04. Skies of Arcadia (Overworks | Dreamcast)
When people think of the Sega Dreamcast, they almost invariably think of Skies of Arcadia. For those of us who lived through this era of gaming, it’s easy to remember the colossal amount of hype that was building for Arcadia. While Grandia II came out right around the same time, fans desperately chose sides in a battle that would decide the Dreamcast’s JRPG heavyweight champion of the world. Low and behold, and as much as we adore Grandia II, Skies of Arcadia came out on top of that fight — and for good reason, really. SoA, which later received a GameCube port, was regaled thanks to its ability to mash together standard JRPG design practices with a setting that merely had not been explored before.
Picture this: Final Fantasy, but with air pirates. That’s essentially Skies of Arcadia. But let’s be honest, while the game’s traditional combat was solid through and through, we can’t talk about the game without making mention of the incredible ship-to-ship battles. Since much of Skies‘ transportation occurs via airships, it would only be right that large-scale, aerial ship wars take place throughout the hefty story. The foundation of these scenarios aren’t all that different from the regular hand-to-hand combat segments, but it’s the consummate spectacle of seeing one’s pirate ship that has been leveled up, and appropriately souped up, that gets etched into the annals of one’s mind. It’s these ships that really make the experience, or at least act as the cherry on top of the delicious sundae that is the rest of the game. Even the ship designs are fantastic. The art overall is rather superb actually, truly in a class of its own with character designs that are especially appealing and different from the rest.
The game’s visuals are what would make such an HD endeavor so worth it. Skies just pays attention to those small details that really make for a graphical feast; from the panoramic angles when taking to the skies, to the intelligent battle camera that captures all the flashy combat, to the diverse towns that all come with their own theme and aesthetic, this is a game rich in style. Putting it in high-definition would not only serve to enhance the visual experience of Skies, but would remind folks that it existed as a game and as a storytelling device. Skies of Arcadia is a magical game, one that feels complete with intense emotional climaxes and crushing lows that make players’ hearts dip with sadness. It’s a joyride that offers one of the more unique experiences on this entire list. To strike a balance of throwback design and forward-thinking philosophies is a commendable feat in and of itself; to be able to do so with such awe-inspired precision is an triumph on a whole other level. Therefore, we find it only right that the Dreamcast’s defining RPG is made available to a wider audience.
03. Vagrant Story (Squaresoft | PlayStation)
Although it rarely gets mentioned in the same sentence as someone spouting off their adoration for Squaresoft PlayStation games, Vagrant Story is nevertheless one of the developer’s crowning achievements of the fifth generation era. Vagrant Story is maybe Square’s grittiest roleplaying experience. From the ground up, the game is built with a mature audience in mind, and as a result, never treats the player like a child. The content delivered in the narrative is dark, its graphics are equally as raw and unflinching, its difficulty is crushingly hard. No if’s, and’s or but’s about it, Vagrant is a tough-as-nails kind of game that is just unwilling to compromise its mission — which is clear: give the player a challenging quest with a killer story that is every bit as compelling as it is George R. R. Martin-esque.
In all honesty, Vagrant is the type of game that needs to be made more often. For starters, it has a deep, oppressive, brooding tone that is perfectly conveyed just in its use of colors and characters alone. The mood-drenched browns, tans and blacks practically hang on the players like a wet blanket, clinging to them, unrelenting in fashion. It’s hard not to get caught up in the despair that surrounds every kind of narrative device employed. Yet, these aren’t feats on their own, as it’s the game’s narrative momentum that keeps the wheels chugging along, carrying players from one part of the dungeon to the next. The storytelling is just so foreign to anything Square was doing at the time, that it was refreshing to see such stark matters addressed in a genre that lacked seriousness at the time. Needless to say, when all of this comes together, it forms an intriguing, atmospheric experience that’s hard to quantify.
But Vagrant‘s more than its plot, of course. Where it puts most of its efforts is in the area of gameplay. In this department, and much like the aforesaid story areas, the game feels unlike any other Squaresoft title at the time and even to a degree today. So make no mistake, this is a dunge0n-crawler. An intricate one with a myriad of customization systems that are deep and equally robust. But aside from all the options players have to choose from when deciding how they will dissect their enemy, it’s important to remember one thing: Vagrant Story‘s sole mission in life is to kick players’ asses without a shred of remorse. Sure, there may be harder gamers, but VS will test one’s ability to practice restraint when it comes to throwing and/or breaking controllers. And yet, it never apologizes for such behavior; it only revels in it.
Vagrant Story was a bit of a technological marvel when it launched. It was dazzling in its haunting depiction of monster-laden labyrinths; it was mouth-droppingly inspired in its character models and designs; it was brilliant in its ability to work around the, at that point, PlayStation’s aging tech. To smooth out the textures, and bring this bad-boy into the high-definition era would be drool-inducing. To show folks what a dungeon-crawler is all about — at a time when punishingly difficult games are currently on the rise — and to show them the unique art direction of Vagrant feels almost necessary at this stage. It would simply be a shame if this game was left behind, never to be talked about again in the modern day.
02. Panzer Dragoon Saga (Team Andromeda | Saturn)
And then we come to the greatest RPG that nobody played. Given a very limited run of only 30,000 copies domestically, on a system that no one had, at a time when its publisher was transitioning from the fifth to the sixth generation of consoles, as part of a series that was historically an on-rails shooter…it’s quite plain to see why no one even knew Panzer Dragoon Saga existed. It was only through rave reviews and rumors about the insanely high prices copies were fetching on Ebay did folks come to know of it. But there was a very good reason why the game was garnering such fantastic reviews: it was a masterpiece. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s actually quite an accurate statement. In all forms of art, there are those pieces that stand out from the crowd and ultimately go down in history as timeless classics that anyone, who is interested in said medium, should experience. That is Panzer Dragoon Saga.
What’s the craze about, though; that’s what everyone’s asking, right? It probably has something to do with the game’s incredibly obscure approach to, well, just about everything that makes a video game, a video game. The battling is a patchwork of turn-based tactics and its series predecessors’ on-rails shooting. Then, its world is bizarre, desolate, dire in its appearance and state of affairs. The game even has its own language that was created just for certain NPCs to use. Environments are all an awful brown, sandblasted by the elements and wrecked by time… These are just some aspects of Saga that make it such a unique experience. We raved about Dragon Quest VIII‘s lively world, and yet out of all the games on this list, Panzer Dragoon Saga takes the crown for having the single most absorptive universe around. It’s as if it’s always existed, as indicated by the way that everything feels run down, dilapidated, eerily resembling a post-apocalyptic vibe. There are nomadic tribes scattered throughout the lands, and yet, there are hardly any typical towns or cities like in other JRPGs, thus creating a sense of isolation and aloneness.
And then there’s the story overall, which is fully mesmerizing with its mystery and ability to slow-drip bits of plot information to the player in a weird, but enslaving way. Just thinking about all of the strange sights and sounds that unfold over the course of the game’s short-but-insanely-sweet story is admittedly impressive. Nothing here is paint-by-numbers in the slightest. In a genre that can be so overcrowded by overused tropes and eye-rolling clichés, somehow, someway the writers of Panzer Dragoon Saga managed to avoid all of them. Even though I’ve put this at number two on the list, I will make this claim now: this is one of the best roleplaying games ever constructed, for all the aforesaid reasons. And I don’t just mean the best Japanese roleplaying game; I mean all RPGs.
So it’s painfully obvious why this game needs a remake, or at least it should be. Although it’s been rumored for quite some time now that the game’s source code was actually lost along the way (yep, I said the source code was lost — like you’d lose a wallet or set of keys), there’s enough mystique and hardcore fandom to warrant a full remake. We would be okay getting remastered versions of all the other games on this list; this one, however, deserves a rebuilding from the floor up. That said, if somehow the source code wasn’t lost, we’d take a remastering if it was the only option. The game used every ounce of power in the Saturn when it was released, and yet due to the Saturn’s resolution capabilities, and general inability to handle texture-work very well, it wasn’t exactly the prettiest game. This is especially a shame because of how mind-bogglingly strong and distinct its art style is. Regardless, it would be great to play this with enhanced visuals, bad texture work and all. We just simply need this game to show itself again. It’s been sixteen long years since Panzer Dragoon Saga‘s release — it’s time to show the world what they are missing.