Hi, all. Again, it's been a long time since I made my list of the greatest RPG heroes of all, and frankly, a list of just 5 isn't going to cut it any more when there's roughly 160 to choose from now. So here's an updated list of 10. Do enjoy. Ahem...
I did a villain list, so of course I've gotta pick one for the main characters. Of course, determining whether a character is a good hero (for protagonists almost always tend to be heroes) is a lot easier than determining whether they're a good villain--we have a more universally defined vision of what makes a hero good than we do for villains, generally: kindness, morality, determination, leadership...you know, the good stuff. And depth, of course, but with all that I harp on having well-written and insightful characters in these rants, that probably goes without saying for me at this point.
All the same, choosing the greatest 10 (figured that'd be a good number, since I did 10 villains) RPG main characters has its own challenge--it is HARD to choose so few out of so many. Unlike villains, who, sadly, are only rarely noteworthy figures in games (or anything else, really), RPG heroes have a great many excellent characters in their midst. So if you don't see your favorite, it's not necessarily because I think they aren't a good hero--I just didn't have room for any but the very, very best.
Of course, it also doesn't necessarily mean that I DON'T think they aren't a good hero. You could just have lousy taste.
So anyway, here they are: the greatest 10 RPG heroes to date, ascending in greatness. Big spoilers, and all that.
10. Sora (Kingdom Hearts Series)
It's hard to say why exactly Sora is so appealing as a hero, but he really is. He just fits the bill in a simple, nice way. He's focused on his goals, but never to the point that he's not willing to take the time to help others with their problems and defend what's right. He rallies his friends, encouraging them and bringing them together as a force for goodness, and he never gives up on anyone. His simplistic good nature may sometimes seem unrealistic, but overall, he's an enjoyable hero that you can rely on to do the right thing and stand strong for his friends.
9. Shepard (Paragon Version) (Mass Effect Series)
Shepard is the ubermensch. He/She is just the kind of leader you have absolute confidence in, a hero you know can go into any situation, no matter how dire, and pull the best possible victory from it. Strong, skilled, smart, charismatic, courageous, and even caring, Shepard inspires his/her subordinates and peers with respect and awe, demanding the best from his/her team but working hard to make sure they're ready to give it by being a friend and caretaker to them. He/She knows when to be understanding and caring, and when to be demanding and forceful to inspire others to do the right thing. A lot of heroes in RPGs take an approach to their huge problems of refusing to accept any solution but the very best (you know the kind: "Yeah, we could save billions of lives by letting one willing person sacrifice themselves...BUT DAMMIT THAT'S JUST NOT ACCEPTABLE! Let's risk the lives of everyone on the planet in an all-or-none gambit instead! THAT'S the morally superior approach, surely!"), and most of the time, I feel like these heroes just happen to luck into a perfect solution they can accept...but Shepard's the kind of perfect example of heroism that makes me buy that he/she really can find the happy ending to almost any problem.
8. Minato (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES)
If I ever get around to playing the PSP rerelease of SMTP3, doubtless this spot will be shared between Minato and the female protagonist introduced in said remake, but for now, it's just Minato. Minato is a silent protagonist, which doesn't usually lend itself to a great character, but it's been said that actions speak louder than words, and it's never been truer than with him. Minato is the greatest of friends, the kind that can change the life of anyone who knows him for the better. Classmates, teammates, people both old and young...anyone who befriends him and spends time with him will find themselves by the end of it happier, truer to themselves, and able to face their future with a clear heart and strong self-identity. And as he helps others, he grows as a person himself, gaining insight into the truths of human nature and giving himself the power to succeed and protect his world from this greater understanding. And when it comes down to the final battle, an impossible fight against doomsday called by the despair of all those unable to find a reason to exist as Minato has helped others to do, he's willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, to protect humanity from itself and give people more time to find themselves before they bring their doom on themselves in their lesser understanding.
7. Ramza (Final Fantasy Tactics)
You know, it's not that compromised heroes can't be intriguing and excellent with their depth and struggles to overcome their own inner demons. You can get some really excellent characters this way, and I must admit that the top 2 of this list are going to be heroes who struggle with their own convictions and issues. It just tends to produce a better character.
But y'know, sometimes, as totally awesome as he is, you don't feel like Batman and his endless (but totally kickass) issues and considerations. Sometimes, you're tired of Spiderman and his personal problems, even if they do make him easier to relate to. Sometimes, you just want Superman and Captain America: a straightforward, solid, 100% pure hero who's an unshakable icon for justice and heroism, someone whose unwavering sense of duty and morality is by itself a legend.
Ramza, to me, is this RPG hero. He's not a boring character by any means--he questions himself, and he shows quite well his humanity in his joy and grief, hope and despair, and love and anger. But all the same, he is an unrelenting force for justice in his game, giving his moral duties ultimate priority over all else, even his own family. With Ramza, there's never any question or doubt that he'll do the right thing in any situation, no matter what the personal cost. Ramza's heroism is simple, indomitable, pure, and inspiring.
6. Yuri (Shadow Hearts 1 + 2)
While he's decent in Shadow Hearts 1, it's SH2 where Yuri really shines. Yuri's an interesting hero, particularly in SH2, in that his acts of heroism almost seem to go against his personal feelings. While he has an earnest drive to right wrongs that he sees and has a clear grasp of right and wrong, Yuri's heart isn't really in his good deeds and world-saving...he starts off as a punk that really doesn't care about the world around him and the affairs of others, motivated more by impulse than anything deeper. The good influences of his companions, his father's memory, and most of all Alice Elliot all inspire Yuri to begin to care about the world and its people, if not by his own beliefs than at least by proxy. What I mean is, he never quite gives me the feeling in SH1 that he himself really feels the drive to be heroic, to actively seek out what's wrong and fix it, but rather, he seems see that the people who are so important to him care about his world and its residents, that they (particularly Alice) cherish it and want to keep it safe, and thus by effect, Yuri will fight for these things because even if they don't personally seem to matter to him as much, they do matter to the people he loves. It makes him quite interesting. Then in SH2, after the death of Alice, Yuri seems to lose that secondhand heroic fire...he allows himself to be drawn into a quest to save the world, he goes through the motions of heroism that he learned in the previous game, but the entire time, his heart isn't in it, and he's suffering the pain of loosing the person who gave his life meaning. All he has for motivation to live and go on now is to protect the world that Alice loved...yet he doggedly continues until he knows his part is done, for her memory, not because he himself really cares. Yuri's a very deep and interesting character, and even if he isn't by nature a heroic person, he fights that nature and forces himself to heroism for the sake of the ones he loves and loved, which in itself is an inspiring act.
5. Tidus (Final Fantasy 10)
The Final Fantasy series may have an assortment of villains that range from miserably crappy to, at their very best, barely average, but the crappy villain cast is balanced by the series having quite a few really excellent main heroes. As you can see, several of the heroes here are from the FF series, and Final Fantasy 6's Celes, FF6's Terra, and Final Fantasy 7's Cloud all were strong competitors to Sora and Shepard for the end of this list. I had such trouble deciding that I even went, when I first wrote this list back when it was 5 instead of 10 long, and asked for opinions on the dilemma from my good man Donraj, my good lil' buddy Queelez, my good...something...Trippy, and my good friend Jolt. The series knows how to craft a protagonist.
Something like Shepard, Tidus really embodies a leader in his interest and care-taking of his team. Oh, sure, it's not quite to the same extent as Shepard and Final Fantasy 9's Zidane (further down) in the sense that Tidus seems to reach out to some of his team members tentatively rather than assertively, but Tidus nevertheless shows his general concern for each of his teammates many times, and tries (often resulting in awkward failure, but the important thing is the effort) to help each with his or her individual concerns. And, as with Zidane and Final Fantasy Tactics's Ramza (also further down), Tidus pretty steadfastly stands by his morals and beliefs, and inspires those with him to do the same, if not quite as strongly as they do.
But what makes Tidus really great is just how immensely deep and dynamic a character he is by himself. Tidus undergoes dramatic changes to his character, more than most of the other heroes on this list. Over the course of the game, he goes from being a complaining, selfish, and at times abrasive kid that Yuna's group has to more or less babysit, to being a loyal, trustworthy, and willing leader to them all. He goes from being a person with no reverence for the world around him, who resists the idea of sacrificing a person to save it, to a willing and respectful sacrifice himself. While the things he sees and hears on his journey, and his encounters with the remnants of his father's legacy, give Tidus good character development, he changes most drastically thanks to his love for Yuna. These changes are a moving and realistic merging of his personality with that of the person he loves--just as Yuna's love for Tidus leads to her taking on his characteristics of optimism, persistence, and the desire and courage to cast aside the flawed system of old in favor of the hope of a new and better way to accomplish her goals, so does Tidus adopt Yuna's traits of compassion, contemplation, and the selfless choice to sacrifice his own life for the good of another's. He and Yuna compliment each other in their love, two becoming one, and this leads to one of the best heroes I've seen to date--one who is not only a good leader and noble servant of good, but also a fascinatingly complex and human character, as well.
4. Marona (Phantom Brave)
Caring, generous, brave, optimistic, enthusiastic, uncompromisingly moral, encouraging, noble, forgiving, friendly, protective, honest, virtuous, self-sacrificing, polite, and inspiring. I'd have a hard time coming up with a description for a truly good person that doesn't apply to Marona. While not incapable of negative emotions--she's tragically lonely and misunderstood, and no stranger to despair--Marona is from start to finish a touching and inspiring individual, as innocent as any child yet as ready to help and do work as any adult. She's a character with depth, yet is as simple and heroic as Ramza was--more, even.
3. Zidane (Final Fantasy 9)
Final Fantasy 9 would be excellent and have great emotional impact on the player even without him, but Zidane is nonetheless the fun-loving, good-natured heart of this classic. The cast in general is deep and involving, characters who make us think and consider, but Zidane is the one who makes it all real to the audience, grabbing our attention, involving us, entertaining us, and helping us to better appreciate everything else about the game's plot and characters. I think that's a pretty important part of a hero, particularly in an RPG, where you spend so much time directing one around--the hero's ability to involve you not only in his own affairs, but also in those of the world and people around him, helping to translate their issues and ideas to you.
Part of how Zidane does this is another reason why he deserves to be on this list--he genuinely leads his party. That really is, to me, a significant part of a hero--how they behave to the people they lead. Zidane is genuinely concerned, friendly, and encouraging to all his friends, taking on just the right tone for each to be just as supportive a leader as each one needs.
Finally, Zidane is just, in general, a really great character. Call me old-fashioned, but I miss the days when our heroes were, y'know...nice. And Zidane is. He's good-natured, selfless, can't help but help others, and has the heart of gold that a hero should. But he's also dynamic; being a hero who actually lives up to the name doesn't limit his character (contrary to contemporary popular belief, this actually IS quite possible--take note, Marvel Comics). He has his flaws and rough edges, and he develops as a character both evidently (most notably during his visit to Terra, where his personal views and beliefs are tested, confirmed, and strengthened), and subtly (as evidenced by his gradual change over the course of pretty much the entire game from a cheeky womanizer who recklessly hits on any and all attractive women he encounters to a (admittedly equally cheeky) romantic with a touching love for the main girl, Dagger). Zidane's both a great hero and a great character.
2. Virginia (Wild Arms 3)
I did a rant on Virginia previously that can give you a fairly good idea of how well she succeeds as a female character in a male protagonist's role, providing an example to the RPG industry that girl-led RPGs don't have to have their entire focus tailored for the gender of their heroine. This is true, but it's not all I want to say. Virginia's noteworthy for the girl-in-a-boy's-role thing that she does so well, but she's also, regardless of that, a magnificent heroine.
First of all, the leader thing? Virginia does it in spades. She establishes her team through her will alone, managing to be the glue that holds them all together as one force through thick and thin--crazy glue, really, because not one of them seems to take her talk of ideals, hopes, and dreams seriously, at first (and Jet just plain never does). Yet all the same, her enthusiasm and charisma keep them all together, drive them forward, and helps each of her companions along in developing himself as a person and refining his outlook on the world. Yet at the same time, she does more than just inspire them and help them to grow--Virginia also listens to them, and grows as a person herself from their thoughts, opinions, and feedback. Not only does this lead to an ever-developing, dynamic protagonist, but it also makes her even more a leader in my eyes.
What really makes Virginia incredible, though, is the honestly never-ending development as a person she receives. From the beginning of the game to pretty much its end, Virginia is on a journey of self-discovery, battling self-doubt as often as she does any villain to come to a firm understanding of who she is, what she believes in, and what she wants to stand for. If she doesn't exactly change in a revolutionary way, Virginia's character is at least under constant self-revision and scrutiny--there's no single huge moment, or even couple huge moments, of revelation that are the pivotal turning points for her, no one massive catharsis that changes her significantly, as is typically the case in RPG heroes' character development. Instead, the player sees her grow at a near constant rate, with Virginia undergoing many personal, emotional discoveries and changes as she sees and experiences different situations and people...the way real people do. As gripping and touching a regular hero's big scene of change may be in an RPG, all us folks here in real life undergo many, many changes of view and opinion in our lives, and probably have several huge moments of clarification that define us, not just one or two. In this way, Virginia is a fantastic character and a hero that is not only developed with far more care and time than almost any other RPG character, but also one that we can see as a heroic human being better than most.
1. Ryudo (Grandia 2)
And so we come to Ryudo. Here's the deal, folks: the heroes I've listed above? They all more or less start out as good, decent, heroic types (even Tidus, for his initial flaws, has that heroic tendency to save first and ask questions later). Most undergo changes to their personality, big and small, but in the end, the effect is mostly a case of a good person becoming a better, more emotionally complete person. Even Yuri, for his general apathy about the world's affairs, isn't able to let an injustice he sees right in front of him pass. And hey, that's good! As I said early on, a hero ought to be an actually good person.
But that said, Ryudo is different. Ryudo starts off as an ass. Granted, an amazingly hilarious, witty one, but an ass all the same. He's not out to help people, or make the world better, or stop evil, or any of that jazz--he's just a mercenary doing his job and putting up with the crappy, annoying customers all day.
But as the story goes on, he gradually evolves into much, much more. He grows to care about others, to value others' life and freedom enough to fight for them against impossible odds, and to hope, believe in good, and stand up for justice as any hero should.
Now, of course, you're probably thinking, "Gee, I think I've seen this before." Well yes you have, and yet, no, you haven't. No lovable Han Solo-esque scoundrel who turns out to have a heart of gold undergoes the drawn-out, excellently developed change from jerkwad to true hero that Ryudo does. This is no sudden, inexplicable 180 degree change--you're there for the whole time watching each step the guy takes into becoming a champion of life, liberty, and love. This ain't the redemption-less failure that Final Fantasy 8's Squall is; you can understand and appreciate the steps Ryudo takes on his journey, and you like him all the way along. His journey to the person he becomes is inspiring in how huge a change it is, the steps on it are interesting and believable in how realistically they're paced, and the hero he becomes is one whose convictions and past trials make him truly worthy of this top spot.
Honorable Mention: Marche (Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1)
Marche is definitely an interesting protagonist. As I've mentioned in the past, Marche basically fulfills the role of your standard Final Fantasy villain. He's inexplicably over-powered from the perspective of any average citizen of fantasy Ivalice, his methods for accomplishing his goals will basically wind up destroying the world he's in, and his reasons for doing so are strange, inexplicable, and unacceptable to the fantasy land's inhabitants. Yet at the same time, you can't say he isn't a hero. Marche's motivation is a refusal to hide from the world just because it's not perfect, an unyielding (though not unquestioned) belief in facing reality and coming to terms with one's life's truths, instead of losing one's self in escapist delusions. These are heroic ideals, to be sure, and ones that have more relation to we players than most of the ideals that RPG heroes espouse. Yet it is these ideals that force Marche into the role of a villain, for he is trapped in FFTA1 in a false world of fun adventure, and the only way to return himself and his friends to their true lives, to force them to confront their problems rather than try to wish them away, is to bring about the end of the fantasy world by destroying its magical foundations, just as any given RPG villain might maniacally attack the magical lifeline of their world in an attempt to destroy it. That's why Marche is such a noteworthy protagonist--he takes the role of a (reluctant) villain, but only because his heroic ideals necessitate it.