When RPGs Abandoned Nintendo, Two Greats Saved The Day

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

Column by Jeremy Parish, .

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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Comments 14

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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #1 Captain-Gonru 3 years ago
    It's too bad we haven't gotten more proper Wii U RPGs (I'm leaving out VC titles for the moment). Putting the menus, inventory, and other "boring" stuff on the GamePad would free up the TV for all those sweet summon animations and cutscenes.
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  • Avatar for Namevah #2 Namevah 3 years ago
    I recall being so excited for Tales of Symphonia before release and losing interest a few hours into the game. After repeated tries, I dropped Symphonia. What they were selling just didn't gel with me, I guess.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #3 Monkey-Tamer 3 years ago
    The lack of rpgs was really disappointing after getting Final Fantasies, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger on the Super Nintendo. Final Fantasy Tactics and Metal Gear sold me the PS1, and Final Fantasy X sold me a PS2. I bought the N64 and Gamecube way down the line when they were cheaper.
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  • Avatar for Punk1984 #4 Punk1984 3 years ago
    I loved Ogre Battle and loved Tactics Ogre even more. Ogre Battle 64 has always been the odd man out, I keep meaning to grab it on Wii VC but never feel the need. I loved Symphonia when I originally rented it in '08 but the slow goings made me shelve it until I got a good deal on the PS3 remaster collection, I like it but I don't love it.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #5 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago

    OB64 however remains one of the holes in my otherwise Matsuno-worshipping gaming history; kind of like GC RPGs outside of ToS that way, in fact.
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  • Avatar for Neifirst #6 Neifirst 3 years ago
    Tales of Symphonia was okay, but I loved Baten Kaitos, developed by Monolithsoft and also published by Namco, with its card battle system. The graphics were a throwback to the PS1-style CG backgrounds with polygonal characters, but presented in 480p, which was quite impressive for the time. The one drawback were the voices, which you could fortunately mute while keeping the music. I'm counting down the days until Monolithsoft's Xenoblade Chronicles X gets here.
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  • Avatar for Don-Rumata #7 Don-Rumata 3 years ago
    Fawning over Tales of Symphonia's strategy guide back in 2004 is still a vivid memory of mine. I never have beaten the game, though, but I think it's still in storage with everyone else. Hopefully the incoming PC conversion's a worthwhile purchase.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #8 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    I loved Tales of Symphonia. Still my favorite Tales game.

    @Neifirst: Completely agreed on Baten Kaitos. I didn't like it much at first, but once I turned voices off, the story got better since it wasn't being ruined at every turn, and the battle system clicked and became a really compelling combination of card-based battling with semi-real-time decision making. I was actually pretty disappointed in Origins' changes to the battle system.Edited July 2015 by SargeSmash
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  • Avatar for SomeKindaWizard #9 SomeKindaWizard 3 years ago
    Changed your mind about Zelda being an RPG again then Jeremy?
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  • Avatar for siamesegiant #10 siamesegiant 3 years ago
    It's worth noting too that The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles were the only RPGs of note on the Wii. The fact that they were probably the best console RPGs of the last generation aside, it's been a long time since a Nintendo home console has been flooded with the genre.
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #11 Captain-Gonru 3 years ago
    @siamesegiant Wii did also have a Tales game, and a few eShop, sorry, Nintendo Game Channel, RPGs, but your point is still valid.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #12 Vonlenska 3 years ago
    The Wii has a number of RPGs if you count the more experimental/artsy things: Fragile, Opoona, Muramasa, Rune Factory, Earth Seeker... Granted, a lot of them are genre blends and all of them are super overlooked by basically everyone.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #13 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago

    Man, EarthSeeker looked soooooooooooo goooooooooooood, but I heard it was kinda mediocre to play though. That art design, though.
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  • Avatar for inkybutt #14 inkybutt 3 years ago
    I think Symphonia felt right at home on the Gamecube alongside Nintendo's first party titles. I'm surprised Abyss made it to 3DS instead.
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