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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. 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. 

17. 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. 

16. 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.  A cool game for the time, but I'd say play one of the remakes nowadays. 

15. 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.

14. 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. 

13. 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. 

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.