It’s not difficult to find conversations surrounding universally acclaimed RPGs, whether that be from their extreme level of polish, innovative mechanics, excellent story design, stellar world-building, or all of the above. But what about those lesser-known titles, or those that simply fail to fire on all cylinders? Maybe they were overshadowed by more epic releases at the time or, worse, they have legitimate issues that have stained their reputation? Whatever the case may be, credit should be given where it is due. In this article, I’m going to outline a few games that may not have the best track record – or are simply not well known – and highlight some of the things I appreciate about each one. If you have some examples of your own to share, please do in the comments below.
Rings of Power – Sega Genesis
Before the days of the early Internet, where random message boards and fantasy MMORPGs were chock full of people touting some iteration of “Legolas” in their handle, there was Rings of Power – an isometric RPG that, perhaps, shares a few too many similarities with certain tales from everyone’s beloved Middle-earth. While this may have purposely been done to broaden their admittedly not-so-broad potential audience – this was conceived well before the success of the movies, after all – I can’t help but feel it had the opposite effect, making it instead feel like a super generic, high fantasy RPG. The young sorcerer, Buc, is tasked with finding magical rings in order to banish an otherworldly, vile being. No, their name is not Sauron, but it might as well be – this game is called Rings of (freaking) Power, after all.
The gameplay in Rings of Power, however, is what truly sets it apart from its contemporaries. For one, the game world is massive and almost completely open from the very beginning – not so different from the more recent Breath of the Wild. Choice and consequence are alive and well also, allowing the freedom to walk into almost any home or establishment, strike up a conversation, and subsequently throw down the gauntlet because they weren’t “welcoming” enough for your tastes. As fun as these things might sound, Rings of Power is tough as nails, mainly because there is no hand-holding whatsoever. Some people will find solace in that freedom of discovery, but others have seen that as a negative. Regardless, it is clear that Rings of Power did not lack the ambition or bravery to do things quite a bit different than the norm.
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest – Super Nintendo
Ah, the spinoff Final Fantasy title that nobody asked for, but was made anyways because the West was “too dumb to play real RPGs.” I kid you not. As one might expect, Mystic Quest gets a lot of flak for being an extremely watered down JRPG, not due to its barebones mechanics and minimal difficulty, but also for its hogwash story. These things aren’t incorrect, but that’s not to say it is a complete dumpster fire either.
Mystic Quest dropped the side-view battles popularized by the first four mainline Final Fantasies, instead opting for a more Phantasy Star-esque approach that puts the enemies front and center. Additionally, their sprites are much larger proportionally to the player characters which, in a way, makes them more menacing. Best of all, as you damage the enemies, you can visibly see their wounds. For example, a gigantic golem boss will gradually melt as you wail away at them. I’ve always thought that this idea was such a cool visual cue, serving as a tangible timeline for any given fight. Mystic Quest also has you swapping between weapons to overcome environmental obstacles, such as using an axe to fell trees, or firing a grappling claw to travel over certain patches of terrain with ease. The game might not be a fan favorite, but it does some things right.
Guardian War – 3DO
What we have here is a somewhat niche subgenre (tactical RPG) on an even nichier™ platform, the 3DO. For all three people that had a 3DO, Guardian War provided an escape into a world where heroes could class change with the best Final Fantasy games, and combat that frequently featured hulking skeletons in football pads.
Honestly, I don’t remember being super impressed by this game, but I’ve always been a fan of its psuedo “claymation-like” graphics and, more importantly, its front-facing perspective that lends itself to a more immersive experience. I’d love to see more tactical RPGs take this approach in regards to their game’s perspective.
SaGa Frontier – PS1
It’s no secret that I adore the SaGa franchise, with SaGa Frontier placing among my favorite games of all time. But, there’s no denying that it is a janky mess at times – some would even argue it is very much an incomplete game. I don’t think the SaGa formula will ever reach a massively broad audience – and that’s okay – but I still believe that it has one of the best character progression systems out there.
Whereas most any traditional RPG has you increasing your character’s natural power slow level-ups, SaGa Frontier drip feeds you minor stat increases depending on the actions you take in combat. Performing melee attacks may improve your strength, albeit at a much lesser amount than a standard level up would in comparison. Taking blows from the enemy may increase your health and defenses, and so on.
Of course, both the SaGa approach and the more traditional method work, neither is technically superior to the other. For me though, the possibility of achieving those smaller bonuses makes each and every random encounter feel meaningful, rather than chipping away at some “EXP to level” value. Learning combat abilities works in a similar fashion also, as each human character has a chance to “spark” new moves during a fight. It is worth noting that these stat and ability progression mechanics are prevalent throughout the SaGa franchise, but I believe they’re at their pinnacle in SaGa Frontier.
What are some features that you enjoy from RPGs that may not be the “coolest” on the block? Let me know!