There are many top 10 lists out there of best RPGs for the SNES, but they all include the same games and names, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger etc. So I wondered, what would a top 10 look like if I eliminated all Square and Enix games from the running? Well, I can’t say the list isn’t diverse and I had to dip into some Japan-only translated games to fill it out and on two occasions I had to make an exception where they just published them. So, without further ado, here goes!
10. Illusion of Gaia
At first glance you might think this is a Zelda clone, but running around fighting enemies and bosses is where the similarities begin and end. Illusion of Gaia is its own beast and, much like the Guardian Legend, I’m shocked there hasn’t been a remake, or at least a clone of it created by some other company. The game follows the adventures of Will as he goes around the world, to some real, and fantastical, ruins such as Ankor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the Lost Continent of Mu, and the Tower of Babel. Armed with only his trusty flute and his powers of telekinesis, Will is struggling to fight off the impending doomsday comet which promises to destroy the earth and alter evolution for eternity. To aid him in his quest Will gains the power to transform into the much stronger Knight Freedan and then, much later in the game, the awesome ninja, Shadow - each with their own abilities. The game loosely forms a quadrilogy with Soul Blazer, Terranigma and the criminally underrated, Granstream Saga.
9. Eternal Filena
This is a pretty quirky title released only in Japan, but translated a few years back, it’s mostly known for the supposed lesbianism that the two heroines engage in. And while there are some jokes and undertones referencing it, the real storyline is much more serious. Filena is a Cletian, a discriminated race of people and as such she lives as a slave and is forced to fight in the arena, where she pretends to be a boy, in order to survive. The story is very unique and to cement the farce of being a boy, Filena marries Lila, who is in all intents and purposes, her beard, but through the course of the game Lila falls in love with her. Also, as Cletians, the party experiences outward racism by NPCs and the antagonists alike. The battle system is active time, much like Final Fantasy IV, and your attacks are based upon which weapons you have equipped, similar to a SaGa game. Different weapons bestow different spells, attacks and abilities upon your party members and you can have up to 3 different weapons equipped at any one time. The game can be old school at times and unfortunately the patch isn’t 100% complete, but the segments that aren’t translated are so minor that they are not in any way going to stop you from completing the game.
8. Ys4 Mask of the Sun
Having only recently been translated into English, this is a definite hidden gem on the SNES, and while not as good as Ys4 Dawn of Ys on the Turbo Graphix16, it still deserves a spot on the list. Mask of the Sun thankfully drops the gameplay changes of Ys3 and opts for the more simplistic design of Ys 1 and 2, where you run into enemies like a battering ram to smash them into oblivion. The progression through the land of Celceta is nice, fast paced and the landscapes are varied. However, the game isn’t perfect mostly because it was rushed to the market in order to beat its TG16 doppelganger, but mask of the sun is still a very fun game. And honestly, that’s what you play a Ys game for, to have a good time, enjoy a deep story and steamroll enemies. Interestingly enough, of the 2 dualing Ys games, Falcom claimed that Mask of the Sun was the canonical title, that is, until they threw their own hat in the ring with Memories of Celceta on the PS Vita.
7. The Magical Land of Wozz
I hold wozz in very high esteem. The game is fun, inventive and charming, the graphics are marvelous and the soundtrack is exquisite. The storyline is lighthearted and humorous, to begin you play as one of 3 different heroes who have been transported from the real world into the land of Wozz and you are tasked with saving their land from Balamb with a little help from their own inhabitants. The world is expansive, full of unique lands and cultures, from zombies to fairies to flying fish! Throughout the course of the game you also gain several modes of transportation, beyond the usual airship and boat, such as tanks! If you have not heard of this game I highly suggest looking into it and if it strikes your fancy, downloading it. you won’t regret it.
Much like Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma takes place in the real world but this time you actually get to traverse all across the map to find new and hidden areas. Also, similar to Soul Blazer, the concept of resurrecting people and places is back as well, Terranigma takes the best of both games and combines them into a timeless classic. The story follows Ark, a mischievous boy from the underworld who accidently turned everyone in his village to stone. In order to rescue them and redeem himself he ventures forth to four towers in the underworld and once conquering the towers he is able to revive a portion of the townsfolk as well as restoring the lost continents of the upper world, which he is then later able to explore. The gameplay is similar to Secret of Evermore, Ark uses varying techniques to fight with his elemental spears to curb stomp baddies in the ground. However, where the story of Illusion of Gaia followed the same tight-knit group of people around the globe, Terranigma’s is much more scenario driven and frequently after you complete a scenario you never see the people or animals you affected again. That’s not to say the story is bad, there’s just a lot of missed potential.
5. Star Ocean
Add this to the long list of gems that didn’t leave Japan, although I distinctly remember reading about it in Nintendo power - it was all a tease. Developed by dissatisfied members of the “Tales of” team, the series takes a lot of inspiration from Tales, but sets the story in a sci-fi universe. About 15 years after it was released it was translated and well worth the wait. The story is ambitious for the time, it follows a group of friends on an underdeveloped planet who are under attack by a mysterious disease that turns people into stone, and the only way to cure them is to travel 300 years into the past, with the help of futuristic Earthlings who can travel through time and space. Star Ocean employs the innovative private action system where you can you learn more about your party members through little scenes and vignettes in towns across the globe. The battle system was revolutionary at the time, but upon reflection now is primitive, though I do believe the battle system is more balanced than Tales of Phantasia. Speaking of…
4. Tales of Phantasia
Tales of Phantasia is the game that started two franchises, both of which I love and for that I will be forever grateful. It’s hard not to compare Tales to Star Ocean because the two franchises are so similar in gameplay but the story in Tales of Phantasia is a bit more fleshed out, the characters more lively, and the world is more believeable. But overall, as for where they fall on this list, this was the closest call I had by far, they are both great games, similar in quality and it was tough, but in the end I gave the edge to Phantasia. I believe the Tales series needs no introduction, everyone knows what to expect with a Tales game and this is the one that started the craze! However, if you haven’t yet played Tales of Phantasia, I implore you, don’t play the SNES version, or the GBA version, as they are both pretty terrible in comparison to the fantastic remake released on the PS1 and translated a few years back.
3. Breath of Fire 2
As far as I’m concerned, this is the pinnacle of the Breath of Fire series. The graphics are bright and beautiful, the characters all have a distinct motivation for fighting and the storyline is tight, edgy and, shocking for me because at the time I first played it I was 14 years old and I had never experienced the whole “religion is bad” storyline before. Thank God I was much older when I played Xenogears or else I probably would have went into shock. The music is spectacular and all the characters have special abilities in and out of battle, which makes for complex and fun dungeons and it forces the player to think because in order to get through many dungeons you need specific characters rather than always just using your favorites or the most powerful members. Also the abilities smartly serve as a form of world and plot progression, for example, Jean can transform into a giant frog which allows you to pass through lakes and Spar has the ability to walk through forests to reach new areas as well.
What can I say about Earthbound that hasn’t already been said? Not much really, so I’ll just tell my own story about the game. When I got it for Christmas in 1995, I was 13 years old and I had loved RPGs ever since Dragon Warrior on the NES, I played that game with help from my older brother because I could barely read when we got it. Anyway, none of my friends played the same games that I did and I always felt like a loner when they were talking about the latest sports game or Mario - I wanted to talk about Cecil, Terra and Crono! However, Earthbound changed that for me, not because my friends played it, but because it brought the RPG in the everyday modern age for me. I had never seen an RPG take place in America or “Eagleland” and use everyday people as their protagonists, for me it elevated the RPG from something of a dorky, nerdy niche to something that everybody can enjoy and everyone can relate to. All the pop culture references are just icing on this extraordinary cake.
1. Lufia 2
The number one spot of the best non-Square or Enix RPG on the SNES goes to Lufia 2! On the surface this looks like just another cookie cutter RPG with turn based battles and a town-dungeon-town progression, and while that’s true, there’s so much more beneath the surface. Puzzles for one thing, some in the dungeons are quite devious, but most of them are intuitive and the game gives you clues on how to solve them. The characters are very well done as well, they all grow and change as the plot advances, even the villains and minor NPCs! The music is haunting and whimsical and the graphics are top notch, fluid and vivacious. Lots of love and care went into this gem and you can easily find yourself lost on a 100 hour quest as you delve into the Ancient Cave to divert yourself from the main task or tackle the “world’s most difficult trick”. The game is a classic and has stood the test of time, it’s been over 20 years since it first came out and that is why it remains my number one non-Square or Enix SNES RPG.