Fantasy RPG video games have come a long way over the past 30 years, so I wanted to take a look at historically how we got from the text-based games of 1980 to the fully immersive online worlds where we play today in 2011. If you’re like me and you’re into fantasy books, you’ve likely played RPG video games, and maybe even played some old school role playing games as well. These video games combine the best of fantasy literature and role playing games, and are in chronological order starting in 1980 through 2011, not in order of goodness, or any other sort method.
Zork I (1980)
Yes, this is a list of the top 10 RPG video games of all time. Yes, Zork I was a text-only interface. That means no graphics, kiddies. Before the mocking commences, remember this was 1980. Remember that Zork I sold over 400,000 copies. I had to include Zork here out of respect. Not only this, but playing a text-only game accomplishes something that many games today lack: imagination. With a text-only game, the player is left to imagine the gaps, and the human imagination is the most powerful generator of ideas on the planet. There was real problem-solving mental power involved in playing Zork I. Also, the literal definition of a role-playing game is one in which you imagine what your character is doing, and imagine the world they play in. In this regard, text-based RPG video games may be the best translation of pen-and-paper RPGs to the digital realm, and still remain at the top of this category after 30 years. My hat is off to Zork I, one of the founding fathers of the RPG video game genre.
Dragon Warrior (1986)
I spent countless hours of my childhood romping through the Dragon Warrior world on my NES. Dragon Warrior was the first RPG to be presented to console (non-PC) based players, and as such is the flagship title for the genre on consoles. Dragon Warrior offers a turn-based battle system, introducing a pen-and-paper style (ala D&D) battle system to millions of console gamers who had potentially never experienced such a game. Dragon Warrior also offered a simple inventory and item management system, again reminiscent of table top gaming. I recently found a Java emulation of the game online, and played through the first few areas, and was amazed by the simplicity of such classic games. Many newer games offer too many options, and playing Dragon Warrior for a few moments has me yearning for a more recent RPG that can offer such a simple experience. Unfortunately, I think I’m out of luck, and I’m also disappointed that I can’t get the original Dragon Warrior on my Wii console. Boo Nintendo. But alas, Dragon Warrior stands in my memory as one of the most satisfying RPG video games of my life.
The Legend of Zelda (1986)
While I spent more time playing Zelda II as a child, the original Zelda game that spawned what has become a modern icon for fantasy video games had to make the list. Zelda, and its main character Link are perhaps the most recognizable game/character combo in fantasy video games in the world. It has garnered the top position for the best video game series ever by GameFAQ, with over 20 titles in the series. I mean, Robin Williams named one of his kids Zelda. The Legend of Zelda was the first console game to feature an internal battery for saving your game — meaning the player could take the cartridge to a friend’s house, stick it in said friend’s NES, and continue gameplay to the dismay of friends and family who were forced to watch. If you doubt Zelda’s true pimp hand, just check out this image on WikiPedia.
Dungeon Master (1987)
Dungeon Master is the first 3D realtime RPG video game. ‘Nuff said. Ok, maybe not. But it is notable, being the first title that mixed traditional RPG elements like leveling, mana, weapons inventory and character party management with a non-turn-based combat system. I remember moments of sheer terror playing this game, when you actually hear a monster screeching somewhere in the distance, but don’t know what or where it came from. Even more terrifying was looking through your inventory when all of a sudden you get whacked in the face by a mummy. Dungeon Master is a testament to the fact that the realistic graphics of modern games don’t necessarily make a good game. While the graphics were fantastic for its time, looking back now they look extremely simplistic, but the gameplay doesn’t suffer for them one ounce. Dungeon Master was a truly engrossing RPG for the Atari ST (it actually reached more than 50% market penetration of all ST’s ever sold), and a truly satisfying solo RPG game to play. Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Final Fantasy I (1987)
Final Fantasy is one of the most successful video game franchises in history, RPG or not, having sold more than 97 million units in all. What better way to honor the series, than to include the flagship title for the game in our list. Final Fantasy for NES was released in 1987, and expanded on Dragon Warrior style play, in that it retained the turn-based battle system, but players were now responsible for managing a party of four characters rather than the one character in Dragon Warrior. Final Fantasy also added a magic casting system, which was lacking in Dragon Warrior. For lovers of fantasy series, the Final Fantasy main series contains 14 titles, countless sequels, prequels and spin-off games, two feature-length films, tv series, novels, manga comics and soundtracks. In the words of Paris Hilton, “that’s huge”.