We may have become the masters of multitask, but in our formative years, we experienced singular immersion in its finest forms. Between the lanyards, beanie babies, string games and yo-yos, we had RPGs. For the sake of this list, we’ve made two provisions: selected series must contain games published around the year 2000, and no game developer can be represented twice (sorry, Chrono Trigger and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic!).
If you grew up in the 90s and became a serious RPG fan around the turn of the century, these video game series were responsible for your enlightenment. Enjoy, and comment freely!
Imoen, Tiax, Minsc, Irenicus and many dozens more will stay with us until our final, dying clicks. Baldur’s Gate was the second game ever developed by BioWare, and it played a huge role in bringing the RPG genre to the 32-bit graphic stage in a memorable way. The series made BioWare famous for its excellent characters and varying progression paths, paving the way for the developer’s open-ended role-playing style. Baldur’s Gate came out in 1998, the same year that President Clinton said, “I did not have sexual relations…”
We ditched class, skipped meals and rushed chores to get back to the greatest loot-a-thon around. The fact that the Diablo series catered to both casual and hardcore players meant that it became an even more ubiquitous member of the genre, and indeed set the bar for the rest of its kind. Collecting uniques, set pieces and bartering currency was never so satisfying, and the Prime Evils were actually quite horrifying. Diablo 2, which is closer to our Millennial mark than its younger sibling, came out in 2000–the year that the world didn’t end. Free SOJs!
Saving the world, one slime at a time. Dragon Quest owes its lasting success to its talented and tenacious key developer team, which has largely remained the same since the series’ inception. Likely due in part to this stability of vision, Dragon Quest‘s memorable characters and expansive story lines have inspired books, manga and anime based on the series. Square Enix’s console champion boasts incredible amounts of content across all of its incarnations, and fans are still thirsty for more. Our generation likely entered somewhere between Dragon Quests V and VIII, around that turn-of-the-century mark.
Elder Scrolls spells F-R-E-E-D-O-M. It was dizzying. I could go anywhere, slay anything (or try), and progress in seemingly infinite directions. From following Fargoth to getting broken out of prison by Uriel Septim himself, the Elder Scrolls series transcended the RPG genre and became something of a Fantasy Life Simulator, spawning endless housing, texture and companion mods, to name a few. The game was enormous, the details were tiny and the immersion was complete; I remember my first hours in Morrowind as being similar to those in my favorite fantasy novels. Will the real Nerevarine please stand up?
First unveiled to the world in 1987, Final Fantasy has since spawned a colossal 14 titles (and that’s just the main series). The Japanese franchise often blurs the line between fantasy and science fiction, with machinery and magic sharing screen space in many instances. I saw no shortage of Sephiroth t-shirts in my high school Japanese class. The classic saga of truth and tragedy from Square Enix has influenced countless other games, both in and out of the genre. It’s also likely responsible for your RPG addiction, so which title is your favorite?
Revived (and reimagined) in 2008 by Bethesda, the postal-pocalyptic romp actually began in 1997, with the release of the original Fallout. It sat on the shelves next to Tomb Raider and Starcraft at my neighborhood CompUSA. The flexibility of character builds and NPC behavior allowed players to take actions that would break other games. In Fallout 2, killing an entire town full of quest givers was a completely viable option, and so was not killing anyone at all. The post-apocalypse has never been the same.
Legend of Zelda
Listen! 1998 was a good year. Ocarina of Time was released for the Nintendo 64 and Elton John was knighted. Were these events related? Definitely not, but the fact remains that the worldbuilding and gameplay in the series remain some of the best in the genre. In its early days, Zelda’s action-oriented combat was a nice departure from the turn-based combat of other eastern RPGs. Each game in the series boasts its own flavor of quests, puzzles, characters, and fantasy mysticism. Do you have a gold cartridge?
Professor Oak was like a father to me. Well, not really, but he did set me up for one of the greatest adventures of my gaming life. One of the easiest game series on this list to binge-play, Pokemon satisfied hoarders and explorers alike, and an ever-expanding population of pocket monsters meant that we’d never get bored. The success of the Pokemon TV show (1997) and trading card game (1996) set the stage for a truly all-encompassing experience. Red & Blue (and Green) released in 1996–the year Braveheart won best picture at 68th Academy Awards.