When RPGs Abandoned Nintendo, Two Greats Saved The Day

When RPGs Abandoned Nintendo, Two Greats Saved The Day

In the darkest hour for Nintendo RPG fans, these masterpieces kept the home fires burning.

It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that console RPGs as we know them got their start on Nintendo platforms. Dragon Quest may have been inspired by classic computer role-playing games like Ultima and Wizardry, but it was designed for — and became a massive hit on — the NES.

And if you ask anyone over the age of 30 what their favorite RPG is, chances are pretty good you're going to hear an answer that involves a Super NES game like EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, or Final Fantasy VI. In Japan, especially, RPG fans grew up playing Nintendo, and Nintendo fans grew up playing RPGs. That is, until everything changed and the PlayStation took over. Almost overnight, developers jumped ship from Super NES to PlayStation, and they took their RPGs with them. The Nintendo 64 saw plenty of great games, but you can literally count the system's role-playing titles on one hand. In fact, I would argue that N64 only ever saw two truly great RPGs throughout its life, and the first of them debuted 16 years ago today: Ogre Battle 64, developed by Quest and published by Atlus.

Later, at the very end of N64's life, Intelligent Systems came along and brought us the masterful Paper Mario, but that was it. Happily, GameCube fared somewhat better; for starters Nintendo published a few of its own games (including a second Paper Mario and the first entry of the classic Fire Emblem franchise to reach the U.S. on console). Sega's departure from first-party status and subsequent partnership with Nintendo also mean that GameCube saw a number of ports for overlooked Dreamcast RPGs like Skies of Arcadia Legends and Evolution Worlds.

Still, even on GameCube the RPG pickings were slim, and the system's fanbase more or less ignored the genre. That is, until Namco published its GameCube-exclusive chapter of the Tales series, Tales of Symphonia, 11 years ago yesterday.

The Tales games had been around for nearly a decade by the time Symphonia arrived in the U.S., but the previous games in the series had seen an inconsistent localization history in the West — and, perhaps relatedly, they'd hit the U.S. market with a dull, forgotten thud. Symphonia, on the other hand, turned out to be a huge hit. Not only did it transform the Tales series into an international hit rather than just a Japanese one, it also helped rekindle the dormant RPGs-on-Nintendo fire that had nearly guttered out during the N64 era. These days, serious console RPG fanatics consider the Wii, DS, and 3DS essential tools in their gaming arsenals... a serious and welcome change from the dark times of the late '90s.

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