On occasion, nothing bests a good old list for waxing nostalgic. My recent attempts at ploughing through Tales of the Abyss, while not filling me with an overwhelming love of that particular game, have reminded me of some of the best experiences I’ve had in the genre. For me, RPGs have a very, very high ceiling of enjoyment. It’s a format that lends itself well to telling a decent story, taking its time and giving oodles of payoff when the time comes. The best of RPGs have incredible replay value, even though they’re often the more story-focused genre in gaming. And, as the following list will show, RPGs can be much more diverse than we sometimes give them credit for, especially in gameplay. And when they hit the sweet spot, they hit it hard.
Keep this in mind as I talk about the following games. First, note that this list is based on my personal opinion. That may seem obvious, but it’s easy to lose sight of. Secondly, I sorely lack experience in pre-PS1 RPGs. If an older game isn’t on the list, the chances are it’s because I haven’t played it. Thirdly, I have deliberately taken only one game from any given franchise. Games like Tales of Symphonia and the original Mass Effect are not present because of this self-imposed rule. As much as I enjoy those games, they’re not the best in their series. Plus, this way the list is more interesting.
10: Kingdom Hearts 2 (Times finished: 2)
Of course. I have a lot of nostalgia for the numbered Kingdom Hearts games, even if I’m quite annoyed that it’s taking over eight years to get a proper sequel. It’s easy to look at Kingdom Hearts 2 as the springboard the series jumped off, in a graceful triple somersault, plunging squarely up its own butt. The game itself, though, once I got past the Organisation XIII confusion (mutter mutter Chain of Memories), was a joy to play. The combat, while perhaps too easy, had a much better flow to it than the original. The story (past the Roxas section, which I wound up loving) was slow to pull itself together, and it fell right apart again in the finale, but even among all the idiocy, well, I was cutting skyscrapers in half with a sword shaped like a key, and that’s the kind of idiocy I can get behind.
As I mulled upon today while watching JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure for the first time, there really is a brand of mindless fun that I’ve developed a love for. Here’s hoping, when the third one finally comes out, they’ll find that pleasure centre of dumb in my mind once more. And maybe, just maybe, this time they’ll do something more interesting with the story in the Disney worlds.
9: Chrono Trigger (Times finished: 1)
OK, you know what? I don’t actually remember a ton of my time with Chrono trigger. I mean, I know I really enjoyed it. I know the combat mechanics were interesting. I know I found the central plot fascinating, especially the time travel elements. I know that I have a general distaste for Akira Toriyama’s art style (sorry!), but since it rarely showed up I guess that’s neither here nor there. But… I just don’t remember the details! Uhh. Lavos? “The world refused to change”. You get a frog and a robot in your party, which are straight up called Frog and Robo. I’ve got nothing else. Man, it hasn’t even been that long since I played it! I had the freaking DS version!
I do remember not being nearly as interested in replaying the game as everyone else seemed to be. The concept of beating the final boss at different points of the game, resulting in different endings? Hey, thumbs up to that concept. But having seen all the endings, none of them seemed worth the time. They’re very, very short, and none of them really played into the Cause/Effect tomfoolery that makes time travel interesting. If they did, I sure as heck didn’t understand it. Maybe it’s different when you earn those endings yourself. Whatever. It was a great game, but not quite as high on my list as it might be for people who played it in its heyday.
8: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Times finished: 0)
Yeah, that’s right. A game that I’ve never finished is on my list. Most people who’ve played Oblivion probably understand: the main storyline just isn’t what you come to Oblivion for. Even when I first played it on the 360, that side of Oblivion never engaged me. It was all about the sidequests, and oh boy, they were PRETTY GOOD. Then when I ended up getting it on the PC, I dabbled in the other major Oblivion attraction: the mods.
Unfortunately I did tend to get into a pattern where I spent far more time faffing around downloading and installing mods while desperately trying not to break the game so fundamentally that I instantly fall through the dungeon floor upon game start. In fact, the reason it’s Oblivion and not Skyrim on this list is that I’ve yet to actually do anything in Skyrim. It’s all modded up and ready to go. I made Morgan Freeman as my player character. But… I can’t bring myself around to playing it just yet! Perhaps is that I feel that the Elder Scrolls games require too much of an investment. An odd thing to be bringing up on this particular list, but they certainly do ask a lot out of you in order to derive the enjoyment they have in store.
I WILL play through Skyrim. Eventually.
7: Pokemon Black + White (Times finished: 1)
To be honest, it took me by surprise that Gold and Silver weren’t the ones that immediately sprang to mind when I considered which Pokemon game should make the list. I consider the remakes especially to be among my favourite portable experiences. At the end of the day though, my time spent in post-game Pokemon White brings it far above what I might otherwise consider a superior set of games.
Simply put, I just knuckled down in making a bunch of cool teams in Pokemon White. I enjoyed coming up with clever combinations for competitive battles. I gained an interest in the Metagame. I made at least five different teams, making sure the moves and abilities fit together just the way I wanted. And do you know how many completive battles I partook in? One. It says something that that one match left lasting positive impression on me (by the way, I won by the skin of my teeth), and that I never considered my time making those teams wasted, even though I lost my copy of Pokemon White not long after. The team building was fun in its own right, which is a rare thing indeed.
6: Final Fantasy X (Times finished: 3)
Well well, here is a game that really inspires my ability to overlook its flaws. There are parts of Final Fantasy X that are either mind-numbingly dull or mind-meltingly annoying, both in the main story and the side content. The voice acting was sometimes weird. The writing was sometimes weirder. And yet… that astoundingly well-paced combat system. Those mesmerising CGI cutscenes. That wealth of content. That music. Those twists – well, the ones that weren’t really dumb. That sphere grid level-up system. And, of course, Auron.
Now that I’m taking a minute to examine it, I realise that the things I love unhesitatingly about Final Fantasy X are the mechanics. I’ve never seen a turn-based battle system that played the concept so straight while feeling so intuitive and exciting. And the sphere grid… what kind of level-up mechanic has stood out as much since? The Final Fantasy series itself has tried to recapture that particular magic and ended up with crap like whatever that crystal thing is called in XIII. Even the story and characters, while being a mixed bag, were somehow incredibly engaging. I mean… I finished it three times for a reason. There’s a real heart to FFX, and I’ll continue love it in spite of the embarrassment I felt watching certain scenes. For example, I watched the infamous laughing scene in a room full of other people. Yeah.