Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Top 10 Role-Playing Games

Well, I finally cracked and made it: my list of top 10 RPGs. This was extremely difficult seeing as how I’ve played dozens over the course of my life, but after some forceful encouragement from my girlfriend I was able to narrow it to 10 games. Some people will obviously think my list is crazy, and that there are some true classics missing. To this I say, I was born in 1986 and was therefore too young to play some of the truly old-school, original RPGs. Plus, I like to think that I grew up in the golden age of RPG rejuvenation of the mid-90s, and since all I had was a paper route it was quite hard to afford all the games I wanted to play. I was also a console gamer for the vast majority of my gaming life (including today), so that alone limits my potential library of RPGs quite a bit. Still, as my very wise friend Casey told me, “you played what you liked – no shame in making that list dude.” So, without further ado (and despite any fear of reader backlash), I give you my, Graduated Gamer’s, undisputed* list of the top 10 RPGs of all time!

10) Mass Effect 2

Oh Shepard, my Shepard!
With sexy alien lovin’, a rugged rogue hero, and humanity in danger of extinction, the Mass Effect series had everything a sci-fi fan could want. This may not be a traditional RPG, but the ability to build and level a party of players with different strengths and weaknesses from across the galaxy it still counts in my book. Plus, you’re basically on a one-man mission to save the universe as we know it from certain doom, and it doesn’t get much more RPG than that. The first Mass Effect was great as an intro, but the second installment had better characters (including cameos from the first game) and even better choices that affected the way you played makes the second installment trump the original. Oh, and the Geth Pulse Rifle is possibly the best weapon in a modern RPG I’ve ever seen.

9) Dark Cloud 2

Bringing a wrench to a sword fight is a bad idea.
Dark Cloud is an easily overlooked series from the PS2 era, but any fan of RPGs would be remiss to pass up a gem like this. The cell-shaded look made this game a beauty to look at and play, and still holds up well even to this day (and I’d love to see what an HD remake would look like). The true star of this game was the mix of two classes that are classic staples of the genre: inventor and warrior. One character is all toughness and is your go-to for up-close-and-personal encounters, whereas the other uses ranged weapons like guns and other clever “toys” to get by. Mix in the use of randomly generated dungeons and an original and touching story and you’ve got a classic RPG for the generation.

8) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

If you played Skyrim, you likely died a lot and saw this screen too much.
“Let me guess: someone stole your sweetroll?” This game…seriously man, this game. I hadn’t sunk 100+ hours into a single playthrough of a game since Final Fantasy VII, but Skyrim easily stole 120+ hours of my life and I don’t think I even bat an eyelash when I found out. If there’s one thing that RPGs love to do, it’s send you on side quests to either distract you from the main story or give you more background to why you do what you do. Skyrim did an amazing job with the balance of the side quests and especially with the way they made you realize just how alive the world was around you while you were off gallivanting around as the Dragonborn. The specialty/trait trees added a nice spin to traditional leveling up and did a great job of getting you to think critically about the choices you made in the game and when assigning your next attribute. I’m actually afraid to pick it back up for another go around, it’s that addicting.

7) Final Fantasy VII

Iconic image is iconic.
Now before you jump down my throat about what many people consider the “best RPG of all time” only being #7 on my list, hear me out. Yes, this game essentially single-handedly brought the genre back to the forefront of gamers’ minds, and yes it was visually stunning (well, the CGI was at least), and yes it had an amazing hero-villain duo, and yes Aerith’s death was heart-wrenching. And yes, when I list all those things out and paired with the fact I’ve played it through 100% on three separate occasions makes me doubt its low position on the list. However, it’s more a gut feeling for me rather than the game’s influence on the industry. I tend to be a very emotional player and tend to connect more with a game via my heart than my head, and looking back I liked a lot of the characters, and thought they were all cool and badass; but I only loved a few of them. If you asked me 15 years ago, this game would be tops, but alas I grew up, and so did my tastes.

6) Final Fantasy Tactics

Dear Square( Enix): never stop making beautiful cover art.
If it not for a very unfortunate series of events, this game could very well be higher on my list. About 9 years ago, I played the hell out of this game. I think an entire summer was spent either playing SOCOM with my dad, or playing Final Fantasy Tactics late into the night. I lost many hours of sleep getting lost into a truly fantastical world of chivalry, knights, ladies, might, magic, and other wondrous things that little boys grow up dreaming about while building their LEGO Castle sets. I was so close to beating the game, and one night I saved before the final battle so I could tackle it when fresh from a full night’s rest. However, I was also going up north for vacation the next day with my parents, and in the process of packing I somehow lost my memory card. It was never seen again and to this day I’ve never actually beat Final Fantasy Tactics. Still, because the game was so memorable and the story so deep, it haunts me to this day as one of my biggest gaming regrets. [Also, go easy on me and avoid spoilers if you can.]

5) Fallout 3

"I don't want to set the world on fire."
This game was my introduction into western RPGs, and I don’t think I could have picked a better game. I never played the original PC Fallout games, but I did my research beforehand and realized I was in for a treat…and Fallout 3 did not disappoint. One of the best gaming moments for me ever was when I first stepped outside after escaping Vault 101 and blinking off the sun’s harsh light stared amazed at the harsh wasteland before me. From that point every quest, every pocket picked, every mole rat squashed was a lesson in what the western world could and should do with role-playing games. Despite the glitches (to be expected with a game of this size), I’ve never had so much fun exploring a desolate wasteland before, and I’m eagerly awaiting Fallout 4 (understatement).

4) Pokémon Red/Blue

Pokemon Rap Battle...GO!
What can I say about the games that started it all that hasn’t already been said? Not only was this game filled with 151 adorable creatures to catch and collect obsessively like a hoarder, but underneath the cutesy façade lied a complex game that relied as much on strategy and a little bit of luck as much as it did on grinding. For those of us lucky enough to experience this game when it released in the 90s, we’ll never forget the memorable moments that blew away our conventions of what an RPG should be, especially on a handheld. Whether it was sitting under tress during recess with cables running between bulky green-screen GameBoys, or running home after school to battle the next gym leader, my time spent with the first versions of Game Freak and Nintendo’s series about pocket monsters that became a massive hit will always be remembered fondly.

3) Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Peach obviously isn't happy about placing third..
Seriously, you know you’ve got a winning combination when Nintendo pairs with Squaresoft to make a JRPG starring everyone’s favorite mustachioed plumber. What made this game so fantastic was it took Mario out of his platforming safe-zone and dropped him smack dab into a world filled with magical star powers, evil wedding cakes, and, of course, hit points. The 3D look of this SNES game was gorgeous to behold in its time. To me though, the characters in this amazing mash-up are the reason the game shines. Princess Peach is no longer the helpless victim and instead busts heads with an iron skillet and a parasol (I’ll admit, it’s a bit sexist); newcomers Mallow and Geno are two of the best one-time characters of any RPG with their mix of heart-warmingly epic and tragic tales; and Bowser is seen in a new light as vulnerable when he’s kicked form his own castle, and even shows us his talent as a wordsmith when he waxes poetic to the gamer (hands-down the best representation of Bowser ever). For a game that seems to not take itself too seriously it is amazing difficult, even requiring gamers to grind intensely in the first hour of the game just to beat earlier mini-bosses. But if you move past the early frustrations, you’ll be treated to one of the best games the genre has ever offered. A must-play for any fan.

2) Final Fantasy IX

*gets misty eyed* ...IT'S DUSTY IN HERE! I'M CUTTING ONIONS!
The Final Fantasy series is filled with so many amazing games, and I truly believe that it’s hard to pick the best one without inserting so much subjectivity. With that in mind, here we go. Final Fantasy IX is, in my opinion, the best game of the series that I’ve played. I will admit that I only got part-way through Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VIII, and I haven’t played a game in the series since Final Fantasy X-2 (yes I played it, and I enjoyed it judgers!), but to this day, even when compared to Final Fantasy VII, nothing will ever compete with the whimsical world of Final Fantasy IX. Over the course of my life I’ve played hundreds of games, and I can easily count on one hand the number of games that caused my emotions to stir so much that it brought tears to my eyes, and this is one of them (to this day, “Melodies of Life” still gives me goosebumps). The love story of Zidane and Dagger is enough to make even a 6’4” bearded man quiver a lip, and the completely tragic existence of my all-time favorite FF character, Vivi, made the 12 year old me search his soul about the meaning of his own existence. Of course there are some flaws with the game, especially the ending where things become a bit confusing and convoluted, but as I said earlier I play more with my heart and when a game still gives you pause over a decade later, you know you’ve got a winner. To not have this in my RPG collection would be a mortal sin.

1) Earthbound

If this is what you think the game looks like, you're gonna be very confused.
And here we are: my #1 RPG of all time. I can’t accurately tell you when my love affair with this game began, but it was a long time ago. I’m talking a time where I had to beg my mom to take me to Blockbuster to rent a game once a week. A time where Funcoland was the big dog in the second-hand video game industry. A time where innocence reigned in my life and the goofy troubles and pressures of a boy named Ness spoke to the childhood version of me more than it ever could with each passing year. The issue with Earthbound is that it isn’t meant to be played by hardcore RPG gamers. It’s meant to be played by casual gamers, especially if they’re younger, because the game, while difficult at times, is light-hearted and speaks to the innocence of youth but the inherent pressures on that same generation of youngsters to one day “save the world”. I may have been an outlier by playing and beating it as a 9 year old, but the game was a dream to me and I felt like I was in a fantasy every time I booted it up. Even the soundtrack is trippy as all hell, but it works with the ever-quirky nature of the game. The humor is top notch, causing numerous laugh-out-loud moments. The writers for Earthbound should be on the staff of every game not trying to be a soap opera (I’m looking at you, Metal Gear 5). Also, the developers clearly had an appreciation for American culture (or a healthy sense of humor about it), because for a JRPG it has a decent amount of western themes (prayer, father-son issues) and references (Blues Brothers, fast food). The game can certainly give hardcore fans of the genre something to remember, as Earthbound is not only a length RPG but also a difficult one to boot. However, unless you played it in its prime during the glory days of the SNES, and unless you’ve retained a decent amount of youthful innocence, a lot of what makes this game #1 in my mind might just go right over your head….but you should still play it because it’s amazing!

[*Actually, it’s okay to dispute this list if you want.]

Making this list was a pain, mostly because there are so many games that are worthy of high praise as RPGs. Therefore, I decided to recognize those that were in the mix but didn't make the final cut to the top 10. Basically, this is just another chance for everyone to disagree with me, but I'm cool with that.

Honorable Mentions:
  • Dragon Quest VIII
  • Paper Mario 
  • Mass Effect 
  • Final Fantasy X 
  • Chrono Trigger 
  • Fallout: New Vegas

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