Before we go any further, I want to make clear that these numbers were pulled out of Wikipedia (in large part), so some of these tallies might be either inaccurate or not up to date. An example of this is the Assassin’s Creed sales tally. The game had sold 155 million units prior to Assasin’s Creed: Valhalla’s launch. While doing research for this article, I found out that the game (Valhalla) sold 1.7 million units by 2020’s end (December 31, 2020). Consequentially I adjusted the numbers accordingly, but it is likely that, by now, the AC franchise is closer to 160 (maybe even more) million units sold than the listed 157 million units.
The now famous “it is a not an RPG” mob will likely attack the following two entries on the list: Assassin’s Creed, and The Legend of Zelda. I have already discussed the reasoning behind why The Legend of Zelda is an Action-RPG, but I will explain Assassin’s Creed in a few lines for time’s (and space) sake.
From the beginning (even as early as Assassin’s Creed II) the series has had RPG elements, such as upgradable weapons and skill sets, an economy and currency system, etc. The series only kept incorporating more and more RPG elements to what already was growing into an Action-Adventure/Action-RPG type of franchise. Finally, AC’s last two main entries are full fledged open-world action RPGs, and given Valhalla’s groundbreaking success, the series is likely to remain as an action-RPG franchise for the foreseeable future.
Some fun facts: Apart from Pokemon, and Monster Hunter, no JRPG franchise born after 1987 made the cut. Conversely, apart from The Elder Scrolls, and Diablo, every Western RPG franchise on the list originated in 2007 or later.
While gaming trends have consistently pointed to a rise of WRPGs in terms of sales and popularity over Japanese ones, Pokemon and The Legend of Zelda remain as healthy as they have ever been at any one point in their long tenures. Which brings us to the next fun fact point: Only Nintendo has entries on this list that have been confined to single platforms, making their sales numbers even more impressive on a deeper look.
10. The Witcher (2007) – 50 Million Units Sold
The Witcher, is a video game series based on a book series by Andrzej Sapkowski that carries the same name. The series’ first entry was confined to PC alone, and it was moderately successful. The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings, however, did make its way to the Xbox 360 thus considerably widening the audience for the game and setting up the foundations for the franchise to explode into a full blown AAA commercial success on its 3rd entry.
The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt is the title responsible for the franchise making it this far on the list. With over (reportedly) 30 million units sold, The Witcher 3 outsold the other two entries’ numbers combined, and the game continues to sell well to this day.
The Witcher 3 has also (apart from being a critical masterpiece) benefited from being a multi-platform release in one of the most commercially successful eras for console hardware sales with versions of the game available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch. The Witcher 3, along with Skyrim, is the most successful single player RPG ever.
9. Diablo (1997) – 50 Million Units Sold
Diablo is one of the most influential Action-RPG/Dungeon Crawlers in history. While Diablo games are currently available in most gaming platforms, including consoles, the brand made its name on PC, where it holds its highest critical grades.
The series is set in a dark fantasy world, and it has that in common with other Western RPGs here which have typically focused on darker, more mature settings than its Japanese counterparts. The Diablo series was incredibly successful on PC right from conception with the first two entries being multi-million sellers. Diablo III, however, was a monumental success selling a whooping 6.3 million copies in its first week at retail. For comparison’s sake, Dragon Quest XI has sold about 6.5 Million units….in 4 years and 5 different platforms.
Diablo has also made its mark in terms of influence (on other RPGs) on the industry. The series remains popular to this day, and some critics have pointed to Diablo II “as the standard by which all other Action-RPGs are judged”. Even today.
8. The Elder Scrolls (1994) – 58.5 Million Units Sold
The Elder Scrolls might be, right now, the most popular single-player RPG franchise around, mostly, thanks to its last entry The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Let’s not get it twisted, The Elder Scrolls, especially Oblivion and Morrowind, had a successful commercial (and critical) pedigree before the arrival of their historic hit (Skyrim).
Skyrim is responsible for at least half (30+ million as of 2021) of the 58.5 million units sold within this series, and the game continues to be popular, more importantly, sell to this day. The Elder Scrolls VI is one of the most (if not the most) awaited RPG in gaming right now, and it is one of the reasons that many Sony loyalists have been a bit frustrated with Microsofts of acquisition of Bethesda and the legendary IP.
The Elder Scrolls games are rich in lore, size, and content. Its use of high fantasy troupes and settings makes it the perfect series for fantasy fans to well…live out their Tolkien fantasies in. The series itself grew in popularity from its PC only days by appearing on consoles starting with Morrowind (the series’ 3rd entry) on the original Xbox, and finally breaking out into mainstream success with Oblivion in 2006. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has sold about 9.5 million copies, which is about 5 million more than 2002’s Morrowind managed to move throughout its tenure.
7. Borderlands (2009) – 72 Million Units Sold
There are conflicting sales numbers on the Borderlands franchise. On some accounts it has sold over “60 Million” units as of 2021, but Wikipedia lists the total sales tally to 72 million. Still, by either number, Borderlands would still remain entrenched in the 7th spot on this list (though it is possible that, as we enter the final stages of 2021, The Elder Scrolls has over taken it).
Borderlands being here is impressive on many fronts, but mainly on the fact that it is the newest franchise featured on this list, and it only has a handful of entries. The first person, action-RPG shooter even beat out its direct competitor in Bethesda’s excellent Fallout series.
That said Borderlands etched a reputation on co-op and loot driven multiplayer gameplay rather than on a lonely single player focused experience (that has characterized the vast majority of Fallout entries). This series was born out of Randy Pitchford’s (Gearbox’s founder) idea of creating a Doom/Diablo crossover. Procedurally generated loot is key to the gameplay, as 17 million possible guns could be generated in the series’ first title (a Guinness Record).
On that note, Borderlands 2, is perhaps, the series’ most popular entry with 22 million copies sold (Borderlands 3 has sold 10 million as of 2021).
6. Monster Hunter (2004) – 78 Million Units Sold
Action-Role Playing games comes in many different shapes and gameplay sizes. Monster Hunter arrived in 2oo4 to grace RPG gamers with a fun and addictive online game (that could be played offline but with less rewards. The formula made it a commercially successful game, even if critics were not sold on the game entirely (it holds a 68 Metacritic rating).
The series progressively grew over the 2000s decade and into the 2010s culminating with Monster Hunter World in 2018. Monster Hunter World, currently, represents the series’ peak in popularity with 17.5 million units sold.
5. Dragon Quest (1986) – 83 Million Units Sold
JRPGs might owe Dragon Quest their birth. Inspired by Ultima and Wizardry, Dragon Quest turned into an instant success in the Land of the Rising Sun a quarter of a century ago. The first title in the series sold 2 million copies world wide, with a whooping 1.5 million of these units sold in Japan.
The number was impressive, and Dragon Quest became an instant success overseas, but it wasn’t until Dragon Quest VIII that the series encountered any measurable success on the West. Still, the series’ success motivated Squaresoft to green light Final Fantasy, and Square’s series would find western success to eventually over take Dragon Quest in worldwide sales. Dragon Quest remains a strong titles today with 11 main entries and 83 million units sold (of all titles including side games).
4. The Legend of Zelda (1986) – 123.6 Million Units Sold
The Legend of Zelda is one of the earliest, if not earliest, example of the template that nearly every other Action-RPG that came later would follow. Dungeon crawling, over-world exploration, and monster battling were more fun and interesting in The Legend of Zelda than in other RPGs of the time, back in the 1980s.
This series, along with Super Mario, is one of Nintendo’s best sellers, and most critically awarded franchises. Before The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess arrived on both the Nintendo Game Cube and the Nintendo Wii, 1998’s Ocarina of Time held the title as its greatest selling game with 7.60 million copies (though that number is 13 million if we factor in its 2011 3DS remake).
The Legend of Zelda is the only series, on this list, born during the 1980s that continues to grow exponentially. Its latest entry, 2017’s Breath of the Wild, has sold nearly 25 (as of September 2021) million units, and that number is likely to continue to rise as the Nintendo Switch approaches the 95 million consoles sold milestone.
The only thing holding Zelda back from over taking the next two franchises on this list is the fact that the series, as a Nintendo exclusive, is confined to Nintendo hardware only.
Fun fact: Every Nintendo console launched with a The Legend of Zelda game on day one, has gone on to become a gigantic success. The Wii launched with Twilight Princess and went on to sell 101 million consoles, and the Switch launched with Breath of the Wild and maybe even on this holiday season it will rise to shatter the Wii’s own record (as far as Nintendo Home Consoles go) numbers. Both of these launches, were also, curiously, cross-generational games.
3. Assassin’s Creed (2007) – 157 Million Units Sold *Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’s 2020 sales factored in
Assassin’s Creed’s placement on this list might stir up some controversy (which is actually not a bad thing) due to the fact that the series hadn’t truly embraced its RPG potential until Odyssey (10 million units sold). Odyssey was just as amazing as The Witcher 3 (in my humble opinion), and Ubisoft continued this trend with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (the series’ latest entry).
While Valhalla’s numbers are still under wraps, we know that it sold nearly 2 million units in just two short months (November and December) in 2020. With each subsequent expansion it feels like Assassin’s Creed has never been more popular than it is now, and I have to assume that given the series’ upward trajectory it won’t be long before it catches up, and surpasses our number #2 series on this list.
2. Final Fantasy (1987) – 164 Million Units Sold
Final Fantasy remains the runner up for the JRPG sales crown. With 10 million units sold on the PlayStation alone, Final Fantasy VII remains the series’ peak in terms of sales followed by Final Fantasy X (2001). Final Fantasy is the series that opened the flood gates for other JRPGs to do well on Western territories in the 1990s.
The series suffered a hard blow when its creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, left Square Enix in the mid 00s, but the games have continued to sell well since, though never reaching Final Fantasy VII’s heights. Proof that FFVII continues to be Square Enix’s golden goose is the fact that its Remake (5 million units sold within a week) was perhaps the most anticipated JRPG from the company…since the original game.
Despite its games being released on multiple consoles and PC, the series doesn’t seem to sell, as well these days, as other recent entries from Western RPG franchises like Horizon Zero Dawn (about to become a franchise), and The Witcher.
Fun Fact: Final Fantasy XI, and Final Fantasy XIV (AKA the Online Final Fantasies) are both the highest grossing entries in the series with Final Fantasy VII coming sharply in 3rd place.
1.Pokemon (1996) – 380 Million Units Sold
Far and away, the biggest RPG franchise in existence, Pokemon started out with a bang in 1996 (Pokemon Red and Blue) and it has never stopped… ah…banging since? Pokemon is a huge reason for Nintendo’s continued success even during the times when hardware sales have been disappointing (Nintendo 64, Game Cube) to down right disastrous (Wii U).
Pokemon helped the company maintain its dominance of the handheld market, with games that continue to sell in extraordinary numbers these days. Pokemon Sword and Shield (2019), the latest entries in the series, have sold a whooping 21+ million units to this point. That number is a resounding confirmation that Pokemon continues to hold the JRPG sales crown. A crown that it has held, in uncontested fashion (though Breath of the Wild might have something to say about that) for a quarter century.
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