It’s impossible to recommend a ‘best of’ list for the Role Playing Game genre because it is so diverse in nature. Tactical RPGs are at their heart nothing like JRPGs and the deep storytelling and options available in a WRPG are to opposite of grind heavy MMORPGS. What appeals to one person may in fact revolt another based solely on their personal preferences and My Boxed Universe isn’t here to tell you which game is ‘better’ than another. To that end we have chosen to side-step the more traditional top 20 RPGs of all time feature and instead provide an article that does things a little differently.
The games in this list have been picked for their variety, impact on the evolution of the genre and the strength of the experience of playing them. This is the A to Z of Role Playing Games. For the most part we’ve tried to avoid the obvious or more cliché choices (Dragon Quest is the obvious choice for D, as is Final Fantasy for F) and instead promote games some may not have found the time to play.
A is for . . . Alkabeth
Regardless of if this game stands as an official part of the Ultima series or not (a fact hotly contested by fans both for and against based on in-game elements that both contradict and match the veteran series) you’d be a fool to underestimate the impact of Lord British’s first game. Sometimes subtitled ‘World of Doom’ it was originally published for the Apple II computer and was the brainchild of a teenaged Richard Garriott, kick starting his career. Though a dated gaming experience by today’s terms the core of the game still holds strong and a recent port to iOS devices allows everyone the chance to sample this piece of history.
B is for . . . Breath of Fire IV
There are those who will shoot me for not placing Baldur’s Gate or its sequel here on the list, but being based firmly on the D&D ruleset limited the ambition of its creativity to a degree. The Breath of Fire series however has no such limitations and although the debate is out on which game is the best, IV contains a polished package filled with detailed, excellent 2D sprite work laid on 3D backgrounds that manage to escape the blocky nature of the PSOne era. Dragons in Human form, Winged women and demigods inhabiting machines all make up part of the games ensemble cast. It’s a million miles away from a dark and gritty setting, favouring bold use of colour throughout and some of the best music by Yoshino Aoki.
C is for . . . Chrono Trigger
I know, I know, we said no obvious choices, but this game is too good to ignore for multiple reasons. It gathered together a dream-team of creators including Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Square’s Final Fantasy series; Yuji Horii, a freelance designer and creator of Enix’s popular Dragon Quest series; and Akira Toriyama, a freelance manga artist famed for his work with Dragon Quest and Dragon Ball. This game managed to outshine the massive SNES library of historically brilliant RPGs and brought a strong time-travel dynamic that saw multiple endings and the ability to challenge the game’s final boss almost from the games outset should you be feeling overconfident. Time travel has been done in games since, but rarely in such a well thought out and to such great effect.
D is for . . . Disgaea
Tactical RPGs were a dying breed on consoles until Disgaea arrived and dragged them kicking and screaming into the new millennium. Packed with a sadistic sense of humour that swung between slap-stick and perverse satire, and fully voiced as if it were an anime, the game really shines for its wealth of content. A level 999 cap for characters that could be reset and started over again. Randomly generated worlds inside items that you clear to increase their potency and character creation for non-plot related units all amount to one of the best Tactics titles ever made. There have been sequels, but nothing really tops the original Disgaea for sheer joyful variety.
E is for . . . Eternal Sonata
This game is about as old-school JRPG as the Playstation 3 and X-Box 360 could get, but the concept behind it is mesmerising. The famous real-world composer Chopin is in his final days suffering from tuberculosis before his death. Enter a world that may or may not be the work of his ailing imagination that features strong musical themes and a battle system where characters change their entire battle strategy based on if they are standing in the light or darkness. Conventional? Yes, but spellbinding.
F is for . . . Fallout
Games don’t get more gritty or depressing than Fallout. Tasked with saving your underground bunker by venturing into the post-apocalyptic world above only to struggle and overcome the odds time and time again for a reward that is cruelly snatched away at the last moment is dark subject material. It speaks volumes about the experience itself. You left as a newbie with no idea what to expect, now you can never return because you’ve been changed by the journey. Fallout 2 was a worthy sequel but the original stands strong on sheer gut-punch and the experience of venturing into the unknown.
G is for . . . Grandia
I love Grandia, the review on this site alone should be enough to assure you of that. Whilst the sequel was a great experience on the Dreamcast it suffered from terrible ports to Playstation and the PC. Not for for the original, which shines wherever it is. The game revels in the fun of adventuring and has a battle system that’s often copied but never bettered.
H is for . . . Harvest Moon
If this series tells us anything it’s that the strength in RPGs comes not from a complex battle system but through the quiet character moments and the sense of achievement a player can have when hard work finally comes to fruition. There’s over 20 entries into this series now, including takes on the formula for both science fiction and fantasy settings.
I is for . . . Infinity Blade
Some would argue that this title is more of an action game than an RPG but the tale it weaves between battles and the sense of place that comes from such a wonderfully drawn world root the player in its story. Combat is visceral and defeat maddening because you only have yourself to blame when things go wrong. Few RPGs manage to involve the player so quickly and more than a few mobiles have been destroyed by player rage between bouts.
J is for . . . Jade Cocoon
Available for the PlayStation back when everybody was looking for a console alternative to Pokémon and boasting art design reminiscent of a Studio Ghibli production, Jade Cocoon allowed you to catch and fuse monsters in such a manner that it really felt like you were controlling their evolutions. Maintaining a certain shape or size required careful breeding and creating a party of custom-bred monsters gave a wonderful sense of achievement.
K is for . . . Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
This prequel to the main series does everything right and even manages to outstrip its bigger brothers on a number of levels. Three playable stories through the eyes of three protagonists with differing play styles, an amazing Monopoly themed mini-game that paid out real-game benefits, and the best combat system the series has seen to date. That the game fit on just one PSP disc was a miracle. If and when we get a Kingdom Hearts III I hope that it manages to capture even a fraction of the elegance of this title.
L is for . . . La Pucelle Tactics
Before Disgaea there was La Pucelle, a tactics game that fused comedy, exploration and deep combat mechanics. The highlight was easily the humor, but the ability to purify monsters and recruit them to your team or to shut down negative zones on the map by triggering a zone-filling reaction that damaged every enemy inside its boundaries came a close second.
M is for . . . Mega Man X Command Mission
This game is a weird beast, part continuation of the popular platformer franchise and partially its own beast. Set in an unknown period between main-line titles is features takes on the characters not seem before and tells a story of high stakes introducing memorable characters such as Cinnamon and Spider. Whilst some of the ideas it brought to the table were less than stellar it has a visual style and world setting all of its own that really draws the play in.
N is for . . . Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
A heart-breaking opening to a story that manages to straddle child-like idealism with adult cynicism on the part of the player, you join Oliver as he journeys to a magical realm to save his mother’s double and maybe, just maybe his deceased parent too. As a player you can’t help but question what’s happening, but for Oliver belief is everything and that pureness of character sells this title. That and some amazing cutscenes and character designs from Studio Ghibli.
O is for . . . Omikron: The Nomad Soul
A game made before its time, Omikron was a multi-system epic that even found time to star a digital David Bowie. Combining elements of shooters, fighters and sandbox gaming it was too ambitious for the technology of the era and sadly never lived up to the promise of the demo. Had the game done better no doubt ‘New Angels of Promise’ from Bowie’s then-current album would have kept the chorus line ‘Omikron’ instead or replacing it with ‘suspicious minds’, although it appeared in the game’s opening unchanged.
P is for . . . Phantasy Star IV
The Sega Megadrive isn’t known for a wide range of cutscenes, but the comic-book stylings of this title help to take an already wide tale with some colourful characters and shift the action from immense to epic. The use of macros to compile a pre-set list of moves from the whole party into a single button press was also a revolution to grinding at the time.
Q is for . . . The Quest
An early iOS title that emulates the style of Eye of the Beholder and other first-person turn based RPGs. It’s essentially a large world to explore and nothing special in/of itself, however the sheer number of imaginative expansions and additional content produced to bolt into this title has turned it into one of the richest experiences on a handheld. A must-play for anybody in the mood for some old-school dungeon crawling.
R is for . . . RPG Maker 2000
Not so much an RPG as a framework through with to make your own RPGs. RPG Maker 2000 emulates the SNES style of game that many players remember fondly and is easily accessible for first time game makers. What Enterbrain have created with this series (that continues to this day) is truly amazing.
S is for . . . Star Ocean
Late for the SNES party in the western world but an utter masterpiece of its time, an updated version of both Star Ocean and its sequel was made available for the PSP to finally let us try the series from its start. Star Ocean starts out with all the trappings of a typical fantasy RPG, right up until the party meet the crew of a Star Trek-like starship on an away mission and end up being recruited into one of the most fun hybrids of fantasy and science fiction that the genre has to offer. The game is the perfect fit for a mobile platform like the PSP too, with a fun and speedy battle system.
T is for . . . Tales of Zillia
Superior to any Tales game that came before it, Zillia managed to mix together some of the richest environments and the best design available on the Playstation 3 into a gorgeous game world. Marvel at the starting city’s use of plants that radiate warmth and light in place of electrical bulbs and for the first time realise that the design of the world might just be the unsung hero of this title. That it also features the best version of an already polished series-long battle system doesn’t hurt either.
U is for . . . Ultima 4
This title set out a lot of the conventions we’d come to know and enjoy in RPGs, including a detailed overworld full of NPCs to encounter and speak with. Though a version was recently pulled from the iStore, it remains a classic revered by many and one of the most influential titles ever made. The minds behind Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Baulder’s Gate all site Ultima 4 as a source of inspiration. Be sure to pay a visit to Lord British while you’re in the neighbourhood.
V is for . . . Valkyria Chronicles
Tactical RPGs seemed to have stopped evolving, content to elaborate on the same systems rather than create new ones for a while after the release of Final Fantasy Tactics. Valkyria Chronicles blew all of that away with a clever real-time/turn-based fusion of command and action elements that was thrilling to behold.
W is for . . . White Knight Chronicles II
RPGs weren’t capitalising on the hardware of the Playstation 3 until White Knight Chronicles showed everyone what could be done. A huge world full of small details where you could go from fighting a small dog-sized monster to battling a titan that didn’t fit on the screen in the blink of an eye with no loading times. Shifting between a party of traditional adventurers and a giant mechanical suit of armour without shifting the world in any way gave a sense of scale that’s not been achieved since. White Knight Chronicles II gets the mention because it comes bundled with a free copy of a HD treated original game as well as its sequel.
X is for . . . Xenoblade Chronicles
The Wii was hardly known for its extensive RPG lineup, but between Xenoblade and The Last Story it has two of the generation’s best. Xenoblade makes use of WRPG elements with a JRPG game to bulk out the experience in a number of interesting ways. True, many of them are monster hunting or fetch-quests, but they never feel dull as you constantly reap the benefits in experience and rare gear drops.
Y is for . . . Ys: I & II Chronicles
Ys takes the concept of not having a direct attack button and instead running into an enemy from the side or rear and runs with it. This package of both the first and second games in the long-running series comes with renewed graphics and new play elements that invigorate these otherwise flagging titles with new life.
Z is for . . . Zenonia
For a while it looked like the mobile market wasn’t going to be able to handle a decent RPG, but Zenonia arrived to set the record straight. Filled with quests, loot and levelling it’s less of an epic story and more a collection of hundreds of quests connected by a loose framework of a narrative, but it’s satisfying to play and combat works very well. The three different classes available coupled with light/dark choices for a branching story also boost replayability.