The ever-growing popularity of the RPG owes much to Final Fantasy VII. Before 1997, we would get some RPGs, and miss out on countless others. But we aren't here to talk about Seiken Densetsu 3. No, we're here to look at the year after Final Fantasy VII's release. Cloud's journey marked a significant shift in RPG interest, and while the market didn't instantly grow to what it is today, looking back at 1998 reveals a year packed with classics. With games that changed everything, or became the gold standard by which all others of its type would be judged.
Somehow, within these twelve months, the general gaming world saw the debut of Spyro, the ever-popular Resident Evil 2, Turok 2, 1080 Snowboarding, and the debut of StarCraft. It was when the impressive and loot box-free Star Wars: Rogue Squadron amazed gamers, and, oh yeah, when Metal Gear Solid changed everyone's perspective on how cinematic a game could truly be.
But let's step back to RPGFan. Because along with all of these games outside our coverage were these 28 titles below. These days, we wait years for the next entry in a huge series. In 1998, Square released three wildly different RPGs, all based on new IPs, in under three months. Nintendo changed Zelda in such drastic fashion that it would take over 18 years to upend the formula again. The Sega Saturn's final game released thanks to Working Designs, in the same year two of SEGA's most sought-after RPGs released. All that and more awaits you here, so let's look at the best RPGs from RPGFan's first year.
Note that we generally based this list on North American release dates, but included some Japanese 1998 releases where appropriate. For the sake of brevity and focus, we also did not count ports or re-releases that arrived in 1998.
I bought the Final Fantasy Tactics strategy guide before even owning a PSone. The classes and 3D maps printed within the imagined strategies that I would one day implement consumed me. Upon finally obtaining the game months later, my thirst for complex tactical combat, feelings of real danger, and the sweet grind for job points was quenched. Without intense grinding sessions, Final Fantasy Tactics may be one of the most difficult games bearing the series name (the thought of Golgorand Execution Site still keeps me up at night). But that grind is so tantalizing, watching your scrappy recruits turn into veritable tanks over the course of the lengthy narrative. The plot is so slight, so nuanced, and yet packed with political and mature personal intrigue. A script from Yasumi Matsuno, of Ogre Battle fame, oozes drama, with an epilogue that will echo in your mind for years. No cutscene is wasted, and each battle begins and ends with a heightened sense of morality and the grim state of the world. Oh, and the soundtrack is killer.
SaGa Frontier, like all of Akitoshi Kawazu's games, is an incredibly divisive title. It's lacking in polish, there's roughly a zillion skills and recruitable characters to figure out, and for the most part, it's completely inscrutable. And yet, those who commit to its inscrutability will find a rewarding experience filled with captivating mysteries. SaGa Frontier allows players to choose one of seven protagonists, each with their own story. Some of these are tightly paced; Red is a tokusatsu-inspired superhero on a quest of vengeance, while T260G is a ten-thousand-year-old sentient robot out to discover her past. Others are non-linear to the point of barely having any story at all: Blue's and Lute's open-world quests only really differentiate themselves by their openings, endings, and what you choose to do in between.
Whether focused or loose, none of SaGa Frontier's individual stories are anything to write home about. It's the mysteries that make it shine the brightest. You might stroll through peaceful suburban Shrike and end up in a bio lab, where horrible experiments are being carried out, or you may wander into the Shadow Realm of Omble, where your shadow promptly comes to life and runs away. More often than not, the answer to these mysteries is the fact that story content was dummied out while dungeons remained (two entire protagonists had to be cut, one at a very late stage), but SaGa Frontier's strange and unfinished development certainly feels fitting to its intriguingly bizarre world.
by Scott Clay
It's hard to believe that it took until the third game in the series for many people to pay attention to the Breath of Fire games. The first two were enjoyable games despite the fact that they had spotty localizations and weak stories. Breath of Fire III, however, really felt like Capcom finally understood what it took to make a solid RPG. The characters were more well-defined this time around; the story was exciting, and the battle system that had been messing around with transformations since the first game hit its stride. In fact, the Dragon Gene system is still one of the most fun systems added to an RPG. Just mixing and matching genes to see what kind of dragon Ryu would become is a lot of fun. Sometimes you got something cool, other times not so much. On top of all this, the game boasted some gorgeous 2D sprites in a time when everything looked like it was heading down the 3D path, and you had the perfect formula for a great RPG. We can only hope that one day the series will continue.
by Rob Rogan
Panzer Dragoon Saga, many a gamer's white whale, has remained criminally neglected in this age of re-releases of re-releases. Unfortunately, this gem of an RPG — which saw limited release at the end of the Sega Saturn's life — may never get a port with the alleged loss of its source code and the notorious difficulty of Saturn emulation. Saga pushed the limits of the Saturn's hardware with its 3D environments and voice acting (which weren't commonplace for RPGs back in 1998), and featured truly unique exploration and battle mechanics inspired by the on-rails titles of the Panzer Dragoon franchise. If you can afford the hundreds of dollars it still goes for on auction sites, you'll be treated to what is generally considered one of the greatest RPGs of all time.
You may remember Atlus brought Baroque to Playstation 2 and Wii in 2008, but the original Saturn/PlayStation version was an entirely different beast. While the story remained the same — venture into the depths of the Neuro Tower in search of the post-apocalyptic world's salvation — OG Baroque takes place firmly from the first person perspective. Stalking through the procedurally-generated halls of rusted chain link to the sound of a killer ambient industrial score by Masaharu Iwata evokes a sense of terror that few games have matched today.
Plotwise, Azure Dreams couldn't have a simpler concept: Koh's father, a monster tamer, disappeared exploring Monster Tower when he was a child. When Koh comes of age, he takes up his father's familiar, Kewne, and the two venture into the tower to find the truth. Monster Tower itself is a procedurally-generated dungeon filled with Pokémon-esque monsters to tame, but what makes Azure Dreams really special is what goes on around Monster Tower. Back in Koh's hometown of Monsbaiya, artifacts and money you find on your quest can be used to improve the neighborhood. This not only has practical effects, like expanding the stock of the local blacksmith, but also allows you to construct statues, fountains, and even swimming pools to chill out at in between dungeon runs. And for those inclined, there's even a robust dating sim to play with. Very innovative for its time, Azure Dreams refuses to be restrained to a single category, and its groundbreaking influence can still be seen today in titles like Stardew Valley.
Star Ocean: The Second Story is actually the first entry in the series the West saw (the original Star Ocean did not get an official release outside Japan until the game was remade for PSP in 2008). Despite having no background with the series when it originally released, I quickly fell in love with Second Story thanks to the engaging story, excellent cast, beautiful graphics and music, and addictive real-time combat. A comprehensive skill system provides opportunities for combat bonuses and item creation, and the Private Action system the series is known for is a brilliant way to flesh out characters and build relationships, pairing up characters with behind-the-scenes math that can result in over 80 unique endings. Sadly, subsequent games in the series haven't quite lived up to the charm of Second Story, but at least the oldies are still goodies. Now, if we could just get the PS4/Vita versions of the game out West...
This little-known Sega Saturn exclusive has quite the pedigree. Featuring designs by critically acclaimed anime artists Range Murata (Last Exile, ID-0) and Yoshitoshi ABe & Yasuyuki Ueda (Serial Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze), and a theme song by King Crimson's Ian McDonald (of all people, in his sole video game credit), Wachenröder is a unique steampunk strategy RPG informed by the cultural criticism of Walter Benjamin. Protagonist Lucian Taylor leads a group of eco-conscious anarchists across Edward Island on a campaign to topple the regime responsible for high levels of pollution. Wachenröder is a stark adventure with beautiful art and music, so it's a shame that it never made it to the West.
There was always something special about Shining Force. Make no mistake, I have grown to love my intricately-planned strategy games over the years, but the first time I fired up Final Fantasy Tactics, I was initially disappointed that out-of-battle interaction was confined to menus. I wondered why so few strategy games borrowed from Shining Force's playbook.
Eventually the Shining series would move away from its strategy roots entirely, but Camelot Software Planning gave us one final hurrah with Shining Force III, a whole five years after its Genesis prequel. And, like the majority of Sega Saturn RPGs, it's a tragic tale. Shining Force III was an early episodic game; each of its three chapters was a robust 30-40 hour RPG that showed the different sides of a vast military conflict, each with its own characters and antagonists — the third chapter tied everything together in a grand finale. However, it was not meant to be. The West only received Shining Force III Scenario 1: God Warrior of the Kingdom, its title rewritten simply as Shining Force III to hide its episodic nature. It's a shame, as it's an incredibly ambitious suite that was well ahead of its time. C'mon SEGA, give us some Saturn ports sometime, will ya?
Produced by Shin Megami Tensei mastermind Koji "Cozy" Okada and featuring lush artwork by Yoshitaka Amano of Final Fantasy fame, Kartia: The Word of Fate (called Rebus in Japan), exudes its own unique brand of cool among strategy RPGs. Players can choose to either follow the rollicking adventure of foolhardy knight Toxa Classico or the more somber tale of earnest shrine maiden Lacryma Christi. Each storyline is different, but they do intertwine in places, creating incentive to play both. The storyline is excellent and is bolstered by some of Amano's most expressive character art and rousing music by Kenichi Tsuchiya and Masaki Kurokawa. I found the gameplay uniquely fun in its complexity and found myself renting it from Blockbuster Video every weekend until it was finally available for retail. Yes, Kartia was a video store rental exclusive when it first came out. Though I'm not sure what the reasoning was behind that maneuver, I'm glad that this game's gorgeous cover art caught my eye at Blockbuster and enticed me to try it. Kartia was released for PSN in Japan in 2011 but never for the North American PSN, and that needs to be rectified.
by Scott Clay
In 1998 the reactions to Mega Man Legends were as follows: "Golly, a 3D Mega Man game! Oh wait, it doesn't play anything like a Mega Man game, where are the robot masters, where is Dr. Light, why does Mega Man have hair?"
For many fans of the series, Mega Man Legends was an instant turn-off. It was, for the most part, a Mega Man game in name only. You would think that a game that also suffers from pretty terrible 1990s 3D controls would turn away a lot of people as well. However, for those that looked past all this, we found a game that was, and still is, very near to our hearts.
Mega Man Legends had a mysterious and adventure-filled world, a great little story tied to it, a fantastic soundtrack, and the most important thing, a loveable cast of characters. The characters came to life from their very expressive facial animations, and more importantly, the fantastic voice acting. Yes, I know it's hard to believe that a game that came out in 1998 (that didn't contain Metal, Gear, and Solid in its title) had good voice acting, but it's true. All of this came together to make a delightful game despite its horrid controls and lack of anything to do with traditional Mega Man. It is a shame that there probably will never be a Mega Man Legends 3, but some of us never give up hope for it.
1998 was the end of nucleic domination! Just kidding, that happened in 1995 when the Parasite Eve book first came out. Still, the release of Parasite Eve in the US gave us a wonderful survival horror/RPG hybrid with a solid female protagonist and great music. And what an intriguing (if not really realistic) premise for a game in the first place — cell organelles that were independent in the distant past rebelling and causing monstrous mutations and spontaneous combustion. Definitely good, dramatic material for cutscenes.
You play as Aya Brea, the young detective who seems to be the only one immune to Eve's influence, and it's an engaging journey from her fateful night out at the opera to the final confrontation. The game's combination of real time RPG-style fighting and survival horror-style exploration mesh well, while standing apart from other systems of the time. The exploration aspect is framed in an interesting way, too, with the game taking place over a defined six-day span (starting on Christmas Eve 1997) in New York City. You can feel the tension building as the response to Eve becomes more panicked and the city gets evacuated. Whether you're focused on combat or laughing at a cell nucleus blasting away some mutated mitochondria in the microscope cutscene, this game is still excessively fun to play.
Just slightly more underground than its absurdly, internationally popular peer, Dragon Quest Monsters is hardly punk, but still felt like a cool secret upon release. Everyone played Pokémon, collected Pokémon cards, and had Pokémon backpacks. But only you and your one friend played Dragon Quest Monsters (then Dragon Warrior Monsters). Pokémon was pristine, whereas Dragon Quest Monsters was rough around the edges, and sometimes indecipherable in that Game Boy JRPG kind of way. Akira Toriyama's lovable and crude monster designs reminded us of the art from Chrono Trigger, but we couldn't yet articulate why. The game itself exemplifies the endlessness of wandering in the JRPG dungeon void. Often featureless, the world of Dragon Quest Monsters is connected through unmarked warp gates, giving the game a dreamy, Alice in Wonderland-like quality. Taming and breeding slightly better monsters with incrementally better skills is captivating in a way that almost rivals filling out a Pokédex. Sweetening the deal is protagonist Terry, the anti-hero from Dragon Quest VI, an allusion that serves to spice up Dragon Quest lore.
by Nathan Lee
While it may not have been the biggest individual release of 1998 — thanks in part to that kid and his ocarina — the release of Pokémon Red/Blue expanded Pocket Monsters beyond Japan, and in doing so, gave rise to an entertainment empire that is still going strong after two decades. Those growing up as kids in the late 90s and early 2000s couldn't go anywhere without their peers talking about Pokémon. Pokémon was one of the first video game series to truly go mainstream. It created a global cultural phenomenon that no other game would replicate for quite some time. You could argue that no other game has replicated what Pokémon did. What other video game spawned toys, collectibles, TV shows, movies, musicals, trading cards, and documentaries like Pokémon has? Kids begged their parents for anything Pokémon-related. I should know; I was one of those kids. There was just something about Pokémon that captivated my generation. Was it the monster collecting? The cool and cute designs? The sense of adventure? The easy-to-understand but still complex gameplay? The great 8-bit soundtrack? Or all of the above? Whatever the case, the indelible impact of Pokémon persists today, and kids are still growing up with the pocket monsters. And we have those lovely games from 1998 to thank for that.