Over the past couple of years, I’ve made a dedicated a lot of my gaming time (such as it is these days…) to revisiting older RPGs. I grew up playing everything from Squaresoft’s finest on SNES to BioWare’s amazing output on the PC. It’s been a joy to revisit favourites, such as those listed below, and discover some classics that slipped past me at the time of release.
Since I’ve been thinking so much about these older games, and recognizing (or rediscovering) what makes them work so effectively, especially compared to a lot of modern games, which I’m finding myself less attracted to, I thought it would be fun to explore my Top 10 Favourite RPGs (and 10 Honourable Mentions.
(The list is unordered, except for the first game, which is undisputedly my favourite game of all time.)
My Top 10 RPGs
Chrono Trigger — My favourite game of all time. In the midst of falling in love with Final Fantasy VI, I discovered Chrono Trigger via a preview in Game Players magazine (which I still own), and from that point on my interest in the game became an obsession. I’m not sure if I’ve ever coveted a game as much as I did Chrono Trigger. When I finally got my hands on it, after saving allowance, and waiting for birthday money, it, somehow, exceeded my mile high expectations.
I maxed out all of my character levels on replay after replay, prided myself on being able to beat Lavos with just Crono, and explored every nook and cranny I could find. Unlike, say, Final Fantasy VI, there weren’t a lot of hard-to-find secrets tucked away, but the world was such a joy to explore that I always enjoyed exploring, and there was a genuine sense of accomplishment whenever Lavos fell.
Thematically, I liked the idea of a ragtag group of heroes, from all corners of time, banding together under a common cause. Recognizing cause and effect, and actively manipulating the flow of historical events to gain the power to defeat Lavos was exciting and unique at the time, and remains a selling point today. There’s very little filler—whether it’s gameplay systems, fetch quests, or characters, every element in the game has a purpose and never overstays its welcome.
Structure-wise, it’s more linear that you might initially expect, until the second half of the game, when the side quests open up, but you always feel like there’s endless possibility ahead of you. I love the way you return to familiar locations under new context, changing the way you perceive the world and its various characters. For instance, you’re first introduced to the courtroom via Crono’s trial, which itself is impressive enough, but when you return a dozen hours later, near the end of the game, to save the king himself, there’s this moment where you realize the Crono and Co. have shifted from scrappy nobodies to genuine heroes. Everything comes full circle, and that leads to a feeling of genuine, earned victory.
Thanks to beautiful sprites, inspired art direction, and Yasunori Mitsuda’s genius soundtrack, Chrono Trigger also rises above and beyond it contemporaries in terms of atmosphere and presentation. It’s peak 16-bit and, 20+ years later, still stands the test of time. Pun intended.
Final Fantasy V — The secret best Final Fantasy game. Like many, I was introduced to the series through Final Fantasy VI, and only got to experience Final Fantasy V years later—well after playing through all the cinematic, story-heavy PSX entries in the series—when Final Fantasy V finally (well, officially) hit North American shores on the PSX. Except, I bounced off that version, and didn’t come to truly appreciate it until it was released, with a new translation and gameplay improvements, on the GBA. Where Final Fantasy VI and beyond are defined by their stories, Final Fantasy V is pure gameplay. The job system provides so much depth and variation to the game that, unlike it’s follow-ups, each playthrough feels fresh and new. I recently played the SNES version for the first time (with the GBA translation), and it holds up wonderfully. What I initially wrote off as a goofy story revealed itself to be purposefully unintrusive, laying just enough groundwork for the brilliant game design. Final Fantasy VI, VII, and X get all the glory, but this is the series’ true gem.
Final Fantasy VI — I was familiar with the RPG genre before being introduced to Final Fantasy VI, but wrote it off as boring and overly complicated. However, I had a babysitter who would bring over whatever SNES game he was playing at the time, and the night he brought FFVI to our house set me on a course of fandom that I’ve remained upon ever since. Its virtues are well known now, but, at the time, I little realized how much FFVI revolutionized the JRPG genre. From its gritty, faux-Industrial/Steampunk setting, to its enormous cast, lack of a specific lead character, the World of Ruin twist, varied gameplay, storytelling pace, and the myriad ways the game could be broken apart, FFVI set precedents that still affect game design today. Having recently replayed this immediately upon completing FFV, it’s hard to overstate how tremendous a leap in presentation happened between two games released in such close proximity. A lot of people cite FFVII for introducing the idea of a cinematic RPGs, but all the roots are right here.
Persona 3 — I was familiar with the first two Persona games from playing them at a friend’s house, but the sterile graphics, first person dungeons, and slow pace of play never appealed to me. Upon seeing previews for Persona 3, however, everything started clicking into place, and I eagerly anticipated its release. While I also enjoy P4/5, and feel like they surpass P3 in some ways (though not others), neither of them left quite the same lasting impression as P3. From its overtly stylish presentation (dat soundtrack), to its blazing fast battles, to its rich, layered story execution and amazing cast, P3 was a step above what I was used to from RPGs at the time, and remains my favourite game in the series.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars — SMRPG isn’t as long or deep or intricate as many of the other games on my list, but it’s so filled with charm, warmth, and humour that it has remained a favourite from childhood through adulthood. That Squaresoft was able to execute an impossible vision—a Final Fantasy-style RPG based on Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom—still surprises me. It’s a weird game in a lot of ways, but that helps it to feel unique among its peers. I replayed it earlier this year, after not having played it since staying up way too late as an adolescent, and found that, despite the ways in which its aged (the graphics are… uniquely ugly, and some of the tropes involving Peach, like her weapons, don’t sit well in 2018), its timing-based battle system is still fun, the humour holds up, and it has some terrific set pieces. Super Mario RPG is a pleasure to play, and, unlike many games on my list, it can be completed in under 15 hours, which makes replays even more enjoyable. It might not have set precedent for future Mario-based RPGs, but it’s one of the most surprising and unique collaborations in gaming history, and, for that reason alone, it deserves a spot here.
Diablo II — From a personal perspective, I spent more time playing the original Diablo than its sequel, but it’s impossible to deny how thoroughly Diablo II took its predecessor’s vision and blew away all expectations. It was bigger, faster, prettier, deeper, and even more addicting. Where Diablo nailed the claustrophobic feeling of plumbing a depthless dungeon, Diablo II feels like an epic adventure across a rich, vibrant, living world. That alone raises the stakes, because, as a player, you understand that failure will have wide-ranging, world-changing results. It’s still the gold standard for the genre, and the hours I spent playing online with friends will be treasured forever.
Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete — If Chrono Trigger was my first JRPG love, Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete was my second. If there’s one noticeable trend shaping my list, it’s that I prefer bright, airy, colourful, and optimistic RPGs. Alongside Grandia (which is in my honourable mentions), I consider Lunar to be the cream of the crop when it comes to this category. The scale starts off small, with a group of young friends chasing adventures, but the stakes and scope just keeps growing from there. Lunar is built on a foundation of well-loved tropes, but they’re executed *so* well, that they become a strength for the game, rather than the weakness. As much as I love the world of Lunar (it’s set on the terraformed moon!), it’s ultimately the game’s cast that really shines and elevates it above so many other RPGs. From Alex’s drive to Luna’s quiet strength, Kyle and Jessica’s over-the-top yet believable relationship, Nash’s personal demons to everything about Ghaleon, Lunar feels like a game populated by real people. Just like a good book, completing Lunar is bittersweet because you won’t get to spend time with its plucky group of heroes. Oh, and the soundtrack is full of *amazing* work from Iwadare that really drives home the feeling of adventure and exploration.
Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions — My first exposure to Final Fantasy Tactics came when a friend returned from Thailand with a bootleg Japanese copy. I spent hours with him as he stumbled through the menus, battle-after-battle, learning the game’s mechanics and memorizing Japanese characters so he knew how each ability and item would behave. As my first real experience playing a game in Japanese, it was thrilling, and that memory has remained strong and inspiring for me ever since. Imagine my surprise when the English version was finally released and I discovered that the story was as deep and rich (and convoluted) as the game systems. It was a bit of a mess on the PSX thanks to the localization (and since rectified by Alexander O. Smith’s work on the PSP rerelease), but the “mature” storyline that read like something out of a political fantasy novel—based for most of the game on the interpolitical conflicts between nations and factions—was unlike anything I’d experienced in a game before. I’ve been a lifelong Matsuno fan since.
Suikoden II — Suikoden was the first PSX RPG that really caught the attention of me and my friends, and we spent a lot of time playing and replaying the game in an attempt to gather all 108 characters. It showed promise, but was, even at the time, obviously a little underbaked and rough around the edges. Suikoden II arrived and far exceeded expectations. It took everything that was good about the original game and polished it to a gleaming shine. The cast was more vibrant and diverse, the world was larger, the plot conflicts bigger and more complex. I can think of few sequels that execute on the vision of the original game as well as Suikoden II.
Like Final Fantasy Tactics, I was (and still am) impressed by the way its story couched its conflicts in realistic inter-factional politics. Where the original Suikoden was fairly straightforward in its story delivery (Barbarossa and his generals are bad), Suikoden II is labyrinthine and complex in the way loyalties and alliances shift. That the story ultimately boils down to a conflict between two childhood friends with opposed ideologies is brilliant. Unfortunately, like many 16- and 32-bit JRPGs, the experience is marred by a troubled localization that ranges from unreadable (literally, there’s untranslated text in the game which displays as garbage characters) to overzealous (!!!!!!!!) to confusing. This considered, it’s a testament to the source material that Suikoden II has some of the best emotional moments of the generation.
Dragon Quest V — I’m a big fan of Terry Brooks’ Shannara series of novels. It’s a fantasy epic that takes place over the course of generations, featuring the children of past protagonists and an ever-evolving landscape. It’s thrilling to see the concept of family at the core of an epic fantasy narrative. As much as I enjoyed Dragon Quest IV’s chapter structure, Dragon Quest V trading that in for a familial epic excites me in the same way as Shannara. A lot of JRPGs seem to take place over the course of a few weeks (how many times do you sleep at an inn?), so to set an overarching narrative that lasts generations stands out, especially when you consider that this was released early in the life of the Super Famicom. Its ambition is impressive.
Breath of Fire III — On a system that had a lot of too-serious RPGs, Breath of Fire III was a bright, adventurous, and charming experience. And that jazz-fusion soundtrack? Amazing.
Chrono Cross — It wasn’t the sequel to Chrono Trigger I wanted, but it’s drop-dead gorgeous, has a great (main) cast, and the best soundtrack of all time.
Dragon Quest IV — The chapter-based structure introduced one of my favourite stories in JRPGs. It succeeds by embracing tropes and not being afraid of simplicity. The battle system in the DS version is a joy.
Dragon Quest VIII — My first Dragon Quest. Loved the world, characters, and story.
Earthbound — Quirky and self-assured, it still hasn’t been matched in terms of carving out a unique identity within the JRPG market (except, perhaps, by its equally excellent sequel).
Final Fantasy IX — The perfect meeting point between the 8/16-bit Final Fantasies and their more cinematic 32-bit siblings. If not for some technical limitations showing its age (sllllloooooow battles), it might’ve made my top 10.
Grandia — More than any other game on this list, Grandia exemplifies adventure and wonder. It’s warm, genuine, and still has the best JRPG battle system.
Lufia II — The town-dungeon-town structure gets old fast, and the translation is poor, but the puzzle-first dungeon design and fast battle system make it a joy to play.
Lunar 2: Eternal Blue — A worthy follow-up to one of my favourite games. Trades in some of the charm for a more expansive adventure.
Xenogears — Perhaps the most ambitious JRPG story ever. Against popular opinion, I liked the second disc.