The PlayStation launched in Japan in late 1993 and then the rest of the world in the following year. This was a breakout moment for console gaming because the system offered the first novel-length narrative-based games where you needed to progress through a storyline.
We implore you to take a trip back in time as we outline some of the greatest games that PlayStation used to revolutionize console gaming.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
The Castlevania series was over a decade old by the time Symphony of the Night arrived. It was the franchise’s defining moment, as the game radically expanded the series’ platforming with RPG loot, progression and non-linear exploration, lending its suffix to the subsequent “Metroidvania” genre as a result.
In previous Castlevania games, you controlled members of the vampire-hunting Belmont family. Symphony of the Night, however, revolves around Alucard, the lazily-named son of Dracula. To protect humanity from his father, Alucard sets out to slay the castle’s monstrous inhabitants.
Symphony of the Night stood out immediately for bold choices like hiding more than half of the game behind a false ending. It used the CD format to make a massive game filled with rich, 2D sprites, rejecting the crude, early 3D the rest of the industry pursued at the time.
One of the most influential action-RPGs of all time, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is still just as satisfying to play now as it was 20 years ago.
Metal Gear Solid
Between Thief: The Dark Project on PC and Metal Gear Solid on PlayStation, 1998 was the year that modern stealth video games were born. A sequel to two lesser-known games from creator Hideo Kojima, you play as special ops soldier Solid Snake who infiltrates the hideout of a rogue unit threatening the United States with a nuclear strike.
Snake has a variety of tools for evading and taking out guards, making it one of the most taut and tactical gaming experiences available at the time. The series has since spawned four more critically-acclaimed main entries and various spinoffs, radically expanding upon both its deep gameplay and Kojima’s baroque, nuclear mythology. But the first Metal Gear Solid remains an unassailable classic.
Twisted Metal 2
Before leading the team behind God of War, designer David Jaffe rose to prominence for his work on the PS1 vehicular combat series, Twisted Metal.
Players take the wheel of various over-the-top armed and armored vehicles in a demolition derby taken to a post-apocalyptic extreme. The cars and drivers — like the series’ iconic ice cream truck, Sweet Tooth, and Axel, a muscle-bound man straddling two truck tires — ooze personality even in the early polygonal days of 3D. Projectile weapons and power-ups scatter throughout arenas set in the ruins of major cities around the world.
The first game included only a single-player campaign and co-op mode. The sequel expanded everything about it, throwing in more vehicles, more arenas, and more custom and multiplayer modes for just dropping in and enjoying the mayhem à la carte.
A contractual dispute between Sony and developer SingleTrac led to other, less capable studios developing the subsequent sequels, making TM2 the peak of Twisted Metal for most fans.
Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
An action-focused spinoff of the top-down RPG series Legacy of Kain, Soul Reaver is a third-person action game from Crystal Dynamics who went on to earn acclaim with its reboot of Tomb Raider. You play as the ghostly vampire Raziel in the grim-dark fantasy world of Nosgoth.
In its prime, players loved the game’s dark, compelling narrative, voice acting, and varied mechanics. One of its main conceits is the ability to swap between the physical and spectral realm at any time. Crystal Dynamics was unable to simply layer two different versions of the world on top of one another because of the console’s limitations, thus achieving the effect was no small technical feat.
Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is also notable as one of the first major games written by Uncharted series scribe Amy Hennig, now considered among the best game narrative creators in the business.
Tenchu: The Stealth Assassins
With their long-held mystique both within and beyond Japan, ninjas became a prominent figure in the early days of video games. In franchises like Ninja Gaiden, however, they’re translated into nimble, hack-and-slash fighters.
Tenchu: The Stealth Assassins breaks that mold. It’s one of the first games to truly embrace the ninja as a stealthy infiltrator. Instead of relying solely on weapons and reflexes, he must rely on his tools and wits to survive.
Developed by Japanese studio Acquire, Tenchu is the feudal Japanese parallel to Metal Gear Solid’s nuclear melodrama. Failing a mission causes you to lose whatever tools you’re carrying, forcing you to be careful and deliberate when approaching each mission.
Fantastical elements from Japanese mythology provide fun flavor, but in its time, Tenchu was the most fun because of how human and vulnerable you felt, making success all the sweeter.
Although somewhat overshadowed by Metal Gear Solid, Syphon Filter is another exceptional 3D, third-person action-stealth game for the PS1.
Newbie developer Eidetic took equal inspiration from Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64, hoping to create a “super-spy” hybrid genre with stealth, action, and puzzles. The game received high praise during its peak but its legacy has not endured as strongly.
Syphon Filter tells a gritty, contemporary, world-spanning story about special operatives facing off against biological terrorists. This story encompasses governments, multinational pharmaceutical companies, and conspiracies that extend to the top. It’s a pulpy and immersive plot, enhanced greatly by gameplay that’s a compelling balance of stealth and straight-up action.
During the game’s prime, critics cued into its stellar A.I., a key requirement for good stealth games, which was among the most impressive in any game to date.
Although best known at the time for its roleplaying games, Japanese developer Square was no one-trick pony. Einhänder is a good example: A fantastic side-scrolling shoot-’em-up in the tradition of Gradius, though not quite as extreme as the “bullet hell” sub-genre that came after it.
Set in the future during a war between Earth and the Moon, you pilot a spacecraft through horizontal, 2.5D levels, destroying enemies and collecting power-ups. The name, a German word for a one-handed sword, alludes to the core mechanic of your ship’s sole grappling arm, which picks up weapons scavenged from destroyed enemies. Weapons mostly have finite ammo, forcing you to keep finding new ones and adapting their playstyle to what’s available.
Apart from the generally slick presentation, players of the 90s loved the tactical variety enabled by the system of picking up new weapons, as well as the way bosses have discrete parts you can target and disable. Although well outside of Square’s wheelhouse, many consider Einhänder to be one of the genre’s best, and Square’s finest non-RPG work to date.
Ace Combat 2
The original Ace Combat (released as Air Combat) flew as one of the first games released on the PS1, and it shows. Namco’s sequel, Ace Combat 2, is an improvement in basically every way.
Ace Combat 2 is an arcade-style combat flight simulator, meaning its overall design favors gameplay over simulation. It offers semi-realistic physics and the ability to carry far more missiles than the payload of an actual jet, though difficulty settings allow more hardcore players to fly with greater realism.
Gameplay divides into relatively linear, objective-based missions. You can upgrade jets using resources that unlock based on how successful you were at destroying all targets.
Mega Man Legends 2
Although the PS1 hosted some of the best conventional 2D Mega Man games, it was also the exclusive home to weird entries like Mega Man Legends.
With only the main character in common (and a cheeky reference to how he’s named after a character’s favorite video game), Legends is set in an archipelago. The Caskett family of treasure hunters travels by his side as he journeys across the land and scours ruins for ancient machinery in search of the legendary Mother Lode.
In addition to refining the run and gun mechanics (replete with a fairly deep crafting and customization system), the second game presents a much richer and more character-driven narrative than the structure typical to the core series of “hunt the bosses to get their powers.” The voice-acted cutscenes are particularly entertaining, feeling very much like watching an anime. It features memorable characters like your nemesis, the pirate Tron Bonne, who has a solo spin-off game released between two Legends entries.
Capcom canceled the third Legends installment during its development.
Tomb Raider 2
The original Tomb Raider essentially founded the genre of the 3D action/adventure game, but it’s the sequel that really made Lara sing. A radical departure from the cutesy, cartoon mascots of the previous console generation, international treasure hunter Lara Croft was immediately embraced as one of gaming’s most iconic characters, heralding the medium’s maturation.
This sequel greatly expands on the first game’s mix of exploration, platforming, combat, and puzzle-solving. Here you’ll discover refined controls, bigger environments, and more exciting set-pieces.
The third game feels a bit more like a rushed cash-in, leaving Tomb Raider 2 as the series’ peak for a lot of players until the universally-praised 2013 reboot.
Feudal Japanese weapon-focused 3D fighting game Bushido Blade is the most well-known game from Japanese studio Light Weight, and it’s still somewhat anomalous within the genre.
Eschewing the convention of health bars entirely, character blows either cripple particular body parts or outright kill. This gives the game a rare degree of realism and a much more tactical and punctuated tempo. There are eight realistically simulated weapons and six characters with different stats, abilities, and proficiencies with each weapon. There’s also a stance-based fighting system, giving players various gameplay options.
Unlike the discrete levels of conventional fighters, the game’s arenas are all inter-connected. This allows players to run and climb between them, using the environment to their advantage.
Bushido Blade has one direct sequel and another similar title on PS2, but those smooth out some of its quirks too much for our taste. Other fighting games like the Soulcalibur series and more recently For Honor have explored weapons-focused “dueling,” but nothing has quite replicated what made the original Bushido Blade special.
Street Fighter set the bar for flat 2D fighting games in the early 90s, but Tekken focused on brawling in 3D instead. This arcade-native franchise set the high bar for 3D fighters and perfected the formula with its third entry, Tekken 3.
Previous entries made relatively little use of 3D depending on the character. Tekken 3, however, tones down the hyperbolic jumping and allows every character to easily sidestep around its opponent, opening up one of the most tactically complex and polished fighting systems in video games to date.
Tekken 3 instantly became a classic thanks to its large and diverse character roster and truly impressive graphics for a console port of an arcade game. It still holds the honor of being the second-best-selling fighting game on any platform of all time, after only Super Smash Brothers Brawl.
Street Fighter Alpha 3
While Tekken and Bushido Blade blazed new paths for fighting games in 3D, Capcom stuck to its roots with Street Fighter, the fighting franchise that started it all.
Street Fighter Alpha 3 features a massive roster of 34 combatants drawn from the series’ whole history. It also introduces three different “isms” playstyles to the genre, changing the mechanics of how combos work and special moves charge up.
While some felt that the 2D, sprite-based graphics dated the game, in retrospect, it looks great, and holds up magnificently well as one of the most comprehensive and refined entries in the Street Fighter franchise.
Capcom was on such a roll producing top-notch fighting games in the ’90s that it sometimes overshadowed its other excellent titles. The Darkstalkers series of 2D fighters is a cult and critical darling but had middling commercial success.
Relatively standard (but solid) mechanically, the series is mostly recognized for its anime-meets-gothic-horror aesthetic, with characters like vampires, mummies, demons, and a yeti. The look was magnificently refined by the time Darkstalkers 3 arrived, with detailed and fluidly animated sprites that are among the best of the decade.
First released in arcades, the game endured several character additions and balance changes by the time it arrived on the PS1 — all of which made it one of the fastest, fun, and charming fighters to play at home.
Recently remastered in full, Naughty Dog’s original Crash Bandicoot trilogy (recently remade for PS4) endures as one of the most iconic 3D platforming series from the genre’s heyday. As the eponymous Crash, you are a mutant bandicoot (an Australian marsupial) on a quest to stop Dr. Neo Cortex from taking over the world using an army of other mutant animals.
The gameplay is standard for the genre — patrolling enemies, jumping challenges, power-ups, and collectibles, though levels are generally linear: It’s more Mario than Banjo-Kazooie.
In its prime, the game was most highly praised for its visuals, which felt more like a playable cartoon than any game to date. The vibrant character in Crash’s various death animations were — and still are — particularly memorable.
Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus
The original PlayStation was a fascinating, transitional period in game design, with a big uptick in processing power and storage opening up a whole new field of possible aesthetics to explore. The Oddworld games are a prime example.
Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee is a cinematic platformer in the tradition of Prince of Persia or Another World. You play as Abe, an enslaved member of the Mudokon race, leading a rebellion against corporate overlords plotting to make them a cheap food source. It’s grim satire for sure, but full of warmth, humor, and loving attention to detail. As Abe explores, solves puzzles, and avoids enemies, he must rely on his wits more than anything else given he’s liable to die without much effort.
The sequel, Abe’s Exoddus, picks up right after the first game ends. It’s an improvement design-wise, offering quicksaves and more elaborate puzzles based on conversations with NPCs.
A recent, well-received remake of the original shows that there’s still a lot to be enjoyed in this classic series.
Before designer Michel Ancel gave us Beyond Good & Evil (will the sequel ever appear?), he created one of the most enduring characters in platforming: Rayman.
Released early in the PlayStation’s life cycle, Rayman is a stunningly colorful and charming 2D platformer, using the console’s 32-bit processor to present one of the most vibrant and detailed games to date. The story is light, fantastical nonsense, as the eponymous Rayman fights and jumps his way through various themed worlds to defeat bosses and save the day.
Rayman doesn’t rock any boats in terms of gameplay, but it’s still beloved as one of its generation’s most solid iterations on the platforming genre, which is still alive and well today.
The Rayman franchise subsequently took a detour into 3D platforming. However, 2011’s Rayman Origins secured his real legacy by returning to the bright, animated aesthetic of the original.
Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage
In the immediate wake of the Sonic vs. Mario console wars in the early-to-mid 90s, marketers still held onto the idea that a console needed a family-friendly platforming mascot to succeed. Next to Crash Bandicoot, the cutely-proportioned Spyro the Dragon competed for that spot on the original PlayStation.
En route to vacation, Spyro is pulled through a magical portal into a fantastical world under assault by a warlock who gleefully discovered there were no dragons to bother him. Spyro collects a series of MacGuffins to progress through nonlinear levels and unlock new traversal and combat abilities.
The whole first trilogy, developed by Insomniac Games, is well remembered for its colorful characters and solid platforming. For our money, however, the second one hits the sweet spot of refined mechanics and freshness.
Klonoa: Door to Phantomile
The transition from 2D to 3D gaming produced a lot of interesting visual artifacts, but oddly enough, most developers didn’t think to try the intermediary style that’s grown more popular in recent years: 2.5D. With this method, the game engine renders action in 3D that’s largely constrained to a 2D plane.
This Namco-developed platformer is set in Phantomile, a fantastical realm manifested from the dreams that people forget soon upon waking. You play as Klonoa, an anthropomorphic resident of Phantomile with a power-granting wind spirit that inhabits a ring. Gameplay is standard for the genre, with enemies, puzzles, and bosses spread out across themed levels.
Praised by critics at its release, Klonoa can be hard to find now, particularly outside of Japan, but is fondly remembered as a solid and enjoyable platformer.
Released in 1995, one year before Super Mario 64, Jumping Flash! holds the honor (according to Guinness) of being the first truly 3D platforming video game.
Presented in first-person, you play Robbit, a robotic rabbit exploring open levels to collect four MacGuffins (“jump packs,” in this case) to progress through its six themed worlds, each with a culminating boss battle after three levels.
Robbit’s ability to triple-jump mid-air is the game’s mechanical focus, supplemented by various power-ups with classic effects like temporary invincibility, extending the level time limit, or increasing Robbit’s health.
Although it was soon overshadowed by the flourishing of 3D platforming’s imminent golden age, Jumping Flash! is still an innovative and under-appreciated trailblazer.
In this third-person platformer you play Spike, a boy tasked with traveling through time and using a variety of gadgets to capture hyper-intelligent apes that meddle with history.
Ape Escape was the first game to require the PlayStation’s DualShock controller before the now-standard vibrating two-stick model came stock with the console. Rather than using the right stick to control the camera, it’s used to manipulate the gadgets.
Acclaimed at the time and fondly remembered since its debut, Ape Escape a seminal moment in platforming video games for both its cutting edge presentation and mechanics.
I.Q.: Intelligent Qube
The PlayStation’s most memorable games tended to be immersive fantasies, yet there were a few exceptions more purely focused on gameplay.
I.Q.: Intelligent Qube is a 3D puzzle game in which a player runs around on a gridded platform, clearing cubes before they push him off into the void. The game is a challenging brain-tickler, giving more replayability with the ability to create new levels, a feature that unlocks after completing the game once.
Although released in the West, it was most successful in its native Japanese market, garnering several sequels.
Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo
This port of a hit Japanese arcade puzzle game for one or two players isn’t a sequel to anything. Instead, it’s cheekily named after Super Street Fighter II Turbo because it bolts the aesthetic and interface elements of Capcom’s 2D fighters onto a falling block puzzle. In it, Chibi versions of Street Fighter and Darksiders characters perform a silly battle that reflects what is happening in the puzzles.
Capcom developed the game for Japanese arcades in response to the popularity of Sega’s Puyo Puyo 2. It employs similar competitive mechanics to Puyo of successful chains dumping garbage blocks onto the opponent’s field, which you can counter with a quick combo in response.
The charming 2D graphics and solid competitive puzzling mechanics are beautifully aged, maintaining this game’s reputation as a delightful cross-genre curio.
Gran Turismo 2
Hyper-realistic driving sims are flourishing, but Gran Turismo was the cream of the crop for virtual gearheads in the PS1 era. The smooth forms and inorganic materials of cars have always been an excellent test case for the cutting edge of realistic graphics, and as such Gran Turismo 2 was one of the first games where you might glance at the screen and think you’re watching live television.
The gameplay, graphics, and physics are largely unchanged from the first game. The sequel’s most notable expansion is the enormous roster of real-world cars (over 600, the largest in any game to date), a robust customization system, and more flexibility to take part in races à la carte, rather than necessarily structured as tournaments.
In its prime, Gran Turismo 2 was a bestseller among both car fans and regular gamers, establishing Gran Turismo as a key racing franchise that has endured through the present.
Like F-Zero on the SNES, the Wipeout series lets players experience fantastical levels of speed in futuristic racing. Players pilot extremely fast, anti-gravity ships through dramatic, high-tech courses. Gameplay revolves around extremely high speeds, power-ups, and utilizing air brakes for drifting turns around tight corners.
Expanding and improving upon the first game in nearly every way, Wipeout XL was praised in its day for its intense gameplay and slick presentation, including a techno music soundtrack and detailed background world-building that made it feel like the immersive, futuristic entertainment video games promised to become since the 1980s.
Crash Team Racing
Mario Kart clones flourished on all consoles in the years following Mario Kart 64’s huge success. Crash Team Racing is handily the best kart-style game available on the PlayStation.
Developed by Naughty Dog, this game supports up to four players and features characters from the Crash Bandicoot trilogy. Like its obvious inspiration, it tosses in aggressive and speed-boosting power-ups, drift turning, and whimsical, elaborate courses.
Unlike Mario Kart games, Crash Team Racing progressively unlocks additional characters and modes as players complete the story. It offers the standard, time trial, and battle modes as well.
Crash Team Racing doesn’t shake up the formula in any substantial way, yet it’s a solidly designed, attractive, fun game. It filled a definite niche for PlayStation owners during its prime. Not every great game needs to reinvent the wheel, after all.
R4: Ridge Racer Type 4
Between the simulation-focused realism of Gran Turismo and the wacky hijinks of Kart racers, you have Ridge Racer.
R4, the Namco-developed series’ final entry on PlayStation, looks like the former but plays closer to the latter. That makes it perfect for racing fans who want the fantasy of realistic-looking cars but are turned off by realistic handling.
Overall, R4 is a great package for anyone who wants a rich, arcade-style racing experience packed with 321 unlockable vehicles and a variety of tracks and modes. Many still consider R4 as the peak of the Ridge Racer series.
Driver: You are the Wheelman
While most driving games in the PS1 era framed the action around races, Driver instead sought to recreate the feeling of the 60s and 70s car chase movies, like Bullitt or Driver.
Set in open-world urban environments inspired by real cities, Driver looked forward to the sort of hijinks that would come to define Grand Theft Auto games, like escaping from cops or smashing up other cars. The game also includes an interesting Film Director mode that captures replays using specific camera angles.
PaRappa the Rapper
Before Harmonix made the genre explode with Guitar Hero on the PlayStation 2, PaRappa the Rapper was the name in rhythm games.
Sidestepping the crude stabs at realism that contemporary developers made with the console’s nascent 3D tech, PaRappa features colorful, 2D characters in 3D environments. This highlighted design over horsepower — decades ahead of current trends — to integrate 2D and 3D artwork into more visually interesting aesthetics than the brown-grey realism dominating the early part of the millennium.
PaRappa’s bright and cheery look is a 90s hip-hop Day-Glo fantasia, and the music, while lyrically inane, holds up shockingly well over 20 years later. Subsequent rhythm games technically surpass PaRappa the Rapper in nearly every regard, but it’s still rightly beloved as a groundbreaking curio from a time in gaming before genres became quite so crystallized and anything felt possible.
Although Vib-Ribbon is one of the most visually primitive games ever released for the original PlayStation, ironically it could now most easily be mistaken for a contemporary indie title.
In this minimalist rhythm platformer, you play Vibri, a rabbit who must traverse courses generated procedurally from the music, all rendered in simple, white-line vector graphics set against a black background.
Lightweight visuals mean the game can completely load into the console’s RAM, and thus players can generate levels based on any music CDs they insert. Monster Rancher previously explored the use of CDs to generate material, but Vib-Ribbon was the first to integrate the content itself into the game.
Well ahead of the curve for both rhythm games and minimalist, procedural platformers, Vib-Ribbon feels nearly timeless now.
Final Fantasy IX
Breaking away from the gritty sci-fi trajectory created by FF7 and FF8, FF9’s return to the stylized, chibi aesthetic and light-hearted fantasy of the series’ original entries displeased many fans. In retrospect, it stands out as a fantastic synthesis of the franchise’s recent ideas with its classic mechanical and worldbuilding tropes.
FF9 follows the rogueish Zidane, the rebellious princess Garnett, and their assembled friends taking on the sinister Queen Brahne and her world domination plans. It’s classic Final Fantasy through and through and easily the most charming and fun entry from the era.
Final Fantasy VII
Perhaps the most famous entry of the premier Japanese RPG franchise, FF7 was a massive, breakout event for the series by throwing out 2D visuals for 3D rendering. It reached far wider audiences than ever before.
FF7 tells the story of mercenary Cloud Strife and his ragtag friends taking on the sinister Shinra Corporation as it drains the planet’s life force. The chunky, polygonal visuals haven’t aged well, but characters like Sephiroth and moments like the death of Aeris loom large for gamers (as evidenced by the hugely hyped remake in the works), making this still one of the most influential and well-regarded RPGs of all time.
Squaresoft RPG Chrono Trigger is still widely considered as one of the greatest video games of all time. Its PlayStation sequel never achieved the same reputation, but it’s nevertheless a fun and interesting game that holds up quite well. Like the first game’s different eras, Chrono Cross’ primary narrative conceit is jumping back and forth between two parallel timelines, one of which sees the protagonist die as a child.
The game features over 50 recruitable characters, each with a unique quest to follow, making it impossible to see everything in a single playthrough. The connections to the first game are not obvious at first, but ultimately it ties them all together in an interesting and resonant tale that frequently meditates on loss and regret. It’s also colorful, fun, and features unique approaches to both combat and progression.
Another fiercely-loved Squaresoft RPG, Xenogears started as a pitch for Final Fantasy VII, but eventually spun off to start a new science-fiction franchise. Long and ambitious, it amazed some and perplexed others with the plot’s complicated political and religious themes, along with a healthy dollop of Jungian psychoanalysis.
You play as the amnesiac young man Fei Fong Wong in a quest to save the world from Deus, an ancient planet-killing weapon that gained sentience. Gameplay features both conventional, Final Fantasy-style active time battles as well as fights in the eponymous Gears (giant mecha suits) that involve managing action points and developing combos.
The first Squaresoft RPG to feature voice acting and anime cutscenes, Xenogears was a leap forward in the medium’s potential for mature and cinematic storytelling.
Yasumi Matsuno’s action RPG stood out from its peers at Square because of its razor focus. Rather than assembling a ragtag crew of wacky misfits to save the world, you play Ashley Riot, a single knight sent after a cult leader who kidnapped a noble family and absconded to a ruined medieval city, Leá Monde.
Like Parasite Eve, it features pausable, real-time combat and the ability to target and be targeted on specific body parts, crippling particular capabilities. Combined with an elaborate weapon crafting and armor system, it provides a rich and focused tactical playground that players enjoyed experimenting with over the years.
Square essentially retconned the game into Ivalice, the world of Final Fantasy Tactics and XII, but even without that, it stands alone as a beloved classic for its mature story and mechanical depth.
Final Fantasy VIII
Following the explosive, global success of FF7 was a tall order, but Square managed to keep aggressively evolving the series for its immediate sequel, Final Fantasy VIII.
FF8 was the first in the series to feature realistically proportioned characters and continued the move from FF7 towards the fantasy-infused sci-fi aesthetics that defined later entries.
The story revolves around Squall Leonhart and a party of other freshly-trained SeeD mercenaries in a quest that quickly turns from political to world-ending stakes. In its day, fans latched onto the romance between Squall and fellow party member Rinoa, which features an original vocal track (a series first), “Eyes on Me” by Chinese singer Faye Wong.
The game was a radical departure mechanically, getting rid of magic points in favor of the elaborate “Junction” system. This system draws finite quantities of spells from enemies that you can cast or keep to buff up particular stats. It’s an odd system that wasn’t used in subsequent entries, but demonstrated the franchise’s ongoing willingness to reinvent itself in core ways.
While widely beloved by fans and critics, Suidoken II’s limited print run and distribution prevented it from reaching the universal acclaim that Final Fantasy games found on the PlayStation — at least in the West.
Loosely based on a classical Chinese novel’s plot, the game was most praised for its story: A complex and mature political saga of warring nations and city-states struggling for independence. The narrative’s scope reflects in the scope of the party you recruit, with over 100 characters able to join you through personal side quests (though not all in combat roles).
Suidoken II features both standard turn-based party battles in the vein of Final Fantasy as well as large-scale, strategic engagements on a grid more reminiscent of Fire Emblem.
Suidoken II is about as epic as you can get on the PlayStation.
Legend of Mana
The Secret of Mana series grew up alongside Final Fantasy in the 8- and 16-bit eras. It generally takes a slightly lighter tone and substitutes turn-based battles with more open, action RPG gameplay. The first Mana game launched in the United States as Final Fantasy Adventure.
Legend of Mana is the fourth entry following the fantastic Seiken Densestsu 3 for SNES, which is still not officially localized in the west. Set after a cataclysmic war, the player sets out to restore the land of Fa’Diel and eventually the Tree of Mana itself. Players accomplish this quest by literally placing parts of the land — which were previously sealed in artifacts — on the map. Their relative placement affects the world. like the strength of elemental magic types in each region.
A recurring theme on this list, Square didn’t leverage the PlayStation’s storage and processing power to make crude stabs at 3D graphics. Instead, the studio filled it to the brim with lush, beautiful 2D graphics. The game is universally praised for rembling an animated film and aging exceptionally well.
In its prime, Secret of Mana received criticism for making the story feel too diffuse. In retrospect, its nonlinear, system-rich approach now feels ahead of its time.
One of the first RPGs released for the PlayStation, Wild Arms stands apart for its highly-unconventional setting that blends traditional JRPG fantasy tropes with visual elements from the American old west.
Set in the world of Filgaia, you play a scrappy band of wandering adventurers called Dream Chasers. One of these wanderers is Rudy, a boy who can excavate and use Ancient Relic Machines (ARMS), which are guns from a lost era of greater technology.
Using both 2D sprites for exploration, and 3D rendered battle sequences, Wild Arms was an interesting transitional game between the 16- and 32-bit eras. It mostly stands out for its compelling setting, however, fusing science and magic in a way reminiscent of — but also completely distinct from — Final Fantasy VI.
The Legend of Dragoon
Sony may have set unreasonable expectations for The Legend of Dragoon by marketing it initially as a “Final Fantasy Killer,” but this SCE-developed RPG endures as a cult classic of the era.
You play Dart, an orphaned survivor of a destroyed city rescuing a childhood friend that’s kidnapped by a rebel army. In typical genre fashion, he assembles a motley crew for a quest that spirals up to defeating a world-ending god of destruction. It fleshes out the typical turn-based combat with a system of combos and counter-attacks that add an interesting dimension of timing and risk/reward.
While The Legend of Dragoon never panned out into a franchise, it’s just as well-written and designed as many of its more widely beloved peers.
Legend of Legaia
While much of the flourishing RPG genre simply followed in Final Fantasy’s footsteps, Legend of Legaia had the hipster appeal of trying to do something different.
The story is standard genre fare. You assume the role of a martial artist from a village at the edge of the world that sets out on a quest to beat back the Mist. It consumed the surface and spawned countless monsters, pushing humanity to the brink.
Legaia stood out for its combat system, which is turn-based but also heavily derives from fighting games. Rather than have a generic “fight” option in battles, players target different strikes as left, right, high, or low, chaining them together into increasingly elaborate combos as the game proceeds.
Legaia added a tactical richness to combat that few of its peers could match, and is a franchise worth re-examining.
Adapted from a popular, contemporary Japanese novel of the same name, Parasite Eve is a bit of a genre hybrid from developer Square. Equal parts action RPG and survival horror, it follows a New York City cop trying to stop an entity named Eve from destroying humanity through spontaneous combustion.
Like Square’s Vandal Hearts, it features pausable real-time battles and the ability to target specific body parts, with abilities tied to the “Active Time Bar” (ATB) system pioneered in the studio’s Final Fantasy games.
Critics praised its interesting and immersive design at the time, though its legacy was somewhat overshadowed by the era’s more “pure” RPGs and survival horror games, respectively.
In retrospect, its infusion of RPG progression systems into a survival horror framework can be seen reflected in more modern games such as The Evil Within, though its pausable real-time combat has been less explored subsequently.
Medal of Honor
Several years before the original Call of Duty kicked off the now-oversaturated WW2 first-person shooter genre, Medal of Honor set the bar. Steven Spielberg developed the story, working with the same historical military consultants he collaborated with on Saving Private Ryan.
Where previous shooters remained relatively light-hearted affairs about blasting hordes of demons, Medal of Honor was one of the first serious, cinematic shooters that presaged future classics like Spec Ops: The Line by exploring the medium’s serious narrative potential. Critics and fans also praised its gameplay as one of the most generally refined shooters released to date.
Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2
The original Tony Hawk Pro Skater was an enormous success when it launched in 1999, but the follow-up a year later truly cemented it as one of the most beloved sports franchises of all time.
The action centers around arcade-style gameplay, with the player flipping and grinding over open levels to rack up as many points as possible from tricks and combos within two minutes. Collectibles and level-specific objectives keep it spicy, and the addition of level- and skater-creation tools give it a ton of replayability.
The series continued through the ill-received Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5 in 2015, but for many, the second remains the definitive entry and still one of the most highly rated sports games of all time.
Madden NFL 98
1997 saw the Madden football franchise take its first stab at 3D with Madden Football 64, but for our money, the best sports game of the year was the less ambitious and far more refined Madden NFL 98.
While other franchises leaped at polygons, Madden instead focused on improving the game’s artificial intelligence for NFL 98, making this the most strategically sophisticated football game ever released at the time.
As is often the case from this console era, Madden NFL 98’s late 2D sprite graphics hold up better than the early efforts at 3D that followed it.
Final Fantasy Tactics
FFT wasn’t the first tactical RPG to cross over from Japan — the Shining Force and Ogre Battle series already broke that ground for western console audiences. However, it’s far and away the most beloved and influential tactical RPG of that era..
The series’ traditional linear battles featured three to four party members lined up to face their enemies. Final Fantasy Tactics, however, opened up into a much richer, isometric, grid-based encounter reminiscent of X-COM, with an elaborate job system allowing for deep, strategic party customization.
Set in the world of Ivalice (which was featured in later entries like FF12), it tells a mature tale of competing noble families, warring nations, and the intersection of church and state.
Spin-off sequels for the Game Boy Advance were solid, but none ever quite captured the magic of the original.
Resident Evil 2
While the first Resident Evil is beloved for creating the “Survival Horror” genre, Resident Evil 2 perfected the formula. This sequel picks up two months after the events of the original, as the Umbrella Corporation’s zombie plague spreads from the company’s labs to nearby Raccoon City.
Like the first game, Resident Evil 2 features two protagonists, puzzles, exploration, and limited resources for ammo and saving the game, forcing careful and strategic play. But unlike the first game, players can use the “Zapping System” to revisit scenarios multiple times as different characters, offering unique challenges designed for each.
Players and critics alike praised the sequel’s presentation as an improvement over the first game in virtually every way. Though the series continued for decades — we’re up to Resident Evil 7 as of 2017 — many still consider the second as the high watermark. Resident Evil 2 also received a stellar remake in 2019.
The PlayStation’s 3D capabilities opened up a whole field of possibilities for cinematic horror, which is why it gave birth to the survival horror genre. Where the early Resident Evil games rely more on jump scares and zombie movie tropes, Silent Hill takes a decidedly more psychological and surreal approach.
You play as Harry Mason, whose daughter goes missing in the creepy town of Silent Hill as they pass through on vacation. He searches through a thick fog that blankets the entire town, though it’s mostly in place due to the system’s draw distance limitations. Still, this fog gives the game a memorably menacing atmosphere, particularly when played alone and late at night.
Drawing from an interesting range of influences like Lewis Carroll and David Lynch, Silent Hill is seminal in establishing the subtler and more artistically interesting strain of psychological horror in video games.
Released first in Japan as Biohazard, Resident Evil is Shinji Mikami’s genre-defining survival-horror opus. Although not the first horror game, it exerted such a gravitational pull that, like shooters in the wake of Doom, all other entries in the genre were considered as “clones.” You still can’t talk about survival horror without Resident Evil rising like the undead in discussions.
Resident Evil established the now-standard genre gameplay of careful exploration, puzzle-solving, and resource management. You play as American Special Operations Agents Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine who enter a zombie-infested mansion on the outskirts of Raccoon City to find their missing teammates.
Players remember it most fondly for the creepy atmosphere and unsettling presentation. It made clever and efficient use of the hardware with 3D characters on pre-rendered backgrounds to achieve unprecedented immersion.
If you like the survival horror stylings of Resident Evil auteur Shinji Mikami, but aren’t into zombies, Capcom still has you covered. Much of the same team — including Mikami himself — also developed Dino Crisis, a survival horror game set in a secret island research facility. As the name eludes, you encounter genetically-revived dinosaurs running rampant, Jurassic Park-style.
Capcom originally contrasted Dino Crisis against Resident Evil by marketing it as “Panic Horror” rather than survival due to the dinosaur emphasis. They’re quicker, more aggressive and more intelligent than a zombie threat. Unlike the pre-rendered backgrounds of its predecessors, Dino Crisis features real-time 3D environments, adding to the sense of immersion.
Although not quite as viscerally scary or enduring a franchise like Resident Evil, many fans feel that it improved upon those games in nearly every way, offering a tense, fun, and more consistently paced experience.
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