It's hard to imagine a "classic" RPG with a more divided fanbase than Final Fantasy IV (Final Fantasy II in its original US release). Some players loved the straightforward heroic journey, the massive cast of colorful characters, and the consistent themes of family and redemption. Others found the game slow-paced, simplistic, and flat. Whatever your perspective, no one can argue with the massive success of the game, both as one of the first major RPGs released in the US for the then-fledgling Super Nintendo, and later as a continually re-released classic title on nearly every platform in existence. Final Fantasy IV was once the very prototype of the JRPG with its turn-based battle system, dependence on grinding levels, and extensive world. Though it may not have aged as gracefully as other contemporaries, Final Fantasy IV remains an exemplar of the old-school traditional RPG.
Along with Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears has only plummeted in popularity since its release, as more and more gamers merely parrot what they read and call it an opinion, allowing the breezes of trend to carry them away. Despite what many claim is an enormously flawed game with a few good ideas, Xenogears is in reality a great game with a few mishaps, many of which come simply from age. Even today, few Japanese RPGs are quite as spirited and playable as Xenogears.
The tale of Xenogears exemplifies the classic JRPG: vast and varied in setting, character, gameplay, and theme. Atmospheric towns full of secrets, mini-games, and rousing music. Scenes of great horror, joy, love, and emotion with veiled motivations and uncertain allies. Various modes of battle, plenty of random fights, and noisome villains. To these JRPG strengths, Xenogears adds a psycho-religious plot, a helping of science fiction, and a flavor unlike anything. Nothing has felt like Xenogears before or after its release, and I doubt anything ever will. Long live Citan Uzuki.
The first Mario-themed RPG, released in 1996, had the unique trait of appealing to two different types of gamers: the then-growing Squaresoft and RPG fanbase and the more casual Nintendo- and Mario-loving crowd. As one might imagine, since Super Mario RPG was developed by Nintendo and Squaresoft, the title satisfied both crowds. Even as it retained all things Mario including mushrooms, pipes, familiar enemies, floating question blocks, and Princess Toadstool and Bowser (who could throw Mario at enemies – how awesome is that?) as party members, The Legend of the Seven Stars still stood apart from other titles that happened to star Italian plumbers. Joining Mario were original characters such as the wizard Geno and the ever-emotional Mallow, and together they went off to fight unusual, unique bosses like Booster and oversized knives. Lastly, it wouldn't be a Squaresoft RPG without the trademark RPG elements or the optional Final Fantasy-themed boss Culex.
If nothing else, Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars served as a clever way to introduce more Nintendo gamers to our beloved genre.
Shadowrun's cyberpunk setting borrowed liberally from William Gibson's Neuromancer and a little from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner as well, creating a distinctive world where cybernetics are ubiquitous, magic has returned, and everything has a price. And yet, despite several attempts to build a compelling game in the Shadowrun universe, only the 1994 Sega Genesis release ever succeeded in capturing the potential and wonder of the popular pen-and-paper RPG. Taking the role of Joshua allowed the player to explore the greater Seattle sprawl in an open-ended fashion, taking one of three very different roles: street samurai, decker, or gator shaman. At the same time, Shadowrun had a clear, focused narrative that guided the player from the alleys of Puyallup Barrens to the hi-tech offices of the massive Renraku Arcology and finally to the elven forests of Sinsearach. The combination of open-ended gameplay and the compelling story and characters of the Shadowrun universe made Shadowrun for the Genesis one of the greatest RPGs of the 16-bit generation, which is no mean feat.
In the RPG world, a sword-wielding, silent protagonist who saves fancy-haired royalty is a cliché. Of course, in order for something to be a cliché, several instances of said plot device need to flood the zeitgeist. Shining Force II may be one of many predecessors of ye olde scary-faced-king-steals-the-princess, but it's one of the best. Before this MacGuffin morphed from charm to chore, Shining Force II solidified itself not just as one of the first successful strategy RPGs, but as an atmospheric tale of good versus evil.
Combine the excellent storytelling with engrossing music whose style has never since been replicated, and you have yourself a masterpiece. To match the package, it included perfectly retro 16-bit graphics characteristic of the series – up close portraits and all. Shining Force II has and will continue to withstand the torrents of time, having proven fun in its humility and simplicity almost twenty years later. If you haven't experienced one of the originators of chivalrous heroism, then turn to this classic and understand why so many developers since have copied the formula.
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