It's doubtful Konami had any idea how much the release of Symphony of the Night in October of '97 would shape the franchise. What was once a linear platformer, Castlevania embraced the multiple pathways found in CV3 and Rondo of Blood, giving us one of the most memorable environments in the history of video games. Dracula's gothic abode was re-imagined into a twisting labyrinth of mystery and danger. The castle now resembled Samus Aran's adventures on the planet Zebes, giving rise to the Metroidvania moniker that quickly became a franchise mainstay. The sense of exploration and discovery helped drive the player forward, and new powers and abilities allowed our hero, Alucard, to traverse new areas. Better yet, RPG elements infused him with stats and equipment necessary to bring the fight to his undead father. The hundreds of enemies residing on campus (nearly all coming from previous games and various mythological stories) often dropped rare and precious items, leading many gamers to murder hundreds of monsters for experience and loot.
But the best part of Symphony of the Night was the grand secret Konami somehow managed to keep for months. The collective gasp in the days before internet forums and FAQs must have been priceless. "What do you mean there's a second castle and it's upside-down?!"
While its quality may be disputed by those with way too much free time, its influence can't be denied; Final Fantasy VII has shaped the image of console RPGs, for good or ill. When it was released in 1997, it broke new ground in terms of aesthetics and storytelling for console RPGs. Environmental terrorism, unbridled capitalism, and environmentalist extremism were just some of the topics that the game delved into. Topics that had been merely touched upon by previous games were explored more deelpy than any prior console RPG dared. Newer, more taboo topics were included to make it a game that actually took into account the fact that the player base was growing and maturing. While the game's legacy has since been tarnished by the sloppy retconning the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII inflicted upon it, the original game, as a self-contained story and experience, is undoubtedly incredible.
Although Baldur's Gate was technically the second game released by the now mighty BioWare, it was certainly the game that started to make them a household name. The magnificent Infinity Engine which powered Baldur's Gate would go on to handle not just a sequel, but the terrific Planescape: Torment (also featured on this list) as well as the Icewind Dale series.
Many games were developed based on the now old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition rules, but Baldur's Gate got the spirit of those rules exactly right with real time combat that you could pause at will. Your lowly level 1 characters could be taken out in a single hit just like in the tabletop game as well, but this gave the game an even more epic feel as your characters became far more powerful.
For a fan of the Forgotten Realms setting, Baldur's Gate was pure nirvana with appearances by famous characters like Drizzt and Elminster. But even those unfamiliar with the setting found themselves immersed in the world of Faerűn before long thanks in large part to wonderfully realized characters, in particular a classic villain in the form of the heavily armored Sarevok. The sequel to Baldur's Gate is considered by many to be the best RPG of all time, but it all started here with the original Baldur's Gate in 1998.
Many of us here at RPGFan have fond memories of this GameArts classic, especially considering that this website was originally created to be a Lunar fansite under the name LunarNet before becoming RPGFan. This Sega CD classic took everything that was good about the original Lunar and made it even better. Incredible music, beautiful anime cutscenes, great dialogue and a compelling story: this game had it all! The protagonists Hiro and Lucia are a fantastic couple; Lucia's development over time from cold and alien to warm and truly human is something that Hiro learns to cope with. He never backs down, he's never maudlin or whiny, yet he's also a fair bit more manly than Alex from the first Lunar. Likable characters go a very, very long way in our book and Lunar 2 has one of the best cast of characters you can find in an RPG.
When it was released in 1999, Suikoden II was lost in the shadow Final Fantasy VIII, but now, over a decade later, Final Fantasy VIII can be found almost anywhere for $10 or less, while Suikoden II fetches well over $100 for a used copy on auction sites. It's not hard to see why: Suikoden II combined a high quality story, memorable characters, beautiful aesthetics, and excellent gameplay mechanics to make what is considered by many to be one of the best RPGs on the PlayStation. With 108 unique characters, tons of hidden content and sidequests, and multiple endings, there was more than enough reason to play Suikoden II more than once. It has also aged incredibly well, surpassing even many RPGs released today in terms of overall quality. Despite the series' fate being foggy at best recently, Suikoden II remains a classic and a reminder of those halcyon days where companies were not always controlled by sneering shareholders and braindead executives.
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