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Nostalgia incoming! AiPT! picks their favorite RPGs of all time

Our gaming writers discuss those RPGs from the past that still resonate to this day.

While trapped on a slow train last week, I began an inspiration search for a new gaming article that the entire staff could weigh in on, and share their unique perspective. In my quest for interesting content I found an image of “Best RPGs” as chosen and reviewed by a variety of gaming websites. I figured, hey — AiPT! is full of opinionated gaming nerds who’d love a chance to dive back into their personal favorites, so let’s see what they nominate.

The results are very varied, almost all a decade or more old, and cover a great deal of the genre. Take a look and see if your favorite made our internal cut.

Patrick Hellen – Gaming Editor – This is a bit of a loaded question. Some of the best games I’ve ever played were RPGs, and my personal list includes some big games like Witcher 3, Breath of the Wild, and Link to the Past. Still, the game that immediately came to mind when thinking about this article was Final Fantasy II (FFIV in Japan).

Released in November of 1991, I received the game the following summer for my birthday from my cool Aunt who always knew what to get me. That year my mom and I packed up the car and headed to Cape Cod for my entire Summer vacation, with my Dad coming down on weekends when he would wrap up work. I would wake up every morning and play the only three SNES games I owned at the time – Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, and Final Fantasy IV. By the end of the Summer, I had beaten Mario and Zelda, and was still plugging away at FF. I went on to continue to grind for levels, and play every single random side quest over the next few months. By the time the credits rolled, it was easily the game I had spent the most time playing (outside of Tetris), and everything about it was epic to my young mind. The massive cast of characters, the dualistic nature of Cecil and his paladin awakening, Goldbez’s multiple side switches, and the god-damn WHALE.

While it’s not the longest I’ve played one game, with the passage of time and the way that childhood memories stretch, it feels like the most time spent on a game ever. Someday I’ll go back and replay it from the start, and try to recapture that magic, like Tellah tries to recapture Meteo, and hopefully the multiple paths of sacrifice, loss, and friendship hold up.

Forrest – Unburdened by the short-sighted attempts at grandiosity and endless iterating of its follow-ups, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is a game that succeeds because it is simply satisfied with being what it it is. What it is, is very weird.

This is a world where you catch rides on the back of giant flea elephants, catch rumors of swords secreted away in egg mines manned by weird worm-people, and fight wizards who live in mushroom towers. All to say nothing about the thousands upon thousands of in-game dialogue and books you can read through about Gods living, dead, false, or otherwise. It’s a game empowered by the promise of letting you live a thousand lives: kill your favorite characters or your most hated enemies and bear the full brunt of the repercussions, or spend entire days just scaling mountains and soaking in the weird Moebius meets steampunk scenery and still feel like you haven’t seen it all. A world so unflinchingly its own that when you become immersed in it — as I did for hundreds of hours — the minor faults of the game design like wonky jumping, dated graphics, and amiss sound effects all melt away and you have no choice but to become sucked into it. In the end, as weird as it all is, it’s also inviting. That’s what kept me in Morrowind for so long, and it’s what keeps me coming back every other year or even more frequently.

Brian – As the resident old man of AiPT!, I’m going to take you kids back to my first true computer RPG. I never had any consoles growing up post Atari 2600 or Commodore 64, but we were a PC family from as far back as I can remember. The first true RPG I got my hands on was in late 1991 with Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra. The game completely changed my concept of fantasy gaming and story-telling and the images from hundreds of hours of playing are burned into my memory clearer than anything else from 8th grade. I can still see beholders and skeletons chasing me through the corridors of a dungeon and the strange wonder of discovering future technology in a world of swords and sorcery. Isles of Terra put me on a path that lead me to not only play RPGs in every medium available, but to become a game designer and writer. While other great, great RPGs have come and gone, Might & Magic III will always be my first.

Trevor – While it may not have aged well enough to be considered “#1,” my #1 RPG is Tales of Symphonia which I played on the Nintendo Gamecube. It was the only game I had that took two discs to finish and I remember being in awe of how epic it felt. My friend and I played through the game several times and with at least a hundred hours per play through I don’t know if I even want to think about how many hours total I’ve spent with that game. It has some of your favorite JRPG staples such as a likable cast of characters, a story that doesn’t really pick up until 20 hours in, a small girl with a big axe, and a boss fight with God. Is the plot more of less an uncanny rip off of Final Fantasy X? Yeah, pretty much. But to this day I’m still searching for an RPG with a cast of characters with as good interpersonal dynamics as Tales of Symphonia.

Connor C.- Mass Effect 2 is not just my all time favorite RPG, it’s one of my all time favorite games period. Since I have been a Playstation-only gamer since the PS3, I didn’t get to experience the Mass Effect franchise until Mass Effect 2. That didn’t affect my enjoyment for the game whatsoever, as it’s an absolute masterpiece. The galaxy is vast and an absolute wonder to explore, meanwhile the story at the heart of the game is thrilling and pulse-pounding. What really makes it such a standout experience, though, is the incredible characters that populate it. ME2 is one of the few games that I felt a real connection to the characters. I went out of my way to converse with members of my crew, build friendships, and ensure they grew to their fullest potential – which made the final mission of the game all the more gut wrenching! Losing just one squadmate was a true blow to my heart and forced to me to play the game over and over to try and make sure everyone made it out alive. No matter how disappointing Mass Effect: Andromeda is, Mass Effect 2 will always hold a special place in my heart. Goddamn it EA, just remaster the trilogy for next-gen consoles already.

Nathaniel– This is a tough one. I love RPGs. All I ask is decent characters and an awesome story. There are plenty of RPGs that meet that criteria so I will go with the one that started it all for me. I was blown away by Final Fantasy II on SNES (editor’s note – HELL YEAH, SON). I had never played the first one on the NES or knew that it was actually the fourth installment of the series. But loved it. The story arc of Cecil is one of the most well written in video games and the fate of the twins is the most tear jerking moment of the series. (Yes, I have played FFVII.) Rdydia becoming an adult, the redemption of Kain, Edge joining. I just played FFII last year on the DS and it still holds up. I just wish the voice acting didn’t ruin my childhood by calling him Se-sil.

Jason Segarra – Adventures in pod Taste! Host – I am shocked SHOCKED and appalled that my esteemed colleagues have made it this far into a list of the greatest RPGs and have yet to mention the Suikoden series. SHOCKED…well maybe not that shocked. Suikoden as a series has always flown a bit under the radar on this side of the world, and it’s honestly our loss. Stretching across 5 main titles, one weird card-based spinoff, and a host of Japan-only side games that serve to flesh out the series’ insanely expansive cast of characters and lore, Suikoden is a game wherein you, a child of destiny, must raise an army in order to combat an evil empire. More than that, you are tasked with recruiting 108 unique characters to fill your ranks, even creating a headquarters to house your army. The series does sort of putter out over time, but the second game in the series is a stone cold classic. What other game has you defending the country from invaders, engaging in complex political entanglements AND taking on the best cooks in the country in an Iron Chef style video game? Ok, yes, Battle Chef is out there too, but that doesn’t make Suikoden 2 any less of an amazing game. The countless secrets, multiple endings, endless party customization options mean there’s always something new to find in the game. Shoot, if you keep your save data from the first game you even get an optional side quest that expands on the story of the first. The later sequels are not without their charm (I rather enjoyed 3), but the series certainly peaked with its sophomore outing.

Eric: Virtually all my favorite games are RPGs, so I have a lot to choose from. The Suikoden games are certainly very high contenders (especially Suikoden V), but Jason already elaborated on those so I’ll go with my other top choice: the original Digimon World for the PlayStation 1. The only consistent aspect of Digimon World games is their inconsistency. The series (and its various subseries) have utilized all sorts of different fighting systems, locales, and story elements, but in this instance I still think the original was the best. The game turns twenty years old this year, and it’s still one of the hardest, and most beloved, games I’ve played.

Unlike most other Digimon games, which utilize turn-based combat in save-the-world scenarios, DW1 was basically the ultimate evolution of a virtual pet toy. A bulk of the player’s time is spent raising their Digimon, to include feeding them, training them, praising them, scolding them, and even taking them to the bathroom. While that last part is certainly grounds for jokes, the game really makes you feel like you’re living day to day with your partner. One of the game’s most (in)famous elements is it evolution system. What Digimon your partner Digivolves into is determined by what stats you increase in training as well as how many mistakes you make when caring for it. It’s a brutal system, and it’s virtually impossible to get a specific Digimon you want without consulting a guide. I love it, though. The game doesn’t hold your hand at all, and the trial and error process allows you to get to see and befriend all manner of charming partners.

With all that said, it’s the game’s exploration aspects that make it spring to mind when I think of “Best RPGs.” The game takes place on File Island, a location in the Digital World that’s full of all different types of environments such as woods, plains, strange towns, frozen tundra, a desert, and more. While there is a storyline that you learn more about as you explore, the emphasis of gameplay (besides raising your partner) is on the exploration itself. Moving throughout File Island and discovering new areas is so much fun, and the world feels gigantic (even though it isn’t actually as big as modern open-world maps). The creators really perfected the science of creating a varied game world and allowing one to unlock new portions of it overtime. I’ve never felt more immersed in a game than I have when playing at the protagonist in DW1. That sense of wonder and possibility inherent to the genre is at its best here.

Besides all this, there are a number of other charming details to the game. There are cards to collect, and even in their PS1 graphics states they’re still cool to look at. The sound effects, from your Digimon’s cries to the sound of running across the ground, are fantastic. The graphics are are also extremely charming, even though they’re obviously dated by today’s standards. Digimon World, perhaps more than any other game in the franchise, really plops the player down in its world and says “Explore all this has to offer.” Twenty years later, I still have more to find.

David Hildebrand -Co-host of Adventures in Pod Taste: I’m gonna back take you guys back to 1993. Shadowrun for the SNES is my favorite RPG. No other RPGs I have played since has ever given me the feeling that I had with Shadowrun.

The game is set in 2050. You play a character named Jake Armitage, who has been attacked and now suffers from amnesia. You control Jake to help him recover his own identity as well as to find out who wants Jake dead. Shadowrun combines the feel of a table top RPG with real-time gameplay. The game uses a system of cursors that you roll a pointer over to choose your decisions of examining, talking, and even combat. You eventually get the opportunity to hire other NPC’s as part of your crew. You’re able to upgrade your magic and you encounter a lot of other cool NPC’s. You talk with them and get clues that help you progress through the game. The enemies range from simple thugs to dragons. You even get to travel through cyberspace.

The game was ahead of its time and a joy to play! I could go on and on about Shadowrun but I’ll hold that for retro review one day. If you have the means of playing this game, check it out, it is well worth the time put into it!

Jordan Richards: While my heart is deep for both the Pokemon and Dragon Quest series for RPGs, my favorite RPG of all time has to be Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. This is the sequel to the original N64 game, and also a pretty good RPG in itself. However, while this one also tells your usual Mario rescues Peach tale, the stakes are much higher the longer it goes on as a new set of villains enter the picture. The humor and personality the original had is cranked higher, leading to many laugh-out loud moments and memorable characters. The story also gets rather deep and solemn at times, going to such a depth not seen in the Mario franchise at that point.

But what truly pushes the game into master class are the worlds you visit and battle mechanics. The worlds are so creative and unique in their design and their themes. At first, the game seems fairly typical with your grass & castle base level to kick things off, but then you are joining a wrestling federation to take down the champion for his belt and then you hop aboard a train to solve mysteries with a clueless penguin detective. No singular stage is alike outside of the main goal of collecting this game’s shiny stars.

Second, the battle mechanics are enhanced further from the original, adding a bit more variety and skill to it. Sure, it is your typical turn-based RPG, but pressing the buttons at the right time to dish more damage or prevent more damage to you. This time, the game throws the curveball that all battles are now down before an audience, one that you can appeal to or interact with, on a stage that gets bigger and bigger. Appealing to the audience wins favor with them that boosts your special attack, sometimes the audience will tosses gifts or rocks at you, or even the stage itself will crumble during the fight. Plus, on occasions, you may have to spin a lotto wheel to see if you win health and “magic” back or lose big time. It all adds to rather hectic, but wild and fun battle system that keeps you on your toes.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is not only a fantastic RPG, but one that blew my mind when I first played it so many years ago. Everything gels perfectly, leading to a delightful, engaging, and hilarious experience that no Mario RPG has yet been able to top in so many ways. I still hope that someday, a remake or remaster comes our way.

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