In the early months of 1995 my friends and I poured over every drop of PlayStation information we came across, whether it be a magazine ad with Polygon Man telling us the system was more powerful than god, Sony suggesting we were UR NOT E, or the giant cardboard cutout of whip wielding Sofia at the local Palmer Video that still managed to be half an hour away. The older consoles were looking less appealing by the day (thanks, Vectorman), especially when compared to generation-defining beauty such as the widely advertised Battle Arena Toshinden (Sofia wore leather, you see, which really pops when rendered in cardboard).
By the midpoint of the 90s my friends and I were all 13 and desired a higher caliber of digital entertainment regardless of platform – the RPG. The first one previewed for the upcoming PlayStation console was called Arc the Lad and we all eagerly anticipated the game and expected it would be available soon after the system, at this point having no concept of localization, publishers, and all the messy stuff at the rotten core of the game industry. I just knew I would get a PlayStation and Arc the Lad would be the first RPG I played on it.
It occurred to me only while writing this 27 years later that I had no idea what kind of an RPG Arc the Lad was. Today’s research (browsing Wikipedia while drinking Twisted Tea) indicates it was actually a tactics game, which was already a favorite sub genre of mine. Boy would past me be thrilled to play it when it came out!
|Being Woken Up Late for Class|
The first RPGs I remember were all from Origin Systems – ninja themed Moebius, generic fantasy title Times of Lore, and the car-based Autoduel – all Commodore 64 games my older brother had and likely pirated, as was the style at the time. Moebius seemed to be a getting-eaten-by-a tiger simulator. I remember even less of Times of Lore, primarily just walking north/up – I think it led to an inn. Autoduel, I learned decades later, was based on a board game called Car Wars, and was impossible. Mail Order Monsters, also for the C64, wasn’t strictly an RPG but it had stats and upgrades and I spent significantly more time with it than the Origin games, and more importantly to my 6 year old brain, it made much more sense. It’s on my shortlist for games to remake, along with the Genesis version of Shadowrun, when I inevitably win the lottery.
In sharp contrast to the sniveling worm of a man I would become, I was a domineering child who often had a strong hold over friends’ tastes. videolamer EIC Pat, for example, didn’t know he liked RPGs and metal until I told him so in the 9th grade, and now we can assume some 25 years later those are the most important and only interests in his life even now. His refusal to listen to any new music I send him can only be explained as his feelings for the stuff I introduced him to in high school being so strong that it would simply be a waste of time to listen to anything new.
I had a similar iron grip over my childhood best friend Danny. I convinced Danny we should sell his Marvel cards and split the profit; he was lucky to have such a savvy friend. On the video game front, his Nintendo was useful for giving me a broader overview of the industry since some nerds still insist the NES was an influential system, but I quickly set Danny straight: Sega was the superior company and demanded his fealty. My friend saw the obvious truth and bought a Master System (the ugly model 2 console was sufficient reminder he took too long to come into the fold), then eventually a Genesis. In a final bit of irony, Danny’s loyalty to Sega persisted after mine. After the failure of the Sega CD and 32X, I began lusting for a PlayStation. Danny bought a Saturn and we drifted apart soon after.
|Leaving Your Village|
Phantasy Star or Miracle Warriors was the first JRPG I played, depending on which day you ask, and both were Master System games. The former was more difficult than the latter and I definitely finished Miracle Warriors years earlier, largely thanks to the fact that my brother had mounted the world map that came with the game on a hard board that allowed us to constantly track where we were and mark down caves, towns, shops, and dungeons in real time. Oddly enough, I think Dragon Quest, which I played at my friend Jimmy’s house (he was a few years older and my mother thought there was something odd about a 10 year old hanging out with an 8 year old), is actually the first JRPG I finished. If I had known the future value of his copies of Dragon Quest 3 and 4 with all the foldout maps and crap, I would have begun my life of crime much earlier. Action RPGs Ys: The Vanished Omens and Golvellius rounded out my early experience and have proved fairly influential on my tastes (did you know Compile made Golvellius? Can I interest you in our lord and savior, Compile?). 1-800-USA-SEGA received a very concerned call from me regarding a confusing spot in the Tower of the Doomed (Darm Tower to you losers who didn’t play it on the SMS (more seriously, almost all walkthroughs “correct” the name, but that’s not actually the name of the tower in that version of the game and that seems wrong (not like morally wrong, but kind of antagonistic to game preservation since it is correcting a mistake instead of allowing it to continue to exist as it actually did))) that required either mask usage, hammer usage on some pillar, or a combination of the two.
GameStop may have finally gained the bad reputation it deserves in space year 2022, but since its inception it has bordered on a blatant scam. The first PS1 I bought was from a GameStop. As was the second. And third. And fourth. Their policy of selling broken items as used became apparent to me in my naive pre-internet days of 1995. I’m not sure why I didn’t simply remove myself from the cycle of broken consoles sold to me by the disreputable retailer, likely they offered only store credit considering they were and are outright crooks, and converting my cash to store credit with nothing to show for it beyond many wasted trips was unacceptable. So I traded back my non-functioning consoles for other non-functioning consoles; I would bet my life they resold the broken systems I returned to them to the next chump in line. GameStop was not to be trusted and I learned to limit my interaction with them to buying dirt cheap used games and the occasional unsealed game sold as new.
The upside of the early lesson on capitalism and the legality of criminal behavior when performed by a business was that I happened upon the upside down PS1 trick. Much like my discovery of the Sonic the Hedgehog level select code in 1991, this was something well known to others and possibly already reported on that I stumbled upon on my own. If I wanted to sound grandiose and incorrect, I’d call it convergent evolution. I don’t remember the exact scientific reason, despite sometimes masquerading as a biologist, but likely it overheated or something and turning the console upside down relieved its temperature problem or at least confused it into forgetting it was broken. There were only so many times a kid could watch the Resident Evil door opening cutscene fail to load the next area before he took measures into his own hands and tried random things like opening the lid during gameplay and putting the system on its side. Though the never-opening door did really build tension.
|Gathering Your Party|
The Genesis was not known as a powerhouse when it came to RPGs. Unfortunate for me, then, that it was on that console I really learned to love them. It was a rocky start – Phantasy Star II was a letdown to many people who loved the first, myself included. Then there was Christmas of ‘91 when I got Sword of Vermilion and Phantasy Star III. The less anyone thinks about those, the better. Somehow I missed RPG landmarks like Traysia and Rings of Power, but I did rent Warsong. I loved it and even finished the game through sheer stick-to-it-ivness. Young me did not realize it was the first Langrisser and that it was a moderately important game (at least in some small circles). Shining in the Darkness captivated me but I only played it at a friend’s house, and ultimately ran worse than Phantasy Star despite being a similar first person dungeon crawl a console generation later. Yuji Naka may be an asshole who produced more bad games than good, but he was an awesome programmer. Shining Force, on the other hand, I was lucky enough to own and it was what set off my deep love of the strategy/tactical RPG genre. I recall more than one childhood friend being perplexed by my new love of turn based games chock full of words. The SNES did have better RPGs, but if you were 12 and had Shining Force 1 and 2 and Phantasy Star IV, you were probably going to turn out alright.
While I waited for games from my favorite genre to come stateside, I played a lot of other early PlayStation releases that varied widely in quality. Jumping Flash! was a fun if bizarre first person platformer that is under-appreciated today. It cracked the code of jumping in first person before anyone realized it was a problem – your view naturally shifted towards your feet at the end of the long, floaty jumps your robbit (if you can’t tell that’s a portmanteau of robot and rabbit, I don’t know what to tell you) made. Ridge Racer looked great and may be the first racing game I ever owned, though maybe that was Wipe Out, which also looked great (and from the future where there is techno music). Destruction Derby was stupidly difficult but kind of entertaining and we managed to hook up two separate consoles and TVs with the link cable to play it two player; a practical setup if there ever was one. Loaded was a tryhard, top down shooting game with a Columbine feel despite coming out 4 years prior, so I suppose it was ahead of its time. Sure, none of the early PS1 games were blockbuster, genre-defining titles like PS2 launch game Orphen, but I was having a good time.
And then the RPGs started showing up on the PS1, just not Arc the Lad. Persona may have been the first one I played, but I recall Pat and I did not get very far. The first person dungeons didn’t do much for us and talking to monsters was a cool concept that played out in boring and arbitrary ways. We did gamble a lot in the first town area, though – I have distinct memories of save scumming before I knew what that meant so we could collect money we would never spend. Beyond the Beyond came next and was savaged in the magazines so I only rented that one. Years later, I would learn that the brother of the Camelot Software Planning president was behind it. It being a piece of shit was both a betrayal to RPG players but also to his own family.
I am now, in this post Miyazaki-Fromsoft world, slightly embarrassed to say I bought King’s Field only to return it a few days later. It was perplexing and I was 13. I didn’t understand why it was so slow and stiff, why I could barely see anything, where all the townspeople and plot stuff were, why I died immediately if I walked the wrong way from the starting point, and so on. A few years ago I picked it up again and while I can’t say I finished it, nor even that it’s particularly great, it did provide some insight into the Souls series. There are some specific things that carried over, like invisible walls, but more importantly the mood and ambiance of King’s Field seems to inform Demon’s Souls and all of its descendants.
|Fighting the First Boss|
While Phantasy Star II’s tron-inspired battle backgrounds, seemingly useless level-ups (the game didn’t feel any easier), and sparse script did not wow 8 year old me, actually getting my hands on it remains a fresh memory. I was at a BBQ at my father’s friend Mike’s house out somewhere in Jersey or maybe Long Island. This is strange because I don’t remember my father having many friends as adults born in the 40s are contractually not allowed to know people who aren’t coworkers or their own children. Mike had a Genesis and a handful of games I didn’t. Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle was terrible and I still can’t believe they made a game significantly worse than Miracle World on the Master System. Stormlord was also terrible but I appreciated the topless fairies in it at the time. I would later learn that it was a port of a British computer game and all would make sense. Truxton, however, was great. My time with it was interrupted by social activities, such as singing Crocodile Rock with an older boy with downs syndrome – an odd, vivid memory. When it was time to go I asked Mike if I could borrow Truxton and the yet unplayed Phantasy Star II. He gave me Truxton but said he was still playing the RPG. It wasn’t until weeks later my father brought Phantasy Star II home from work along with the case and packed-in full sized strategy guide. Turns out my father worked with Mike, so he didn’t actually have any friends. I finally had my hands on Phantasy Star II and life made sense again.
1996 came and went and Arc the Lad was nowhere to be found. But the two RPGs that came out around the beginning of ‘97 really made an impact on me – Suikoden and Wild Arms. The former needs no description as it’s a sizable and beloved series, and Chris already called exclusive dibs on writing about it, particularly any upcoming pachinko related games. Wild Arms, despite also being a 5 entry series, has always been lesser known and loved. Maybe all the games after the first one suck (the half hour of 2 that I played didn’t wow me – you start off in some dungeon maze), but the first one was excellent. It used the multiple-characters-start-separately-but-come-together structure I believe Suikoden III uses (sorry, Chris). My strongest memories of Wild Arms, 16 years later, remain the amazing intro cut-scene and modifying all of the in-game icons (which was a fun if weird feature) to be penises, breasts, butts, and so on. I only enjoyed the game for a short time with these new and improved icons before resetting them to the default, afraid my parents would see what I had done and send me to a nunnery.
When I wasn’t playing or waiting to play RPGs on my PlayStation, I was probably putting in time with one of the classics on the console. Resident Evil was absurdly cool but I also had to cheat my way through using the official guide. I probably deprived myself of some satisfaction but the game was very tough – imagine having to play Monkey Island while deadly zombies attack you in real life. That wasn’t quite like RE1 but it would suck, no? Resident Evil 2 I maintain was a step back – the first is a better horror game and it took RE4 to bring acceptable action into the series. Fixed camera angles, tank controls, dodgy aiming AND five zombies on screen at once is not a good time. Metal Gear Solid is the only game in the series I played (technically I also feel asleep with Metal Gear on NES) but it was a great time. Maybe one day I should play VR Missions, 2, Acid, 4, Acid 2, Ghost Babel, Solid Touch, 3, Solid Snake, Liquid Gold, 5, Snake’s Revenge, Twin Snakes, Triplet Snakes, Survive, Portable Ops Plus, Peace Walker, Walker Texas Ranger, Social Ops, Quadruple Snakes, Portable Ops, Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams, Ground Zeroes, or Revengeance.
Parappa the Rapper was fun and I still remember some of the songs (in the rain or in the snow, I got the funky flow, but now I really gotta go) and its semi-sequel Um Jammer Lammy was also pretty cool. Only Jesus knows what happened with Major Minor’s Majestic March and he died thousands of years ago. Then there was Twisted Metal 2, which was head and shoulders better than the original game, which I only played at a kiosk at a GameStop and thus am an expert on. TM2 was a standard that would get play almost any time a friend came by. I played it so much I may have even discovered some sort of code I never could duplicate – random button and directional presses at the character select screen brought me to some garbled character image at which point I accidentally backed out of selection and never saw if what I discovered was a code or glitch. Sure, we all know it was a glitch, but what if it wasn’t?
|Ode to Not a Legend|
Bernie Stolar was once a controversial figure. That’s not true, actually – he was just widely disliked. As the head of SCEA and later the CEO of Sega of America, he was responsible for policies that restricted game releases in the states. As often happens (ask a Democrat what they think of George W. today and you have a 50/50 chance of not being met with rage), time has rehabilitated Stolar’s reputation. His insistence that the Saturn was dead and the failure of the Dreamcast were once seen as flaws, but recent Dreamcast coverage (like in this book, which is good but very heavy on schematics which may come in handy when humanity is rebuilding after the coming catastrophe and correctly understands that to achieve what is classically considered “civilization” they will need to once again have Dreamcasts) has helped turn the tide of opinion. I am not convinced selling Dreamcasts at a loss and insisting a modem that would add to the cost and barely be used qualify the man as a hero to gamers, especially when seen against his move of blocking games I would have enjoyed from release. He passed away while I was writing this
I am not saying he is evil, just that he is certainly in Hell serving as Satan’s close confidant, slowly biding his time until he can take over and become Supreme Lord of All Evil.
|Anyway, the man was responsible for either directly blocking or creating policies that blocked many good RPGs and 2D games from being localized. Examples reportedly include – MegaMan Battle and Chase, MegaMan X4, Gunner’s Heaven, Hermie Hopperhead, MegaMan Complete Works, and Capcom Generations. Depending on where you look for info (I only use the most disreputable forums), he may have also done this while at Sega. Whatever the exact specifics, it has long been accepted that he was to blame for many excellent games being left in Japan. Sony’s questionable policies continued into the PS2 and possibly even PS3 eras, so debatably blame cannot be placed entirely at Stolar’s feet as he had left Sony and then even Sega by then.|
There were, of course exceptions for some RPGs and some 2D games, the reasoning for which we will likely never know for the majority of titles. I can make up my own theories on a game-by-game basis: Suikoden was published by a powerful company – Konami. Wild Arms was Sony published and had bad 3D crap in it. Beyond the Beyond was some sort of deal between Sony and Camelot – publish this RPG, have Everybody’s Golf. Whatever the specifics, Sony’s ‘2D and RPGs are bad’ policy kept the first Arc the Lad game from the States.
“Bernie Stolar made us a lot of promises that he couldn’t deliver on,” – Mike Wallis, Producer on Sonic X-Treme
The early to mid-90s was the golden era of renting video games. My life was significantly improved when Palmer Video changed their usual rental fee structure to simply $1 a day for a game. You could keep a game for as long as you wanted and it was a clear, low price that my parents didn’t find offensive. I easily transitioned from renting Genesis carts to PS1 discs, and frequent rentals allowed me to have something of a broad overview of the new console’s games. Titles I remember renting include Wing Commander 3, Tekken, Return Fire, Silverload, Pandemonium!, Re-Loaded, Tail of the Sun, and Oddworld.
Wing Commander 3 was the first multidisc game I ever played, but Charles and I barely played the first disc before deciding it sucked and whipping it across my room. The disc cracked but I put it back in the rental case and returned it without saying a word – Palmer never noticed. After maturing slightly over the past 25 plus years, I now want to return to the Wing Commander series. Return Fire, which I would later buy, and then later have stolen by a friend of Pat’s who is also a lawyer, was a really good port of a 3DO top-down military game that felt a bit like Herzog Zwei in that it was an action strategy game that gave you direct control of a vehicle(s). Silverload was an odd wild west vampire themed adventure game with intermittent light gun segments (if I remember right) that we didn’t get very far in due to difficulty (or just our young age). And Tail of the Sun, well that was unlike anything I had ever played and is still rather bizarre. It was kind of an open ended caveman simulator and is one of the first games I think of when reminiscing about the halcyon days of mid-tier Japanese games.
Palmer Video would change their dollar a day rental fee to be more in line with the other, bigger chains sometime in the second half of the decade. They would then lose ground and eventually fold to the dual titans Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, both of which offered walls of copies of the same blockbuster release and a comparatively paltry backlist of cult and classic movies. It barely mattered as I would be packing up and moving south for college by the end of the decade, and if I didn’t live there any more then no one deserved a good catalog of games to rent at reasonable prices.
|An Unforeseen Plot Twist|
I was introduced to a few new games at a fourth grade sleepover at my friend Jordan’s house. Faery Tale Adventure stuck with me because of its oddness (and because we figured out if you kept saving and reloading your stats would slowly get higher presumably due to some programming bug), but Secret of Mana was the real highlight. A second friend of Jordan’s was also there and so we played Mana with three players for what seemed like all night. Seeing Drakkhen, which my brother had on his Amiga and I was already familiar with, on Kevin’s SNES years prior had not wowed me. The EGM preview of FEDA: Emblem of Justice had tempted me but I remained staunch in my convictions. Secret of Mana, though, finally threw my entire world-view into chaos. Were there good games on Nintendo consoles? Had my brother’s relentless Sega propaganda been propaganda? Should I get a Super Nintendo? I put together a plan for selling Genesis games at GameStop (or maybe FuncoLand) and kept obsessing over Mana. Luckily, I never went through with the plan but instead eventually adapted it to become my ‘Get a PlayStation’ plan. The games I sold are worth a lot now, of course, but who here hasn’t traded in a game for pennies only for it to later be Dune: The Battle for Arrakis?
By 1998 the PlayStation had a healthy and still growing stable of JRPGs, none of them Arc the Lad. My first Breath of Fire game was the third in the series, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I would its predecessors decades later. In the moment I think fewer people made the distinction between better looking SNES games and “next gen” RPGs that in modern coverage is mandated by law. I did not notice at the time that it was an old school RPG, just that it was good. The fairy town building side stuff was very entertaining and I spent hours fishing. Years later I learned that I missed some dragon genes so I never saw the true best dragon form, but that’s ok as I still finished the game… in 2019. In the late 90s when I put a hundred or so hours into it, I stopped at the final dungeon that required a trek across an infamous desert segment. I’m happy to say I picked it up two decades later, killed god, and saw the credits.
I spent a lot of time with my face buried in the Final Fantasy VII strategy guide on my 40 minute train rides home from high school. This was a deliberate choice I made because otherwise I would’ve had to speak to a girl I liked. Knights of the Round would have remained forever out of reach without in depth explanations of chocobo breeding and racing, so I made the correct choice. Apparently the huge marketing budget for FFVII attracted a lot of new people to the genre but the game was just the next RPG for me. Without the decades of slowly growing cynicism nor the distance to reevaluate the game in context and realize it was not as good as the prior entry in the series, I had a blast. Even then, however, something felt off about materia. Espers granted your characters abilities, whereas without the materia, your people were basically useless. I can’t explicitly remember talking to videolamer editor Pat about Final Fantasy VII, but I would bet it was a popular topic of conversation between the tethered projectiles rule in Battle Bots and ability to bunt a home run in NES baseball games.
Pat and I started Suikoden II together in his parents’ basement with a rental copy. He would not be lucky enough to see the rest of the game as I finished it alone at my (parents’) house. It’s a great game that left me slightly disappointed at the time. It is bigger and better but ultimately looks and feels like the first game, which was important to me. This is not a popular opinion to have on the internet and I advise anyone else who feels this way to lie. I think we can all agree the second rate Shining Force battles were less interesting than the rock/paper/scissor battles and duels from the first game.
|Defeating the Final Boss|
By the time the PS1 was out and the 16 bit systems were in their twilight, I had accepted the SNES as a serious RPG machine. The game that best captured that for me was entirely limited by what I had access to; had I access to the entire library, however, the same title would serve this purpose. Final Fantasy VI was and still is an amazing game. Much has been written about the game’s characters and interesting plot structure that makes naming a protagonist challenging, and assuming the writing was positive, I would say it’s all true. I’d also not go out on a limb and declare it Uematsu’s best work on a single game. Because I played FFVI only when I was at Charles’ house, I missed about 40% of it due to his insistence on playing without me. Chunks were carved out and missing in my understanding of the plot. Until I “replayed” it 5 years ago while my newborn son slept on me, I had disparate fragments of memories: the sinking castle, solving the clock puzzle in that town with enemies, the god damned fanatics tower, killing dinosaurs on the veldt, being eaten by a giant sandworm and waking up in a dungeon, and Kefka telling my party they sounded like a self-help book. Despite missing important portions of the game, I was enraptured by the enormously long ending scenes that stand out even today. FF6 stands at least shoulder to shoulder with the other greats on the SNES like Chrono Trigger and Dragon Quest V. Of course, I wouldn’t play those for another decade.
Other, less enjoyable RPG sequels followed. Final Fantasy VIII always rubbed me the wrong way – Square leaned really hard into the story telling device of explaining nothing for as long as possible. It seems like a cynical way to stretch a game’s length. This thesis is supported by the cart based Final Fantasies being comprehensible and the games becoming convoluted messes from the first CD game. Triple Triad was cool, at least. Then there was Legend of Mana, which Pat and I actually purchased jointly when we saw it at GameStop. We were taken by surprise to see it even existed and split the $60 immediately. We both felt it was a step down from Secret of Mana in all ways save graphical fidelity (I think the music is supposed to be very good, too bad the game it’s being compared to is Secret of Mana). I still can’t get over how they restricted attacking to left and right only. And finding out years later that you could make the game provide something of a challenge if you only unlocked a harder difficulty did little to rehabilitate the title.
Square rereleased some of their SNES catalog on the PS1 with Final Fantasy Anthology and Chronicles and I was very excited to try them out. Anthology contained FFV and FFVI, Chronicles FFIV and Chrono Trigger. I started with FFV and made very little progress. Between my youthful foolishness of finding new games inherently more appealing and the long load times, the game could not hold my attention. I would later learn that playing long RPGs that load between every battle does, in fact, suck. Playing a PS1 ISO modified for the PSP version of FFIX may or may not have affected load times, but either way they sapped most of the joy from that game. I would eventually play and enjoy everything in those PS1 bundles, but those specific collections remain more of a museum piece than practical ways to play the great games written on them.
The last 16 bit console RPG I played contemporaneously was Phantasy Star IV. It cost a cool $80 in 1995 and to really make it clear you paid too much it came in a paper box with a black and white manual printed on used toilet paper, as late Genesis games often did. Only it didn’t cost too much and is one of my favorite games even now. You could say it lacked the mystery of the original, the pessimistic stoicism of the second, and the whatever people pretend is good about the third, but those games all still exist and can be revisited if you’re looking for those specific qualities. PSIV, instead, was an incredibly accessible, friendly, and peppy entry in a series known for being belligerent to those adjectives. The bold new direction worked, and both longtime fans and people who dislike the earlier games agree the game is excellent (and perhaps most importantly, both Chris and Pat like it). Much has been made about the anime style cut-scenes, and it is odd other games did not try similar techniques – it’s superior to the tiny RPG sprites pantomiming drama or the face artwork overlaid in a dialog box resulting in a character having two separate, different looking versions of their face on screen at once. Besides the cut-scenes, PSIV has a quick moving, good plot, some of the best graphics on the Genesis, a great soundtrack, and knew how to handle being a sequel – overall themes and ideas were echos of games past, but there were few direct references and those that did exist were integrated to not be bizarre to new players but still be meaningful to old (can you believe Rune is… ?!). Phantasy Star IV was far better than anything out for the PS1 when I played it.
The late ‘90s brought PlayStation owners a score of other RPG adjacent games, none of them Arc the Lad. Final Fantasy Tactics became Pat and my favorite game, possibly only rivaled by Shenmue a few years later. Alundra was a great follow up to Landstalker I played while visiting my sister at college at Lehigh (I also played hours of Quest 64 in that off-campus apartment). What happened with Alundra 2 is anybody’s guess, but it seems widely accepted that it sucks. Ogre Battle was fun, if a bit baffling, and then there were the weird games: Kartia, the card based tactical RPG; Azure Dreams, the roguelike dragon-raising dating sim; and Tecmo’s Deception, in which you make a pact with Satan in order to be given life so you may seek retribution. Deception is a great game even if the sequels leaned into otaku pandering bullshit and ditched the Satanic elements the kids loved.
Branching out even further afield from traditional JRPGs, the PS1 was home to Blood Omen, Herc’s Adventures, Symphony of the Night, and Monster Rancher. I don’t think I got past the second dungeon in Blood Omen – it was a cool but janky game owing to Canada officially being part of Europe due to the Queen and whatnot and all European games having to legally be janky because of some footnote in the Magna Carta. Most of my memories of Blood Omen are of the first town and of sucking blood from people from a few feet away and seeing the blood fly across the screen. Also, Dennis Dyack sucks. Herc’s Adventure has been on my list of games to re-acquire for decades now because it is good, if not forgotten. Kind of a Zelda-like, but with nice 32 bit pixel art and a sense of humor. The minotaur boss was bullshit, though, and put an end to Pat and my cooperative playthrough (after one of us died we still finished the game single player). I tried it again years later and had the same issue – that boss cannot be beaten with two people. Symphony of the Night you may have heard of. I finished the first castle and was confused about the game ending so quickly. Luckily, I had an issue of probably-EGM I could immediately reference that explained how to get to the upside down castle. And Monster Rancher was mostly a rock/paper/scissor simulator focused on grinding but with the neat gimmick that your monster’s stats and appearance were created by putting a music CD into the PlayStation. I dumped hours into it and then later into Monster Rancher 3 on the PS2.
Brave Fencer Musashi was a lot of fun and indicative of the chances Square used to take. Saga Frontier I felt and still feel is just a bad game. Perhaps some further development could have helped as there are simply not enough flags to tell the player where they should be at any given point. Instead, you wander through map after map with nothing to do looking for a needle in a haystack. The auto leveling enemies also really made it not much fun to play. Saga Frontier 2, on the other hand, I played with Pat and we both enjoyed. Perhaps it was more straightforward, but it seemed significantly more comprehensible. Until we got to the last generation of characters and realized we were underleveled and could no longer make any progress. My most potent memory of the Saga series stems from my limited vocabulary – at 16 I was not very familiar with the word Saga. I repeatedly saw the title of the game in magazines, stores, sandwich board signs worn by preachers, etc. and misread it as Sega, which without fail would excite me. My mother received some clothing catalog in the mail with the word “saga” in its title and even that clearly non-video game related publication I would unfailingly misread as having Sega written on it and for a brief moment get my hopes up.
I’m sad to say I missed some important RPGs on the PlayStation. Not stuff like Vandal Hearts 2, Hoshigami, or Tales of whatever, but important games that would have helped inform my understanding of later RPGs and developers. Based on what I’ve read, Xenogears philosophical plot would have meant something more in context than it will to me today. Chrono Cross is not universally beloved, but Chrono Trigger is awesome and without having played Cross I still know the music is special. Vagrant Story I have started multiple times but never made it very far. Matsuno makes good to great games so one day I will power through it. Finally, I have always regretted missing the Lunar ports as I also missed them on the Sega CD. When I asked for a Sega CD, my parents asked my brother who informed them it would sell poorly and not be supported for long. They took his sage advice and refused to buy one for me, which restricted my Sega CD use to playing Sherlock Holmes at Kevin’s house across the street and Willy Beamish at Jordan’s. I’ve heard Lunar was a series you had to be there for and that it just doesn’t translate well to a first play in the era of PS5s, SSD drives, and cameras on your door the police can look through without a warrant.
|Wandering through towns post-game|
The first PC RPG I played was the quasi-sequel to the highly successful Betrayal at Krondor, Betrayal in Antara, in 1997. The game seemed huge and deep but I could not figure out how to proceed. Leveling sewing and candle making seemed like a good idea but seriously left my party unprepared for the quest ahead, whatever that was (perhaps some sort of betrayal). Luckily, by ‘98 I got a hold of two distinct batches of two games that would considerably influence my taste through to the present day – Warlords III and Heroes of Might and Magic III, and Fallout 2 and Baldur’s Gate. I have seen these important games described as too complex for newcomers, but then I have also seen Planescape: Torment called ‘unplayable today.’ The strategy game pair was actually more accessible because I had trained on the PS1 version of X-Com. While playing Heroes and Warlords I also learned to appreciate the first two European metal CDs I had ever purchased, which were At the Gates (not) final album Slaughter of the Soul and the self-titled debut from industrial-ish Misery Loves Co. Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, being actual role playing games and not just stat heavy, turn based, RPG influenced strategy games, defined what I thought a PC RPG should be, which was open-world-ish with sharp dialog and entirely lacking first person gun play. Not actually open world, with miles to wander for no apparent reason with largely cut and paste enemies, but instead a complex web of locations, quests, and characters that could often be engaged with at random points in the overall main narrative. You know, good design.
The century, nay, millennium ended and I went to college, got a job at the library where I would spend my time buying Saturn games while they were merely expensive, and got a Dreamcast in my dorm room. In 2001 I played Skies of Arcadia and Shenmue, rediscovered Sega and regained my faith in their infallibility (that I would promptly lose again after the Sammy buyout). Skies was a great RPG – besides the constant random battles presaged by the loud Dreamcast laser, it was beautiful, fun, long, and a panacea for all the emo self-serious Squaresoft-esque RPGs of the day. Having missed Ocarina of Time, it was also the most vertical 3D game I had ever played. What long ladders! And Shenmue, well maybe it’s not an RPG, and maybe it’s not even good, but it’s certainly the best game ever made.
The PS2 was on its way by 2001 and gamers assumed the huge cache of next gen RPGs the Dreamcast lacked would find their home on Sony’s DVD based powerhouse. Presumed sequels to Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest and the promise of a myriad of quirky titles, as you would expect from the successor to the PS1, excited nerds worldwide. As for our lad, the Arc the Lad Collection came out for the PS1 in 2002, which bundles the first three games in the series, presumably as a way to convince Sony it was worth bringing stateside. I have never played it.