I'll go ahead and say it: all my favorite games are RPGs. And as a result, I know more about them than any other genre. While platformers were where I started (Donkey Kong and Pitfall I'm talking to you), once I was exposed to RPGs and realized the epic scale that a video game could have, I was hooked for life. Regrettably, there aren't too many modern RPGs that I enjoy, so it seems like a good time to go back and reflect upon the RPGs of yesteryear and why they were so great. Here are my favorites from the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Faxanadu isn't a game big on hand holding, but after an initial learning curve it gets to be a lot of fun. "You must go see the king at once," eh? Well they certainly won't tell you where the old man is at. "You must go fight off the dwarves and restore the World Tree from the grasp of the Evil One." Alright then, thanks for the thorough directions.
In all honesty though, this game is great. With only a limited color palette, the designers managed to construct some very robust and detailed backdrops. The enemies are interesting and challenging. And for me personally, there is a real sense of progress from purchasing new equipment that can actually be visibly equipped on the character.
Dragon Warrior IV (1992)
Next to Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest is one of the most famous JRPG series to date. Number 4 in the series builds upon earlier developments, which makes for an all-around exceptional game.
I would say this game takes the award for "latest appearance of a game's protagonist". The story starts with four chapters, each of which follows a different individual in their personal quests. It is not until chapter 5 that the real hero is revealed, when they finally team up with those from the previous chapters. Overall, Dragon Warrior IV is a commendable RPG. Comfortable difficulty curve, great battles, and a wonderful story.
Legend of the Ghost Lion (1992)
This is a really obscure one here. I had never even heard of this game until just recently, when someone brought it to my attention. Legend of the Ghost Lion is one of only a handful of RPGs that feature a female protagonist. Ever. The cover art looks like an ad for the early 1990s, but that aside, it's an entertaining game. After her parents go missing while searching for a fabled ghost white lion, young Maria is given a magic lion-slaying spear by the village elder and told to go after them (shouldn't the elder have given the spear to her parents in the first place?).
Swept into the "Dream World", Maria fights zombies, werewolves, and other baddies in search of her missing parents and the elusive Ghost Lion. Battles only yield money, so leveling up can only be done by finding special items in the world. It's a solid game, albeit with a slightly weak plotline. It also features a very one-of-a-kind ally summoning system that almost seems like a Pokemon precursor. The bright colors and quirky music definitely give off a certain StarTropics vibe.
Crystalis is a really intriguing game. It takes the "medieval world with sword-wielding hero and dragons" cliche and turns it entirely on its head. The main character awakens from a cryogenic slumber 100 years after worldwide nuclear war. All that remains is a strange irradiated landscape dotted with small towns of refugees. Technology has been shunned and primitive weaponry is used to fend off the mutated creatures that roam the land.
This was the first top-down game I remember playing that had pixel-based movement rather than tile-based movement. It makes for really smooth controls and more complex attack strategies when fighting enemies. There is a huge inventory of spells, equipment, and special items, all of which have to be used strategically throughout the game. All in all, Crystalis is a game that operates far beyond what I ever thought the NES was technically capable of.
Final Fantasy (1987)
I had to include the first game in what is likely my favorite series of all time. Final Fantasy 1 seems simplistic in all that it does, but really it was laying the groundwork for hundreds of games to come. It seized the throne from the popular Dragon Quest series in 1980s Japan and propelled forward to become famous worldwide.
This was the first game to let players choose classes for their characters, and effectively choose what strategy they wished to use throughout the game. Archaic battle mechanics and slow message displays make for some long level grinding, which is absolutely required to be able to progress forward. Though difficult, anyone willing to put in the time will reap the rewards of this awesome game.