As if there was any doubt, judging by the news stories I gravitate towards, I love RPGs. I love grinding. I love stories. I love breaking battle systems wide open, and I especially love the feeling I get when I complete a 30+, 40+, 60+ hour game and feel like I got 30+, 40+, 60+ hours worth of actual game.
You would think that by my preferences, a JRPG would be my first RPG, probably Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior or something of the like. Well, that’s not entirely correct. I actually got my start in the weirdest of places at a very very young age, and I was totally turned off to RPGs for the longest time, missing out on many of the PC classics. To this day, I still don’t understand this wretched game one little bit, but we’ll get to that in a minute
Afterwards, I rediscovered the genre in the early 90’s thanks in part to my blooming love of Lord of the Rings of all places when I decided to break into a series that simply had the word “fantasy” in the title. And I guess, I finally did crack my way back into PC RPGs eventually with the help of two other titles.
They might not be the best or my favorite games of all time, but I have four RPGs I like to think I discovered through serendipity, accidentally stumbling on my favorite genre before it was my favorite genre. These are the ones I like to think forged my brain into one of an RPG fan and have been responsible for easily eating up over 85 percent of my gaming career.
Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant
Remember that dastardly title I broke my teeth on as a young boy? Well, this was it.Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant. Ooooohh, the name still gives me the shivers.
At the time when my father bought this, I was still a young elementary school student living in Groton, CT who did not yet own his own NES. I was only allowed to play this one at my grandmother’s house once every month or so. Absolute torture considering I was a bright eyed kid coming into consciousness at the height of Nintendomania in the late 80’s. To satisfy my gaming habits, I had the family ColecoVision, which even my under-aged brain could tell was no competition to the NES, and my family’s IBM computer running MS-DOS. I wish I could remember the model.
Yes, I’m a console brat who got his start on DOS games.
My main outlet for games were classic point-and-click adventures like Sierra’s King’s Quest, LucasArts’ Monkey Island. My family was all about adventure games, and my experience with games in general was not exactly with the deepest you could find at the time. You can imagine how intimidating a ridiculously deep pithole like Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant would be to a young boy with no experience in RPGs.
I remember being fascinated with the idea of making my own characters. I remember studying the map which came in the box for hours at a time. I made armies with crazy combinations of dog people and backstabbing halflings, but when I took them into the field, they immediately got slaughtered by giant packs of rats. The characters which survived soon perished at the hands of huge guards with blue robes and laser spears. Just going off my memories here…
Regardless, I tried over and over again until I made a group entirely of alchemists. I used the cherry bombs they came equipped with by default and blew away these first two “boss fights” with only a few scratches.
Of course, I had no way of sustaining my success with an entire party of weak potion masters, and hit an even larger brick wall called “the actual game.”
What! I was seven years old! I didn’t know about grinding, character classes and stats, and I especially didn’t know that you could talk your way out of situations. My first RPG experience proved too much for me, and I eventually forgot about it all together once my parents finally gave me my own NES after moving far from my grandmother’s house into a land called “Wyoming.”
Taking all the knowledge I have acquired as an adult playing RPGs like Skyrim and Mass Effect, I tried to play Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant again pretty recently when it was released on Steam just this past year, and of course, I still had no idea what I was doing. It definitely was from an age when RPGs were less accessible than they are today.
I could get it if I tried, but the emulated DOS soundtrack is a little too scratchy on my ears. I guess I am doomed to never-understand this ridiculous science fiction universe.
Final Fantasy III
Fast forward about three years. I was a little older, a little wiser, and was budding up into middle school during the dawn of my Peachtree City, GA years. I still hadn’t discovered RPGs yet, but I did own a Super Nintendo. Killer Instinct, Super Mario World, and Link to the Past were the only games I owned for a while, but that was all I needed to keep me happy, I suppose. The closest thing to an RPG I played at the time might have been ActRaiser on my cousin’s console, but that isn’t even an RPG!
Beyond my video gaming habits, this was about this time that my father introduced me to Lord of the Rings. Cartoon Network exposed me to the two RankinBass animated adaptations of Return of the King and the animated Hobbit film, still the superior version by the way, but I had never experienced the story of Lord of the Rings from beginning to end.
My father took me to the library one day, and rather than sit me down with a good book, knowing how adverse I was to reading, he instead set me up with the BBC produced 13 volume audio book series. To this day, this is my most preferred way to experience Lord of the Rings, and I still do so about once a year. Masterfully acted spreading across 13 CDs, tapes at the time for me.
Ahhh… Super Nintendo, Lord of the Rings, early PlayStation, and Star Wars… it doesn’t get more nostalgic than these early teen years. (Pokemon came a little later).
Anyway, back on topic. I was dying for an outlet for all of these wonderful fantasy stories I heard on CD, and I decided I needed more visual aid. Rather than watch fantasy films, I turned to my preferred medium of video games to help me out. I went to my local Microplay, and looked for any kind of “fantasy” game on the Super Nintendo shelves. Of course, the first thing I found was a game called Final Fantasy III. It had “fantasy” in the title, and that was all I needed.
It’s an important junction in my history as a gamer. Of course, it was nothing like Lord of the Rings, but I didn’t care one bit. This was a whole new world to me. Makes me wonder what would have happened if I had rented Final Fantasy II instead. I was blown away by everything Final Fantasy III was home to. Its gorgeous graphics and Japanese art, long before I knew about “anime” or even the distinction between Western and Japanese games. I loved its large cast of characters, its epic scope, and its evil villains.
After begging the Microplay guys to sell it to me, which they refused, I pledged to play even more of these RPGs. I rented Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy II. Loved them both. I went to grandma’s house for an entire summer vacation, and she bought me Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest and Tecmo Secret of the Stars, my fourth and fifth SNES games. Loved both of them, blinded by the shroud Final Fantasy III had thrown over my eyes. Little did I know they would eventually become the most maligned RPGs on the console.
The rest is history. Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals and Super Mario RPG led into my obsession into getting a PlayStation, which landed me Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Tactics on the same day. My uncle gave me SaGa Frontier that Christmas, and I discovered Suikoden the following spring at a rundown rental shop in Nazareth, PA. And today I am playing Persona Q, Bravely Default, and am gearing up to give Final Fantasy XIII a chance at redemption before diving headfirst into Final Fantasy XV.
All because Lord of the Rings sent me on a quest to find a “fantasy” game at my local Microplay, and Final Fantasy III had the word “fantasy” in the title. Yes, I know it’s really Final Fantasy VI. I was there when that revelation was made!
Speaking of Lord of the Rings though…
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Vol. 1
I discovered this one a few years too late. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Vol. 1 was an early Interplay game released on DOS in 1990, but I didn’t discover it until about the same time as I did Final Fantasy III, after we finally upgraded the family computer into one with a CD-ROM.
I found the CD-ROM re-release of this game on a shelf at that same Microplay, but this one was on the “for sale” rack. I just had to have it. My father, a fan of Lord of the Rings as well, took very little convincing, and we took it home and fired it up on our new computer like bright eyed children. Sadly, the game’s soundtrack proved to be too much for our sound blaster, and the game could not properly load.
All it could do was play the tutorial, and even that was facsinating to have Gandalf explain the game’s interface to you! No way!
I don’t remember how long it took , but eventually we solved the problem. Much like Crusaders of the Dark Savant, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Vol. 1 is a massive and brutal brutal game with tough combat, really obtuse quests, and nearly impossible dungeons to navigate. Characters would die permanently if they fell in combat, and nobody ever gained levels. What you got is what you got.
Good luck keeping those hobbits alive throughout the whole trek! I would gladly shake the hand of any completionists who perfect this one.
At least the music made it more tolerable. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Vol. 1‘s CD-ROM enhanced soundtrack always ranks pretty highly on my all time best list. Here’s a quick sample! Go ahead, I don’t think anybody will mind about you listening to these tunes for free anymore.
Unlike Crusaders of the Dark Savant though, I didn’t let Lord of the Rings beat me. I pushed and pulled my way through this game multiple times, not understanding how magic spells worked or how to use half of my inventory. I blasted through using the combat alone, and found an exploit on the final boss which let me kill him without him fighting back. Of course, a simple magic spell would have set it up so I didn’t have to fight. Again, I didn’t know these things at the time.
Who was that final boss? It was the Witch King of Agmar. Remember in the book when he kidnaps Frodo and takes him to Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood, and the fellowship must rescue him from the top of a shaky tower? Neither do I! This game makes very liberal use of Lord of the Rings’ progression, and there are characters from the canon who send you on quests they have no business sending you on. It’s total madness how deep Interplay dug into Middle Earth to flesh out this game!
One other takeaway I got from this game though was that the CD-ROM re-release replaced the game’s cutscenes with clips from the Ralph Bakshi movie. A Lord of the Rings movie you haven’t watched yet?! You must find it. I found the VHS on a rental stand at my church, and took it home at least once a month to watch. It’s a fine film I was glad to have appreciated before Peter Jackson changed Middle Earth forever.
There once was a time when Hollywood didn’t dictate the style of Middle-Earth, and it was just as wonderful to use our own imaginations. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Vol. 1 is not the best game, but when I think of pure, unadulterated, pre-Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings, this is the one my mind goes to first. Its simple graphics let me fill in the blanks, and my knowledge from the audio books and animated movies put me in control of how I saw Tolkien’s world.
A far more rewarding experience than having the excellent films do it for me.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
I was raised in a day and age of PC gaming that was not friendly to those who are less tech-savvy on the spec side of things. If I gamed on a computer, it was my family computer, and that closed off a large portion of 1990’s PC gaming library to me.
Add to that the fact that PC games were really challenging to my young mind. I’ve already explained my situation with two PC RPGs, and it’s plain as day that I preferred the much more simple Japanese approach to RPGs. That all changed when a console called the Xbox came around and simplified this style of games for all of us.
I originally bought an Xbox because I wanted to play Panzer Dragoon Orta, but I also picked up Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic after hearing so many good things about it. I could make choices in my games? What?! I could effect the outcome of the plot?! Huh? Pretty standard for those who had enjoyed Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and Baldur’s Gate by that time, but it was a whole new experience for the JRPG crowd just climbing aboard.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic finally opened the doors to PC RPGs that Lord of the Rings and Crusaders of the Dark Savant could not. Of course, I was already deep into my high school years by the time I had finally played it, so I could understand it better. Like I said before though, going back to those earlier games is no picnic, and Knights of the Old Republic is far easier than how PC RPGs used to be. I enjoyed it for that.
Of course, JRPGs weren’t exactly firing on all fronts during those years. Xenosaga crashed and burned, Final Fantasy XII was a weirdo that I didn’t understand at the time, and Suikoden IV proved to be the absolute final straw for me with the genre. The doomed pairing of the PlayStation 2’s massive ambitions and limited hardware left many games from the genre feeling like a slow, cliche drag through the mud, and early Xbox 360 releases proved no different.
I abandoned JRPGs for few years, missing out on Dragon Quest VIII and Suikoden V, and I needed somewhere to turn to for my RPG needs. Knights of the Old Republic planted the seeds at just the right time for my appreciation and even preference of Western RPGs. This lasted a few years throughout Mass Effect’s, The Elder Scrolls’, and Fallout’s short reign.
Again, the rest is history. Persona 3, Persona 4, and a wave of excellent DS games reinvigorated the JRPG genre and welcomed me right back in, but the lingering effects of Knights of the Old Republic caught hold and still haven’t let go. I am both a child of Japan and the West in regards to my RPG preference nowadays, and this is why both Final Fantasy XV and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt sit highly on my most anticipated games list in 2015.
That’s my story. A “brief” summary about how I became an RPG nerd and how I evolved with the times. How about yourself? Where did you get your start, and how did you grow as an RPG fan?