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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

21 Best RPGs of the Decade (1980-1989)

Being an avid fan of LGR, I of course remembered his (now delisted) "Top 17" videos covering his favorite PC games for each decade. Well, I got to thinking, "why not do the same for RPGs?  I've spent quite a bit of time brushing up on both new and old ones."  I've also gotten a fair number of questions about where to start for retro franchises and getting a good historical perspective for the medium, so let's start off in the '80s, where digital RPGs weren't exactly a popular genre yet but where most of the prominent franchises of today have their roots. 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. Drakkhen (Infogrames, 1989)

Drakkhen was noted in its time for being a relatively innovative game; it was among the first to utilize paper dolls to show the party's currently-equipped gear and have a pseudo-3D perspective for its overworld, with sprite-scaling to indicate distant objects and vector-animated ground paths to aid in navigation.  Nowadays, though, it's mostly known for being a strange and surreal experience, with numerous bizarre encounters throughout - bumping into urns in the road pits you against a giant jackal's head that fires lasers from its eyes, constellations in the sky will randomly attack you during the night hours, and one particularly deranged random encounter involves a dancing silhouetted woman repeatedly chanting "I love you" in a fluctuating pitch.  It's also a brutally difficult experience, at times pitting you against six or more random battles back to back, and houses of healing are few and far between (though thankfully their services are free).  Not one of the 80s' finest RPGs, but certainly one of its more ambitious and endearingly weird ones.

21. Sid Meier's Pirates! (Microprose, 1987)

The first game to bear Sid Meier's name right on the cover, and it was also a pretty unique and innovative game for it's time.  Taking place in the age of piracy, you pick a nationality, a time to begin your career and a skill for your character, and from there, you're pretty much left to your own devices.  You can become a pirate, a privateer, a pirate hunter, a treasure seeker, or any combination thereof.  You can also seek prestige and favor from any of the major powers, and once your career has ended, you get a score based on how much land and wealth you accrued.  A pretty clever early take on sandbox gaming that's still fun today.  It also has enough of a following to get a multi-platform remake in 1993 (Pirates Gold) and another remake in 2004 for Xbox and PC with a heavier focus on minigames.

20. 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. 

19. 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).

18. Dungeon Master (FTL Games, 1987)

Dungeon Master not only looked fantastic for a 1987 computer game, but its gameplay brought a lot of firsts too - casting spells by clicking on various combinations of runes (getting different effects/greater power with some at the cost of more MP), having semi-real-time action, and exhuming arbitrary "experience points" in favor of actually having to use specific skills to get better at them were all pretty new stuff in 1987.  As was having dynamic lighting (torches and light spells fade over time) and an alchemy system where one could craft potions from various ingredients found around the dungeon.  A game that pushed RPGs to a new level of realism and inspired later titles like Eye of the Beholder and Ultima Underworld, which in turn inspired other genre classics like Elder Scrolls and Deus Ex!

17. 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 RPG 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. 

16. Cadash (Taito, 1989)

An early example of an RPG made for the arcades, it was also one of the earliest examples of a co-op action RPG - not just with two players on the same machine, but two cabinets could be connected together via cable to allow up to four people to play at once.  Appropriately there are also four playable classes - the Fighter, Mage, Priestess and Ninja - and all have substantially different abilities.  Defeating enemies earns experience to upgrade your maximum health and occasionally grant you new weapons and spells, with the Priestess and Mage becoming very powerful by the end of the game.   The game also had two home ports - a somewhat stripped down Genesis version that only had the Fighter and Ninja, and an expanded version on the Turbografx-16 by Working Designs that added in new plot scenes and some slightly reworked mechanics.

15. Rygar (Tecmo, 1987)

Rygar began as a sidescrolling arcade game the '80s with relatively fast-paced gameplay and an odd Greek mythology inspired setting, but its console counterpart was something very different, becoming more of a nonlinear action adventure reminiscent of the freshly-popular Legend of Zelda.  Doubly ironic is the fact that it predated Zelda's western release by about a month; so technically, this was the very first game of its type to be released on the NES.  For such an early game on the platform, though, I'm honestly surprised at how well it holds up - visually it's very pleasing, with detailed backdrops and grotesque enemy designs, and it has some quite polished gameplay overall - collision detection is spot-on and most things (save using the pulley on the top-down map segments) are well handled.  It does have some rather awkward phrasing for things (Attack is "Tone", Defense is "Last", and you have a spell literally called "Attack & Assail"), but all in all, a surprisingly fun game.  While the game does afford unlimited continues, it's fairly long and has no save feature, so you have to finish it all in one sitting.

14. 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, of the actual role-playing part.  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. 

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 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. 

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

Castlevania II was actually not the first game in the series to adopt the open-ended exploration format; the original MSX version of the first game in the series (localized in Europe as "Vampire Killer") featured larger, open-ended stages where you had to hunt for keys and purchase powerups in shops, though it was still broken up into distinct stages.  Castlevania II took that idea and expanded on it, turning the game into a large, open-ended experience reminiscent of Zelda and adding in experience levels, shops and puzzles to solve.  Fans who only played the NES version were more than a little confused by it, particularly owing to its  famously lackluster translation that made deciphering clues difficult and contained several (often inadvertent) red herrings.  Still, despite its faults, the game has plenty of atmosphere, platforming action and enemies to battle, as well as a fantastic soundtrack that still made it much worth playing.  Several elements here would also be revisited to much greater success nearly a decade later in Symphony of the Night, which is still widely regarded as one of the greatest games of all time.

11. 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. 

10. 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, slightly rough gem.

9. 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. 

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.   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.

5. Phantasy Star (Sega, 1988)

The Sega Master System may not have caught on 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 and polish set it a cut above most. 

4. 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. 

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 speedruns 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 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 and 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.