I am a prolific gamer of the RPG genre. I started young with tabletopping Dungeons & Dragons with some neighborhood kids. These same neighborhood kids had an SNES, and when I went over for our game one day, I noticed one playing this crazy looking game on his system, with stats and equipment and little characters running around before the screen changed and he entered a fight.
It turns out he was playing Final Fantasy III (what we nowadays know as Final Fantasy VI), and I was blown away by the idea of being able to play a game like this. I became like a man possessed trying to figure out how to get one of these RPG videogames in my own life.
I considered an article today on five games that had heavy influence on my gaming career, and started putting caveats in place. I first decided I would not post about a game that I have previously posted about before (which excluded Xenogears from my lineup). No more than one game per series, no matter how many of them I’d consider influential to me. I also decided to post one RPG per system, another major hurdle. When I began writing out the list and realized that three out of five of the games were RPGs already, I figured I may as well make the jump to fully discussing the genre, and could write about those other games separately. With all of that in place, I still had trouble paring the list down to what I did.
So now, I present to you, in no particular order: Five RPGs that have truly shaped me as a gamer. I must warn you that I’ll be discussing some things that may reveal spoilers. They are all a bit older as far as games go, but I thought it only fair to include the warning.
Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra (MS-DOS)
As a young and impressionable nerd, I had fallen prey to Dungeons and Dragons: Satan’s Game. I mentioned this in the introduction, but I thought it prudent to bring it up again, as one of the first electronic RPG’s I managed to get my hands on was Might & Magic III…. outside of a collection of Forgotten Realms RPG’s (which really merit an article unto themselves for their strange niche genre and hardcore devotion to the rules of the tabletop games). The significance of this title is that it introduced me to the differences of Western RPG’s and JRPG’s.
While I could tell there was some kind of difference, I couldn’t place my finger on the obvious when I was younger – namely, that the game was extremely structured, and fights took place without switching out of the world map during the first person dungeon crawl view. It was an open ended world which, while it did have a linear plot, could be completely ignored. I played this game consistently from when I got the game to play on my parents old Windows 3.1 computer, sporadically throughout my life. Just a few weeks back, I fired up a copy I’d grabbed from GoG and realized that the game was more difficult than I recalled to start with. That and the fact that I can still hum along to the entire soundtrack in every single area, whether town, dungeon or overworld.
This game was also notable, in my mind, because it mixed in a considerable amount of Sci-Fi into what I considered a fantasy genre – but it was all behind the scenes until you got far enough along in the story to discover it. Between that, the complete character customization where you can build your entire party to be whatever kinds of characters you want, in tabletop RPG fashion (race, class, gender, stats, etc.) and the fact that the game was so open world that it was easy to get lost if you weren’t paying close attention to the plot, it’s really stuck with me.
Final Fantasy VI (III) (SNES)
As both the first electronic RPG I’ve ever seen, and a game that struck me deeply for it’s beautiful and intricate storytelling, I had to include Final Fantasy VI. I have only played through it fully a few times in my life, but each time I do I am both pleased and surprised by how much I enjoy the game again and again. I have played other Final Fantasy games, and while many of them are good, I have trouble thinking that they can compare to this, which feels like the pinnacle of the franchise.
There are no bad characters in this game. Even beyond all the plots, each of the characters has their own qualities, motivations and quirks that make them unique. That is something I always love to see, and is often ignored for the ease of making a generic hero, a stoic badass or a goofball. To really push outside of these stereotypes, especially in the 90’s when they seemed to be a constant fallback, was refreshing.
This game has it all. Heroes, antiheroes, villains, comedy, drama, secrets, epic battles… the list goes on. I had never considered that an RPG would have things like hidden characters. I didn’t think that a videogame could stand up as a piece of literature (and while I do love reading and literature in general, it’s not something I look for or expect in a game). I never would have expected the villains to win. Kefka’s rise to power is fascinating to watch, shocking to reveal, and amazing to fight against in the rebellious aftermath. The switching of the main plotlines and characters, the journey to explore the depth and personality of other side characters, the motivations of pure hatred on the part of the villain are all just inspiring.
When people try to tell me that games have no value, I often point them in this direction. It’s a game that can be honestly studied from different angles, and has a rich, erudite quality to it. The way that the characters stories intertwined with each other and the main plot of the game just make me want to geek out and try to tell people about it. My wife recently played through this game for the first time, and I had to bite my tongue the entire time as I watched her go through it to keep from revealing different plot points as they came up. I could continue to gush and fanboy about this game in a nonsensical manner all day and night, but I think I’ve said all I can say other than this is a game I always hope will be emulated for its qualities.
Phantasy Star IV – The End of the Millennium (Sega Genesis)
@3pstart wrote about this game back when I was a reader at my repeated and constant request. Throughout my life, as a forced soldier in the trenches of Sega during the console wars, I was often bombarded with the mocking rhetoric that the Sega Genesis had no RPGs made for it. Like a trick up my sleeve, I would always respond just how wrong they were – I was lucky enough to pick up Phantasy Star II and Phantasy Star IV at a chain store one day during a two-for-one deal, and was completely blown away. It was a struggle for me to pick between these two games, but as the more accessible and well crafted of the two, I had to settle on the latter.
Phantasy Star IV is a sci-fi RPG about two hunters, Chaz and Alys, who fix problems that keep cropping up on their desert homeworld of Motavia. It eventually involves teaming up with everything from thousand-year-old wizards, old and good humored alien priests to foreign androids and cash strapped scholars. Characters were, for the most part, personable and interesting.
This is a game where you didn’t fight through castles and rescue maidens from dragons – this was an RPG where you fought sandworms, explored gritty factories filled with horrible murderous robots, and fixed large computers that helped to control and maintain the weather on the planet. While techniques were commonplace, magic itself was shocking and rare: your main characters are flabbergasted when they see it first being used.
It’s hard to explain the surge of pride I somehow had over having this fantastic, and seemingly unknown RPG series that was on the console system I played. This franchise easily rivaled Final Fantasy for it’s storyline, and was considerably more difficult gameplay wise. Phantasy Star IV itself had hidden systems in the game, like technique combos – having characters use their skills and abilities to create larger, more awesome team ups, that almost always dealt a metric butt ton more damage than anything would individually. This was a game where you got vehicles that allowed you to traverse different terrains, and space ships that would bring you to space stations, meteors and other worlds.
On top of all this, the game was graphically beautiful. With cutscenes that looked like they were copied out of a manga, it was easy to read and understand the emotions and motivations of all the party members. Before other games had done so, they just flat out, unapologetically murder one of your main characters about a third of the way through the game. This was shocking to me; from everything I understood when I first played this, you weren’t supposed to be able to permanently lose characters in an RPG, and it shook me to see Alys die.
Pokemon Blue & Red (Game Boy)
Videogames used to be the general purview of, let’s say, the nerds. Pokemon was released when I was in middle school, and it just carved a swath through the entire social hierarchy of the school, as everyone seemed to suddenly be interested in it. My brother and I managed to get our hands on gameboys, and were gifted with a copy of blue and red. When we couldn’t harass our friends, we could always harass each other, so it made for a perfect pairing of the game.
Other than the social shakeup it seemed to reveal, I was astounded at the idea of having monsters fight for you. Sure, you were a character, but you weren’t really the star of the show. More like a director. I had recently been playing Monster Rancher, a game and series I will have to cover in detail, and loved the idea of having customized monsters fight on your behalf. Pokemon combined the best of the things I loved, training and fighting monsters with much more of an RPG undertone. I was completely enthralled by the idea that I could have any number of a hundred and fifty one different characters to fill my party, and the idea that I had to go find, trade and collect them.
It appealed to me on many levels. The story itself was simple enough: like any responsible pre-teen, you are given a small animal to go fight other animals, which your neighborhood rival and bully also gets to try and outdo your own efforts. You are out to be the best, to beat the biggest trainers in the world, and take your place as the champion. The story was simple, and yet still involved criminal syndicates, collecting badges, filling out your pokedex by finding as many of the monsters as possible, and staving off that bastard rival of yours.
Besides the influence it’s had on me, the sheer staying power and popularity of the genre has taken off like a rocket. While I haven’t been much of a pokemaniac since the Ruby & Sapphire generation, I continue to be impressed by the innovations they have made. I am also an enormous fan of classes and skills that involve summoning, training or capturing minions, and the ability to hyper customize a team or group to a big degree to really make them my own.
Skies of Arcadia (Dreamcast)
At a time when I was becoming jaded with RPGs after being disappointed by the generic Evolution and the flat Time Stalkers, I was ready to just hang up my gaming hat for a while. There are other RPGs that have influenced me, but I had to give my last slot to the game that resurged my interest in the genre: Skies of Arcadia.
This game was not only like a breath of fresh air after slogging through a musty cellar, it was like a beautiful breeze right off of the ocean. Though this is a game that mostly takes place in dungeons, Skies of Arcadia is an interesting setting. Instead of saying “Hey, let’s give the players an Airship.” they thought “Let’s make most of the damn setting feel like ship to ship sky pirates going for glory.” The world seems to be made up of floating cities and skyways, with no ground to be seen.
Taking on the role of Vyse, the protagonist of the game (who also, it should be noted, takes part in other Dreamcast games) is a “Blue Rogue” air pirate – one who only attacks armed vessels, and ones larger than their owns ships, usually the ones controlled by the games antagonists. In an epic quest to take down the Valuan Armada and keep the survivor of a lost continent to return to her home and stop a weapon of destruction from being raised by the enemy, the game was visually beautiful and detailed to a painstaking level. The soundtrack was a treasure in itself, never mind the writing. Characters were fun and lively, the story was epic without being overly stereotypical, the setting was unique.
In short, it really did rejuvenate my interest in the genre. There were other good games coming out around the same time, but this spark really just helped to rekindle things for me. I haven’t known many people who had acquired and played it on the original Dreamcast like myself, but rather the re-release on Gamecube, Skies of Arcadia: Legend. It did seem like a short time to wait between a release and a re-release, but I was happy to see the game return to wider audiences.
I had difficulty cutting these down to just five games. There are so many other games I could gush about for entirely longer than is socially acceptable, and I can only hope that people would be interested in reading or listening to it. I love hearing other people floon on and on about this as much as I like doing it – leave us a comment, let me know what RPG’s you’ve been influenced by.