Goodbye, Old Friend: The Top 10 3DS RPGS
With E3 approaching, Nintendo has confirmed that they have no plans to show off 3DS titles at the landmark games conference. While that doesn’t necessarily mean the 3DS is dead, if Nintendo themselves isn’t developing games for the console, it’s safe to say that this is the end of the line for this incredible handheld. This honestly isn’t a bittersweet departure- over the course of its nine-year lifespan, the 3DS managed to overcome its weak launch and early sales issues, amassed an impressive library of first- and third-party games, and went from a single-form factor to a six-model family. Whether you feel its gimmicky AR games or glasses-free 3D were worth the investment, one thing is certain- the combination of the DS and 3DS libraries results in one of the most impressive collections of games in the history of the medium. This especially rings true for RPGs, as both the DS and 3DS received a number of unique new entries as well as excellent ports of classic titles. With the Switch taking over as Nintendo’s main focus, it seems only fair that we give the Nintendo 3DS a proper sendoff, with a list of its top 10 RPGs.
First, it’s important to get some disclaimers out of the way: feel free to complain about this list as much as you’d like, it’s based on the specific views of this writer. With a library as healthy as the 3DS’ own, some hard choices needed to be made in order to put together this list. One of the most important aspects of this list, however, is that it features no ports- all the games here were built specifically for the 3DS, and even if we see some of them make the jump over to other consoles in the long run, it’s important to recognize their initial release on the handheld. With those rules out of the way, let’s start at number 10, and work our way to the top:
10: Crimson Shroud
The smallest game on this list still stands toe-to-toe with all the rest of these titans. Despite its relatively small campaign, clocking in at around eight hours, it’s also an extremely replayable one- you’ll need double that time in order to see all the content this eShop title has to offer. The game was originally developed as a part of Level-5’s Guild series, a collection of bite-sized titles from famed industry veterans like Suda 51, Keiji Inafune, and Crimson Shroud’s own Yasumi Matsuno. A veteran of Square Enix, Matsuno’s influence on titles like Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy XII can also be seen in this tiny, turn-based DnD simulator. Part of this game’s charm comes from its inventive dice-generation and manipulation mechanics, but there are additional layers of depth here. Even as an eShop title, Crimson Shroud features all the classic elements of a full-size RPG, and its equipment melding system means that players can continuously restart their campaigns in order to grind and build even more varied party members. You can’t find Crimson Shroud anywhere else, which is partially why it deserves a spot here, but it’s also an extremely unique and inventive title that genre enthusiasts deserve to check out.
9: Fantasy Life
Though life-sim RPGs are a dime-a-dozen these days, Fantasy Life is a massive title that deserves mention, if only because of its relative obscurity. Though it might be easy to feature Rune Factory 4 in this spot, the game is making its way to the Switch with improvements, making the argument that it is a “must-play” on 3DS a bit defunct. Fantasy Life is another Level-5 title, a developer known for non-traditional titles, and Fantasy Life is no exception. In order to maximize your potential in any one of the game’s twelve “Lives,” or jobs, you’ll need to bounce from one to the next, or better yet- connect with a friend and use their mastered Lives in order to benefit your own. Co-operative play is a big part of Fantasy Life, which is why the game often offers up partner characters to run around with. Because of this, it’s a bit surprising that online play was considered an “expansion,” though this add-on to the base game is also well-worth the purchase. There’s an absurd amount of content in Fantasy Life, but with this also comes an absurd amount of text. While the game leans heavily on its aesthetic charm, this translates over to its localization, which is… verbose, to say the least. If you’re looking for a relaxing sim game with plenty of mini-game charms for each of its respective Lives, you’ll only find Fantasy Life on the Nintendo 3DS.
8: Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia
Fire Emblem: Awakening may have put the series back on the map, but it’s Shadows of Valentia that serves up the strongest RPG experience. Yes, you can certainly grind to your hearts content in Awakening, and you can choose varying degrees of difficulty in the Fates trilogy, but Valentia allows for a bit of dungeon crawling and town exploration in 3D. Some of the newer mechanics from the 3DS entries are stripped away in favor of a more RPG-like experience, such as mages learning spells instead of requiring certain tomes, and more limited inventories in-battle. The game also features one of the more newcomer-friendly modes that should also appeal to series purists- the ability to rewind turns in battle in order to try new strategies, as long as the player keeps their commander alive. The production values are by far the best of the 3DS titles, as well, with more extensive cinematics and voice acting throughout, and characters with actual feet. If you’re on the fence about Fire Emblem as a whole, Shadows of Valentia strikes a more even balance between the new features of more recent titles and the classic grit the series is known for.
7: Bravely Second: End Layer
Despite being one of the Role-Playing Game heavy hitters, Square Enix had a relatively tame series of releases for the 3DS, at least in Western territories. The cause of this is the middling success of a number of their major titles outside of Japan, though there are always exceptions and opportunities for lesser-known titles to make their way overseas. Case in point: the Bravely duology, a pair of job-system RPGs that received heavy promotion for the 3DS. Bravely Second is the superior of these two for multiple reasons, though one of the most important is the intelligent decision to forego the absurd plot contrivance of the first game. Likewise, a relatively unchanged, but still impressive job system is expanded upon with new classes in the second game. If there’s one thing to love about both these titles, however, it’s the absolutely top-notch presentation values that most Square Enix titles bring to the table, with excellent character designs and music. Additionally, if you’re a fan of RPGs who grows weary of the grind, both Bravely games provide a plethora of options to circumvent the tedium and offer up fun build variety when experimenting with their playable characters. If you are looking to see where Octopath Traveler derives a great deal of its DNA, this pair of games is worth a glance.
6: Pokemon X and Y
The first half of our list rounds out with the first pair of titles from Game Freak’s iconic series, and… well, it comes with a bit of baggage. If you’re looking for the classic Pokemon formula with all-new twists, X and Y offers a more traditional experience than the narrative-heavy and linear Sun and Moon, while still offering more varied and lovely locations than OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire. In terms of fundamentals, Game Freak has honed the gameplay of Pokemon near perfection, so it’s hard to say which of the eight 3DS Pokemon titles ekes out an advantage over the other. In this writer’s opinion, the addition of Mega Evolutions feels like a natural layering and all-new twist on classic gameplay, as opposed to Z-Moves. Perhaps Sun and Moon will go down as the more visually impressive titles on 3DS, but in terms of impact, it cannot be understated how vital and shocking it was to see Pokemon rendered in full 3D for the first time on the handheld, and in terms of transitioning from the chibi overworld sprites to full-3D, the sixth generation character designs felt like a natural stepping stone. Sure, you might prefer OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire more because of Hoenn nostalgia or the PokeNav features, or maybe you enjoy the Island Trials and PokeRides of Sun(s) and Moon(s). Really, you could put any of the eight Pokemon titles here, but each one has its own flaws that prevent them from claiming a higher spot on this list.
5: The Alliance Alive
Speaking of eventual Switch Ports, there’s so much that could be said about The Alliance Alive, but it scores so high on this list because of how different it is. Despite being ported to the Switch, this game is impressive on just about any console due to its personality and charm. Meaningful overworld exploration that requires multiple devices and approaches, a character customization system that offers a few presets but allows players to fully embrace its wild potential, optional content that promotes NPC interactions and rewards investment, a clean visual style, unique battle system, and unorthodox music… there’s more than can be said about this powerhouse title, but its one of the rare few that manages to feel like something nostalgic and inventive all at the same time. While many clamor for a Bravely Third, this writer hopes that FuRyu and the creative team behind this title and The Legend of Legacy are able to come together for their own third installment.
4: Etrian Odyssey IV
Though Etrian Odyssey isn’t a series for everyone, this installment both a testament to Atlus’ recent attempts at being newcomer friendly while also offering something new. As the first entry on the 3DS, Atlus added a new dimension to exploration (ayyy) with airship traversal. Not only did this create a proper overworld for the series, expanding on the concepts established in Etrian Odyssey III, but it also allowed for the inclusion of caves- smaller, single floor dungeons revolving around a very specific enemy or design gimmick. Because of its incredible variety and powerful musical score, which took the series out of FM styled music for the first time and allowed composer Yuzo Koshiro to flex his musical talents with stunning new tracks. Whether you’re a fan of the more narrative-oriented Untold titles, or you enjoy the variety that each new floor of the Labyrinth brings, Etrian Odyssey IV is a standout installment in the series, and it gives you the opportunity to fight against giant dragons. I think that’s all that needs to be said.
3: Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past
Now, before I have people jumping down my throat for the inclusion of this title, let me clarify- Dragon Quest 8 is more or less a downgraded port of the PS2 title. Dragon Quest VII, however, is a full-on remake designed specifically for the 3DS, and the improvements made in every respect make it a standout addition to the library. The original game was released on the PS1 and was something of an awkward- though necessary- transition from 2D to 3D, but this remake sheds the original graphics in favor of something brighter and more befitting of the small 3DS screen. The often-episodic nature of DQ games as a whole is executed perfectly in this entry, with new areas of the map opening up as you change events in the past. The result is a game that can be played in bite-sized chunks over the course of several sessions, which fits the handheld’s MO perfectly. Atop that, this is one of the most massive entries in the series (and that’s saying something), which makes it a worthy investment. With DQVII on 3DS, Square Enix proves that their best releases deserve recognition and exposure among the upper echelons of the RPG library.
2: Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate
When considering a top 10 list for RPGs, it’s important to recognize what a varied genre it is- there are tabletop, life sim, strategy, and action-based entries, to name just a few. Each of these subgenres has its own quirks and learning curves, with the gear-based action RPG adhering to this principle the strongest. With that said, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is by for one of the most accessible entries in the series, featuring a single-player story mode with around forty hours of solid content that introduces the basics of the gameplay in an extremely friendly manner. The game’s collection of monsters is absolutely fabulous, with some of the more inventive and colorful designs in the series, offering up some truly unique tussles and plenty of setup. Likewise, even for Monster Hunter World enthusiasts, the collection of weapons is exactly the same, lacking some of the vertical options for each style, but making up for it with free climbing and mounting mechanics. Those unfamiliar may look at this series and think it is the coolest and most daunting experience simultaneously, but 4 Ultimate is an excellent installment with all of the good and almost none of the bad- because trust me, there have been less-than enjoyable elements in previous titles.
1: Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse
Shin Megami Tensei IV was a divisive entry in this storied franchise, not only because of its smirk, party member, and mission mechanics, but also because of its appearance on Nintendo’s newest handheld. The SMT series is known for offering up brutally hard, expanse RPG experiences that offer hundreds of Pokemon-style party compositions with rarely-permanent slot positions throughout their lengthy playtime. Could Atlus manage to pull off a new installment in this dark mythology on such a tiny handheld?
They did, as it turns out, though SMTIV was more of a puzzle box than an RPG, offering a slew of moral choices throughout that ultimately decided the fate of one’s playthrough, whether as a member of Merkabah’s Lawful faction, Lucifer’s chaotic mantra, or a neutral defender of the people. But it’s a little less straightforward than it needed to be- not from a level design standpoint, but from a narrative one, as the neutral path is the “canon” ending, yet also the most difficult of the four to obtain (oh yeah, there’s four endings, not three). There are some aspects of SMTIV that are too hard, and others that are a bit too easy. It’s an imperfect title, for certain, one that will leave its playerbase divided.
But SMT titles also have a tendency to get their own “final mixes,” so to speak. Sometimes these new versions add new scenarios or mechanics in order to refresh the experience, but this was not the case with Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. What the development team set out to do was create the best RPG experience on the Nintendo 3DS, and the result is a game that not only improves and builds upon the context established by the title it was based upon, but offers something streamlined, intensified, and supercharged with character and chaos. Apocalypse begins during the final act of the original SMTIV, with players taking on the role of Nanashi, a boy from Tokyo’s Hunter’s Guild. The journey he embarks upon alongside the excellently-voiced Dagda (played by Xander Mobus, the Smash Bros. Announcer and English voice of Persona 5’s Joker) is one with heartfelt callbacks to the original title, inventive and surprising new twists, and a slew of new dungeons and demons to conquer. While an understanding of the original SMTIV isn’t required, players might be impressed to see how many areas of that game were remixed and reinterpreted for Apocalypse, giving the new title a familiar, yet uncertain feel. Much of the SMTIV mythology is covered through character interactions and more. Better yet, the game’s morality choices are more telegraphed, both offering their own wild twists towards the end of the campaign. Apocalypse alone features a campaign upwards of 80-90 hours of content, but together with its namesake, both SMTIV titles are a near unbeatable combination. For an RPG unlike anything else on the market, Shin Megami Tensei thrills with its morbid, post-apocalyptic environment and aura.
These are only 10 of the best RPGs on Nintendo 3DS, but it’s important to recognize the staggering amount of content available on the system. There are still games like Puzzles and Dragons Z, Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars, Culdcept: Revolt, Little Battlers X, Final Fantasy Explorers, Code Name: STEAM, and more. Depending on your preferences and belief in the Virtual Console, you can play classic Pokemon titles, Game Gear RPGs like Crystal Warriors and others, and even Earthbound on your New Nintendo 2/3DS. If you’re still hungry for more, the DS backwards compatibility allows you to play a whopping seventeen mainline Pokemon games, six main installments from the Dragon Quest series, remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV, a divine port of Chrono Trigger, and plenty of niche RPGs like Infinite Space, Contact, and Solatrobo. There are tons of top 10 articles worth drafting from this library, but for now, we’ll leave it at this. What are some of your favorite RPGs on Nintendo 3DS? Have any issues with this list? Feel free to share in the comments below.