This was originally a list of 10, and then I later updated it to 15. I expect this will be the last expansion, to make it a list of 20. I’ve played over 200 RPGs now, so it only makes sense. But I don’t really think I should make it much bigger than this, otherwise it loses the concise power of a list. Maybe I’ll make it 25 long once I beat 300 RPGs, but we’ll have to see.
If you don’t see your favorite game here, don’t yell at me. There’s a LOT of great RPGs that didn’t make the cut, I know. I absolutely hate that I couldn’t get Fallout 1, Final Fantasy 10, Tales of Legendia, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, and several other games onto the list, but it just wasn’t in the cards, no matter how close they came.
At any rate, here are the best 20 RPGs I’ve played to date.
UPDATE 11/09/15: Undertale added; Shadow Hearts 2 has been bumped off.
UPDATE 12/14/16: Mass Effect 3 (with MEHEM) added to Honorable Mention; Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon has been dethroned.
20. Mother 3 (GBA)
The sequel to RPG cult favorite Earthbound (Mother 2) was heavily yearned for and anticipated for many years before Nintendo finally bit the bullet and made it. I think everyone hoped that a sequel would do the original game proud, perhaps even be as good as it, but I doubt many people would have ever imagined Mother 3 could surpass its predecessor. Yet it has, and by a lot. Earthbound was a singularly bizarre adventure, defying description with its quirky humor and presentation--it was like playing a piece of abstract art. Mother 3 manages a complete return of this same unusual and appealing style, but manages to throw a huge curveball on it with a huge injection of emotion into a plot that is jaw-dropping in how poignant it is in spite of (perhaps even because of?) all the quirky humor sown into it. And when you look past the creative nature of the game, you find an equally creative plot, too. Mother 3 will make you laugh aloud, it’ll make you think, and it’ll make you sniffle and get teary-eyed. And it’ll do all of these things in the same 5 minutes.
19. Grandia 1 (PS1)
I don’t know what to say, really. I love Grandia 1. The characters are good, the plot is solid, and this game, above every other RPG I’ve ever played, creates a sensation of exploration and adventure, through its great music, strong attention to cultural and natural diversity in its setting, and the enthusiasm of its protagonist. It has a lot of truly excellent moments, such as Sue’s goodbye, and reaching the top of the End of the World, and many of its small aspects are great, too, like the dinner conversations (a delightful signature of the series), and one of the few turn-based RPG battle systems that’s actually kind of fun to play. Grandia 1 has great appeal and will always have a special spot in my heart.
18. Fallout: New Vegas (PC)
Most of the Fallout series is excellent, and to be honest, it’s kind of difficult to choose one game over the other, because their excellence is very uniform. Fallout: New Vegas is an extremely insightful and subtly deep examination into the essence of the United States, its beliefs, its politics, its history, its culture and pop culture, its ideals, and its people...just like Fallout 1, 2, and 3 were. It’s the Fallout series’s thing, and each game does it really, really well. Fallout: New Vegas has all sorts of hidden themes of, references to, and comments on the USA to find and contemplate, and you know me--I love a game that makes me think. Even on the surface, though, Fallout: New Vegas is a very cool game with a compelling cast and cool story, both open-ended, and linear enough that its plot is straightforward and clear. The Fallout series is truly remarkable, and Fallout: New Vegas is one of its stronger titles.
17. Suikoden 1 (PS1)
Suikoden 1 takes the player through a nation-wide conflict, a civil war of epic proportions that nonetheless never loses sight of the individuals and humanity of the conflict. Good plot, good characters, good ideas, good execution, good themes...this is just a solidly GOOD game all around.
16. Fallout 3 (PC)
Even better than Fallout: New Vegas, Fallout 3 does all the same things intellectually, and just as well, but its setting provides it stronger thematic power (if you’re gonna base a game’s themes around the United States of America’s essence, then you’re naturally gonna get the best and most material if you have it take place in the Washington DC area), and the plot both feels more personal and relevant to the protagonist, and is generally more epic in its scope, purpose, and ambitions. I also have to say that I find the conflicts and characters and villains of Fallout 3 generally more compelling than Fallout: New Vegas’s were, providing great symbolism and meaning in the struggles of the game. In addition, I think that Fallout 3 more than any other game in the series makes excellent use of the post-apocalyptic setting. Even in a series filled with excellent titles, Fallout 3 stands out as a masterpiece.
15. Disgaea 1 (PS2)
If anyone ever tells you that a comedy cannot also be deep and meaningful, there are 2 things you should direct their attention to. The first is Futurama. And the second is Disgaea 1. Nippon Ichi's most famous offering is also, I think, its best (although I DID really like Makai Kingdom), and concrete proof that a humor RPG can still have depth and great emotion.* What starts out (and keeps on being) a very funny adventure of adorably maniacal demons and a ditzy, equally adorable angel evolves into a grand tale of friendship's enduring power, and love's irrepressible, redeeming nature. The inherently goofy air to this game is great for grabbing your attention and keeping it, and it amazingly doesn't interfere whatsoever with the story's poignancy, making this game not only the best Humor RPG I've played, but just plain one of the best RPGs I've played, period.
14. Mass Effect 1 (PC)
Lemme ask you something: did you ever watch a science-fiction show or movie, or read a science-fiction book, or something like that, and just feel completely entranced by its size, scope, and creativity? You watch/read/whatever it, and you just have this feeling that you've been taken to a place or time that has more or less infinite possibility for adventure, excitement, and general cool new experiences? Like the thing that you're watching/reading/whatevering is just the tip of the iceberg (or maybe Star Destroyer's a better term here), and there's just so much else that can be seen and explored in this sci-fi galaxy, universe, time, or whatever?
It's the feeling I got when I watched the Star Wars trilogy, played the games, and read the books during my youth--just that you could go anywhere in this entire imaginary galaxy, at practically any time in its history, and be caught up in something really cool and interesting. From watching the deathblow to an evil, galaxy-spanning Empire to just reading the random tales of a no-name bounty hunter in that same galaxy, Star Wars has always held my attention and impressed me.**
Well, when I played Mass Effect 1, that feeling swept over me for a second time. The makers of this game invested a tremendous amount of thought and care into this setting, going far beyond most sci-fi media's first offerings by not only inventing species, events, technologies, mysterious stuff, and so on, but going into huge detail on it all, as well. Just about every really cool, unique part of the Mass Effect universe is detailed for you in journal entries. The game also captures the awe-inspiring feel and concept of space exploration, to me, better than anything else I've ever encountered. You know how when you were a kid, you went through a phase (or entered one and never got out of it) where you were really into real-world space exploration? Just feeling a sense of excitement and awe at the idea of exploring the infinite cosmos? Well, maybe you did and maybe you didn't, but I did, and when the map screen comes up in ME1 and begins playing that calming, yet somehow exciting music of exploration, I feel like a little kid again, looking at all these planets and stars with detailed descriptions like you'd find in an astronomy museum exhibit.
Of course, it's not just the atmosphere of the game that makes it so great. It's got about as cool a sci-fi plot as I've ever seen outside a book by Asimov, the characters are very good, the villains are decent (although Saren was a lot more interesting before I read the ME book, honestly...but I guess that's neither here nor there), the presentation is good all around, and everything's pretty darned epic. I really love this game.
13. Final Fantasy 7 (PS1)
Okay, yeah, okay, yes, I know, okay. Yes. Fine. YES, Final Fantasy 7 is perhaps the most overrated, over-hyped RPG of the most overrated, over-hyped RPG series ever. The sheer number of mindless, utterly tasteless fanboys and fangirls of this game defies imagination--it's like Twilight, except that FF7 doesn't destroy brain cells like getting drunk while deeply inhaling gasoline fumes as you shove a blow torch up your nose. These incalculable idiots, who invariably idolize and adore Sephiroth with all their hearts yet don't have the dedication to learn how to spell his name, would have you believe that FF7 is the finest RPG ever made, heck, the finest game ever made period were it not for Halo 3, and perhaps Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball.
But just because it's not God's gift to Playstation 1 games doesn't mean it's not still a great game, if you can shut your eyes and ears to Vincent x Cloud yaoi fangirls long enough to appreciate the game for its own merits. It has an interesting, involved plot that incorporates a lot of ideas that, at the time, were pretty new and creative (some still are, really), and it also has a pretty good cast of characters to enact the plot, too--sure, the villains are all boring and empty, and Vincent and Yuffie barely have enough characterization between the two of them to qualify as NPCs, but the rest of the cast have at least a fair amount of good development, particularly Tifa and Cloud. Tifa's character has a lot of depth and realism, but in a subtle way that requires some consideration to recognize. Cloud, on the other hand, has his character development right in the spotlight--and it's pretty impressive. Before Cloud, there weren't all that many RPG heroes with real, solid personalities and depth of character, and he seemed to more or less pioneer the idea of an interesting, quality hero who draws a lot of his character from his shortcomings and spiritual inadequacies--we've had plenty of fairly mentally imbalanced heroes since, as well as ones who agonize over the limitations of what they can do and the mistakes they've made in the past, but Cloud was one of the first and best to do stuff like that. Hell, he's still probably the most mentally screwed-up RPG protagonist I've seen who wasn't either a villain himself and/or got proper characterization.
In addition, FF7 sold its atmosphere with its music and setting, creating a world to draw you in far better than most other games, which complemented the plot and brought everything together. Regardless of how many stupid people happen by unfortunate chance to share my opinion, and how hard SquareEnix works to retroactively cheapen this game with every lackluster time-waster sequel/prequel that they foist on us, FF7 will always be a true classic.
12. Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1)
Ah, FFT. As much or greater a leap in a new direction for the Final Fantasy series as FF7 was, this one looked at the ideas and aspects of medieval times (like most RPGs) and, instead of just throwing a bunch of fantasy cliches together, gave us a game that realized the nonfiction of medieval Europe--warring countries, vicious slaughter, political intrigue carried out by greedy, power-hungry nobles, and a religious super power that didn't come even close to living up to its supposedly holy, peaceful philosophies (although granted, the church of medieval Europe wasn't quite so bad as to be mistakenly worshiping the Anti-Christ, but still, the core similarity's there). This was a game where the dark, fantastical nature of part of its plot, involving magic stones and hellish demons, actually kinda takes backseat in the player's eyes to what would normally be background subplots of political intrigue and backstabbing (metaphorical AND literal). FFT's plot is terrific, the setting emphasizes it very well, and the cast has several key characters who are very well-created.
11. Undertale (PC)
Undertale is a magnificent combination of heartwarming joy, great humor, Earthbound-styled surreal fun, sharp deconstruction and critique of RPGs, poignant emotion, creeping terror, a study of consequences, and insight into the dangers of combining godhood and boredom. With terrific characters you'll love, heartwarming scenes that'll put a tear in your eyes, creativity up the wazoo, and a unique and terrifying villain, Undertale is definitely 1 of the greatest games I've ever played. Anyone who scoffs at the idea of crowdfunded Indie RPGs have comparable quality to what the rest of the gaming industry can produce has clearly never experienced Undertale.
10. Knights of the Old Republic 2 (PC)
Before I get to its real virtues, KotOR2 deserves mention in being the best RPG I've seen based on a pre-existing story of a different media. That may SEEM like a small genre to honor, but it's really not--from anime and manga like Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, and .hack, to movie phenomenons like Star Wars, to table-top RPGs like Shadowrun, even to RPGs made from non-RPG game titles like Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, other-media RPGs continue to grow in number, and quite a few of them are actually really good.
Of these, though, I think Knights of the Old Republic 2, a Star Wars-based RPG, is definitely the best. While buggy as anything, and seeming like it's only 90% complete, the game's great characters and plot not only entertain and have deep messages of humanity to convey, but also tie in very strongly to the source material, using the old and giving new perspectives on it (without just retelling a story you've already seen/read; I hate it when outside-media RPGs do that). KotOR2 has oodles of exquisite intellectual and philosophical content to tickle your brain with, particularly through the mouth of its main villain, and stays entertaining to the end, while never losing its origins' themes, settings, and atmosphere.
9. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (Preferably FES Version; PS2)
This is the first of the Shin Megami Tensei chunk of this list. SMTP3 is a refreshingly different, incredibly complex and layered story taking place in present Japan, all the while using the ideas and details of the Tarot Cards to provide the themes, events, and insights of the game's plot and characters. The main story is great, and the sidequest stories, known as Social Links, are even better. What I love about this game the most, though, and what really elevates it to this list, is how deep it really is when you start to look at its every aspect from the Tarot angle--there's always another level of meaning to the game's events, characters, ideas, and even gameplay to be found that goes back to connecting with the themes and insights of the Tarot deck, letting them provide ideas and meaning to the game and having the game's interpretation and employment of the cards in turn analyze and thoughtfully dissect the nature of Tarot cards and readings with the same level of depth and intelligence that other SMT titles (which you'll see below) do with more "mainstream" forms of spiritual belief. All that, AND it's still a beautiful, excellent story with some fantastic characters even at its surface level.
8. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2 (PS2)
I honestly cannot split these two games apart to give them credit; to take either game for itself only and not count its virtues in comparison to its sequel or predecessor is to deny the game praise it deserves. SMTDDS1 + 2 share a single plot that uses concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism for its foundation, taking the religions' ideas, beliefs, and mythology and using them to tell a story that is not only a very good adventure in its own right, but is an extremely creative and brilliantly insightful look into the beliefs of Hinduism and Buddhism. These are games that you can contemplate and debate for hours at a time, over and over again for as long as you like. I think the way that SMTDDS1 + 2's creators crafted their plot and characters to work with, analyze, espouse and harmonize the fascinating concepts of Hindu and Buddhist religious thought can only be called genius, easily comparable to the way the games below, Shin Megami Tensei 1 + 2, do with Christianity, which I'll go into below. In fact, SMTDDS1 + 2's genius is so comparable to SMT1 + 2's, it may be that the only reason I can put one series over the other is that I simply know more about the subject of SMT1 + 2 than I do about Hinduism and Buddhism, so I can just pick up on and more fully appreciate the former's insights than the latter's.
7. Shin Megami Tensei 1 + 2 (SNES)
As with the Digital Devil Saga parts of the SMT series, these 2 games really have to be counted as 2 parts of a whole, although they aren't connected as chronologically immediately. But they tell the same overall story in 2 parts, they have the same premise, and they're both brilliant in the same ways.
Wow. Just wow. Alright, these games, more than even Earthbound, lends credence to my belief that an RPG's true worth is independent from graphics and gameplay, relying only upon its plot, characters and character development, and any other writing-related aspects. SMT1 + 2 are annoying to play and ugly to look at, with crude 1st-Person dungeons almost no more advanced than those of Phantasy Star 1 on the Sega Master System, and with an annoying level of difficulty that inspires far more frustration than sense of challenge.
But man, the plot of these games? The general ideas? Magnificent. I stand firm in my believe that SMT1 and 2 are some of the most brilliant RPGs I've come across, closer to classic literature than they are to a Final Fantasy or other game of their genre. I did a rant on this before, so I'll be brief--SMT1 brings you to, through, and past apocalypse on Earth, to a world of warring deities and mythological creatures of every culture's legends, where you choose whether to ally yourself with God, Lucifer, or to deny both and stand for humanity alone. The game puts forth insightful ideas and philosophies on Christianity, humanity as a whole, belief, and logic vs. emotion, all while featuring a myriad group of mythological individuals that you can fight against or ally with, depending on whether you agree with the ideals of the game's take on God or Lucifer, or disagree with them entirely. Like many truly great works (heck, like most truly great works on the same subject of Christian mythology), this title is a chore to get through but very worthwhile and intelligent.
SMT2 does pretty much everything SMT1 does, only often better, while improving the character development (which was admittedly slight in the first game) and raising the stakes--while the first game's events decided whether the forces of God, Humanity, or Lucifer gained authority over the last nation of humanity, this game determines for good whether the future of the world will be based upon chaotic emotion, lawful divinity, or neutral self-determination, and you actually meet the two calling each side's shots this time. There's really nothing more to say here; SMT2 is simply a logical step up in quality and scope from the already impressive SMT1, and together, both games represent incredible creativity, philosophical insight, and writing in general.
6. Final Fantasy 9 (PS1)
FF9, the best game of the RPG genre's poster series. A neat and imaginative plot combines with a great cast of deep and memorable characters to deliver an experience both new and old to any fan of the series--meant to be a nostalgic throw-back to the earlier games in the series, yet holding much of the play style and general plot progression of the (then) newer games, as well. Funny thing is, the game meant to serve as a reminder, a remix of sorts, turned out to be so well-constructed and well-written that it stands on its own better than the rest of the series does.
5. Wild Arms 3 (PS2)
You know, it feels to me sometimes like a good fifth of my rants on this thing have me talking somewhere or other about how much I love this game. It must get tiring to my readers, most of whom probably haven't played it and never intend to.
...BUT IT'S JUST SO GOOD! You get a terrific protagonist by any counts who completely reworks RPG gender differences, a rival who is actually the most appealing character in the game instead of the least (and who actually has decent character depth, too!), a supporting cast that's quite good and never just forgotten and pushed aside for the main people to get more development time, a long and really imaginative plot, an actual attempt by the Wild Arms series to deliver on their promise of a Wild West-themed setting (for the first and currently last time!), several really interesting villains, and a never-ending sense of purpose, direction, and effort with the game's progression--no one ever just stops being developed; you get gripping characters, particularly in the case of the protagonist, to the end. I fucking LOVE Wild Arms 3, and can't recommend it enough.
4. Chrono Trigger (SNES)
For the better part of a decade, it was unthinkable to me that CT would ever be anything less than the best RPG ever made. While it has, in the past several years, been ousted from the top spot beyond all expectations, this game remains, in my opinion, the ultimate classic RPG, an ultimate expression of originality and fun. If you want a great set of characters that you'll remember forever having an exciting and creative adventure involving a fairly simple, adequately well-reasoned time-travel plot***, or just the best RPG the older generation of games has to offer, Chrono Trigger is it.
3. Suikoden 2 (PS1)
There are a few games from the PS1 whose copies can be sold for over $100, sometimes over $200. Suikoden 2, though, is the only one that I can say, with no personal doubt whatever, is 100% worth that price. This game's superb characters and epic plot pull at your emotions, give you cause to think and contemplate, and, really, probably leave you at the end a better, more understanding person than you were at its beginning. I can name a few (a very few) games that have made me shed big ol' man-tears while playing, but I think Suikoden 2 is probably the only one that's had me doing that multiple times in its course.
2. Planescape: Torment (PC)
To play Planescape: Torment is to be amazed. There were times in this game where the masterful writing just left me stunned. This plot-heavy RPG wonder is insightful, creative, clever, entertaining, and moving, using the cool, expansive setting of the Dungeons and Dragons planes (and you KNOW you've got a cool game when a demonic war that spans across a twisted rope of connected realities for all time is just the BACKGROUND to the game's focus) to tell a story of a man that can't die, and his search for answers and identity through a complex world of truth and lies, magic and technology, reality and the formless, examining the essence of mortality, the power of torment, and asking the question infamous of this game: What can change the nature of a man? Well, Planescape: Torment is so amazing and engrossing, that you may very well find that your answer to that question is "This game."
1. Grandia 2 (PS2)
Grandia 2, to me, is to modern RPGs what Chrono Trigger was to the older generation. The game has an involving plot that goes from average to seriously interesting quickly but subtly, sneaking up on you with its quality and several really interesting, creative plot twists that you honestly will not see coming. And the game has one of the greatest RPG casts ever assembled--not a single member of it is bland or badly-developed, each of them has a lot of characterization to go through, and most of them redefine their character archetype to be something new, original, and deep. Grandia 2 is not just an exceptionally fine game, it's also one that reminds you of the power of creativity--so many aspects of this game's plot and characters are the kind of stuff you see in all kinds of other games, shows, animes, etc; yet Grandia 2 takes each one's cliched foundation and builds something new, different, and excellent with it that both interests you and refreshes your interest in the old cliches and what can still be done with them. Give this game a chance, and you'll love it to pieces. I don't know if I'll ever encounter a better game than this one, but if I don't, I can be well-satisfied with what I've got.
Honorable Mention: Mass Effect 3, with MEHEM Installed (PC)
If not for the ending, Mass Effect 3 would have been on the main list above, as it is the greatest entry in the amazing trilogy. Full of unparalleled emotion, a terrific cast, an engaging plot, poignant and epic moments, and a ton of really interesting ideas, Mass Effect 3 is a masterpiece...except that it ends so unimaginably badly, as I have noted countless times before, that it actually physically sickens me to think about. You never know just how horrible an ending can be, just how much it can damage your happiness and the quality of an entire series, until you play Mass Effect 3.
However, with the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod installed, you can play Mass Effect 3 with the confidence of knowing that you're headed for a well-made, appropriate, strong ending to the series. I've done a rant on this mod's virtues, but suffice to say, it has restored ME3 to its rightful place of excellence and now I can actually put it on this list. Since it requires outside intervention to correct it and make it a real Mass Effect, I'll keep ME3 here instead of giving it an actual place on the list, but it sure as hell is never losing its spot here. And if you're interested, I'd say ME3 with MEHEM would qualify for 9th place here, right between Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and SMT Digital Devil Saga.
...I swear one of these days I'm gonna have a small list rant that is faster to write than a long one. It's gonna happen. Really.
* Yes, I know I mentioned, earlier on this list, that Mother 3 had a lot of great humor, and it’s true. But ultimately, it doesn't incorporate the silly and amusing so integrally into its story and characters that you could call it a comedy. Disgaea 1, on the other hand, does.
** Er, most of the time. The new trilogy and that recent animated movie were garbage. But most everything else is good!
*** Sure, there are some fair paradoxes, but, y'know, not much that doesn't come up with any other time-travel story. And frankly, RPG-wise, CT's about as good a time-travel plot as you're gonna get--most, I've noticed, are either silly and pointless (Dark Cloud 2, Final Fantasy 8, Robotrek), have the time travel stuff only be plot twists rather than serious parts of the story (Dark Cloud 1, Kingdom Hearts 2, Rogue Galaxy), or they strand the cast in the past for at least 3/4ths of the game so that the time travel aspect doesn't even seem to be present (Star Ocean 1, Tales of Phantasia). Chrono Trigger's one of a small few who do a good job with it in a major way.