So, given that I spent the last month writing a The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time piece for its 25th anniversary, I decided to give other 1990s games some love. Today, I am remembering, and listing the most memorable Storylines from turn-based RPGs that I played during the magical 16 bit – 32 bit era.
Editor’s Note: Proceed with caution, the entire list contains spoilers, but the games are more than 2 decades old.
5. Lunar: Silver Star Story (Sega CD, PS1, Sega Saturn)
Out of all the storylines listed here, this one has the best actual dialogue writing, and translation. The reason why it is at number five, as opposed to higher up on the list, is that 1993’s Lunar does have a very basic over all storyline.
Due to Working Design’s (and Game Arts) preference for Sega Platforms during large parts of the 1990s decade, it is likely that few of you played this classic. Even on PS1, it didn’t exactly set the world on fire with sales, and it remains a pricey collectors item today. That said, the story is one that I remember fondly, and that given its humorous translation, stands the test of time very well.
The tale of Alex and Luna is a simple one. Alex is the typical “chosen one”, “wannabe adventurer” character that embarks on a world saving quest at the prime Japanese age for world saving responsibilities which is 15. Yeah, it is silly, but JRPGs during this time were trying to appeal to its target audience…which were teenage players.
Of course, Luna ends up being the Princess in distress, who also happens to be the incarnation of a Goddess, and it is up to Alex (and his party of misfits) to save her and the world. Now, the story does have some twists and turns, and an assorted cast of villains, but it remains – mostly – light hearted stuff.
What does elevate the tale – beyond its masterful Working Design’s translation – is the incredible soundtrack, and the amazing Anime scenes , which even during the PS1 era, remained one of the best in the business.
If you can play any version of this title, I would recommend the Silver Star Complete Edition on PS1, as it has a richer cast, and certain events are written differently. These changes offer a slightly different, but improved experience from the original game.
4. Final Fantasy IX (PS1)
To me, this remains the best written Final Fantasy of all. The translation was nearly flawless, and the character interactions were some the best in the series. It ranks lower than a few other entries on this list, because the story takes many cues from other Final Fantasy games that predated it. Due to this, you can see parallels between Zidane’s and Kuja’s relationship to Sephiroth and Cloud’s own saga. Needless to say, it is not the most unpredictable Final Fantasy tale.
That said, it is one of the most memorable ones. It helps that the game has some real standout cast members (apart from Zidane, and Princess Garnet) such as Vivi, and Steiner. The game has humor in the right places, and heart touching scenes that add a certain amount of seriousness to the largely fantastical proceedings.
Final Fantasy IX has a grand story with impeccable pacing, and plenty of other worldy imagery that hasn’t been matched by any game within the franchise. It also has some of the best use of CG scenes of the 1990s, and an incredible soundtrack. The game was, perhaps, Hironobu Sakaguchi’s most complete work…ever.
3. Xenogears (PS1)
This one is memorable…mainly because I can’t quite remember what the story was about. Yes, that statement is quite contradictory, but it doesn’t change the fact that I still remember huge chunks of this game’s storyline nearly a quarter century after I finished it. What I can’t remember, however, is exactly how it all made sense in the end.
Xenogears continues to have the most ambitious storyline ever written for a JRPG that I have ever played. From the game’s ‘god’ being a super computer/AI (at least I remember ‘it’ being a computer), to the cycle of reincarnation, to the incredible love story between Fei, and Elly (likely the best love story on this list), to an ‘Eve’ like character manipulating historical events; Xenogears had all of the elements needed for a long, and complex Anime saga…all within a single game.
At times, the game’s storyline was just too much. The game’s ambition was such, that Squaresoft stopped funding it, forcing its development team to quickly put together one of the most rushed second discs of all time. In retrospective, the team’s decision to slap disc two in a rushed manner, was the correct one…otherwise we would have never had a proper conclusion to such a magnificent storyline.
Like other games on the list, the addition of beautiful animated cinematic scenes, and a stirring soundtrack, aided in moving the storyline along, and in helping to create everlasting memories.
2. Final Fantasy VI (SNES)
In my opinion, before Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy storylines were not much to write home about – some will argue Final Fantasy VI was the one to have the ‘great’ story first, but I feel that it was FFVI – the one – that truly drove the series into the next level. How can I be so sure? Well, I scantly recall what Final Fantasy IV was about – despite having played that one after FFVI – but I can still pretty much write an outline about Final Fantasy VI’s plot line, if my life depended on it.
Though, for the era, it is true that Final Fantasy IV probably had one of the better stories (if not the best) within the SNES until Final Fantasy VI arrived (we didn’t get FFV stateside until it was released on a PS1 Anthology collection).
For starters, Final Fantasy VI moved away from the high fantasy setting into a darker, and in my opinion, edgier, Steampunk one. In 1994, Final Fantasy VI felt ‘new’. In fact, I would argue that its over all premise remained somewhat fresh even after Final Fantasy VII set the gaming world on fire in 1997.
Perhaps what makes the game truly memorable is its collection of iconic scenes that have made its storyline a fan favorite one. From the epic intro of Terra, Biggs and Wedge walking towards Narshe in their Magitek Armor, to Celes’ opera and suicide scenes. It is impossibly hard to forget Final Fantasy VI’s finest moments.
So, what keeps it from being #1 on the list? While the game has a great plot, characters don’t really get into deep conversations, and the dialogue is mostly basic early 1990s fare. Sure, the translation is likely a big culprit here, but some of the game’s quick and some what basic scenes (perhaps a limitation of 2-D graphics) don’t help.
For example, our cast has the opportunity to kill Kefka very early in Figaro. The clown wasn’t nearly a ‘god’ yet, and our cast was composed of powerful individuals, but their interactions are kept to quick chats with bad guy Kefka. Heck, even after burning Figaro, the cast seems to ignore the fact that they can kill the villain outright (I mean Edgar comes face to face with him).
Perhaps more damning is that Terra, Locke, and Edgar at one point have a 3-1 advantage over Kefka, but they rather flee to absolute safety than punish and end the villain that burned their castle down. It makes no sense, but such were they days of 16-bit JRPGs. And yes, I know there would be no ‘story’ if Kefka had been offed then and there, but perhaps the scenario writers could have come up with different circumstance (such as Edgar and company being not so close to Kefka, and the latter having a larger visible army.
Given that Final Fantasy VI has a great story outline, but lacked depth in its dialogue, it should be a prime candidate for a faithful (no Final Fantasy VIIR Sequel shenanigans), more fleshed out remake.
1.Final Fantasy VII (PS1)
While some may not agree with this choice, there is no disputing that the majority of JRPG players from the 1990s will remember Cloud’s journey in greater detail than perhaps any other game’s storyline. The most iconic JRPG of all time, also happens to have the most iconic storyline.
Final Fantasy VII blended Sci-Fi with some of the fantasy troupes that the series had already popularized. The game was a step up in terms of story telling from FFVI, and pretty much every other JRPG that came before it. Sephiroth firmly established himself as the series most popular villain, and as the standard that many other JRPGs would try to follow for their own villains.
Final Fantasy VII did rely a bit on the spectacle of CG vids (which was a fresh take on cinematic story telling back in 1997), and on its impressive 3-D graphics for a JRPG of the era. But the underlying storyline was likely the best that most gamers had seen within a game at the time, and it is hard to forget Cloud’s amnesiac crusade, his tragic love triangle with Aeris (now known as Aerith), and Tifa. Finally, his intricate relationship with Sephiroth, made Final Fantasy VII’s ‘hero vs villain’ thread feel like a more personal affair than Final Fantasy VI’s.
Final Fantasy VI had iconic moments – perhaps even a few more than Final Fantasy VII did – but I don’t know that any of these moments were as memorable or as powerful as Aeris’ death at the hands of Sephiroth. In my opinion, even Final Fantasy VII’s cast was deeper, and better fleshed out.
It could be that I replayed Final Fantasy VII numerous times, but it is its tale that I most fondly, and most clearly remember.
For that, FFVII is the number 1 game on this list.
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