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Baker’s dozen: the 13 greatest role-playing games of all time

Sharpen your swords, polish your armour – we’re here to battle over what deserves the title of the greatest RPG of all time.

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Greatest RPGs

6 – Baldur’s Gate

baldurs-gate-box-artThe following extract is taken from Tom’s anti-review of Pillars of Eternity, the recently released spiritual successor to 1998’s Baldur’s Gate:

Baldur’s Gate was something of a big deal in my life, and in the computer role-playing game world on the whole. There had been great role-playing games for PC before, and there had been Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games too, but Baldur’s Gate was the first legitimately massive smash hit in the centre of that venn diagram. Role-playing games were always my jam, and I would seek out any variant I could lay my hands on – J-RPG, Action, Tactical – it didn’t matter; but as a table-top gamer in my youth I was always partial to a spot of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and Baldur’s Gate was the first time I felt it had really been done right.

That probably tells you all you need to know. More importantly than all that ‘it was a great game’ business though is that it featured a character called Minsc, whose travelling companion was Boo, the world’s only miniature giant space hamster…

Take heart fellow adventurers, for you have curried the favor of Boo, the only miniature giant space hamster in the Realm. My friend and companion ever since my h-h-head wound, he will lead us to victory!

…sorry, you don’t think that was more important?

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Go for the eyes, Boo! GO FOR THE EYES!!

5 – Final Fantasy VI

Final Fantasy VI box artFinal Fantasy IV, the first SNES release in the series, was probably the first Final Fantasy that truly resembles what we now know as a distinctive Squaresoft title. It had more narrative than “kill monsters, get crystals, save world” and had a set of characters who were not only different classes, but also had very different personalities. It was also the first time your playing party was mixed and matched from a wider cast of characters, that allowed the interplay of team dynamics to enter the series.

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Final Fantasy V was a bit of an odd duck then – in that it lost a lot of the narrative quality of its predecessor and returned to a non-descript ‘hero wearing different hats’ vibe – but Final Fantasy VI brought the series back on track, and shaped it irrevocably going forward as a force for telling stories, not just a game to be played.

Final Fantasy VI gave us our first real experience of characters who we genuinely care about, and dealt with sadness and loss on a level that was not common in the monster killing, world saving genre as it stood at the time. It also looked, and more importantly it played great, and was ambitious on an unprecedented scale for the time. As well as being a wonderful game in its own right, it also served to set the stage for what was to follow…

4 – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim box artDaniel doesn’t usually get on with role-playing games, but he had this to say in defence of Skyrim:

I don’t care much for the traditional mechanics of role-playing. I’ve tried my hand at many RPGs but generally find their intricacies obtuse or uninteresting. They often feel like an exercise in magical spreadsheet management than a method of fostering a true connection to a particular role or character.

But Skyrim is different.

My haphazardly perked Breton is probably the truest expression of me there has ever been in a game. I spent hours creating my avatar but once the game started I never looked him in the face again. From the moment I took control the view on the screen was through my eyes, no one else’s. More than in any other game I felt that the agency was with me and the role I played was dictated by my behaviour rather than any class selection or level.

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I never crafted so much as a purse but I know plenty who did, I found the Arcane Enchanter dull but I know many who revelled in using it to create new potions and spells. I became a reader, my role was that of knowledge gatherer, devouring books at every turn and then exploring the places I learned about.

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I’m sure my character was not the most efficient, or powerful, or capable, but it was mine. It wasn’t a role. It was me. Skyrim is my favourite role-playing game as it respects the desires of the player and creates the game around you, allowing you to indulge in what you enjoy and ignore what you don’t. As an avowed RPG sceptic Skyrim offered me a way in. It’s that I celebrate.

3 – Phantasy Star

Phantasy Star box artRemember when role-playing games seemed a bit old (wizard’s) hat? A sprinkle of Tolkien, a pinch of Arthurian legend; before you know it you’re in a dungeon fighting a dragon. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of familiarity, but to many it was a fantastic change of pace when in the mid-nineties Squaresoft began introducing science fiction and steampunk elements into their flagship series, Final Fantasy. Those in the know, however, had been enjoying their role-playing in an ultra-modern sci-fi setting since 1988.

Sega’s Phantasy Star wasn’t just ahead of its peers in terms of its ultra-futuristic setting – complete with space travel spanning multiple worlds, laser guns and deadly androids – it was one of the first role-playing games to include cut-scenes, and married the traditional J-RPG overworld view with a unique first-person perspective for battles and dungeon exploration. It was also seriously hard, and if you didn’t map out those 3D dungeons with pencil and graph paper, the chances are you wouldn’t make it out alive…

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2 – Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout New Vegas box artThere’s no doubt that Fallout: New Vegas is the finest open-world role-playing game ever made. For all its scope and ambition, Skyrim, like so many others of the genre, is ultimately just a game about hitting monsters in one of three types of cave. New Vegas is a game about people and their stories, and finding your own path through them.

The superb writing of the role-playing veterans at Obsidian brings a seemingly endless number of quests to vivid life. Your journey can be defined by a strong arm or a steady aim, yes, but just as likely it will be shaped by the way you think. What lies are you willing to tell? What manipulations will you be able to enact? Whose plight will tug at your heartstrings and who will you pitilessly leave to die in the desert?

Robin, who is leaving team Thumbsticks to go on to bigger and better things (and will be very sadly missed) closed his thoughts on Fallout: New Vegas with this:

Over hundreds of hours in the Mojave, I clawed my way to the top by whatever means I could muster. I rejected the extremism of the Legion, the naivety of the Republic and the selfishness of Mr House and I made myself king of all I surveyed. I didn’t do it by following quest markers and killing anyone I was pointed at – I did it with charm, with brains, and a ton of lockpicks. I did it by involving myself in hundreds of fascinating, interwoven stories of life in a bizarre, unforgiving, and truly open world.

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1 – Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII box artThis was always going to be a divisive one.

Not so much divisive because people dispute whether Final Fantasy VII was great, though, as it will be for deciding to actually put it at the top of the tree. By doing so, there will be readers out there who say we “took the easy option,” that it was “boring and predictable” to put the seventh installment in position number one, and they might be right. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, after all. But if we hadn’t, then there would be people out there screaming that is a travesty, and do you know what? We’re willing to bet that some of those people who are currently calling us boring, would also have been howling for a re-count if we hadn’t made it our greatest role-playing game ever. Undecided voters are the worst.

So there you have it – Final Fantasy VII is our number one – commentards, start your engines. If you want some more detail on the game itself (and why it’s so great) then read this piece we ran a couple of months ago for its eighteenth birthday, but other than that, the decision is fairly self-explanatory and we don’t need to justify ourselves to you!

How did we do?

We hope you found this article useful, or informative, or thought provoking, or maybe even a little entertaining. Perhaps it was a guide that helped you through a tricky bit, or we even saved you some money? Lovely stuff! If you'd like to say "thanks" you could always buy the team a cup of coffee.

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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

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