it. A group of four warriors enter to defeat a group of powerful beings and save their world. In the process, two of the heroes – a married couple – are unable to escape, and die saving the world they love and the newborn son they barely knew. I used to start new characters all the time just to play through the introduction and stop; it still gives me chills to this day. When I found out that there was going to be a second game, and it was about how these heroes wound up on Doom Island, I was unbelievably stoked.
Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinestrals had almost everything going against it from its very inception. Lufia 2 was the sequel to this uninspired game, and it was a prequel based upon the aforementioned introduction, so you already know how the game is going to end before you even buy it. The game was magnificent, though, adding monsters of every elemental to help you out in battle; mind-blowing, brain-melting puzzles; and a musical score that is epic at times. It’s all great, but would you believe that the best part about the game is the ending? Even though you already know what’s going to happen, the characters are so incredibly well developed that it’s an unbelievably emotional event when it does. I began the game knowing that Maxim and Selan were going to die, and I was still heartbroken when it happened; I almost cried. Me. The nigh-emotionless, socially inept misanthrope who hasn’t cried in roughly two decades. What really got me was what happened after Selan died. In the introduction in the first Lufia, we never really got to see what happened to Maxim; it was just assumed that he died from the island crashing into the ocean below, but there’s a surprise sequence that just blasts all of your emotions and adrenaline simultaneously before he can finally rest, and it makes the ending that much more cathartic. You can have your Aeris and your Hinawa; I’ll stick with Maxim and Selan, an emotional death scene that’s actually handled properly.
Unfortunately, while the characters are very well developed, and the story itself is exactly what it needs to be – no more; no less – the adventure itself is rather underwhelming. The gameplay is awesome; you have monsters that grow as you feed them, some of the trickiest and most engaging puzzles in an RPG, and a magic targeting system that lets you pick as many targets as you want, rather than relegating you to the choices of single, group, or all. The problem is that most of the tasks you’re performing are incredibly mundane; aside from the occasional run-in with Idura or one of the Sinestrals, they’re just a long string of fetch quests. One kingdom has you go to a nearby tower to recover a mysterious gem that’s supposed to be at its zenith. You get there – bringing Hans, who is in love with the princess that ordered the quest – only to find that it’s just a green pebble. It’s very pretty, but it’s just a freaking pebble; nothing mystical about it. You get the impression that the princess had it planted there to test Hans, but when you return and she asks you if you found it, he says, “No, but I did find something you’d lost long ago,” so there goes that theory. I risked life and limb to get this stupid pebble, so that the two lovebirds could talk to each other, and the guy walks away saying he’s not ready! That’s okay; when I take over Doom Island and oust the Sinestrals, this kingdom will be the first target of its fearsome laser cannon.
Most of the Dragon Warrior series is also little more than a long string of fetch quests, so it’s not terribly uncommon. One could argue that it’s less appropriate here, since it is a more story-driven game, and I’m inclined to agree, but I can’t say I minded it that much. Even if the story is nothing special and the quests are often on the lame side, the characterization is nothing short of magnificent, and the dungeons to which those quests send you are filled with challenging puzzles and fantastic music. Honestly, how many RPGs have you played that made you get all emotional about the ending you knew was going to happen before you even popped the game into your system? That’s something that I feel is so masterful that it can make up for a multitude of flaws, of which the game has relatively few. It’s rare that a game – or any story, for that matter – can get me emotional, and to do it when I already know the outcome (I’ve probably logged more hours into that introduction than the game itself) is just incredible.
#5: Breath of Fire 3
Greatest Element: The Gene System
Biggest Flaw: Skill Acquisition
The Breath of Fire series was one with fairly humble beginnings. It was an RPG by Capcom, and since their biggest translation projects involved such lengthy dialogue as “_________ Man” and, “This story is happy end,” they decided to enlist the help of RPG mastodon, Squaresoft. It was a wise choice; anyone who has played the original version of Breath of Fire 2, which they translated themselves, will tell you that. They finally got it right with Breath of Fire 3, and it was magnificent. Gone were the interactive abilities used to get around the world map – though they were used in dungeons – but with such a big, beautiful adventure as this, they weren’t needed; the world was massive enough as it was. There were some fairly big departures from the rest of the series in this installment, most of which were part of the process of bringing the series into the third dimension, which it did incredibly well.
The biggest departure was how the protagonist’s dragon forms worked. In the first game, you cast a spell to transform, and another to revert if – for some reason – you wish to become human again. The second game had you waste the entirety of your MP to perform a single dragon attack, the damage of which was determined by how much MP you had left; it sucked because there were very few MP restoring items, so they were essentially one shot attacks that screwed you out of one of your healers until you reach the next inn. Breath of Fire 3 decided to return to the first game’s idea, but with a twist: instead of having predetermined forms, you’d use one to three genes, which you often find, but sometimes acquire automatically. Each gene does something a little different, and certain combinations give different overall forms. There are elemental genes, stat-enhancing genes, and form-changing genes, almost all of which affect which techniques you will get in your dragon form. It’s a lot of fun to play around with them, and you can save your favorite combinations for easy reproduction. Some forms – like Agni in the first game – pull your entire party into the transformation, and while that limits you to one attack per round, it protects them as long as the form holds. Instead of wasting all of your MP or having a one-time cost, you have a startup cost and a maintenance cost. Your startup cost is determined by which genes you use and your maintenance cost is half of that, and is taken from your MP every round. If you have insufficient MP, you will revert to your human form, so you have to conserve your MP, meaning that you can’t just pick Myrmidon and spam Aura over and over again until the battle ends. It’s the best implementation in the entire series because it’s so engaging; it’s like a little puzzle, and I’ve never seen anything else quite like it.
While getting different dragon forms is one of the best parts of the game, acquiring the other skills you can get is another matter. You get them from masters, which are new in this game. They toyed with the idea a little bit in the second game with the Wildcats teaching you ChopChop, but here, you have to perform a certain task to study under a particular master. That master will affect how your stats grow when you level up under him or her and if you gain a certain number of levels, you will learn a skill. For example, Mygas requires you to give him all of the money you currently have, and studying under him, your MP and intelligence will grow more, but your power and defense will grow less. After gaining one level under his tutelage, you will learn Frost; Meditation comes after four levels, Magic Ball after six, and Typhoon after eight. Now, you can only learn each of these skills once; if you want to give them to someone else, you have to write them in your notebook and have another character pick it out; only one character can have each skill at a time, and it requires Skill Ink to do this. The problem is that the higher your levels get, the more difficult it becomes to learn these skills, and if you’re maxed out, then you’re stuck. This is fixed in Breath of Fire 4 in which masters teach you skills when you perform certain tasks, rather than after a set number of levels, although the Skill Ink problem remains, despite being renamed Aurum. You can also learn skills from enemies, but you have to choose to watch them in battle, hoping that they will use said attack, and unless you have a list of them, you don’t know which can be learned and which cannot. It’s an ill-conceived system, and makes skill acquisition a chore.
To be honest, there is a lot of bloat among the skills, so I was able to comfortably skip a lot of them. Some of them are powerful spells, but since I’m not much of a magic user, I didn’t really worry about them, either. Aside from that, your main character can turn himself into an elemental killing machine at will, so it was rare that I felt myself lacking without them. I have had playthroughs in which I took it upon myself to acquire every skill, but it’s really not a major obstacle if you’d rather avoid the hassle. The gene system is really so engaging that it could’ve taken everything back to the original Dragon Warrior and this would still have been a very exciting game. They didn’t, though; the story, its moral, the characters, the visuals, the music, and the sheer scope of the adventure are all just magnificent, certainly greater than can be counteracted by a flaw with such a small impact on the whole experience.
#4: Rudra no Hihou
Greatest Element: The Story
Biggest Flaw: The Linearity
This game never made it to North America, but is very well known and well regarded within the Japan-only RPG circle. It’s extremely impressive from a translation standpoint, because the magic is made up of little syllables that come together to make spells. To convert that between languages is one thing, but when the alphabets are different both visually and in structure – the Japanese alphabet isn’t letters so much as syllables – to still get it to work is incredible to me both as a linguist and a programmer. The game doesn’t stop with just this gimmick, which is a lot deeper than one might expect; it goes all out with visuals, story, music, and it’s actually challenging to boot! Until you figure out a solid strategy, the bosses are going to eviscerate you and use your hair like a mop to clean up the mess; it can be pretty brutal if you’re not prepared. The game is anything but just a one-trick pony.
The story is magnificent, poignant, and incredibly deep on its own, but what makes it even better is the way that it is told. You have a quick introduction upon beginning the game, and after that, a message comes up that tells you that you have exactly sixteen days until the world ends. You don’t know how or why, just go fix it; no pressure or anything. From there, you follow the quests of the Jadebearers; four chosen individuals who have the legendary jades shoved into their heads, who are supposedly the world’s saviors. Three of the four have their own scenarios, and you follow their quests through the next fifteen days. During each quest, their paths cross in two different ways. One is the obvious: two of the parties meet each other face to face. The other is a bit more subtle: things that one party does will affect the others, and if you haven’t played that scenario, you don’t entirely know what’s going on. There are a lot of moments where you realize what happened on certain days, because you are now the one performing the action. It’s very clever, because it tells the same story three times, but makes it fresh and interesting enough that not only does it seem very different, it also sticks in your memory better because everything is connected. The true nature of the world’s destruction is gradually revealed to the jadebearers, and in the end, they all unite to stop the menace once and for all, and the motive behind this cycle of destruction and rebirth is so brilliantly crafted that I found the position of the antagonist to be completely justified, and that almost never happens.
The biggest problem is the linearity. Now, were this game non-linear, it would be a catastrophic failure because it wouldn’t work at all with the story and how it is told. You’re not just moving through the world, you’re also moving through time, so a one-way trip is the only way to do it. However, depending upon the choices you make, different parties will wind up with different legendary weapons by the end of their respective scenarios. Say, for example, that Surlent’s party gets the Apocalypse Blade. Surlent is no swordsman, so you’ll likely equip it on Sork, who is the party powerhouse. Once that scenario ends, you don’t get the chance to remove it from Sork before he’s ousted from your party – as are all of the other members – so that the Jadebearers can convene, meaning that you’ve permanently lost a very powerful weapon. Had Sion wound up with the blade, you’d still have it for the final scenario, but you have no way of knowing that ahead of time, and this is only one of many opportunities you have to screw yourself out of powerful weapons. Add to that that certain tasks can only be completed on certain days – and therefore with certain characters – and you have a lot of things that can be missed forever.
If you don’t want to take a risk like that, then you’d be using a walkthrough anyway, so it’s not a huge deal. This game is easily among the best that Squaresoft ever made, and something like that isn’t going to weigh it down. This isn’t some interactive storybook that’s going to hold your hand just so you can see what happens next; this is a complex and challenging game that requires critical thought to win and an open and educated mind to appreciate in terms of story, and it’s not often one encounters that. This is most definitely a game for adults, and – dare I say it? – a work of art; I’d put it on par with Psychonauts in that regard. If you’re on the fence in that debate, I’d strongly recommend that you brush up on your knowledge of the old Vedic tradition – because I’m sure you learned about it at some point, right? – and get your hands on a copy of this game.
#3: Lennus 2: Fuuin no Shito
Greatest Element: The World
Biggest Flaw: Gloucester
I’ve been horribly wrong about games before. The first time I played Bionic Commando on the NES, I was excited, but wound up hating it. “A Platformer in which you can’t jump? That’s stupid!” Well, I heard this awesome music in I Wanna be the Guy, which sounded very much like a Mega Man game on the NES. Of course, were it actually from a Mega Man game, I’d have recognized it, so I surmised that it was from Bionic Commando and gave it another shot. I absolutely loved it, and I had a similar process with Lennus 2. I walked outside, got into a fight, didn’t understand the gauges on the side of the screen – still don’t – and was immediately slaughtered. I hadn’t taken any companions because I didn’t know what any of the spells did, due to the weird names. The second time, I read up on the magic and the companions themselves, and it wound up being one of my favorite games ever. It was deeper, the magical aspect was more strategic, and the number of races was expanded immensely, not to mention that the music took the excellence of its predecessor to a new level.
I’d thought the world of Paladin’s Quest – the game’s predecessor – to be very alien, but this game is even more unusual. As it turns out, you’re in the underworld of a different planet, this one known as Eltz. The art style was similar, but not the same by any means. The plants, mountains, and even the ground are still very strange, but not identical to those in the previous game; unique, yet familiar. Another familiar feature in the game is that most of the land is concentrated in one half of the globe, leaving the other half little more than a vast expanse of ocean. You notice this even more when you actually travel to Lennus – it is the name of the series, after all – but you don’t necessarily think much of it. It isn’t until the game pulls a Final Fantasy 5 and slams both worlds together that you begin to understand. It makes one wonder if this was intended from the very beginning of the first game. Now that both worlds are together, you have an interesting dichotomy between the geography and plant life of the two. The neat thing is that while they’re different – likely from centuries of evolution – they don’t clash with each other; they look like they fit together. We don’t have just a few kinds of trees here on Earth, and so they make sense together, and it looks very unique for an RPG, especially one of this era.
The game’s a fantastic adventure with good pacing that’s very consistent with the first game. There’s a nice constant balance between grinding and dungeon crawling – barring the obligatory long grind at the beginning – and then you hit Gloucester. Gloucester is this gigantic town with tons of shops, recruits (six of them for your party of four!), and anything else you can imagine. It’s so big, that it is broken into several different districts, each worthy of being its own town. Think of it on the scale of Rimuldar from Dragon Warrior, except that the game’s inventory is on a much larger scale, so you’re not just buying two or three pieces of equipment. Unlike in the previous game, your mercenaries can change their equipment, so you’re not just buying for yourself, either. Add to that that a lot of the equipment – particularly the stuff for female characters – is wildly expensive, and you have a big roadblock. It is horribly impractical to grind until you have all of the best of everything for your entire party, but it begs the question of when to move on.
This is the only big stumbling block in the game – aside from some legitimately challenging bosses – so it’s not really so bad. If you decide to take Nikita, the ass-kicking stripper (and you should), you’ll find someone comparable to the Black Belts in Final Fantasy; she’s very low maintenance as far as equipment is concerned. In fact, if you buy her the Fist of Fury, you’ll have a fairly strong weapon that hits three to five times per round, and you’ll never have to buy her another weapon for the rest of the game. It’s too incredible a journey to let one pacing problem ruin it entirely; you just have to take a little leap of faith, and if the next dungeon’s a bit too much for you, then you’re not done grinding just yet. In that way, it plays out a bit like the RPGs of old; a classic experience that was beginning to give way at this point in time.
#2: Final Fantasy 4
Greatest Element: Cecil Harvey
Biggest Flaw: Random Drops
Final Fantasy 4 isn’t the first video game I ever played. It’s not the first RPG I ever played, nor is it the first Final Fantasy I ever played; I’ve been around since the genesis of RPGs on consoles, and I’ve been playing them for just about as long. There’s a chance that it wasn’t even the first RPG I ever beat, but it’s the first RPG I remember beating, made no less memorable by the fact that I’d already seen my grandfather play through the whole game from start to finish. That day – I don’t remember what time it was – in my basement when I finally toppled Zeromus, it was a major event in my life as a gamer; in that moment, nothing else mattered because I had just conquered my favorite game. I had brought my hero, Cecil Harvey, to the end of his journey, and watched with starry eyes as an ending I’d already seen played out before me. I probably would’ve been even more emotional if I’d been mature and experienced enough to realize that my hero and I weren’t much different.
Cecil is a man of honor, as he has always been. He was taken in by the king of Baron as an orphan and raised as a son. For many years, he served his king with unequivocal loyalty, even after the king had become a corrupt, power-hungry tyrant. Of course, that king was an impostor, but nobody knew it at the time. At any rate, Cecil knew not whether to choose between loyalty or integrity, but the important thing to know about him is that he was being manipulated. I’ll not get into the parallels to my own life, but I have a similar past, though my controller came from within. It’s not just that I can relate that makes me deeply appreciate his character, though; he really does have a depth to both his character and his conflict that you just don’t see much anymore. You either have the plucky young hero determined to save the world with love and friendship and has never done anything wrong, or the selfish anti-hero coincidentally saving the world for his or her own sake. While these are different from the heroes of yore, that doesn’t make them better; they’re still shallow archetypes that lack any sort of intrigue. Today’s protagonists – I hesitate to call them heroes – just go through life, living in the moment and that’s all there is to their interaction with the plot; they rarely have to live with their pasts, unless it’s playing the old “My parents died before the events of the game” card. Even then, it’s little more than mommy/daddy issues, and while that might appeal to the target audience, it doesn’t explore any deep issues, nor does it tread any new ground. Cecil is a walking internal conflict, and while there’s a “happy ending”, he will never absolve himself of the deeds he has committed, and his having to live with them forever makes them all the more palpable, and that is how you write a tragic character.
The biggest problem in this game is that so many vital pieces of equipment are random drops from enemies. As I’ve mentioned, RPGs with random encounters decide which enemies you fight, so farming items isn’t always so easy. In this particular game, the drop rates are so low that acquiring these items is ridiculous. In fact, I’ve played through this game many times – as you might’ve guessed – and it wasn’t until I gained access to the Internet that I even knew these things existed. It wouldn’t be so bad were it one or two items, but aside from shields and weapons for Cecil, Kain, and Edge, every one of the best pieces of equipment in the entire game for your final party is dropped randomly by an enemy. You’ll need the weapons for Rosa and Rydia – that’s three weapons, because you need the bow and arrows (though, admittedly, the best arrows can also be stolen) for Rosa – and armor, helmets, and rings for each of your five members. The Adamant Armor in particular is ridiculous, because you acquire it by trading a Pink Tail to the man in the Silver Mine. In order to get one of these, you have to have a Pink Puff drop it, and they only appear in one small room with a one in sixty-four chance. They also have a one in sixty-four chance of dropping it, so your chances are one in four thousand ninety-six, or less than two and a half hundredths of a percent, if you prefer. You will need five of these to outfit your party, so do the math on that. Granted, the Adamant Armor is an entirely game breaking piece of equipment, but perhaps it would be better if it didn’t exist at all. Ultimate weapons and armor should be found or earned; not just dropped randomly.
As much as it irritated me to have to deal with this and that they brought it over to the also brilliant sequel, The After Years, it’s still an excellent game. The Active-Time Battle system was new and still holds up today, the characters have an interesting visual design that breaks free from the old archetypes of the NES titles, and the soundtrack – and even the sound effects – are about as close to perfection as they could be. I’ve never had sound effects blow me away in an RPG – it’s rare that they do that in any video game – but these were just head-and-shoulders above the rest. I won’t say that the sequel is as good as the original, but it’s a masterpiece in its own right and a worthy successor, and I’m very hard to please when it comes to the continuation of one of my favorite games of all time. It’s clear that, despite its faults, Final Fantasy 4 was carefully and lovingly crafted; it’s a bit of a shame that it doesn’t get more recognition than it does, but I have no qualms with loving something that’s less popular than its peers.
Greatest Element: Diversity in Gameplay
Biggest Flaw: Cryptic Secrets
When I played Secret of Evermore all those years ago, I thought to myself, “This is pretty cool, but what if they made a game just like this, but with more eras in history? They could have melee weapons, projectile weapons, and ‘magic’ weapons in each era.” Little did I know that while the game wasn’t the same in structure or genre, such a game did exist in Japan. Live-A-Live, by contrast, is an RPG – rather than an Action-Adventure with RPG elements – but it has twice the amount of historical eras in addition to a final chapter that draws everything together. I’ve already mentioned that it has what is quite possibly the boldest plot twist in storytelling history – with a possible set of unhappy endings – and while that has an incredible impact, and it’s the main thing I mention when I talk about how great this game is, plot twists are essentially one-offs. The soundtrack is great, but you can have that separate from the game itself, and while some of the areas are cool to see, you can view them elsewhere on the Internet. What truly gives an excellent game its staying power is something that is inextricable from the experience you get by sitting down and playing it: the gameplay.
There’s so much diversity in the gameplay in Live-A-Live from chapter to chapter. In the Prehistoric Chapter, you can sniff out enemies, items, and plot points. The Bakumatsu Chapter gives you the ability to conceal yourself, which allows you to learn valuable informantion, and conceivably even do a stealth run in which you kill no humans. The Western Chapter has you searching the town for various items with which you make traps to lower the number of enemies in what is one of only three battles in the entire chapter. In the Near Future Chapter, you can read people’s minds, allowing you to learn things that would have otherwise been hidden from you. Sometimes, even when the gameplay doesn’t have a specific gimmick, it takes an interesting turn in other ways, like the training segments in the Kung Fu Chapter, the enemy selection screen in the Present Chapter that bears more than just a slight resemblance to the likes of Street Fighter 2, the item synthesis in the Near Future, and even how the Science Fiction Chapter plays out an awful lot like a Survival Horror game; there aren’t even any encounters other than the final boss, unless you count the optional Captain Square arcade game. There’s more than enough to keep the typical RPG experience interesting until the Medieval Chapter, but its soporific beginning is what makes the plot twist such a jolt, so I believe that to be intentional. The neat thing about it is that the Final Chapter takes many of the gimmicks you’ve experienced throughout the chapters and utilizes them in the characters’ individual dungeons. Even the battle system is unique, playing like some sort of bizarre Real-Time SRPG hybrid, and it works! I’m terrible at Strategy games of any kind, and even I like it. So while I think the story is absolutely magnificent, I’d recommend Live-A-Live for those seeking a unique gameplay experience as well.
Unfortunately, part of the diversity also involves some insanely cryptic hidden items. In the Prehistoric Chapter, there’s a very suspicious looking rock, but you’d never guess its purpose. You have to check it one hundred times in a row, which causes it to open a door off-screen, which leads to an accessory you wouldn’t get otherwise. There is no indication of this anywhere – in fact, you’ll find almost no text at all in the chapter – and if you check it one hundred one times, the door closes again. There’s also an optional boss in the same chapter who’s difficult to find, even with the power of smell, which evidently is very useful; I wouldn’t know, having been born without such a sense. The Bakumatsu Chapter has a powerful sword that’s hidden in a hallway that requires you to walk a specific number of paces back and forth in a hallway until it changes and allows you entrance to a hidden chamber, again with no indication of this whatsoever. The item synthesis in the Near Future Chapter can be equally obtuse. Sometimes, something that’s readily apparent doesn’t manifest itself until much later in the game. During the training sessions in the Kung Fu Chapter, the master imparts his techniques by hitting his disciples with them repeatedly. While it makes no sense at the time to learn any but the most powerful, you realize the folly of this when you reach the Final Chapter, because the Kung Fu hero’s dungeon requires the use of different moves that you can only learn from the master to break down the walls that bar your path; you won’t make it all the way in without a good number of them.
These instances are few and far between, and all resolved by checking a guide. The game is my favorite for a reason; when you’ve beaten over a thousand games, it takes something very special to be your absolute favorite. It had so many great things about it, but it’s so much more than just that; it fulfilled several dreams of mine. Not only did I get my epoch-hopping masterpiece, but I also got the ability to play as magic-users with no limit to their powers. So many characters have such impressive abilities, and all at no cost to use them, whether they be causing an avalanche or raining lasers from the sky with a sword. Beyond even that, the game brought me things that I’d never thought possible, because I’d never even considered them.
So, what is a masterpiece, exactly? The use of the word, masterpiece, is like use of the word, epic, and the word, love; while it gets thrown around as often as if it were a pronoun, correct use of the word is rare to the semantically conscious of us. Many games are good or fun, but a game that is great demands a timeless quality, and requires some depth in one way or another; a great game ages well. A game that is great is one that does a lot of things right, but an excellent game is one that does just that: it excels, it exceeds expectations, and it does things you’d never even thought possible. It fulfils gamers’ fantasies and it makes them want to play it over and over again, not because they feel obligated to see multiple endings or perform other tasks only possible through multiple playthroughs, but because they want to, and that, my dear readers is what defines a masterpiece.
I hope that this series has been enlightening both in terms of bringing wonderful new RPGs to your attention, and in giving you a bit of perspective into what makes an RPG work and what doesn’t. Personally, I’ve learned a lot about my own thoughts and feelings and why my opinions are what they are through writing this. Of course, as specified in its introduction, this series has been relegated to JRPGs, a small slice of the incredibly diverse RPG pie. Perhaps some other subgenres will be analyzed to such an extent by someone else. I’d certainly be interested in reading such a thing, and even writing it were I not so horribly unqualified. I hope that perhaps this has even been inspiring to you, either to write your own analyses of RPG subgenres or even to pick apart my own analysis or add examples and points of your own.
Alice Kojiro’s Top 23 RPG Masterpieces:
23) Dragon Warrior 4
22) Final Fantasy 5
21) Pokémon: First Generation
20) Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
18) Mystic Ark
17) Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
16) Paper Mario
15) Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
14) Legend of Dragoon
13) Final Fantasy 6
12) Valkyrie Profile
11) Final Fantasy 9
10) Skies of Arcadia
9) Rogue Galaxy
7) Shin Megami Tensei 2
6) Lufia 2
5) Breath of Fire 3
4) Rudra no Hihou
3) Lennus 2
2) Final Fantasy 4
Format: Game Title (Alternate title: Region). Developer, Original system of release, Original Release Date.
7th Saga (Elnard; Japan). Produce, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/23/1993.
Adventure Island (Takahashi Meijin no Bouken Jima; Japan, Adventure Island Classic; PAL) Hudson/West One, Nintendo Entertainment System, 09/12/1986.
Bahamut Lagoon. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 02/09/1996.
Bionic Commando (Hitler no Fukkatsu: Top Secret; Japan). Capcom, Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/20/1988.
Brain Lord. Produce, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 01/28/1994.
Breath of Fire 2 (Breath of Fire 2: Shimei no Ko; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/2/1994.
Breath of Fire 3. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 09/11/1997.
Breath of Fire 4. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 04/27/2000.
Chrono Trigger. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 03/11/1995.
Devil May Cry. Capcom, Sony Playstation 2, 08/23/2001.
Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest; Japan). ChunSoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 05/27/1986.
Dragon Warrior 4 (Dragon Quest 4: Michibikareshi Monotachi). ChunSoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 02/11/1990.
Dragon Quest 5: Tenkuu no Hanayome. ChunSoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 09/27/1992.
Dragon Quest 6: Maboroshi no Daichi. Heart Beat, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/9/1995.
Final Fantasy. Squaresoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/18/1987.
Final Fantasy 2. Squaresoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/17/1988.
Final Fantasy 3. Squaresoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/27/1990.
Final Fantasy 3. Matrix Software, Nintendo DS, 08/24/2006.
Final Fantasy 4. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/19/1991.
Final Fantasy 4: The After Years (Final Fantasy 4: The After Years: Tsuki no Kikan; Japan). Square-Enix, NTT Docomo FOMA 903i Mobile Phone, 02/18/2008-12/24/2008.
Final Fantasy 5. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/06/1992.
Final Fantasy 6. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/02/1994.
Final Fantasy 7. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 01/31/1997.
Final Fantasy 9. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 07/07/2000.
Final Fantasy Adventure (Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden; Japan, Mystic Quest; PAL). Squaresoft, Nintendo Game Boy, 06/28/1991.
Final Fantasy Anthology. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 09/30/1999.
Final Fantasy Legend (Makai Toushi SaGa; Japan). Squaresoft, Nintendo Game Boy, 12/15/1989.
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (Final Fantasy USA; Japan). Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 10/05/1992.
God of War. SCE Santa Monica, Sony Playstation 2, 03/22/2005.
I Wanna be the Guy: The Movie: The Game. Michael O’Reilly, PC, 10/2007.
Kirby’s Block Ball (Kirby no Block Ball; Japan). Hal Laboratories, Nintendo Game Boy, 1995.
Legend of Dragoon. SCEI, Sony Playstation, 12/02/1999.
Zelda 2: Adventure of Link (The Legend of Zelda 2: Link no Bouken; Japan). Nintendo, Nintendo Entertainment System, 01/14/1987.
Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Zelda no Densetsu: Kaze no Takuto; Japan). Nintendo, Nintendo Game Cube, 12/13/2002.
Paladin’s Quest (Lennus: Kodai Kikai no Kioku; Japan). Copya Systems, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 11/13/1992.
Lennus 2: Fuuin no Shito. Copya Systems, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/26/1996.
Live-A-Live. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 09/02/1994.
Lufia (Estpolis Denki; Japan). Neverland, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 06/25/1993.
Lufia 2 (Estpolis Denki 2; Japan). Neverland, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 02/24/1995.
Metal Storm (Juuryoku Soukou Metal Storm; Japan). Tamtex, Nintendo Entertainment System, 02/1991.
Metroid Prime. Retro Studios, Nintendo Game Cube, 11/17/2002.
Mindseeker. Namco, Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/18/1989.
Mother (Earthbound Zero; North America [Prototype]). Pax Softonica, Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/27/1989.
Earthbound. (Mother 2: Gyiyg no Gyakushuu; Japan). Ape Studios, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 08/27/1994.
Mystic Ark. Produce, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/14/1995.
Paper Mario (Mario Story; Japan). Intelligent Systems, Nintendo 64, 08/11/2000.
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (Paper Mario RPG; Japan). Intelligent Systems, Nintendo Game Cube, 07/22/2004.
Super Paper Mario. Intelligent Systems, Nintendo Wii, 04/09/2007.
Phantasy Star 2 (Phantasy Star 2: Kaerazaru Toki no Owari ni; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 3/21/1989.
Pocket Monsters Midori. Game Freak, Nintendo Super Game Boy, 02/27/1996.
Pokémon Red Version (Pocket Monsters Aka; Japan). Game Freak, Nintendo Super Game Boy, 02/27/1996.
Pokémon Blue Version (Pocket Monsters Ao; Japan). Game Freak, Nintendo Super Game Boy, 10/15/1996.
Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition (Pocket Monsters Pikachu; Japan). Game Freak, Nintendo Super Game Boy, 09/12/1998.
Princess Tomato in Salad Kingdom (Salad no Kuni no Tomato Hime; Japan). Hudson, Nintendo Entertainment System, 05/27/1988.
Psychonauts. Double Fine Productions, Microsoft XBOX, 04/19/2005.
Rogue Galaxy. Level 5, Sony Playstation 2, 12/08/2005.
Rudra no Hihou. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/05/1996.
Secret of Evermore. Square USA, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 10/1995.
Shadow of the Beast. Reflections Interactive, Amiga, 1989.
Shadowgate. ICOM Simulations, Macintosh, 1987.
Shin Megami Tensei. Atlus, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 10/30/1992.
Shin Megami Tensei 2. Atlus, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 03/18/1994.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne; Japan). Atlus, Sony Playstation 2, 02/20/2003.
Skies of Arcadia (Eternal Arcadia; Japan). Overworks, Sega Dreamcast, 10/05/2000.
Soul Blazer (Soul Blader; Japan). Quintet, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 01/31/1992.
Suikoden (Genso Suikoden). Konami, Sony Playstation, 12/15/1995.
Super Mario 64. Nintendo, Nintendo 64, 06/23/1996.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 03/09/1996.
Valkyrie Profile. Tri-Ace, Sony Playstation, 12/22/1999.
Wonder Boy. West One, Arcade, 1986.