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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Wildermyth

A game which combines turn-based tactical combat, resource gathering and character building a la XCOM and even has procedurally generated characters and story points, leading to a unique tale and ongoing world-building each time you play it.  But does Wildermyth actually succeed where several games before it have failed, or does it just fall prey to the fate so many procedurally-generated adventures do and start to feel stale after a while?


2021's Wildermyth promises a lot - a game that manages to have not just a heavy focus on character building and tactical combat, but procedurally generated characters and story beats too, as well as choices actually affecting the way things play out.  I was certainly skeptical upon hearing that - a lot of other games with such quests (ie Daggerfall) just begin to feel very samey after a time, with quests just feeling like stiff Mad Libs (go to Dungeon X to get Y and return within Z days) and characters failing to be memorable on any level for the same reason.  Not to mention the common problem many such games face - detailing out one intricate story path is a costly endeavor, let alone several, so you usually just get one story that remains 95% the same save for changing a few lines of dialog.

So I was actually surprised that Wildermyth manages to pull off what it sets out to do, and doesn't fall prey to feeling like a stiff fill-in-the-blank.  Characters actually feel well-realized and interact in realistic ways, developing rivalries or romances (sometimes depending upon your choices) and their dialog changes accordingly, always feeling surprisingly natural as it does.  Story points are randomized to an equal degree, but are written just as well, affording opportunities for storytelling in addition to occasional boons (or disadvantages) for your characters.  Even falling in combat affords more storytelling chances than most - characters can sometimes sacrifice an item to get away, survive but lose a limb, or even sacrifice themselves to save one of their allies, which will give them a temporary boost that might just turn the tide of the battle in their favor.  All nice ways to avoid the old trope of "just hit reload', and all open doors for future story beats.  Characters who manage to survive in spite of everything will also age and eventually retire, (with Warriors doing so the earliest, Mystics the latest) so recruiting fresh blood whenever possible is a good idea.  You can even choose to memorialize deceased characters or let them be forgotten, which will shape your world's history and legends in the long run.

Combat itself is a fairly simple affair, with grid-based movement and turn-based actions, though you're afforded the freedom to move your teammates in any order during your turn.  Characters fall under one of three basic classes - Warrior, Hunter or Mystic - and gains new abilities upon each level earned, which allow for quite a bit of customization.  A few such abilities include getting throwing knives (weak but usable as a free action up to three times per battle), traps to damage and ensnare enemies, or the ability to light tiles (or enemies) on fire to damage enemies that pass through them.  Magic also works in a different way than in most games; rather than simply conjuring fire or projectiles from thin air, one must "infuse" their magic into environmental objects, which can then be used offensively in a number of ways - ropes or cloth can entangle foes, braziers can set them ablaze, and wood can send a hail of splinters at them. 

Between battles, one is taken to a map screen, where the action unfolds somewhat like a 4X game - moving to new territories, clearing them of enemies, and improving them to gather one of the game's five major resources - ingots, hide, fabric, heartwood and spellthread - on a yearly basis.  These in turn are utilized to craft new equipment or upgrade existing gear (by adding magical enchantments).  In addition, one has two choices for improving each tile - they can do a quicker job just to get the resources more quickly, or they can do a slower job but have a chance of getting a random item from it.  In addition, one can fortify tiles to slow down enemy raids and thin their numbers.  In general, one is only given a set number of days to complete a chapter, though clearing out enemy strongholds can extend it to a point, so managing one's time is an important strategic element.  This gets further complicated by the fact that your heroes can only heal over time; faster in a relatively safe, barricaded stronghold and much slower while they're travelling.  Still, you'll have to enter battle when your characters aren't all at their best, especially on higher difficulty settings where the enemy raids become frequent and aggressive.

Something else to note is that the enemies will grow stronger over time, adding new cards to their "decks" and gaining bonuses to their health, armor, damage, et cetera; the player can spend Legacy Points to avoid this as a timed event, but as these are also spent on other important things (recruiting heroes and improving tiles), this is best done sparingly.  They will also unavoidably gain at least one new card after every battle, and a couple of cards will be subtracted when you successfully complete a chapter, though they may gain more during certain events as well.

Fittingly, the player has their own means to offset this; the most prominent of which is the aforementioned crafting system.  Between battles, the player can utilize their resources to craft stronger gear than what they currently have.  Winning battles and story events will give them a choice of gear as well, though unusually for games of this type, equipment is a one-time use deal - once a character equips something, they cannot trade it to another character or remove it without replacing it with something else (an intentional choice to prevent the game from devolving into tedious inventory management).  Still, you're always given an exact readout of what benefits and drawbacks any piece of equipment will give you (as well as an online encyclopedia for all key gameplay elements only ever being a button-click away), so you can weigh risks and make informed choices.

So, while earlier games attempted it to varying degrees of success, Wildermyth is one of the few I've seen that actually lets your choices have a tangible effect on the narrative.  Being able to have a character make a noble sacrifice to save his friends, seeing them develop rivalries and romances (and have their children take up arms when they come of age) and eventually have them pass into legend is all stuff I haven't really seen before, save in something like Dwarf Fortress.  The tactical and 4X elements of the game are relatively simple, but still engaging; especially on higher difficulties, having to balance your time while continuing your campaign against the enemy hordes is a surprisingly harrowing task.  But even in spite of all this, it's surprisingly light on micromanagement and tedium, letting you get fully engrossed in your characters and see the history of your world get built before your eyes.  It's got a lot to offer for tactical 4X fans and fans of well-crafted storytelling alike; generally just great stuff.


Developer: Worldwalker Games
Publisher: Worldwalker Games, Whispergames
Platform: PC
Released: 2021
Recommended version: N/A

Tags: Strategy RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Collection-Fest, Crafting System, Multiple Story Paths, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Anywhere, Humorous

Monday, September 13, 2021

21 Best RPGs of the Decade (1990-1999)

The same rules apply as my previous list - the game still has to be fun to play today, and I'm only including one game per franchise to keep the list more diverse.  Which is definitely no easy task when the '90s is my favorite decade of gaming and had so many groundbreaking classics from immensely talented companies!

21. Parasite Eve (Square, 1997)

While not the first RPG to combine horror elements into the mix, it is the first to utilize CD technology to really bring it to life, showing off a lot of CGI spectacle to really immerse you in the gravity of the scenario.  Its visual style was also inspired quite a bit by Resident Evil with its fixed camera angles and grotesque monsters, but in terms of gameplay it couldn't be more different, having you evade enemy attacks in real-time until your turn bar fills and then take aim (while paused) to attack, use a spell or recover with an item.  It also has a very in-depth weapon customization system, letting you take stat bonuses and special properties from your old guns and snap them into new ones to create ridiculous uberweapons, which is quite a bit of fun.  While not the deepest game ever and it is fairly short (about 10-12 hours for a first playthrough), the combination of spectacle, a surprisingly good story and some unique gameplay make it one I've always really liked.

20. Breath of Fire (Capcom, 1994)

Capcom made a fair number of RPGs on the Famicom, but it wasn't until the SNES era that they finally took a big leap and created one based on an original IP rather than a licensed property.  They certainly made a strong first showing, too, with a game that featured large, fluidly-animated character sprites, had some fantastic music, told a good tale and even surprisingly well-paced combat and gameplay with some light Metroid-esque elements - you'd encounter quite a lot of treasures and areas you couldn't reach on your first visit, but returning later with a new character or ability would allow you to get at them.  While certainly not the best-balanced game ever (particularly with Karn's comically broken fusion magic), its strong imagination and entertaining design ensure that it's still one of my favorites.

19. Shining Force II (Sonic!  Software Planning, 1994)

The Sega Genesis wasn't a platform widely-known for RPGs, mostly being focused on pushing its fast-paced action games and competitive sports titles, but that didn't stop it from having some great examples of the genre.  Shining Force was definitely one, wowing gamers with its large, well-animated character sprites reminiscent of a cartoon series and turn-based tactical combat that had you battling hordes of monsters across enormous maps.  Shining Force II continues in much the same vein, though on a greater scale, letting you explore the entire world at your leisure and recruit thirty different characters to use in battles (up to ten at a time).  It really felt like an animated series was unfolding before your eyes on screen, and that was pretty damn awesome to behold in the '90s.  Shame that Shining Force hasn't had a proper entry since the Saturn era, as I'd love to see it make a comeback in HD!

18. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (Nintendo/Square, 1996)

The SNES was on its way out in 1996, but that didn't stop Nintendo and Square from making one hell of a last hurrah for the platform.  Mario RPG perfectly blended everything great about both worlds - Square's mastery of inventive RPG mechanics and Mario's platforming gameplay with the CGI style of Donkey Kong Country - and the end result was a creative, fun and memorable journey packed to the brim with minigames, humor and some inventive mechanics that continue to be used today; particularly having timed button presses in combat to deal more damage and receive less of it yourself.  Fans have been clamoring for a proper sequel for more than two decades now, and though neither Nintendo or Square seem interested, that hasn't stopped them (or numerous fans) from making a lot of games that copy its format to a T.

17. Diablo (Blizzard North, 1996)

Diablo was a culmination of a lot of elements from earlier games - the loot-gathering and keyword-based weapons and armor of games like Might and Magic, the randomly generated dungeon levels of games like Rogue, and top-down, real-time tactical action of games like Darklands and Ultima VII, and it blended all of them togther into a masterful and addictive experience.  Its atmosphere was impeccable as well, taking advantage of the CD format with some surprisingly good voiceover and menacing ambient music that perfectly conveyed the dark horror of the game's setting, and some impeccable writing certainly didn't hurt matters either. While largely overshadowed by its sequel these days (in no small part because of the superior multiplayer support it had), Diablo was a killer title for 1996 and a classic in its own right.


16. Panzer Dragoon Saga (Team Andromeda, 1998)

The game that should have saved the Sega Saturn in the west, it ultimately fell prey to yet another boneheaded Sega decision; it was only released in extremely limited quantities and then the platform discontinued entirely shortly after, leaving Sega without a horse in the race for an entire year so they could focus on hyping up the Dreamcast (and we all know how well that went... sigh).  It really is a shame so few people got to enjoy it too, as PDS is a fantastic experience.  A fully voice-acted cinematic experience featuring absolutely stunning visuals for the Saturn and possessing a phenomenal soundtrack by Saori Kobayashi and Mariko Nanba, it's easily the most impressive Saturn game on just those merits.  The gameplay is brilliant too, melding free-flight puzzle solving and a creative real-time combat system where you maneuver around your enemies to strike at their vulnerable points while staying out of danger zones yourself, unleash barrages of homing lasers or shots from your character's pistol, and can even morph your dragon at any time (even mid-fight) to alter its properties, focusing on strength, magic, speed or defense or a balance thereof.  This really could have been a game to compete with Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation, but alas, Sega's mismanagement and the source code since being lost ensure this is one that's doomed to obscurity.  At least until Megapixel gets around to working on a remake to go with their excellent remake of the original Panzer Dragoon games.

15. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami, 1997)

Before Symphony of the Night, Castlevania was a franchise mostly known as one of the quintessential "Nintendo Hard" platformers,  getting praise for its strong presentation but also much shouting at its insane difficulty.  Castlevania II went for a slightly more open-world RPG approach but was criticized for its lackluster presentation that made figuring out the puzzles very difficult.  Still, that didn't stop Konami from taking another crack at the format years later, and the result was a genre-defining masterpiece.  Not playing as a Belmont this time (save in the intro and as a bonus game mode), you were instead put in the role of Alucard, and progression was anything but linear - you explored a vast castle, collecting powerups and a huge variety of weapons, items, shields and armor, and you could customize your loadout however you liked to take on the various challenges.  You weren't even done once you got to the top, either, as a whole second dungeon full of new challenges awaited, though only if you deciphered all the clues and figured out the game's biggest puzzle before you got there.  A defining title for sure and, still to this day, probably the best Castlevania game ever made.

14. Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete (Game Arts, 1999)

The Lunar titles were definitely regarded as some of the best the Sega CD had to offer.  I didn't play 'em, though - like many people, I never had a Sega CD as a kid.  The prohibitively high price point, as well as the unimpressive, grainy-looking FMV games that Sega insisted on pushing over anything that was actually worth playing, didn't make it seem like something worth the investment.  But when both the Lunar titles had remakes announced for the Playstation 1, you can bet I was on board to check them out.  They definitely didn't disappoint, either, telling their stories through high-quality animated FMVs and surprisingly good voiceover for the time (including a few song numbers), a strong sense of humor and some very challenging gameplay which was largely traditional turn-based RPG fare, yet featured a few clever twists (having a slight tactical bent to its open-field combat).  As usual Working Designs also went all-in on the presentation even with the packaging, including bonuses like a cloth map, a foil-stamped box and even a very nice-looking hardcover manual and player's guide reminiscent of old big-box PC games.  Great stuff all around.

13. StarTropics (Nintendo, 1990)

This is a pick that's likely to be divisive, especially as I've placed it above several other beloved classics of the period, but I don't care - I love me some Startropics.  Essentially a cartoonier and more irreverent Zelda set in modern times, you played as Mike Jones, who has ventured to an island chain in the southern hemisphere in search of his missing uncle.  There are plenty of puzzle-laden dungeons along the way, wherein you battle enemies with things like yo-yos, bolas and mirrors to deflect their shots, and as the adventure continues it takes on some very creative and funny twists; from pirates to submarines to aliens, it's got a constant sense of irreverent fun.  It also had a pretty creative in-box item in the form of a letter you'd have to dip in water when prompted to get a password; neat idea, but it proved problematic for a lot of gamers who bought the game secondhand (or played it via emulation years later).  Every time I play Startropics it brings me back to a time when games were just imaginative, quirky adventures that didn't take themselves so damn seriously, and for that I'll always treasure it.

12. Final Fantasy VII (Square, 1997)

Final Fantasy VII was the first game in the series to not be released for a Nintendo platform, which got quite a lot of backlash from long-time fans who felt (and still feel) compelled to hate on it for that no matter how good it actually was.  Admittedly I don't think it's flawless myself, particularly for its overly easy difficulty level and some rather weird directing at times, but I can't deny that it's been a huge influence on my gaming career, myself in general and gaming as a whole.  The story was much grimmer and darker than anything that had come before in Final Fantasy, melding psychological themes, deep interpersonal interactions and grim science fiction into the usual fantasy mix, and the music and FMV capabilities of the CD format were used perfectly to enhance the experience and make it truly unsettling.  The ability to customize your character so heavily via the Materia system was pretty innovative stuff for the time, and the usual monotony of RPGs was broken up with some surprisingly involved minigames and subquests to undertake.  There's still a lot of fun and value to be found in Final Fantasy VII even today, and even a lot of mediocre copycats in the following years couldn't diminish that.

11. Final Fantasy Tactics (Square, 1998)

The first offshoot of Final Fantasy that really became a classic in its ownr ight, and for good reason as it brought a new dimension of depth and quality to what was already a highly regarded franchise.  Headed by Yasumi Matsuno (known for the Ogre Battle franchise), the game worked in elements of Tactics Ogre and the mix-and-match class system of Final Fantasy V to brilliant effect, giving the player plenty of options to deal with the game's challenging tactical combat.  You could have knights who wield guns, monks who can wear armor, flying bards, time mages who can summon monsters, or anything in between, and you'd probably need them in the later stages when the difficulty really started ramping up.  The story was an excellent one too, telling a complex tale of political rivals duking it out to rule Ivalice while sinister forces pulled strings behind the curtains, and one of the protagonist's friends letting his own abitions get the better of him.  While it does get pretty ridiculously unbalanced in the late game, mostly just boiling down to "one-shot the enemy or he'll one-shot you", it's nonetheless a stellar experience and remains my favorite game under the Final Fantasy banner to this day.

10. Illusion of Gaia (Quintet, 1994)

While they never attained the same level of success as giants like Square, Quintet is nonetheless a company that retains a cult following for its strong design and compelling storytelling.  Illusion of Gaia is my favorite of their SNES outings, telling a deep interpersonal tale between a group of friends who go on a world-spanning adventure seeking both Will's father and the truth of the world's current state.  Several locations are based on real-life ones including the pyramids and the Nazca lines, which really does give it more a  personal and epic feel, and the soundtrack is phenomenal - orchestral and brimming with mood and atmosphere.  An unforgettable journey with one of the greatest endings in any work even today, Illusion of Gaia may not be the most talked-about SNES RPG, but to me, it's a masterpiece.

9. Fallout 2 (Black Isle, 1999)

The original Fallout made waves in 1997 for being a legitimate role-playing experience, letting you approach almost every problem you're given in numerous ways and solve them using a number of approaches; diplomatically, stealthily or guns blazing were all equally valid choices, and hell, it was even possible to complete the game without firing a single shot (though you would have to run from quite a few random encounters).  Fallout 2 takes that same approach but expands it tenfold, dwarfing the original game in terms of content and adding many features sorely lacking from the original - better party AI (and the ability to equip followers with new weapons and armor), expanded and more useful Perks overall, and even the ability to repair and drive a car around.  It also kicked off the Black Isle game trend of having a lot of unaddressed bugs and several hinted questlines missing, but nonetheless, Fallout 2 is a fantastic game.

8. Planescape: Torment (Black Isle, 1999)

Planescape: Torment was an odd beast, especially for being made in an engine intended to provide a relatively accurate facimile of D&D rules in an engine built around real-time combat.  Torment does have some of that, but its primary focus is on its storytelling, with over a million words of written text and dialog to peruse and a complex plot centered around your main character - a heavily scarred immortal known only as "the Nameless One" seeking the reason behind his existence.  Your immortality does come into play in some clever ways too, letting you do things like swap out extremities (eyeballs in particular) or die to take a shortcut back to a respawn zone.  The setting is equal parts grotesque and fascinating, with a lot of extremely bizarre characters, scenarios and setpieces to interact with as you solve quests.  Admittedly, it's not a flawless experience - the endgame mostly just devolves into repetitious combat and the resolution feels rather abrupt given all the buildup it gets - but even with those faults, Torment is a landmark for storytelling in games and still the best Infinity Engine title ever made.

7. Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millennium (Sega, 1995)

The great finale of Sega's Phantasy Star franchise, and what a way to go out.  Coming on a 24-megabit cartridge that ran over $100 at launch (ouch), it nonetheless made every effort to be worth that extra investment - the story scenes are told though high-quality manga style panels and the game's presentation is excellent - large, smoothly-animated sprites for both party members and enemies, and some fantastic music that ranks among the finest on the Sega Genesis.  Several recurring story elements from the series that were long left ambiguous (like Dark Force/Falz) are finally given context here, and the protagonists are a widely varied and interesting cast of characters (notably including a playable Motavian and Dezolian for the first time in the series).  Combat has some brilliant innovations too, including the ability to program your own Macros to speed up random encounters or get all your party buffs out the turn a boss battle begins, as well as being able to combine two or more spells together to get a more powerful effect (predating Chrono Trigger's implementation of the idea).  More proof that isn't so much a console's tech that counts as the way it's used, Phantasy Star IV is an immortal classic with quality to rival any of the greats on the Super Nintendo, or even the Playstation.

6. Grandia (Game Arts, 1999)

Another fine RPG from Game Arts, though it never got nearly the same level of attention as their Lunar franchise did despite featuring a fantastic cast of characters in its own right, as well as some great gameplay innovations of its own.  Combat in particular is excellent, with an innovative gameplay feature that causes all characters' turns to operate on a time scale somewhat similar to Final Fantasy's ATB system, though you also have the ability to delay or even cancel enemy turns entirely with well-timed attacks - hitting them with a Critical blow between the time they pick an action and it actually executes will cancel it and push them back quite a ways on the timeline (though they can do the same to you as well, so blocking or selecting another course of action is a key component of doing well).  It had a rather fun magic system too, letting you build up affinities in the four elements to unlock new spells as well as combine them together into powerful new effects; Fire plus Earth gives you Lava magic for example, while Water plus Wind would give you Ice.  That, plus sprawling, dynamic dungeons with a focus on puzzles and a clever mix of 2D sprites and 3D environments gave it a unique look and feel compared to most PS1/Saturn RPGs that relied on static backgrounds.

5. Suikoden II (Konami, 1999)

A fantastic RPG on the PS1 that nobody played, though I can't really blame them for that - Konami decided that they would only print 30,000 copies of the game in North America and not a single one more, so those that didn't get it immediately upon launch were just plain out of luck.  Those few that got to play it, though, were in for a sublime experience.  A wonderfully-crafted wartime tale of friendship, betrayal and putting aside petty squabbles for a greater good, it also served as a brilliant continuation of the first game's story, with numerous characters returning for this tale (and a few who debuted here returning once again for 3).   Hell, if you had a Suikoden 1 save on your memory card, you could even unlock some bonus scenes and utilize that game's protagonist as a playable character, which is just awesome.  The game, as per series standards, has a large cast of characters (over 60 playable, plus plenty more to recruit and staff your castle with), though the brilliant design ensures that any who are behind in levels can quickly get caught up.  It stuck to 2D graphics at a time when Sony was really pushing 3D, but made every effort to prove that art style was far from dead - its characters are all detailed, expressive and fluidly animated, making it one of the best looking PS1 games there is.

4. Chrono Trigger (Square, 1995)

Chrono Trigger is one of the first RPGs I remember really being blown away by - up to that point I'd only really played a couple of the Zelda games and Dragon Warrior 1 on the NES, so seeing a game that had the same gameplay design, but such a dynamic element to its presentation, was pretty crazy to see.  With character designs by Akira Toriyama, environments by Tetsuya Takahashi and distinct, expressive characters and enemies alike, the game looked incredible.  The gameplay missed no beats either, taking the ATB system of Final Fantasy to a fevered pace and adding in a creative new element in Dual and Triple Techs - letting two or three characters combine spells together for powerful (and flashy) new effects.  Top that with a great storyline that utilizes time travel in some very creative ways (letting changes in the past make vast differences in future destinations) and an incredible soundtrack, and it's no surprise that Chrono Trigger is still regarded as one of the greatest games of all time.

3. Ultima VII: The Black Gate (Origin Systems, 1992)

The Ultima series seemed to up the ante in every subsequent game released during its heyday, and Ultima VII was definitely no exception.  A vast, sprawling open virtual RPG at a time when that concept was virtually unheard of, it was a sight to behold for 1992.  The impeccable standards for storytelling and design were no less impressive, building an oppressive atmosphere that, while outwardly inviting and familiar, quickly gives way to something very wrong going on behind the scenes.  There was a lot to love for long-time series fans too, with plenty of nods to the events of previous games; in particular, the "Forge of Virtue" addon was a nice way to conclude some lingering plot threads from earlier in the series, as well as give you a major power boost for the rest of the game.  Sadly this was the last Ultima game before Electronic Arts bought out Origin, so later entries would suffer a severe hit in quality owing to constrictive development schedules and much of the series alumni being unceremoniously fired one-by-one, so it also stands as a sad reminder of what could have been...

2. Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, 1992)

The Super Nintendo already blew us away with Super Mario World, so we were of course eager to see where they would go with a Zelda game.  Link to the Past definitely did not disappoint, taking the exploration and secret hunting, fast-paced combat and puzzle-driven approach to dungeons and boss battles and giving it a massive 16-bit upgrade.  The sheer number of items you had at your disposal this time dwarfed both of the NES games, as did the world design itself, giving every region of the overworld a very unique and distinct feel.  Then, of course, came the big revelation that you weren't exploring just one world this time, but two - you entered a darker version of Hyrule corrupted by Ganon's magic, similar in many ways to the original but vastly more dangerous and oppressive, and got the ability to travel between them to find even more secrets and paths to progress.  That was all pretty brilliant, and then you add in a high-stakes story with a continuous narrative, some iconic and distinctive visuals and a downright fantastic soundtrack, and you get my favorite Zelda game of all time.  Simply a masterpiece.

1. EarthBound (APE/HAL Laboratory, 1995)

Earthbound went largely ignored at the time of its release - its simplistic comic-strip-esque visual style, lack of animated characters in combat and overall irreverent mood resulted in it getting an apathetic reception from reviewers and it selling relatively poorly, relegating it to cult classic status at best (also probably not helped by a terrible advertising campaign which proudly boasted "this game stinks!" and featured foul-smelling scratch-and-sniff panels in magazine ads).  Those handful that gave it a chance, though, found a brilliant and captivating adventure that flipped just about every RPG trope imaginable on its head.  Taking place in modern day, you wielded baseball bats, yo-yos and frying pans for weapons, battled bizarre enemies like "Mini-Barfs", possessed policemen, Titanic Ants, cars and robots, and though there was an underlying story to it all, it took a back seat to the atmosphere - venturing through this bizarre, yet familiar world and becoming engrossed in its surreal charms and wonderful scenarios.  Pop culture fans have also since noted a lot of familiar elements - musical beats, a band that's very clearly an homage to the Blues Brothers, aliens who bear a strong resemblance to classic science fiction films among them.  Of course, it also doesn't pull punches with its darker themes - some scenarios are downright unsettling, the final stretch is still one of the most unsettling and creepy parts of any game, and your protagonist having to face his inner doubts and interact with his memories is surprisingly heavy stuff despite the cartoony aesthetic.  Simply put, it's as much an emotional and spiritual journey as an epic adventure, with the off-kilter humor only adding to the appeal of it all.  Simply brilliant, and a large part of why it's not just my pick for the best RPG of the '90s, but my favorite video game of all time.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

21 Best RPGs of the Decade (1980-1989)

A while back I did a series of articles on my main site about my picks for the 21 best games of each decade of gaming.  Well, I got to thinking pretty recently, "why not do the same for RPGs?  I've spent quite a bit of time brushing up on both new and old ones."  However, I will be abiding by two rules for these: the game still has to be fun to play today, and I'm limiting myself to one game per franchise to keep the list more diverse. 

HM. Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna (Sir-Tech Software, 1987)

Wizardry was one of the first D&D-likes to really take off, and like it's tabletop inspiration, it was nothing short of punishing - any number of things could and would kill you instantly, and the fact that such events would be automatically logged to the disk meant there was no savescumming.  So that meant a lot of grinding, luck and sheer persistence were the only things that would see you through to the end of each adventure.  Wizardry IV remains a legendary game in its own right for other reasons, though - it is both extremely creative and, bar none, the most difficult RPG ever made.  Playing as the original game's villain (Werdna) as he attempts to escape imprisonment and restore his powers, you start off extremely weak and only gain levels as you conquer more floors.  You only directly control Werdna himself; the rest of the fighting is done by minions you control at summoning circles, who are all under command of the AI (and thus, dumb as dirt),and you get to fight your way past fully armed parties of adventurers. Puzzles are based in obscure mythology and ridiculously punishing if you get them wrong, and to top it all off, there's a time limit. Yep, if you don't reahh a certain point in real time (or enough turns in later releases), the ghost of your old nemesis Trebor shows up and kills you instantly. Oh, and there's no checkpoints - failure at any point means starting from scratch.  So, if you fancy yourself an RPG master and able to overcome even the most masochistic of design, this game was made just for you. 

21. Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World (New World Computing, 1988)

The first Might and Magic was definitely an enormous and ambitious dungeon crawler, especially for 1986.  I never managed to complete it, though - being heavy on damage-sponging, status-spamming monsters and requiring hours upon hours of grinding for cash and experience always ensured that even with maps and guides, it just got to be arduous before long.   Might and Magic II, however, was more my speed.  Upgrading from CGA to VGA graphics gave it a much cleaner and quite nice look, and it's gameplay was much better paced - while still difficult, it was much better paced. Enemies gave much more XP and money per battle, and there were plenty of ways to sneakily earn yourself items and boost your stats (to levels far beyond the original game's) to take out some high-level enemies and earn big-time rewards.  Enchantments are equally far-out, causing you to find things like "Leather Armor +56" and "Halberd of Flames +49", which of course make you quite ridiculously powerful after you've found enough of them.  This does come at a price, though, in that encounters get ludicrously huge - once your levels hit triple digits enemies start coming at you in groups of 200-355 apiece, which is rather silly.  Still, that's only for die-hard level grinders - those just interested in solving the puzzles and finishing the story can stick to their guns, go diving through dungeons and not have to worry about boosting their characters to astronomical heights. 

20. Pool of Radiance (Strategic Simulations, 1988)

There have been a lot of games inspired by Dungeons and Dragons and quite a few that are directly tied into the license.  Pool of Radiance was one of the first to really get big, and I can definitely see why after having played it.  Taking the base rules of the tabletop game and giving combat a turn-based tactical bent, Pool of Radiance had some impressively large-scale fights that require a lot of tactics and planning to overcome, and even surprisingly inspired writing (even if a good chunk of it was relegated to passages in the manual owing to disk space limitations).  Unlike most RPGs of the era, you also didn't get experience strictly through combat - completing quests and finding loot was where the brunt of your gains came from (though ironically, since money, gems, etc. have weight in the game, you'd usually end up leaving a good chunk of it behind).

19. Makai Toushi SaGa (Final Fantasy Legend) (Square, 1989)

One of the very first RPGs on the original Game Boy and it was nothing short of an event in Japan, becoming Square's first game to sell over a million copies (yes, ironically it was not a Final Fantasy game, but the comparatively unpopular SaGa series, that broke that barrier).  Drawing inspiration from less well-known western RPGs like Phantasie and Star Command, it also had some very creative elements to set it apart - there was no traditional experience system, but rather stat/skill gains were handled through items or randomly after battles.  One could even recruit monsters to their team, who would change to new forms by eating the meat of their fallen enemies.  Nearly all weaponry in the game also has limited uses, forcing you to buy/find more on a regular basis and conserve your strongest ones for when you really need them. The game certainly wasn't wanting for challenge, either - later battles got downright sadistic in design, even to the point of wiping out your party no matter how much you leveled up beforehand, which could get pretty frustrating. Still, it's uniquely bizarre world and creativity won out, making it a fan favorite to this day. And hell, it's still the only game ever made where you can win by cutting God in half with a chainsaw; that definitely counts for something. 

18. Cadash (Taito, 1989)

 Cadash is a pretty rare sight in that it's an RPG released in arcades; a genre that usually doesn't translate very well to a platform that tends to be engineered to get more money out of players as quickly as possible. That didn't mean it wasn't good, though - quite the opposite.  You had four familiar D&D classes to choose from (Fighter, Priestess, Mage and... er, Ninja), each with their own abilities, a whole bunch of monsters to fight and traps to avoid, and even some pretty crazy boss battles.  There was even co-op for up to four players (though this requires you to have multiple cabinets connected together via its proprietary LAN system, which was a rare sight in its heyday and probably extremely unlikely to happen nowadays).  It's not a flawless experience - it gets unreasonably hard after a point with massively inflated prices on shop items, and of course you're constantly racing against the clock (with spells/purchases of more time only getting you 30 more seconds), but it's a unique and fun game that's definitely worth a try.

17. Wasteland (Interplay, 1988)

The precursor to the Fallout franchise and a beloved classic in its own right, and it's definitely easy to see why as soon as you start it up.  The huge maps, a surprisingly captivating storyline, the fact that you have a ton more skills to interact with the world with other than "just shoot stuff" (though there is plenty of that too), and some amazingly grotesque animated portraits for enemies make it quite a lot of fun.  Being a game designed for mid-80s computers does have its drawbacks, though - frequent disk-swapping is a thing, and each time you leave an area the game writes your progress to the disk whether you want it to or not, so if you're in a bad spot or have somehow managed to wedge the game into an unwinnable state, you have no choice but to overwrite your disks and start over from scratch.  Savescumming also becomes all but mandatory to make it through as well - Encounters are frequent and ridiculously dangerous, with tons of machine gun toting cyborgs that can tear your party to shreds and require equally heavy firepower to bring down, and the fact that ammo is limited means you can't simply grind your way through. Still, the imaginative setting and dark humor make it a treat from a historical perspective, especially if you're as big a fan of Fallout as I am. 

16. Rogue (A.I. Design, 1980)

A game that defined an entire genre, Rogue also has a long history itself, being created for old Unix mainframes in 1980 before getting ported to just about every commercial computer platform of the time, and it of course continues to get ports, remakes and copycats to this day owing to how popular and influential it is.  Rogue's procedurally generated dungeon floors, randomized enemies and loot (wands and potions have different effects each time you play, and equipment can randomly be cursed or enchanted, but you never know which in advance) keep it fresh and challenging, and even with its lack of graphics (everything being portrayed through ASCII symbols), it captures your imagination and keeps you hooked.  Lots of games have been built on its model - short but punishing dungeon dives with a heavy focus on random factors - but Rogue remains a highly regarded staple for good reason. 

15. Legacy of the Wizard (Nihon Falcom/Quintet/Broderbund Software, 1987)

The fourth game in the Dragon Slayer series (which in turn was one of the very first action-RPGs ever created), Legacy of the Wizard was a creative and well-executed concept. You didn't play as just one hero, but an entire family of five, with each character had their own differing stats and items to use; Xemn (the father) has a powerful axe and can push blocks around, Meyna (the mother) wields the most powerful magical items, Lyll (the daughter) jumps extremely high and can break blocks with a mattock, and Pochi, the family pet, has weak jumping and poor attack range, but being a monster himself, most enemies in the dungeon won't attack him (and he can even use them as platforms).  Finally, Roas (the son) has average stats all around, but is the only one who can wield the magic sword needed to slay the dragon and win the game. Each character would have to venture into a portion of the labyrinth near their home, access areas only they could get to, and collect one of the four crowns needed to unlock the boss chamber and battle the dragon. It's an intimidatingly large game for its time and has some rather strange mechanics (entire tomes have been written about the weird way you move blocks), but its innovative design and a kickass soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro and Mieko Ishikawa keep you glued. 

14. Willow (Capcom, 1989)

It's rare that you see a movie tie-in game on any best-of list, let alone one centered on old RPGs.  Willow is one I will gladly say deserves the recognition, though. Capcom really did put their best into everything they did, creating some distinct and memorable experiences that remain fun today. Willow actually follows the story of the film pretty faithfully, with top-down action oriented design reminiscent of Zelda and some elements of Zelda II (experience and a magic system).  Combat is slightly more involved that Zelda, though - attacking while moving results in a quick forward thrust, while standing still  results in a slower, sweeping swing, so that's something you'll have to adapt to to defeat enemies, particularly bosses.  As per Capcom standards, the visuals are excellent (I like how the wind blows and all the trees move during action segments), the music is perfectly on-point and the gameplay is polished to a fine sheen. 

13. Final Fantasy (Square, 1987)

Probably the most inaptly named franchise of all time, as Final Fantasy was a big hit in the '80s and continues to be a hugely popular franchise today, with so many sequels, spinoffs and side-games that it's almost impossible to keep track of them all.  The original game, like many Japanese RPGs, was one heavily inspired by D&D and Wizardry, letting you make any team you like out of six possible classes and undertake a world-spanning adventure to repower the four elemental crystals and stop the world from decaying.  While definitely not the best-balanced game and it has some rather irritating design choices (making sure you don't waste turns targeting dead monsters) and some infamous bugs that cause a significant number of spells and special effects to just not work, it was nonetheless an influential game, with a lot of imaginative monsters, creative elements and some very nice visuals for the time period.  Cool game for the time, but I'd say play one of the remakes nowadays. 

12. Destiny of an Emperor (Capcom, 1989)

Capcom's very first RPG, and it was a relatively unique one for its time.  Based on the manga series "Tenchi wo Kurau" which in turn was based on the Three Kingdoms Era of Chinese history, you'd expect it to be something along the lines of a grid-based tactical game; however, that's not what you get.  Instead, it's a relatively traditional JRPG with a few terms switched around - Generals are your main characters, Soldiers are your hit points, Tactics are your spells, and though you still gain experience and levels, only your main character benefits from them - the rest of your characters have fixed stats, necessitating that you dismiss weaker ones to recruit new ones so you can keep up. The game's relatively fast pace is a boon as well - you can easily blow through weaker battles against bandits and rogue units, but slow it down as the situation warrants to take on tougher foes.  It reaps the benefits of being a Capcom game too, having some nicely detailed visuals and great music. 

11. Battle of Olympus (Infinity, 1988) / Faxanadu (Hudson Soft, 1989)

As much as people like to rag on Zelda II these days, those who were around in the '80s and early '90s will be glad to point out that it was quite an influential game in its own right. Westone's Monster Land and Monster World franchises drew inspiration from it, as did two prominent NES copycats - Infinity' s Battle of Olympus and Hudson Soft/Falcom's Faxanadu (a spinoff of Xanadu, the second game in the Dragon Slayer series). Battle of Olympus opted for a more action-oriented design, with upgrades and powerups earned by exploring the world, battling monsters and completing objectives, whereas Faxanadu opted for slightly more traditional RPG design - gaining experience, gathering gold and purchasing new equipment and spells as a primary focus. Both games are solid action oriented platformer RPGs, though, and as both are still relatively affordable NES games, are well worth checking out.






 


10. Dragon Quest (Warrior) III (Chunsoft, 1988)

Probably the premier JRPG series, the first game was hugely popular in its time and the franchise has continued to be an unstoppable force in Japan, with most stores even refusing to sell the games on weekdays so kids don't skip class to go buy them.  Among them, Dragon Quest III continues to be regarded as the best of the NES era, and for good reason - it keeps the defining charm and simplicity of the series while working in a Final Fantasy style customization element, letting you pick from several classes to tweak the game's difficulty to your liking.  About halfway through the game you can even change their class, letting them carry over some stats from their original jobs while branching out into an other discipline to become even more powerful.  Story wise it also serves as a clever prequel to the first two games, with a lot of events that are only told in legend there becoming reality as you venture across the land and conquer the evils in it. 

9. Mother (Earthbound Beginnings) (Nintendo, 1989) 

The predecessor to the SNES cult classic, though it wouldn't see an official release in the west until twenty years after its sequel.  However, it became one of the first games to really be buzzed about in emulation circles, leading many fans (myself included) to play it through on an emulator and check it out.  It was a pretty innovative game for its time; while the Wizardry influence is still prevalent (especially in its in-battle menus), the game's setting was anything but, being set in modern times and featuring equally appropriate weaponry and enemies; you wield baseball bat's, boomerangs and yo-yos and do battle with runaway trucks, zombies, robots, aliens and ghosts, all while slowly uncovering the story of Ninten's great-grandfather and his mysterious disappearance. A delightful work of passion with an irresistible charm, even if it did have some uneven difficulty and require quite a bit of grinding to succeed (particularly toward the end, when the enemies get ridiculously dangerous and can easily wipe your party). 

8. Ys Book 1 and 2 (Nihon Falcom, 1989)

Ys is another example of an early action-RPG, and once again, it was handled by Falcom.  Drawing inspiration from the Hydlide series, you would 'attack' enemies by running into them, dealing more damage (and taking less yourself) when you collided from the side or behind;  however, they worked out nearly all of Hydlide's jank and grind and made a fun, fast paced and workable RPG experience.  Book 1 and 2 (a remake of the first two games) was also one of the earliest RPGs to be released on a CD-based system (the PC Engine CD), and for the '80s, it was nothing short of mind-blowing - the incredible music, the animated cutscenes, and gameplay that didn' t miss a single beat from its cartridge-based counterparts made it a premium experience. 

7. Sweet Home (Capcom, 1989)

Another influential title by Capcom and the second game on this list to be a tie-in to a film, Sweet Home was equal parts turn-based RPG, Puzzle and survival game.  As a team of five investigators exploring a haunted mansion, you had to work together in a lot of ways using each character's unique abilities - vacuuming up dust to get clues from paintings, using planks and ropes to cross gaps, unlock doors and occasionally burn your way through various hazards.  Enemies come in many forms, from hallways full of worms to ghosts to possessed suits of armor, and though you do need to level up to progress, keeping damage to a  minimum is necessary owing to your limited resources (and the fact that you cannot revive dead characters).  It got surprisingly gruesome at times too, with some shockingly gory death scenes and disturbing themes throughout.  A really cool game for its time, and even Capcom thought so too as it was one of the direct inspirations for Resident Evil. 

6. The Guardian Legend (Compile, 1988)

We've seen plenty of action-RPG hybrids on this list already, but Guardian Legend manages to put yet another unique twist on the format by melding elements of Zelda together with a top-down shoot-em-up.  Between shmup stages you venture around large mazes, battling enemies, collecting "chips" (which power your subweapons) and finding power ups for your character, which come not just in the form of new subweapons, but upgrades to health, attack power, fire rate and defense.  Shmup stages, per Compile's standards, are fast-paced and intense, though more forgiving than most in that you can sustain a few hits before dying (and there are health drops throughout, letting you get back on your feet).  Boss fights prove very challenging, though, and the final battle is definitely a challenge to overcome even if you're fully prepared for it. 

5. River City Ransom (Technos, 1989)

A definite NES cult classic, River City Ransom was a side--scrolling beat-em-up (part of the legendary Kunio franchise) that expertly blended in RPG elements to create a memorable experience.  Rather open-world too, as you could freely wander around between objectives to seek out enemies to battle for cash, which in turn could be spent in shops.  Buying food items would generally bolster your stats (and some could also be taken 'to go' and used in the field when you  needed a quick health boost), while buying skill books would let you unlock new moves, from triple-punches and kicks to turning thrown enemies into deadly projectiles that travel all the way across the screen. Innovative, hilarious and fun, as well as one of the best NES co-op titles there is. 

4. Phantasy Star (Sega, 1988)

The Sega Master System may not have caught nearly as well as the NES did in most territories, but it had some surprisingly solid games if you knew where to look.  Phantasy Star was definitely one of those; its imaginative setting, crisp graphics and the large amount of animation it sported definitely put it a leg up above most of its competition of the time. It had a definite science fiction sensibility in addition to its fantasy element, with a lot of visuals heavily inspired by Star Wars and even having you travel between three different planets throughout the adventure - the lush green planet of Palma, the icy Dezolis and the desert planet of Motavia. Vehicles came in a variety of forms too, letting you pilot a landrover, a hovercraft and an ice digger to get through hazardous terrain.   Dungeons, unlike the overworld map (and the rest of the series) were portrayed in a first-person perspective, though the smooth scrolling helped set them apart from others in the genre.  Enemies were also huge, detailed and all sported unique animation well before it came standard in other JRPGs (with Dragon Quest in particular not getting them until the Playstation 2 era).  Phantasy Star's core gameplay wasn't starkly different from others in the genre, but the presentation set it a cut above most. 

3. Starflight (Binary Systems, 1986)

Star Trek is of course another heavily influential franchise, inspiring countless video games since they started to flicker into existence.   For my money, though, they never really got much better than good old Starflight.  The game was nothing short of incredible for its time period, putting you in a stretch of the galaxy with hundreds of star systems and procedurally-generated planets to explore, and even letting you contact and interact with various alien races along the way; the plantlike Elowan, the insectoid Veloxi, and a strange, hostile race called the Uhlek who want you wiped out of existence for no clear reason (and yes, there are ship-to-ship battles, too) .  Throughout it all you were tasked with recovering resources, discovering habitable planets and unraveling the mystery of a series of devastating solar flares that have left numerous star systems barren of life.  An all-time classic that remains influential today for good reason. 

2. The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1986)

While not the first action-oriented adventure RPG out there, Legend of Zelda made an enormous impact in the NES's early days, and it's brilliant blend of combat, exploration and puzzle solving continues to be widely influential even today. It was definitely intimidating at just a glance, putting you in a vast open world armed with only a cruddy wooden sword and basically leaving you to figure everything out yourself, but that was part of the fun.  Finding a new item in a dungeon always opened up plenty of new possibilities, letting you do things like use a magic candle to burn down trees or bushes to find secrets on the overworld, blow holes in walls with bombs, or defeat otherwise-invincible enemies with a well placed arrow. Decoding all the game's secrets, discovering passages, and eventually collecting all the eight triforce pieces and defeating Ganon was a gargantuan but thoroughly enthralling task, but you weren't even done yet once that happened - there was a second quest waiting for you after, with a whole new set of dungeons, remixed secrets and even some dangerous new enemies to face.  The fact that it continues to get new  mods, fangames and speedrun even today also speak to its enormous popularity.  One of the NES's defining games whose influence cannot be understated. 

1. Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (Origin Systems, 1988)

Ultima is a legendary RPG franchise, always being focused less on mundane combat and gold grinding and more on immersing the player in a dense and imaginative new world, letting them roam freely and figure out all of its mysteries for themselves (and always being well designed enough that the puzzles never feel like a harebrained guessing game). IV in particular was a an incredibly unique concept, having you quest not to defeat some great evil, but to become a good person and lead the people of Britannia to a unified and virtuous path. V showed how a strict adherence to such a path could backfire terribly though, as the land is now under the rule of a corrupted king and the virtues turned into a draconian set of laws ("Thou shalt not lie or thou shalt have no tongue", "Thou shalt donate half thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income" etc.); and yes, town guards do try to enforce these on you. So, between that, the games intensely dangerous battles and dungeons, you have to find and join the resistance, figure out how to free the land from oppression, find Lord British and restore him to the throne; no easy task, but the compelling design, brilliant concept and enthralling storytelling keep you hooked from start to finish. Ultima V is a masterpiece and easily the best RPG of the 1980's.