A few weeks ago I was lamenting the lack of really excellent Japanese RPG’s in the past console generation. But really if you discount BioWare and Bethesda, the genre as a whole has been kind of stagnant.
Newer titles seem to lack that creative edge that led to some of the greatest games of past generations. Normally, reboots and remakes don’t exactly bring to mind creativity, but in order to bring back the genre’s groove, it could be a good idea to revisit and even rebuild the successes of the past in order to isolate and potentially build upon what made those games so outstanding.
I feel that remakes get a bad rap due to Hollywood’s half-assing resulting in films that are shadows of the originals, but video games are a different medium altogether. Capturing the spirit of a gaming classic is a lot easier to do and constant advances in technology have made improving on perfection something very attainable.
So what I’m going to do here is suggest some underappreciated personal favorite titles from the Super Nintendo Entertainment system that represent everything I love about role-playing games.
Games that had fresh ideas that would translate well to the modern era could blow away the competition given a fresh coat of paint. While some lesser series have been perpetuated endlessly, these seem to have been abandoned, and that makes me sad. Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?
Secret of Evermore
Remember when Fable 2 came out and everyone went nuts over their virtual canine companion? Well, they’d already been one-upped over a decade prior by this underrated gem from Squaresoft. Except in this one, you could actively switch between the boy and his dog, and the dog was way cooler.
Even better is that in addition to the sniffing out of items and taking bites out of evil was that the dog actually leveled and changed form as the game progressed. Ever wanted to chomp fantasy baddies as a big ass poodle? Well you could have!
The setting is a world made up of several kingdoms that vary in theme from science fiction to prehistoric times and more in-between. There is even a Final Fantasy IV crossover where you meet up with the protagonist of my favorite game of all time. Remember when role-playing games used to be full of secrets and surprises beyond boring collectables?
Evermore’s gameplay resembles Secret of Mana, which is a very high compliment, and as you can see in the above picture, it looked damn good for a 16-bit title. I’d love to see a remake of this one since the concept is so strong and imaginative and the canine companion concept was so far ahead of its time. It’s time this dog had its day again.
This is simply one of my absolute favorite games ever. When the original March of the Black Queen came out, I had to order it from a catalog because I never saw a copy of it on store shelves. It turned out to be one of the best chances I ever took.
What set this one apart from most other RPG’s was that you did not control the combat at all. You assembled and maneuvered your army on a massive world map capturing and defending towns while engaging the opposing army. But during actual fighting, your troops acted on their own which made your unit configurations very important.
On top of this already-complex system, day and night passed during battles and some units were more effective at night so you had to arrange and move your units appropriately. Vampires, ghosts, and werewolves were best grouped together and deployed at night, for example. Furthermore, as the war progressed, your morality was an issue. If you stationed terrifying night units in towns, for instance, people would view you poorly and your morality would suffer. Your morality rating was a factor in determining which of several endings you received.
Your units leveled up and evolved as the game went on, and the maps were filled with secrets. This is the kind of strategy game you could play forever. It was a monster to try and finish because there was no way to save during each battle, and the later maps took several hours to complete at best.
A remake or even straight re-release would be an absolute godsend. The N64 had a sequel I never knew existed and the PlayStation had Tactics Ogre, but I think that the time has come to bring this criminally underrated strategy franchise into the modern gaming era. The game’s developer, Quest, was folded into Square meaning that it’s up to Square-Enix to get their shit together and bring this one back to life.
Inindo: Way of the Ninja
Why aren’t there more ninja-based RPG’s? God only knows. I’ve discussed this one before in my Koei piece, but one good recommendation deserves another. Out of all of these games, I think this title might be the most impressive on a current-gen console due to the sheer depth and variety presented. It was way ahead of its time. Sadly, it’s also the most obscure title on this list.
Inindo puts you in the shoes of a surviving member of the Iga clan of shinobi whose village was destroyed by Oda Nobunaga in mythological feudal Japan. From there, you pretty much get to free-roam it, traveling from village to village and exploring dungeons. There are dozens of other travelers –samurai, monks, and fellow ninja among them- whom the player can build relationships with and eventually party up with if their friendship rating becomes high enough.
In addition to this build-your-own-party system, the player is able to work as a spy for hire for daimyos and build relationships with them as well. Once you’ve progressed in level, you can actually participate in large-scale battles and help the warring daimyos conquer territory, with your goal being to grind down Nobunaga’s power so you can invade his palace and get your revenge.
The coolest thing about all of this is that it’s not scripted. What happens is dependent on what you do as a player. The daimyos will war back and forth, but it’s up to you to choose sides and steer them towards success for your own ends. And you are working on a timetable too, which is unusual.
Now imagine a modern RPG with all of these elements. I know, right? Just thinking about expanding on the social party-building system, the tactical strategy elements, and spying minigames gets me all excited. It’s a shame it will probably never happen.
The 7th Saga
Obscure enough for you yet? This is another one that is sitting in Square’s catalogue as it was originally developed by Enix. It was a great experience back in the day. The player chose one of seven heroes and set off alongside the other six on a mission to gather seven runes. How you went about it was your business.
You could make friends with the other heroes and team up with someone, or you could challenge them to duels and end up fighting all the time. When one of them has a rune, you will either have to attempt to take it from them in a duel, or they may attack you in order to get yours. These interpersonal dynamics based on player actions were something I’ve never really seen the like of and could be amazing with current gen upgrades.
Another innovation made in 7th Saga was the mini-map (now a standard genre feature) and a non-random battle system where enemies showed up on the mini-map, letting you know when a fight was coming. And rather than switching screens entirely when you went into battle, the game actually zoomed in and seamlessly changed perspective, which is something a lot of modern RPGs can’t seem to integrate to this day.
It was one of those games worth playing several times just because the cast was so diverse and who you chose changed the overall experience and tactics. It was also kind of an early attempt at what Peter Molyneux originally tried to do with Fable where you had to compete with other heroes.
[whispers] Psst…7th Saga kind of did it better.
I love you, 1990’s. You had the coolest stuff. Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam were on the radio instead of Nickelback, kids cartoons on TV were still actually funny, and Shadowrun was a thing. Shadowrun was a multimedia franchise that stemmed from a tabletop role-playing game (the kind you play with pen, paper, dice, and imagination) and it was like a conglomeration of all of my favorite genres. It took place in a cyberpunk dystopia where magic has returned to the world, bringing things like orcs, elves, and dragons back into the fold with corporations running the world even more than they do now. It was amazing.
I suppose it’s no surprise that an RPG based on an RPG worked out alright, but this was just an above-and-beyond masterpiece. The player was Jake Armitage, a Shadowrunner (corporate mercenary) gunned down in the streets before waking up in the morgue. Time to figure out what the hell just happened and why, I guess.
This game is my only pick not from Japan, but Japan is the world’s only remaining superpower in the Shadowrun universe and Japanese developers could steal a lot of ideas from this obscure western RPG to improve their own modern games. It also has something else setting it apart, but I’ll get into that later.
The controls were really unique for a console RPG. You aimed your gun using a cursor and your hit percentage was heavily influenced by your stats. This might not fly in the age of the commercial shooter, but some rather successful BioWare games have operated on a similar principle.
Shadowrun also pioneered the ability to hire NPC’s as party members and command them to use their abilities, another BioWare staple. I still remember my go-to dream team of an assault rifle-toting orc, a pistol-toting combat mage, and a female werefox mage like old friends. Sound cool? It really was. Throw in a deep conversation system (which they did) and you are pretty much looking at a perfect game.
Are you sick of me whining and wishing for things that will never happen yet? Well, this time I’m ending on a happy note. Thanks to the magic of Kickstarter, Shadowrun will be returning in the aptly-titled Shadowrun Returns. No, not in a multiplayer-only shooter thing like they tried to do some years ago for I don’t know what reason, but as a proper PC sequel to one of the best console role playing games of all time.
But what about the rest? Hey, I’d love for the same thing to happen for the rest of these titles, but I’ll take what I can get. Shadowrun Returns is definitely a step in the right direction and if one small-time developer can raise enough money independently to bring back an obscure old-school RPG, one can hope that it can be done again and again. And if Square-Enix and Koei want to get off of their asses and get out of their respective monumental ruts and bring some real deal gaming back to the masses, all the better.
In spite of the degradation of innovation and overall quality in role-playing games over the last ten years or so, it still remains my favorite genre and still has the highest potential for both storytelling and thought-provoking mechanics. Here’s to hoping for a new RPG golden age combining the spirit of the glory days with modern horsepower.