The '90s were the unquestionable golden era for RPGs – during that decade, 16-bit consoles gave way to 32-bit systems, creating an incredible array of pixelated masterpieces and experimental 3D experiences from JRPG developers like Square Enix. Meanwhile, advances in PC technology allowed WRPGs to flourish.
But don't be fooled into believing that the years before were barren of excellent RPGs. During the 80s, as consoles began to gain traction and PCs became more accessible for the average consumer, the groundwork for the following years of RPG greatness was laid – and many games of this earlier era can stand toe-to-toe with the best of the best.
10/10 Wizardry: Proving Grounds Of The Mad Overlord
Released at the very beginning of the '80s, Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord is probably the most influential game on this list. This first game in the Wizardry series was one of the first RPGs ever made, and its various technological and mechanical advancements – including one of the first instances of party-based battling and mind-blowing color graphics – set the template for every game that followed.
All of these innovations come with a downside, though – Wizardry is brutally difficult and unbalanced, lacking many of the quality-of-life features that would become standard later in the decade. Still, it's worth a play just to see how far the genre has come in the decades since its release.
Most Western players know the Mother series through the second game, Mother 2, which is more commonly known as Earthbound. But, while Earthbound is an iconic classic by any definition, it mostly refined and built upon the foundation laid by the original Mother.
This 1989 RPG introduced the series' quirky take on modern Americana, presenting the US as a jagged fantasy-land of psychic children, alien invasions, and malicious living room furniture. By taking genre-standard mechanics and transplanting them into a contemporary setting, Mother proved that RPGs could engage with and comment on the real world, laying the groundwork for later games like Persona and Yakuza: Like A Dragon.
8/10 Might And Magic Book One: The Secret Of The Inner Sanctum
While Wizardry and Might and Magic are both CRPGs boasting hardcore difficulty and a fantasy world inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, Might and Magic demonstrates just how much game design progressed in the 80s. The game boasts pseudo-3D illustrations of its dungeons and a massive (for the time) world to explore.
That massive world is Might and Magic's most enduring quality, lending the game a sense of grandeur and mystery that remains compelling.
7/10 The Bard's Tale
The Bard's Tale – the 1985 original, not the meta 2004 reboot – takes the opposite tack from Might and Magic. Instead of a huge, sprawling fantasy world, The Bard's Tale takes place solely in the town of Skara Brae and its outskirts, with various dungeon crawls hidden in the cellars and sewers beneath the town's surface.
This specificity is what sets the game apart. The Bard's Tale uses advancements in computer technology to render Skara Brae as a navigable town rather than a series of menus, and it allows a surprising amount of flexibility in selecting character classes, making your party's journey feel truly unique.
6/10 Pool Of Radiance
While many games of its era pulled liberally from D&D, Pool of Radiance had the extra cachet of actually being a part of the Forgotten Realms franchise – and it was the first time that the famous tabletop RPG appeared in video game form. As such, the game would be historically significant even if it wasn't fun to play.
Fortunately though, Pool of Radiance remains enjoyable. Its difficulty curve is notably less intense than many of its contemporaries, since the game lets you reassign character stats until you're satisfied, letting you choose your difficulty. Its combat is fun and tactical, while its world has a real sense of texture thanks to the game's place in the larger Forgotten Realms universe. It's not hard to see why Pool of Radiance has maintained a cult following.
5/10 Dungeon Master
For a long time, the first-person dungeon crawler was the pinnacle of RPG design – and Dungeon Master might just be the finest example of the form.
Released on the Atari ST in 1987, the game's pseudo-3D graphics and groundbreaking sound design were stunning technological achievements, making you feel like you were actually inside the game. Moreover, Dungeon Master's real-time combat was a huge departure from the turn-based norm, and popularized the idea of faster-paced combat within an RPG setting.
4/10 Phantasy Star 2
While medieval fantasy is still the archetypal setting for an RPG, Sega's trailblazing Phantasy Star series was a rare example of a sci-fi RPG back in the 1980s. The first game, released for the 8-bit Master System, earned critical acclaim for its deep gameplay and unique presentation, but its 16-bit sequel improved on the formula in every way.
The Genesis' increased power allowed the game to sport better graphics and sound, but the game's most striking aspect is its use of characters with predefined personalities. This allows the game's story to be deeper and richer than any of its home console contemporaries.
3/10 Ultima 4: Quest Of The Avatar
But while Phantasy Star 2's depth was unparalleled on home consoles, Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar demonstrates how much complexity developers were able to add with the advanced power of PCs. Moreover, the fourth game in Richard Garriott's groundbreaking RPG series largely defined what a Western RPG could be.
While the first three games in the series featured a standard fight-the-big-bad plot, Ultima 4 focuses more on morality and choice, letting you truly create a character and play their role in the relatively peaceful land of Britannia. It's one of the earliest examples of an open-world game, and its innovative mechanics blazed a trail that pretty much every RPG has followed in the years since its release.
2/10 Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy really needs no introduction. This pioneering JRPG popularized RPGs on home consoles almost single-handedly, creating a streamlined and approachable experience in a genre that was known for head-spinning complexity.
While later sequels have taken the series in broad new directions, the original game remains remarkably pure; you control the four Warriors of Light, and you're responsible for saving the world from the evil manifestation of Chaos. Final Fantasy's graphics and presentation were jaw-dropping when it was released, and it's worth playing based on its historical importance alone.
1/10 Dragon Quest 3: The Seeds Of Salvation
The history of JRPGs is defined by the push and pull between Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. If the former is defined by its go-for-broke ambition, radically pushing the boundaries of video game storytelling and presentation, Dragon Quest is characterized by its sense of comfort and tradition. But this comforting shell belies the exacting mechanical refinement at the core of Dragon Quest, and Dragon Quest 3: The Seeds of Salvation represents the series at its peak.
Dragon Quest 3 introduced many now-standard features to the series for the first time: it includes a day/night cycle, fast travel, the ability to change character classes, and several new stats that increase the game's complexity. These changes lead to a game that still feels playable and fun over 30 years after its initial release.
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