During the development of a recent article of mine, it became abundantly clear that I and other lovers of plot and characterization had once upon a time been spoiled by the great role-playing games being thrown our way in quick succession. Before RPG elements made their way into basically every game and sullied the genre, but after turn-based fighting and leveling systems took their first uncertain steps in the NES era: This was the Golden Age of RPGs. For the purpose of this article, I define the Golden Age as starting with the release of Final Fantasy IV (July 19th, 1991) and ending with the release of Final Fantasy X (December 17th, 2001) – I know, I know, it’s arbitrary, but we need boundaries, people!
Unsurprisingly, Golden Age RPGs begin and end with a little company called Square Co., Ltd. (If you’re unfamiliar with the history of this RPG juggernaut and precursor to Square Enix, I wrote about it here.) These guys were such masters of the genre that it’s downright unfair to compare their games to those of companies without the same resources… so I won’t. Final Fantasy fans, rejoice! This is a countdown of the 10 best Golden Age RPGs made by Square, specifically.
(For reference, here’s the complete list of games published by Square.)
Honorable Mention: Kingdom Hearts
PlayStation 2, 2002
Kingdom Hearts doesn’t come from the Golden Age as I defined it, but it does slightly predate the Square-Enix merger. I simply can’t justify stretching the era an extra year to include it, since it is by far the best post-FFX SquareSoft title and would still fall slightly short of my Top 10 – largely because the gameplay was a bit messy in the first title. But this Square/Disney team-up is easily their best (and most anticipated) original property since the Chrono duology.
Xenogears is a polarizing title among RPG fans. Some appreciate its complexity and innovative gameplay, while others find it inaccessible due to a lack of clarity in the plot. (Chrono Cross, which missed the cut for this list, is in a similar bag.) One thing you can’t deny is that this is an incredibly mature title, especially considering its “T” rating; the game almost didn’t make it to the U.S. due to its controversial anti-religious content – sort of an even more grown-up version of Breath of Fire II. The journey of Fei Fong Wong can indeed be hard to stomach and even harder to understand, but gamers with enough patience to unravel his story should find it a very rewarding experience, and one that’s hard to believe made it into a Square game during this era.
9) Final Fantasy Tactics
Speaking of mature Square titles, Final Fantasy Tactics remains to this day the closest that any RPG has come to replicating Game of Thrones (minus the sex). A medieval tale featuring the fall of a powerful family, betrayal, murder, conspiracy, and a touch of necromancy, this tactical RPG is a great example of the company innovating in both story and gameplay. Fans of other Final Fantasy titles may be jarred by the twist on their usual turn-based battle system – and the utter lack of a tutorial – but once you understand how to navigate the 3-D terrain and optimize the job system, you’ll have a lot of fun. There are some level and skill balancing issues in the initial release that make the game a little raw, so if you’re just starting out, I recommend the enhanced 2007 PSP port, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. Still, most of what makes this a great property (and one Square has continued with, however intermittently) was present from the start.
8) Secret of Mana
Super Nintendo, 1993
This is the convention-defying game where SquareSoft proved that multiplayer RPGs could actually be done, and done well. As a single-player game, Secret of Mana is a solid but not spectacular Action/RPG with somewhat generic (but playfully designed) characters, very good visuals and sound design, amazing music, and a fun if slightly flawed combat system. What elevates it onto this list certainly isn’t the characterization (although who could forget HERO, GIRL, and SPRITE?) – no, it’s the groundbreaking ability to plug in a second and even a third controller (thanks, Multitap!) and conquer evil along with your friends. It wasn’t a perfect implementation – in particular, accessing the menu as one character to use items or magic would grind the entire game to a halt – but it was strong enough, and the gameplay different enough, to make this title stand out even among the giants of the era. According to reports, there’s a Secret of Mana remake in the works that will hopefully fix a few of the worst issues, but since they’re scrapping the visuals of the original for “upgraded” 3-D graphics and adding what sounds like some truly wretched voice acting, I doubt it’ll retain the charm of this gem.
7) Final Fantasy IV
Super Nintendo, 1991
Initially released in the U.S. as Final Fantasy II, this was the point where the series really grew up, and a fitting way to kick off the Golden Age. As the conflicted Dark Knight Cecil, players embark on a journey filled with treacherous enemies, fantastic creatures, and even a storyline death (plus a few more fakeouts) – not what players were expecting at the time! The story is somewhat undercut by a few strange fantasy twists that weren’t very well thought-out (suddenly we’re on the Moon!), but there’s a tremendous amount of heart to the characters in the game, and Cecil and Rosa have arguably the first great romance in an RPG. In addition, the upgrades to the visuals (bringing the series into the 16-bit era) and gameplay (basically defining turn-based combat systems for the next decade) cannot be overstated. With Final Fantasy IV, SquareSoft went from niche developer to heavy hitter, and it helped lay the foundation for every other title on this list.
6) Final Fantasy X
PlayStation 2, 2001
Let’s jump from the beginning of the Golden Age to its end. From the opening seconds of Final Fantasy X, with that haunting piano medley on a black screen that fades into the remains of our main character’s hometown, the game immediately announces its intentions to create a deeply affecting emotional experience. Then, through a number of memorable sequences (focused primarily on Tidus’ relationship with Yuna and her pilgrimage, and his own daddy issues), it spends the rest of the game delivering on that promise. FFX is also notable as the first Final Fantasy game with voice acting, which was largely on point (one famously derided laughing scene notwithstanding). Couple that with another excellent combat and skill system from Square, and you’ve got yourself one of the all-time greats.