Matt's Top Ten CRPGs

Matt Barton's picture

A lot of peeps have been asking me to compile a list of my top ten favorite CRPGs of all time. Like most fans of the genre, I have many favorites, and these will shift around as I come in and out of different phases. Also, this is just a personal list of what I either enjoy now or look back on with the most fondness; I'm not worried here about what is most influential or innovative. It's just my top ten favorite CRPGs, as of this moment. I'm also going to skip hybrid games that try to cross genres, such as Mass Effect and Deus Ex, as well as MUDs and MMORPGs. Okay, enough disclaiming already! Here goes the list:

Someday he's gonna be a jedi...Someday he's gonna be a jedi...10. Knights of the Old Republic. I have to admit the bulk of my appeal for this game comes from its setting in the Star Wars universe, which I love almost as much as Middle Earth and Krynn. There were times playing this game where I felt I had actually entered that universe and was a part of something bigger than the game itself. It seems to me that after this game, Bioware cut the cord and went Action, Action, ACTION. There's some of that tendency here, but compared to Dragon Age and Mass Effect, at least this still reminds me of a true CRPG.

9. The Bard's Tale. It's a bit of a guilty pleasure to love this game so much, since it was heavily derivative on Wizardry, but what can I say...It didn't take me long to really want to explore the town of Skara Brae and get my pack of wimpy, glass-jawed heroes up to snuff. I also really like the Bard as a class and character; it seems obvious today, but back then it was really fun to think about a guy out strumming a lute as the rest of the party fought for their lives. I also really like the artistic style, which adds a certain character that really is unique. It also has a great box that you can fold out and see a lovely map of the city. Good stuff.

8. Dungeon Master. Another game that I am deeply saddened to have missed out on when it was fresh. I know I would've absolutely loved it. Unfortunately, it required 1 megabyte of RAM to play, and my Amiga 1000 was limited to 512K. That still frustrates me to this day! Still, when I finally got to play it, I was really impressed with the interface, and it's obvious at once how the real-time elements set it apart from its predecessors and contemporaries. It's a bit hard to get into today because of the magic system, which definitely requires some reading, but overall it's still lots of fun. I remember the ads stressed that you need to wear headphones and only play the game at night. I don't know if that was necessary, but it was a neato game for sure.

7. Might and Magic 6: The Mandate of Heaven. Another game that feels comfortable to me, like a favorite pair of old shoes that'll never let you down. I originally picked this game up because of the box art, which looked a lot like the AD&D art of the Gold Box games. After I saw the actual game, I was disappointed, big time, since it felt more like Doom than Pool of Radiance. Still, I let it grow on me, and was soon completely hooked. It's one of the few CRPGs I've actually finished twice. It's got a great pace and the world is really fun to explore, with some truly inspired level designs. It's really fantastic when you finally get the flight spell and go soaring up above the map. That experience alone is worth playing this game. A lot of fans of this series seem to think the Xeen games are the ones to play, but this is the one I started with and don't regret it at all. A little story about this game: a friend of mine saw me playing it, and was intrigued enough to get a copy for himself and play it at his house. There, his stepfather (a man in his fifties who was not then a gamer) saw HIM playing it, and got hooked as well. I went to my friend's house a year later, and discovered a huge three-ring binder that his stepdad had compiled. It was full of maps, tables, charts, and all kinds of information about M&M 6! I couldn't believe it. Now, it's not just any game that could do that.

ASCII first. Graphics later.ASCII first. Graphics later.6. Nethack. I'm not a roguelike nut like many of my fellow enthusiasts, but I do occasionally fire up Nethack or one of its kin to wile away a few blissful hours. I believe my first brush with a roguelike was on the Amiga via a shareware disk pack--LARN was the name. Some people assume these games are simplistic, but they haven't played them. Once you get into it, you quickly realize there's a helluva lot to explore, though granted it's all about the algorithms. The sheer randomness of it is one of the key appeals--you really never know what to expect or what could happen. Later on I found Nethack, which really hit the spot. I don't want to use the over-used term "casual" here, but these are some of the only CRPGs you can boot up and play for a few minutes and quit without worrying about saving the game or whatever.

5. Planescape: Torment. I know a lot of people claim this game is their favorite because it makes them seem cool, sorta like people who claim their favorite novel is Catcher in the Rye or their favorite movie is Citizen Kane. Yeah, yeah, we get it, you're not the typical Joe 6-Pack who thinks Michael Bay is a living legend. But anyway! I didn't play this game when it came out, but only recently, but right away I was hooked on the story and characters. The setting is a wonderful contrast from the usual generic fantasy world, and it's neat learning how it works and your character's role in it. There's also lots of nice twists, such as the way the game uses death as a gameplay element rather than just a punishment. All in all, a great game that every CRPG fan should experience at least once.

So fun you actually want nuclear war.So fun you actually want nuclear war.4. Fallout. I missed Wasteland when it was new, so my first foray into post-apocalyptic CRPGs was the original Fallout. It's a bit rough around the edges, I have to say, but overall there's a lot to love here. It's one of the few games set in this environment that really felt convincing to me. That first scene where you're emerging from the vault really felt like leaving the womb. The humor is great, too. I'm sad that I missed out on Wasteland, but at least I got to experience this masterpiece and its sequel. It's said that there's even a Tardis out there in the wastes somewhere...How cool is that?

3. Wizardry. It really says something about a game when you find yourself preferring it over much more "advanced" games. That's the way it was with me and Wizardry, which I first stumbled upon in a big box of C-64 warez. I consider it the Tetris of CRPGs--simple to learn, but hard to master. I never managed to beat it, but boy did I spend some time on those proving grounds. Surprisingly, the later games never really appealed to me as much as the original.

2. Baldur's Gate 2. The first game is okay, but the second one is my favorite. I like the additional rules that let you tweak your character, and of course the characters and story are top shelf stuff. I really don't see how any true CRPG fan could dislike this game. I've played it through twice and enjoyed it both times. Who could forget Minsc and Boo, or the awesome boss fights? To me, this is Bioware's crowning achievement. I actually was reluctant to try this game because I was so turned off that you only created a single character than a whole party. I finally gave in, though, and am glad I did--I even ended up liking this better than Icewind Dale, which did let you do the party thing. Still, what makes the game stand out to me is the detail; the developers did a great job bringing the world of AD&D to life, and for that I am grateful.

I still want to be this guy!I still want to be this guy!1. Pool of Radiance. This is the game that really hooked me on CRPGs, even though I'd played Telengard, Bard's Tale, and others before it. It was really the package as a whole that captured me--I was already interested in AD&D and its subculture, but unfortunately knew no one who was into it. This game seemed like a great introduction, and it was. Unlike almost every CRPG after it, the world of Phlan is genuinely interesting and you feel like you're not just building up a set of characters, but a struggling town as well. I ended up playing almost all the Gold Box games, including the Dragonlance and Gateway series.

You might be surprised to see some titles missing, such as Ultima, Arcania, Phantasie, Daggerfall, Final Fantasy (not if you know me!), etc. The truth is, I missed a lot of those games when they were fresh, and it's been hard to get into most of them today. This is particularly true of the Ultima games, which really strike me as a "had to have been there" kinda thing. I know a lot of folks drool every time "Final Fantasy" is mentioned, but I (thankfully?) didn't own an NES or SNES, so wasn't corrupted by their influence. I have played FF IV on my DS and the first game, and while I can see their good points, disliked both. Chrono Trigger was fun, but again I think people like to go on about it because it has a certain cachet with a certain set, and will help deflect the endless hordes of Final Fantasy fanboys who think you're an idiot because you aren't obsessed with all things Japanese.

The same goes for Diablo and its clones. I understand that publishers and seemingly designers are now convinced that "action" must take precedence over all else, but ^$%# that. 'nuff said.

I have yet to play anything by Bethesda that really impressed me, though I suspect Daggerfall would have been a real hit with me if I'd played it back then. I've heard stories from folks who did play it, and it certainly sounds intriguing. I like some of their later games, and have completed Morrowind and Oblivion (and will probably get Skyrim), but this isn't a romantic relationship. It's more of a "geez, wish there was a new Baldur's Gate, but I'll settle for this." I do mean to get around to getting more into Arcanum, since I've played it enough to see it has real potential to go up high on my list once I've spent more time with it.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed reading this, and I'd like to see which ones you love or hate or perhaps love and hate!

Comments

clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
agreed
gg wrote:

I saw you mentioned Arcanum, and how you are hoping to get into it.
Lemme just say this, Arcanum is one of the true gems in the genre, truely. Underrated and underappreciated, it's story and characters pack a devastatingly awesome punch!
Maybe you won't like it's turnbased combat, but you can always switch it to real-time, always played it like that and it never bugged me. Otherwise it's mostly played like Fallout (turnbased) :)
Enjoy.

I will second this. it really is one of the last great games of that era. I know when i bought it when it was NEW i was slightly dispointed as it starts a bit slow (but really, what RPG doesnt) and i gave up on it. I cam back to it a few years later and pushed throuhg the boring part and there is a real gem after it. I know i picked it up on GOG and plan to revisit it sometime after my M&M craze dies down.

Matt Barton
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I think I'm going to try

I think I'm going to try Fable 2 next, just so I can say I've been all the way through one. Since I got the 360 it's been hard sitting down in my office to play games on my PC (I guess Bill was right all along). Still, it looks like the PC is still the best choice for CRPGs, unless of course you're into JRPGs in which case the PS3 must be great.

I should probably put together a slogging list soon and try to play through some of the classics I've missed. Arcanum is definitely up there along with Eye of the Beholder and Dark Heart. I'd like to be able to say I've played through at least one or two Ultima games, but I've at least tried them all. Unfortunately, none of them really hooked me. I think Jason really hit the nail with what he said; you just can't go back to the 80s and a lot of the stuff we put up with back then because we didn't know any better is just intolerable today. My hats off to anyone who could play a game like Wizard's Crown all the way through today, especially assuming they didn't play it back then (so no nostalgia factor).

It could be that the only reason I like Pool of Radiance so much is the nostalgia. That's kind of a depressing thought, really. I wonder how I would feel about it if I had missed it completely back in the day. I'd still like to think I could appreciate it today, but who knows if I'd have enough interest to actually get a copy and slog it through. I'd probably be content like I am with the Ultima series and such, just reading about them and listening attentively whenever they are discussed by veterans. I kinda wonder if any of those games were remade today, with modern interface and AAA graphics and such, if they'd hold up, or was it really and truly just a "had to have been there" kinda thing and there's no interest now outside of the nostalgia.

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Chris
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Had to have been there...

For the most part, you had to have been there with Ultima. As a huge fan, I"d say just steer around it now. Maybe create a character in Ultima IV so you can get a sense of how off the formula it was, especially for it's time.

And wow, what it did was groundbreaking. Now, it's just old news. If you can look at a game, at it's pieces, and in your mind put where in regards to everything else this happened, they're amazing. Ultima IV broke the mold by having an RPG not about, start out week, get strong, kill the evil _____. There was no evil ____. It was a quest for self improvement and becoming a better person.

Let that sink in a minute.

A game who's sole purpose, was to set up an ethical system of what it means to be 'good', and it only ends when you find a book of wisdom and bring it back to share with others. I can't think of another game who took that approach.

But the interface is cludgy by today's standards. Keyboard, no mouse, graphics are way dated, even if you find and download the VGA upgrade. It's rough to get through.

One of my fondest memories was a game called Deathlord. 16 continents, 128 unique monsters, more NPC's than I can remember, and twenty dungeons, yet fit on only 2 double-density 5¼". The sheer scope, it took, at that time, 2 years to finally find everything in it (allowing for breaks for other games of course). I actually only found a secret room in the first dungeon 12 years later on a fan site's maps.

The thing was, what made that tolerable was it didn't matter if/when I finished it. For the time, those were fun to play. I can put the time into Wizard's Crown now, because I'm working on my own game, and it's fun to dissect something from almost 30 years ago that has implemented almost every feature I want in what I'm working on.

What I can also say about it is this... I'm going through it much faster than most people would. I've kicked the delay's down, there is no load times, and I'm just better at gaming. Things I would have gotten stuck on, I've already got a plan for because of my gaming experience. If I actually get some real blocks of time to play, I'll probably have it done in a week or so.

clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
I enjoyed fable 2 but its all

I enjoyed fable 2 but its all action/combat, something you seem to dislike. I wouldnt put all JRPG's in the same bundle.. many fit the mold, but there are alot of good ones too. But yes I cant argu mos the 360 ones are JRPG's (and yes the ps3 too). But some of those are incredilbyu good if you can look past the asain BIG EYE look. White Knight, renasonce of Fate, Valkyria Chronicals, Folklore, Neir.. Of course they are PS3 only (oh i forgot DEMONS SOULS!!!!)... BUT 360... the real sad thing is almost all the highest rated ones are on the PC too. Thankfully there are tons of other games to play on it :)

But back to the past.. I think i start to draw the line at about the early 90's... when i get to the late 90's and most are easy to play. I can pretty much handle any graphics... I still play the old asci nethack from time to time.. but the simple fact is Nethack has tons of skins and pretty graphics so why play it that way? Interface is KEY... annoying old school interfaces are my biggest stumbling block. Having to dig out mapping paper and take notes (lots of notes, is few is ok) all stale me. As we where talking, Wasteland is one I remeber fondly but its just not fun nowdays.

I think we all just gotta remeber them fondly and try the new ones.

Matt Barton
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Clok, I think what you said

Clok, I think what you said is gospel: interface is key. We can put up with low Rez graphics and such, but the controls must be tight. Nobody wants to memorize arbitrary keys or have to ignore the mouse or even the scroll wheel. If an oldie can be updated to modern controls I will play it regardless of audiovisuals. But a shitty interface is where I draw the line.

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Bill Loguidice
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Since we're talking classic

Since we're talking classic CRPGs, here's a fun piece on the many deaths of Lord British: http://www.computerandvideogames.com/181917/features/the-many-deaths-of-...

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Matt Barton
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Great Stuff
Bill Loguidice wrote:

Since we're talking classic CRPGs, here's a fun piece on the many deaths of Lord British: http://www.computerandvideogames.com/181917/features/the-many-deaths-of-lord-british/

Man, that's great. It would've been a wonderful side panel in my D&D book for sure.

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Bill Loguidice
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Time has passed?
Matt Barton wrote:
Bill Loguidice wrote:

Since we're talking classic CRPGs, here's a fun piece on the many deaths of Lord British: http://www.computerandvideogames.com/181917/features/the-many-deaths-of-lord-british/

Man, that's great. It would've been a wonderful side panel in my D&D book for sure.

It is. It's minutiae like that that makes me regret not playing these games back in the day. I'm going to keep working at it, but the Ultima games are very, very hard to get into (at least prior to 5 or 6)...

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Chris
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Joined: 07/27/2011
Ultima & Felicia

Couple thoughts:

Ultima 2 is easily the hardest to get into, because it seemed very random. Of course time travel and wizards does that. Ultima 4 is the first game that really is what Ultima is. Before that is a sort of a collection of games they decided to try and tie into a single story line. If you can't bring yourself to get through all of them, start with 4. I always had a soft spot for 3, because it was pretty much all about exploration, but to get the Ultima experience, you can skip right to 4.

Also,

Matt... You should try and get an interview with Felicia Day... I know it's a long shot, but she was part of the UDIC (Ultima Dragons Internet Chapter) long... long... long ago. It would be interesting to see her take on gaming over the years, beyond just talk about 'the Guild'.

Matt Barton
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Ultima 4
Chris wrote:

Ultima 2 is easily the hardest to get into, because it seemed very random. Of course time travel and wizards does that. Ultima 4 is the first game that really is what Ultima is. Before that is a sort of a collection of games they decided to try and tie into a single story line. If you can't bring yourself to get through all of them, start with 4. I always had a soft spot for 3, because it was pretty much all about exploration, but to get the Ultima experience, you can skip right to 4.

Sounds like good advice. I notice it has a LOT of ports. Any particular one you recommend? I don't know how much they vary, but whichever one has the most modern interface would best suit me.

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