25 Best RPGs Of All Time

Know your role.

Elden Ring Ranni
Elden Ring Ranni

For the number crunchers out there, the role-playing game genre remains one of the most satisfying in the industry. There’s nothing quite like embarking on a grand adventure, seeing your characters grow stronger, all while unraveling multi-dozen hour epics. Over the decades, the genre has seen a mind-boggling amount of gems to choose from.

Whether it’s high fantasy, modern cities, steampunk, or even the darkest reaches of space, RPGs have it all, and to list out every must-play title would take a lifetime. We’ve got classics that formed the bedrock of the genre, refined experiences that perfect what came before, and modern revolutions that raised the bar on what the genre could achieve. So without further ado, here’s 25 of the many, many, crown jewels in the role-playing genre.

 

25. Skies of Arcadia

Skies of Arcadia
Skies of Arcadia

Skies of Arcadia is, at a glance, by the numbers. You’ve got an evil empire and a band of rogues — air pirates in this case — out to stop them. Still, the unique setting and the charismatic cast manage to elevate this game into something greater; it helps, of course, that the game was released in the wake of JRPGs trending towards darker stories like Final Fantasy VIII and Xenogears. Arcadia was a breath of fresh air in comparison.

While most of what Arcadia does in gameplay — particularly combat — is pretty standard nowadays, for its time, it did have interesting and novel ideas, such as recruiting crew members for your ship, airship battles, and upgrades that opened up more parts of the sky. The game was also somewhat progressive for its time as well, with female protagonists written as equals to leading man Vyse instead as damsels in distress.

The game also received an updated rerelease called Skies of Arcadia Legends, that reduces the random encounter rate and adds new story content. It’s too bad Sega hasn’t shown any real interest in the IP in over 20 years; if not a sequel, then a port or remaster would at least make this game more accessible to modern audiences.

 

24. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Fire Emblem Three Houses
Fire Emblem Three Houses

If Fire Emblem: Awakening revitalized the series, then Fire Emblem: Three Houses firmly established it as a mainstream series. Fódlan and its inhabitants resonated with more fans than ever before, and the grounded and grittier take on Fire Emblem storytelling proved to be a breath of fresh air.

Three Houses features an academy-based setting that lends it a similar loop and feel to that of the Persona series. Most of your time each month is spent at the monastery, lecturing students, building up their skills, and deepening their bonds, all within the framework of unit-based time management.

Each month, you’ll partake in the turn-based strategy battles that define Fire Emblem. Here, your tactics and stats are put to the test; this part of the game has likewise seen new additions, like battalions that provide abilities like healing or AoE attacks. They’re a clever way to add depth while creating a grounded depiction of war that doesn’t boil down to some twenty-odd people per army beating each other up.

Three Houses’s biggest strength however, is in its narrative. The story diverges based on which of the three titular houses you choose to teach at the start of the game, each with a different focus and outcome. Whatever route you pick, you’re in for some of the richest world building and strongest character arcs that Fire Emblem has to offer.

 

23. Fallout: New Vegas

New Vegas
New Vegas

Set in the Mojave Desert and the titular remains of Las Vegas, this Obsidian developed spinoff begins when a courier delivering packages to New Vegas is ambushed and left for dead after their parcel is stolen. After being nursed back to health by a local doctor, the courier sets off in search of their package — the platinum chip — and the people who stole it.

New Vegas’s gameplay takes after Fallout 3; it’s an open-world first person shooter RPG filled with quests, dungeons, and secrets to find. Like the rest of the series, the unique VATS mechanic freezes time and allows players to pick out specific limbs on enemies to target, with a chance of scoring critical hits.

New Vegas, at launch, was rather buggy and unpolished; today, its gunplay feels old and creaky. But ask anyone what their favorite Fallout game is, and they’ll likely tell you it’s this one. Even today, its quests are nuanced and well-written; your choices matter, and if you can put up with (or mod away) the game’s more antiquated aspects, you’ll find yourself with a more satisfying RPG than Bethesda’s own Fallout 4.

 

22. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age

Dragon Quest XI
Dragon Quest XI S

Dragon Quest has always enshrined consistent quality and familiarity over major innovations. Dragon Quest XI is no different, adopting a similar structure to VIII, emphasizing a central narrative and party members with defined roles instead of a job system. Likewise, it does these things so well that it’s also earned itself a spot on many other lists of the best games in the series.

Dragon Quest XI, like its predecessors, is ultimately a very classical tale of good versus evil and chosen heroes rising to save the world. What sets it apart is the sheer charisma of its cast — these are some of the most well-written and well-acted characters in series history, with genuinely poignant story arcs that tug at the heartstrings.

Battles are at their peak here, too — though combat remains familiar, new additions like the Pep system (a form of Limit Breaks and team attacks) and the ability to move around in battle (purely cosmetic) liven things up a tad.

If that wasn’t enough, Dragon Quest XI S was a definitive edition re-release that added the ability to experience the entire game in 2D — essentially an entire alternative version of Dragon Quest XI where everything is sprite-based, with a look reminiscent of V and VI on the Super Famicom.

Really, the only thing Dragon Quest XI doesn’t do well is its music, and even that’s partially mitigated by the definitive version’s inclusion of the orchestrated tracks.

 

21. Tales of Arise

Tales of Arise
Tales of Arise

The 2010s saw a steady decline in the quality of Tales games, with weaker stories (aside from Berseria), convoluted combat systems, technical issues, and bland world design.

Enter 2021’s Tales of Arise. Developed using Unreal Engine 4, the latest entry proved to be the massive leap forward that was desperately needed, with the production values you’d expect from a prestigious long-running series.

Arise tells a dark tale of slavery and revolution; though it has its fair share of JRPG tropes, it sets itself apart from the competition with how deeply it explores the relevant themes — expect scrutiny of topics like the consequences of long-term oppression and hate, questions of what freedom really means, and what happens when your beliefs outstrip all else in your life.

Combat is an evolution of the system first introduced in Tales of Graces, with characters fighting in a 3D arena, stringing attacks together while managing a combo meter. Everyone also has unique gimmicks to set them apart; for example, Alphen can sacrifice HP for powerful blows, and Shionne can stun flying enemies.

Though the premise is well-worn, Namco’s efforts with Tales of Arise still revitalized the series and gave it the polish it deserves, with satisfying combat and exploration, as well as some of the best story, characters, and voice acting in the franchise. Tales is in the big leagues now thanks to this one.

 

20. Pokémon HeartGold/SoulSilver

HeartGold SoulSilver
HeartGold SoulSilver

Pokémon’s second generation remains one of its most beloved — and unusual. Whereas prior and subsequent generations are set in one region, Gold and Silver (and by extension, their remakes) feature two full regions to explore, and 16 total Gym Badges to get. This makes them among the few mainline games to have an extensive postgame, and when HeartGold and SoulSilver came along to build on and refine the originals, they quickly became the most acclaimed Pokémon games.

Beyond the visual makeover and making beloved Johto Pokémon widely available again, these remakes introduced a treasure trove of new features, many of which sadly have yet to return. Lots of new minigames were added, every Pokémon could follow you in the overworld, the level curve was rebalanced, and areas in Kanto that were stripped down in the originals due to technical limitations return in their full glory here; the list goes on.

These were also the final mainline entries to feature the beloved Battle Frontier in any form, and when taken into account with all of the above, HeartGold and SoulSilver remain the most feature-rich and content-complete entries in the series.

 

19. Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium

Phantasy Star IV
Phantasy Star IV

In an era where JRPGs relied on fantasy settings, Phantasy Star stood out for its use of sci-fi trappings — the first two entries even had you traveling between planets with wildly different biomes. Though the first three Phantasy Star games are all classics in their own right, it’s absolutely striking just how much of a massive improvement Phantasy Star IV was over its predecessors.

The series is set in the Algol Star System, starring heroes that arise to save the worlds from evil, ultimately facing a threat known as the Dark Force. Phantasy Star IV, as a finale, is a culmination of what came before, delving into the origins of Dark Force and sending off the classic series in style.

Phantasy Star IV’s turn-based combat and exploration follow classic JRPG designs and conventions, like prior entries in the series. But everything here was massively refined — the visuals are incredible and still hold up well, combat feels faster and crunchier than before, and dungeon designs are streamlined and no longer a headache to navigate.

The story sees the biggest upgrades, with a more extensive, fully realized script, and manga-styled cutscene presentation. Together with stronger characterization, it gives Phantasy Star IV a larger emphasis on narrative than its predecessors, and elevates the experience into a well-rounded package that can easily be called one of the all-time classics.

 

18. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

Thousand Year Door
Thousand Year Door

If you ask a fan what the gold standard for Mario RPGs is, if they don’t tell you it’s Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga or Bowser’s Inside Story, then they’ll almost certainly say that it’s The Thousand-Year Door. This GameCube title refined what worked in the original, and built on it with a darker, more ambitious story and new exploration mechanics.

The turn-based battles from the N64 entry return here; Mario and his partner have a variety of different attacks and abilities at their disposal, all of which use various action commands to enhance their power.

New to The Thousand-Year Door is the introduction of audiences that watch Mario’s battles. Far from being just set dressing, these folks will refill your Star Meter, enabling special attacks, and rowdier members will even harass combatants. Outside of combat, exploration is augmented with new traversal abilities that see Mario fold himself into objects like paper planes or boats.

Aside from some minor grievances, like late-game backtracking, The Thousand-Year Door perfected the Paper Mario formula, and is regarded as the best of the series — and potentially the best Mario RPG of all time. It’s unfortunate that the series ultimately abandoned what made this game so beloved, and only time will tell if the upcoming Switch remake is a one-off for hardcore fans, or the start of the series finally returning to its roots.

 

17. The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure

Trails To Azure
Trails To Azure

With the debut of Trails in the Sky in 2004 in Japan (2011 in the U.S), developer Nihon Falcom quickly established themselves as masters at world building and character development. Their attention to detail is unmatched even in the AAA space, with the Trails series being known for its extreme abundance of interesting and well-written NPC dialogue.

Where other series use political intrigue and fantastical cultures to add flavor to one-time worlds that aren’t reused in sequels, Trails makes it as important as the main proceedings. These are massive titles that tell one story over multiple entries, and the consequences of each one’s events continue to be felt on a micro and macro level as the series progresses.

This sense of place is also what makes Trails games feel so big. Exploration in the series is mostly bog-standard point-A-to-point-B with side quests each chapter. But the world building — the NPC dialogue, the sense of continuity, and the sheer amount of history and culture in each game’s setting — all of it makes the world feel bigger and more alive than even some of the open world games on this list.

Azure exemplifies this, with much of the plot and its characters driven by Crossbell’s political status and the possibility of annexation by neighboring superpowers. And as with the rest of the Trails series, Azure’s cast are all phenomenally written and put through an emotional rollercoaster punctuated by great Japanese voice acting and incredible music. Though it may be a direct sequel to Trails from Zero and is followed by five more games — soon to be six — Trails to Azure is still regarded by its fans as the peak of the series and one of Falcom’s best titles.

 

16. Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium
Disco Elysium

When you hear the term “RPG”, you’ll likely assume a game with a turn-based or action combat system where character attributes dictate the proceedings. Where Disco Elysium stands out, however, is in its total lack of combat.

The game puts you in the shoes of a detective assigned to a murder case, but with one major problem: rather than actually doing his job, our protagonist instead did enough drugs and alcohol to induce near-total amnesia, right down to losing his own identity.

While stats in other RPGs measure how hard you can smack someone, stats in Disco Elysium instead dictate dialogue choices and how your detective solves problems. They’re also an outlet for player expression, and facets of the detective’s own mind, complete with voices in his head. It all feeds back into the story, which relies on dialogue checks and puzzle solving to progress.

Of course, given that its storytelling and witty dialogue are the central part of the experience, Disco Elysium is also fantastically written — it’s hilarious, grim, and emotional, all wrapped up in a deeply political narrative and setting. Combined with its gameplay mechanics, Disco Elysium embodies the role-playing part of “RPG” more than any other entry on this list.

 

15. Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2

Though the Mass Effect trilogy’s sci-fi narrative and lore are already enthralling on their own, it’s the characters you meet and the choices you make on your journey that are remembered the most. This trilogy of third-person shooter RPGs stars a customizable protagonist known as Commander Shepard, who discovers an ancient threat, the Reapers, that could wipe out the entire Milky Way — and it’s up to you to decide how they deal with the galaxy’s impending fate.

This beloved second entry sees Shepard brought back from the dead after being killed by an unknown ship — their new benefactors, Cerberus, and its leader, the Illusive Man, task Shepard with gathering allies, investigating the disappearance of human colonists throughout the galaxy, and ultimately embarking on a suicide mission to take the fight to the Reapers and their associates.

Where Mass Effect 1 aged somewhat poorly (prior to the Legendary Edition) and Mass Effect 3 had a conclusion that could be charitably described as controversial, Mass Effect 2 is regarded as the peak of the trilogy and one of the greatest RPGs ever made. It threw out the reviled Mako sections, streamlined exploration, and considerably tightened up the combat, making for one of BioWare’s most refined experiences even over a decade later.

 

14. Undertale

Undertale season 2
Undertale

Conventional wisdom states that in an RPG, you’ll encounter all manner of monsters and fight them to get experience and power up your character. But what happens when you turn the whole thing on its head? What if you could befriend the monsters instead, in a story that treats lives with more weight than other RPGs?

Undertale takes this premise and absolutely runs with it. Battles use a mix of timed inputs for your attacks, and dodging enemy attacks via a bullet hell minigame. But the real core of its combat system is in how you can spare your enemies, or even avoid actually fighting them entirely by picking the right options under the ACT menu.

But beyond that, Undertale is a brilliant, hilarious, heartwarming (and at times, terrifying) subversion of what makes RPGs tick. It’s unafraid to deconstruct and poke fun at itself, the broader RPG genre, and video games as a medium. Its characters are all immediately endearing, with witty writing and an immaculate sprite-based artstyle. It’s no surprise that Undertale has quickly accrued such a massive and dedicated following; it’ll be remembered for years to come as one of the most unique and unorthodox games in the genre.

 

13. Baldur’s Gate 3

Baldur's Gate 3
Baldur’s Gate 3

Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 are beloved, but few could predict just how quickly Larian’s spin on the franchise would take the world by storm. This entry sees your customizable protagonist, along with several other potential recruitable characters, abducted and brought aboard a mind flayer ship, where they’re implanted by tadpoles that, if left unchecked, would transform them into new illithids. Your character thus embarks on a journey to find a way to remove the parasite — one filled with choices, in true Dungeons and Dragons fashion.

Whereas the prior two mainline entries from BioWare utilized real-time combat with pause, Baldur’s Gate 3 is instead a fully turn-based RPG, adopting mechanics from D&D’s 5th Edition ruleset. Actions and dialogue are punctuated by dice rolls to determine their success, and in addition to the many spells and attacks the player can use, they’re encouraged to make full and creative use of their environments, whether it’s attacking enemies from vantage points, luring them into traps, or even simply kicking them off cliffs.

Despite spending years in early access, the full release of Baldur’s Gate 3 virtually exploded in popularity overnight, becoming an all-time favorite of many players who cite its well-written story, challenging combat, and depth of player freedom as high points. Really, you know your game is special when the period following its release sees social media dominated with creative clips like these.

 

12. Bloodborne

Bloodborne
Bloodborne

The Souls games were always challenging, but Bloodborne laid down a new foundation for everything that came after it. Bosses are fast and aggressive with elaborate attack patterns; player characters are sped up to match, emphasizing aggression, dodging, and parrying over blocking. In place of the swords, shields, and sorceries of past titles, Bloodborne presents the player with transforming weapons and guns.

Bloodborne’s trick weapons are among the most creative and well-balanced takes on equipment in the genre, so much so that other games are better for it when they mimic it. No longer is it purely about stats; every weapon in the game has a unique moveset, and a stylish transformation that completely changes how they function.

Take the Threaded Cane you can choose at the start of the game, for instance. In its base form, it’s a pretty standard bladed weapon. But transform it, and now you’re suddenly using a whip with a wider range. Almost all of the rest of the weapons are just as creative in their designs, and it makes finding a new one an exciting event.

Bloodborne’s atmosphere is unmatched; its lavishly designed Victorian-era architecture, Lovecraftian abominations, haunting soundtrack, and phenomenal sound design give it a vibe that no other game in FromSoft’s repertoire has.

 

11. Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade Chronicles
Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade Chronicles’s greatest strength lies in how well it marries its gameplay and story. Number 11 on our list is set in a world of two great titans — Bionis and Mechonis. Both titans are massive enough to support entire civilizations on their bodies, and by the time the story begins, the Bionis is under siege from the Mechon, a mechanical army from the Mechonis. Our protagonist, Shulk, wields the Monado, a sword that grants him visions of the future — and one of the few weapons that can harm Mechon.

Xenoblade has you exploring a vast, gorgeous world, one whose beauty overcame the technical limitations of the Wii. The scenery and landscapes of the Bionis remain some of the most unique and stunning in the genre to this day — a textbook example of how to do weird and unusual video game settings right.

The game features a real-time combat system where characters use auto-attacks and Arts; rather than deal with resources like MP, strategy involves proper positioning, and, at times, the use of Shulk’s visions to change the future and stop incoming attacks. It’s an innovative and gratifying combat system that no other RPGs have attempted to replicate.

These days, the best way to play the game credited with revitalizing the entire JRPG genre is the Definitive Edition rerelease on Switch, which massively upgrades the visuals, adds tons of quality of life features, and an epilogue set in a new, jaw-dropping area.

 

10. Earthbound

EarthBound
EarthBound

Shigesato Itoi’s cult classic opens in an urban, distinctly U.S inspired setting, with young boy Ness investigating a nearby meteor crash with his neighbor Pokey. An insect from ten years in the future, Buzz Buzz, warns Ness of an impending alien invasion helmed by Giygas, and beseeches him to gather eight special melodies from eight sanctuaries to fight back.

Earthbound innovated on typical JRPG mechanics in an interesting way: while combat is a turn-based affair, characters’ HP rolls up or down like an odometer. This adds a bit of a real-time element to the proceedings, as party members can take mortal damage — sometimes repeatedly — without actually being KO’d until the meter rolls all the way down to 0. If you’re fast enough, you can heal or potentially even end the fight before your HP fully drains, lending a sense of speed and strategy to the proceedings.

Earthbound has aged gracefully and is fondly remembered by fans for its sheer quirkiness and subversion of typical JRPG conventions, and Eagleland remains among the richest and most vibrant settings of the genre. You’re sure to find the game on other lists of the best RPGs of all time, and fans still hold out hope that the sequel, Mother 3, will receive an official English localization someday — even if a fan translation is already available.

 

9. Xenoblade Chronicles 3

Xenoblade Chronicles 3
Xenoblade Chronicles 3

Set in the distant future of 1 and 2, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is the embodiment of why the Xeno name is so revered — though it’s lighter on sci-fi elements and religious symbolism than Xenogears and Xenosaga, its narrative is still deeply contemplative and philosophical, examining many facets of life and what it means to be alive — and human. Every chapter and major side quest ties back into this theme in some way, and it’s handled with an even greater level of grace and finesse than past entries.

Not content with what they’d achieved in past titles, Monolith pushes the Switch to its limits here, with up to seven characters participating in real-time battles. The art direction is stunning as you’d expect, and the game as a whole is one of the most technically polished entries in the series, addressing nearly all of the major criticisms of Xenoblade 2’s performance and graphics.

Xenoblade 3 also features a raft of quality of life additions and smart changes that make it far smoother than past entries. Menus are easier to navigate, players can fight while swimming now, the gacha is gone, and maps are well designed and easily legible. Past entries, beloved as they are, all featured their share of absolutely bizarre design decisions that dragged the experience down, and Xenoblade 3 thankfully does away with most of that nonsense in the process.

Incredible voice work and beautiful music that prominently features flutes ties the whole package together and elevates it into an artistic masterpiece, worthy of being the best entry in the series and one of the best RPGs ever made.

 

8. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3

While The Witcher 3 is well-written, many remember the game for absolutely incredible side quests — which some say are even better than the main story. These side adventures can be anything from dark, to tragic, and even comedic. But a recurring thread in these and the main campaign is that while Geralt has a pre-defined personality, dialogue choices add wiggle room for role-playing.

These side quests — and their dialogue choices — are all so good that they elevate the open world to another level. Gorgeous and detailed as it may be, any open world lives and dies by the content within. And while The Witcher 3 does have its share of video game busywork, its quests make the journey feel meaningful.

The combat system retains the principles set by The Witcher 2, with some changes and additions. Geralt carries with him two swords — silver for monsters, and steel for humans. In addition to a mix of light and heavy attacks, Geralt can also use Signs, simplified magic spells with a variety of utility. As befitting his nature as monster hunter for hire, Geralt can prepare for battles by concocting potions, oils, and bombs suited for taking down his quarry. The skill tree is massively expanded, with new abilities like alternate sign modes to take full advantage of Geralt’s kit.

The Witcher 3 redefined what western RPGs and open-world games could be, and years on from its release, its influence can be felt everywhere in the gaming industry.

 

7. Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow

Pokemon Red Yellow and Blue
Pokemon Red Yellow and Blue

If there’s any series out there that embodies the phrase “greatness from small beginnings”, it’s Pokémon. The development struggles of the series’ first generation are well documented, and though the games are unpolished by today’s standards, the winning formula (and legacy) they established can’t be ignored.

Though it’s seen a steady amount of innovation and iteration over the years, the foundation laid down by Red and Blue is still in use today. You play as a fledgling Pokémon trainer on a journey to explore the entire region, defeat Gym Leaders, and challenge the Pokémon League. Along the way you’ll even fight organized crime and discover legendary Pokémon with power beyond compare.

Bugs, balancing issues, and lack of polish aside, it’s remarkable just how well these games have stood the test of time — a modern gamer looking to try out retro RPGs will likely find the first generation of Pokémon to be a far more accessible and forgiving experience than, say, the first Dragon Quest.

Though far from the first monster-collecting RPG franchise, Pokémon is by far the most successful and well-known, and it owes it all to the struggles that went into the development of Red and Blue.

 

6. Elden Ring

Elden Ring Limgrave
Elden Ring Limgrave

Far from the guided, amusement park-esque open-worlds of other games, Elden Ring is uncompromising and unafraid to let its players stumble around and discover things on their own Whether it’s gear, side quests, lore, secret paths, or even entire dungeons, there’s very little hand holding, and every discovery feels like an accomplishment.

And with those accomplishments comes gorgeous landscapes and grotesque horrors in equal measure; FromSoft has always excelled with the visual design of their worlds and the creatures that inhabit them, but Elden Ring takes things to a new level. Every player will inevitably have the sight of the massive Erdtree etched into their minds and the hellscape of Caelid seared into their nightmares.

Of course, the challenging combat that FromSoft is known for is also present and correct, with dangerous enemies and deadly bosses that punish wild button mashing. The difference this time is that a hard boss is no longer necessarily a brick wall for players to bash their heads against until they “git gud”. There’s no shame in retreating and exploring other areas until you’re stronger and more appropriately geared for the challenge.

Just as Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls did before it, Elden Ring marks the start of a new era for FromSoft’s design, and will likely leave a legacy that will be remembered decades from now.

 

5. Persona 5

Persona 5 Royal
Persona 5 Royal

Atlus’s magnum opus of the 2010s has it all: fast-paced and satisfying turn-based combat, a story of vigilantism that resonates especially well with our current society, and a sense of style that few others outside of Atlus themselves can hope to match.

Persona 5 doesn’t shy away from putting dark and uncomfortable topics on full blast, ranging from sexual harassment, organized crime, and even political corruption. It treats these very real societal issues with the gravitas they deserve, while managing to tell a very compelling and empowering story about fighting for positive social change and to make the world a better place.

Rather than reinvent everything from scratch, Persona 5 refines the fundamentals of combat and exploration first introduced in Persona 3. The social simulation, dungeon-delving, and turn-based combat all return, wrapped up in the most creative and stylish user interface in the genre. While a randomly generated dungeon is still present, hand-crafted Palaces are the stars of the show, each with wildly different themes, accompanying puzzles, and even stealth elements.

Persona 5 was an instant classic on release; its updated version, Persona 5 Royal, makes things even better with additional quality of life features and an entire extra story arc. But no matter which of the two versions you end up playing, it’s hard to deny that you’re in for an unforgettable experience.

 

4. Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy 7
Final Fantasy 7

Though Final Fantasy continues to be a household name to this day, few entries have matched — let alone surpassed — the sheer popularity and sales success of Final Fantasy VII. The series’s PS1 debut was revolutionary for its time, with groundbreaking visuals, FMVs, and a complex narrative that defied player expectations.

The tale it tells is timeless and even more relevant today than it was in 1997, dealing with themes like environmentalism, oppressive mega-corporations, self-identity, and death and loss. Even by today’s standards it’s a dense story filled with twists and turns, helmed by one of the most psychologically complex characters in the series. VII is also packed with memorable setpieces (such as the iconic introductory bombing mission), more than most other Final Fantasy titles.

Final Fantasy VII continues the combat and exploration loop established by prior titles, with turn-based battles using the ATB gauge to add a real-time layer, and traditional towns, dungeons, and world map. Where VII differs from its predecessors is its customization system; equipment has slots to fit in orbs of Materia, granting stat boosts, spells, and other abilities.

Final Fantasy VII may be showing its age, but it has an incredible legacy behind it, having helped to make an entire genre “cool” overnight. Its story is still considered rich and complex to this day, and even Square Enix recognizes the level of care and respect it deserves, deeming a full remake project to require three full-length AAA games to do the original justice.

 

3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim
Skyrim

One of the most popular and beloved western RPGs is also one of the most enduring. Skyrim thrusts players into the shoes of the Dragonborn, a mortal with the soul of a dragon, and the only one who can truly slay other dragons, including Alduin, the World-Eater who has returned with designs on taking over the world.

Like any other Bethesda title, open world exploration and questing are a focal point of the experience, and the gorgeous, handcrafted province of Skyrim still feels remarkably lived in, even when pitted against modern releases. There’s no shortage of things to do and discover in this land, and that’s just the base game.

Though Skyrim’s gameplay and visuals endure mainly on the basis of feats, glitches, and mod showcases that players continue to post online, its storytelling and world building continue to inspire debates today, such as the morality of a major character and the fate they deserve, or whether the Stormcloaks or the Empire are in the right.

Skyrim has a remarkably dedicated and bustling modding community, with thousands of free player made creations and alterations released over the decade since the game’s release. The possibilities are almost limitless, and a big part of why the game still endures in the public consciousness over a decade later (though the constant re-releases certainly helps).

 

2. Final Fantasy VI

Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VI

For every Final Fantasy game that exists, there are perhaps ten times as many opinions and takes for it online. While many will point to the series’s PS1 debut as the series’s best entry, just as many will instead cite the series’s SNES swansong as the greatest. Final Fantasy VI is acclaimed for its unforgettable tale that features an ensemble cast, iconic villain, and a bold mid-game twist that few other games have attempted even decades later.

Final Fantasy VI moved away from the medieval settings of past entries, opting for a more oppressive steampunk world in which the Gestahlian Empire hungers for world conquest. Opposing them are the Returners, a rebel group aided by king Edgar of Figaro. While a total of fourteen playable characters star in this entry, it’s main antagonist Kefka Palazzo who steals the show, with his theatrics and antics being among the most remembered elements of the game, if not the series as a whole.

As the series’ SNES swansong, VI also features refined sprite work and visuals that still hold up well today — more so than any game before or after it, at least, up until the PS2 era. The music is likewise masterfully executed, with a memorable final boss theme that lasts a whopping 14 minutes.

With an absolutely massive world to explore by SNES standards, a darker story that deals with heavy themes, and a refinement of gameplay and exploration, Final Fantasy VI raised the bar for what the series — and the genre as a whole — could accomplish.

 

1. Chrono Trigger

Chrono Trigger
Chrono Trigger

Our final entry is a time-traveling epic that still feels like it hasn’t even aged a day, with a combat system unburdened by modern contrivances like long animations or complex mechanics, and a charming story and cast that still feels novel.

Chrono Trigger’s story is excellently paced, never feeling like it’s being bogged down by unnecessary fluff, while still managing to cram in memorable character arcs for every party member. And let’s not forget the set pieces, too — from storming Magus’s castle, to the events at the Ocean Palace, and even the final battle itself, there’re no shortage of unforgettable moments in this game.

It helps that both combat and exploration are very streamlined, facilitating a very pick-up-and-play friendly experience. Chrono Trigger features seamless battles on the field; combat runs on the same fundamentals as the SNES era Final Fantasy titles, with a fast and snappy take on ATB that makes battles feel concise. Enemies are hand-placed in dungeons, and absent from the world map, which makes navigation a breeze.

As a late SNES era release, Chrono Trigger also features immaculate presentation, with beautiful sprite work that’s aged unbelievably gracefully, and a soundtrack that’s arguably composer Yasunori Mitsuda’s magnum opus.

Chrono Trigger is a rare instance of everything managing to come together nearly perfectly to create a masterpiece — one that will continue to feel timeless for decades to come.

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