A Play-through of the Most Acclaimed, Influential, and Innovative RPGs of All Time
Update: For the latest updates to this list, please view The Great Campaign Archive – I’ve been updating the content and order of the list. I’ve also consulted the r/rpg_gamers subreddit for insight with the list and they were extremely helpful.
Based on my various top 10 lists, it should be no surprise that I love RPGs. The interesting worlds, strong narratives, and character progression found in many of these games have always appealed to me. RPG franchises form a cornerstone of gaming history: Final Fantasy, the Elder Scrolls, Dragon Quest, the Witcher, Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, and Ultima, among others.
The mechanics that were born in RPGs have stood the test of time and, in modern times, have been found in nearly every genre – character progression via levels and experience points, skill trees, class choice and/or customization, and more. The gameplay variety of RPGs is great – action RPGs, first person RPGS, tactical RPGs, classic turn-based and isometric RPGs, and every combination thereof.
I’ve been playing through Divinity: Original Sin II lately, and I’ve really been enjoying it. I’ve never played a traditional isometric western RPG (think Baldur’s Gate), and I guess I’ve been missing out. I felt compelled to go back and play some of those old classics, and I couldn’t decide what to play first. However, after thinking more, I also realized I’ve played very few classic JRPGs as well. One thing led to another, and… the Great Campaign was born. I’m going to try to play through all the best RPGs.
How do I compile a list of the best RPGs to play? Any list will be inherently subjective. I decided to narrow my list down to games that fulfilled at least one or more of the following qualities:
Quality – Perhaps the most important component. I want to play the best RPGs ever made. Regardless of impact or innovation, top tier quality RPGs deserve a spot on the list.
Influence – How much of an impact did this game make – on future RPGs, on gaming as a whole, on even the culture of the time? Many of the most influential RPGs ever made were also high quality games, but that’s not always the case. This may include games that were also more of cult classics than popular on a greater basis. This category can be subjective to determine.
Innovation – How did the game put a new spin on the genre, or introduce mechanics from another genre into the RPG category (or vice-versa)? Or perhaps, how do the core mechanics or narrative push forward the genre itself? Another subjective category.
How do I determine if games meet some or all of these criteria? Aside from my past experiences and general knowledge of gaming history and cultural reception, I perused several ‘best RPGs ever’ lists:
In order to understand the origin of the RPG genre near the genesis of video games, I also did some research on RPGs in the ’70s and ’80s. This video by ClanOfTheGrayWolf was insightful in this regard. In cases where I needed to pick between multiple games in one franchise, I did some additional research on that specific series.
Otherwise, I did my best to consider the three elements I mentioned above in creating my list. Before revealing the list, I’d like to point out some qualifiers:
- I’ve grouped the oldest games on the list into a group I call ‘The Forerunners’. I’ve separated out these games due to their age and reduced playability (based on my understanding) in the modern era compared to the other games. I plan on playing a portion of each of these games (a few hours’ worth), rather than attempting to play them through.
- I tried to keep the list around 40 games or so. I tried 36 (1 a month for 3 years) but I had to cut too many to accept!
- Deciding on how to handle similar games in the same series was very challenging. At times I’ve included multiple similar games in one series due to differences in influence or notoriety that made them stand out in my mind (for instance, I included both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas due to the strong directive differences between the two, and their different notoriety). Other times I’ve been hard-pressed to pick between two very good games, sometimes where one was more influential but the other was the better game (for example, I included Baldur’s Gate over Baldur’s Gate 2 despite BG2 being considered the better game).
- I’m sure I’ve missed some favorite RPGs. If you feel strongly, please comment below! I reserve the right to change this list.
- I’m also sure I’ve allowed some bias to creep into this list, whether that is bias for games I’ve already played and liked, or in adding games that I strongly want to play. I did my best to avoid bias, so grace is appreciated.
RPGs are usually some of the longest games. This list is going to take a long time to get through. By my calculations, beating all of the games on this list will take roughly 1500-2000 hours. I’m estimating 3-4 years as I seek to beat at least 1 game a month (being conservative given that I have a family 😉 ). If I’m not finished with a game by the end of the month, I’ll probably set it aside to start the next game to make sure progress is being made.
I’ll be writing a page containing the whole list on its own with some additional information included (attempting to justify my choices). The list is arranged in chronological order, which is the order I plan on playing them through. After playing the actual game, I plan on writing an article for each one – a mixture of a high-level review, and how it contributed to the evolution of RPGs.
Without any further ado, here’s my (current) list of the most acclaimed, influential, and innovative RPGs of all time. As mentioned, I reserve the right to change this list depending on changing factors. Wish me luck!
The Forerunners (see my note above)
1. Zork (1980)
2. Wizardry: Proving Ground of the Mad Overlord (Sep 1981)
3. Ultima III (Aug 23, 1983)
4. Tales of the Unknown, Volume 1: The Bard’s Tale (1985)
5. Ultima IV (Sep 16, 1985)
6. Final Fantasy (Dec 18, 1987)
7. Dragon Quest III (Feb 10, 1988)
The Great Campaign, Proper
1. Final Fantasy IV (Jul 19, 1991)
2. Ultima VII (Apr 16, 1992)
3. Secret of Mana (Aug 6, 1993)
4. Final Fantasy VI (Apr 2, 1994)
5. Earthbound (Aug 27, 1994)
6. Chrono Trigger (Mar 11, 1995)
7. Pokemon Red/Blue (Feb 27, 1996)
8. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (Mar 9, 1996)
9. Final Fantasy VII (Jan 31, 1997)
10. Final Fantasy Tactics (Jun 20, 1997)
11. Fallout (Sep 30, 1997)
12. Suikoden II (Dec 17, 1998)
13. Baldur’s Gate (Dec 21, 1998)
14. Planescape: Torment (Dec 12, 1999)
15. Vagrant Story (Feb 10, 2000)
16. Deus Ex (Jun 22, 2000)
17. Diablo II (Jun 29, 2000)
18. Golden Sun (Aug 21, 2001)
19. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (May 1, 2002)
20. Kingdom Hearts (Mar 28, 2002)
21. Neverwinter Nights (Jun 18, 2002)
22. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Jul 15, 2003)
23. Tales of Symphonia (Aug 29, 2003)
24. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Jul 22, 2004)
25. World of Warcraft (Nov 23, 2004)
26. Vampire the Masquerade – Bloodlines (Nov 16, 2004)
27. Dragon Quest VIII (Nov 27, 2004)
28. Fable II (Oct 21, 2008)
29. Fallout 3 (Oct 28, 2008)
30. Dragon Age Origins (Nov 3, 2009)
31. Mass Effect 2 (Jan 26, 2010)
32. Xenoblade Chronicles (Jun 10, 2010)
33. Fallout: New Vegas (Oct 19, 2010)
34. Radiant Historia (Nov 3, 2010)
35. Dark Souls (Sep 22, 2011)
36. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Nov 11, 2011)
37. Fire Emblem: Awakening (Apr 19, 2012)
38. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (May 9, 2015)
39. Undertale (Sep 15, 2015)
40. Persona 5 (Sep 15, 2016)
41. Divinity Original Sin II (Sep 14, 2017)
42. Disco Elysium (Oct 15, 2019)
Thanks for reading!