All of us remember the first RPG that "clicked" with us. Maybe we played a few and they didn't work, or maybe it was your first. But regardless, since you're here reading this feature, there probably is that one game that started your love affair with the genre, and if you're anything like us, you haven't looked back since.
Today, we gathered a number of our fine editors to write about their first experience with RPGs, whether it's the first one they played or the one that got its hooks in them. Our first loves start all the way back at the first major JRPG, and they go to WRPGs that pushed the boundaries of the genre, and just about everything in between.
Intro by Zach Wilkerson
Although my first encounter with RPGs involved several hilarious nights at my friend's place trying to jump over mountains in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, the first RPG that truly drew me into the genre was the absolutely timeless insanity that is Borderlands. I grew up amid the craze of first-person shooters taking the gaming market by storm, so games that didn't have me going full Rambo down a corridor with explosions going off every two seconds were simply not even on my radar. Yes, the occasional detour with nonsense like the above-mentioned super-jumping in Oblivion amused me and my friends from time to time, but by and large, I rarely deviated from my devotion to shooting terrorists in the face.
But this all changed when I got my hands on a copy of Borderlands; I was instantly smitten and subsequently spent almost every weekend glued to my PS3 as I explored every nook and cranny of Pandora. In many ways, Borderlands was the perfect gateway RPG for someone like me, as it kept me grounded in familiar territory with its shooter gameplay but stretched the limits everywhere else, from its over the top design philosophy to its slick cel-shaded graphics. Ironically enough, Borderlands really mellowed me out as a gamer and got me interested in branching out from the bleak landscape of military shooters. I found myself sinking into the beautifully crafted worlds of Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, exploring deeply rooted conspiracies in Deus Ex, saving the world in Fire Emblem and more, all thanks to the bizarre but fascinating hours I spent as a Vault Hunter.
In playing the game again, Borderlands falls somewhat short of my rosy memories. The gameplay feels clunkier and the gags aren't as funny this time around, but I cannot deny the influence that it continues to exert on me as a gamer. Every time a new release looks a little too strange or out of my comfort zone, I think back on the gold mine I discovered in Borderlands and put aside my worries, instead looking forward to what I might stumble upon this time around.
For us 80s kids, there was a time when Nintendo Power was giving away copies of Dragon Quest — back in the days when it was decided the series needed to be called Dragon Warrior — and I was the lucky recipient of one. I didn't totally know what to make of it. The top-down view felt like Zelda, but turn-based battles and stats were new to me. I recall liking my time with it, though I don't think I ever finished it. I continued to like adventure games, but I didn't think much of these RPG things yet.
In 1991, I somehow saved up $60 to pick up "Final Fantasy II" AKA Final Fantasy IV — it's funny to think both games on my list had major name changes in the US. FFIV wasn't my first RPG, but it was what converted me. The story and characters profoundly changed my notions of what a game could do, and the different classes and abilities each character had was just fascinating to me. There was so much I could do now! Working out how best to outfit and use Rydia and her magic, Kain's jump attacks, and so on just clicked with me in a way Dragon Quest hadn't. Even now, if I'm playing a game and can choose a character class, it's always a paladin, holy knight, or something similar. It all traces back to Final Fantasy IV, and how much Cecil's story of redemption touched 10-year-old me.
So thank you, Dragon Quest, for getting me started; and thank you, Final Fantasy IV, for sealing my fate as a lifelong RPG fan.
It was 1990. I was nine years old and deeply in love with my NES. My neighbor lent me Dragon Warrior one evening; he warned me that this game was a little different than the usual platformer and puzzle games I had been playing. This was entirely correct, as less than five minutes into the game, I was entirely befuddled as to how to proceed.
The game opened to a throne room with little characters walking around; I figured these guys must be avoided at all costs. Alright. This must be some sort of a top-down puzzle game, I thought. Then I accidentally bumped into one of the little men, and I nearly jumped out of my seat. Game Over, I assumed...and yet nothing happened! How unusual! I pressed a random button, bringing up a list of commands, and eventually discovered that I could talk to the characters, and even more importantly, go down the stairs in the room! Progress!
I made my way out of the castle and spent about ten relaxing seconds wandering through the overworld, when I was suddenly accosted by a grinning cartoon slime. It was at this point that I promptly ran over to my neighbor's house in a panic, having no idea how to deal with this terrifying new development. His wisdom was a great help, and eventually my confusion gave way to excitement while exploring this strange new type of video game.
Fast forward to a few months later. My best friend kept mentioning a mysterious new game she had recently tried, titled Final Fantasy. Apparently, it was an RPG, just like Dragon Warrior! To think, there was more than one RPG out there!
Locating Final Fantasy was not easy; none of my close friends had their own copies, and neither did the local video rental facilities. And then one magical afternoon, I spied the game on a trip to the mall in the big city. I begged my mom to buy it for me, but convincing her was not an easy task. A sword on the cover? And an axe? This looked to be a very violent game. My pleading continued for approximately 20 minutes...eventually resulting in the following wonderful statement:
"Well...if the other kids you know have played this game, and their parents were ok with it...maybe it isn't so bad after all." Success!
And the game was magnificent. A huge world, several character classes (some of which had really fashionable hats), and sparkly magic spell effects on top of that! I enjoyed every moment of my quest through the world of Final Fantasy. And soon enough I began another quest: to locate and play all the RPGs I could possibly find.
I remember where all of my games came from throughout my life. Whether they were bought for me by my parents or purchased with my own money, there's a time and place in my mind when it comes to knowing my collection. Except for one game: Dragon Warrior/Quest Monsters 2: Tara's Adventure (DQM2). I don't recall how I ended up with this game in my collection, but it was a big part of how I continued to be interested in RPGs.
As an already established Pokémon fan, DQM2 spoke to me right away. However, this game had its differences compared to Pokémon. Battles were 3-on-3, breeding meant losing both parents, keys were used to unlock worlds, recruiting wild monsters was up to chance, and you could even take other Masters' monsters. This was a strange and wonderful game for my younger self, and since I never truly got into RPGs until I was older, I never realized until later that I was playing a game from the prestigious Dragon Quest series. This game led me into playing Dragon Quest Monsters Joker on DS, and from then on I've been a Dragon Quest fan.
While the first RPG I played was the Zelda-like StarTropics II, the game whose presence has truly haunted me since my initial playthrough is Nintendo's EarthBound on SNES. If you asked me about why I love the game nowadays, I'd probably say something about it being the "most moral postmodern artwork," a perfect crystallization of the power of love overcoming evil, but I'll spare everyone the academic stuff (this time).
Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of playing EarthBound when I was too young to even read the text. Every few moments, I'd jostle my sleeping giant of a dad awake, and he'd read the text out loud.
I must have played the game half a dozen times this way, memorizing dungeon layouts, NPC locations, and the appearances of keywords and item names. I knew to hand my poor dad the controller right before Buzz Buzz was murdered because my sensitive heart couldn't take it. I also knew the secret to defeating the Universal Cosmic Destroyer Giygas thanks to a whisper shared among siblings.
Really, I owe my estranged older brother my deep affection for the game, a highlight and treat in my life. He rented it from Blockbuster when it was new, and upon defeating the first boss — Franky, a gangster teen (?) with an army of punk kids — he went out and bought the game in a fit of passion. (I laugh now at the thought that my brother eventually turns into a real-life Franky.) While he grew distant from games in his late teens, I continued the EarthBound ritual by playing it every year or so, always finding myself surprised by its depth and spirit.
In retrospect, I can reflect on EarthBound (a game designed around surreal non sequiturs, esoteric jokes and allusions, and an unflinching desire to bewilder) as a strange and special place to find one's worldview and sense of self. EarthBound's spirit and poetry has colored all aspects of my understanding since, and it's the title to beat on my ordered list of favorite games, sitting comfortably at number one.
My tastes in all things pop culture were strongly influenced by my older brother. If he thought something was cool, so did I. It's why I loved Nirvana. It's how I discovered Tori Amos. And it's why I revered RPGs as a "level up" (tee-hee!) from the glut of 2D platformers that dominated my 8-bit/16-bit childhood. It was my brother who first brought Final Fantasy into our home, having spent three dollars of his hard-earned money to rent the cartridge from a local Phar-Mor (props to anyone who recognizes the name of this regional chain of stores that shut down in 2002).
In 1991, after that first week-long rental, we had reached the infamous Marsh Cave and were in a state of despair. After waiting one month — in which my brother reached out to friends and Nintendo Power issues while he enjoyed the final months of 5th grade (I was in 1st grade at the time) — we used more of my brother's hard-found money (how did we get money back then?) to rent it again. Except, of course, when you rent games whose save files exist on the cart, anyone else who rents the game is free to delete the save file or continue on from your save file.
In our case, someone had played FFI from the position we left off at. Whoever that person was, they had gotten us past the first fiend, Lich. Not wanting to cheat, we reset the save, and in that same week, we ourselves made it right up to Lich. Realizing that we could not complete this game if we let the cartridge sit on Phar-Mor's shelves for others to rent, we begged our parents to continually rent the game until we completed it. Somehow, we got our way, and over a very long summer (at a cost that exceeded actually purchasing the cartridge), we slowly but surely beat the game. Looking back, it's amazing how many novice mistakes we made along the way. Then again, it was our very first RPG!
It was 2002. Summer vacation had just begun, and a group of neighborhood kids and myself were contemplating on how we would we spend our time off. During the brainstorming session, I noticed that my closest friend was sitting down on a nearby staircase playing on his Game Boy Advance, completely detached from the rest of us. Curious, I sat down next to him and glanced at the screen. Within seconds, I was mesmerized. In front of me was the first fully colored game I had seen on a handheld. The animated sprites, the detailed overworld, an actual party...everything about it was completely enticing. After several minutes of silently gazing, I asked him what the game was about. His synopsis convinced me that this was a game I had to play for myself.
Fast forward a few years later to when I finally got my own Game Boy Advance SP. I was casually window shopping at the video game store when I saw Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age in the display case. Instinctively, I walked over to the register and asked the employee if I could purchase both games. What followed was two weeks of endless playing. After beating the final boss in The Lost Age, I sat there in awe of what I had just experienced. I wanted to play more of these games. I wanted to experience more of these feelings. Not wanting the moment to end, I accessed the hidden sound test feature in The Lost Age (my friend had previously shown me the trick) and listened to both games' soundtracks before I drifted off to sleep.
And that, dear readers, is how I ended up becoming an RPG fan. What a magnificent journey it has been since then.
Being children spoiled in the early 90s, my brother and I were provided with the latest in Nintendo technology by our father. When the NES first came out, we had beyond the normal amount of games an average household would contain. The same concept, where my father provided the latest gaming craze, applied to the SNES era. And it was with the SNES that I discovered RPGs. I was always cautious playing video games because of the fear of losing/dying, so it was not until my first exposure to Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals that my gaming life changed forever!
After viewing my brother's playthrough by sitting next to him, my mind was captivated by the premise of this RPG as a whole. The graphics were top notch (for the time), the dialogue from the characters showed the emotion and conflict of their situations, and the fighting system offered plenty of options to take down the colorful and artistic enemies. The soundtrack would indicate whether you were in a good or bad situation. The storyline had fluency from start to finish. And then there were the extra side quests, like obtaining all the Dragon Eggs, finding the Capsule Monsters who helped in combat, or the endless hours going through the Ancient Cave (my weakness in that game because I could do it over and over again!). I eventually gained the courage one day when no one was around the house, inserted the Lufia II cartridge into the SNES, and began my saga of playing RPGs. The hours I spent playing Lufia II never seemed to get stale because I was always engaged, whether I was starting up a new game or continuing my progress until completion.
Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals is a solid example of my love and passion for RPGs! I have my very own copy of the game right next to me as I write this. Even after all the hours I put into this game, all the multiple trips down the Ancient Cave to get the best equipment, and all the different times I beat it, I could not ask for a better game to be my first RPG!
I've probably shared tidbits of my "RPG Origins" on episodes of Retro Encounter, but if there are any two titles that can be traced back as part of my formative gaming years, it would have to be Pokémon Sapphire and Final Fantasy X. I was a huge fan of the Pokémon cartoon growing up, since it was arguably at the height of its popularity when I was in first grade. Collecting the cards, playing with toys, watching the cartoon and movies with my friends...Pokémon was a huge part of my childhood, but oddly enough, I didn't really get into the games until Generation 3, when I got a Gameboy Advance SP and Pokémon Sapphire after saving up my allowance. The 32-bit world of Hoenn was the first RPG world I really got acquainted with, and I explored it zealously, hunting for rare Legendary Pokémon and leveling up my team.
On the other hand, I didn't own Final Fantasy X until many years later. My first exposure to the game was actually the cover of the strategy guide, which for some reason was at the library of my elementary school (why, I will never know, but I'm not complaining!). The image of Tidus standing in the water, looking up at the sky and clutching the Brotherhood sword remains incredibly striking to me; I remember flipping back and forth through the guide, in awe of the strange, wonderful art and creature design in the game. Later, I would have a chance to play it with one of my Boy Scout friends at his house, where he just could not beat the first Seymour fight. The skeletal figure of Anima haunted me at that young, impressionable age; years later, my first playthrough found me dreading my inevitable encounter with it, and I was elated when I overcame the challenge.
The rest, as they say, is history: I started finding other games with similar mechanics to play, eventually discovering the RPG genre and this very website as a hub for my gaming habits. But I will always treasure Pokémon Sapphire and Final Fantasy X for introducing me to RPGs: both games will forever hold a dear place in my hollowed-out husk of a heart.
I came to RPGs late in my gaming career. My experience with the NES was largely one of action and sports until a passing exposure to, I think, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link at a babysitter's? The memory is so vague that I am not certain, and whatever that game was, it was not enough to turn me onto the genre. I didn't get interested in RPGs until I met a friend of a friend in fourth grade; his name was KJ, and we hung out one day at his place. He excitedly showed me two games on the Super NES, and with enthusiasm like that, who was I to say no?
I cannot recall which I was shown first, but he introduced me to both Final Fantasy VI (or FFIII, as it was known back then) and Secret of Mana that day. I can remember the opening screens to both, and though I didn't really understand what these seemingly cryptic titles meant, I knew I was on the cusp of discovering something amazing. For FFVI, my vague recollection is of KJ booting up a save that I believe was right around when Locke meets up with team moogle to save Terra from the Empire. I was simultaneously confused, enthralled, and overwhelmed by witnessing so many new gaming concepts, by jumping into the story partway in, and by witnessing a world of breathtaking fantasy and wonder. Secret of Mana was little different, but it was far more fun as we could play together, since he was at a point with the full party. The action made it a bit more tangible, but the higher meta largely eluded me in that one brief playthrough. Still, the vibrancy of the world and characters, and the fact that you could see different things happening on the screen based on the equipment and magic you used was amazing to me! I especially enjoyed watching the spirits come to life as a spell was cast, since it coincided with my fascination with magic and the elements at that point. In fact, Secret of Mana's mythos became the flavour of our imagined play, as we ran around the playground casting "Moon Sabre" or "Diamond Missile" at invisible foes!
From then on, the worlds of RPGs always had a hold over me and my friends. Living vicariously through a friend's consoles and game collections when we had sleepovers sits high amongst my fondest childhood memories. I remember halcyon days of taking turns commanding our self-named units in Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen and Final Fantasy, or being "Girl" in Secret of Mana since they had already picked the other two before I arrived. It did not matter how we played these games. We just played, and they fueled our imaginations in and out of the digital world.
Video games have been part of my life as far back as I can remember. My family wasn't able to provide me with the most up-to-date consoles when I was young, so I seemed to always be one generation behind. I would love to say the NES Zeldas were my original exposure to RPGs, but my young mind at the time didn't process it as anything more than a game I got to play.
It wasn't until my uncle showed me his SNES collection of games, where I got a chance to play Secret of Mana for the first time, that I got into RPGs. Now when I say "played," I really meant watching over his shoulder or secretly playing his save file when he wasn't there. Something about this game awakened a love for this particular genre. I remember always using the run command to leap into enemies, not really knowing that immediately attacking them afterwards would always result in a lower hit. The way it played felt different compared to other games, but it also made me value how I would approach a situation and helped me get over a certain reckless abandon.
In all honestly, while I credit Secret of Mana for getting my feet wet, the real plunge came when Pokémon came into my life. I remember the day, or night in this case, extremely well: I was coming back from my birthday party at a restaurant when my parents stopped at a Best Buy a few miles away. They told me for my last gift, I could pick any game I wanted for my Game Boy Color. After thinking about it for a few seconds, I immediately sought out Pokémon Blue. Even now, I can still remember how excited I was to hold it in my hands, and how I couldn't wait to play it as soon as I got home.
From that day forward, Pokémon taught me the underlying basics of what it really meant to play an RPG. I went as far as getting a small 3-ring binder, printing out the stats of all of the Pokémon, gym leaders, areas of the Safari Zone, and various other things, and placing them into a protected covering; I was so proud of that. It shaped my earliest gaming tastes and gave me true comprehension of grinding for experience, managing items, and building the right strategy for any battles that come my way.
Pokémon nurtured my premature understanding of RPGs and shaped it into the love I have for the genre today.