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RPG of 1998!

1997 was quite a year in the world of video games. Especially for RPG fans around the world. As many of you know, a good RPG was hard to find back before 1997. Certainly you could pick up Final Fantasy III or Phantasy Star IV, but the problem was the amount of time that came between these RPGs. A good RPG took 60 hours to beat, but the distance between Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger was nearly a year. What was an RPG fanatic to do?!

So 1997 came along, and our friends at Square released a little title we all know as Final Fantasy VII. This game, as far as I'm concerned, will probably always be the greatest RPG in history. Not because of the story and the characters and the game play (which many seem to be turning sour on these days, I really liked FFVII, and still love it), but because of what it did. It broke the barrier. It showed these corporate big wigs up in the tall skyscrapers that RPGs sell too, and the month that all of this went down, video game companies immediately started their preparations to out duel the Square hit. So 1998 would bring us several classic titles right? Yes. So the RPG of the Year award is debatable?

You bet it is. With 1998 coming to a close, RPG fans have had much to sing about. For the first time ever, the Role Playing Games have had such a good quality, that the award for RPG of the Year is a complete toss up! For the past few years, now World Superpower, Square has dominated this category with titles like Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger (Which was Nintendo Power's Game of the Year, voted in by the players, by the way) and last year's mega hit, Final Fantasy VII. This year, however, Square's back is against the wall, and there's some new hitters stepping to the plate. Arcade companies like Namco and Capcom have thrown their hats into the ring, while RPG staple companies such as Atlus and Working Designs, like always, have been busting their humps to bring us the best possible games. Here are the contenders out there for this title:

Final Fantasy Tactics (Square- PSX)
Saga Frontier (Square- PSX)
Parasite Eve (Square- PSX)
Xenogears (Square- PSX)
Breath of Fire 3 (Capcom- PSX)
Tales of Destiny (Namco- PSX)
Azure Dreams (Konami- PSX)
Kartia (Atlus- PSX)
Brigandine (Atlus- PSX)
Tactics Ogre (Atlus- PSX)
Granstream Saga (THQ- PSX)
Lunar: Silver Star Story (Working Designs- PSX)
Panzer Dragoon Saga (Sega- Saturn)
Shining Force III (Sega- Saturn)
Quest 64 (THQ- N64)

Whew! That's quite a list! The longest ever! You'll notice I left out adventure games, such at Alundra (Working Designs- PSX), Magic Knight RayEarth (Working Designs- Saturn), Brave Fencer Musashiden (Square- PSX), and of course, Zelda 64 (Nintendo- N64). Simply, I view these as what the are, action adventure games with a touch of role playing. I honestly shouldn't include the strategy RPG titles, such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force III, but after the year we're having, I think they deserve it!

So, there is our list of contenders. Each game has its ups and downs, and most certainly has it's fans. However, I think when it's all said and done, everyone should be able to agree on two titles as the top two contenders for RPG of the Year. Of course, I'm talking about Square's own XenoGears, and Working Designs' Lunar: Silver Star Story. Which one will win? Well, I've broken down each game into some categories below to show my view on the games, and which of the two I think will walk away with the trophy. So without any further delay....

Graphics:

Xenogears- Hand drawn anime characters on fully rotatable polygonal backgrounds. The anime in this game is very nicely drawn, with a lot of detail. The mechs, or "Gears", are also polygonal, and done so very well too. Square's graphics team never ceases to amaze me.

Lunar- Everything's hand drawn here. The character sprites, the backgrounds, the spell effects, everything. The anime (which boasts more than XenoGears, by the way) is stunning. The backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous.

Advantage- Xenogears. Lunar's character and enemy sprites appear a little too 16 bittish to be competing with XenoGears. It's been a long time since Square's been out dueled in this area. Although, neither of these games live up to the graphical excellence of Final Fantasy VII.

Music:

Xenogears- A very good score. It's worth owning the soundtrack to, as well. While not as good as say the Final Fantasy Tactics score released earlier in the year, this is still a good set of tracks. Better than 90% of the RPGs out there.

Lunar- Also a good score. The opening intro music is lovely, and Victor Ireland can write music from time to time ;). This is also worth owning the soundtrack to. I also like the idea that this is not just a remixed score. It's almost a totally different set of music.

Advantage- Xenogears. This is a close call, and I'm probably going to take some heat for it, but I honestly think that Square did it again here. I don't know if all their composers hang around Nobuo Uematsu's place or what, but they always put out a very good soundtrack with all their games.

Battle System:

Xenogears- Completely new and unique, like nothing anyone has ever played. Sound familiar? It should if you're a Square fan. Square is extremely talented in taking battle systems, improving them, and then improving them on top of that as they go along. In XenoGears it's a combo system. Damage done is based upon the combination of the buttons you push. Special combos, or "Deathblows" are learned by experimenting with certain button combinations. Don't worry though, the deathblows are all preprogrammed, and once you learn one, you can't really forget it. The Gear battle system is pretty solid as well, although not as cool as the actually person battles. The Gears draw upon the knowledge that their pilots already know and execute them to the best of their ability on the battle field, of sorts. It's hard to explain, but very cool, and darn right addictive!

Lunar- "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That's what best sums up the approach of Lunar. Very standard, easy to learn, but quite solid. Magic is based upon certain characters. You actually have healers and wizards (someone tell me where Final Fantasy went wrong in this regard?), and warriors. Nothing to elaborate or fancy, but honestly, does it really need to be overhauled?

Advantage- Xenogears. That system is just so addicting! One of the most addicting battle systems I've ever played with (excluding Dragon Force and Final Fantasy Tactics, of course). You'll sit there for hours pounding different buttons, seeing what you can learn to do and how cool they look on the battle field (some of those deathblows are too sweet). Taking nothing away from Lunar's battle system, but Square did a lovely job on XenoGears. Hats off to ‘em.

Translation:

Xenogears: A surprisingly good translation from Square. Many were worried that the religious overtones in this game would bring Mr. Censorship out of his hole, but let's give Square credit for sticking to their guns and putting out a pretty good translation. However, the anime dubbing is absolutely pathetic. It's been some time since I've seen such a bad job of anime dubbing. It's like an animated Jackie Chan movie at times. I certainly hope Square learns from their mistakes on this one and does a better job next trip around.

Lunar: What else would you expect from Working Designs? They only translate their games 500 million separate times to catch every spelling error and misprint possible. They are also extremely talented and pretty good anime dubbing.

Advantage- Lunar. I dare someone to find me a better translated game than a Working Designs title. You just won't find it, guys. Working Designs is a the best of the best in this area.

Characters:

Xenogears: Not bad, but not as good as Final Fantasy VII either. After putting together such a band of loved characters like Cloud, Tifa and Aerith, you'd think that they'd bring out some good ones for this one too. While Elly has a good plotline behind her (which backs up my claim that females always make the best RPG characters) and you just have to love Bart, some of the other characters, like Rico and Maria, have a hard time fitting into your scheme of things. (And while I'm at it, I'd like to say what a stupid name Fei Fong Wong is.) Someone told me that they think the XenoGears characters are more believable than characters from say, Final Fantasy VII. Well, I don't know about you but I don't play RPGs for believability, and what's so believable about a gun toting man of god, a screwy mutant and a cutesy pink thing anyway? :) So this batch of characters isn't bad, but it's not the best either. A good portion of the characters needed some overhauls.

Lunar: Good characters. Very good characters. There's no grey area here, you love or hate ‘em. You'll love Jessica, and hate Nash, or something to that effect. I'm glad to see that Alex's "Crono Syndrome" (the main character never says anything, just nods and shakes his head like an idiot, this term was made popular around the time of Chrono Trigger) has been cured, and actually has a personality. These characters also have an attitude, and all fit in very well.

Advantage- Lunar. Now we're getting into the meat and potatoes portion of the RPGs. If you don't have good characters, you just don't have a good RPG. While XenoGears did give it a good run, with some cool characters, Lunar hits you with a entire cast of stellar characters. Ghaleon is by far one of the slickest bad guys you'll ever lay eyes on. Stick him in the baddie hall of fame with Magus and Sephiroth kiddies, because this guy a baaaaad man. (And his voice is so..so..calculating! You can just imagine how wicked he really is!)

Storyline:

Xenogears: As I mentioned before, I am so happy to see Square stick to their guns with this game. It's no big mystery where all these religious references come from, and you can change the names around all you want, but we still know the story :). I love this storyline, it's very slick. Square has nothing to be ashamed of, even if the religious activists come down on them. This is a top notch storyline! The plot twists are great, and all around just a winner. I also can't help but think that some of the themes in this game was "borrowed" from the Japanese Anime series, Neon Genesis Evangelion. This isn't a bad thing, of course, Evangelion kicks total butt, but it did remind me of the series in some parts.

Lunar: Also a winner. A big winner, in fact. Lunar's strong points have always been in the storyline. The few references that you'll find from other stories or religions will be very slight here, because this storyline and everything leading up to it is 100% original home grown material, boys and girls. Superb twists, and like a good punch, you'll never see it comin'. (Unless, of course, you're a Lunar Alumni, like me ;D.)

Advantage: Lunar. This is the closest race. Honestly, dividing these two up against each other is like slamming a Ferrari and a Porshe head to head. Why do it? But in the end, I find that Lunar's storyline is more original. XenoGears, however, is still a top notch RPG story. I just think towards the end, Lunar boasts a better storyline.

So the 1998 RPG of the Year is...Lunar: Silver Star Story! A great game, especially when matched up against such a good line up of RPGs this year. None of the companies this year have anything to be ashamed of with their releases (Except maybe THQ, Quest 64 just flat out sucked), and 1999 promises to be even better with Lunar 2, Final Fantasy VIII, Dragon Quest VII, Suikoden 2, and who knows what else!?

Runner ups:

These are games, that while I really enjoyed them, I don't think they'll be taking home the hardware this year. My hat's off to the companies who released them though. I hope we see more of these titles in the coming years.

Final Fantasy Tactics (Square- PSX)- The absolute most addicting game I've played since Dragon Force. The battle system, which I normally don't like, is mixed in well with the Final Fantasy V job system, and you'll stayed glued to your ‘sets trying to learn all the skills for all the character classes!

Why it didn't win- The story was good, but the characters were hard to distinguish (since they all looked pretty much the same..the noseless wonders. Lucia proves Lunar women don't have nipples, and FFT shows that FF characters don't have noses. It goes hand in hand). Otherwise it's a wonderful game, and should be owned by any RPG fan.

Panzer Dragoon Saga (Sega- Saturn)- Next to XenoGears, the Panzer Saga battle system is the next most inventive. I really liked the way this game looked and played. The story was strong too, but not as involved as some of the other RPGs out there. You can get lost quickly, and not really know what's going down.

Why it didn't win- Well, first of all, it was easy and short. While the battle system was inventive, it was also pretty easy to figure out. The characters were also somewhat bland. Also there's an item called "Stolarium." Naming anything in an RPG after RPG Nazi, Bernie Stolar, is like pouring lemon juice on a paper cut. Just the text "Stolarium" appearing on my screen made me want to vomit.

Tales of Destiny (Namco- PSX)- Like Lunar, Tales of Destiny relies on a very strong central storyline and excellent characters. This is a must buy for any die hard RPG fan. You will fall in love with the characters and the swordians, and continue playing for the very deep storyline. Also, the translation is very solid.

Why it didn't win- Unfortunately, that's all it had. The battle and magic system were original, but too qwirky to use. The graphics were not as good either. Plus it kind of annoyed me that the intro was all done in that awesome Japanese anime, but during the game there were no cut scenes.

Parasite Eve- (Square- PSX)- Like it's sister Square game, XenoGears, Parasite Eve boasts one of those totally neato battle systems. Similar to THQ's Grandsteam Saga, it plays like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy were shoved into a blender. The storyline is pretty interesting as well, no matter what the rags say. Plus, the graphics are just plain outstanding. This will be a big seller, and a hit, because it'll draw in fans of the Resident Evil series as well as RPGers.

Why it didn't win- Too easy. You might die once or twice, and most of the time, the death results in a silly mistake, not because you weren't strong enough. Too short. Unfortunately, when they stuck Final Fantasy and Resident Evil in the blender, the length of the game came out RE. It's a 15~20 hour game, if that long. Most of the characters seemed to be a waste too. Out of the entire cast, I only really found Aya and Eve interesting. (Although you have to love Daniel, who I call "Shaft.") So it's a good start, but not up to speed with a Lunar or XenoGears.

Let me say again though, that comparing these two great games head to head, and showing that Working Designs has made a better RPG this year than Square, isn't really the point. The point is that while I honestly think that Lunar is better, that doesn't mean that XenoGears sucks, because it doesn't. XenoGears is a stellar game, and without a doubt, if you claim to be an RPG fan and you don't like XenoGears, then you're just flat out not an RPG Fan.

I think that it's a great thing that we even have a debate for who will walk away with the award this year, considering in past years it's been a pretty big blow out. Final Fantasy VII, who didn't see that one coming? Best selling RPG in the history of the world, how could it not win? Anyway, I'd like to congratulate and thank all the companies who took the time and made the effort to make that list of 15 games I posted above. These guys took the time and put in the effort to translate and put together some of the best experiences we've ever had for our consoles. Wether you're a Nintendo Nerd, a Sega Advocate or even a Playstation Pinhead, (can you tell I am a multiplatformer? :) ) I think that these companies deserve a lot of praise for their fine works they put through this year. I look forward to 1999, and hopefully even a bigger debate next year. Oh how I love a good debate! Bring on Final Fantasy VIII, Lunar 2, Suikoden 2, Dragon Quest VII and Grandia. I'm ready for ‘em!

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