Originally Posted on September 3, 2013: Link.
Starting off at a young age, RPGs have been a big part of my life and something I have fallen in love with in every facet. Whether its the focus on character development, the sense of adventure and exploration, or the satisfaction of becoming so overpowered as to grind my enemies into dust, there’s a lot to enjoy from this genre that has continued to evolve over the years.
For some insight into my tastes, I have always enjoyed works that focus on their story and writing, the development of the characters in that story, the strength of the soundtrack, and what it offers in terms of content. This also tends to go the other way: if I don’t care about the characters, I don’t have the capacity to care about the story.
Looking back, there are so many of these games that I can attribute so much to and adored. A lot of those on my list have their own faults that have been criticized in the past, but I believe it is with these imperfections that I have come to draw even more appeal from them. However, I can not deny the impact each of these games have made on me. These are the titles that I would rank as my Top 10 RPGs of All Time.
10) Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors
Starting off the list is what I consider to be the best title on the original Xbox, Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors by From Software.
Otogi 2 just so happens to be the first review I wrote for RPG Site. I remember when I first found out about the Otogi series, walking into a local game store and seeing the demo being played in front of me. I was blown away by just how over-the-top the action was, demonstrating both an art and game design that was all its own.
Not only did the characters look ripped from Japanese folklore, but the controls were solid as well. There’s even a button on the controller dedicated to knocking whatever monster in front of you across the damn screen into the nearest object, which can cause buildings to fall, rocks to disintegrate, or the body bouncing off some walls like a cartoon. It’s incredibly appealing and immensely satisfying, and of course, my number 10 pick for Best RPG of All Time.
Coming in at number 9 is Earthbound, a game I have really fond memories as a child. My brother and I used to have a paper route, and what we did with our first paycheck was to go out and pick up a copy.
It’s tough to explain just why exactly I loved playing Earthbound so much. It’s definitely the most unusual RPG that I remember playing. Not only did it take place in a modern period, but it also had fascinating story to back it up. Not only that, but the combat had a good degree of difficulty.
Battles could get intense at times trying to keep characters alive while monsters dish out fatal moves left and right. As I grew older, I was able to pick up on the subtle humor that I couldn’t understand as a child. It felt like everyone was in on the joke about how ridiculous things happening in the world had become.
The experience playing the game alone is one well worth having. Nothing felt like Earthbound at the time, and I don’t think anything else will be. Oh, and I still haven’t found the Sword of Kings yet.
8) Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy VII lands at the number 8 spot. Now this is truly an RPG that I fell in love with at first sight. As someone who grew up in the 90’s, I was used to seeing sprites move across the screen with chiptune music playing in the background.
However, like many other people at the time, I was blown away when I saw the first footage of Final Fantasy VII. It’s really hard to recreate that moment when I witnessed Full Motion Video and 3D polygonal models for the first time.
Since then, many people point to this game as somehow being the beginning of the end for the series. It may sound a little absurd, but so many people think it’s overrated that I find it underrated for just how substantial it actually was.
Not only did it offer a story that truly delved deep into the psyche of a main character with a hero complex that few other titles have been able to tackle, but it also had a strong cast of characters, a wonderful soundtrack, memorable locations, and a large amount of side content like the Golden Saucer and Chocobo breeding and racing to keep one engrossed for long periods of time. In my mind, it is easily one of the best RPGs that I had the fortune of playing.
7) Valkyria Chronicles
Valkyria Chronicles is in at 7. In a time where there were few RPGs coming from Japan for the generation of consoles, here comes this awesome breath of fresh air to show that there is still genius to be had in this industry.
Offering something that neither the East or the West had been able to come up with, the mix of round-based, zone-roaming strategy combat is highly engaging, presenting a design that anyone can appreciate.
The story is a real highlight, with plenty of characters that one can become attached to. What I enjoyed the most was reading the engrossing back stories of every single one of my comrades, like the two Sniper brothers Oscar and Emile, where Oscar is trying to protect his brother by learning to become a doctor to cure his sickness. There were also all of these different dynamics going on during the battles themselves.
For example, each person has their own Potential that can be triggered both when either running around or while attacking. This can be anything from being scared when they’re surrounded by enemies to toughening up when their health gets low.
Using what Sega called the CANVAS engine, the game uses a watercolor style that has helped keep art looking as commendable as it did when it first came out years ago, delivering a unique adventure that has yet to be replicated.
6) Final Fantasy Tactics
Now we are on to what I consider to be the greatest Final Fantasy title ever released, Final Fantasy Tactics, the king of its genre.
What I loved most was just how ridiculously overpowered you could become with the right strategy. Thanks to the fact that the game has this amazing job system that allows you to change from a wide assortment of roles while taking their traits along with you, I was able to become a fast moving, double-attacking, highly-accurate demon with murder weapons for fists with a huge health bar.
At times, things can get absolutely merciless, with enemies leveling up alongside your party, but also a factor that can easily be overcome with the right strategy. It also introduced arguably the richest world the series has ever created, Ivalice.
The story found inside was rife with different plot elements that encompasses a tale of love, betrayal, corruption, political discord, religion, class warfare and much more, all leading up to an ending that is left open for interpretation. It’s a game that will infinitely offer a compelling time to those willing to get lost in its excellent design.
5) Secret of Mana
The number five spot holds a title that may be my earliest RPG experience, Secret of Mana. Right off the bat, I loved how fast-paced the action can be..There was no break in momentum going from exploration to combat, and having to focus on the proximity your character had in relation to the enemy brought a nice dose of strategy to the genre that you just didn’t see much at the time.
The multiplayer component was also welcome, allowing up to two other people to control one of the other party members. It’s a feature that to this day isn’t common, especially in this genre. The story also takes on a life of its own, going from standard RPG fare of playing a boy chosen to become the world’s savior, to having a plot filled with twists and turns, all supported by a solid cast of characters.
The graphics still hold up very well, with a cool art palette that kept the world looking lavish, even for the 16-bit era. The character sprites looked good and distinguishable, and the environments that ranged from the bright and colorful to the dark and haunted looked like they were pulled straight from a painting.
By far, however, the best part of Secret of Mana is the soundtrack, with plenty of memorable tunes that did a great job setting the mood in each area of the game, whether it was the feeling of being lost inside a frostbitten forest or the somberness of losing a loved one.
Sure, some may consider Seiken Densetsu 3 to be the better title with a quicker pace and more RPG mechanics, but for me, Secret of Mana had a much bigger impact on me growing up, and it remains true even to this day. All in all, this game delivers with great combat, superb music, a strong story, striking visuals, and was overall just a very fun time to be had.
4) Chrono Cross
I know, I know. Chrono Cross doesn’t get a whole lot of love, but I am going to set my stake in the ground and talk about why I consider it to be a great title.
First off, let’s discuss the cast of characters. There are a lot of them. The best part is, however, that you only need to stick with a few of these party members from when they first join you all the way into the end, and they each have something different to say based on the situation, with no two conversations going exactly the same way. They all each have their own backgrounds and personalities that helps you get to know them, although there are certainly ones more developed than others.
I also appreciated that the story of Chrono Cross is basically set to fill in some of the plot holes that Chrono Trigger left behind. Without getting into spoiler territory, the game does a good job delving into the fate of some of the landmark events in the prior entry and explained it in a satisfying way.
I loved how much mystery was wrapped around the plot early on, with the goal being to unravel the unknown all the way up until the end, of which there are nearly a dozen different endings to experience. I also loved how the game really explores the idea of the Butterfly Effect not only across spans of time, but in alternate dimensions. There are some powerful story moments in the game that left me a wreck in many cases. Overall, the writing in Chrono Cross is outstanding, and was one of the biggest draws for me.
Another thing is the combat system, by and far one of the more interesting ones I have seen in an RPG and one that can be a little confusing at first, but once you figure out how it works is incredible. It creates plenty of intense tug-of-war moments taking the field effect into consideration.
The visuals are once again a real standout, with both character and monster designs.There is this unbelievable attention to detail that really makes the world come alive. For the time, the proportions on the models looked pretty realistic that closely resembled their original concept designs. Even the FMVs and pre-rendered backgrounds still look really good.
Of course, the most outstanding feature of Chrono Cross is the soundtrack. Simply one of the best soundtracks heard in a game (or in any form of media), it is filled to the brim with absolutely brilliant tracks that have layers upon layers of different musical art styles, each one deserving of multiple listens. Songs like “Scars of Time”, “People Imprisoned by Destiny”, “Star-Stealing Girl”, “Magical Dreamers”, “Voyage (Home World)” – the list goes on and on for all of the appealing tracks this game has. It’s for all of these reasons that Chrono Cross is an easy pick for Number 4.
Terranigma is an underappreciated RPG classic. The fascinating part about the game is that it truly showed the result of what happens when Ark resurrects what was once a desolate world into a thriving civilization.
One of the coolest features was being able to directly impact a town’s economy based on different tasks available, such as helping some poor inventor help get his product off the ground or taking pictures of the area and giving them to the nearest tourist agency.
I also enjoyed the action-based battle system which contained a healthy mix of Secret of Mana and Legend of Zelda, allowing freedom of movement to play in any style that one wishes. Ark himself is definitely one of the best protagonists in any RPG I have played, with plenty of personality and gung-ho behavior to keep the journey interesting.
Everything just felt alive and conscious. From its perplexing beginning to its captivating ending, all wrapped around a fine soundtrack full of memorable music, Terranigma definitely stands up alongside the greats even to this day. Man, I really wish Quintet would come back.
2) Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals
Early on in Lufia II, I had already felt this strong bond with this game that has a tale overflowing with charm and personality. Backed by a powerful soundtrack that works well to heighten the mood, the game takes what would normally be a cliche tale of good versus evil and props it up with gripping dialogue and fantastic story beats.
The characters are very well realized, with each of them given tremendous depth to their relationships with one another. It even manages to weave in romance and do it well, something a lot of other games struggle with. Maxim himself is a hero who exudes the qualities of a reliable leader even in the face of all that was going on. This isn’t some child wallowing in angst and self-pity for the responsibilities that are thrust upon him, but instead one that takes things in stride and has the fortitude to take on the seemingly impossible.
Lufia II was also rather challenging, not only in regards to the difficult boss battles, but with dungeons that have an abundance of puzzles to solve that can take anywhere from a few minutes to nearly an hour to solve without a good sense of observation or a guide.
A great feature of combat was the introduction of Capsule Monsters, which are uncontrollable creatures that can evolve and change classes based on the equipment and certain items that they are fed. Based on how they grow, they can become stronger than some of your party members and lead to moments where they are the only ones keeping the rest alive.
The game has a lot of heart and provides plenty of emotional moments, especially its ending, that have stayed with me to this day. Lufia II has always remained one of my favorite RPGs all these years later.
Xenogears has always been a game that I have long served as a bastion for, supporting its many different story principles and gameplay elements that have kept me a fan from the first time I played it. It has probably the most compelling and most complex stories I have ever seen.
Things start off simple enough with a young boy named Fei being raised inside of a small village after being abandoned at a young age. But then, things quickly take a turn for the tragic. From there, all of these ambiguous plot elements are introduced that kept me hooked to what was going on.
Instead of just sticking to the same tired plot devices, the way the story unfolds and the way the characters are introduced provides a wonderfully eccentric experience where each new person plays a pivotal role in the development of the story, each of them not really following the standard rules of what is good and what is evil, but each having their own motives behind their actions.
With its deep religious undertones and constant threat of global warfare, there’s nothing seemingly politically correct to be had here. The battle system is altogether the best and most exciting that the genre has ever seen, with devastating combos to unlock that all look awesome as they unfold, along with amazing mech battles that make your jaw drop each time you take on beast that is either equal or far exceeds the scale of your own party.
All of this is supported by, what else, a beautiful soundtrack. Much like Chrono Cross, Yatsunori Mitsuda does another exceptional job here crafting a motley of different musical styles that each sound amazing. One can say that music is the foundation that helps drive a story and the different emotions one may feel on that journey to the end, and can even be used to help deliver subtle exposition without saying a single word.
In this case, the overall sound design helps to define the experience and definitely serves pure masterstroke. Xenogears felt like the pinnacle of what Square Enix then Squaresoft, had been trying to accomplish for years finally coming to fruition, an amalgamation of the best elements of the RPGs that came before.
It is the definition of a JRPG, and in my opinion, the benchmark that I judge other games of the genre. It’s not a perfect endeavor, but for me, even the faults help define it and enhance the experience. And yes, I liked the Second disc.