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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.