When you ask most casual fans or gamers what they’re favorite roleplaying game is, a lot of them will answer “Final Fantasy 7” simply because it’s the only one they really know or even played. Truth be told, “7” is the title that had people actually saying the words “Final Fantasy” in school without getting their asses kicked for it. The new 3D visuals had a lot to do with it suddenly being “cool” to play an RPG, but I think the fact that every character in it is constantly striking emo poses in slow motion and doing badass things like turning into a zombie, riding a motorcycle up the side of a building, etc, was the real reason casual gamers dug it. It was like the “Fast and Furious” of roleplaying games. The true gamers knew it wasn’t anything special, but it had enough shiny stuff and explosions to draw the attention from the mainstream crowds as well.
There was a time before that, though, that I recall pretty well. I didn’t know what an RPG was. I was in 6th or 7th grade and like every other kid, I played sports, played outside, and played video games. That’s what we did before the internet. We played.
I always had a pretty crazy imagination. Even as a young kid, I remember being bored when a movie or game was too cookie-cutter. I suppose I was a cynical prick even as a child. I was getting fed up with side scrollers in general and couldn’t believe people were still having fun running from the left side of the screen to the right, jumping onto moving platforms over and over, game after game. I would fantasize about stories and surreal scenarios and I wondered why I’d never seen anything that really pushed our Nintendo, Super Nintendo, or Sega consoles to their limits. I’d played and loved every Zelda game up to that point, but those games were pretty linear and straight forward compared to what I thought could really be done.
One day, I borrowed my friend’s Super Nintendo game. It was called “Final Fantasy 2”. Later, I’d find out it was actually part 4 in Japan, but only the second to be released in the U.S, so it was called “2” on this side of the ocean. I was blown away as this huge, epic fantasy story unrolled before my eyes. It was nerd heaven. I was Cecil, a dark knight ordered by the king to deliver a package to a nearby town. Once I arrived in the town, the package opened itself and turned out to be a curse, burning the town to ashes and revealing the entire thing to have been a set up. “What the hell?! This is like a real story!” That was only the beginning. I sat in front of the screen for five hours, then ten, then twenty. The game logged your hours and time played. About a dozen different characters would come and go. One old wizard joined us but died saving the team. One young girl would leave the group and return later, a full grown woman. It was a brilliant and beautiful story that allowed me to fly anywhere in the world and visit any town whenever I wanted to. This may all be common place in video games now, but at the time, it broke the mold in my eyes and finally delivered in a way I’d always thought a game should try to. When it was over, I was sad. I was truly sad. I’d spent all this time with these characters and it was suddenly over. They weren’t real, but it had felt that way. I’d play them so much, my parents would say “Why don’t you read a book for a change.” They didn’t understand. This wasn’t Mario Brothers. I WAS reading!!!
My hunger for roleplaying games had been born.
I would learn of an entire string of awesome RPGs over the years for these consoles… “Secret of Mana”, “The 7th Saga”, “Eye of the Beholder”, “Illusion of Gaia”, “Secret of Evermore”, and of course… “Final Fantasy 3” and “Chrono Trigger”. The nerd debate on which of those last two is truly the best console RPG of all time will go on forever. My pick is FF3, but not by much.
It’s not to say that RPGs today aren’t still fun… but back in the 90’s a game HAD to be good because it sure as hell wasn’t going to LOOK good. Now, game developers only try half as hard because the games are pretty to look at and will sell on name power alone. The Final Fantasy series has really taken a nose-dive and the characters are all so cookie-cutter and goofy. Even the men look and act like female cheerleaders. It’s so Japanese and so damned weird that it’s hard to care about them. There are, however, still good RPGs out there. There are obviously the online-MMO’s like “World of Warcraft” or “Everquest”, or solo RPG’s like “Mass Effect 1 and 2”, “Morrowind”, “Knights of the Old Republic”, “Oblivion”, and one of my new favorite games: “Dragon Age”, but the golden age of great RPGs is long gone. In the 1990’s, the Super Nintendo was loaded with awesome RPGs. In 2010, you might find two or three decent ones on the 360 or PS3, and maybe one or two on the Wii. Storytelling is, once again, pretty unpopular (though the hardcore gamers will never fully abandon it) and the flash and gimmicks are dominating the scene once more.
On a side note: If you have a good PC, look up the “GOTHIC” series starting with part 1. If it had been on a console, it would be huge. Also, “Baldur’s Gate” and “Neverwinter Nights” are two amazing PC RPG’s as well.
I wouldn’t feel honest acting like the only great RPGs were 16 bit because it’s just not true, but I can say that anybody with a brain who puts substance before flash should go out of their way to find these awesome titles on the older systems:
Super Mario RPG
Final Fantasy 2
Final Fantasy 3
Secret of Mana
Secret of Evermore
Illusion of Gaia
The 7th Saga
Phantasy Star (Sega)
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Hopefully, one day RPGs will re-emerge but I doubt it will happen. They’ll come here or there once in a while but a flood of them isn’t very likely. Part of it is because Square Soft isn’t as great as it used to be. Another reason is that casual gaming is just so damned popular now and that the market for storytelling isn’t that great. Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter all that much… because the games of old are and will always be around.
Til next time, you ugly maggots