My childhood could pretty much be divided up into school time and summertime, and with summertime came tons of road trips and plane rides. Always at my side through these harrowing times away from my NES and SNES was my trusty gameboy and a sack full of RPGs. Here are some of my favorites, the majority of them played in childhood, a few others I’ve only recently played through with the help of translations and emulation. Keep in mind that RPGs were still extremely hard to come by in those days, so I’m also including many games that have RPG elements, such as Zelda, that I would’t otherwise normally include in a list of RPGs. But let’s first start with what I’m sure everyone will say is the best,
#10 - Pokemon Yellow
Full discloseure, I’ve never played a pokemon game in my life, I just know that if I didn’t include pokemon in here I would never hear the end of it. So let’s get this out of the way and I’ll talk about what I do know, or more precisely, think I know. Pokemon yellow was a revamped combination of pokemon red and blue where a Pikachu follows you around. But other than that, the gameplay of “gotta catch em all” remains the same, and that must be some gameplay, because the storyline is essentially kill 8 gym leaders. Man I’m hooked. Where do I sign up? I don’t know, maybe one of these days I’ll play through the games, but in the meantime, let’s move on the meat of this top 10!
#9 - Gargoyles Quest
The first game in a now forgotten series that spilled onto the NES and SNES began as a spinoff of the infamous, for all the wrong reasons, Ghouls and Ghosts series, staring Firebrand. But don’t be fooled, while Ghouls and Ghosts is an abomination, Gargoyle’s Quest is actually very good. In japan the game was branded (no pun intended) Ghouls and Ghosts Gaiden, but it plays nothing like that god awful game, instead of controlling a naked knight looking for his girlfriend, you instead control a firebreathing, flying, kickass gargoyle! The level design is reminiscent of Megaman or Castlevania, there’s a worldmap to explore, people to talk to, a leveling system and skill progression. Over the course of the game you gain the more combat abilities as you progress, however, the game is short, even by Gameboy standards, but brevity is the soul of wit, as they say. Firebrand’s short jaunt through the underworld is very fun and it deserves a spot on this list, if only to bring more attention to a neglected and forgotten series.
#8 - Rolan’s Curse 2
This is Zelda clone through and through, down to the barebones story of stopping an evil king, but it improves on the formula by adding party members and a leveling system. As you progress through the game you’ll come across chests that increase your physical and magical attack power as well as your choice of 7 other party members, of whom you can have 3 with you at any time. Each of them play differently as well, and level up with their own specific treasure chests and most importantly, you can change you control at any point just by pressing the select button. With huge levels to explore, multiple people to control, and lots of great treasure to find, as well as excellent music, Rolan’s Curse 2 is definitely worth checking out!
#7 - God Medicine
The only “Japan only” game on this list, the game is quirky and the storyline is extremely unique. Essentially, three friends are eagerly awaiting the release of the new game “Phantom” but for whatever reason, the game is cancelled. The children, upset, console themselves by playing outside where they stumble upon a cabin. Inside they are shocked to see a demon in the process of killing 3 heroes, once the demon is done wiping the floor with the heroes he goes back to his world, and the heroes transfer their souls to the 3 friends. The friends then chase after the demon through the portal and now find themselves as characters inside the unfinished Phantom game. While the game does break the fourth wall by referencing video game tropes such as “fetch quests” the real meat of the plot is that you go back and forth between the Phantom and the real worlds in order to save them both. The gameplay is your standard turn based affair with a slight twist of equipping gems into your weapons to gain special powers. The game a fun, self deprecating jaunt through a video game world worth a look.
#6- Great Greed
This is easily one of the strangest games I’ve ever played, but it’s highly enjoyable, which is a fine line to tread. It is the “Captain Planet” of JRPGs with a strange habit of naming every character after food. The story is nothing to write home about, basically you’re a human who get’s transported to the world of Greene kingdom and, being a human, you’re more powerful than the inhabitants of the kingdom, so it falls to you to save their world from the evil Bio-Hazard. Where the game really shines is it’s areas to explore, like old record factories and hot fruit forests, also the gameplay is extremely unique. While princesses join you throughout the journey, you can only control the hero in battle. Basically it’s a turn based system where you assign magic to each of the 4 directional buttons, a attacks and b dodges. The combat is fast paced because the enemies will continually attack while you make up your mind on what to do. Occasionally the enemy will charge you and if you dodge at the right time, they will stumble and you can get some free rounds of attacks against them. Elemental spells have effects in addition to their damage, such as burning which deals damage over time or freezing which ‘freezes’ the enemy.
#5 - Final Fantasy Adventure
Known as Secret of Mana in japan, this is a true action RPG, and quite a good one. You begin as a slave of Emperor Glaive, fighting for your life daily in the coliseum, to getting caught up in a story bigger than yourself. Namely, to help the Gemma knights save the Mana Tree and with it, the world, with the help of a varied group of friends who join and leave throughout the course of your adventure. The gameplay is your standard hack and slash adventure game, but the plot, character development and leveling system make it feel very polished and more like a traditional RPG. Upon leveling up you can choose from 4 stats to level up which makes for great replay value because each playthrough your hero evolves a little differently. There’s also puzzle solving elements in the dungeons, and a variety of places to traverse, from caves, to airships, forests and deserts. The scope of the game is huge when compared to other games of the time, especially Gameboy games.
#4 -Sword of Hope 2
Much improved from the original game in which you only controlled Theo and pretty much only explored 3 major areas of your kingdom, the sequel, where you again assume control of Theo is a vast improvement. Think of the improvements between Lufia 1 and 2, it’s that extreme. This time Theo actually leaves his kingdom and explores the world with the help of 2 additional party members, who are a welcome addition because the game, much like its predecessor can be brutally difficult. The game plays similarly to Shadowgate, where you examine your surroundings and can interact with all sorts of objects which can either help or hinder you on your quest, and movement is a bit different too, you point and click in the direction that you wish to move. As you move, enemies move too and if you’re in battle, they can end up “moving into” your battle and then you have a huge group of monsters on your hands to deal with. This is a serious hidden gem on the Gameboy and I implore you to check it out if you’ve never heard of it.
#3 - Final Fantasy Legend 3
This game is about as close to a traditional, console experience RPG that you will find on the Gameboy. Made by the same team that made Final Fantasy Mystic Quest this is bigger, fuller and has a deeper story and more fleshed out world than that abomination. The story follows 4 youths on an adventure through space and time to save their world from flooding by the water entity. And though it’s technically a saga game, it feels nothing like one. It’s much more Final Fantasy-esque with traditional leveling and magic systems, with no mentions of “sparking” anywhere. If you would like to see a take on the game with actual saga systems, check out the remake on the DS. The story is epic, spanning the past, present and future as well as an alternate dimension, but it fails to top its predecessor because it’s missing a certain something, charm, or maybe heart. It just feels formulaic and by the book, like they just had to pump out another game. But, that doesn’t make it bad, it just doesn’t make it the best.
#2 - The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
I know it’s sacrilege but I’m not a huge fan of Zelda, especially the newer games, I can’t do 3D platforming to save my life, and just forget about targeting and combat, for me it’s a hot mess. Also, gaining hearts rather than levels seems pretty basic. But I digress, today let’s talk about Link’s Awakening. As a 2D Zelda game it’s actually playable and surprisingly the game doesn’t take place in Hyrule, star Zelda or Ganon, and there’s not even a mention of the Triforce! While it is still a Zelda game at its core, I like the changes. It seems more story driven than the first 3 Zeldas, has nods to Mario, involved puzzles, warps for alleviating backtracking, fun abilities that you don’t have to use just to get through the next dungeon and other quirky surprises. Also it borrows a lot from a japan only game, For the Frog the Bell Tolls, even guest starring a character from that game! It just seems like the developers were really free to explore and experiment with the series in a way they don’t do today, and the sum of the parts resulted in a standout masterpiece for the system.
#1 - Final Fantasy Legend 2
Easily my favorite game on the system and, much like Sword of Hope 2, it’s a massive step up from it’s predecessor in gameplay, music, graphics, and replayablity. The story follows a group of friends who leave their hometown to search for the heroes father and the 77 Magi whom others are using to try to become Gods. Alittle known fact is that once you obtain the Magi you can then use them for customization because different Magi bestow different abilities on your characters. In order to accomplish this goal you have to climb a tower which connects all the different worlds. each world is unique in layout, theme, towns, characters and storyline. It’s a joy to see each story unfold and explore the worlds ranging from deserts to oceans to giants to an oriental world. At the beginning of the game you can also create your own party from 4 different classes, humans, your physical hitters, mutants, your mages, robots, whose stats grow and change depending on what they are equipped with and monsters who grow and change depending on what meats they eat. This allows for great replay value and is probably my favorite aspect of the game because each playthrough you create a different party and enjoy a different experience.