11 Must-Play Classic RPGs!
I’ve always been a little clumsy, with my hands in particular. I once sawed through my finger, almost to the bone, while trimming the fat off of a steak. It was not a fun night. This manual clumsiness of mine has always made action-oriented videogames a bit of a chore for me. I get frustrated, and wind up putting them down. As a child, I never made it very far into the regular crop of Marios and Zeldas, due to this lack of dexterity. When at the age of eight I discovered RPGs, I felt like I had finally found my place in videogaming. Here was a genre that didn’t require speed and precision, that focused on strategy, story, music and art. I could take my time, smell the roses a bit. Over the years, I have maintained a healthy appreciation for the genre, and have developed a significant history of experience with the game. I’d like to share this experience with you, in recommending eleven of what I would consider to be absolute must-play classic RPGs.
One caveat: who wants to sit here and just read the typical, popular entries on a list like this? I like to keep things fresh and interesting, so I’ll be avoiding the major obvious titles like Final Fantasy VII or Chrono Trigger. This list will dig just a little deeper into the b-sides of the genre. Onward!
Let us begin with my absolute favorite videogame of all time, EarthBound. Released in 1995 on the Super NES, EarthBound is what I would consider the Big Lebowski of RPGs. It doesn’t strike the right chords with everyone, not even most. But the ones that do find a sense of kinship with the game invariably become devoted fans. Why is this? The game is just charming as hell. Ness, the hero, and his three companions traverse a world based heavily on 1990’s America, filled with video arcades and pizza parlors. The writing is some of the cleverest I’ve encountered in a videogame, offering a massive cast of NPCs who don’t just rattle off plot-related or quest-oriented dialogue. Speaking to most random inhabitants of the world nets you humorous, philosophical, strange and upsetting musings that have nothing necessarily to do with the immediate story. The music is simply wonderful, offering a grand spectrum of emotion, from whimsical to terrifying, and taking a lot of inspiration from the Beatles. The game is a truly lovable trip through a colorful, humorous world with more character and style than the vast majority of videogames entirely.
Uncharted Waters: New Horizons
Few things in this world bring me more joy than the Golden Age of Piracy and the Age of Exloration. Wooden ships cruising through the waves, flintlock pistols and cutlasses at the ready, cannons booming in the night. In Uncharted Waters: New Horizons, we get not just old-school RPG charm and mechanics, but a piratey theme on top of it! The player chooses one of several different heroes to play as, from the intrepid young explorer Joao Franco seeking the lost city of Atlantis, to cutthroat pirate captain Catalina Erantzo on her quest for vengeance. Learn trade routes and make a fortune as a merchant, uncover every corner of the colossal world map, master the arts of naval and melee combat, manage and command an entire fleet of ships. For the pirate enthusiast, there are few games that offer the depth and atmosphere of New Horizons.
I had a bit of a struggle with this one, choosing between SoulBlazer and Illusion of Gaia. I love both games, dearly, but for me there’s just something a little more special about SoulBlazer. I’ve had an affinity for Enix/Quintet’s games ever since the original Actraiser, and this game is probably my favorite of the bunch. In typical Quintet fashion, you are a heavenly warrior sent to Earth to revive its lost civilization after a demon destroys mankind. The thing about the game that has always stuck with me is the strange sense of eerieness that pervades it. Entering into a new town, the player finds it barren and in need of your heroics to release its people and structures from demonic captivity. However, more and more of the often depressing backstory reveals itself the more of the world the hero saves. Throw in some weirdly off-putting dungeons, like the living painting from world 1, or the miniature village from world 5, and you get a game that will haunt you subtlely for years to come.
A stark departure from most of the other entries on this list, but still one I would consider an absolute classic. Shadowrun is a mid-90’s adaptation of the popular cyberpunk pencil and paper RPG of the same name. Jake Armitage, the recent survivor of an assassination, has no memory of his life prior to waking up in the morgue. He must investigate a dark and foreboding future world, where man, magic and machine have collided, and where someone wants him dead. The player makes use of firearms, cyberware technology and magic to combat foes, steal guarded corporate secrets and discover the truth behind the hero’s botched demise. Dark streets painted by overhead lamps, chaotic industrial nightclubs, and looming chrome skyscrapers form the twisted urban labyrinth that Jake must navigate. Or die trying to. Again.
Who doesn’t love giant robots? The worst kind of people, that’s who. Xenogears is an RPG heavily inspired by anime concepts and aesthetics. Massive humanoid battle mechs, called Gears, are central to the plot and the world of Xenogears. This engrossing story incites some deep discussion on the nature of God and religion, technology, the frailty of the human psyche, the harshness of societal strata and so much more. This tale confronts you with difficult and unpleasant concepts, and doesn’t like to pull its punches in doing so. People die brutally, entire populations are used as chess pieces in grand schemes, innocents are slaughtered thoughtlessly simply because of their beliefs or social standing. Xenogears features one of the most gripping, cruel, heartbreaking and triumphant stories in all of gaming. Plus, huge robots!
Few classic RPGs manage to evoke the scale and desperation of war like Suikoden II. Where most of its contemporaries habitually tell stories of a small band of heroes struggling against a singular villain, or a patently evil empire, Suikoden II tasks the player with building an army, and uniting a fractured land to wage honest-to-God war on an invading nation. This isn’t a simple matter of black and white, either. The hero and his immediate companions are nationals of the invading empire, and as such, it paints a somewhat blurry picture of right and wrong. As the hero builds his army, so does he expand his stronghold. Early in the game, the player stakes claim to an abandoned castle, which fills with people, soldiers and facilities like shops and minigames as he acquires new members of his army. Childhood friends meet on the battefield, trusted companions are lost to the sword, and a wave of atrocities spurs you to the defense of the innocent as the land is conquered piece by piece.
Not all RPGs feature youthful heroes with mystical swords, traversing green plains and distant kingdoms. Some burrow into the darkness, into grim scenarios and bloodied hands. In Vagrant Story, Riskbreaker Ashley Riot is tasked with exploring the ancient abandoned city of Lea Monde in pursuit of a villainous cult leader and his highborn hostage. In the gloomy catacombs and shadowed caverns of the city’s underbelly, all Ashley can rely upon are his wits, skills and weapons. Much of the game focuses on intensely-detailed equipment crafting, offering a puzzling but deeply satisfying support system. Combat plays out in a mixture of real time and turn based combat, leveraging your stats, weapon durability and the mounting risks of violence against one another. Vagrant Story is not only a difficult game to play, but a difficult game to understand, which makes it peerlessly cathartic when it all finally clicks and the adventure’s myriad secrets are laid bare.
Legend of Mana
Nowadays, modern RPGs tend to lean in a more open-ended direction. Rather than linear narratives that take up 80% of the main game, most RPGs these days opt for shorter main quests, massive numbers of sidequests, and a lot of free roaming exploration tying it all together. Surprisingly enough, this was something that Legend of Mana implemented a decade and a half ago. Over seventy quests make up the bulk of the game, from humorous one-offs to mutli-quest stories that tug at the heartstrings. At the center of it all, the game’s hero is working towards the full restoration of a once-ravaged world, while helping the people as much as he can in the process. Gorgeous, colorful environments with a hand-painted style build this fantastical world, while odd and memorable characters drive their own individual stories. Legend of Mana is a game to get completely lost in, and make you love every second of the wandering.
Star Ocean: The Second Story
Most of the time, these old RPGs offer fifty to seventy hours of gameplay, one or two endings, and a fairly linear recruitment and skill system. Star Ocean: The Second Story offers closer to one hundred hours of gameplay, a branching recruitment system, an absolutely massive skill system, and a staggering eighty-six possible endings. To put it plainly, Second Story is colossal, especially for an original PlayStation game. Though the game is technically set in a sci-fi universe, our own distant future to be precise, the adventure primarily takes place in medieval-inspired environments with swords and magic abounding. Individual characters in your party can learn any number out of dozens of skills like Cooking, Writing, Sculpting and so forth, which can be used for crafting and can increase stats or make battle abilities more useful. Definitely a game for the RPG fan who likes to tinker.
Now, I did say I’d be trying to avoid the big obvious entries like Chrono Trigger, but I can’t help but show respect to one of my favorite videogames of all time, Chrono Cross. Though it is a sequel to Trigger, Chrono Cross bears very little in common with its predecessor. This game tells the story of Serge, a teenage boy living in a coastal fishing town who is suddenly pulled into an alternate world; a world in which he died as a child. As Serge attempts to discover his path home, he is pursued by a demi-human named Lynx, who draws Serge into a complex adventure involving time travel, destroyed futures, elemental dragons, and the unrelenting will of Fate. The gorgeous color palette and crisp visuals paint a vivid tropical environment, with pirate ships and towns made out of coral structures. Though oft-maligned in favor of its older sibling, Chrono Cross is in my opinion the superior game. It possesses a vibrancy and sense of mystery that few games of its era can touch.
Our final entry focuses on one of the richest and most powerful pieces of mythology in history: the norse legend of Ragnarok. Valkyrie Profile casts the player in the role of the Valkyrie Lenneth, emissary of Odin, scouring Midgard for soldiers worthy enough to fight on the Allfather’s behalf and become the noble Einherjar. Lenneth witnesses these warriors’ final moments before death, recruiting them shortly thereafter and helping them resolve their final earthly conflicts. As the clock ticks down to Ragnarok, the battle at the end of the world, Lenneth must recruit and send as many Einherjar to the front lines as possible. The fate of the gods lies in her hands. Featuring a dark, relentless story populated by grim and violent characters, Valkyrie Profile is quite possibly the harshest game on our list, in terms of tone and atmosphere. Why not accept the challenge, if you believe yourself worthy?