The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time‘s (OoT) iconic status is rooted in what it meant for both the franchise and the industry as a whole. Link’s transition into the 3D era on the Nintendo 64 presented an opportunity — really a necessity — for Nintendo to reassess the core gameplay mechanics of the series and embrace the possibilities presented by gaming’s entry into the third dimension. The result was, arguably, the best Zelda game up to that point and for many years thereafter. The first 3D iteration of the series was also monumentally influential in the industry and became a blueprint for the action/adventure genre to follow for years to come. Personally, I have many cherished memories of the game that center around the time I spent playing it with my father. I’ll always remember the time we shared exploring the land of Hyrule and that moment we finally figured out what we were supposed to do to get those dang fire arrows.
Writeup by Rob Rogan
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
While the ambitions of Mass Effect were certainly admirable at the time, the game undeniably lacked a lot of polish, especially in the gameplay department. The fact that one of the most memorable moments for most people who played it involved the hilarious but extremely janky “driving” segments with the Mako says as much. But players were nonetheless entranced by what Mass Effect had to offer in terms of scope and worldbuilding, setting a high bar for Mass Effect 2. Well, I think it’s safe to say that Mass Effect 2 blew everyone’s expectations out of the water; it is remembered as not only the best game of the Mass Effect series, but one of the best games of its time.
While the streamlining of the gameplay shrunk the catalogue of stuff you could use in combat, Mass Effect 2 made up for this in other areas, such as the improved gunplay and the introduction of power combos that would later be expanded upon in Mass Effect 3. The story also saw similar levels of improvement, with the loyalty system in particular serving not only as a nifty way of unlocking some powerful new skills for your squadmates, but also as a chance to walk a mile in their shoes as you help to resolve their past issues. The game thrives off these smaller moments of personal interaction that make each and every decision near the end of the game carry that much more weight, and at times I was left speechless with how deeply the outcomes affected me. While the subsequent entries into the Mass Effect series have disappointed fans to say the least, Mass Effect 2 remains the unshakable paragon of the saga of Commander Shepard.
Writeup by Dom Kim
Muv-Luv Alternative (2017)
As far as visual novels go, Muv-Luv Alternative is a surprisingly straightforward story. Plot twists, while present, aren’t really on the level of stories like Higurashi, and its more introspective moments are fairly undemanding and easy to understand, unlike those found in stories like Subahibi. But what makes Alternative stand above the rest of its contemporaries, despite playing its story fairly safe, is the buttery smooth execution over a fifty hour runtime. Few visual novels really come close to just the sheer magnitude of Alternative‘s story, and even fewer still come close to being as thoroughly engaging an experience from start to finish. What Alternative might lack in depth, it more than makes up for with its heart. That isn’t to say this is a “simple” story per se, as it has more than its fair share of political intrigue and moral dilemmas, but it never lets these moments cloud the central idea that drives the story forward. Muv-Luv Alternative is an incredibly ambitious story in terms of scope, but its humble message of hope and love in the face of impossible odds truly makes it a tale worth remembering.
Writeup by Dom Kim
Persona 3 (2006)
Persona 3, technically the fourth Persona title (don’t ask), turned a niche spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei series into an international phenomenon. Developed by an Atlus team led by director Katsura Hashino and artist Shigenori Soejima, Persona 3 adapted and simplified the turn-based combat of other PS2 Shin Megami Tensei games and incorporated elements from dating sims for gameplay out-of-combat. Managing school activities with a calendar and forging character relationships with Persona 3‘s Social Link system resonated with players, and living a year in the life of a Japanese high school student while secretly slaying monsters at night with your classmates made for a compelling adventure. Following Persona 3‘s success, the sub-series grew in popularity. Atlus made over a dozen Persona remakes and spin-offs, Persona 5 sold over two million copies, and Persona‘s lifetime sales now exceed those of its parent Shin Megami Tensei franchise. Some old-school Persona fans may pine for the days before Social Links, but Persona 3 changed the face of Shin Megami Tensei and was a turning point for Atlus and fans of Japanese RPGs alike.
Writeup by Michael Sollosi
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2005)
OBJECTION! Ace Attorney isn’t an RPG! OBJECTION! We also cover visual novels, so it gets to be included.
Let’s be honest. Are visual novels really that popular in the West? Not really. Sure, games like Danganronpa and Zero Escape are well received. And the number of visual novels coming to Steam in English are increasing by the week. But back in the mid 2000s, the game that became the sleeper hit among Western fans was Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Starring a spunky young lawyer who had no idea what he was doing, the game did fairly well when it was released in the overseas. Critics praised its characters, stories, and the overall mystery to each trial. Fans like me remember how crazy the witnesses were and how insane the trials became as Phoenix desperately tried to create a turnabout in the most harrowing situations. (The parrot scene. I’m talking about the parrot scene.) These games have brought in a new wave of popularity for visual novels, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.
Writeup by Gino DiGioia
Pokémon Gold & Silver (1999)
I don’t need to say much more about this global phenomenon. I covered it pretty well in our January feature, The Best RPGs of 1998. However, I’m not here to talk about the original. I’m here to talk about its sequel: Pokémon Gold & Silver. Now I loved the original game, don’t get me wrong. But wow, Gold & Silver was heaven for me. It improved on the weird bugs the original game had and introduced a plethora of new features, including a day/night cycle, daily and weekly events, breeding, unlimited inventory, all sorts of new Poké Balls to catch Pokémon, mini-games, “swarms,” shiny Pokémon, and more. I can go on and on about all the new things Gold & Silver introduced to the series. It was the biggest leap any Pokémon generation has taken to date, and all the mechanics Gold & Silver introduced are staples in Pokémon today.
The best part? These games were basically two games in one. After you beat the Elite Four and the Champion, the Kanto region from Pokémon Red & Blue opens up, and you can take on all the Gym Leaders from that region too, along with a brand-new story and context about how the region has changed since the first game. Finally, at the climax atop Mt. Silver, you encounter the greatest Pokémon trainer in the world: Red. As you walk up and talk to him, he just turns around in silence (…), and then one of Pokémon‘s best themes starts up as you enter battle. This is still by far the greatest showdown in Pokémon history. Pokémon Gold & Silver is the first video game I completed on my own without help from anyone, and this is part of what makes the game so memorable for me. No other game from this series even comes close to touching Gold & Silver, not even the originals.
Writeup by Nathan Lee
Professor Layton Series (2008)
At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the Professor Layton series as being too childish, with its juvenile appearance and deceptively simple puzzle previews. Admittedly, even I had this mindset when I stumbled upon the first game back in 2008. It took nearly a decade and a friend’s constant insistence for me to give this series a proper chance.
And boy, am I glad that I did.
You see, each narrative is like a Matryoshka doll: every overarching mystery is comprised of smaller ones scintillatingly woven together by ingenious subtleties. But unlike its wooden counterparts, the stories tend to unfold outward, with the bigger pictures only being apparent in the tear-jerking and flabbergasting conclusions that are sure to warm the cockles of one’s heart. Accompanying each awe-inspiring plot is an assortment of brainteasers that vary in difficulty; some are solvable in seconds, while others require creative cerebration. Apart from serving as entertaining pace breakers, these puzzles showcase the series’ most outstanding aspect — its game design. I will forever be impressed by how Level-5 seamlessly integrates many of the puzzles into the story, creating clever cohesion while also efficiently emphasizing its focal point.
This is how the Professor Layton series managed to be the apotheosis of the educational gaming era. With all this said, I do acknowledge that this franchise isn’t for everyone. But maybe, just maybe, some of you readers are like me.
This isn’t for me.
These were my initial thoughts when I scanned through the first game’s (Professor Layton and the Curious Village) display case at GameStop back in 2008.
And as you can see, I was oh so wrong.
Writeup by Tris Mendoza
Undertale is an impressive feat — one game made by one man. He wrote the story, created the characters, and composed the music. Toby Fox definitely isn’t the first or last person to take complete creative control over a product, but Undertale was a smash when it hit in 2015, and it has every right to be hailed as a landmark because of the way it’s structured. While its humour is very much rooted in satire, and inspired by EarthBound, it’s the way the game messed with me that I’ll always remember it for. Many RPGs employ a morality system, but Undertale runs away with this concept — you don’t have to kill anyone throughout the entire game, even bosses. Of course, you can also kill everything, and I mean everything. Depending on your choices, Undertale has three distinct endings, and each one left me an emotional wreck in completely different ways. Whatever you choose to do the first time you play Undertale will affect every subsequent playthrough, and the bonds you forge along the way will change how you feel about every playthrough. Each character you meet is unique and distinctive; it’s impossible to compare them to anyone else, and I fell in love with all of them, whether they were friend or foe. On top of that, what sticks out most for me is the fourth-wall breaking moments, which on more than one occasion left me scrambling for my controller, desperate to see whether I’d lost any progress. To say too much about Undertale would be a sin, because it deserves to be played as blind as possible. It’s an extremely clever, self-aware game that broke out of the indie scene and is easily one of the most celebrated games in the genre to date.
Writeup by Alana Hagues