Hundreds of RPGs but 5 Stand Out Above the Rest
Before we begin – there are a LOT of amazing, wonderful, top-level roleplaying games in existence that are not on my list. That takes nothing away from the games of today that are breathtaking and groundbreaking in their deliveries. These are games that helped define my personal love of the genre, games that help me enjoy the games of today even more because of what came before them.
There are also games that are not on the list that should be – and if the list was a Top 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 – they would be. But the joy about these types of lists are that they’re personal for everyone – for me, for you, for us.
Let’s enjoy them, in chronological release order!
Final Fantasy II (SNES, 1991)
One of the first games released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Final Fantasy II was an immediate purchase by my dad because of our love of the original Final Fantasy on the NES. We had no idea that this was actually the fourth game in the series (but only the second in North America, hence II and not IV) and we were absolutely blown away at the differences between the first game and what we assumed was the second game.
The story plays out like a soap-opera – complete with the main character (Cecil) being visited by his love-interest (Rosa) in the middle of the night while romantic music plays. The music is top-notch, the battle system is active-turn-based and fast, and the game quickly became one of our favorites.
This is the game I really learned how to play RPGs. I spent easily 200 hours on my own save file. My dad would print 300 pages of guides off his work computer while at work for me to read over when he got home. I spent hours walking my characters around the world map, making up my own stories with Kain (my favorite character) and constantly tried to see if I could get all my characters to maximum level.
To this day it remains my favorite RPG of all time. I own every version of the game and will own every subsequent version of the game. As to which version if my favorite? Obviously the 20th Anniversary Complete collection released on the Sony PSP. Upscaled graphics and music, all the bonus content from the GameBoy Advance version, and a new interlude story and the sequel The After Years content.
The best RPG of all time. Fight me.
Dragon Warrior IV (NES, 1992)
Known to the rest of the world as Dragon Quest IV, the series was renamed as “Dragon Warrior” in North America. If there was a game series that should be pictured next to the term “JRPG” it would be the Dragon Quest series.
The fourth game in the series introduced the heaviest story-driven element to the game yet, with five different “chapters” in the game that allowed you to play different sets of named characters with their own stories. The fifth and final chapter finally allowed you to play the main hero of the game and unite with the other characters from previous chapters to finish the overall game’s story.
While the gameplay in terms of battles is literally no different than the previous three games, there was much more traditional RPG elements included like different forms of vehicular travel and the ability to swap out characters in your main party.
But the biggest part for me, growing up, was the story. The Dragon Quest games to this day hold strong nostalgic-love in my heart and playing the remakes on DS or Nintendo Switch are delightful. Having a strong story with these characters (looking at the merchant character, originally named “Taloon” who you literally could sit in his shop all day and make money selling weapons) made it so much more impressive.
My father and I rented it over and over from the Safeway grocery store near our house until we just decided to flat-out buy the game because mom got tired of re-renting it. Hey – remember when you could rent games at the grocery store?
Lufia & the Fortress of Doom (SNES, 1993)
Sticking with the idea of “JRPG” comes one of my all-time favorite RPG series – Lufia! While the sequel game (which is actually a prequel) Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals is the far superior game, I fell in love with the world of Lufia thanks to the first game with some of the best game music I have ever heard.
I mean just listen to the “final dungeon” music. How can you NOT get pumped for this game?
The story is what kept my interest the most in this game. The hero, a descendant of the hero who beat the bad guys 99 years prior, yearns to be more than a simple guard. When trouble brews at a nearby kingdom, he rushes off to save the day. His childhood friend, Lufia, follows only to discover – the Sinistrals (the bad guys) have returned! What follows is hours of random encounters, dungeons, and unraveling the mystery of how the Sinistrals have returned to life.
There’s a high probability this game will touch your heart in painful ways. If you want the REAL story experience (although not the best gameplay experience as you’ll be going backwards in tech) play Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals first, as the sequel to Lufia & the Fortress of Doom is actually a prequel.
Chrono Trigger (SNES 1995)
What can I say about Chrono Trigger that hasn’t already been said? There’s a valid argument for this not being just the best RPG ever made, but one of the best overall games ever made. Some of the greatest RPG minds of all time between two (at the time) separate companies (Square and Enix) along with famed artist/creator Akira Toriyama created an iconic game that holds up to this day.
It has an engaging and addictive story. The music is some of the best music ever, period. The gameplay, while basic, still hinted at intuitiveness to the extent that it felt new. The characters are iconic, and a whole generation grew up and were inspired by them. Chrono, Marle, Lucca, Frog, Robo, Ayla, Magus, Schala … legends!
Throw in a bunch of different endings due to time travel, easter eggs galore, and this is arguably one of the best games ever made.
Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete (PlayStation 1999)
The original game (minus the “Story Complete”) actually released on the Sega CD in 1993 but didn’t see release to a much wider audience until 1999 on the PlayStation (and gaming mags hailed the upcoming release as a “cannot miss” item). Loving traditional RPGs, especially 2D (since Final Fantasy VII had created the “3D RPGS GO!” copycat trend), I was drawn to it immediately.
The game features animated cut scenes with music and voice acting which actually helped to increase my interest in Japanese animation/”anime” but the overall gameplay battle mechanic is TBS (turn-based-system) with random encounters – your traditional “JRPG”.
As with most RPGs, the biggest draw of this game is the story. Alex dreams of being the next Dragonmaster. He’s joined by his best friend Ramus and his love-interest Luna as they decide to investigate a cave hoping they’ll find the dragon that Dragonmaster Dyne defeated.
Sadly, due to numerous legal factors, we will likely never see a new game in this series. But this game is still iconic in so many ways with great music, an amazing story, and characters you won’t soon forget. Find a way to play it! You won’t regret it.
How about you? What are some of the defining RPG games for you? Share them in the comments below!