RPGreats now has a Discord! Come on in to talk about game music, games in general, submit reviews or just hang out!

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 series 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 reach 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 sadistic of design, this game was made just for you. 

21. 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).

20. 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, to the point where one bad encounter could wipe out your party no matter how much you leveled up beforehand.  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. 

19. Wasteland (Interplay, 1988)

Most RPGs from the '80s were heavily inspired by the likes of Dungeons and Dragons, but whether due to technological limitations or just a mass case of carbon-copying what was selling well (or both), they usually just focused on the dungeon crawling and combat and exhumed most, if not all, actual role-playing.  Wasteland was an early attempt to reintroduce that by not just giving you combat skills to master, but a bunch of other creative ways to interact with your environment - lock picking, safecracking, alarm and trap disarming, sleight of hand, metallurgy, and even some very niche ones like Cryptography and Toaster Repair (which is more useful than you'd think).  It wasn't the most fleshed out of worlds, though, so not every skill was very worthwhile to have, and it still put heavy focus on combat so you couldn't do a purely diplomatic or stealthy approach to most problems. But, it was a solid attempt at expanding beyond the tropes of the day, and it told quite a fun story with a quirky sense of humor, even if you did have to have the manual handy for much of it (and it included quite a few fake passages with bogus passwords, so just reading straight through it wasn't an easy cheat). A fine precursor to games like Fallout. 

18. 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 experience, with a lot of imaginative monsters, creative elements and some very nice visuals for the time period.  A game-changer for the time, but I'd say play one of the remakes nowadays. 

17. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (Konami, 1988)

The sequel to the original classic Castlevania, which, like Zelda II, tried to change up its action-driven format into something more akin to an RPG.  Also like Zelda II, it wasn't quite as well-received by fans for a number of reasons, chief among them being its lackluster translation that made a number of essential clues much more difficult to decipher.  Still, those who could persevere through that found a game with a lot to offer- the same high-quality presentation that became a series trademark, a number of dungeons to explore, a couple of big bosses to fight, and a lot of creative upgrades and sub-weapons to unlock throughout.  It may not be regarded as one of the franchise's best by many of its fans, but it's certainly worth a look for fans of action-adventure titles.

16. 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. 

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 brought their best to 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. 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 World franchise drew inspiration from it, as did several prominent NES copycats.  One of the best of these was Hudson Soft/Falcom's Faxanadu (itself a spinoff of Xanadu, the second game in the Dragon Slayer series).  Faxanadu works in a few more RPG elements than Zelda II did, most prominently in having money and shops to purchase items from, and more focus on item-farming and key purchasing to get into various places.  Having some delightfully grotesque monster designs, detailed character portraits and backgrounds and a downright bizarre storyline all help to make it a unique and entertaining experience, and definitely one of the NES's more overlooked action-RPGs.

12. 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. 

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

The first game in the Mother trilogy, which was notoriously planned for a western release and even had a fully completed translation/retooling, but which would get shelved for twenty-five years before finally making its way there in an official capacity.  It's a bit of a shame, too, as like its more famous cousin Earthbound, it flips a lot of early RPG tropes on their heads and is quite a fun and charming experience.  Taking place in modern day, with characters wielding bats, boomerangs, frying pans and psionic powers rather than magic, and battling enemies like runaway trucks, mad scientists and aliens (with designs inspired by '50s science fiction films), it's also relatively open and nonlinear, allowing you to explore the world and uncover its secrets at a relatively relaxed pace.  It's not flawless, though - the difficulty in the game is pretty uneven and requires a lot of grinding, especially near the end when you get to Mt. Itoi and the monsters become downright vicious and cheap, even getting in attacks AFTER you kill them that can still take you out.  Even with its rough spots, though, it's a wonderful and charming game that shows a lot of ideas that would be further refined in Earthbound and Mother 3.  So take the good with the bad and enjoy this long-lost gem.

10. 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. 

9. 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. 

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. Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap (Westone, 1989)

Wonder Boy is an odd case, starting off as a platformer, before splitting off into other genres like platformer-shmups (Monster Lair) and even another series entirely that was mostly on Nintendo platforms (Adventure Island).  Dragon's Trap was the second entry in the Monster World subseries, which played closer to a sidescrolling platformer RPG a la Zelda II, and it was definitely one of the best games the Sega Master System had to offer.  In addition to large, colorful and well animated sprites, the premise itself was pretty creative - you were cursed by a dragon and continue to shape-shift each time you defeat a major boss, gaining new abilities while losing others each time; the Lizardman form can crouch and breathe fire, but not use a shield, where as the Mouse-man can climb on certain walls and blocks, and Piranha-Man can venture safely underwater, to name a few.  Each new form grants you access to a new area, which allows you to defeat another boss and change again, hoping to eventually win the final battle and return to your normal form.  In fact, the game was so well-received it got a release on the Turbografx-16 (under the simpler title "Dragon's Curse") and even a modern remake available on just about every major platform from 2017, so it's definitely got a fanbase.

5. 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.   It's a mix of Zelda with the brilliant fast-paced shmup action that made Compile famous, and that's a winning combination in my book.

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.