Though I made a post similar to this before and one of these games was even featured on that list, I find myself compelled to delve into the idea of my Top 5 Non-FF Old School Console RPGs, which may seem a bit long-winded and odd, but it’s enough qualifiers to keep me in a certain realm rather than deviating off to the same games I mentioned previously, at least too much.
Regardless, gaming being one of my biggest loves, I felt the need (especially since I’ve recently been replaying some of these titles) to go through and list my favourite old school console RPGs. No, I’m not talking Playstation, I’m talking consoles that you had to blow in the cartridges sometimes, and do it just so so that you didn’t erase your hours of work… the kind you had to jerry rig to make it work with a pencil, or another cartridge to hold it in place. The kind of games that gave us hours of pleasure and torment all at once. So, in no particular orders as I don’t think I could rank them properly if I tried, here they are…
The Genesis Console wasn’t blessed with a plethora of RPG material as later consoles were, but when it was it had something to give that was outside of the box and seemed beyond what most people were expecting. Though an acquired taste, Landstalker was one of those games I played as a kid and lamented at the puzzles at times (though I was particularly good at puzzles in RPGs,) but mostly I lamented at the fact that they made me jump and maneuver like in a platformer. As a small girl I had the mindset the more emphatically I moved my controller, the more precisely my character might move– regardless of how ridiculous this may seem looking back– and I found myself having to learn how to control a character through a series of motions to progress a game, and while frustrating, it led to me having an enjoyable, learning experience through a relatively interesting story and all new gameplay as far as an RPG fanatic could go. It played like , yet created a more difficult time through its somewhat complicated jumps and positioning, and sometimes completely frustrating rigid movement.
The story followed a young, elfish looking kid by the name of Nigel who’s just out to find himself some damn treasure, but always ends up in rather messed up situations– though the intro leads you to believe he’s way more bad ass than you’d think–and is soon joined by a pixie whose main purpose seems to be getting angry at anyone who calls her cute or tiny, and generally being an annoying pain in the ass (Zelda again, anyone?) While this in and of itself doesn’t seem very innovative, the game play and the fact that there was very little else out there on the market to match this at the time of its release really kind of sealed this one in my heart– I can still remember playing it in the garage, frustrated and trying to make jumps that my mind kept making me think I would die if I missed.
While most of the RPGs of its time were following the new school progression of an open map and several dungeons to explore, Shining in the Darkness decided to leave us in one dungeon for the entire game. Yep, you had a single dungeon that you went in and out of several times, a labyrinth that was both confusing and obnoxious in its design, but somehow was still some of the most fun you could have in a game that only had three places to visit (a town, a dungeon, and a castle that gave you little to do but have everyone tell you the same thing). All of this leads to some truly frustrating deaths– as well as times when you just leave to get more situated– and you have to work your way through the entire thing all over again. Shortcuts were to be had, and unlocking certain doors and such could make work a lot easier, but in the end it still felt like you were beating your head against a wall… but in a good way?
The story itself seemed to lack a bit, following in its predecessors (Shining Force) a bit faultily with the typical “evil man wants to destroy everything, please stop him, and while you are at it in the beginning, please save the Princess, k?” plot that leads you through the same kind of saviour storyline that most games would lead you through. But somehow, and I don’t know that I can explain it fully, this game ended up making it into my list and I still play it from time to time. Nothing like a good, old-fashioned grind, right?
With the popularity of the Final Fantasy series, not much love was given, as a whole, to the Phantasy Star series and it’s somewhat “off the beaten path” style of game and story. Rather than being set in some older, fantasy setting (for the most part), it was set in a more futuristic setting– a fantasy world is a fantasy world, but this one had aliens– with the game play and mechanics taking a bit from previous RPGs in the Sega setting. It was a pretty straight forward system, though the equipment system in PSII left a lot to be desired (unable to tell which items went to whom and if they were upgrades, pretty much a blind buy system), overall the games had something that FF wasn’t offering at the time… a theme that smacked of a Star Wars setting.
While the story differed across the games, the general consensus was that it wasn’t like Final Fantasy in so many ways, and therefore gave something new to the crowd of would-be RPG players, following the story of Rolf on his way to try and help save the world from the now malfunctioning Mother Brain system. He’s joined by a cast of random party members (including an all too perky and over-worried hottie), and they’re off to save the world. The combat system itself felt almost like that of the FF series, but different in the fact that you could set up entire scenarios– which at the time was unheard of for FF, auto-battle was something new and fresh– and the general way combat played out seemed a bit stylistically different, with each party stepping up to do their part one by one and not being seen on screen otherwise.
Some people see it as subpar to the Final Fantasy games, but some of us who grew up with both find Phantasy Star to be ranked right up there with our original deviations in the jRPG genre with Final Fantasy, and today it stands up to the test which leaves Phantasy Star II one of the top RPGs in my book.
Few games come crashing into my memory like Earthbound. As a child, it was the first game I ever rented with my own money to play on my own system– instead of just leeching off of my brother’s games and playing them when he wasn’t– and I spent all night playing it, and fell in love with its quirky, off-beat style. While most RPG games in that age had you fighting against fantastical beasts with huge swords while trying to save princesses, Earthbound had you wielding a bat to take on hippies and save the world from something a little less ambiguous than a big bad. The whole style screamed kitschy, and even as a young girl I fell in love with it.
Following the hero Ness through his adventures to collect party members and ‘sound’ to help beat the evil Gygas feels almost like you’re doing it yourself– there’s something so very calming about being a child with a toy fighting the world of evil– more so than the fantastical settings of some of the other RPGs of its time. Going to the store to buy a burger to replenish health, getting an allowance from your father to be spent on random things through the use of an ATM card, and making random calls home to check in with your mother… all things that made this game more than memorable in its own right, and caused for immediate fan love from all over the world, and a cry for the sequels (and prequel) to be translated. Thankfully, Mother III did get a fan translation, and a store was opened that caters to the Earthbound and quirk gamer in us all. Earthbound will reign in history as a surprise hit for all those hardcore RPG lovers.
While having its own modest community to begin with, Breath of Fire was another of those series that just seemed passed over because of the hype with Final Fantasy and all of its sequels. Though it offered much of the same things that Final Fantasy did, Breath of Fire II also offered some new, quirky bits that made it kind of a positive note in my mind. While some of the story aspects may have seemed queer– killing fat cells in a chubby queen to save her, anyone?– the shaman system was by far one of my favourite things to play around with. Not only was the hero able to push himself to mega powered status, you could bring each character to the same kind of level through the use of shamans and combining them with your characters (my favourite was a shamanised Katt/Rinpoo, mm). While a bit off the wall in its own right, the game itself had a story that was both easy to follow and also compelling, with each story element seeming to tie together in a way to get you through the continent and to your goal, and the game play itself was in line with other RPGs of its type, allowing you to fiddle with it without feeling lost.
The story itself follows Ryu (a name he shares with /every other male protagonist in the Breath of Fire series ever/,) and some of his friends, including Nina (ditto to Ryu’s deal), and a few other random friends that come in through his life and make things all the more interesting. Each new character recruited poses a new challenge to get them with you (like most games, you have to go through a process to recruit them, but once you get them, it’s great. It’s not a hard process and it pretty much follows the linear progression of the story, anyway.) There are several ways to get pulled into this game, through the fishing and hunting system, the odd little side quests that pop up now and again, or just following the storyline through its many twists to find out just what happened to poor little Ryu’s mom. There’s plenty to be had, and it has ultimate replay value as far as I’m concerned, as I play it at least once a year. It reigns as my favourite non-FF RPG for that reason.
While this list is not wholly definitive, it does represent most of my favourites of the genre, and I did try to pull a bit away from solely SNES RPGs as I feel they get a heapton of love as it is– so yes, it includes a lot of Genesis RPG love, but it’s fine, because the system was amazing– and honestly, I feel it will introduce some people to an RPG they might not have known about, or, in some cases, rekindle a love someone felt a long time ago. What would you have included in this list? Leave a comment and let me know! <3