The gaming market is monstrous. Right now there are six consoles, three handhelds, and the ever present PC you can buy games for. That’s 10 different ways you can get your game on, so if you’re someone who doesn’t have the ways or means to buy all 10 platforms and every halfway decent game that arrives for any of them, you’re probably wondering which way you should go to get the most bang for your buck. I’m a bit of a gamer nerd, and so for you I’ve collected the top five available games (in the stores now) for each console for each particular genre. Based on reviews, user comments, and my personal experience, these are the best ways to go.
This round: RPGs. The Japanese RPG market exploded in the 32-64 bit days, blowing out with a new game seemingly every week. You can blame Square for that one, bringing to the stores amazing game after amazing game, which immediately spurned every other company to release whatever dreck they could muster to keep you pumping money into their pockets. Nowadays there are hundreds of options out there, and the Japanese market isn’t the only one around. North American companies have their own answers to the RPG boom and now it’s a veritable flood of options. Here are the top five for each option you’ve got.
PlayStation 2 – The PlayStation brand name has been the home of quality RPGs since PS1 first roled out with Suikoden and Final Fantasy games in the mid- 90s. This list was hard because there are so many left off. Dark Cloud 2, Final Fantasy X, the Shin Megami Tensei games and many more deserve recognition, but alas these are also long as hell, so if you had more than 5, when would you ever finish them. You may notice I exclude the PS3, but I can’t really offer any PS3 RPGs for you until they’ve actually been created. We’re waiting.
1. Shadow Hearts Covenant – The Shadow Hearts series took on a serious following after this entry, one of the greatest RPG releases of the generation. It’s take on the fantasy RPG genre blended into the realms of reality, bleeding over in church and demonology lore. Taking place in the 19th Century and following the legend of a young woman and her unfortunate destiny, it can be enjoyed alone or along with it’s predecessors Koudelka and Shadow Hearts (I).
2. Disgaea – This is probably the best strategy RPG released for any console ever. Released by Atlus, a brand name that has grown in and of itself of recent years to the respectability that names like Square and Level 5 now carry with their games, Disgaea is about the young prince of hell and his quest to regain his domain after being awoken. With more than 200 hours of gameplay here, count on playing for days on days. And it’s funnier than hell. These are great characters.
3. Suikoden III – The Suikoden series is the cult series. Of course it’s slowly sliding out of cult status and into the mainstream with releases occurring every couple of years since this one. The best in the series with the possible exception of Suikoden II, Suikoden III tells the story of a huge cast of characters, all intricately entwined with one another. You play through the tale of their war, but as seen through each characters eyes. Truly epic.
4. Final Fantasy XII – The newest release, released only two weeks before the PlayStation 3’s release, this game redefines the epic scope of prior Final Fantasies, literally reaching for the stars. Each character is fully realized and a part of the action, their story an intricate part of the game. There’s no fluff here, and the rebuild of the decades old RPG formula was all for the better, working for the complete and total betterment of the game and hopefully the series.
5. DragonQuest VIII – Dragon Quest has always been huge in Japan, but only now did it find the same success here in the US. Dragon Quest VIII is the huge (extremely huge) result of Square Enix’s jump to full 3D glory in their series. The graphics are incredible, the characters hilarious and deeply involving, and the story arresting. The battles aren’t half bad either. And the usual monster catching glory is intact. A long game, it will keep you busy for days.
Gamecube (and Wii) – The Gamecube got shorted on the RPG options, much like its big brother the N64. Nintendo lost a lot of their clout with the RPG crowd when Squaresoft jumped ship in the 90s and they’re still trying to earn it back…so far to little success. But, the future looks bright, as Square Enix is finally producing games for the Big N, and Nintendo’s own work includes more forays into the RPG market. Here’s hoping for more, because the Wii is perfect for the format.
1. Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – The newest Zelda adventure, Twilight Princess, is by far the best reason to own a Nintendo Wii. The game is a masterpiece on almost every level, to the point I’m almost willing to call it the greatest game ever made. We’ve heard this a lot, that this game is the greatest. That it surpasses what Ocarina accomplished 8 years ago. And as my own favorite game, it’s hard to ever put anything above Ocarina in terms of scope, depth, and innovation. No need to go into detail. Read my review of it here for more thoughts on why it’s so amazing.
2. Tales of Symphonia – The first really good RPG for the Gamecube, and still one of the only ones really. The newest entry in the hugely popular (in Japan) Tales saga, Symphonia was a huge, fun, well told game. The characters were fun, the battle system is one of the best around, and the action was fully inclusive and crafted a long game. Symphonia was the Gamecube owning RPG fan’s one saving grace.
3. Skies of Arcadia Legends – Originally released for the Dreamcast, Skies of Arcadia was given a second life on the Gamecube, again fated to anonymity due to the failure of the console. This is a great game. It tells the story of two sky pirates who must traverse the sky ocean and save the world from a shattering war and so on. You attempt throughout the game to build your pirate rank and build up your ship. It was one of Dreamcast’s must have games and the same for Gamecube. Unfortunately so few actually had it, and now it’s not exactly easy to find.
4. Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker – The infamous Wind Waker. Nintendo’s foray into cel shading and the horrible foray into ocean mechanics. This game is still amazing. It’s Zelda afterall, but it’s flawed on more than the basic levels. It’s hard to get around. The ocean is huge, and the game is short. But the parts you play, in between sailing around Hyrule are beautiful and incredibly fun.
5. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door – The Big N rounds out the five with another in house effort. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door was a return to the Paper Mario fun they coined in the N64 days, this time around with the RPG elements the game seems to work best with. Incredibly easy yes, but fun as hell at the same time.
Xbox (and X360) – The Xbox, not surprisingly saw no Japanese development. Every game listed below was produced in English Speaking countries, mostly Canada actually. The style is noticeably different, but the quality is equally incredible. The strive for realism by Western developers can be seen in each of these entries. Although the lack of humor is equally as prescient.
1. Elderscrolls IV: Oblivion – The Xbox 360 has some serious horsepower. Not only is there room to spare, but the graphic output is insane at time, and what better way to show this off than with an Elderscrolls game. Monstrous, huge worlds in which you can freely roam wherever you want and interact with your environment. This game is huge and intense. Hundreds of hours can be spent just wandering around and completing a main quest. As for getting the rest done. Who knows how long you could spend on there.
2. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – Star Wars games were starting to get a bad rap for a while, until Bioware arrived with the first full fledged Star Wars RPG. Built on the click and wait action of the D&D ruleset games, KOTOR was a brilliant game that took Star Wars fans back a few thousand years to the height of the Jedi/Sith wars. It also had one of the most surprising and amazing endings in any game..ever.
3. Elderscrolls III: Morrowind – And another Elderscrolls game. This one was equally as huge as its sequel, and had just as amazing graphics for its time. Elderscrolls truly stretches the imagination in terms of open world RPG exploration and making a game that will take a long time to finish. A truly wonderful game.
4. Jade Empire – Set in a fictional ancient China, Jade Empire comes from the makers of Knights of the Old Republic, and while not nearly as large in scope or length, the game utilizes an array of different combat styles and elements that make it sheer fun to play. It’s shorter and simpler than the original games from Bioware, but they make up for it with the attention to detail and the battle system upgrades.
5. Fable – Touted as an amazing achievement in world interface, Fable turned out to be a little bit of a letdown. It was smaller, shorter, and less engaging than what was claimed, but it was still a solid, fun game to play. Starting as a bland adventurer you could become either entirely good or entirely evil through the actions committed during a quest. The characters are generic, the quests forgettable, but the options given to play through them all are still fun. The ending however leaves something to be desired, and they could have done with a few more reasons to openly explore. For a sandbox RPG, it was surprisingly linear.
Game Boy Advance – Yup, no DS games. I imagine soon, with the release of the new Pokemon game, and the surprising announcement of Dragon Quest IX coming exclusively to the DS, the RPG options there will explode, but for now your best bet in the RPG realm on handhelds is with the Game Boy Advance. Here are a few of the best.
1. Golden Sun – It’s not a masterpiece. It’s not legendary. But, it’s good solid fun, and for the size and expectations o f a handheld console it’s still pretty fun. I enjoyed it for a few reasons. First off, the gameplay is top notch. The battle system is built around a simple premise and sticks with it, but it’s still fun. The story is nothing special but it reminded me a lot of the 8-bit glory days, keeping me involved without making it impossible to keep up when I have to turn the game off every 20 minutes. Solid play and go action
2. Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire – Pokemon has been around for almost 10 years now, a regular entry in the gameboy RPG market, really the only entry inn that market, and a damn good one. By the time this pair was released (the usual duplicate games with slightly different monsters in each), the same gameplay was reused a good four times and starting to get a little old, but it’s still sound gameplay, and who doesn’t like to collect as much of something as they can. I’m older yes, but I still enjoy the mindless capture and battle system of Pokemon. It’s cathartically simple.
3. Final Fantasy IV – It’s technically a port, but a damn good port at that. I loved this game back in the days on the SNES and the idea to bring the 16-bit Final Fantasies to the GBA made me as happy as can be. This was a game I love to play, but feel goofy loading into my PS2 and sitting down to play. It’s a perfect bus play, and it plays just as great as in 1992. The classic tale of Cecil and the Red Knights never fails to capture my attention from start to finish. Of course, when Final Fantasy VI is released, I might have to replace this with that one, as we all know that VI is the greatest of them all.
4. Riviera: The Promised Land – Atlus has been basting the PS2 market with top notch games for three plus years now, with their fantastic strategy and alchemy RPG games. They bring Riviera to the GBA with the same pedigree, a solid RPG that plays to the GBA’s strengths as well as any. It’s essentially a screen to screen game. You don’t control you surroundings so much as go from page to page within them, but the battle system is amazing and the different options and acquirables immense. The story, like any Atlus game is the real selling point and actually got me to play through it twice.
5. Final Fantasy Tactics – The portable version of the PSone classic has sucked more time from my life than any GBA game I’ve ever played. The 300+ missions are each 30-60 minutes long and the customization options equal length. This is a long game with a lot of gameplay and a fun little story. You’re Marche, you’ve been sucked through a book into the magical land of Ivalice and now you are a knight. Go!
PlayStation Portable – When the PSP first released fanboys dreamed of amazing ports that would bring their favorite games now out of print back to life in hand held format. At least one made the leap, but for the most part RPG development on the PSP has been lackluster, and while Japan gets the Suikoden I and II pack and promises of Final Fantasies, we wait for a decent anything to play. Final Fantasy compilation anyone? Anyone at all?
1. Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth – One of the most sought after games from the PSone days, Valkyrie Profile was an amazing RPG that no one played and then no one could play as it was out of print. Ranging from $100 and up on eBay, the promise of a rerelease for the PSP was a godsend for fans out there always interested but too poor to afford it. It’s a solid game at that. With rebuilt cinematics and PSP controls, this entry leads into the new PS2 game wonderfully and finally lets the rest of us play through Lenneth’s adventure.
2. Monster Hunter Freedom – Never a real big fan of the Monster Hunter games, I can still see their draw. You go and you hunt monsters. Simple as that. There’s little to hold you up, and there’s online play. It’s like Pokemon without the pesky storyline or purpose.
3. Ys: The Ark of Napishtim – A port of a port. This was originally released for the PS2 and before that the PC, and has been watered down in between. The same classic Ys gameplay is intact, overland map, onscreen battles and fun little characters in a charming, if simple story. It’s good solid fun for a portable and tells a decent story. Even if the controls are a little broken.
4. Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade – One of the launch releases with the PSP, Untold Legends is an overhead hack and slash RPG without a conscious. It doesn’t strive for amazing storyline or gameplay, just simple hack and slash glory and it does it pretty well. It was fun because it was simple, made in a very short development cycle from the time the PSP was announced. Oddly enough though, the sequel was nearly as good.
5. Tales of Eternia – Alright, technically it still hasn’t been released in America, but you can import it from Europe and play the English language version (or Japan if you speak Japanese). But, it’s a tales game, a pretty good one at that. Technically it has been released here too, as Tales of Destiny 2 in 2000. Unfortunately, it got completely ignored as the gaming world moved on to the PS2. This is a great game though and perfect for the PSP. Complete and intact are the great Tales battle system and one of the better Tales plots. Saving the world from the Great War was never quite so fun as in this one.
PC -The PC has always been a home for the more hardcore of gamers. The cost of constant upgrades and intensity of a PC game are legendary, and only the most hardcore amongst us are capable of keeping up. Accordingly, the games below match that mindset, though more than one of these games managed to break free of the limitations and become monstrous worldwide phenomena. I’m looking at you Blizzard.
1. World of Warcraft – Okay, so duh right? Well, some of you are probably palpitating over my choosing this above some other MMORPG, but too bad. Everyone plays this one, including myself and it’s just plain fun. Having spent hours of my life in this game and knowing that I can go back whenever I want without fear of being destroyed because of the MMORPG laws of survival (never leave), this is a great pick up and play game in a genre where that almost never exists. Huge, tons to do, and always fun even when you’re grinding, WoW is still the best.
2. Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn – The Baldur’s Gate games are some of the best RPGs to come out of the PC age of D&D ruleset RPGs. It’s big, it’s long, it’s fun as hell. The challenge of figuring out what to do, how to upgrade your characters and make the game the most it can be were always the number one reasons to play these. The story is pretty awesome too. Don’t forget the Dragon. That dragon is a bitch.
3. Diablo II – Diablo II stole my entire summer my sophomore year of high school. This game was amazing. It took everything Diablo did and blew it up times ten. The ability to find and receive unique weapons that 1000 of your friends would never find kept you playing over and over again. And it was simple. Click, click, right click. F1. That’s it. Nothing to it. And when you finally unlocked the Cow level, then you were the true God of Diablo.
4. Elderscrolls IV: Oblivion – Many of you probably can’t even play this yet. I still can’t. I only know of it because I have a friend who upgrades his computer ever three weeks seemingly. This game is a beast of the highest order, demanding a lot from your system but delivering even more. Monstrous, huge worlds in which you can freely roam wherever you want and interact with your environment. This game is huge and intense. Hundreds of hours can be spent just wandering around and completing a main quest. As for getting the rest done. Who knows how long you could spend on there.
5. Neverwinter Nights – Another D&D ruleset game, but one of the best no less. It’s huge, monstrously huge. And tack on the expansions and you’ve got 200+ hours of action to play through. The biggest seller on this one though was the ability to craft and write your own adventures as a DM with the toolsets and host them online, ala D&D, but with graphics. The sequel doesn’t quite hold up to the original, but still carries the same weight and fun factor.