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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Highest High and Lowest Low: Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Launched in 1991 as a followup to the highly successful NES, the SNES is a formative system for RPGs in general, with numerous golden classics that still get attention today.  There's endless debate about which one is the best, but many will say Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI or the Legend of Zelda: a Link to the Past. Others might point to Dragon Quest V or Secret of Mana or Bahamut Lagoon or Terranigma.  Hell I've even seen a small number point to Shadowrun.  But my personal choice goes to:

 Best: Earthbound (HAL Laboratory/APE, 1995)

EarthBound was one of the first RPGs I ever really got excited over; mostly because it was unlike any other game I'd seen at the time.  A game set in a quirky modern world with clay model characters, a strange sense of humor, flipping tired RPG tropes on their heads and having a surprisingly earnest, humble cast of characters and story to tell?  All good stuff.  It never really got the attention it deserved in its day amidst heavy competition from other titles, which probably wasn't aided by Nintendo running a terrible advertising campaign with nasty-smelling scratch-and-sniff panels and proclaiming "This game stinks!".  However, people have looked back in retrospect and seen it for the work of genius it is, making it a very expensive game on the secondary market nowadays and inspiring a whole slew of games that copied its earnest style, some of which are pretty amazing in their own right (Undertale, Deltarune and Ikenfell being some standouts for me).  It remains my favorite game of all time to this day, so I can't recommend it enough if you've never given it a chance.

Worst: Tecmo Secret of the Stars (Tecmo, 1995)

I never really paid much attention to Tecmo Secret of the Stars; I remember seeing it in Nintendo Power in the mid-90s, but since I wasn't really a big RPG fan yet at the time (and the few I did play were titles like Phantasy Star, Earthbound and Chrono Trigger) I never really paid it much mind.  But after asking my Bluesky feed about what the worst SNES RPG was and this game's name coming up multiple times, I figured I should see whether it was really as bad as they said.  Well, to make the story short... yeah, it is.  TSotS just plain sucks in just about every way an RPG can suck.  Dated graphics (especially by 1995 standards), grating music, a shoddy translation even by the standards of the time period, humor that tries to ape the quirkiness of the Mother games but fails on every level, constant random encounters with low XP/monkey payouts that result in endless agonizing hours of grinding... blech.  Then you tack on a completely superfluous two-party system which basically means you're playing through the entire game twice with two completely separate sets of characters (only one of which has any plot relevance, by the way) and you've got a package of amazing suckitude.  Tecmo does have some great, classic games to their name like the Ninja Gaiden trilogy, Solomon's Key and Tecmo Super Bowl, but Secret of the Stars is a game that was already severely dated in 1995 and is almost entirely forgotten today for very good reason.

Runner-up: The Lord of the Rings Volume 1 (Interplay, 1994)


The Lord of the Rings franchise of course predates electronic video games by many years, but once the latter became a thing, it of course had a number of game tie-ins.  The 1990 Lord of the Rings Volume 1 game on PC was actually pretty decent - a top-down adventure reminiscent of games like Wasteland, where you control a party of characters, use skills to complete various tasks and more or less follow the plot of the book between the video gamey parts.  It even had a CD-enhanced version later on with some clips from the 1978 Ralph Bakshi film.  It probably wouldn't have been feasible to crunch a sprawling skill-based tactical computer RPG into a cartridge, so the SNES version of Lord of the Rings reimagines it into a real-time multiplayer action RPG, seemingly in an attempt to cash in on Secret of Mana from the prior year.  But while I will readily admit I'm not much of a Secret of Mana fan, Lord of the Rings makes it look like a masterpiece in comparison.  The gameplay is sluggishly slow and monotonous, having you mostly wander through identical looking caves and fighting the same handful of enemies again and again, awkwardly controlling Frodo most of the time but able to take momentary control of your allies (all of them at once) by holding down the R button.  There is at least a bit of an RPG element in that you can pick up items to use and upgrade equipment as the adventure progresses, but it's not enough to add any real feeling of variety to the experience.  Oh and if one of your comrades dies (yes, even Gandalf), they're gone for good - there's no way to bring them back short of resetting and punching in a password.  The only redeemable element of the whole mess is its soundtrack, which does have some technically excellent, moody tracks and ambient sounds; it's just a shame they're not in a better game...